Monday, August 26, 2019

We are NOT the Walking Dead

Sometime in the early 2000's I heard about a new comic book series about zombies. Being a fan of the genre I was especially excited to read that the author planned to continue the series indefinitely. To create an ever expanding apocalyptic world.

15 years and 193 issues later the series has come to an end. In the final act Rick announces to a crowd, "We are NOT the Walking Dead!". This parallels an important moment very early in the series when Rick says the same line, but without the "not". It's then that the writers reveal that in this world all humans, no matter how they die, become zombies.

Reading the end of this series, feeling the "NOT" in the last speech, made me so happy. The world they created moved beyond survival. Mirroring the comic books themselves, the characters had created something bigger than themselves. The positive ending also struck a familiar chord with my life the last few days. With school starting back and my extended paternity leave ending, this last weekend was still wonderfully boring.

We went on our first family walk downtown in quite a while (now featuring bike riders). Had tacos and ice cream. Finished off the original Batman Animated Series with my children. Played some basketball with friends. Had s'mores with family. Rejoined the original improv team I help form 8 years ago. My new church celebrated our 3 year birthday. So many everyday joys.

I won't spoil the book series, but the theme of legacy is strong. Rick is a character who creates something that extends beyond his own life. This is one of my core missions. It's how I view education. It's how I view my improv theater. And it's how I view being a husband and father. Build and add. Part of me felt energized by the finale. A push to go out and grow my worlds bigger. I do plan to do that. Even more I felt a sense of, if I can quote another recent meaningful series ender, that I can "rest now".

I'm writing this to commemorate the deep feeling of gratitude I've been feeling lately. At 34 I've already done more than I thought I ever would. If this is the best it ever gets, if this happens to be the end of what I have now, I want to say I enjoyed the good old days while I was in them. We are NOT the walking dead. Right now, we are alive. And so, I'll leave you with the last page of the series.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Economics of Organ Donation (and Trade)

"many trades as you can possibly make because that's what a market's for"

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Takeaways from "Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen"

As I've done several time before (especially when this blog was more active), here are some takeaways from a book I recently finished: Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen. Some of this is items directly from the text and some are just thoughts inspired by it.

I'm reading this book to keep myself fresh as I teach the Alchemy Comedy Theater's inaugural Improv 601 class. It's mean to be a conservatory culmination of our previous 5 levels. It had a submission process and only acceptance 6 students. Each January the plan is for the current Artistic Director to end their 1 year term with this class and "graduate" a new class of veterans. Although this book is far from my favorite on the topic, I really appreciate that it's essentially Jason Chin's blog of thoughts on long-form improv (in fact the last third is literally just excerpts from his blog).

Jason was the reason why I purchased this book a while back. He tragically died very young a few years ago and I had always appreciated his perspective and performance whenever we crossed paths. He was so well loved he even has his own improv holiday. The only time I was in a classroom setting with him was while I was in Chicago for a summer doing the iO summer intensive (I believe the best deal in improv training) and he did a lecture/discussion about the history of improvisation. It was great.

Here's a great excerpt from the book:
In the Godfather movie, Michael Corleone dispassionately discusses his assassination of Sollozzo and the police captain, McCulsky. "It's not personal," he says, "It's business." The novel, however, goes one step further: "Tom, don't let anyone kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business."
It reminded me of the classic Del Close quote:
"Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage, is to effect each other, in some way and if we notice, very carefully, how those swine we are working with are trying to get to us and get at us. Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  -Del Close
Nothing is more difficult to build on and heighten that big choices (like for example an assassination) with no one taking it personally. Here's a good rule of thumb: inject either a little narcissism or codependence in all your characters.

Improv scenes are never really about very much, but they are always about something. Understanding all the pieces of a scene are great (Relationship, Characters, Environment). Understanding the comedic Pattern of the scene is essential. But above that, the context of the scene lies in "what the scene is really about". Jealousy. God vs. Science. Survival. Etc. That said, you won't be able to preplan or layout that large thematic concept. What an improv scene is actually about is figuring out what it's about.

Here's another quote from the book, from Bruce Lee:
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend. 
This is not only great for the nature of how improvisers should be, it's also a good foundation for how improv shows should work. Figure what what makes the first scene it's shape (example: cup) and then pour it into another context (example: bottle).

Jason has an interesting breakdown in the terms coach or director. It encouraged me to layout definitions for Alchemy's three artistic leadership titles for the stage:

  • Director: Implement the mission of the theater on stage
  • Coach: Implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
  • Coordinator: Encourage the members of the team to implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
Similarly, here are how I've now defined the leadership roles off stage:
  • Producer: Implement the mission of the theater off stage
  • Manager: Implement the mission of the night (as stated by the theater)
  • Facilitator: Encourage the attenders of the event implement the mission of the event (as stated by the theater)
Jason was adamant about doing note sessions after shows (something I've done with success at other theaters). However, at Alchemy we have a culture of not doing that and treating the show itself as a moment of play reward for a period of hard work and practice (all of our House Teams and Company Members are required to attend a weekly practice). I think both systems can work and I wouldn't be bothered if a coach wanted to take Jason's suggestion. He also suggests that scene notes never last longer than the scene. Preach.

Hit a inspirational wall as a coach of a team? Ask yourself, "what are you learning?" and teach that. Not learning anything? Well, read a book or take a class.

Jason mentions a different book I've seen suggested several other times in multiple different contexts: Zen in the Art of Archery. Apparently it has many applications.

Here's a another great quote from the book, this one from Daisetsu Suzuki:
Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes artless art, growing out of the unconscious.
For a long time I've intended this 601 class to be a kind of final review for our veteran players. From here, it will just take time to get the groves in your brain to become second nature.

The biggest (only?) advantage improv has in the entertainment industry is that it's live. For that reason it's important to treat the audiences like heroes and performances like lightning in a bottle. In addition, improv theaters also need to do all the things other forms of entertainment do. Be organized, be professional, be on time, etc. From the author: "Improv [sometimes] lacks follow through".

Near the end of the book there is a list of ten suggestions. His number one is Listen. I don't think I've seen a list that didn't have some form of that at number one. The only thing I'd add to that is the other simultaneous number one rule. Act. If you're really listening and they're really saying something, then you'll really have a reaction.

With so many quotes of other people, I'll end with one from the author, Jason Chin, in the afterward of the book:
Improv is a fascinating art form that continues to evolve and mutate. I believe the trend is toward longer and longer shows with smaller and smaller casts (in number, not height) which allows for more intimate emotions and intense performances.
I agree. The graduation showcase for our 601 class will be duo monoscenes on Friday, February 23rd. At just 55 pages this isn't really an improv book, but more a collection of Jason Chin's thoughts on the topic. I'd be interested to read more mini-takes like this.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: Positive Impact of Siblings on Divorce Rate

Here's one my greatest pieces of gratitude to my mom from myself (and the mother of my own children). Thanks for having so many kids:
Researcher Doug Downey observed adults who grew up as an only child were least likely to marry. Those who did marry were the most at risk for divorce than adults who grew up with at least one sibling.  
Adults who grew up with one or two siblings, that is in a family of four or five total, had pretty much similar divorce rates. 
While there were only minimal divorce-prevention gains with family size of up to three siblings, in families with four to seven siblings lower divorce rates in adulthood were pronounced.
In fact, with 7 Brookie kids, my parents hit the number just right! Here's one guess on why:
children who grow up with multiple siblings have more opportunities to learn how to negotiate differences. They've had to learn how to live harmoniously with others
They not only have to learn to deal with the bad, they get more good:
In large families younger children receive loving attention from not just two parents but many older siblings as well. If they fall down, many hands reach down to help them up. If they aim to accomplish a goal, whether it’s learning to throw a ball or succeeding at a school athletic event, many sibs are there to coach and assist them, and many voices then chime in to celebrate their victories.
And it continues into adulthood:
When illness strikes, there’s an unexpected job loss, or grief besets adults, adult siblings can come to the rescue. Their help can lower the stress on the sibling with the problem and his her spouse.
That doesn't even count the benefits of your siblings spouses as additional siblings. With underpopulation looming, if you're able, my armchair suggestion is to have one more kid than you think you can handle, then drop what's necessary to keep your sanity. I'm not only am excited about trying to create my own clan, I'm sure the benefits 14 first cousins (more than half in town) are also measurably positive!

Bonus link: Various other correlations of divorce rates

Sunday, March 19, 2017

There's No Money in Improv (Directly)

Alchemy held our bi-annual auditions and company meeting today and here was a quote I emphasized. From Miles Stroth:
Improv is not something you make money doing. It’s a skill set that hopefully one day will be rewarded better commercially or financially. But people love it because it’s a fucking art form. But there’s not money is doing it well. There’s money is translating the skill set you learn doing it into other things.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Alchemy in Audio

I've been lucky enough to be interviewed in a handful of podcasts mostly discussing the local improv theater that I run. If you'd like to get a better idea of how it works and my personal vision for it, here are a few options:
  • There It Is: "Harrison talks with Jason about improv, his time at Clemson University and in Chapel Hill, NC at DSI, starting the Alchemy Comedy Theater, juggling running a theater with his other part-time job, and the New South Comedy Festival"
  • Improv in Action: "Sebastian and Jim sit down with Harrison Brookie of Alchemy Comedy Theater and discuss what it is to run an improv theatre in Greenville SC."
  • Stories of the Upstate: About my younger days as a "lovable little buddy as a teen, pretty irresponsible and pretty fun" and how that led to opening a comedy theater.
  • Greenville Comedy Marathon Panel:  "Part of the Greenville Comedy Marathon, an annual marathon put on by Alchemy Comedy. It was moderated by Alchemy Artistic Director, Harrison Brookie, and features Meg Pierson, Todd Janssen, Tom Emmons, Traysie Amick, and Carrie Adams!"
Bonus non-improv topic with improv people... I Was Just About to Say That: "This week we have an equally educational and enjoyable episode with a very special guest, Harrison Brookie, who is a local high school teacher and improviser extraordinaire. We're talking the top 5 US presidents with the first name James."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Politics As Religion

I'm catching up on my "Conversations with (Economist) Tyler Cowen" podcasts (earlier on Tyler). Here's a great quote from an interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
National politics is different from local. National politics, I believe, is much more like religion than local politics is. If you take it all the way down to the very local level — who the dogcatcher is, who the treasurer is of the town — that’s all very practical stuff. People are very worried about their property values and things like that. It’s not very ideological. National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion
And to be clear, I think this is mostly a negative.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Why I Was Wrong About Trump's Victory (But Not Necessarily About His Presidency)

My brief streak of correctly predicting the presidency while never actually voting for the winner has ended. Donald Trump is now the 45th President of the US and few saw it coming (not even Trump). Last week I got to do a second presentation to my campus to update them on my own prediction failure and help them process why exactly the polls and national media were so wrong. Here was my explanation:

The Polls Weren't Wrong
When I first spoke to my school in late October, Clinton had about a 70% chance of winning in the polls. We all forgot the implication that 30% is not zero and far from it. He had a 1/3 chance of winning, which is still pretty possible. Secondly, the polls were off, but the 2016 polls were actually slightly more accurate than the 2012 ones. Only in 2012, the polling error didn't change the outcome. Here's an eerie title from Nate Silver (who I vowed to never link again) just 4 days before the election: "Trump Is Just A Normal Polling Error Behind Clinton". And finally, last minute undecided voters (who can't be measured well) did seem to shift towards Trump (was it Comey, Russia, Johnson, or likely Clinton's fault?).

Very Very Close Election
It looks now that Hillary Clinton is going to get more than 2.9 million votes than Donald Trump. In fact, if you convince 38,595 Trump voters in close states to switch to Clinton she wins. That's close. But of course the Electoral College system choses the president. That was relatively close too. Trump's victory is 46th out of 58 in past presidential elections.

No Obama 3rd Term 
The now well known "Prediction Professor" has a successful 13 yes or no question system for predicting a win (in this case, a Trump win). You can read them all here, but most of them come down to much larger factors beyond the candidates themselves. Very rarely does a political party get 3rd term in the presidency (it takes a Jefferson, Jackson, or Roosevelt) and it seems now it was Clinton's election to lose. If fact, I think Biden was the Dems only chance.

Party Loyalty Trumped (Literally)
The most surprising thing for me this season was just how little Trump's surprises mattered. Since his initial Birther claims in 2011 and every unelectable thing he did since, I'd assumed he couldn't win. I assumed the Republican base would not get behind someone who wasn't a Republican just a few years ago. I assumed... well you know what happens...

  • 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, more than voted for last 3 Republicans (looks like they didn't read my post on the abortion)
  • Hispanics and African Americans voted for Trump more than the last Republican (at the end of the day, Hillary was no Obama)
  • Midwest/Rust Belt (PA, MI, WI, OH) voted with what they hoped for their wallet over any dreams of social justice
  • Rural America is underrepresented in our nationally culture, but purposefully overrepresented in the Electoral College, and voted for Trump by a huge margin 

You can see the rural/urban divide in the nation, my home state, and even in my precinct here in the city of Greenville
Trump won in at least part because he was Trump, and if there's one thing his first 2 weeks as President prove, he's still Trump.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Six Presidential Candidates on My Ballot Not Named Trump

Sign in front of my house
I'm fairly certain I would vote for any Democrat or Republican presidential candidate since 2000 over both of the two main presidential candidates this year. Both Trump and Clinton have set records for being unfavorable, even among their own party (and especially with millennial voters like myself). If you remember back when this blog was regularly updated, I may have won $20 from family members in the each of the last 2 presidential elections and it looks like I'm about to be right again (though I was admitted way wrong about how far Trump would go in the primary and will likely break even this year).

Not too much has changed about my own personal political beliefs, though I have moved slightly the opposite of how you might expect based on my region (since I moved from NC to SC) and my age. However, like many voters, this presidential election season has been confounding. That's why, I'd like to make the case for 7 different options for Election Day (today):

Options 1-6) Vote for any of the other 6 candidates (at least on the SC ballot) not named Donald Trump. There's been plenty written to try and convince others to not vote for him. In fact, here's a good summary from fellow early 2000's blogger/friend Justin Scott. Though I should mention that his post was a little over a month ago so there's plenty more to add to the list. I got a chance to see conservative NYT columnist David Brooks here in Greenville a few weeks ago and he concisely stated that "Trump is the wrong solution to a right problem". If you'd like to get some real sympathy for why at least 40% of voters in the country is planning to vote for him, the Cracked Podcast has a great discussion (here's the shorter list version). I actually got a chance to do a short informational presentation on the election to the two campuses of my high school (one fairly urban and one very rural) and you could feel the stark difference (even in the historically very conservative Upstate of SC).

As for the other 6 candidates, they've gone through SC's fairly stringent process of getting on the ballot:
In South Carolina, political parties can conduct primaries. Filing requirements for presidential primaries are set by the parties themselves. An independent presidential candidate must petition for placement on the general election ballot. The petition must contain signatures totaling 5 percent of all registered state voters. Write-in candidates are not permitted.
I'd suggest that if someone has gone through the proper channels to legally appear on your ballot, then they are open to vote for them. That's not just my opinion, that's the law. There are certainly arguments of spoiler candidates, but that's only if you are first obligated to a party or candidate. If that means the party you normally side with "lost your vote" then you're now showing your vote matters. Hopefully that party won't make the same mistake again. So here are the non-Trump candidates:

1) Hillary Clinton (Democrat): Despite all the email scandals (there are actually several different ones involving several different people), I still think Clinton would make a much better president than Donald Trump. Comparisons aside, she was a relatively innocuous Senator so much so she was approved as Secretary of State 94–2. It wasn't until she became a candidate for president in 2008 that she became such a pariah to conservatives (or even Trump himself).

2) Gary Johnson (Libertarian): Having voted for him in the last presidential election he was easily my first choice. His Vice Presidential pick is even better than his last one 4 years ago. I think Johnson would make a very competent and fairly moderate president. He's the only candidate I've heard in decade reminding voters that the president can't actually pass laws and has to work with Congress (one of Obama's major pitfalls). I'd also nominate him for most likely to balance the budget.

3) Jill Stein (Green): She might be the only candidate on this list I might call into question. Her policies are health, energy, and debt are very concerning. However, I believe her and Gary Johnson are the only candidates openly calling for shrinking the federal military and decreasing US involvement in nation building overseas.

4) Darrell Castle (Constitution): I don't know a lot about Castle as a candidate, but my understanding of Constitution Party is that it is a more religiously conservative version of the Libertarian Party. If you appreciate Gary Johnson's honest efforts to shrink the size of the federal government, I believe Castle will push for similar things economically. However, they divide over issues like abortion, LGBT rights and other issues where the Constitution falls more traditionally.

5) Peter Skewes (American Party): I know nothing about Skewes personally, but the entire vision of the American Party is incredibly appealing, especially in this election. This was a party actually founded right here in SC with the mission of leading from the middle. Here's a quote from their site: "The central focus of the American Party is to increase the economic global competitiveness of our states and our country, by focusing on the implementation of common ground solutions".

6) Evan McMullin (Independent): The true wildcard among wildcards Evan may be the only 3rd party candidate to carry a state since Ross Perot in the 90's. Right now as a completely independent candidate he's polling above Hillary Clinton in Utah and drawing 24% from Trump in a state the Republicans carried handedly in 2012. If there's no majority in the electoral college, it could get interesting.

7) Don't vote. It's your right to vote and it's just as much your right not to vote. If there are no candidates that represent enough of your views accurately, then no outcome will express your voice. Plus you have a 1 in 60 million chance of making a difference. 1 in 10 million if you're in a swing state. Wasted votes aren't votes that don't make a difference. No one vote has ever made the difference in a presidential election. A wasted vote is one for a candidate that you do not want to be president. Which is why studies shows we mostly vote for our own personal or communal feeling of satisfaction (same reason I watched baseball for the first time in a decade on Game 7). In fact, after reading over "Why I Voted" from 8 years ago, not a lot has changed for me and plus, voter apathy may actually be a positive.

Like the Greenville News (who endorsed Romney last time), this year I'm not endorsing any candidate. I think all non-Trump candidates would be passable. My vote however will go to Hillary Clinton, who like her husband, policy-wise might turn out to be the boring president I've always wanted. And the policy issues we do disagree on (and there are plenty), I'm confident our system of Federalism and other two branches will do what they were made for (as I discussed on the issue of abortion just a few hours ago). It's also important to me how Trump loses. Whether it's a small loss or a big one likely determine whether we see a Trump/Christie type Republican Party in 2020 or my dream new version of the party with candidates like Kasich/Weld on the ticket. This also means I will have voted for 3 different parties in 4 different presidential elections. It feels good not to be tied to a party, which are at the end of the day just private organizations that nominate candidates for office. Instead I vote for who I think would be the best chief executive, a suggestion I got from Libertarian Vice Presidential candidate Bill Weld.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Abortion Issue is a The Red Herring

There are very few (on either side of the aisle) that see abortion as a celebration. It is a difficult, deeply personal, and delicate issue with real weight for individuals, families, and communities. For that reason I believe the laws governing abortion and those at impact abortion at the federal and state levels are very important, but the actual impact federal elections have on abortion laws are way overstated. I say that as someone who has personally been guilty of voting for candidates based on their public stances on the issue. Let's take a step back and get some historical context on the issue.

Before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, about half of the states banned abortion. However, in that decision, 7 of 9 justices agreed that state bans violated the privacy rights of the mother. Since then, the Republicans have gradually increased their use of the issue to gain favor with the evangelical community. However, what they fail to admit is their own role in the Roe v. Wade decision. Here's the breakdown of justices' decision (and which party's president appointed them):
Harry A. Blackmun (Republican)
William J. Brennan (Republican)
Warren Earl Burger (Republican)
William Orville Douglas (Democrat)
Thurgood Marshall (Democrat)
Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Republican)
Potter Stewart (Republican)
William H. Rehnquist (Republican)
Byron R. White (Democrat)
The decision was made by an overwhelmingly conservative court with only two dissenters (one from each party appointment). You can actually read the conservative language in the decision that was framed as an issue of personal privacy and liberty:
This “substantive due process” right to privacy permits a woman to terminate her pregnancy for any reason during the first trimester. Subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the state may reasonably regulate abortions in ways related to maternal health. After viability, the state may regulate or proscribe abortions, but it must permit them if found necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother
And the court has kept a conservative majority for 45 years. Meanwhile, restrictions on abortion have come from the states, as the Roe v. Wade decision intended. As abortion made its way into the third presidential debate, like almost every issue in this election, it was more about personality than actually policy.

Forty-one states have some form of restriction on abortion, 36 of those ban it after viability (24ish weeks or before). That's 80% of the country that bans abortion at least at viability (with another 11% banning it at 29 weeks or the third trimester) and even for those states that allow abortion in the third trimester, it almost never happens. Though it's worth noting, third trimester (and even partial birth abortion is something Trump supported openly into his mid 60's and it's not like he has a good record of agreeing with Republican leadership these days. Here's a stat on third term abortions from the not liberal Fox News:
only about 100 are performed in the third trimester (more than 24 weeks' gestation), approximately .01 percent of all abortions performed. 
This is part of the reason why abortion rates have fallen to nearly half of what they were in 1980's under Republican presidents. Before you suggest that this decrease in abortions is the result of decades of non-compromising hard fought conservative actions, remember, all of those state laws were purposefully allowed for in the original conservative Roe v. Wade decision. In fact, most of these decreases aren't due to regulation, but through "liberal" policies aimed at decreasing extreme poverty and unintended pregnancy (most women who have an abortion already have kids).

My goal is not to decrease the importance we place on life or the privacy of our female citizens. Instead I just want us to have a more realistic view of what abortion actually looks like (early and rarer and rarer) and what impact politicians actually have (very little). You can think the issue important (I do), but if the candidate either will not or can not actually impact the laws, then it's disingenuous for it to be a primary factor in your decision.