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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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Mon, 30 Aug 2004

Good conversation
I really like good conversations. A lot. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when my friend Jofish came to town to visit. I organized a big dinner of all the TEP types to see him. Afterwards, the whole crew of us (11 or so) wandered over to Bug's place to hang out and chat some more, and ended up spending several hours talking til it was after midnight and time to go home for us old people that had to drive 45 minutes back to Oakland. Somebody commented while we were talking that it had the feel of those great undergrad conversations that we used to have late at night where the conversations would range over pretty much any subject that came to mind. And, yeah, that was the feel. I always wondered whether those conversations were as interesting as I remember in retrospect. But, wow, I enjoy them.

It was just neat having a group of highly intelligent, accomplished people in a room, each of whom thinks about things and has opinions that they're willing to share and defend. An example. Early in the evening, somebody picked up the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from Bug's bookshelf and asked him what he thought of it. It's a book I'd heard of and was interested in reading at some point, but not interested enough to actually read it. It turned out that half the room had read it, or at least started it, so it launched a discussion about his thesis, that people are happiest when they are in the state of flow, where they're not thinking, they're just doing. And Bug and somebody else said they put it down around there, because it seemed like a really limited definition of happiness. And then we got distracted by the question of what happiness really meant, and how do you balance short-term gratification with long-term enjoyment. It was interesting hearing all the different people contributing their thoughts, and it was clear that most people had thought about the subject and had a considered opinion. Then somebody pointed out that the book described Csikszentmihalyi's son Chris and his attempt to become popular by acting cooler. It turns out that Chris is now a professor at the MIT Media Lab where several of the people had done work, and they laughed about how that was an accurate description of him even today. And then the conversation drifted off into recollections of the MIT experience, etc.

But I really enjoyed the conversation - we talked for about five hours all told between dinner and hanging out afterwards, and the time just flew by. I could have talked for many more if I weren't old and stuff. I miss that type of conversation - at TEP, such conversations were the norm (which may partly be the nostalgia talking) because there were always smart interesting people around who wanted to punt on whatever they were supposed to be working on. While I was an undergrad, I probably pulled as many all-nighters just talking with folks as I did actually working on problem sets. Well, maybe not quite. But several certainly. In the real world, the density of people isn't high enough, and there's the constraints of being an adult and going to work and all that nonsense. It's a pity really.

I also need to get better at instigating such conversations with groups other than my MIT friends. This evening was fun - after my ultimate frisbee league game (which I'll probably write about after this), a few of us went to the bar and just started talking about stuff - it turned out that the three of the four of us there were science grad school dropouts (2 physics, 1 chem), which was pretty neat. So we talked about the various choices that we'd made, and how our lives had progressed and things like that. Good stuff. And I never would have guessed it, despite having played several hours of frisbee with these folks over the past few weeks.

So I need to work on my conversational skills. Because I enjoy these conversations a lot, and I would like to have more of them, and I think the only way to do that is to get better at drawing people out. Asking them what they're interested in, what they do. The best stories are ones where the person gets really excited while telling them. Plus, people that are excited by what they do are just more fun in general. Skills to work on. Right.

posted at: 23:59 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Circus Contraption
Last Friday, I went to see Circus Contraption based on the strong recommendation of a friend of mine. I like circuses. Unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed by Circus Contraption. Part of it was that the last circus I'd seen had been the 7 fingers circus, which was phenomenal. Part of it was that the recommendation set my expectations pretty high. And part of it was that their show didn't really work for me.

Don't get me wrong - Circus Contraption was good. They had some nice trapeze acts, and some really good hand balancing stuff. The music was surprisingly well done, with an old-time jazz feel (string bass, trombone, trumpet and clarinet for a lot of songs). And I really liked their juggling act - it was pretty basic ball juggling, except that they did it in the dark with lighted balls, which left a visual trail as they were thrown around the room among the four jugglers. Their final act was also amazing - the band slowly wound down the finale, and then a band member picked up a couple bottles and walked to center stage, blowing over the top of the bottles to fill in notes in what the rest of the band was playing. And each of the band members put down their instrument one by one to join the first guy. Meanwhile, the rest of the performers were coming out with two to three bottles of their own. And when they were all assembled, they put on a credible rendition of the show theme, which they'd played throughout the show, with a complex bass line and melody. It was pretty darn cool. Kind of like hand bell ringing, but blowing bottles. We were speculating afterwards how hard it must be to fill the bottles to the right height to tune everything each night.

So that was neat and a breath of joy to finish on. But overall, I was disappointed. And I spent some time trying to put my finger on what I thought was missing. Their connective tissue was definitely weak - they had several skits which didn't really work for me. And I think it was because it was clear they were acting. One of the performers dressed up as a caveman and stomped around the stage, but it was just an act - it didn't really seem to be an extension of him. And when I thought about it, I felt that way about a lot of the performance, that it was forced, especially the skits.

I used to think that what made me enjoy a performance was seeing that the group on stage was enjoying the performance. But I think it's not enough. It makes a huge difference certainly, but the group on stage also has to convey to and include the audience in their enjoyment. A lot of the bands I have seen live multiple times do this well (bands like the House Jacks, or Moxy Fruvous, or They Might Be Giants). And they do it by being themselves on stage - they happen to be performing, but you can imagine them bantering with each other the same way even if there wasn't an audience. And they take it a step further by often including the audience in their banter, riffing off of catcalls and cheers and stuff. I really enjoy that, to the point where I often enjoy the House Jacks bantering between the songs more than the songs themselves. The 7 fingers circus had a similar feel as well - it felt like the performers were real people - people who could perform amazing physical feats, but their acts still managed to show some aspect of their personality.

I didn't get that sense from Circus Contraption. It felt too artificial, too staged. You know that feeling you get from some people who are trying so hard to be one of the group ("Hey guys, whatcha doing? Where should we go for lunch?"), where they're really nice but just aren't fun to be around because they're trying too hard instead of just being themselves? That's kind of the feeling I had. Which was a pity. But it made for some interesting reflections on what I look for in a live performance. So that was neat. I think. You're probably just bored.

posted at: 23:41 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal