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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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Thu, 04 Nov 2004

Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts
I've been wanting to read this book for a while (after I saw an article by Watts, my interest level was even further heightened), and when I saw it on Elizabeth's shelf in Oberlin, I started reading it. Fortunately, she was kind enough to let me borrow it when I hadn't finished before leaving, and I finished it on the long plane ride home.

Watts is one of the scientists exploring the science of networks. The title comes from the legendary small world experiment of Stanley Milgram, where he estimated that every person in the world could be connected by links of six people or less. It's a fascinating result. And it seems highly improbable.

Watts takes us into the math of networks and explains how certain properties of networks can give rise to the small world phenomenom. Not only that, but he demonstrates how such network models have applications in fields ranging from epidemiology to stock markets to power distribution networks to corporations. Really fascinating stuff. And it's exciting because they're still at a very preliminary stage of understanding, so there's a lot of exploratory work to do.

It was almost annoying to see several ideas I'd been having trouble expressing laid out on the page in front of me. Things like perceiving networks of friends as overlapping clusters with myself as the locus. I'd been thinking of this recently when I was at a wedding of a friend, and there were many folks there who I'd gone to MIT with but with whom I'd lost contact. But because I was still in contact with the groom, I was able to reconnect with all of them.

Another idea that struck a chord was the use of social groups to define a person:

Imagine that instead of individuals in a population choosing each other directly, they simply choose to join a number of groups, or more generally, participate in a number of contexts. The more contexts two people share, the closer they are, and the more likely they are to be connected. Social beings, in other words, never actually start out on a tabula rasa in the same way that the nodes in our previous network models had done, because in real social networks, individuals possess social identities. By belonging to certain groups and playing certain roles, individuals acquire characteristics that make them more or less likely to interact with one another. Social identity, in other words, drives the creation of social networks.

You can see the similarities to the concept of reality coefficients. Or to the Orson Scott Card quote I refer to in this old ramble: "Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to and the ones she doesn't belong to." This is one of the reasons I think that a site like, with its emphasis on groups, makes more sense than friendster, and its emphasis on individual connections.

I also liked the application of networks to corporate structure. Watts points out that the hierarchical corporate structure of the Industrial Revolution were designed to maximize returns on specialization, where economies of scale were able to support people specializing to an extreme extent. He posits that today's world, with its fast-changing requirements, no longer supports such economies of scale, and suggests that it's time for a world of flexible specialization, which promote economies of scope - "Flexible specialization relies on general-purpose machinery and skilled workers to produce a wide range of products in small batches." The reason I like the discussion of economies of scope so much is that it gives me hope that industry will soon learn to value me as a generalist.

A similar quote is this one: appears that a good strategy for building organizations that are capable of solving complex problems is to train individuals to react to ambiguity by searching through their social networks, rather than forcing them to build and contribute to centrally designed problem-solving tools and databases.

This is the sort of thing which plays to my strengths. I have a very good memory, which seems to work associatively, where input will often trigger my memories of people who might be interested in that input. I also feel that hierarchies are often the worst response to an ambiguous situation, because hierarchies and processes only know how to deal with situations they've faced before. So you can see why I like what Watts has to say.

Interesting book. I should probably get my own copy, and go back and re-read it at some point when I'm so distracted. And start to read through some of the other resources that he points to. Argh. So much to learn, so little brainpower.

posted at: 20:53 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Clans of the Alphane Moon, by Philip K. Dick
Brian bought this on our layover in Chicago on the way out, mostly because his other choice of reading material was a mathematical optics book. I don't know what he was thinking. Anyway, I was running out of reading material on the way back, so I borrowed it from him, and traded him the novel I'd been reading. Like most Philip K. Dick material, this book is really weird. I'm not sure it's even worth describing. Here, I'll quote the back cover:

When CIA agent Chuck Rittersdorf and his psychiatrist wife, Mary, file for divorce, they have no idea that in a few weeks they'll be shooting it out on Alpha III M2, the distant moon ruled by various psychotics liberated from a mental ward. Nor do they suspect that Chuck's new employer, the famous TV comedian Bunny Hentman, will also be there aiming his own laser gun. How things come to such a darkly hilarious pass is the subject of Clans of the Alphane Moon, an astutely shrewd and acervic tale that blurs all conventional distinctions between sanity and madness.

