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.
Cognitive subroutines extensions
In my last post about cognitive subroutines, I extended the idea to allow for us to use other people as part of our internal routines. I was using this in the idea of team building, but this idea of leveraging elements outside of ourselves can be extended even further. While I was at the Whitney yesterday, I was poking around their bookstore and saw a book called Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell. I picked it up, flipped through it, and every page I flipped to seemed to have an interesting observation. So I bought it on the spot. The other book I'd brought on this trip (Politics of Nature by Bruno Latour) was just proving too dense for me to deal with, so I figured I would read this instead. It's excellent. He describes how our individual selves are slowly melting into the environment where it's hard to say where our "self" ends. A great non-cyber example he gives is of a blind man walking down the street using a stick to navigate. Is the stick part of his sensing system? Absolutely. Is it part of "him"?
Tying this back into the cognitive subroutines theory, in the same way that cognitive subroutines can rely on other people to perform part of their processing, it's obvious that it can rely on other external mechanisms as well. I don't bother remembering where anything online is any more, because I can just use Google. On the output side, I don't have to think about the individual physical actions necessary to drive a car; I just think "I want to go there", and it pretty much happens automatically. So we can use elements of our environment to increase our processing power, and to increase our ability to influence that environment.
In fact, this is really interesting, because it gets back to a question I asked at the end of this post, which was how to reconcile this theory with the ideas in Global Brain. By expanding the scope of the cognitive subroutines to include external influences and external controls, we then build in the power of the collective learning machine, because each of us will choose which elements of the external environment to leverage. Things that are useful, whether as mental constructs for easing cognitive processing or as physical artifacts for increasing our control, will get resources shifted towards them.
This is essentially the idea of the meme at work. A good idea, a good viewpoint of looking at the world, is viral in nature. I come across a way of looking at things. I start using it, and it explains a lot to me, and I find it valuable. I start telling other people about it, whether at cocktail parties or via this blog. If they find it useful, they pick it up. And so on and so forth. It gets incorporated into their internal cognitive subroutines, and soon it is embedded so deeply that they can't distinguish it from "reality".
I was thinking about this recently in the context of books. I like reading, obviously. I like books with ideas, books that express a certain viewpoint on the world. I was trying to answer the question of why I read, what makes a book like Me++ so compelling to me? I think it is this opportunity for picking up new ideas, new cognitive subroutines that I can then apply elsewhere. I described in that original cognitive subroutines post that moment when a bunch of synapses light up, and a whole new set of connections are made in my brain. There's almost an audible click as ideas lock into a new formation. And books are a way of finding those formations. They are an opportunity to hook the ideas I have in my head into the unfathomably large set of ideas that is already out there in the space of human knowledge. Books help me to find ways to hook my ideas into those of thinkers past, as well as giving me the ability to leverage the insights of those thinkers, by not having to recreate their work.
It's about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn't very useful or exciting to me. It's about how it hooks into a big picture. This is probably because I'm a highly deductive thinker. When I was a physics student, I would struggle woefully for the first half of the term, as they introduced individual concepts in an isolated context. At some point, though, the light would go on, and I'd see the whole structure, and then it all made sense; I could see how the individual concepts fit together, and how to use them. I need those kinds of structures to sort through ideas. That may be an individual thing, though.
This isn't the clearest post I've done. But I like the direction this is heading. I think I have a provisional way of hooking the cognitive subroutines theory into the global brain network emergence theory. I like Me++'s idea of extending ourselves out into infinity, and how that applies. I like how I can tie it into my own tendencies, from liking to read, to deductive thinking. This is actually getting to the point where it's almost coherent and consistent. Now I just have to put together an outline. Yeah. Any day now.
posted at: 12:00 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Whitney Museum (March 16)
Today I got off to a slow start. My fourth day in New York, and I'd already worn myself out. So I took the morning off, reading and relaxing. I ventured out for lunch, stopping by a Korean place I'd seen the night before in the East Village. I liked it - I got the stone bowl bi bim bop, which is one of my favorites.
After that, I headed uptown to the Whitney Museum. I got on the 6 train, which was the straight shot subway ride. Alas, there was a power outage or something uptown, so that line was shut down for a while, so I took another line up towards Carnegie Hall, and then had to suffer the horrors of having to walk through Central Park to the Whitney. That's sarcasm, by the way - walking through Central Park is one of my favorite parts of visiting New York. I was comparing it to Golden Gate Park in my head, and realized the thing that made Central Park seem more impressive to me. In Golden Gate Park, there are numerous places where you can be walking through the woods, and there's very little intrusion of city life. In Central Park, the city is always there, asserting itself by the skyscrapers rising in the distance above the trees. It's intimidating in a "You can never escape" sort of way, but also makes the park seem like a powerful gesture of defiance. And being the anti-authoritarian I am, I like gestures of defiance.
Anyway, I eventually wound my way to the Whitney. I'd read someplace online about an exhibition by Tim Hawkinson there that sounded intriguing, and my interest was only whetted when one of Dan's friends yesterday had raved about it. I'll let this review describe it, but I liked it. His sense of whimsy is infective, and his creations of electromechanical contraptions out of found junk is inspiring to a geek like me. I particularly liked his "Secret Sync" set of sculptures, where he built a set of clocks out of seemingly ordinary objects, like a Coke can where the can rotates such that the opening is the hour hand, and the pull tab is the minute hand, or a hairbrush with two almost-invisible hairs marking the time.
The rest of the museum wasn't as inspiring, alas. The other major exhibition was by Cy Twombly, whose work I just don't appreciate. It just looks like scribbling to me. I'm sure he had a big message, but it's not satisfying.
As far as the permanent collection, I liked the Calder collection, because Calder is just neat. They had a videotape of the Calder Circus, a set of wire figurines that he'd made and used to put on shows towards the beginning of his career, with trapeze artists flipping from one swing to the next. I also liked a work I saw by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, called "Oriental" or some such (seen at right). I'm not quite sure why; I think I liked the way it evoked shapes without quite making them explicit.
Afterwards, I walked back along Madison Avenue downtown. Madison Avenue is ridiculous. Every single high end designer I've heard of, and many I haven't, had big stores along there. I'm blanking on the names now, other than Prada, but it was highly impressive. A one stop shopping expedition for the fashion-conscious. Except that I'm not willing to spend that kind of money on clothes, so I just walked on by.
I wandered over to the Times Square area to try to get rush tickets to Shockheaded Peter. Like Patti Lupone a couple days ago, Shockheaded Peter had been in San Francisco and I'd missed it. But tickets are expensive. I knew rush tickets went on sale at 6pm, and I got to the theater at about 6:10. All gone. They explained to the woman in front of me that people had camped out since 3pm to get the tickets. I'll either have to pay up, or wait a long time. I'll have to think about it.
I decided to head back to my place to figure out what to do next. I tried getting to the most direct subway line at Times Square, and got caught in a massive crowd of people. It was awful. They had closed one of the walkways, so you had to walk through a crowded platform to get to the other line, and people were crowding onto the platform from both ends, so it was pretty much a disaster. A few cops showed up and eventually stood at the top of the stairs to the platform, blocking anybody from entering so that those of us trapped on the platform could escape. I took another way home.
I thought about getting tickets to the newest Neil Labute play, in the East Village, but I was pretty much dead on my feet at that point, so I just headed back and took the evening off. I have to pace myself if I'm going to make it through three weeks of this vacation.
posted at: 11:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Cooper-Hewitt and Squid:Labs (March 15)
My friends at Squid:Labs are doing an installation at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum for an exhibition on "Extreme Textiles". Their exhibit is called "Rope and Sound", and it's essentially a three-dimensional harp with three steel pillars each holding each other up with rope strung between them. The rope is Squid:Labs' electronic rope, so the ropes are going to be hooked up to a computer which will then play sounds or music as the ropes are plucked. Should be really neat when it all comes together.
