Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why agreeing in improv is so much better than arguing

I have an improv confession: I’m an arguer.

I have a bad, albeit common, habit of reacting to offers by protesting, taking an opposite point of view of someone in the scene, or otherwise introducing conflict.

Arguing is different from — and maybe more insidious than — straight-up denial, which is usually called out quickly. You can be an arguer for much longer than a denier because arguing doesn’t seem like a violation of “the rules;” because it’s often an honest reaction to an offer; and because conflict can lead to great scenes (given the right context and improvisers).

But I want to stop arguing, or at least learn to argue less. After a bunch of recent arguing scenes and a workshop with Michael McFarland that focused on agreement, I finally get why agreement opens so many more possibilities than argument* — and turns your scene partner’s offer into a gift of an endowment.

Consider a scene I was in this week. My scene partner handed me a putter and a mini golf ball. Told me to go ahead and putt.

Then he put a gun to my head.

My character freaked out — and boy did I commit to freaking out! I even remembered to establish a relationship (“Uncle Tim, this is NOT why I came to visit you!”).

Then not much else happened.

How did we go from such a brilliant offer — the kind of inspired, so-random-he-couldn’t-have-planned-it choice that makes improv scenes so great — to such a not-great (if not-terrible) scene? I didn’t do anything “wrong.” I reacted in an honest way (wouldn’t you freak out at a gun to the head?); I established a relationship; I didn’t deny (no “Uncle Tim, why are you pointing a banana at me?”).

The problem with arguing is it usually represents a normal, average, rational person’s normal, average, rational reaction. But the average person is boring! So taking the average person’s perspective in an improv scene greatly increases the chance that the scene will be boring.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore characters for whom the irrational (to us average folks) is the normal reaction?

The key is to expand our notion of what “reacting honestly” means. In the mini golf scene, I was reacting honestly as someone who would get freaked out when a gun is pointed at them at a mini golf game — i.e., as an average person. But what if I reacted honestly as someone who doesn’t get freaked out by this? Think of the kind of characters that agreement would have opened up:

  • Danger-seeking golfer trying out a new motivational strategy
  • Dad so bored of suburban life that he gets his kicks from taking life-threatening risks at children’s activities
  • Colleagues at some job that holds life-threatening activities at  orientation/retreats

The details would have emerged organically. I could have even accepted reluctantly (golfer whose career is on the skids and will try anything to get back on top, even if he’s wary). But at that point, the details are ancillary — the character is already established and emphatically not-boring, simply by accepting the offer!

In other words, agreeing with an offer that your first instinct is to argue with is like getting an endowment for free.

Meantime, arguing instead of agreeing is like an anti-endowment, an anti-deal. The deal of a character who argues “I oppose a gun to my head”  is simply “I don’t want to die.” But that kind of deal — or common argumentative-reaction deals like “I’m unhappy that you cheated on me,” “I AM good at X,” “I don’t want to be fired,” etc. — is often a dead end because it’s a basic, inherent deal of every rational person on the planet. Common, everyday human deals are boring and don’t define characters.

Arguing also leads to:

  • Standoff scenes that are like watching bulls butt heads, as McFarland put it (possibly quoting someone else?).
  • Scenes that get stuck on plot details because one character argues against doing something that the other character suggests.
    • I think of these as tip-the-cow scenes: Another recent scene I was in featured a character inviting her grandson’s fiancee to tip a cow as a family initiation, and the grandson and fiancee resisting. To which Mikael Johnson, who was coaching that practice, said: “Just tip the cow!!!” The scene would have been much better if the grandson and fiancee accepted the offer because people who happily participate in cow-tipping family rituals are bound to be more interesting than those who think such rituals are odd.

As with everything in improv, understanding something is much different than successfully and routinely doing it. But I hope I can start to be more of an agree-er and less of an arguer.

Advertisements

Why the ‘bloggers aren’t journalists’ Oregon court ruling isn’t so bad

The journosphere is taking note of a U.S. District Court ruling in Oregon that “has drawn a line in the sand between ‘journalist’ and blogger,'” as Seattle Weekly’s Curtis Cartier put it in a post that (I think) broke the story.

“Now … we see why ‘who’s a journalist?’ is so wrong-headed,” tweets Jay Rosen in response to the news. Clay Shirky chimes in: “Bloggers have no right to speech unless they’re part of the ‘official media establishment’? Ethiopia,Belarus &…Oregon.”

I can’t tell from those tweets if they read the actual ruling, but I did — and it actually doesn’t seem that bad. Rather than representing a luddite judge’s ignorant dismissal of a new medium, the ruling seems to lay the groundwork for a fairly expansive legal definition of journalism.

In the ruling, Judge Marco A. Hernandez upholds a defamation claim against blogger Crystal Cox, rejecting Cox’s seven defense arguments. The initial journosphere reactions have focused on Hernandez’s rejection of two of those arguments: that Cox shouldn’t have to reveal the source of this column because she is protected by Oregon’s media shield law; and that Cox should be protected from damages claims because she is “media.” In both cases, Hernandez rejects the arguments on the grounds that Cox is not “media.”

Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s shield law defense seems to rest on a literal reading of Oregon’s shield law, which applies to people affiliated with a “newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”

Hernandez says, correctly, that Cox is not affiliated with any of the above; therefore she is not “media” according to Oregon’s law. It seems reasonable that the judge applied the law as written rather than expanding the interpretation of the law to include online media. If Oregon had updated its shield law to cover the Internet, as Washington state has done, perhaps Hernandez would have ruled differently.

But it’s Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s second media defense that, to my mind, actually gives hope for future expanded legal definitions of “media” and “journalist”:

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

If Hernandez believed that you need to have a Columbia J-school degree or work at the New York Times to be considered a journalist, he would have stopped at No. 2. But he doesn’t stop there — instead, he offers five additional criteria that could define someone as a journalist. These criteria aren’t based on a credential or business card — or a particular medium — but on practices, values, and standards.

By doing this, the ruling smartly avoids saying “bloggers aren’t journalists.” It merely says “this blogger is not a journalist.” By listing criteria 3-7 and avoiding any mention of specific media, Hernandez is basically saying: “Bloggers may be journalists — but to be considered as such, they have to do something that could fit a standards/practices-based, medium-agnostic definition of journalism.”

It’s easy to quibble with Hernandez’s choice of canonized practices and standards (I can see some in the journosphere taking issue with No. 6 in particular) or say his criteria aren’t expansive enough. But to the extent that “journalist” and “media” need to be defined in the law, Hernandez’s approach seems like the right one. And his criteria seem as hopeful a starting point* as any.

—–

* Note: I’m not up to speed on other definition-of-journalist case law. I’m sure there have been other rulings that offer their own criteria for such definitions.

The real problem with ‘The Rising’: It’s not actually about 9/11 (or anything at all)

As a fan of Bruce Springsteen revisionism, I was happy to see John Cook’s Gawker post challenging the canonization of Springsteen’s The Rising as “the closest thing we have to an official soundtrack to 9/11”:

The Rising is a failure. It purports to document a nation’s rupture and guide us toward salvation—”here the poet, not unlike the priest and community during Mass, opens a window in space and time for communion with the dead themselves: the dead who alone, perhaps, can transform the rage of the living and awaken in us a vision of something more than more of the same,” is how one Catholic critic recently put it. You can almost feel the weight of Springsteen’s duty on the record—these are his people, these firefighters. This is his backyard. A nation turned its weary eyes to the Boss, and he keenly felt the need to answer. But the answer was overwrought, grandiose, bombastic. He went big. We didn’t need anymore big things.

Cook’s right that The Rising is a failure, but he doesn’t quite get at the reasons why. The Rising isn’t just big and overwrought. It’s lyrically vague to the point of being a 9/11 album in name only. Absent the marketing push that announced the album as Springsteen’s big 9/11 statement, The Rising could be interpreted as being about pretty much anything (or nothing at all).

I wrote about the Boss’s 9/11 dodge in a 2003 piece for the Valley News in New Hampshire. (It’s actually a section from a larger essay about that year’s Grammy Awards.) I think it holds up pretty well.

Continue reading

Unexpected sentences from the Jan. 31 New Yorker

I thought of Ironhead last month as well, while standing in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel, where a special meeting of the league’s Head, Neck, and Spine Injury committee was convening in one of the function rooms. Bert Straus, an industrial designer with a background in bathroom fixtures, dental-office equipment, and light-rail vehicles, was showing off a prototype of a new helmet called the Gladiator, whose primary selling point is that it has a soft exterior.

— Ben McGrath, “Does Football Have a Future?”  Emphasis mine: I love that there are industrial designers who specialize in bathroom fixtures, dental-office equipment, and light-rail vehicles. This guy must be pretty unique to know about all three. (Also — interesting article.)

On February 11, 2004, he made a presentation to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Army’s premier laboratory for biodefense research. Hours later, a researcher at Fort Detrick accidentally stuck herself in the thumb with a needle while injecting mice with the Ebola virus. Ebola has gruesome symptoms that often cause the victim to bleed to death; there is no licensed vaccine or therapeutic drug to stop it.

— David E. Hoffman, “Going Viral” (subscriber-only). Emphasis mine: How can you work with live Ebola virus and not a) wear mithril gloves, or b) be extra careful so you don’t inject yourself with Ebola??? (Another interesting article.)

Groupon Stores is another big blow to local news organizations’ revenue hopes

Figuring out how to better serve local businesses and connect those businesses to readers is a big part of local news organizations’ hopes and ideas for making money online.

Facebook’s Deals platform, announced in November, was a blow to these hopes. Now Groupon has piled on with its Groupon Stores platform.

Continue reading

Presidents who looked like actors

This is what I learned during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential portraits room: Many of our presidents looked like actors or movie/TV characters.

Some of the presidents looked like creepy characters, some like dashing actors.

I think McKinley looks like an older Don Draper (same piercing glare). Others think he looks like a vampire.

Our character-actor presidents.

More on Ticketfly’s service charges

Damon at Ticketfly sent a prompt response to my open letter about paying $8.75 in service charges on a $20 ticket. Here is Damon’s response, and my reply.

Greetings Josh,
Thank you for writing in and giving us the opportunity to answer your questions.

Ticketfly provides a service, for a fee. Ordering through Ticketfly couldn’t be easier and you can do it from the comfort of your home or office!

Tickets purchased on Ticketfly.com are typically subject to a per ticket convenience charge and a non-refundable per order processing fee. In many cases, delivery prices will also be owed.

As we do not collect any of the ticket face value, we use the fee to pay for hardware, employees, training and so on. Basically, the fee is what keeps us running. If you wish to avoid paying the service fee, please contact the venue or promoter of the event to see if they offer tickets directly. This also explains your comparison to companies like Amazon. They do, in fact almost every “retail” outlet, charge a fee. For them it’s called “Mark Up”. Because they own the product they are selling, that mark up is where they get the money to pay their employees, train their staff, pay their rent and so on.

Ticketfly does not claim to be the cheapest ticketing alternative, but we are striving to be the better ticketing alternative.

Please do let me know if you have any other questions.

Thank You
Damon @ Ticketfly

My reply:

Hi Damon,

Thanks for the prompt reply, and for explaining what the service fees pay for.

However, this doesn’t answer all of my questions.

True, Ticketfly does not claim to be the cheapest ticketing alternative. But as I quoted in my first email, the company clearly recognizes that people are frustrated with ticketing services (citing “downright absurd” practices) and makes claims to being different (“We plan to get rid of all those hidden fees”).

Given this:

1. Why does the site talk about killing hidden fees if you still charge those fees?
2. What are some examples of “downright absurd” ticketing practices that Ticketfly does not engage in?
3. What does being a “better ticketing alternative” mean if you charge similar fees as other ticketing companies — fees that are by far the most frustrating thing about buying tickets?

Further, you say that “Ticketfly provides a service, for a fee” — i.e., letting consumers buy tickets “from the comfort of your home or office.” But there are thousands upon thousands of e-commerce websites that provide the same service — letting consumers buy something online — without charging “service” or “convenience” fees on top of the product price. (Of course, in many cases it’s *cheaper* to buy something online versus by phone or in a store.) The vast majority of these sites also have various hardware and overhead costs, but still don’t tack on extra fees.

Given this,

4. How is Ticketfly’s business (or the ticketing business in general) so different from nearly all other online businesses that the company has to charge consumers this fee?

Thanks,
Josh