Archive for April, 2012

Eight of Spades: The Synaesthetist

I’ve mentioned before that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. That means that I intuitively associate each letter or number with a colour. The colours have stayed the same throughout my life, as far as I remember, and they are not all the same colours that other grapheme-colour synaesthetes (such as my father and brother) associate with the same letters. I still see text written in whichever colour it’s written in, but in my mind it has other colours too. If I have to remember the number of a bus line, there’s a chance I’ll remember the number that goes with the colour it was written in rather than the correct letter, or I’ll remember the correct letter and look in vain for a bus with a number written in that colour.

Well, I’ve been wondering whether it could work the other way.

  • Could grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word?
  • Could this be used to send code messages that only a single synaesthete can easily read?
  • Could colours be used to help grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to read a new alphabet, either one constructed for the purposes of secret communication, or a real script they will be able to use for something?
  • What would be the difference in learning time for a grapheme-colour synaesthete using their own colours for the replacement graphemes, a grapheme-colour synaesthete using random colours, and a non-synaesthete?

I know that for me, there are quite a few letters with similar colours, and a few that are black or white, so reading a novel code wouldn’t be infallible, but I suspect I would be able to learn a new alphabet a little more easily or read it more naturally if it were presented in the ‘right’ colours. I wonder whether the reason the Japanese symbol for ‘ka’ seemed so natural and right to me was that it seemed to be the same colour as the letter k.

It occurred to me that, as a programmer and a grapheme-colour synaesthete, I could test these ideas, or at least come up with some tools that scientists working in this area could use to test them. So I wrote a little Mac program called Synaesthetist. You can download it from here. In it, you choose the colours that you associate with different letters (or just make up some if you don’t have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and you want to know what it’s like) and save them to a file.

Then you can type in some text, and you’ll see the text with the letters in the right colours, like so:

But even though this sample is using the ‘right’ colours for the letters, it still looks all wrong to me. When I think of a word, usually the colour of the word is dominated by the first letter. So I added another view with a slider, where you can choose how much the first letter of a word influences the colours of the rest of the letters in the word.

This shows reasonably well what words are like for me, but sometimes the mix of colours doesn’t really resemble either original colour. It occurred to me that an even better representation would be to have the letters in their own colours, but outlined in the colour of the first letter. So I added that:

Okay, so that gives you some idea of what the words look like in my head. And maybe feeding text through this could help me to memorise it. Here’s an rtf file of the lyrics to Mike Phirman‘s song ‘Chicken Monkey Duck‘ in ‘my’ colours, with initial letter outline. I’ll study these and let you know it it helps me to memorise them. To be scientific about it, I really should recruit another synaesthete (who would have different colours from my own, and so might be hindered by my colours) and a non-synaesthete to try it as well, and define exactly how much it should be studied and how to measure success. But I’m writing a blog, not running a study, so if you want to try it, download the file. (I’d love it if somebody did run a study to answer some of my questions, though. I’d add whatever features were necessary to the app.)

But these functions don’t go too far in answering the questions I asked earlier. How about reading a code? Well, I figured I’d be more likely to intuit letters from coloured things if they looked a little bit like letters: squiggles rather than blobs. So first I added a view that simply distorts the letters randomly by an amount that you can control with the slider. I did this fairly quickly, so there are no spaces or word-wrapping yet.

I can’t read it when it gets too distorted, but perhaps it’s easier to read at low-distortion than it would be if the letters were all black. Maybe I’d be able to learn to ‘read’ the distorted squiggles based on colour alone, but I doubt it. This randomly distorts the letters every time you change the distortion amount of change the text, and it doesn’t keep the same form for each occurrence of the same letter. Maybe if it did, I’d be able to learn and read the new graphemes more easily than a non-synaesthete would. Okay, how about just switching to a font that uses a fictional alphabet? Here’s some text in a Klingon font I found:

I know that Klingon is its own language, and you can’t just write English words in Klingon symbols and call it Klingon. But the Futurama alien language fonts I found didn’t work, and Interlac is too hollow to show much colour.

Anyhow, maybe with practice I’ll be able to read that ‘Klingon’ easily. I certainly can’t read it fluently, but even having never looked at a table showing the correspondence between letters and symbols, I can figure out some words if I think about it, even when I copy some random text without looking. I intend to add a button to fetch random text from the web, and hide the plain text version, to allow testing of reading things that the synaesthete has never seen before, but I didn’t have time for that.

Another thing I’ll probably do is add a display of the Japanese kana syllabaries using the consonant colour as the outline and the vowel colour as the fill.

Here’s a screenshot of the whole app:

As I mentioned, you can download it and try it for yourself. It works on Mac OS X 10.7, and maybe earlier versions too. To use it, either open my own colour file (which is included with the download) or create a new document and add some characters and colours in the top left. Then enter some text on the bottom left, and it will appear in all the boxes on the right side. If you change the font in the bottom left, say to a Klingon font, it will change in all the other displays except the distorted one.

This is something I’ve coded fairly hastily on the occasional train trip or weekend, usually forgetting what I was doing between stints, so there are many improvements that could be made, and several features already halfway developed. It could do with an icon and some in-app help, too. I’m still working on this, so if you have any ideas for it, I’m all ears.

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Seven of Spades: The Duel

At dawn, separated by twenty two paces,
their vertices pointed in each other’s faces,
the cube and its foe Octahedron stood still,
as fair Tetrahedron urged ‘fire at will!’
For Cube fought with earth, Octahedron with air,
and to win Tetrahedron with fire’s not fair.
“Fight fire with fire, that’s what we agreed on!”
said seconds, Dodeca- and Icosahedron.
But they paused, and they wavered, and called, “Toi ou moi?
Who’ll live for now, and who forever, like Galois?”

They each made a face, for they’d each made a point.
Was dying or living the upper adjoint?
The Galois connection was hard to ignore;
he’d dueled over shapely wee solids before,
and though he was shot, we can’t name his opponent,
while Galois’ last writings became a component
of fields (and of groups) of mathematics that show
among other things, what these two solids should know:
That Cube and its friend Octahedron are dual,
and no four-faced loner should cause them to duel.

At once, the two shook off their anthropomorphism,
and saw from their faces to points, isomorphism.
“You cannot kill me,” they each said to the other,
“For if I am a martyr, then so are you, brother,
and even though I’d be like Évariste too,
I’d rather not share such an honour with you.”
So they and their seconds proposed to their bride
that four eager suitors could each pick a side.
The pyramid’s answer was sweet but ironic:
“Of course you can share, but my love is Platonic.”

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Six of Spades: The Barely Finished Story

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read of watched The Neverending Story, and you intend to, you might want to wait until afterwards before reading this.

He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant requirement to do what he had committed himself to do. Taylor ran from the insipid story ideas that came to him, squatting in trashy distractions until he thought the ideas had left. But as soon as he stopped distracting himself, they came back. He had 18 hours to write something, and this would have to be it. He still ran, until the interruption of a pleasant procrastinatory conversation with a friend gave him a door, and he ran inside.

On the shelf was a DVD of the movie ‘The Neverending Story’. A story of a boy who saves Fantasia, the world of human fantasy, right when people were beginning to lose their hope, to forget their dreams. What if Fantasia were being destroyed again? What if that’s why there were no good story ideas left? If only he could get to Fantasia, and get a child to give the Childlike Empress a new name, he would be able to restore his hope and the wealth of fantastic story ideas he’d once had. He poured himself a frozen lemonade with vodka and sat down with his laptop to write.

He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant Apollo White Room, where he could prepare to enter his craft and travel to unknown worlds. He’d had the training, read a summary of the book, watched the movie, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He would journey to the Moonchild.

It would be easier for him than for Atreyu. He just had to keep his chin up as he crossed the deadly Swamps of Sadness, keep his grip when speaking to Morla, find a luckdragon, keep his self-esteem up as he walked through the Sphinx gate, keep his cool as he saw his true reflection in the mirror of true selves, feign surprise when the Southern Oracle told him the Empress needed a new name, and hope he’d written the story well enough to capture a child’s attention.

Taylor stopped to take a sip of his drink, check his email, and try to forget how unlikely it was that a child would read his story and give Empress Moonchild the new name she needed. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

Ahead of him, the Nothing had already devoured the landscape. To the left and right was more nothingness. Behind him, he could see the Ivory Tower glowing in the distance. Andy, his Andalusian horse, had no problem galloping over the featureless landscape. When they arrived at the Ivory Tower, Taylor approached the bearded man.

“I’m sorry. But this is not the time and the place for adults. Adults do not have the imagination required for this quest. I must ask you to leave.”

“If you don’t want me here, you shouldn’t have sent for me.” Taylor had his lines memorized.

“It was not you we sent for,” said the man. “We wanted Taylor.”

“I am Taylor,” he said.

“Not Taylor the worn-out adult! Taylor the child!”

That is not what they’d said to Atreyu. “I’m the only Taylor you’ve got,” said Taylor. “I’m old enough to know what to do. But if you want, I’ll go back and write advertising copy.” Taylor turned away and pretended to leave.

“No, wait, come back, please,” said the man. Taylor turned back.

“If you really are the Taylor we sent for, you would be willing to go on a quest?”

“Yes, of course.” This was the script Taylor was used to. “What kind of a quest?”

The man gave the usual spiel about finding a cure for the Empress, to save Fantasia. It would be very dangerous and important, and he had to go alone, weaponless. Taylor feigned bravery as he accepted the challenge, knowing that having already seen the movie, he would be in no real danger. He did not need to feign awe as he was given Auryn, the amulet which would guide and protect him.

Taylor rode off into the sunset, knowing that the creature of darkness which would be tracking him down would be an easy kill. After riding for hours, they stopped and decided it was time to eat.

Taylor looked up from his laptop, suddenly aware that his stomach was growling. He topped up his frozen lemonade and made some toast. “Not too much,” he said after the first few bites. “We still have a long way to go.”

Taylor and Andy had searched the Silver Mountains, the Desert of Discarded Drafts, the Crystal Heads and the Sadness Swamp without success. He saw there was only one chance left. To find Melpolia, the ancient muse, whose home was in the deadly Forests of Disbelief.

Taylor led his horse off a cliff, and into the treetops which appeared ahead of them and disappeared behind them as they walked. Everyone knew that whoever stopped believing in the forest would fall to the bottom of the ravine. Taylor kept himself aloft by describing the feeling of branches underfoot to himself as he went, but the horse soon began to fall. “Andy! Can’t you feel the branches poking into your hooves? Can’t you hear the twigs cracking? Andy, please!”

As the horse fell into the void, Taylor could see just how impossible the forest was. He fell, but instinctively reached out and grabbed a branch that his muscles still knew was there. Of course it was there. If he could write it well enough, it was there. Taylor climbed back to the top and ran with his eyes closed, letting out shrieks of delight as he realised what a marvelous reality he had created. When he got bored with that, he just imagined that in front of him there was a giant red tabby, and then he collided with something soft.

Taylor rolled his chair back from his laptop and sighed loudly. This was a ridiculous idea. A giant cat? A giant cat was the best he could think of as a muse? Well, it would have to do. It was dark out. He was running out of time.

The wind seemed to sigh as Taylor looked up at Melpolia the giant red tabby.

“Oh, no. Not an adult,” the cat hissed. “Adults are no fun.”

Taylor sniffled a little, remembering his cat allergy. “Look, if you would just help me in my quest to save the Childlike Empress… I have a deadline, you know.” He grabbed Melpolia’s fur as the treetop beneath him threatened to give way.

“Oh, we know the Empress is sick, but it doesn’t matter.” Melpolia turned away and started licking itself.

Taylor sneezed violently, and fell a metre or so when he forgot to believe. He climbed back up.

“Do you even care?” Taylor remembered this line from the movie.

“You don’t really care whether or not I care,” said Melpolia.

Taylor started to protest, but realised Melpolia was right. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get through the story, get some readers, and save Fantasia so he would have ideas to write other stories and keep food on the table.

