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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, 20 Jan 2005

Cognitive effort
I bought a bed last weekend, and it was delivered two days ago. Yes, I finally decided that I should stop sleeping on the futon that I had bought used in grad school nine years ago. And two nights of sleeping on the nice new bed has made me go "Wow! Why did it take me so long to decide to do this?" A good question. One I actually thought about for a bit, and here's my answer.

It's a matter of energy and attention. We all have certain things that we don't question in our lives, whether it's our religion, our devotion to a given sports team (Go Cubs!), our affiliation with certain groups, etc. We can't question everything. While I love the idea of always being able to pry open the black box to see why something is the way it is, I can't always do that because it takes time and energy. Most of the time, I have to just accept the black box as is, and use it.

So I make a decision, and I move on, and I don't question the decision any more. Whether it's buying a car or a new laptop or what software to run my blog on, I find something that works well enough for the moment and forget about it, leaving more of my time and attention for things I find interesting, like reading or thinking about what I'm going to write on here. It's a matter of conserving cognitive effort for things I care about.

To give credit where it's due, this idea is mostly stolen from Paul Graham's essay on nerds, where he points out that most nerds are unpopular in school because being popular is a full time job (between choosing clothes, going to the right parties, etc.), and nerds don't care enough to bother.

So, in this specific case, every year or so I'd think about getting a new bed, and decide against it because I was sleeping fine on the futon, and a new bed is expensive. Each year the futon was getting worse and worse and my disposable income was rising, and this year the lines finally crossed, I got the new bed, and it was so easy that it prompted this post of wondering why it took so long. And that's often the way it is. My post about productivity laments this aspect of myself, but I think it's understandable in light of a theory of cognitive effort. Or maybe I'm just making elaborate justifications.

Oh well. Given that this is the fourth post of the evening, I think I'm going to shut up now, turn off my brain, and watch my tape of the O.C. recorded earlier.

posted at: 22:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

I've been using more, so you can always go there to check out what I've been finding interesting in my trawls through the web, but I wanted to call out a couple specifically.

posted at: 22:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Infinite games in childhood
A thought struck me this morning on my BART ride into work, in response to Carse's talk. He describes infinite games as where the point of playing is to continue to play. Doesn't this describe childhood? Over Christmas break, I was visiting some friends with kids, and I was playing Uno with their four year old. And he was just so happy to be playing that he didn't care who won or lost, or how he was doing; he was just excited about playing. Us adults get so worked up about winning and losing that we define ourselves by our results, but a bunch of kids playing baseball will often play for hours without keeping score because the point of the game is the game itself, not the result.

In fact, it's the adults that ruin kids by injecting finite games into their play. We all knew a Little League dad who was just miserable to be around because he'd be screaming at everybody because he wanted his kid's team to win. But, as Carse put it, "Evil is where an infinite game is absorbed completely into a finite game." To destroy that sense of play, that sense of joy, for the sake of something as prosaic as winning and losing is wrong.

It's interesting to think what a society based on a childlike state of mind would be like. I think I'd quite like it. Then again, it would essentially be the state of anarchy, which is a concept that appeals to me in theory. But in the "real" (aka adult) world, rules are necessary. People won't play nice with each other, alas.

It also makes me wonder when we lose that sense of childlike joy. Not everybody does, obviously, and the ones that don't are often among our most innovative thinkers (e.g. Feynman and Einstein). But most of us do. I certainly have. I never get that zap of "Wow, this is really cool!" any more, where I'm doing something for the sheer pleasure of doing it. I need to learn to be more immature again :)

Anyway, I thought that the observation that only adults play finite games was interesting. Thought I'd share.

posted at: 21:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Managers Not MBAs, by Henry Mintzberg
I read about this book in the Economist, and the concept intrigued me. I've been in the business world long enough to develop the typical technologists' disdain for MBAs and their lack of domain knowledge and emphasis on numbers that are probably meaningless. I was looking forward to reading this book to gain more armament in my arguments against such a restrictive view of management. Alas, it did not deliver in that promise.

The problem is that Mintzberg takes it for granted that MBAs and their analysis-centric view of the world are wrong, and that the more touchy-feely know-your-business synthesist view of management is right. He spends the first several chapters of the book ranting about the evils of the MBA, and how it is damaging not only companies, but the MBAs themselves, as well as society as a whole. That part of the book uses a lot of "Clearly"s and "Obviously"s, which up the emotional quotient, but aren't actually an argument. I think I agree with his viewpoint for the most part, but he makes a very poor case for it.

The second half of the book is his recommendation as to what management education should look like. Naturally, it is a description of the program that he helped to design, the International Masters in Practicing Management. I didn't find this part very interesting, and had to slog through it.

So, short answer, don't bother reading this. I'll tell you everything of interest in the book in the following list of bullet points.

So that's it. Pretty much everything interesting in a 400 page book distilled down to a few bullet points. It's a pity. I was really looking forward to this book, but I can't recommend it at all.

posted at: 21:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal