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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2011/09/28
by David Steinberg

Less Is More

Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about many things other than Zen and motorcycles. There’s talk about main roads versus back roads, electroshock therapy, and – most of all – the proper way to teach rhetoric. Pirsig used to teach and he discovered a good way to force students to write creatively. When a woman complained that she was having trouble writing an essay about the United States, Pirsig reduced the topic to first Bozeman, then the opera house. Specifically, she should start writing about the upper left brick. Faced with a topic that small, she was forced to think about it for herself and that made it easier to start. Restricting the topic made it easier to write.

Mind you, that’s not how I was taught to write at my college. Like any Bard student in the late 80s, I went through the Language and Thinking orientation program. A three week orientation program, largely used to teach incoming students how to do their own laundry and handle roommate problems and otherwise live by themselves, my L&T experience focused on the concept of “freewriting.” This is not penning novels about whales held in captivity. Rather, it’s writing without thinking, without planning, just letting the ideas flow out of you and into the paper. It has its advantages as a technique. The hardest part of writing is staring at a blinking cursor in an empty file. Once you have something you can always go back and edit it – which, of course, is not the same thing as saying that you will do that – to clarify the thoughts and get rid of the sloppiness that sort of writing can create. In addition to breaking logjams, it can also cause you to reach unexpected conclusions. You might think you’re going one place with an essay, start writing, and then suddenly have a surprising ending come to you.

Despite those advantages, freewriting does lead to the problems of sloppiness, of reusing words because they’re fresh in your brain from the previous sentence, of focusing on the insight rather than letting the thought build more organically. By its nature freewriting leads to more verbose essays. The idea is to get the thought out of your head – any thought – which can lead to rambling. Recently though I’ve been writing a daily update (well almost daily. You try writing a “This day in Phish history” update in January) to the Phish Stats page on Facebook. One thing that makes that more challenging is that Facebook only gives you 500 (until recently 420) characters in a post. That forces my thoughts to be compact. I spend many mornings looking at my post, trying to decide if I should drop a mention of a song or if it’s more important to take out the joke. The character limit forces my writing to be better. Sometimes following a restrictive set of rules is what you need to liberate yourself. (Note: between the time I wrote this last paragraph and the time I submitted this column, Facebook increased the limit to 5000 characters. I’m not sure how that will affect my writing but I’m not a fan.)

Phish have also started to consider that. Two of the last seven sets have had games played with the set list. August 15 had the elements set. Every song title was about an element in one form or another… well except for Undermind but that was a mistake. A few weeks later they played the S show. Every song had a title that started with the letter S, ignoring “The”’s. The effect of these games was pretty stunning. The former opened up some expansive jams, the latter forced some interesting setlist calls, such as the first “Sparks” in 15 years. It was an interesting event to attend, especially as the second set knocked more and more songs out of contention. Maybe we’ll get a “Piper?” Oh wait. That can’t be played tonight. The rules restricted things but by doing so forced creativity.

There’s a more controversial way in which giving more is making shows less enjoyable. Phish have been playing longer shows in the past year. While in theory there’s never anything wrong with more music, in practice I’m starting to become less convinced. The tail end of sets these days have become disjointed with two or three set closers played in a row. Sure this sounds like the punch line of a joke written by a hater:

Q: How can you improve a Phish show?

A: Make them play less

but there’s a point here. If sets were 75 minutes instead of 90, maybe they’d have to be more carefully crafted. Would people be happy if we got fewer “Possum”s and “Backwards Down the Number Line”s if what they were replaced with was a shorter end time? I’m not so sure; as much as many people would prefer a different song to “Possum,” ultimately seeing Phish play it is a good time. Would it be a better time if the opening chords didn’t lead to grumbling from the jaded elements that are annoyed by the repetition? Yes, but I suspect few people would choose the later if towards the end of a set Trey said, “We’re going to put this to a vote. Either we play ‘Character Zero’ now or we’re going to call it a night.”

While playing less music might not work, one thing that could help would be to move the encore break spot. Part of what made first night UIC so popular was the format of a shorter set and a longer encore. Take twenty minutes away from the second set and add them to the encore and you could both have more focused sets and more interesting encores. Sure after a few shows this would just become the new normal and – for that matter – maybe it’s just a coincidence that so many fan favorite sets also are the shorter ones, but that could be a way to tap this power without actually playing less music.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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