Diving into HarshImprovNotes.com

HarshImprovNotes.com has taken off in improv communities around the world. Looking back at some of the reasons it exists, and what we can glean from it as we progress the art form into the future.

As of July 8th 2015 (only 5 days since it went online), HarshImprovNotes.com has over 400 submissions. That is 400 harsh improvisational theatre notes given. Granted some of those are mine, and granted some people submit more than 1, or 2, or 5, but the site has brought together a community of improvisers from around the globe to share something super-personal. To share a note that they have received somewhere along their training that they deemed harsh. 

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What makes a note harsh?

Perhaps it is a note given the wrong way, perhaps it was given by the wrong person, or at the wrong time. The harshness of a note can vary from person to person and moment to moment, so who am I to decide if a note is truly harsh or not.

Often times it would seem that the harshest notes, least taken to heart, are those that are completely out of context. Many of the notes on the site are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

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Think for a moment that there are people in your company that have been given a note strictly based on things that they can not change about themselves. I find that so hurtful. Maybe you are someone who gave a note like that somewhere along the way, if that is true, in the words of Paul Blinov, “you need to check yourself”.

Why ask if it was taken to heart? 

Asking if the note was taken to heart sort of allows for the submitter to reflect on the note, and see how much it truly impacted them. There is a precious dichotomy between the serious, well-natured note and the submitted who doesn’t take it to heart. Similarly, there is something very curious about the harsh, offensive notes that are completely taken to heart.

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It is interesting to look at the statistics of submissions on a large scale to see on average how much a harsh note was taken to heart. The scale is 1 – 10 (from ‘not at all’ – ‘I think about it everyday’).  The trend shows a wide variation around a mean of about 7.5 save for a huge spike at 1. What is this to mean? I call it the blue whale distribution.

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Why does this exist?

HarshImprovNotes.com stemmed from my compulsive note taking, collecting, collating and aggregating. I have been doing improvisational theatre for 10 years, starting with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Soon after my first soirée in improv, I started travelling the world performing, learning, and teaching improvisation. I love the opportunities to co-create, to share creativity, and improvisation provides that in such a raw manner that I have wholly embraced it as a life passion.

I have had many great, influential improv teachers, mentors, and peers in my life: Jacob Banigan, Patti Stiles, Chris Craddock, Kevin Gillese, Amy Shostak, Keith Johnstone, Dana Anderson, Donovan Workun, Alistair Cook, Becky Johnson, Graham Wagner, Kurt Smeaton, Joe Bill, Billy Tierny, Steve Sim, Lee White, and Craig Cackowski, Ken Campbell, Adam Meggido, Torsten Voller, Susan Messing, Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus, Ron Pedersen, and the list goes on.

That being said, over my progression in this wonderful art form I have encountered many harsh instructors (not going to name names). These companions and instructors have given me notes which I have both discounted, and taken to heart. They have reached deep into the pit of my soul and vacuumed up all the confidence marbles. Each time this happened, I would write that note down. I would collect it. Save it. Write it down and think about it.

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If the show sucks, it is because someone did something but usually because someone did not.

This collection soon turned into notebooks and notebooks of introspective improvisational ramblings, positive and negative. I needed a way to synthesize the good and the bad. I needed a cathartic release of the strain and pressure of saving these notes. In the same way you can’t keep love letters (or hate letters for that matter) forever, I wanted a means by which I could save the notes, de-personalize them after all these years, and open the discussion to the wider improvisation community. HarshImprovNotes.com does just that. It allows us to share what we have been harbouring, to hopefully move past that, into a realm of growth and development, together.

Would this work for other domains?

I think part of the reason that the notes read so well are because I, and many others, appreciate the improvisers sense of humour. I presume that either or both the giver and receiver of the note have at least somewhat attuned comedic-sense, so the notes are often funny.

The idea of a similar collection of Harsh Teamwork Notes or Harsh Breakup Lines is somewhat more tragic in my mind. In improv, we are our own worst (and best) critics, but there is something to be said about the external director’s eyes which see the performer as a part of the show as a whole.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this project makes me a better teacher and improv instructor. I hope that it makes us all more effective communicators. Improvisation is a young, transient art form. It is still developing modern masters. The vocabulary surrounding it is still forming (improv or impro? improvisor or improviser?), and I think that this allows for opportunities such as this: to look back on how we provide and receive feedback, and refine it such that it is more meaningful, more constructive, more supportive and generally less harsh.

Appendix: Demographics of Users on the Site

Using Google Analytics gives you all sorts of amazing insights in to visitors on the site. Here are several charts that show the demographics of the visitors to HarshImprovNotes.com.

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write more

For my 28th birthday, I would love it if you wrote a note by hand and then sent it to me.

Recently, I was discussing with some friends the idea that the art of handwriting has all but vanished. Seldom, in my day-to-day, do I EVER need to write something down. Often, I will have beside me my phone and laptop. Both of which can very efficiently capture thoughts and notes with a wide variety of fancy keyboards, cameras, and even through the microphone with fancy Natural Language Processing (thanks Ray Kurzweil – you broken genius).

Side note: If you have not seen the Transcendent Man (trailer), do yourself a favour and explore the weird and wild theories of Kurzweil himself on his quest to recreate his father from collective memory and artificial intelligence.

It seems I am not the only one to have noticed this either; recent articles in the New York Times and The Guardian share similar sentiments. It seems that the prevalence of digital communication has all but reduced the many years of teaching, training, and recitation to the scrawl-y shopping list, or brief meeting notes.

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Thus, I thought that it would be fitting for my 28th year alive I would request you write a note and send it to me. I am not picky about block letters, longhand, script, joined-up writing, joint writing, running writing, or handwriting. I am not picky about the language you use, or if you sign it or want to keep it anonymous. Don’t worry about the fancy pens or paper, and don’t concern yourself with grammar and punctuation. At the very least make it legible (at least to you).

You can send it to me physically (drop me a line at korymath@gmail.com for a mailing address), OR you can take a picture of it, and comment on this post or email it to me, or post it directly on my facebook wall, or tweet it to me. You could take a video of you writing it, and post that up on Youtube.

In researching this project I have found there is so much that is gleaned just from someone’s handwriting. Vimala Rogers (graphotherapist), a  writes that “changing your handwriting can change your life” in Amazon.ca’s  #1 Best-Seller in Handwriting Analysis. There are handwriting analysts across criminology, history, law and sociology, and even people that work long and hard to copy someone else’s handwriting and signatures called forgers.

Of course, you may remember some successful past requests I have made, such as 25 Stories on 25, and 27 Birthday Pictures.  I believe that there is a beauty in the collective creativity. Like that time Caitlin Curtis and I asked for Love Letters from Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, and then built an improv show around it.

Write soon…

Pursuit of a Vision

The title of this post comes directly from Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography, “I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social…,” as I believe that Wiener was pursuing a vision of the future, far before the dawn of true man-machine collaboration.

Written by Norbert Wiener, an American polymath, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine was first published in 1948. It explores topics near and dear to my heart, including: mathematics, bionics, electrical engineering, computer science and more generally, the interface between the man and the machine.

Weiner is a prodigious thinker. A Ph.D by 17, he studied directly under many influential thinkers of the time, including: Bertrand Russell (who loved Leibniz almost as much as Weiner himself, and was a strong supporter of Homosexual Law Reform), David Hilbert (who believes there is more imagination in math than poetry), and G.H. Hardy (alongside Srinivasa Ramanujan, beautiful side note, Hardy once said that his greatest contribution was the discovery of Ramanujan and that it was “the one romantic incident in [his] life”).

A renowned thinker, he conjures Leibniz, Gauss, Faraday, and Darwin for guidance in the unexplored vastness between two or three established areas of specialization.

It is these boundary regions of science which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator (pg. 2).

He argues that proper exploration of these spaces is best executed by a team of scientists, in the “habit of working together”, specialists in their own field and knowledgable of their neighbours, that can recognize the significance of suggestion before it has taken on full expression.

The main theory of Cybernetics, simply stated, is that feedback is fundamental to improvement in system control. From the first pages he introduces the ideas of machine learning and memory to improve performance:

In engineering, devices … can be used not only to play games and perform other purposeful acts but to do so with a continual improvement of performance on the basis of past experience (pg. xii).

At every stage of technique since Daedalus or Hero of Alexandria, the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and to study automata has always been expressed in terms of the living technique of the age (pg. 39).

Wiener explores his ideas with a sort of casual-sage-giving-advice and guidance. He provides details on topics across many different fields, which surely interested him as an academic. Near to the end of the book he describes in plain-english how to create a chess computer better than the majority of the population, and then immediately describes how to make it learn from losses and become smarter.

I would say that he was ahead of his time, but that is somewhat of an overused phrase with less substance than desired. Norbert Wiener was and remains a genius. A polymath who dedicated his life to the advancement of many big ideas. His thoughts on cybernetics shine through more than ever in my investigations of the human-machine interfaces of current. Nortbert, thank you.

 

Westgrid – High Performance Computing at the University of Alberta

A look inside of high performance computing at the University of Alberta.

As part of Research Data Management week (May 4-8 2015), several sessions on High Performance Computing are bundled into the Compute Canada and WestGrid User Training Seminar.  I was lucky enough to attend a session on High Performance Computing that concluded with a tour of the Westgrid High Performance Computing center on campus at the University of Alberta.

Hidden away in the depths of General Services Building (I knew this building housed some critical facilities) is the server center. It holds two of the most powerful systems in Canada, and perhaps the world: Jasper (4160 cores, 8 TB RAM, 356 TB file system) and Hungabee (2048 cores, 16 TB RAM, 53 TB file system).

Westgrid is connected by high-performance networks, so users can connect to the system which best fits their needs regardless of physical location.

Rumors were confirmed, namely that there is a small section of the North Saskatchewan River that does not freeze due to the water exchange (ice cold water in to cool the systems and hot  water out) to keep these behemoths running smooth.

Find the photo here: http://www.urbanrail.net/am/edmo/Edmonton-Dudley_B_%20Menzies_LRT_Bridge_winter.JPG
Photo by XuanZhang

The workshop also did a great job at breaking down jargon terms like the ‘cloud’, the ‘grid’, and ‘big data’ into meaningful, technical, understandable concepts.

Computer Science Projects

Computer Science projects in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Computer Vision and Reinforcement Learning.

In September 2014 I started a graduate program in Computer Science at the University of Alberta, in beautiful Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Since I started the program, I have been able to work on some awesome projects. While I do host some code publicly, lots of the projects do not have public repositories.

Feature Selection and Classification in EEG Motor Imagery

CMPUT 551: Machine Learning with Dr. Russ Greiner and Dr. Patrick Pilarski

Comparing Contemporary Trackers on Benchmark Datasets

CMPUT 615: Multiple View Geometry with Dr. Martin Jagersand

Perceptive Prosthetics

Dr. Patrick Pilarski

Big Data, Large Scale Psychology Studies using Amazon Turk

Dr. Kyle Mathewson

Projects in development:

  • CleanMyStreet.ca – Find out when your neighborhood will be cleaned.
  • ThisIsLikeThat – Find your favorite restaurant in a new city.
  • Optimal Pub Crawling in Edmonton
  • Eigenfaces in Photobooth Photos
  • Heart Rate from Video

Invisalign: Brace Yourself

Invisalign lets you see both your teeth and correction results fast!

Finished my course of Invisalign braces (started Dec. 2014, done Feb. 2015).  Every two weeks you switch the aligners (thin transparent retainers), every s you check in at the dentist to make sure all your teeth are being shifted according to the dynamic model of correction that the company creates based on some positive / negative molds and 3D scanning.

If you are considering these, I would consider a few things. Research on Google Scholar, the private company Align Technology Inc. stocks, and the cleaning of the trays with fancy crystals and an electric toothbrush.

Progress Pictures

Took some progress pictures over the 13 months. They go from oldest in the top left to newest in the bottom right. The also include some choice faces.

The big background picture is a positive mold of my teeth circa late 2014.

Thesis, First First Author and Convocation

Academic news nearing the end of 2014.

First, my thesis publication embargo has finally been lifted and my Master’s thesis, Simultaneous Measurement of Blood Flow and Oxygen Consumption Immediately Post-Exercise with Magnetic Resonance Imaging, is now posted and you can access it on the Education & Research Archive, or download it directly.

I have just recently been informed that the second chapter of the thesis, Feasibility and reproducibility of measurement of whole muscle blood flow, oxygen extraction, and VO2 with dynamic exercise using MRI, will be published in Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in the coming weeks. That marks my very first first author publication.

November 19 2014 marked convocation day for my degree, Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering, to be conferred at the Jubilee Auditorium.

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I was asked to join the Platform Party as a past Governor on the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta.

63431_10152389644960404_5829216227945298672_nAs part of each convocation celebration the University likes to celebrate the mentorship of several graduands. Here is a great write up on the motivation behind my research in Biomedical Engineering: Ingenuity helps engineering grad succeed in strong field.

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Here are a few behind the scenes photos from the article’s photoshoot in the Peter S. Allen MR Research Centre along side my two wonderful mentors, Mark Haykowsky and Rich Thompson.

Car Sharing in Edmonton

Exploring the two car sharing programs in Edmonton.

I am a staunch supporter of car rentals and car sharing over ownership for a wide variety of reasons. I have been a member of Hertz 24/7 (earlier On Demand) since May 7 2012 and just today (November 18 2014) I was accepted as a member with Pogo.

Edmonton has been slow to adopt car sharing programs, but with the recent launch of Pogo it is probably best to add some context to the conversation. For both Pogo and Hertz, gas and insurance is included and both have mobile apps.

For reference, Edmonton is the biggest city north of Mexico where residents still lack a viable car-share.

Pogo CarShare

  • Number of cars: 17 (up to 50 over the next few months, the real-time map does not show cars that are not available)
  • Cost: $15.7395 / hour
  • Sign-up cost: $35
  • Zone limitation: Yes
  • Leave cars anywhere: Yes (in zone)
  • Driver abstract required: No
  • Sign-up time: 16 days
  • Pay for parking: No (in zone)

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Hertz 24/7

  • Number of cars: 3
  • Cost: $6.30 / hour
  • Sign-up cost: $0
  • Region limitation: No
  • Leave cars anywhere: No
  • Driver abstract required: No
  • Sign-up time: 16 days
  • Pay for parking: Yes

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Why don’t these kinds of services work in Edmonton?

Thinking into the future, will these car share programs eventually be converted to electric driverless cars?

Update: As of 12/6/14, the Hertz 24/7® vehicles located on the University of Alberta campus will no longer be available.

From Hertz: “It has been a pleasure to have partnered with the University of Alberta in this sustainable, cost-effective and innovative transportation solution.”