Food. Taylor finished a piece of toast. Why wouldn’t the characters ever just do what he wanted them to? He only had eleven hours left. He took a last gulp of frozen lemonade and slammed the cup down angrily on the table. Fine. If he wasn’t going to save the Empress, he may as well have fun.

Taylor sneezed again, and his tree swayed with him. “You know how I can help save the Empress, don’t you?”

“Not that it matters, but yes,” said Melpolia while it licked its left side.

“It does matter!” screamed Taylor. “If I don’t save her, the Childlike Empress will die, and I always wanted to meet her!”

“It’s really not important. I have some preening to do, you know.” insisted Melpolia.

“If you don’t tell me, Fantasia will disappear, right when I’m starting to enjoy it!” yelled Taylor.

“Oh, alright,” said the giant red tabby. “The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe you could ask the Southern Oracle…”

“Right, 10 000 miles away?” Taylor had forgotten that from the movie. The only point of going to see Melpolia was attracting a luckdragon to take him to the Southern Oracle.

“Yes, as it happens.”

“Great. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a luckdragon, would you?”

“A what? Luckdragons don’t exist. They were just made up for a book.”

Taylor started to fall. Melpolia found a patch of fur near its right front paw that hadn’t been preened for a while, and went to work on it.

The falling sure felt real. Taylor closed his eyes and waited to hit the ground.

Taylor poured himself another frozen lemonade, without vodka this time, the way he’d always loved it as a kid. He’d had so much of it one summer that his friends had started calling him Frozen Lemonade. They still did, sometimes, but it embarrassed him more now. He’d started adding vodka in his mid-twenties. The vodka made it taste terrible, but what self-respecting adult drinks virgin frozen lemonade?

Taylor woke up next to some kind of giant goat. “Are you a luckdragon?”

“Goodness, no. I’m a deus ex machamois.”

Taylor giggled. “A deus ex machamois? And let me guess, you can fly, and you caught me when I fell from the nonexistent treetops?”

“That’s right. A giant flying squirrel would have made more sense, but I guess you panicked. Panic is sometimes good for creativity.”

“You mean… I just made you up to save my life? And you’re really here?”

Taylor could picture it in his head. A giant chamois, flailing through the air, always looking for footholds in the clouds. Eat your heart out, Rudolph! He laughed so hard he almost peed himself. On the way back from the toilet, he spotted the bag of sour miniature easter egg candies he’d bought for his nephews, and opened it. Forget the waistline; a little sugar once in a while couldn’t harm him.

“I’m here, alright. You passed out before I even caught you; you’re not used to landing on giant flying goats any more. My name’s Rudolph.”

Taylor laughed. “So… how far away is the Southern Oracle?”

“Why, it’s just around the corner!”

Taylor grinned. “Do I have to go visit that gnome couple and drink eye of newt to make me healthy, now?”

“Only if you want to.”

Taylor secretly wanted to know what the potion would taste like. He found the gnomes’ home, where Urgl hurried to make him a healing potion. “This one will do you good. It has eye of newt in it. And wing of cat, hair of tortoise, face of gnat, eyelash of porpoise.”

Taylor gulped it down in delighted disgust, feeling the eyes slide down his throat and the wings try to flap their way back up, chewing the eyelashes so they wouldn’t tickle.

“This one’s eye of newt,” said Taylor as he put a sour egg into his mouth. He grimaced as the sour taste electrified his tongue.

Then it was Engywook the scientist’s turn to tell him about the Sphinx Gate he would have to pass. “The sphinxes’ eyes stay closed until someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by. They can see straight into your heart.”

Taylor did not stay to watch a hesitant traveller get shot by the Sphinxes’ eyes. “Thanks for the newt eyes!” he yelled as he ran down to the gate.

Taylor approached the Sphinx gate with confidence.

Taylor couldn’t think of anything good enough to write. All his ideas seemed stupid again. He decided to write as quickly as he could whatever came to his head, whether he liked it or not.

Taylor ran between the sphinxes as he saw the eyes beginning to open. The sphinx eyes fired a blue laser of self-doubt at him, but he could jump over and under the laser beams like a character in a bad science fiction movie. He leapt over the last one and rolled along the ground giggling on the other side, almost wanting to go back for another go. There were plenty of other roll marks in the sand. He wondered if anyone was really confident enough to keep the eyes closed, or if the survivors were just the ones who ran through anyway.

And now for the mirror of true selves. When he started the quest, he would have been afraid to look at it, but he wasn’t afraid any more. The mirror showed him as a young boy, enthusiastically writing into his notebook. And then a middle-aged man, typing into his laptop just as excitedly.

Finally, he arrived at the Southern Oracle. As expected, it told him that in order to save Fantasia, the Empress needed to be given a new name by a human child.

Taylor swore and wished he’d put more vodka in his frozen lemonade. He’d forgotten to think of a solution to the ‘human child’ problem. In the movie, the human child is the reader of the book, but who would ever read this one? He hadn’t even made the deadline. He made some more toast and settled down to write an unhappy ending.

Taylor rode Rudolph back in the direction he’d come, trying to enjoy the ride even though he knew he’d failed in his quest. Fragments of Fantasia floated around the void like stars. They flew toward the brightest: the Ivory Tower.

The Childlike Empress was beautiful. She reminded Taylor of his first crush.

“I have failed you, Empress.”

“No. You haven’t. You brought him with you.”


“The child. The one who can save us all.”

“No I didn’t. Nobody is going to publish this. No child is going to read this.”

“Yes, you did,” said the Empress with conviction. “He has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now, he has come here. With you. He is very close. Listening to every word we say.”

Taylor could barely believe what he was writing. He popped another sour egg into his mouth.

“Where is he? If he’s so close, why doesn’t he arrive?” A piece of ivory fell from the ceiling and narrowly missed Taylor’s head.

“He doesn’t realise he’s already a part of the story.”

“But it’s just me!” Taylor protested. “I know I’m in the story. I know I’m writing the story. I know no kid is reading this story.”

“The child began to share your adventure as soon as you let him. As soon as you started believing the story.”

“But there’s nobody here but me!” Taylor said.

He was right.

Taylor almost choked on a sour egg. “No way!” he said aloud.

“He’s been a part of you all along, but you slowly stopped listening to him, when you thought you had to keep you feet on the ground. He’s still inside you. You just need to let him call out my new name. He has already chosen it.”

“This isn’t real. I’m just writing this. This isn’t real.” said Taylor under his breath. He could make them say something else if he wanted. He could make the Empress look up a name in a baby name book herself.

“What will happen if he doesn’t appear?”

“Then our world will disappear, and so will I,” said Empress Moonchild.

“How could he let that happen?”

“He doesn’t understand that he’s the one that has the power to stop it. He simply can’t imagine that something he’s writing can be so important.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know what he has to do!”

No baby name book. The characters wouldn’t let him. But he didn’t know what to write next. “What do I have to do?” Taylor wondered aloud.

“He has to give me a new name. He just has to call it out,” said the Empress.

All Taylor called out was “But it’s only a story. It’s not real!”

“Taylor! Why don’t you do what you dream, Taylor? Why don’t you live the fantasy life you created?”

“But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground! I’m a grown man!” Taylor was already yelling loud enough for his neighbours to think he was a nutcase. What harm would there be in yelling a name as well?

“Call my name! Taylor, please! Save us!”

Taylor was confused. “Me? My horse died, I almost died falling off trees, I swallowed porpose eyelashes, and I could have just come straight here and given you a name myself?”

“Not you. The Taylor who’s writing the story. You needed to go on the adventure so he could find the child in him.”

“Alright! I’ll do it! I’ll save you. I will do what I dream!” Taylor grabbed his cup and held it up in the air triumphantly. “Frozen Lemonade!” he screamed.

And then it was dark. “Really? A power cut, now?!” he said in frustration, wondering when he’d last saved his writing. Taylor jumped as a beautiful voice responded.

“In the beginning, it is always dark.”

“What the…”

Taylor saw a tiny glow, and watched it grow to reveal the face of the Childlike Empress. “Seriously? You can’t tell me this was all real! I was just making excuses for my lack of ideas! There is no Fantasia.”

Taylor felt the floor beneath him tremble. It was not the floor of his apartment.

“Not any more,” said the empress. “But now that you have named me Frozen Lemonade, you can begin to rebuild.”

“Wait, I have to rebuild?

Frozen Lemonade showed Taylor the glowing object she’d been holding. A pencil. “Give me your hand.”

Taylor held out his hand, and Frozen Lemonade placed the pencil between his fingers. “Now what are you going to write about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then there will be no Fantasia any more.”

“How much can I write with one pencil?”

“As much as you want. You don’t even need to use this pencil. The more you write, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”


“Try it.”

So he started writing. He barely noticed when he was transported back to his apartment and the pencil became a glowing laptop screen. He and his laptop had many other amazing adventures, but they are other stories.

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Five of Spades: Options

Note: This is a song-like thing. Here is an mp3 of my Mac singing it to approximately the right tune, just so you can get the same tune in your head that I had in mine when I wrote it.

Feel free to make your own recording of it with human vocals and actual music if you wish. I make no claim of being musical, and I probably accidentally copied the tune from something. Sosumi.

If I can’t have this, then I’ll have that
If I can’t have a dog, I’ll have a cat
If I don’t like today there’s always tomorrow
If I can’t be Superman, I’m Bizarro
If I can’t have coffee I’ll have tea
If I can’t have a pool I’ll have the sea
If I can’t have chocolate, I’ll have cakes
If I can’t have cities, I’ll have lakes
But if I can’t have you there are no good fakes
So I’ll be very sad.

Well you can’t always get what you think that you want
But you can get something that’s just as nice
It is not very likely the thing that you crave
Will be the only thing that will suffice

If I can’t have Mars I’ll take the moon
If I can’t be first I’ll be there soon
If I can’t have shuttles, I’ll have Soyuz
If I can’t fly from you I’ll fly for youse
If I can’t have Skylab I’ll have Mir
If I can’t leave Earth then I’ll stay here
If there’s no zigazig I want all your base
If there’s no E.T. I’ll take the human race
But if I can’t have you there’s an empty space
And I’ll be very sad.

Well you can’t always get what you think that you want
But you can always want what you’ve got
It is not very likely the thing that you crave
Will be the only thing to hit the spot

If I can’t have ATLAS there’s CMS
If I can’t find the Higgs I’ll make another guess
If I can’t prove that, I’ll become a believer
If I can’t go to PAX I won’t be a reaver
If I can’t write songs then I’ll still write Things
and if my voice sounds bad my computer sings
If I can’t have Hexley, I’ll have Tux
If I can’t have a princess, I’ll have ducks
But if I can’t have you then that just sucks
And I’ll be very sad

Well you can’t always get what you think that you want
But you can always rehypothesise
It is not very likely the answer you seek
Is the only one that satisfies

If I can’t have some things I’ll have others
If I can’t have sisters I’ll have brothers
If I can’t have rhythm I’ll have rhyme
If I can’t have space then I’ll have time
If I can’t have proof then I’ll have trust
If I can’t make love then I’ll take lust
If I can’t have lovers, I’ll have nudes
And if I can’t have ladies, I’ll have dudes
But I can’t have you so we’ll have feuds
’cause I am very sad

Well you can’t always get with the person you like
but you can always find someone new
It is not very likely the one that you want
Will be the only one that’s meant for you

Well, they say there are plenty more fish in the sea
Though I don’t think they mean that literally
And while I can’t seem to stop the overfishing
I always can be careful what I’m wishing

‘Cause if I can’t be linked then I’ll be free
If I can’t have you there’s another three
And if I can’t have them then I’ll have me
And you’ll be very sad.
But you can deal with that:
Just find another lad.

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What Jane Knew: The Improv Exercise

As I mentioned, last week’s story was mostly improvised in short bursts, with very little planning. It occurred to me that this ‘X knew that…’ ‘That’s why…’ structure might be a useful exercise for improvisational theatre. The ‘X knew that…’ provides new information about the situation (which is always important in improv) and the ‘That’s why…’ keeps the story moving, which is also always important.

