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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, 14 Aug 2004

Decentralized intelligence
As usual, I love the pointers over at Many-to-Many. In particular this week, Clay Shirky pointed to this great article over at Slate by Duncan Watts on the shortcomings of centralized intelligence. Duncan Watts runs the Small World Project, which seeks to test the "six degrees of separation" hypothesis. He's written a book about it, which I've been meaning to read forever.

I really liked this article because it points up the ways in which people will self-organize to accomplish really difficult tasks if given the opportunity. Informal relationships are drawn upon, and the collective intelligence of the organization is put to work in a way that could not happen if the leadership demanded that all the decisions be made at the top of the company. In particular, he points out that centralized leadership works fine if it's dealing with planned-for situations where the bureaucracy has been laid out and the processes have been put in place. But it deals very poorly with unexpected or catastrophically new situations, because it can't take advantage of the information and social networks available in each of its individual workers' heads. It's the difference between the planned central economy of communism and the market orientation of capitalism. Given my recent post about management structures and my belief that the business world is moving towards a time of constant innovation and new situations, it's unsurprising that I liked this article, so I figured I'd link to it.

posted at: 03:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Changing my mind
So picking up the threads of my post about harshness, I realized that one of the possible sources of people not wanting negative feedback is that people never want to admit they're wrong. In fact, they don't even want to admit they don't know (thanks to my father for pointing that out). They want to always have an answer and they'll stick to the answer they chose, because changing their mind would mean admitting their fallibility. And this is kind of scary in a lot of ways.

I'll be the first to admit that I always always have an answer at the ready. Generally I can take a plausible stab, but even if I can't, if somebody asks me a question, I'll come up with something. But the place where I think I differ from a lot of people is that I'll freely admit I'm wrong when new evidence is presented. "Oh, yeah, I didn't think of that." And, actually, there's plenty of areas where I happily admit I know nothing, from home and car repair to the intricacies of most academic subjects. But when I'm shown to be wrong, I'll say "Oops, you're right" and learn and move on.

To take things epistemological for a second, I tend to believe in Karl Popper's theory of falsifiability. There are no hard truths in science. None. We can never "prove" a scientific theory the way we can prove a mathematical theory. The test of whether a theory is scientific is whether it's falsifiable, whether there exists an experiment that we can do whose results would prove the theory is incorrect. This is why I consider Scientific Creationism to be an oxymoron, because any evidence which might falsify Creationism (such as evidence that the earth is billions of years old) is waved aside with "God made it that way".

So believing in falsifiability as grounds for a scientific theory, and applying it to my own life, I'm pretty sure that not all of my beliefs are true. I've probably made some mistakes (shocking, I know). So when I find evidence that I'm wrong, I'll admit I'm wrong, change my theories to align with the new evidence, and move on. In other words, I always want the right to change my mind. Changing one's opinions in light of new evidence isn't a sign of weakness or flip-flopping; it's a sign of an open mind.

But many people don't appear to believe that. Even if they're proven to be wrong, they'll cling to their beliefs in an attempt to hold on to their self-image, tied up with their need to always be right. We can see that by who we choose in our leaders. I was thinking along these lines already when a friend forwarded me this New York Times article, showing the extraordinary lengths to which the Bush camp is going to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper, as a wishy-washy person, who (*gasp*) may have changed his mind sometime in the last three years about Iraq. Vice President Cheney puts forth the Bush campaign's case in a nutshell: "We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast."

Why is this important? Why is the Bush camp hammering so hard on this point? Because a large segment (probably the majority) of people believe that changing your mind is a sign of weakness. And I just don't get that. I think being able to admit you're wrong is a sign of strength. I couldn't believe Bush's press conference where he said he couldn't think of a single mistake his administration had made. He truly believes that admitting any mistake makes him less of a man, less of a leader. And his campaign for re-election reflects that, as the article shows.

If Bush gets re-elected (and I think he probably will), it will indicate to me that this country is full of people who would rather bury their heads in the sand than admit they were wrong. Something along the lines of "We chose Bush, and we're sticking with him". They would prefer the mythical cowboy figure that is always right in a world of moral turmoil, to the candidate who acknowledges the confusion, the turmoil, and reacts to it. It's easier, certainly. It's comforting to believe in the one true path where there's good, there's evil, and nothing in between. But I don't think it's realistic. Situations change. New evidence arises. And to ignore the new evidence because you don't want to be seen changing your mind is just dumb.

And it's not just Bush, obviously. People everywhere do the same thing. The managers at my old startup insisted everything was going fine up until the moment everybody got laid off. Heck, I know I have my blind spots where I hold onto my beliefs. But when I'm shown to be wrong, I'd like to think I'd admit my mistake. That's the kind of person I aspire to be, at least.

Now that I think about it, this all relates back to Lakoff's theory of Moral Politics. In the Strict Father view, good and evil are constant factors in the world, where you are born bad, and must exercise discipline to stay good. Changing one's mind is a sign of weak discipline, a sign that you are susceptible to the enticements of evil (aka Satan). Only the strong and steadfast can overcome evil and lead the forces of good. Man. This makes perfect sense. Bush and Cheney are running a textbook "Strict Father" campaign. And enough people in the country believe in that morality system that it will probably work. Okay, that's depressing, so I'm going to stop here.

posted at: 03:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Transit villages
There was an interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day about the rise of transit villages in the Bay Area, where transit villages are little groups of residences and shops that sprout up around public transit stops on BART and Caltrain. Since I am growing to detest driving and like the idea of having mixed use neighborhoods (as opposed to the new standard of subdivisions and strip malls), I support the idea of these transit villages. Fortunately, I already live in a nice neighborhood with easy access to BART, but I'm glad there's an effort underway to make it possible for others to do so as well. The article is not particularly well written, but it asks some good questions. A better treatment of the subject, for those who are interested, is available in the book The Geography Of Nowhere, which I liked a lot.

posted at: 02:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal