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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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Sun, 18 Jul 2004

World Watch column by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card has written some of my favorite books, and his ideas have influenced my own in various ways. So when I came across his World Watch column, which he writes on a weekly basis, I was pretty excited. Until I started actually reading the columns. I knew Card was a devoted Mormon, but the stances he takes in these columns are so at odds with my own, it surprised me. Not only that, it was a great disappointment, because his arguments seem opposed to his own writing. In his book, Speaker for the Dead, the philosophy espoused is that nobody is evil in their own minds, that you can't judge somebody merely by the results of their actions, but must include a recognition of their intentions. He even has his protagonist explicitly mock the Calvinist student who says "Murder is murder ... If the act is evil, then the actor is evil." So it shocked me to find Card making similar statements in his columns, calling gay marriage wrong, and drugs "devastatingly harmful".

His inconsistencies also bother me. He was never particularly strong at consistency in his novels, but when he says things like we should be at peace with our bodies and "Even if a person is heavy because of his own choices, why does that give anybody else a reason to abuse them?" in one column, but tells gays that they should marry someone of the opposite sex if they want to be married, it bothers me. Of course, the fact that he's struggled with his own weight problems probably gives him more sympathy to the fat people.

I could spend a lot of time deconstructing his arguments, but suffice it to say that his columns disappointed me greatly. Even the ones where I agreed with him were unconvincing because they suffered from the same sense of moral outrage. I guess I'm particularly sensitized to this because it's one of my own failings as a writer. I assume that because something is obviously outrageous to me, it's outrageous to everybody, and my ability to convince people disappears in a blaze of self-righteousness. So I understand why it happens. But it still makes me lose respect for Card the columnist. He's still a good writer, especially in his use of adjectives to up the emotional quotient of his writing. But when he says that anybody who disagrees with him must be somebody out for personal gain, it's a great disappointment coming from the same writer who once described the Speaker for the Dead, and his ability to see everybody else's perspective.

posted at: 08:07 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Intellectual hair salon
My friend Wilfred and I were chatting via IM, and he was lamenting the lack of intellectual discourse in his life. I replied that we needed to start a salon, then added "intellectual, not hair". But the more I thought about it, the more the idea of an intellectual hair salon amused me. "Today's topic: Postmodern highlights" "Wait, I asked for blonde highlights - how come I ended up with pink?" "Well, we've recontextualized the meaning of pink in this salon such that it's the new blonde. The dialectic you thought you were engaged in is of the past." "Um, what?"

Totally silly. Woo!

posted at: 08:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Monkeys at Many-to-Many
I was catching up on the articles at Many-to-Many recently, and saw this entertaining one about "the monkey-mind, that primal and social part of our brains that evolved long before the human species emerged." I particularly like this rant about the Monkeysphere, where a guy uses the idea of Dunbar's number (Dunbar postulated that our brains are limited to being able to track only about 150 other stable social relationships at a time) to suggest that anybody outside our 150 people network, which he dubs the Monkeysphere, is treated by our brains as nobody worth considering, thus explaining our indifference to them in our actions. It's a bit of a rant, but it's got some interesting ideas. In particular, something along these lines is why I don't believe that anarchy can work at a large scale, despite my idealistic hopes that people would be responsible and take care of themselves and not screw each other over. At least until we all grow up and can see the value in everybody. Easier said than done.

posted at: 07:59 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Social networks and rejection
I wanted to follow up on my recent post with more thoughts about social networks. I was thinking about the networks I'm part of, and how they interact, and realized that a component that is often missing from social software is the requirement for rejection. Nobody ever turns down a friend request in Orkut. But it's more than that. In real life, you can't just join a group by saying "I'm part of this group." It doesn't work that way, and we all know it. The group has to accept you, and start to include you, and think of you as a member of the group. Otherwise, you become that person that we have all met, the one yapping "Hey, guys, what are we doing?" as everybody else plots ways to ditch you. Sometimes it happens more subtly (folks "forget" to call you when they get together), sometimes it happens more explicitly (fraternities flushing pledges), but it's part of life as a social animal.

And despite a societal move towards equality for everybody, I don't think it's a bad thing that social groups are inherently discriminatory. We don't let everybody in. We choose who we want to associate with. If we didn't, then there would be no value to our groups. We feel that there is a certain character that is associated with our group, and those that don't fit in don't belong. I'm not advocating racism or sexism or any other phobia here, but a recognition of the idea that we are all different and that we all have the desire to associate with those similar to us. Taken to extremes, it can be a bad thing, sure - cliques in high school can be painful, and discrimination can be taken to the point of the Ku Klux Klan. But a group that knows its own character and looks for similar folks, but not to the point of automatically rejecting all others? That seems to be a reasonable compromise.

This idea isn't as well formed as I thought it was when I started. I started thinking along these lines last weekend, when we had a reunion of many of my college friends. It was amazing to me that I was more comfortable talking to people who I've seen once or twice in the past ten years than I am talking to my coworkers who I see for hours each day. What does that say? It's also interesting that the vast majority of these friends were from my college fraternity, many of whom I never actually lived with - they had lived at TEP before I arrived, or after I graduated. I think this is probably an extension of the friends of friends idea. People that we like and are similar to tend to like similar people. So people that were chosen to live at TEP after me by people who were chosen by me tend to be people I like. But it's only weakly transitive - now that it's been almost three (four year) generations from when I lived there, our values have diverged.

To return to the point I started from, though, one of the reasons I think that TEP has a strong contingent of people that I feel close to is precisely because there is a formalized acceptance process for joining that group called Rush. The current brethren have to make a decision as to who to accept and who not to. And that process reinforces a certain character of the group, the qualities that they value, however elusive those qualities may be to define.

I'll have to come back to this at some point. I think that there's some value to be had here, in associating value of social networks with exclusivity, but I can't quite articulate it right now. Alas. I think it's related to some of the ideas being expressed in this post about friendship over at Many-to-Many. I'll keep on thinking about it...

posted at: 07:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal