30 songs, 30 years.

A simple birthday request: tell me what song lies at the intersection of you and I.

As you may know, June 5 is the date of my birth… As you may not know, for the last several years I have attempted to curate very specific gifts from friends and loved ones all over the planet.

This year, my 30th, I would like you to submit a song, your own or one from popular culture. I am hoping to collect 30 songs, so that I may create a double-sided birthday mixtape. Feel free to submit the Artist-Title, the lyrics, or a YouTube link. It can be a song that you wrote, that you performed, or just one that you love.

These can be songs that I introduced you to, or that you introduced me to. They can be musical, or funny, or sad, or capture something in the connection that we share. These can be songs that are long or short, maybe we listened to them together one time, or it was that song that you can never remember the name of but makes you think of me.

Imagine that we are two points floating around in space; if you were to travel from one point to the other… what song would play in our minds the middle of your journey? What song lies at the intersection of you and I?

Feel free to comment on this post, send it to me on facebook, or email me privately to submit.

Some may ask: “Kory, can I submit more than one song?”,
“Thank you for asking, yes of course, but no more than three. And double points if you can tell a rich narrative with three songs.”

As a reminder looking back on past years…

Leadership in Improvisation

Making great teams work better together through creative collaboration.

Recently I was invited to give a talk on Leadership in Improvisation for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta breakfast event about Making Connections.

It was a delightful opportunity to share my story, and the audience was engaged, motivated and taught me some things in the process. It is my hope that by sharing the story here, the story can continue.

Note: It was critical to discuss the preparation of the talk with a sample of individuals who would be in the audience the week before, this allowed me to understand who would be in the room, what their expectations would be like, and what has worked well, and not as well, for that group in the past.

My name is Kory Mathewson; I am an improviser with Rapid Fire Theatre, and I am also a Ph.D. student in Computing Science studying artificial intelligence and machine learning at the University of Alberta.

If you want to read Part 1 of the story of me making an Artificial Improvisor, check it out here: korymathewson.com/building-an-artificial-improvisor/

Note: it was a failure. A not a total failure, because I learned a lot.

I had four short and clear goals for the morning:

  • Teach the history of improvisation and
    its growing relevance in leadership.
  • Share my stories of success and failure.
  • Distil everything I have learned over 12 years of improvisation to 6 gemstones takeaways.
  • Explore some improvisational exercises with the audience.

The same question my mom asked when she found my brother (9) and I (6) driving in a convertible we didn’t own. Let’s start with a brief history of my improvisation that should help you understand me and how we got to this point?

February 2005 at the Rapid Fire Theatre Nosebowl High School Improv Tournament. A bright-eyed memory of myself performing impeccable mime in cargo shorts, a popped collar pink polo shirt and rolled up tennis socks, with three of my best friends supporting from the bench. We lost that tournament, by a mile but we gained memories and fashion sense.

Flash forward to this month, on stage at Rapid Fire Theatre. Performing alongside the incredibly talented cast and the Mayor of Edmonton His Worship Don Iveson.

Who here knows what improvisation is? Has anyone done improvisation? Has anyone seen a comedic improvisation show? Or performed jazz? Has anyone built an ingenious solution to a problem facing scarce resources and limited time?

Improvisation, much like my life, is art and science. It sits at the intersection between the rules and pure creativity.

By the end of this talk, I promised, you will all be familiar with improvisation and the ways that the principles of improvisation can help guide your leadership and collaboration. First, it is not about being funny, it is about failing together?

I earned my stripes improvising in long 50-hour marathons. These grueling time tests stretch physical and mental abilities and provide an incomparable safe playground of practice.

Practice makes perfect; but why? Because it elucidates your patterns, obstacles and growth goals, then focuses your efforts on improvements.

The more you can adapt, response, and extemporize the more effective you will be. Veterans of the form respond proactively to sudden changes and road blocks.

The first lesson I learned in improvisation is that “the best improv performers can improvise with anyone.” They make everyone else shine; this is not necessarily true about painters, musicians, mathematicians, or lawyers, but it is right about improvisors, and more importantly: leaders.

Once I was in, I was hooked. So I did what any newly committed student of an art form does, I dug deep into the history of improvisation.

The river ran deep. Documented improvisation starts in Rome in the 4th century BC with the Atellan Farce and mask work. Flash forward thousands of years and we learn about Commedia dell-Art(e) in the early 1600’s exploring character archetypes.

Contemporaries in the field have written, studied, tested, tried and failed at shaping the art form. Each with their form of proselytizing:

  • Stanislavski: The greatest wisdom is to realize one’s lack of it.
  • Spolin 1963: Through spontaneity, we are reformed into ourselves.
  • Boal 1973: Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.
  • Johnstone 1987: If you have a good idea, open your mouth and say something else.

And of course, no discussion of improvisation would be complete without mentioned the tortured genius of the 20th century, Del Close. A coach and mentor of many of today’s most popular comedians including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.

With many words of wisdom, one that resonates with me as a leader is:

“Don’t bring a cathedral into a scene, bring a brick and let’s build together.” – Del Close 

Bringing us to the first gemstone takeaway.

  • Listen
  • Actually, listen.
  • Most people listen just enough to be able to respond.
  • Be willing to change.
  • Listen like this is the last thing they ever say.
  • Listen to the other is going to change your mind.

“Listen. Listen to one another like you know you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world.” – Sarah Kay

  • Positivity.
  • Accept, agree, say “Yes”.
  • Accept and offer, say “Yes, and…” – it improves your relationships with others AND with yourself.
  • It is also a base principle of meditation. Accept your currently emotional state. Yes I am feeling like this. If this is true, what else is true.

A series of yeses takes us somewhere. All it takes is one no to stop the momentum. But what do we get when we can say: “Yes, and…”

But wait, there’s more…Practice strengthening your affirmation:

  • Practice saying “Yes, and..”
  • Use it to refocus, redirect,
    collect thoughts.
  • Improvisational leaders accept quickly and look for opportunities immediately.
  • Make your agreement prominent.

Much like building a cathedral, we can try collaborating in real time.

You can try as well, with a partner try telling a story by writing it down on a piece of paper one-line-at-a-time, for an additional challenge try writing the story one-word-at-a-time.

Then read the stories back, and see what it is like to directly collaborate on a creative piece. Remember: there are no wrong answers, no mistakes, and no judgment.

You are walking alone in a wooded forest, you have been without food and water for a few days and you are cold, scared and hungry. You come to a clearning and in the middle of the open area there is a saber-tooth tiger… you are afraid. You feel fear. Scientists think this stems from the amygdala, two almond-shaped bundles of nuclei in the temporal lobes of the brain. What is your emotional response? 

Most would say fight or flight, there is also new research on the freeze mechanism, and of course, the fourth and least favorable option in real-life, fail. You have to do something very critical in this moment, which leads us to the next gemstone.

  • Make choices.
  • In improv we often call them offers.
  • Make offers instead of asking questions.
  • Make your choices specific, unique and novel for bonus points.

Often times when we are forced with a decision we encounter a psychological phenomenon called: analysis paralysis.

Remember that you do not need to be 100% right 100% of the time. In fact, you need to be 100% right only about 10% of the time, the other times you just need to make a decision.

Your choices should be made in an attempt to make others look good. Shelve the ego and embrace the collective elevation and amplification. Endow others with power, status, and agency to create a team that functions better than individuals working independently.

I have tried on 1000 masks and understand the world slightly differently from each perspective.

Alex Williams of the New York Times has a very nice piece on friendships as we progress through life. One of the more salient points to me is that the three elements required for making close friends.

These are the exact characteristics of my interactions with improvisers all over the world. From Liverpool to Austin, to Slovenia, to New York, and back through North America… I have found my community around the world. We build relationships over space and time because we can quickly adapt, work together, collaborate openly and communicate effectively.

My research is in Reinforcement Learning. Training artificially intelligent systems to act in certain ways given rewards as feedback. This is the same way that dolphins are trained to do mind-bending stunts.

You can play this with a partner as well. Attempt to encourage your ‘dolphin’ to accomplish an unstated goal in the environment using only rewards as feedback.

This simple exercise elucidates the importance of clear communication, systems of collaboration, and shared goals.

In life,we are each living our own story (or stories), but we are major and minor characters in many other stories. We are the character that will give the right piece of advice at the wrong time or the hidden romance that ends up falling out of love and stop writing letters right before a chapter ends.

If this is the case, we should aim to make our story interesting. Aim to make offers over questions, decisions over ultimatums, and bring something specific, unique, and novel to each and every interaction.

Stories are about patterns. One of the easiest ways to understand patterns is through images. First, an action is taken establishing normal, then, with a second similar action, the pattern is established thereby creating a solid platform. Finally, the pattern is broken.

We can share the storytelling by trading back and forth on who is setting the patterns and who is breaking them. Improvisation encourages this ebb and flow, the constant back and forth of transferring energy between leading and following.

These are the characteristics of an improvisational leader who can think, speak, and act freely on their feet:

  • Listen actively
  • Amplify with positivity
  • Confidence to make authentic choices
  • Bring out the best in others
  • Tell great stories

Finally, is the failure. The most under discussed reality of the modern leader.

Here is a challenge, for the next conversation you have with a mentor or a peer that you have yet to connect on a deeper level with, ask them:

What has been your biggest failure?

Then, focus on understanding the learning that came from that failure. 

So, does anyone remember the first ‘best’ piece of advice that I ever received?

The best improvisers, make everyone else shine. I wanted to put this to the test. So I did an improv show with the audience member with the least stage experience.

Spoiler alert: He was magnificent.

So I thought, can I do it with an artificial intelligence? I would fuse my love for improvisation and machine learning. I would call it something sexy like “artificial improvisation, ” and there could be a hot Hamlet sequel skull in the bionic arm of a cyborg robot from the future.


And then I would do it a whole bunch, and tell everyone I knew the story and find other people around the world that were similarly passionate.

And then make an art collective in the space, and book a swath of shows in 2017. Learning and growing along the way, building businesses and research that impact millions of people.

That is how I embraced one of my biggest failures as a performer and scientist.

Questions for reflections: What do all the gemstones add up to? What is the big key takeway?

What’s your Doodle?

It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page.

Back in May 2006 (10 years ago, thanks @Meags for actually dating a doodle), I carried a notebook around with me and when I would have some down time with others I would ask them to share a doodle of theirs (something that they draw when they are on the phone, or in class, or a meeting) in this notebook.

I collected so many of these doodles, from many different individuals. It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page. It seems like everyone has a small doodle … so I ask….what’s your doodle?

Will you write me something for my birthday?

For my 29th birthday I want you to share with me a short essay of length 290 – 2900 words on “Finding Fun in Others”.

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This year, 2016, I have been very inspired by the ideas of Finding the Fun in Others. In May, I was invited to teach on this principle in workshops in London, England (with C3Something) and Llubjana, Slovenia (with IGLU). What a true delight it was to get to share some of the ideas I have been floating around in my head with some of the best improvisors in the world.

So, that being said, it is only fitting that I will make a request for my 29th birthday. As a reminder, it is June 5th, the 5th of June, JUNE 5, the fifth of June, the 156th day of the year in the Gregorian Calendar, Arbour Day in New Zealand and the Feast of Núr in the Bahá’í calendar (if Bahá’í Naw-Rúz falls on March 21).

The request is as follows, for my 29th birthday I want you to share with me:

A short essay of length 290 – 2900 words on the topic of Finding Fun in Others. 

You can feel free to make it about improvisational theatre, about academia, about art or science, or life in general. You can make it specific or general, postulate wildly or sincerely. Tell me a horrific tale of a fun-free vacuum, or spin a heart-warming story of a land filled with fun-buns and jelly-bellys. What is fun, what are others, what does it mean to find? Feel free to semantically define it for yourself…

It is my hope that I can collect 29 of these short pieces and accumulate them in a collective creation collection. Much like I have done over the last four years. Another small piece in my larger, yearly, creative endeavour to collect, embrace, and feature the creativity around me.

As a note, feel free to add any necessary attachments, be it audio, visual, photos, supplementary writings, tree diagrams, pins on a map, that may help to clarify and expand your essays. 

To deliver the present to me, you can feel free to email it to me, you can  email me for my address and then hand write it and mail it to me (as you know, I love hand written letters). You can hand deliver it to me (if you are in Edmonton, or Toronto (I will be there May 30 – June 5 (which is my birthday as a reminder))) [ How about that, triple-nested parentheses ].

Over the past four years I have asked for some exciting, collective creation style gifts for my birthday!

25th year: 25 Stories on 25 Years of Age
26th year: 26 Love Letters
27th year: 27 Birthday Pictures
28th year: 28 Handwritten Notes

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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.



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…

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.

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.”