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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sat, 22 Nov 2003

Playing with rules
I want to spend some time explaining nerds. In particular, nerds of the type that I get along with. I mentioned in my rant about questioning the assumptions that "The difficulty comes in dealing with people who believe that the rules are the rules full stop." It's interesting because after reading that in the context of my rant about being an introvert and not getting along with a lot of people, I realized that this understanding of the social construction of rules was one of the defining characteristics of my friends.

I think this quality manifests itself relatively early in life. Let's look at several of the defining characteristics of the nerd childhood. Reading fantasy or science fiction, for instance. A lot of people think these genres are just stupid because they're unrealistic. They can't happen (of course, these same people are fine with spy or romance novels, but that's another story). But their very unreality is the attraction for nerds. It's an exploration of the question: what happens if you change the rules? What things can we expect to be the same? What things will change? In some sense, it's an exploration of what is essential to our humanity. Fantasy and sci-fi novels are often about contrasting humans with aliens, or placing humans in fantastic situations but showing how they still react in a recognizably human fashion.

D&D and other role-playing games are another good example. Again, they let the young nerd explore other worlds, other rulesets, other possibilities, and grow comfortable with those possibilities. By altering the world rules, and by letting the participant construct an alter ego, it permits the telling of a story that would not be possible under the rules of the real world. These stories are often very powerful to the participants, and my current theory is that this is because it lets them assert aspects of themselves that are not available under the real world ruleset. But by playing with the rules in this virtual way, they can discover these aspects that they can then apply in the real world.

A third example is the fascination of nerds with games of all sorts. Computer games, board games, etc. Taking the playing with rules idea to an extreme are games like Nomic, where changing the rules is the whole point of the game, or Mao, where discovering the rules (and later adding to them) is the point. There's also a fascination with game design; figuring out how to tweak the rules to make them fairer or more interesting. I had one friend in college who spent time trying to design three-player chess. I had another friend who would buy a computer game a week, generally finishing it by the next weekend; when asked what he was doing, he said "Research" - he's now one of the top computer game designers in the country.

All of these very stereotypical traits of the nerd childhood share a fascination with tweaking the rules. Part of that is due to the outcast nature of the typical nerd; they dream of changing things such that they are part of the in crowd, or are powerful in other ways. But part of it is just the outlook of understanding that everything is a game, that the rules are never set in stone and instead are put in place by somebody for a reason. One reason that I get along with my friends is that there's an openness to discussing these sorts of topics. They're willing to take an analytical look at why certain organizations might have the rules that they do. There's no taboo on the possibilities of conversation; everything is fair game. And this is really hard for most people to understand. To many people, the world is black and white, right and wrong. There are things you think about, and things you don't. In contrast, my world is all grays. Everything is contextual. I like to sit around with my friends, batting around ideas, exploring them from all sides, and seeing what we get out of the discussion. I can't do that with most people, because they don't see other sides; they have the one view they're comfortable with and refuse to deviate from it. And that's so limiting to me that I can't deal with it.

So there's my theory. Nerds have a certain openness of mind and of considering other possibilities that is either discovered at a young age, or cultivated by the typical activities of a nerd childhood. They develop a certain playfulness with regard to the rules that lets them see how all rulesets in life are socially constructed. And that's why I get along with them.

posted at: 16:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

I'm an Amazon Associate!

In Association with
Yes, that's right. I have no idea if I get anybody actually reading my book review pages, but I figured that if they were, and they wanted to read some of the books I recommended, I might as well link to Amazon and possibly reap the rewards of my recommendation. So you can either click on the logo to the right and go to Amazon to shop, or click on the individual links I'll start adding. I'm not going to go back and edit all of the individual reviews, partially because it would screw up the weblog software I use to change the modification date (and, yes, it's lame, and I need to figure out a work-around, which may mean that I'm switching software again soon), and partially because it's too much work. But I'll use them from now on. And I'll include links to my highly recommended books of the last several months here.

posted at: 11:20 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

What makes a good drama?
So I watch way too much tv. And I was watching Joan of Arcadia last night and realized one of the reasons that I liked the show; there were consequences. Unlike most sitcoms and many dramas, there isn't a big reset button at the end of each episode where everybody ends up happy. People stay pissed at each other for multiple episodes; when Joan's friend dissed her(*) in this episode, it was harsh. In fact, the whole show is about consequences; God asks Joan to do things, and never explains why, but the actions tend to have good ripple effects, reminding us that all actions have consequences that we may not even consider. It's not a show that I really expected to like. I expected it to be something cloying like Touched by an Angel. But it's turning out to be one of the more enjoyable shows of the season. The dialogue needs work, and I'm not sure how sustainable the whole chaos butterfly effect scenario is, but the acting is excellent (especially Amber Tamblyn as the oh-so-believable disenchanted teenager Joan) and I'm planning to continue watching.

(*) I'd been wondering why they'd had one of Joan's friends, Adam, call her Jane all season long. It was kind of cute, just a weird idiosyncratic thing he did that kind of set the tone for his dreamy distracted character. And it paid off this week when she's trying to apologize to him, and he listens and then says "Whatever, Joan" and walks off. Boo-yah. Utter harshness. The first time he uses her real name in the entire series and it's to diss her. Which sets into relief his use of Jane before as an affectionate nickname. I really liked this detail. Obviously. Since I'm writing about it and all.

posted at: 10:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal