Spotlight on Quality: Transitions and Clowns

In between shows, I went backstage to grab some food. One of the volunteers came up to me and said, “Hey, Ken, the lighting director is looking for you.”

I wondered why. Had I screwed up? I was a rookie at operating a spotlight, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t understand something correctly during the first performance, and they wanted me to get it right for the next show. Lighting was an element of the performing arts that I had never given any thought to, until one day earlier. Now I was trying to learn on the fly: what is the meaning of quality in the field of stage lighting?

I went and found the lighting director. Fortunately, I hadn’t screwed up. “We’re adding a new transition in the second show, after the broom act, ” he explained.

* * *

“Transitions are the subtle in-between details that we as human beings actually connect with and the reasons we fall in love with something rather than simply like something.”

Brendan Dawes

Brendan Dawes has an interesting post about transitions in design on his blog. His thought is that the transitions between states of usage is the thing that makes the difference between a product that is functional and a product that is beautiful. A commenter named Robert Turrall added an excellent example of this idea in action:

“I remember having discussions with an industrial designer a few years ago about why interior lights in cars that dim gently after you’ve closed the doors go towards the perception of the car itself. BMWs had them, as did other more expensive cars, and this was one of the features that really made the car “feel” exclusive and expensive. Other cars had lights that just switched off abruptly – and they immediately felt “cheap”, almost on the basis of this alone.”

Robert Turrall

There is likely almost no difference in manufacturing cost between a light that turns off abruptly and a light that turns off slowly. But little details like that can be the difference between cheapness and luxury, between amateur and professional.

* * *

I have operated plenty of car lights in my time, but until a month ago, I had never laid hands on a spotlight. I was called on to operate one of the two spotlights at Circus for Arts in the Schools, an annual fundraising circus show put on by professional circus artists to raise money for arts education.

The show is the brainchild of my friend Jeff Raz, a veteran circus performer who, among other things, played the lead role in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, and founded the Clown Conservatory, the only full-time clown training program in the US. Jeff is very well connected in the circus industry, so he manages to get some really amazing acts to come donate their time and skills for this cause.

Jeff recruits the acts and directs the show, while his wife and my wife co-produce it. And I…well, I do whatever I’m asked to do.

* * *

“Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.”

Josh Wilker

For this year’s circus, I was asked not to step into the spotlight, but to hold onto it. The lighting director gave me a crash course in how to operate the device. (I learned that in theaters, unlike in cars, turning a spotlight on and off quickly is a signal of high quality, and doing so slowly is considered “cheating”). And then we rehearsed.

In preparations for two 75-minute shows on Sunday, we practiced for five hours on Saturday night, and then another two hours on Sunday morning. Interestingly, we did not rehearse the actual circus acts in the show. Those were simply assumed to be ready to go. For the most part, the only thing we worked on were the transitions between the acts, and between various lighting and sound cues.

* * *

A show with acrobats and clowns consists of, as Jeff Raz says, “the superhuman and the supremely human.” If you had a show with just acrobat after acrobat after acrobat, your mind would quickly become numbed by the superhuman feats of these performers. That’s where you need to bring in the clowns.

Clowns get a bum rap in today’s culture, thanks to some bad horror films and a few other choice clichés. But after being involved with this annual circus for seven years, and having seen some truly top-notch artists at work up close, I’ve really grown to appreciate the art form.

The clown’s role in a circus is not merely to make you laugh. The clown is there to serve as the transition between acts in the show. They bring equipment onto the stage, and they take it off. But perhaps most importantly, they allow your mind to continue to enjoy the superhuman nature of the acrobats by reminding you of what it is like to be a normal human, by acting “supremely human”.

* * *

The new transition was inserted following an act by Matt White, who dances with a broom reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s hat rack. As soon as the broom act was over, I needed to find the clown in the wings. The clown would then turn on a fully functioning vacuum cleaner, and I had to follow him with the spotlight as he tried to dance with the vacuum cleaner across the stage.

It’s probably the oldest clown gag in the book. The clown earnestly tries to succeed like the act before him, but focuses on the wrong element of the act to emulate. It’s not the cleaning tool that is the source of the quality in the performance.

If you or I were thrust out on a stage and told to emulate Fred Astaire, we would probably fail miserably. Not because of one huge mistake like choosing the wrong prop to dance with, but by a thousand little things that we, as amateurs, simply do not understand.

By distilling these thousand little errors into one big error, the clown points out our own human flaws: we recognize quality when we see it, but recognizing is not the same as understanding.

* * *

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world!

— Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Wanting to succeed is human. Failing to succeed because we don’t understand the elements of quality is supremely human. Persisting through those failures until we do understand — that is what redeems us.

A good circus is not just a series of good acrobats and good clowns. It’s the two working in concert to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an expression of the entire human experience, moving from the innocent curiosity of childhood to the godlike comprehension of adult mastery. The result is an uplifting feeling of possibility — that we humans can get past our lack of understanding to accomplish amazing things — that makes so many people leave the circus show with smiles on their faces.

* * *

Later that night, when we got home, my four-year-old daughter was inspired. “I’m going to put on a show!” she declared. She went into our pantry, and pulled out a mop. “Watch me! Watch me!” Then she and the mop danced in circles all around the living room.

Both Neuroaesthetics and its Critics are Off Track

Alva Noë has an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he rips into the young science of neuroaesthetics:

What is striking about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art, but rather the fact that no one — not the scientists, and not the artists and art historians — seem to have minded, or even noticed.

Well, I minded and I noticed, but I’m also no one. I’m not a scientist or an artist or an art historian. I did, however, attend the a few of the initial international conferences on neuroaesthetics. But even though I am deeply fascinated by the idea of understanding art through understanding the brain, I stopped going to these conferences. I felt like the neuroaesthetics community was going down the path that wasn’t going to lead anywhere that would lead to any answers I had about art (What is art? How does it work?) anytime soon.

Mr. Noë seems to have the same frustration I did with the path this science is taking. But he reaches a different conclusion from me: he basically throws up his hands and suggests it’s probably hopeless:

For these reasons, neuroscience, which looks at events in the brains of individual people and can do no more than describe and analyze them, may just be the wrong kind of empirical science for understanding art.

I think that’s mistaken. I’ll try to explain why.

An example: one conference I decided to skip looked to be about examining brain scans of people in love. I’m not sure how and if love and art are related, and I’m skeptical of the usefulness of brain scans. I failed to see how that is going to tell us anything about the mechanisms of art, so I decided not to waste my time.

I’m a computer engineer. The computer analogy to using brain scans for understanding art would be trying to reverse engineer a piece of software by looking at which disk sectors are being accessed on a hard drive when that software is running. That information is almost useless. If you want to reverse engineer anything–a brain, a computer, a piece of software, a transistor, whatever–you need to know exactly two things: the inputs, and the outputs.

If you know what the inputs are (in this case, works of art) and the outputs are (human reactions to works of art), then you can try to reverse engineer the rest. If your inputs and outputs match the original, even if your new machine works in a completely different way from the original, congratulations, you’ve reverse engineered the product.

A reverse engineering of art must begin not with a cataloging of the mechanisms of art, but of the inputs and outputs. That’s where I think the neuroaesthetics community has gone astray.

That’s not to say that an cataloging of the mechanisms of the brain isn’t useful–it is. Usually–but not always–knowing some of the mechanisms of the original product can help you figure out how to complete your reverse engineering. It can help you better categorize your inputs and outputs. But if you’re focused exclusively on understanding the mechanisms and and not on understanding the inputs and outputs, you’re not going to get anywhere.

As I said, in this field, I’m a nobody. I’m not an academic or an artist or a neuroscientist. I’m just a guy. I’m no one. But I’ve done a lot of thinking about it over these past seven years, and I’m convinced that the key to reverse engineering how art works in the brain lies in the difference between the two types of memory in the brain: declarative memories and non-declarative (or associative or procedural) memories. Understand that mechanism, and reverse engineering the rest will fall right into place.

It all seems clear and obvious to me. A neuroaesthetics community that uses an effective approach to the problem of how art works can probably give us lots of useful and interesting information. I’ve blogged about this for seven years now, I still feel as if I’m the only one who gets it. I’m not getting the idea across. I’m a lonely community of one. I was hoping that reading Daniel Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” would shed a little light on the issue for others, but I don’t think it does. Art doesn’t really come up in his book. But the declarative/non-declarative dichotomy I’ve been talking about is pretty much the same System 1/System 2 dichotomy that Kahneman talks about–I think.

Perhaps if the professionals aren’t going to figure it out, that maybe I’ll just have to write a book myself, where I lay out the whole thing, my understanding of how it all works.

That idea scares me, though. What if I spend all that time to write that book and still nobody gets it? Or worse, I’m dead wrong about it? Hmm…

Giants Invalidate Their Territorial Rights Argument

Yesterday, the San Francisco Giants opened a Giants Dugout Store in the suburb of Walnut Creek. Why is this worthy of note? Well, take a look at where this store is:


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That’s deep in the center of Contra Costa County, one of only two counties that are, by MLB definition, the territory of the Oakland Athletics.

That in itself wouldn’t be such a big deal if the Giants were not also making the argument that letting the Oakland A’s move to San Jose is a violation of their territorial rights to Santa Clara County, and should therefore not be allowed.

This is not the first time the Giants have stepped on the A’s turf. When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, they paraded their trophy all around the Bay Area, including two cities in Contra Costa County: Walnut Creek and Richmond. But their parading did seem to carefully avoid any city in Alameda County.

Meanwhile, though, the Giants are still resisting the A’s move into “their” territory of San Jose:

  • They have created and funded a “grassroots” movement against the A’s stadium in San Jose, which just on Friday filed a lawsuit against the San Jose ballpark.
     
  • For similar reasons, they have enticed their own ballpark sponsor, AT&T, who happens to own a parcel of land needed to complete the San Jose ballpark, to flat out refuse to sell that parcel at any reasonable price, thereby forcing the city to engage in a complicated eminent domain procedure to get the parcel secured.
     
  • They have purchased San Jose’s minor league team, thereby doubling up on the “territorial rights” argument, and ensuring that a negotiation over compensation must be completed before the A’s can build their ballpark.
     

So what gives? Why are the Giants still behaving like territorial rights are sacred in “their” Santa Clara County, but like they don’t matter in the A’s Contra Costa County?

Perhaps the Giants Dugout Stores are a separate corporation from the Giants themselves, and are therefore not covered by the territorial rights, but if so, that’s just a legalese cover story. These two entities are tied at the hip. You know the Giants could have just said the word, and there would not have been a Giants Dugout Store in Walnut Creek.

So what’s really going on here? I can think of two explanations that make some sense. Either:

  1. A swap of Contra Costa County for Santa Clara County between the Giants and the A’s is a fait accomplit. There are t’s to cross and i’s to dot, but that’s eventually going to happen. Any resistance the Giants are showing now towards the A’s moving to San Jose is all about leverage: how much money will the Giants get in compensation for the loss of their territorial rights?

    One argument for this interpretation is that the A’s themselves haven’t complained one peep about this store, and they didn’t complain about the trophy parading, either. If there was no such tacit agreement, and I were the A’s, I’d be raising holy hell about the existence of this store.
     
    Or:

  2. The Giants have launched a full-out war against the A’s. They intend to do everything they can to force the A’s out of the Bay Area while they have the chance.

    In this scenario, the Walnut Creek Dugout Store is a beachhead to push the A’s out of town. They attack the A’s from the west as usual, and from this Dugout Store, they launch a propaganda campaign to weaken the A’s support from the east. And from the south, they employ every possible legal maneuver and manipulate every single sock puppet they can to prevent the A’s from moving to San Jose.

    The argument for this scenario is that this is the scenario that produces the best possible financial outcome for the Giants: the A’s leaving the Bay Area. The A’s would be stuck in the Coliseum with dwindling fan support and nowhere else to go but to some other metro area that can build a stadium for them. For the Giants shareholders to maximize the return on their investment, this is the optimal strategy to take.

In either case, though, the territorial rights argument is now over.

In the first scenario, it’s over because the Giants have given up. The Walnut Creek store is about launching a new marketing campaign to win over the new set of fans that they ‘acquire’ in exchange for the A’s moving to San Jose.

In the second scenario, then the Giants Dugout Store in Walnut Creek invalidates the whole “we just want the A’s to respect our territorial rights” argument as just bullshit. The Giants don’t really believe in, care about, or respect territorial rights at all. Instead, the Giants actually only care about pushing the A’s out of the Bay Area entirely. They want the whole Bay Area market to themselves, so they can make a lot more money when they eventually sell the team.

It was former A’s owner Walter Haas who let the Giants have Santa Clara County in the first place, when the Giants were trying to build a stadium down there themselves. He did that because Haas always had the bigger picture in mind: both sports and businesses do not just exist for profits alone; they are an essential part of the fabric of our communities. Anyone who walks on the UC Berkeley campus and sees the Haas name all over the place knows he believed that deeply. Capitalism works best when capitalists understand that their businesses aren’t islands unto themselves. When corporations live for profits and profits alone, you end up with people occupying Wall Street.

I’m hoping that Scenario #1 is closer to the truth than Scenario #2. It would be extremely disappointing if it wasn’t. Giants CEO Larry Baer was actually once a board member of one of the companies I helped found, and I had always respected him before. I’d like to think he, as a former Cal grad, is capable of a Haas-like vision that extends beyond just the corrosive idea that ‘maximizing shareholder value’ is the sole purpose of a corporation.

Normally, I’d just give the benefit of the doubt to the Giants, assume innocence until proven guilty, and that Scenario #1 is likely the truth. But doing so in this case requires me to believe facts not in evidence. It requires me to interpret the A’s silence as acceptance. The only facts that have been presented publicly involve the Giants aggressively moving against the A’s desires and interest, and the A’s just shutting up and taking it. I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. So therefore, I don’t know quite how to interpret this.

The arguments are done, and the jury has the case. Is the Giants move into Walnut Creek a benign marketing play, or an act of malign selfish corporate greed? We anxiously await the verdict.