Anyway, installation was happening this week, and they needed some help with the physical labor of actually assembling the thing. And when they found out I was going to be there on vacation, they asked me if I'd be willing to lend a hand. I said sure, figuring that it's not often one gets to help with a museum installation. And it was fun - we polished up the steel pillars, and then manhandled them into place on a scaffolding, which was needed because the sculpture is not self-supporting until a bunch of the ropes are tightened. Once in place, we started threading the ropes, which was a kind of a fun puzzle as we tracked down which ropes went where. A break for lunch, and then back for a few hours of tying knots and starting to tension the ropes, until the thing was stable. We removed the scaffolding, and voila. You can see a terrible picture taken with the Sidekick of it at this stage. I think I'll be using my camera rather than my Sidekick from now on. Dan was going to spend the rest of the week finishing the connections, and then working out the software for connecting sound to movement. I'm hoping to stop by on Friday to see the (hopefully) finished piece.
Afterwards, we went back to where they were staying near the lower tip of Manhattan, went out to dinner at one of the Indian restaurants along 6th St near 1st Ave, and then I called it a night.
posted at: 10:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
MOMA and Patti LuPone (March 14)
Monday morning, I had a brief crisis, when I woke up and found that the screen on my Sidekick had failed. It turns out that a Sidekick without a screen is completely useless. I used my host's computer to find a nearby T-mobile store, and found out that my options were to (1) get a loaner phone and wait two weeks for a replacement, or (2) buy a new Sidekick II. Since I'd been thinking of getting a Sidekick II anyway, I decided to just spring for it. The transition was surprisingly painless - pop the SIM out of the old phone, pop it into the new phone, and all my information was there. Yay!
I read in TimeOut magazine that Patti Lupone was going to be doing her show, Lady with a Torch, at Carnegie Hall that evening, and that obstructed-view rush tickets were available at the box office for $10 starting at noon. I've adored Patti ever since singing behind her in Sweeney Todd, where she was just fabulous. I'd read about her new show last year when she was working on it in San Francisco, but when I found it was $100 or something outrageous, I decided to pass. However, for $10, I said sure.
From there, I decided to go to MOMA since I was in the area and since MOMA was pretty much at the top of my list of museums to see with the new redesign. On my way over, I stopped for lunch at a place called Joe's Shanghai, which had these cool soup dumplings, which look like regular pork dumplings until you bite into them and they essentially explode because there's soup inside. Took me a couple tries to figure out how to eat one without making a mess. They also had yummy scallion pies.
MOMA was fabulous. I love the new building. The collection was huge, but not as awe-inspiring as I'd imagined, partially because I've been spoiled by being a member of SFMOMA, which has regular rotating exhibitions of interesting modern work. For instance, I'd seen the epic scale photography of Andreas Gursky at SFMOMA, but was reminded of it by seeing it again at MOMA. Same for many of the great modern artists from Warhol to Pollock.
But the building was great. It's got a central atrium that goes all the way up to a skylight over the sixth floor. Many of the galleries have windows peeking out at the atrium, so you can get glimpses of the rest of the museum. It reminds me of the Chinese Tea Garden I saw in Sydney, with its sense of discovery, the way that views were framed to provide interesting perspectives on the space, with unexpected connections between the different floors. I ended up taking a bunch of pictures from different perspectives, because it fascinated me so much.
After that, I came back to my place to relax for a bit before heading out to see Patti. I decided to get dressed up in my sportcoat and tie; I figured that, unlike San Francisco, East Coast concert-goers would have a sense of decorum. Alas, I was proven wrong. Barely a tie in sight, with a few audience members showing up in T-shirt and jeans.
posted at: 10:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal