Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘theater

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

Theatre, Sensationalism, and Double Standards

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Like many of you, I was surprised to see Lindsay Lohan had been cast to play the part of Karen, the manipulative temporary secretary, in a London production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. It’s not unusual for British actors to shoot a movie during the day and do a play at night, but it’s different for Americans and I think of Lohan as a movie performer. There’s a huge difference between memorizing a few lines (that might have been changed two minutes ago) for a movie shot and preparing to do a major role in a live performance.

Lohan’s performance during the first preview appears to have been a bit ragged. Reporters at the performance agreed that she was nervous and messed up a few of her lines. That’s not unusual for a first preview…it’s the cast’s initial run with civilians in the house and everyone’s nervous. The pressure must be even more intense for someone who is trying to turn her career around. Given Lohan’s issues, I imagine the production paid a substantial sum for insurance against her ability to fulfill her contract.

That said, a few flubbed lines is nothing to be ashamed of in a first preview. My wife, another friend, and I saw several shows in London just before Lohan started her run. A very well-credentialed stage actor in Great Britain, a play based on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, jumped his lines twice in about ten minutes. In Richard III, Martin Freeman, the beloved actor who plays Dr. Watson in the popular BBC version of Sherlock, mushed his way through a line during a heated exchange and closed with “…or something like that.”

Both Great Britain and Richard III were well into their runs (in fact, Richard III just closed), so there’s nothing to say except that it’s live theatre — things happen. No one reported the other actors’ errors, so let’s give Lindsay Lohan the benefit of the doubt for a while. If she’s still missing lines after the show officially opens, then we can complain. Until then, let’s hope she can model her recovery after Robert Downey, Jr. and enjoy some success after a long string of bad decisions.

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.

Spend a Five or Break a Twenty? The Denomination Effect

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I’m sure many of us understand the denomination effect on a visceral level. If you’ve ever been in a store, saw something you wanted, but hesitated to buy it because you’d have to pull out a big bill, you’ve experienced this effect. Why did you hesitate? Because you knew that breaking that $20, $50 or $100 bill made it that much easier to spend your change.

Perhaps that’s why prices near a dollar amount, particularly $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, and $99.99 are so attractive to the consumer’s eye. You’re trading one physical item (a printed piece of paper) for another (perhaps a flash drive) and getting a tiny bit of money back. I wonder how much of the attractiveness of prices just below a currency denomination depends on the fact that you’re getting some change back as opposed to the first number being one less (e.g., $19.99 versus $20.00). I bet the two phenomena are intertwined in some interesting psychological ways.

You also see the denomination effect at work in gambling, but the effect works differently there depending on the game and situation. Knowledgeable poker players experience the reverse effect, becoming less likely to get involved in hands when they have fewer chips in their stack. They hesitate to invest in a hand because, when you are low on funds, the relative value of each chip goes up. Other players can use this hesitancy to their advantage and bet big to drive the small stacks out of a pot, but the small stacks can make a modest bet to induce a bluff raise from a big stack, but the big stacks can raise and hope the small stacks will think they’ve fallen into their trap, but…

You get the idea. Poker’s fun, but bring aspirin.

Where the Illusion of Psychic Powers Might Come From

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Humans build cognitive models by taking in the world and learning how to interpret the input. Children learn language inductively by listening to their parents and other speakers, gradually building up their comprehension and productivity. That strategy never fades — we all take in information about our surroundings and use it to make judgments.

Of course, the world is a busy place, so our brains avoid taxing our cognitive resources by learning what is safe to ignore. The vast majority of sensory inputs never reach our conscious minds, but our brains process environmental inputs and use them to guide our thoughts. This result isn’t surprising on an anecdotal level, given that we all have insights and “feelings” that we can’t pin to a specific input. What’s interesting is how Piers D. L. Howe and Margaret E. Webb from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne tested this “knowing without knowing” process.

Howe and Webb presented subjects with 1.5-second glimpses of one photograph, followed by a one second blank gap, and then another 1.5-second look at another photograph of the same person. Some pairs of the photos were identical, but some had subtle differences, such as hair position, clothing change, and so on. Subjects were asked if the photos were identical or different. Even though the differences were subtle and exposure relatively quick, subjects were able to detect that the photos were different even though they were often unable to articulate the difference.

The authors conclude that this “knowing without knowing” process could explain the “sixth sense” phenomenon, where individuals seem to gain information without specific input. Their article, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, provides significant evidence in favor of the theory that our subconscious processes information in a way that lets us make decisions about situations and individuals without understanding why we had those thoughts.

This result is exciting, but also a bit sobering. Security professionals have long known that their instincts serve them well. If something “just don’t look right” (JDLR), even if they can’t articulate why, they should pay close attention. Situations change, though, particularly in social settings so we have to be on guard against mental models that bias us against groups or situations where no threat exists. It’s a tough balance, but it’s all part of being human.

Test what you know, but avoid congruence bias

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A few posts ago I discussed confirmation bias, where individuals interpret everything they experience as reinforcing their existing beliefs. It’s not surprising that humans fall prey to this trap. We have to make sense of our surroundings, so we develop mental models to do so. They’re our models, based on our mental, so it’s no surprise we think highly of them.

No model of the world can capture all of its complexity. We can model industrial processes at a certain level, but we can’t get all the way down to the interactions of individual atoms. Fortunately, we don’t have to to generate accurate depictions of reality. As statistician George E. P. Box noted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Many humans realize they will move through life more effectively by testing and updating their mental models, but you need to test your model correctly. If you test your mental models and other hypotheses through direct testing, rather than testing possible alternative models, you are experiencing congruence bias. You’re testing your model, which is great, but you’re not entertaining other ways of approaching the problem, which is not so great. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists work within a paradigm, which is the dominant framework for creating, testing, and determining hypotheses at a given time. When experimental results aren’t as expected, scientists can either work to shore up the existing paradigm or create a new one.

My wife, Virginia Belt, is a director and formerly taught acting at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She emphasizes the need for actors to try different tactics to get what they want. Think of the young child who tries everything he can think of to have you buy him a treat at the grocery store or the cat that really, really (really) wants a piece of sausage from your pizza. You can take the same approach to life. If you find your model isn’t working well any more, such as after a promotion at work, joining a new improv group or entering into a new relationship, try different tactics to see what does work. Ginny always exhorts her students to make positive choices, to focus on what they want rather than what they don’t want. If you call Domino’s and say you don’t want anchovies, you’ll either get no pizza because you haven’t given them enough information or get a pizza that costs $50 because it has every other available topping on it.

As anyone who has ever tried anything new well knows, individuals who break away from the pack meet a lot of resistance. Having the strength to break out of congruence bias at a personal level is tough — having the strength to do it in the face of a tenure board is even tougher. Let’s leave the paradigmatic fights for the professionals and focus on our own world views for a while. We’ll be better off in the end.