As an improv exercise, this would probably work best in pairs. One person starts with a sentence beginning with ‘[Name] knew that…’ or ‘[Name] did not know that…’ and the other continues the story with a sentence beginning with ‘That’s why…’ This continues until they finish the story and/or reach a predetermined time limit or number of exchanges, or one of the players makes a mistake. After that, they either switch roles or replace one or both players to start a new story.

Note that the ‘that’ after the ‘X knew/did not know’ is important. This allows statements such as ‘X did not know that Y was his father’ or ‘X knew that the ice-cream salesman wanted to kill him’ but not general ‘X did/did not know…’ statements such as ‘X did not know where/what/who s/he was’ or ‘X knew why the ice-cream salesman wanted to kill him’. The latter kind of statement just delays the story; it doesn’t provide any new information, and pushes that responsibility onto the next player. Since I was able to edit what I’d written, and plan ahead a bit, I did not always follow this rule for What Jane Knew, but I think it would be important in improv.

I haven’t tried this, since I only just made it up and the CERN improv group dissolved a while ago. I’m also not an expert at improv by any means, so I can’t claim that any exercise I invent will be perfect. If you are in an improv group, or you’re looking for something fun to do at a party, feel free to try this and let me know how it goes. To practise the acting side of things, you could also try pausing after each ‘that’s why…’ to allow other people to act out the story, much like Typewriter.

I imagine that in an improv troupe made up of logicians, this would quickly degenerate into solutions to hat puzzles, but this would still entertain an audience of logicians. If you have an improv troupe made up of logicians, please record some of your performances and put them online, because I’d love to see that. I would probably give it a single golf clap.

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Four of Spades: What Jane Knew

Jane knew she wasn’t supposed to feed chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she did it. She knew Mrs. Beagle always gave a chocolate to whoever got the best score in the maths quiz. That’s why she studied. She knew Mrs. Beagle always left straight after school on Wednesdays. That’s why she chose that day to sneak back into the classroom where the class lizard was kept.

What Jane did not know was what would happen to the lizard when it ate the chocolate.

Jane also did not know that Mrs. Beagle had left her keys behind. That’s why she jumped and dropped the lizard when Mrs. Beagle opened the classroom door. Jane did not know where the lizard went when she dropped it. That’s why she was surprised when it bit her on the ankle a few minutes later, while she was writing out ‘I will not feed chocolate to the lizard’ 100 times on the blackboard. Jane did not know that the chocolate lizard bite would make whatever she wrote come true. That’s why she kept writing. She did not know why she was writing it, since she had never fed chocolate to the lizard, and she wouldn’t, even though she wanted to. That’s why she stopped writing. Jane did not know what to do next. That’s why she started writing a story on the blackboard:

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Jane who knew everything and didn’t need to go to school.

And Jane knew everything. That’s why she wrote that some cake would appear. Jane knew that everything she wrote would come true, and stay true until the bite from the chocolate-fed lizard healed an hour later. That’s why she was worried. She knew that she would have to feed more chocolate to the lizard and let it bite her again when that happened. That’s one of the reasons she wrote that a lot of chocolate appeared. But she knew that she could not feed chocolate to the lizard after writing that she wouldn’t. That’s why she lived out her wildest dreams until the spell wore out just before Mrs. Beagle returned.

Mrs. Beagle still knew what Jane had done. That’s why she came to make sure she’d completed her punishment, even though she’d rather have gone to her mathematics society meeting. Mrs. Beagle did not know what the chocolate-fed-lizard bite had done. That’s why she was surprised by the faint smell of ponies and chocolate cake that disappeared just quickly enough to make her wonder whether she’d ever smelt it. Mrs. Beagle did not know that Jane wanted to feed the lizard again. That’s why she dismissed the girl and left.

Jane knew that Mrs. Beagle would write a disciplinary report detailing everything she’d done. That’s why she put the lizard in Mrs. Beagle’s bag, with her chocolates.


Mrs. Beagle knew that something was up when she saw what happened as she wrote about Jane feeding chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she wrote that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem could be disproven.

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