Um. Yeah.

posted at: 19:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

The importance of message
I wrote this in an email discussion today, where people were debating why the conservatives are so much more effective than liberals at getting their message out. One guy said that the left doesn't lack for ideas, but thought that the messages was less important than making sure the ideas got out there, meaning we needed better organization for distributing ideas. I disagreed. Nothing new here if you've been reading my rants, but I think I was more concise in delivering the point this time. Maybe. You decide:

I think a good, simple message takes care of the dispersion of the ideas. Part of the success of the conservative movement is that they take very complex issues and boil them down to two or three word phrases (to use Lakoff's example, "tax relief") that can be parroted by anybody. Then they put those phrases and those ideas on Rush Limbaugh's show. Then everybody that listens to the show understands the message and repeats them at the local bar, or at work. By making the message simple, they let their footsoldiers do the work.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, with their emphasis on getting all the details right, make the message, if anything, more complex. They want to prove their mastery of the material. Gore was a wonk. Kerry had some of the same tendencies. The Democrats' idea of a position is a 20 page white paper. The representative of the liberals tends to be a college academic, who couldn't say 2+2=4 in less than 20 minutes. On election night, the local news in Cleveland interviewed an Oberlin professor about the turnout in Oberlin and he was just incoherent. They said "10 seconds to make your last point" and he rambled on for a minute.

The conservative pundits, meanwhile, have been trained in their institutes to keep it brief, keep it concise, and keep it on message. They are trained in going on camera and delivering sound bites. They understand the importance of putting ideas in a form that people can then pass on to their friends. Any wonder they're better at it than us?

Arianna Huffington had an amusing story about an encounter with a friend's kid (

"Arianna," he said with the enchanting optimism of a Greek-American boy, "I'm going to convince you that you should support Bush in November. Here are two questions you have to answer. The first question is: Are you for more or less taxes? The second question is: Do you want to fight the war on terrorism?"

Simple message. So simple that an 11-year-old boy can articulate the message clearly.

Can you sum up what Kerry stood for in two sentences? Or even twenty?

posted at: 19:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Was it worth it?
A coworker of mine asked me today what it felt like to have worked for several days and have accomplished nothing. And I took issue with that. Sure, judged from a national perspective, it was a failure. But, if that's the only metric of success, it's hard to justify doing anything, because it's very hard for any of us to have an effect nationally.

Judged in a local context, the Oberlin Votes! effort was a fantastic success. It got the vast majority of Oberlin students to vote, galvanizing them, something the nationwide youth turnout demonstrates is quite difficult. If even half of these students continue voting, I would think it would be a success.

Plus, the huge turnout in Oberlin had a large impact on county races. Several long-held Republican seats went over to the Democrats, thanks to the Oberlin students. It's not much, viewed from the national level, but it's something.

We also brought a community closer together. It seemed like everybody was contributing to helping out with the long lines at the church, from local restaurants donating food, to local musicians providing entertainment, even to the plumber showing up almost immediately when the sewage system clogged under the strain of supporting that many people. That sort of event can only help bring a town closer together, and I think that's a good thing. We start at the grassroots and build up. Every little bit helps.

Is this just post-defeat rationalization? Yeah, to some extent. All of these events would have been even more amazing if they had contributed to a win. But we did what we could. In a town of 8000 or so, we think we got about 5500 people to vote. Of those, the article said 583 voted for Bush, which leaves about 5000 voting for Kerry. That's 4500 votes in the plus column for Kerry. Pretty astounding.

I spent today trying to figure out where we go from here. On a personal level, I'm mad. Mad about losing. Mad that the conservatives are so much better at fighting these fights than the liberals. I'm also disappointed in my fellow Americans who believe that "moral values" means things like gay marriage, and thinks that a former alcoholic drug-abusing draft-dodger is more moral than a man who fought for his country and what he believed in. How do we start changing these people's minds?

My friend Jessie wrote an inspiring plea today for us to keep fighting. Every little bit helps. I have another blog entry that I want to do about how you deal with the situation where your individual values do not match those of the people around you. It was originally aimed at dealing with that situation in a corporate sense, but it's clearly relevant now in a national sense. I'll find time. Soon. Well, after this weekend, where I may be trying to double-dip at the Accelerating Change conference, and BloggerCon, a free conference that I originally got waitlisted on, but now appear to have gotten in. Fortunately, they're two buildings apart at Stanford, so I should be able to bounce between them, depending on my interest level. I'm slightly overbooked. In all ways. But anyway.

The point is, it's worth it to keep fighting. Even if you just live your life as well as you can, you are fighting. You are demonstrating to others that your life is worth living, and setting an example for others to follow. That's worth a lot. All it takes is one person to stand up for what they believe in. That's the principle of nonviolence espoused by Gandhi and MLK, and heck, it may even work.

posted at: 19:23 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Amusing anecdotes
There were a couple anecdotes that I wanted to record but didn't really fit into the narrative elsewhere, so I'm recording them here.

I already related this one over at LiveJournal, but it's pretty funny, so I'm putting it in my official blog.

Brian and I arrived in Cleveland at about 9pm Saturday evening. We get to the rental car desk, say that we reserved a car. The clerk starts doing the appropriate computer and paper work, and asks us, "So what brings you to Cleveland?"

Brian: "Oh, we're planning to do some get out the vote stuff."
Her: "It figures - you're about the 14th or 15th folks coming through today doing that."
Us: "Oh."
Her: "Are you guys from California? That's where people seem to be coming in from."
Us: "Um, yeah, actually."
Her: "Do you want a minivan like everybody else so that you can drive people to the polls?"
Us: *getting increasingly more flustered* "Um, no thanks."

We collected our car and drove off.

Another amusing anecdote:

What would you think if you came home and there was a cardboard box sitting on the kitchen counter, modified so that one flap was sticking out. There's a bowl in the box, with chili spattered all over the inside of the box.

Rob's reaction: "The only thing I could come up with was that a raccoon had managed to get inside, open the fridge, get out the chili, and then try to eat it inside the box. I tried to come up with another explanation, but that was really it."

Elizabeth's reaction: "How did he get the box inside the microwave?!" (on the theory that somebody had heated the chili too long in the bowl, thus spattering it)

What actually happened: Brian was running around on election day. He stopped by the house, grabbed some chili, put it in a bowl, but decided to eat it over at headquarters. He saw the cardboard box, realized that he could use it to keep the voter guides out of the rain, which would work better if he modified it to extend one flap. So he modified the box, put the bowl of chili inside, and left. As he went down the sidewalk, he thought to himself "It's really slippery, I need to be careful, it's really slippery, I need to be careful, hey, I need to remember to do that when I get to HQ..." and WHAM! Down he went. The chili went everywhere. He fortunately did not hurt himself, but he was already running late, so he ran inside, changed his pants, and left the box for later, setting up the tableau which Rob and Elizabeth later observed.

An annoying anecdote:

When we were leaving Cleveland on Wednesday, our plane to Chicago was cancelled. The plane apparently had mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and was unable to take off.

There was this businessman who starts ranting immediately. "I have a meeting at 12:45, I can not miss it, you need to get me a flight!" The gate attendant says "The best I can do is get you there at 3pm. The earlier flights are all booked." He says "That's not good enough." She starts trying other options, but just everything is booked. He says "How can the airline cancel this flight and not give me any other options? It's unacceptable!" I'm not sure what he wanted her to do - go fix the plane in Chicago? It was really uncomfortable. She handled it patiently and gracefully. And continued to do so when the next guy in line, another businessman, started giving her the same schtick - "I need to make this meeting, I'll pay anything, first class, give me something".

Meanwhile, Brian and I waited our turn in line, and got a ticket out to SF via Dallas/Fort Worth, and ended up getting home only about 30 minutes after our scheduled arrival time.

I don't get it, though. How do these people go through life in their little bubble, where the only thing that matters is what happens to them? What did those guys expect these women to do? They looked for alternative flights. They did what they could. It's like they were blaming these women for the failure of the plane. Yes, they're representatives of the airline, and it's easy to berate them because you know they can't talk back, but it's just rude. And pathetic. I bet they're selfish conservatives.

posted at: 08:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Closing thoughts
Was it worth it?

I think so. Yes, our guy didn't win. But I feel like I did what I could for the cause. I was in the right state, the one it all came down to. I helped out with an effort that achieved a truly ridiculous voter turnout for a relatively small town. I got to work with some amazing committed people on something we all believed in. I feel like I did something.

I'm very disappointed with the election results. I think the next four years could irretrievably damage this nation, both fiscally with the insane deficit and legally with the Supreme Court implications. But, as my LiveJournal post from the morning after indicates, we can't give up. We need to start organizing now to take back Congress in 2006. Maybe a couple of the more liberal Justices can hold out until then, and we can at least get a Senate in place that won't rubber stamp an arch-conservative. Maybe.

In closing, I just want to say thanks to everybody who made this trip possible:

Thanks to Brian for getting me to go by deciding to do it himself.

Thanks to Rob and Elizabeth for giving Brian and me a place to crash, and feeding us, and getting us involved with Oberlin Votes!

Thanks to Ken and Marta for organizing Oberlin Votes! and for their hospitality.

Thanks to Annie, Megan, Jeremy, and all of the other great volunteers we met working with Oberlin Votes and Ohio PIRG. It was inspiring to see a dozen people in the lobby of Wilder making phone calls, with another dozen running around campus knocking on doors. People do care. And that's awesome.

Thanks to all of the students and residents of Oberlin. It was really inspiring to see a whole town out voting, waiting through five hour lines in the rain. And to see the community come together, with people chipping in food and water to give to the people waiting in line and people coming out to entertain them, like the jazz combo that was playing at the public library. It wasn't just me that was impressed: the local news crew came by and took some footage, and even interviewed the last person to vote in Oberlin, the Cleveland paper sent out a reporter, and Oberlin was mentioned on both the local and national feeds of NPR.

posted at: 07:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Election day
I got off to a late start on election day, after staying up until 2am the night before working on the database with Ken. But I got over to HQ by 10am, and immediately left with Ken and Brian. It had been decided that Brian and I, as the out-of-towner carpetbaggers, should be running tech support, while the locals did the canvassing, since they actually knew people. There were two main precincts we wanted to cover, First Church and the Oberlin Public Library, because those two precincts were where the majority of Oberlin students would be voting. So Brian and I each took a laptop and a printer, and headed off with Ken.

It's raining and miserable and gray. And yet, when we get to the library, there's a line out the door of people waiting to vote. Way out the door. Like a block out the door. Yikes. We got Brian set up and trained on what we wanted him to do, and then Ken and I went over to First Church, which had a similar scene. It turns out that the Board of Elections didn't believe Ken when he warned them that there would be a massively increased voter turnout, so they hadn't gotten extra voting machines. I heard that the line at First Church was already over an hour long when the polls opened at 6:30am, and by the time we got there a little after 10am, the line was over 3 hours. Unbelievable.

First Church was kind enough to let us use their back office, so I set up back there. And we waited for the 11am distribution of voter lists. Unfortunately, it got delayed. The poll workers were swamped just trying to help people vote, and didn't have time to make the list until around 12:30pm. We finally got it, I entered the 215 voters and generated lists of non-voters for the volunteers to track down. Turnaround time: 20 minutes. Much better than it would have been trying to do it by hand. I sent it off with a volunteer, who took it back to headquarters so that the remaining people can be contacted.

By the afternoon, the line was over five hours long. The church opened up the church hall itself so that people wouldn't have to wait in the rain, and all of the pews are filled with people waiting to vote. But it's all still relaxed. People were sticking around.

And then the community started really coming together. Folks who had already voted started buying food and water and making sure the people in line were well supplied. Others donated halloween candy, or baked goods. People stepped up and provided entertainment - there were students practicing in line. Plus, the organist came by and gave an impromptu concert to the people waiting in the hall. Then when he got tired, he contacted his organ students and told them that if they wanted any practice time on the organ the rest of the year, they needed to stop by and play this afternoon. First Church had turned into what the church secretary dubbed a "vote-in". It's a big party. It was so impressive that a Cleveland news crew came by and got some footage, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a reporter down to observe the party.

Because the rules say that if you're in line by 7:30pm, you get to vote no matter how long it takes, Oberlin Votes! embarked on trying to make sure everybody will be in line by then, and then figuring out how to make sure everybody in line gets fed, ordering pizza, etc. First order of business was getting them in line.

The 4pm lists of who's voted never came out for the big precincts - they were just too swamped. We did generate a couple new lists for smaller precincts - in one of them, we had 303 people on our list, and 222 or so of them had voted by 4pm, with only 10 students among the non-voters. Megan, the Ohio PIRG coordinator, saw this and her eyes lit up. She grabbed the list saying that she was going to get every last one of them. At that point, our job in tech support was done, so Brian and I packed up from our respective precincts and headed over to the Oberlin Votes! headquarters at Wilder Hall on campus.

Which was a madhouse. There were probably a dozen volunteers making phone calls, from cell phones, and from every campus phone they could find. As I wandered the halls, I saw people making calls from a phone booth and from the phone in the computer cluster. It was pretty amazing. Plus, there were many more volunteers running around knocking on doors.

As far as we could tell, by 6:30pm, we had achieved total saturation. Between all of the calling and door-knocking that was being done, I think we had found only one or two people that hadn't voted. In fact, by the end, the phone bank was contacting more people who were calling other people (as in "Hi, this is from Oberlin Votes! Have you voted today?" "Yes, I've voted, and I'm actually volunteering and calling people myself." "Oops.") than they did non-voters in that last hour before the polls closed at 7:30. Brian related the story of walking down the hall of a dorm, seeing a woman, calling out "Have you voted yet?". She walked by him, said "I have mono, I'm really sick" as she fled for her room. I guess she'd been asked too many times. But she's the only student non-voter that we know about.

At 7:30, we'd done all we could. Nobody else was going to be allowed to join the line. But there were still huge lines at First Church and the Library waiting for their chance to vote. We checked in, and asked if they needed food or anything, but by that time, word had spread even further, and apparently local busineses were chipping in to feed the line. The last voter at the library was Ken, who got in line at the last minute, and ended up voting at around 8:30. The church took even longer - the last voter got through a little after 10pm, and the local news crew apparently interviewed them on camera.

Then we retired to Ken's place for the party. Yay.

posted at: 07:41 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Helping out
So, as mentioned last week, I decided to go to Ohio for the election this year. And, despite the national result, I'm glad I went.

Brian and I ended up spending our time in Ohio helping out the local Oberlin effort, Oberlin Votes!, run by Rob's friend Ken. Oberlin Votes! aimed "to identify every individual who is eligible to vote in November and motivate them to register and vote in the upcoming Presidential election." They started back in March canvassing the campus and the town, and managed to register over 2000 new voters in a town of 8000. They did so well that the local Republican party chairman accused them of voter fraud. But the job wasn't done just getting them registered. We also had to get them to vote.

In the last couple days before the election, I helped out with pulling the databases together. We wanted to crossreference the records of Oberlin Votes! with the Board of Elections database so that we could identify any discrepancies ahead of time and warn people if the BoE had the wrong address or something. We also generated walk lists, organized by address, of voters so that volunteers could knock on doors, remind people to vote, and ask them to commit to voting by a certain time. Ken's theory was that by making people commit to a time, it makes them more likely to keep that appointment. Plus, if they voted early, that would free up the polls for us to send people later in the day as we found people that hadn't voted.

Rob did a huge amount of work crafting a tool to send out email to everybody in the database of Oberlin Votes!, giving them their address as listed in the Board of Elections, their precinct and their polling place. It was much appreciated by many students, because it had all of the relevant information in one place. In fact, we didn't get even a single complaint of spam, despite sending out close to 2000 emails.

Brian wrote up the press release countering the accusations of fraud. He did a great job, especially in tracking down some former Oberlin students who were still on the electoral rolls and getting some good quotes from them. We unfortunately got the press release out too late for it to get any play in the media, but we wanted to make sure it got out before election day. Given the widespread allegations of voter fraud that were being lodged by Republicans at several levels, we believed that the Republicans were setting the stage for their appeal if they lost Ohio, and we wanted to make sure we had our defense in place before it started. It turned out not to matter, but we felt we had to try.

Then it came down to election day itself. On Monday night, Ken and I stayed up until 2am getting the final lists together, and figuring out how we were going to enter data the next day. The polling places release a list at 11am and 4pm of everybody who has voted by those times. We put together a tool that would let us enter that voting data quickly, and then generate a list of non-voters by address so that we could go send volunteers to knock on their doors and/or call them.

Then it was time for election day itself.

posted at: 07:31 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal