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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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Tue, 29 Mar 2005

Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell
I mentioned in this post how I picked up Me++ at the Whitney Museum, and started reading it. Some interesting ideas here. I found out later from Jofish that Mitchell is the current head of the Media Lab at MIT, which explains a lot about the book. There's nothing particularly innovative about his ideas, but he packages and explains them well, which makes sense since the Media Lab head is pretty much a public relations position.

It was a weird book to read in a way. While I really liked the general viewpoint of the book, there was nothing in it that made me scramble for a pen to note a particular idea (something which happens regularly with most nonfiction books I read). I think what I liked the most was the vision of our greater interdependence on each other in conjunction with our reduced ties to a particular location. In other words, to support my lifestyle requires a tremendous physical and electronic distribution network. For me to flit around the country, and be reachable no matter where I am because my cell phone and email are always with me is an astonishing phenomenon, even from the viewpoint of twenty years ago. I regularly remind myself on trips to not stress about packing because so long as I have my ID or passport, and a credit card, I can get whatever I need at my destination. I can walk down to the corner store and buy fresh fruit, or a replacement toothbrush, or a current magazine. It's amazing.

At the same time, our ties to an individual place and location are becoming far weaker. In some parts of the country, it is still common to grow up in one place, maybe go off to college, and then return to set up a home and family within thirty miles of your parents. My hometown is like that. But for many of us, we've developed our sense of virtual community, where between ubiquitous electronic communication and plane travel, I can almost as easily maintain ties with friends that live on the opposite coast as I do with my next door neighbor. I see my friend Batman, who currently lives outside of Toronto, more often than I see another friend who lives less than a mile from me.

The other point that I remember from the book was that we should be wary of the implicit nature of these networks. In ancient times, the distribution network was explicit; the entire town was centered around the granary. Even in more recent times, the networks of railroads or freeways made it evident where the centers were. These days, the networks are disappearing from view. The guy sitting in the park muttering to himself is as often a high-powered executive talking on his Bluetooth cellular headset as it is a bum these days. It's interesting that the networks are dropping from sight at the same time they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever. I suppose it makes sense - to quote McLuhan, "we don't know who discovered water but we know it wasn't a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception."

I also like the vision of circles of control radiating outwards from ourselves, each of which requires more cooperation. He uses the example of climate control. At an individual level, I can choose how many layers of clothing to wear to control how warm or hot I want to be. Moving outward, I can change the temperature of the room I'm in, with the consent of others in the room. Moving outwards, we can change the temperature of the building with a central heating system. He imagines having a weather bubble around the city, and the negotiations associated with that. At each step, it requires more power, and a greater degree of cooperation to achieve an effect. Our control of our environment doesn't end at our arm's reach; it attenuates with each sphere of control.

One last thought (wow, I had more to say about this book than I expected). I liked his question of what the Golden Rule means in a distributed society. When we are dependent on a worldwide distribution network, what does it mean to treat others as we would like to be treated? Our actions can have effects on people halfway around the world. If I choose to buy Nike sneakers made in a sweatshop in southeast Asia, am I supporting the children that work there or am I dooming them to continued indentured servitude? In a less polarizing example, anybody that has written on the Internet knows that it's amazing how your words can haunt you, where they will turn up in the most unlikely of places. When each of our actions can have worldwide consequences, even if those consequences are attenuated greatly, we have to become far more aware of our environment.

Interesting book. It's a nice summary of some of the social consequences of the new networked capabilities that technology has enabled. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it'd be a good book to give to a non-technology-oriented friend to have them start thinking about these issues.

posted at: 09:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith
While we were driving up to Cornell, Jofish recommended this book. I'd read another of Smith's books, Spares, borrowed from the library, but it made absolutely no impact on me, and I didn't remember a single detail. But, in the mornings, while waiting for others to wake up, I picked up Only Forward from Jofish's bookshelf, and slammed through it.

I thought it was interesting. I liked the world that it takes place in, which is sort of the logical extreme of the Burbclaves in Snow Crash, where the Neighborhoods grow to be completely separate and cut off from each other. And I really like how the protagonist's flexible viewpoint lets him move between the different Neighborhoods seamlessly, because it picks up on the contextual nature of reality that I've been thinking about. The second half gets more metaphysical, and I'm not sure I liked where Smith went with it. But it was a quick read, and had some interesting ideas, so it's a qualified thumbs up.

posted at: 08:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse
After seeing James Carse speak, I was eager to read his book, which I finally got around to doing on this vacation. It's a deceptively simple book, with lots of short, simple sentences. But there's a lot of thought packed into those sentences.

I covered his overall gist in that previous post, where finite games are played within boundaries and with the goal of winning and ending them, and infinite games are played to expand one's horizons and with the goal of continuing them. I just went and skimmed through the sections of this book that I noted as capturing an idea particularly well (the book is divided in 101 sections, each of which is only a page or two long), and it covers such a wide variety of concepts. I liked his application of the finite and infinite games idea in some cases more than others; in particular, I didn't get much out of his attempt to apply it to sexual relations.

One thing I really liked was the observation that in a finite game, the past is fixed, and can never be changed. No matter what happens, the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in January of 1986. That is a fact. However, in an infinite game, the past is fluid - we can always bring a new perspective to it that changes the way we view events. To use Robert Anton Wilson's example:

"A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying "Stay away from my wife" and has a fourth view of the "meaning" of the situation. Etc."

Each viewpoint opens up new ways of seeing the situation. We can always tell new stories and change the way we view the universe. I think that this is a powerful observation; far too many people are trapped in a finite world where they can't even question the assumptions, where there is only one way of seeing. Not only is it sad, but it's also dangerous; those trapped in a finite world are all too apt to impose their will on infinite players, destroying all alternative viewpoints, rather than open themselves up to the infinite possibilities.

For Carse, conversations should be infinite in the sense that we are open to the possibility of discovering new viewpoints in our interaction with each other. In a finite conversation, each person has their viewpoint and is not going to change, and it is more of a zero-sum negotiation where if I win, you lose ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"). In an infinite conversation, both of us may influence the other, and a new viewpoint can be constructed out of bits of each of our side, such that our eyes are both opened to a new way of viewing the world. Everybody wins. I love these kinds of conversations, where it's not about winning or losing, but striving to get a different perspective.

There's so much good stuff in this book. Just go read it. It's short, but thought-provoking; because it was a small paperback that fit in my jacket pocket, I was carrying it everywhere in New York, and was just as often re-reading previous sections as reading new material. It's the kind of book where you could read a random section, and ponder how it applies to one's life today. I need to think more about how I can make myself more of an infinite player, and to move beyond the constrictions of a finite life.

posted at: 08:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Emotional Design, by Donald Norman
I go back and forth on my feelings about Donald Norman. I think that his observation of The Design of Everyday Things was a really important insight in understanding how omnipresent the role of design is. I liked his idea of information appliances in The Invisible Computer. But I've always been left a little bit annoyed at how simplistic his analysis tends to be. Alas, Emotional Design continues in that vein.

Interestingly, Emotional Design ties into Blink and Sources of Power. In the prologue, Norman is trying to establish that "emotion is a necessary part of life" and then states "The affective system makes judgments and quickly helps you determine which things in the environment are dangerous or safe, good or bad." Sounds an awful lot like thin-slicing to me. His ideas also share characteristics of Bloom's inner-judges in Global Brain, as Norman refers to research showing that "positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought" and anxiety tends to narrow thought processes, much like the Bloom's inner-judges help reward creative behavior with positive emotion and vice versa.

So there's not much that's new to me in Emotional Design. I did like his partition of thought and design into the visceral (pre-conscious initial reactions), behavioral (learned structures corresponding to our experiences (which I think is essentially the same idea as cognitive subroutines)), and reflective (conscious thought, generalizations and recursion). He spends some time delving into how the three levels interact in design; for a good chef's knife, it's satisfying on the visceral level ("Ooh, shiny!"), behavioral level (it performs consistently and precisely), and reflective level (appreciating how its form follows its function). More importantly, he addresses situations where the three levels are in conflict, where something is viscerally attractive, but reflectively repugnant, like junk food, or viscerally repugnant and reflectively attractive, like most of modern art.

The rest of the book kind of meanders around discussing various aspects of this three-level approach to design, and then takes a bizarre turn into making the case for machine emotions. I think he's trying to make the point that machines need to have the ability to learn autonomously and be able to express their inner state more effectively. In other words, we know that we get cranky when we get hungry. He suggests that machines should become cranky when they're low on power, so that those interacting with them, whether machine or human, could know what's going on internally. I think this is stupid - a power gauge is a much easier thing to read. I also think that the ability for a machine to learn reflectively, in the manner of the cognitive subroutines that I am suggesting as a model for our brains, is a far more difficult problem than Norman suspects.

There's not a lot here. I finished the book yesterday, and it's already pretty much completely faded from my consciousness. I'm glad I got it from the library, because I would have felt gypped if I'd bought it. It is encouraging in one sense - I think I have enough ideas from my blog in various forms to write a far more interesting and thought-provoking book. Now I just need to buckle down.

posted at: 20:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk
Picked this up in my big library trip of a couple weeks ago. Again, recommended by a friend. Plus, I've been curious about Palahniuk since seeing Fight Club. I really like his stylized writing in a lot of ways, and it's easy to see the resemblance to the style of Fight Club. I didn't really connect to any of the characters, though, so I didn't get into it as much as I do some other fiction. For me, fiction is all about identifying with characters, I think. The early years of Buffy, when the Scooby gang were all high school outsiders? Total identification. Gilmore Girls with Lorelai's mother issues? Yup. Miles Vorkosigan's brand of demented genius. Ender's loneliness and supernatural observation skills. Pretty much all of the fiction I like has a central character that I identify with strongly. So when I don't connect to the characters, I tend to feel eh about a book, no matter how beautiful or creative the writing. I'm just not enough of a literature geek yet, I guess.

posted at: 22:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 06 Mar 2005

King Rat, by China Mieville
I remembered China Mieville's name from Aneel's book page, so when I stopped by the library, I looked him up, and this was the one book by him that they had. It's somewhat in the same vein as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, describing a London with more dimensions than most of us ever get to see, or the urban fantasies of Charles de Lint. The cover description plays up the importance of drum and bass techno music to the story, but I think that's just to draw in the hip kids. I thought it was okay. The writing is gorgeous in spots, but the narrative seemed to kind of wander without a clear idea of where it was heading at times. It was okay. I'm happy I got it from the library.

posted at: 14:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 28 Feb 2005

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
I stopped by the library a few days ago and picked up a bunch of books that I was vaguely interested in, but not enough to toss into one of my Amazon orders. Mostly quick reads, so you'll see several book reviews over the next couple weeks as I slam through them.

This one was recommended by a friend due to my Buffy obsession as another take on the tale of the young woman called into service to fight the vampires. It was okay. I liked the world, and the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the otherworldly. None of the characters really grabbed me, though. And some of the more interesting aspects of the world are never fully developed. I thought it was an okay read, but it's not a book I'm going to run out and buy.

Then again, I've only bought one of the Buffy books, and thought it was terrible. The presentation on screen brings the Buffyverse to life in a way that the books fail to. Credit for that should probably be split between Joss and the actors. Plus the dialogue is much better in the real episodes. And I'm totally a sucker for witty dialogue.

posted at: 22:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 21 Feb 2005

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
I've been talking about Gladwell for almost a month now, so it was high time I actually read Blink. The "thin-sliced" summary? It's interesting, but shallow.

By now, if you've read any of the interviews, or heard him speak on the radio, you probably know the premise of the book - that we should sometimes trust our unconscious brain and its ability to synthesize vast quantities of data to make decisions for us. He tells a lot of stories demonstrating how our unconscious brain can detect patterns far more quickly and accurately than our conscious brain.

He also delves a bit into when _not_ to trust the unconscious brain. Prejudices play a big part; what we "know" influences what we observe. The most convincing anecdote he related was the example of symphony orchestras which overwhelmingly hired male musicians up until relatively recently. Then women started earning a large portion of jobs. The difference? The symphonies put up screens so that the audition committee could only hear the music being played, without seeing the musician. Even though the conductors would swear up and down that they were not prejudiced against women, the screens proved otherwise, that the sight of a male musician actually affected how they heard the music.

Gladwell also notes that the standard dictum that "the more information, the better" is often wrong, finding instead that more information often paralyzes our brains with too many options. He relates the anecdote of an emergency room in Chicago, where the doctors had trouble diagnosing whether incoming patients were experiencing a heart attack. There are so many contributing factors to a heart attack that they could always find a reason why the patient might be in the middle of a heart attack, but also a reason why not. Finally, a researcher came up with a model that used only three variables to diagnose a heart attack. By ruthlessly cutting away all of the other factors that the doctors were using to construct stories on both sides of the question, the model actually achieved a much higher rate of success.

I was disappointed that the book was at such a light level. The entire book is in the pattern of this review so far: Gladwell introduces an idea, discusses an anecdote which illustrates that idea, and moves on. It made for a quick read (I literally read it in about three hours one day), but it left me feeling kind of empty. I was much more impressed with Sources of Power, which Gladwell references a couple times, because Gary Klein goes into detail into a model of the underlying decision-making process that makes a lot of sense to me.

I was also disappointed because several of the anecdotes that Gladwell used were unconvincing to me. In particular, he referenced the height study that I think is totally bogus. He also refers to Ted Williams's insistence that he could see the ball hit the bat, and dismisses it out of hand. That may or may not be true, but there's at least anecdotal evidence that Williams could. Not that Gladwell could know this, but I have a book called The Umpire Strikes Back, by Ron Luciano, an umpire who was similarly skeptical of Williams's claim:

[Williams] claimed he could actually see the ball hit the bat. He said he could see if the bat hit one seam, two seams or missed the seams entirely. ...I told him that was impossible. The human eye doesn't work that precisely. Doctors knew it. Scientists knew it. Umpires knew it.

...In spring training, in 1972, he offered to prove it to me. Admittedly I was reluctant to go along with him. In his prime Williams had been one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, but at this time he was fifty-four years old. A hitter's reflexes usually start fading in his mid-thirties, and in Williams's case that was two decasdes earlier. I didn't want to embarrass him by shattering one of his beliefs, but he insisted. With my head down, I followed him to a practice field. He covered the barrel of a bat with pine tar and stepped up to the plate. A hard-throwing rookie had been recruited to pitch to him. I took a deep breath, anticipating what was going to be a very sad moment.

The young pitcher threw a bullet and Williams hit a rocket to center field. "One seam," he shouted confidently over his shoulder.

"Sure, Ted," I agreed. I was just glad he was still able to hit the ball. Someone retrieved it and brought it over to me. One seam was covered with pine tar.

He hit another pitch. "About a quarter inch above the $#%$%$% seam," he said.

That ball had a pine-tar scar just a quarter inch above the seam. He called five of seven perfectly, the most amazing display of hitting ability I've ever seen. (p.129)

Gladwell probably never read this book. But I don't see why my anecdotal evidence is any less convincing than his :). Stuff like that and the height study started making me question all of the anecdotes that Gladwell was using, and since he never got beyond the shallow level of anecdotal evidence, it meant that there wasn't much left. Richard Posner has a similar critique.

Final verdict: Interesting ideas, but not a lot of supporting evidence. I wouldn't bother buying this book. Borrow it from me or from the library if you want to while away an afternoon and read some entertaining anecdotes. If you want a more serious examination of how to develop and trust one's unconscious expertise, read Gary Klein's Sources of Power instead.

posted at: 21:48 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 17 Feb 2005

The Making of a Philosopher, by Colin McGinn
I picked this up in a used bookstore because it purported to be McGinn's "Journey through Twentieth-Century Philosophy". I have a layman's interest in philosophy (my humanities concentration at MIT was in the field), and was curious as to what some of the developments in the twentieth century were. Plus, it was cheap.

McGinn structures the book as an intellectual autobiography, where he traces his own thinking throughout his academic career, from a struggling student rejected from Oxford to his present day work as a professor at Rutgers. It's a very quick read (I read it in a couple hours on BART to and from work), thanks to McGinn's light style. The book does not go cover any philosophical topic in depth (most topics are summarized in a couple pages), but he provides a good overview that appears to be as true to the original topic as possible without delving into obfuscatory terminology.

The thing I like the most about the book is the way McGinn captures the curiosity about ideas that philosophy entails. He describes it as such:

"Perhaps that is one of the primary pleasures of philosophy: arriving at an idea and figuring out what its logical consequences are. This is much like the pleasure of archaeological excavation - you dig deeper and deeper into the conceptual soil, seeking intellectual treasure. The power of one idea to lead to another is a never-ending source of fascination for me."

He provides some great examples of such archaeology, from his meditation on what an object is (How can you describe an object without referring to its qualities? Is an object nothing more than a set of qualities describing it? But then, what do we mean when we say something is really something? Are we referring to a Platonic ideal of that object?) to proper names (At first glance, proper names would seem to be just a reference to a thing, like a pointer in programming, where we could just substitute the reference with the thing without changing meaning. However, it can't be as simple as that, because then we can't explain how "Marilyn Monroe" and "Norma Jean Baker" refer to the same person, but bring up vastly different connotations). Depths of philosophical thought open up everywhere, lurking just below the surface of everyday conversation.

I really liked this book. It's breezy and short, but does a good job of covering various topics in contemporary philosophy at a manageable level. I'm sure it simplifies the discussion (several reviews on Amazon tear it apart for that), but it successfully captures the sheer wonder of philosophy. I like the concept of intellectual excavation of ideas; I think that is a large part of what I try to do with this blog, taking an idea and playing around with it until I've sucked all the marrow out of it and bored my readers to death. Anyway. Fun book. It's such a quick read, though that I'd recommend either borrowing it from me, or getting it from the library.

posted at: 21:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 13 Feb 2005

Experimentation Matters, by Stefan Thomke
I'm not sure where I originally heard about this book, but given my preference for rapid prototyping in my work, I thought it would be interesting. Thomke is a Harvard Business School professor who's spent the last ten years studying how experimentation is integrated into and leveraged by organizations. This book is his attempt to explain "why experimentation is so critical to innovation, underscores the impact of new technologies, and outlines what managers must do to integrate them successfully."

This is a book that's difficult for me to review, mostly because so much of what Thomke espouses is just common sense to me. Unfortunately, much of the business world does not see it that way, so books like this and Serious Play are necessary to make the case for rapid prototyping.

Thomke identifies the main business benefit of experimentation as being cost savings. By experimenting more early, unfruitful approaches can be discarded, and resources can be shifted to more successful methods. It is a matter of managing uncertainty, from "technical uncertainty", where it's unclear whether something is possible, to "production uncertainty", where it's unclear whether it's scalable, to "need uncertainty", where it's unclear what the customer desires, to "market uncertainty", as described by The Innovator's Dilemma. The earlier a company can test its assumptions about these various areas of uncertainty, the better.

One of the key culture shifts that Thomke identifies as being crucial to integrating experimentation into a company's processes is the need to reward failure. When an experiment fails, it should be recognized as just as much of an accomplishment as an experiment succeeding. Both cases provide information to the company on what will and will not work. The only true mistake in an experimentation culture is performing an experiment that provides no new information, due to poor experiment design. However, most companies punish employees whose experiments fail, thus creating an environment where employees waste months writing reports and justifying their position before actually trying an experiment to get an answer. A company that rewarded failure would get answers and find its way onto the correct track faster, as I suggest in Trust but Verify post.

Thomke breaks the experimentation process into four steps: Design, Build, Run, and Analyze. He suggests that the organizations that will be the most successful are the ones that can most rapidly perform this process iteratively. Thomas Edison apparently optimized his laboratory to maximize the number of experiments that could be run, to the point of having machine shops and storerooms located next to the actual laboratory, so that scientists could quickly get what they needed.

With the advent of ever more powerful simulation and design tools, Thomke believes that companies should be testing more than ever before. He uses the example of a BMW safety design team. By studying some early prototype crashes, "engineers on the team had learned that in crash after crash, a small section of the B pillar folded." (p.34) Aha! The engineers decided to add metal to the pillar to strengthen it. Done. Move on.

"One development team member, however, insisted on verification, pointing out that it would be neither difficult nor expensive to do this via computer simulation. When the program was run, the group was shocked to discover that strengthening the folded area actually decreased crashworthiness... reinforcing the lower part of the B pillar made the part higher up - above the reinforced part - prone to buckling... the solution to the folding-B-pillar problem turned out to be completely counterintuitive: Weaken it rather than reinforce it."

This is a case where simulation, and trying things out, led the design team to a wholly new solution, one which they would never have considered trying. With today's tools, it is often faster to build a prototype and try something than it is to discuss the feasibility of something.

I liked Thomke's discussion of how a company's processes have to change to accommodate experimentation. Beyond the ideas already mentioned (experiment early, experiment often), Thomke identifies three "Realities" that impede companies:

  1. Technologies are limited by the processes and people that use them.
  2. Organizational interfaces can get in the way of experimentation.
  3. Technologies change faster than behavior.

I particularly like #3. This is a common theme in my thoughts (although it doesn't really show up in my blog, oddly enough). I believe that technology determinism, the idea that technology will drive social change, is naive. Technology is only used when it can be embedded into people's already existing behavior. A company can install Lotus Notes, which theoretically enables all sorts of collaboration possibilities, and what happens? Everybody ends up just using it for email. Until there is a need to be filled, technology is just a doorstop. However, when there is a need, technology will be warped and twisted to fill that need, no matter how inadequate the technology is (this is the story of social software).

His last chapter is an exploration of the idea that companies should move "the locus of experimentation" to the customer by providing the customer with the tools necessary to do their own product development. In the normal model, the company goes to great expense to determine what customer needs are via market research, identifies the largest volume needs (because their centralized production process can only serve the lowest common denominator), and serves those customers. Thomke points out the problem with this model:

"Customers with low-volume needs have little choice but to go elsewhere... The missed opportunity, however, is that there are thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential customers out there whose cumulative volume needs for custom [work is] significant."

It's the "long tail" of customers showing up in yet another form, customers that are only accessible by throwing open the tools of production, and letting customers do what they will. Again, my social software rant demonstrates my affection for this idea.

Lots of good stuff here. Again, I think most of this stuff is pretty obvious, but it's good to get the backing of a Harvard Business School prof. It's also good, because he's done the case studies and the literature research necessary to support my bald assertions (things like providing the references to the importance of feedback in learning (p.126 note 20), that making changes late in the product development process can be 100 times more costly than early (p. 197 note 4), and that trying to maximize the capacity of a scarce resource in an organization often leads to bottlenecks for everybody (p. 236 note 2) - this is the swapping problem in computers, but it's more broadly applicable). I'm not sure I'd bother recommending this book if you already believe in rapid prototyping and experimentation, but if you have a recalcitrant MBA boss, I'd recommend this over Serious Play as a book to help change their minds.

posted at: 20:45 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 02 Feb 2005

Gonzo Marketing, by Christopher Locke
Subtitled "Winning through Worst Practices", this book caught my eye when poking around the clearance section of a bookstore. Plus it referred to "gonzo" marketing, and since I'm a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, I picked it up.

Christopher Locke was one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I never got around to reading, but meant to. In this book, he builds on Cluetrain and tries to outline what will follow the era of mass media and mass marketing, two institutions that he claims are soon to be dead. He calls his ideas "gonzo marketing", with the conceit that, just as gonzo journalism rejected any pretense at objectivity and was all about letting loose with one's individual voice, gonzo marketing rejects any pretense at professionalism and lets loose the individual voices of people within a company.

The idea that mass media is starting to come to an end is a pretty common one these days. The internet is allowing millions of new voices to publish their own viewpoints, and the mindshare held by mass media like television and newspapers is rapidly declining. Instead, people's attention is spread over the long tail of other media, or as Locke refers to it, micromedia. Locke points out that mass marketing, with ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator, will probably not survive the death of mass media. But how can a large company advertise to the plethora of micromarkets that results? His answer is "gonzo marketing".

Unfortunately, he never really defines what he means. Building off of the Cluetrain idea that "markets are conversations", Locke believes that the best way for companies to engage their potential customers is to treat them as genuine people, rather than bovine consumers. For companies to develop an authentic voice, and engage with their audience as equals, not in the predator-prey relationship evident in such terms as targeted advertising. He has a couple examples of ways in which "gonzo marketing" might manifest itself, including underwriting of independent websites without explicit pushing of product, and fostering of communities of interest of their employees with the idea that their employees would serve as ambassadors of good will. But I thought he could have spent less time ranting, and more time developing the concepts of "gonzo marketing".

He does ask a good question, which is why "professional" is now synonymous with boring. Corporate websites don't have even an iota of personal voice in them. You can skim somebody's blog, and get a good idea of the type of person they are in a few minutes, but reading a press release is like watching paint dry. I know that part of it is the fear of legal recriminations, but it's boring. So I applaud his efforts to encourage more companies to find an authentic voice.

The other criticism I have of the book is that he attempts to write it in a "gonzo" style, which I don't think works for a book of this type. Gonzo writing works better when relating experiences, than for trying to explain ideas. To convey an idea to a reader requires constructing a good map to the world. And rambling on in a stream-of-consciousness format just makes Locke seem like he suffers from literary Tourette's. In other words, he's not a good enough writer to pull off the style and make it interesting.

One of those books that looked more interesting in the store than it does upon completion. Alas.

posted at: 23:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 28 Jan 2005

In Search of Stupidity, by Merrill R. Chapman
I picked this book up after reading the interesting foreword that Joel Spolsky wrote for it. Chapman's insight was that several of the companies lauded for having a great corporate culture in the famous business book In Search of Excellence had fallen off the face of the planet within a few years. From his own experience, he concluded that there was no singular "culture of excellence". Companies that survived were simply companies that avoided making hideously stupid blunders. A simple prescription, you'd think. Alas, no.

Chapman describes, as the subtitle declares, "Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters". He witnessed several of them from the inside as a marketing executive. Stupid cases like releasing two different products with the same name so that your customers had no idea which one to buy (Micropro had Wordstar and Wordstar 2000 competing against each other). Or the IBM PS/2 fiasco. Or Ed Esber, the CEO of Ashton-Tate, who enraged his customers (by threatening to sue them, calling them "parasites" and daring them to "Make my day!") to the point where one developer told Chapman (a product manager for Ashton-Tate at the time) "Ed Esber is a diseased amoeboid life form with the intelligence of a sick protozoa."

Lots of fun stories like that in this book. Chapman lived through several of these disasters, so he's got lots of good details sprinkled throughout. He's also got an engaging story-telling voice, which makes the book just zip along. I can't say that I learned that much from the book, but it was a quick read, and an enjoyable stroll through the last twenty years of techno-history (I had lots of "Oh, yeah, I remember that!" moments as they described various products).

P.S. In case any of my readers are curious about my increased rate of book consumption, it's because the holidays are over, which means there's lots of traffic on the Bay Bridge, which frustrated me to the point where I started taking BART regularly again (2-3 times a week for the past three weeks). An hour and a half of enforced reading time each day means I can keep up with the Economist, and finish four books in the last few weeks. Crazy stuff. I'm actually through my last Amazon order, and considering ordering more. Yay!

posted at: 00:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Global Brain, by Howard Bloom
This book was recommended to me by Dav after he read my post on social networks and rejection. So I tossed it in my Amazon shopping cart, but didn't end up ordering from Amazon until December, and didn't read it until last week.

Howard Bloom takes on the entire sweep of history (it's subtitled "The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century") in an attempt to tie together such disparate phenomena as quarks, genes, ants, and cultures into one overarching framework of an interconnected global brain. While I admire his chutzpah, I can't say that he entirely succeeds at making a convincing case for how these phenomena inter-relate. However, it is still a fascinating book, because he mentions many interesting phenomena and results in passing. If I were motivated, I would go track down several of the papers that he refers to (he's got a DFW-esque 65 pages of endnotes for a 223 page book, except that unlike DFW, his endnotes are mostly citations rather than commentary).

The concept that most resonated with me in this book was his observation of five essential elements that contribute to a "collective learning machine" (pp. 42-43):

  1. "Conformity enforcers stamp enough cookie-cutter similarities into the members of a group to give it an identity..."
  2. "Diversity generators spawn variety. Each individual represents a hypothesis in the communal mind..."
  3. "Inner-judges are biological built-ins which continually take our measure, rewarding us when our contribution seems to be of value and punishing us when our guesswork proves unwelcome or way off the mark..."
  4. "Resource shifters shunt riches, admiration, and influence to learning-machine members who cruise through challenges and give folks what they want. Meanwhile, resource shifters cast individuals who can't get a handle on what's going on into some equivalent of pennilessness and unpopularity..."
  5. "Intergroup tournaments...force each collective intelligence, each group brain, to churn out innovations for the fun of winning or for sheer survival's sake."

This is a really concise analysis of the elements necessary for collective learning. Most of the rest of the book delves into specific examples of how each of these elements shows up in biology (e.g. the immune system), zoology (in insect societies, particularly in E.O. Wilson's work studying ants), and in human society (e.g. the city states of Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece or the paradigmatic nature of the scientific establishment). You can see why Dav thought I'd be interested in this book, given that my post essentially was discussing the roles of Conformity Enforcers and Diversity Generators in social groups.

I don't think that any of these ideas are new, by any means. While reading the book, I was reminded of Pirsig's analysis in Lila, where he discusses Dynamic and Static Quality, where Dynamic Quality drove us ahead to try new things (Diversity Generators), and Static Quality was what latched new concepts that worked into a stable form (Conformity Enforcers). Or how even a community as anarchic as Burning Man requires some structure for it to function. But I thought Bloom did a good job of using a lot of varied examples to see how these principles are at work at many different scales, from the microscopic to the global.

I also liked many of the digressions. The chapter called "Reality is a Shared Hallucination" was a great summary of several studies I'd seen referred to, demonstrating that our senses are completely unreliable, because we are heavily influenced by what we "know". The power of suggestion in combination with our yearning for conformity leads to ridiculous results where a few studies showed people claiming they saw things that were not even there after being prompted by somebody else. Some of the historical stuff was fascinating as well, as he traced out why he thought certain societies were more adaptable (they "learned" faster), thus eventually winning out.

I do take issue with some of his more lyrical flights. I'm not sure I buy the concept that a Global Brain has already emerged. This is a case where I think he's stretching the metaphor too thin. I think it's clear that society is growing ever more interconnected, with innovations being able to be spread worldwide almost instantaneously, but does that make it a brain? By Bloom's definition of the five elements of a "collective learning machine", it does. I'm not so sure. Same for his assertion that bacteria form a Global Brain of their own.

Overall, I thought Bloom has a good overall model that explains a lot. The book got bogged down occasionally (where by bogged down, I mean it spent time on stuff that didn't interest me :) ). But I liked his analysis of how individual elements can create something greater than themselves. I may even play around a bit in code to see if I can do something with the ideas. Maybe generate some virtual ants. Anyway.

He had some great quotes scattered throughout the book. I'll share a couple here:

posted at: 00:04 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 20 Jan 2005

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

Sun, 16 Jan 2005

Sources of Power, by Gary Klein
Subtitled "How People Make Decisions", this book attempts to explore the process of decision-making from a perspective far outside the normal business-world-oriented theories. In business school, people are taught that the right way to make a decision is to define the problem, generate a list of possible solutions, evaluate all of the possible solutions, and then carry out a course of action. Klein spent twenty years studying decision making in the field, from firefighters to nurses in the emergency room, and proposes an alternative theory that describes how people make decisions in the real world ("Naturalistic Decision-Making"), calling it the "Recognition-Primed Decision Model".

Klein's interest in this area began when his consulting firm was asked to "study how people make decisions under time pressure" by the U.S. Army. Without a war to study, he chose to study firefighters, who often have to "function under the stress of having to make choices with high stakes". He went in believing in the "rational" decision-making methodology described above. But after observing and interviewing firefighters, he found that such a model did not correspond at all with what they actually did. In fact, one fireground commander, when asked about how he made difficult decisions, claimed, "I don't make decisions. I don't remember when I've ever made a decision." Klein was startled to hear this. When pressed, the commander "agreed that there were options, yet it was usually obvious what to do in any given situation." He was not listing options and comparing them, as the normal decision-making methodology would have. He was just reacting to the situation.

"The commanders' secret was that their experience let them see a situation, even a nonroutine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away. Their experience let them identify a reasonable reaction as the first one they considered, so they did not bother thinking of others. They were not being perverse. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision making."

Klein goes on to explore how RPD works. What are the elements that let an expert immediately generate good options? How do teams work under the RPD model? What lets an expert quickly evaluate whether an option is good enough, and decide whether to move on to another option? He does this primarily through careful interviews and observations. His team focuses on a scenario, identifies the key decision points, and reviews them with the subject afterwards to see what they thought of at the decision point. It's an anecdote-based system, but a powerful one for generating a model. And when they have tested the system, for instance by studying how chess players of different levels handle time pressure, the results have supported their theories.

Part of the issue with the normal model is that it's completely unrealistic. In the laboratory, it is easy to study how people make decisions; you give them a goal, and some information, and examine how they use the information to move towards that goal. In the situations that Klein covers, the goals are undefined and can change on a moment-by-moment basis. The information is incomplete and disorganized, so you have to take your best guess, start acting on it, and then see if the situation evolves as you expect it to. For instance, he describes fire-fighters who go into a house, thinking that it's a small fire in the basement, then realize that it's a much bigger fire because it's spread up a laundry chute, switch priorities from putting out the fire to search-and-rescue, calling in a second alarm to get some more help.

The situation is evolving constantly, and an expert will know which elements are important to follow, and which are not. The expert has been in a situation enough times before that they can mentally simulate what should be happening, and recognize when things are deviating from their expectancies, which is a sign of danger. Another good example: a fire commander goes into a building for what he thinks is a regular kitchen fire. As he's scouting around, he realizes that it's not behaving like a normal fire. It's too quiet, and too hot. He doesn't like it, and pulls his team out of the house. A few moments later, the floor of the house collapses - the fire was actually in the basement. He had no idea that there was even a basement, but his experience let him know that something was wrong, and that he needed to figure out why the situation diverged from his expectations before he continued.

Klein goes into much further detail of how experts "see the invisible" (because they know what signs to look for), generate a course of action, mentally simulate the results of that action, and then carry it out. He also describes the non-linear aspects of problem solving; it's an iterative process, where you continually are updating your mental model with the results of what has occurred compared to your expectations. He devotes a chapter to the power of stories, a topic dear to my heart. He talks about the power to read minds, where if a commander communicates his intent clearly, not just of the plan, but of the overall goals of the plan, their subordinates can make the right decisions, even when those decisions conflict with the plan as laid out. He describes how teams function together, studying how the team has a collective cognition which can be developed by working together closely.

At the very end, he examines rational analysis and where it is appropriate and where it is not. In situations where the problem can be analyzed into basic components, rational analysis is a great tool. However, trying to force other situations into that form can be disastrous, because much of the relevant information may be lost. This is also why he says that teaching novices a set of rules as the only way to do things is misleading, and restricting experts to follow those rules can be dangerous. The path to expertise depends on learning the situations that generated the rules, understanding when to apply the rules, and when to break them. The whole point of having experts is to leverage their expertise, not to keep them from using it.

There's so much incredibly good stuff in this book. I could go on and on and on. I was scribbling notes throughout, and I was going to type them all up here, but I think I will instead say to go read it yourself if you're interested in how people make decisions in the real world. It's a very easy read (300 pages, with lots of interesting stories). And Klein's model agrees well with my intuition of how these things work, and of how I work. I have enough experience at debugging problems in the lab that people can show me a problem and I'll go "oh, it's probably this", because I know which factors are relevant, and can trace down inside the code in my head to find where something might be wrong. Others see it as magical, but it's just experience at work. Anyway. I highly recommend this book.

posted at: 09:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 10 Jan 2005

Sync, by Steven Strogatz
I've been wanting to read this since first hearing about it. I took a class from Strogatz when I was at MIT, and he was a great lecturer that was way too smart so I figured his book would be interesting and well written.

I was reminded of Strogatz's book recently when I read Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts. It turns out that Watts was a student of Strogatz. Small world. Since I really enjoyed reading Six Degrees, and am fascinated by the science of networks, I picked up Sync from the library. Subtitled "The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order", Strogatz is more interested in the science of synchronization than the science of networks. From fireflies blinking in concert, to the electrical pulses of the heart to superconductivity, Strogatz finds examples of synchronization everywhere in nature, and takes a crack at explaining how the same fundamental mathematical equations govern them all.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the book very interesting. His explanations seemed fairly shallow to me. I know that he was writing for the general audience, but I feel like he could have delved into more detail on how the math generalized. He also suffered from trying to cover too large a breadth of material: a chapter on each subject gave only enough time for a brief overview, and since I studied science, I already knew most of what he was summarizing. Although I should note that the chapter on sleep cycles and circadian rhythms was pretty fascinating, mostly because any MIT alumnus has experimented all too much with different sleep patterns. And because I knew somebody who I think worked at the sleep lab that he mentions.

One of the other interesting speculations was that our brain waves synchronize to form consciousness. There is constant electrical activity in our head as neurons fire, but apparently (Strogatz only wrote a couple paragraphs about this) when a conscious thought forms, the signals all synchronize momentarily and then return to random firing. It's a very neat idea. It reminds me of that flash of intuition when I make a connection between two previously unconnected areas of thought in my head. All of a sudden, it feels like my brain lights up as my thought structure puts a new connection in place. So that image of waves synchronizing makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. Unfortunately, it was covered almost in a throwaway fashion, so I'll have to go hunting down the references (such as this one or this one or this one) (I haven't read the links, but figured I might as well copy from Sync's references before I returned it).

The place where Strogatz is most successful is where he personalizes the stories. Since he knows many of the people that he's writing about, he's able to share stories about how he met them, or anecdotes about how they did their work, which helps turn these scientists into real people. This shouldn't have been surprising to me; the fondest memory I had of his class at MIT was his "Gauss was a prick" story.

I'm glad I got it from the library and didn't pay for it. If one were looking for a book in this area, I'd recommend Six Degrees or The Tipping Point. as being more interesting. But I had to read it. I'll get back to my other Amazon books now. Oh, and apologies for the delay in finishing books - I fell about a month behind in the Economist in December, and only now caught up. Too much reading material, too little time.

"way too smart": Strogatz's tests were the kind of tests where if you saw the trick on how to do them, they took 5 minutes, but if you weren't a genius like him, they took two hours, which really sucked when you only had an hour. The three question second test had a nice tripartite distribution of scores at 100, 66 and 33. I got a 70 or something. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

"Gauss was a prick": The class I took from Strogatz was complex analysis, which was a field basically invented by Karl Friedrich Gauss. In mathematics, it is standard to name equations after the first person to discover them. However, if they had done that in complex analysis, every equation would have been Gauss's Law. So they settled on naming things for the first person to discover it after Gauss. The best part was that after Gauss would derive a new proof, he'd say, "Oh, that's interesting", call in his assistant, notarize it, date it, and stick it in a desk drawer without telling anybody. Twenty five years later, a young mathematician would figure out a new proof and send it off to Gauss to share it with the great man, hoping to gain his approval. Gauss would write back that he'd discovered it twenty five years ago, and crush the poor bastard. Hence, Strogatz said, "Gauss was a prick."

posted at: 23:38 by
Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 18 Dec 2004

Down Here, by Andrew Vachss
In my last Amazon order, I picked up the latest Andrew Vachss, an author whom I adore, and own all of his books. Well, maybe not all, but certainly all the Burke novels, and most of his fiction. I'm missing a couple of his graphic novel creations, things like that. Anyway. I think Burke's New York is one of the more fascinating settings out there. This isn't one of Vachss's more stellar efforts, but it's still a solid read. I put it away in one evening. Yay.

posted at: 11:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/mystery | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 12 Dec 2004

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
A few weeks ago, when I was in the library, I saw books 5, 6 and 7 of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King (that'd be Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower). Since I'd liked the first few books in the series, but had dropped it when it wasn't clear whether King would ever finish the series, I decided to pick these up. I actually went back and re-read book 4, Wizard and Glass, when it was clear that I didn't remember it, and it had some relevance. So I've slammed through probably close to 2000 pages of crap in the last few weeks. Fortunately, it's fast reading, so I didn't waste as much time as you might think.

Spoilers ahead, if any of you care.

I really did like the first three books in this series. They all have some memorable moments, with mythic overtones. Wizard and Glass was okay - obviously not very memorable, since I had to re-read it - it's basically a standard Western plot set in a fantasy realm. The last three books are just kind of painful. King apparently decided that this was his opportunity to tie all of his books together, so he started dropping in characters from all of his books to meet the gunslingers and help them out. Characters from Salem's Lot all the way through his more recent books like Insomnia (none of which I've read). So that added confusion, since I hadn't read these stories, and these characters which I'm clearly supposed to recognize are showing up.

It gets even better, though, when King has these fantasy characters cross dimensions into a facsimile of our world. In this world, they meet, yes, that's right, King himself, who is portrayed as one of the most valuable people in the universe, supporting one of the "Beams" that holds the universe together through his writing. I started losing steam quickly at this point.

Plus, the writing just isn't very good. King, if nothing else, generally spins a good yarn. Books like The Shining or It are gripping, and have a sort of inevitability about them that is one of the keys to horror writing. These books just start wandering; in his attempt to include all of his other books, it just becomes a series of vignettes - "Oh, look, another of my characters!" And it suffers for that. By the time the main characters start getting killed off, I no longer cared about them.

In the last couple books, he also started pulling the omniscient narrative nonsense - things like "He slipped the .40 into his docker's clutch almost without thinking, so moving us a step closer to what you will not want to hear and I will not want to tell." How melodramatic is that?

I kept with it, mostly out of a desire for completeness. Just to finish it. And to find out what's in the Dark Tower. And, of course, it's a copout. I should have known.

Anyway. Strong anti-recommendation. The first three books are worth reading if you like a western-crossed-with-fantasy kind of book. And maybe book four. But if you never read 5, 6 and 7, you won't be missing anything.

posted at: 20:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 25 Nov 2004

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, by Minister Faust
I saw this in the library. The title was just too good to pass up, especially since I'm always fascinated by tales of the trickster, of which the coyote is one of the main avatars. I flipped through the first few pages, liked the tone, and checked it out. I mean, each character is introduced with a D&D-style character sheet, with comments like "Technological Intelligence: +99 A-Team/MacGyver" and "Genre Alignment: SF (general), ST (original series), SW, Marvel, Alan Moore +79". The Genre Alignment listed for each character is actually pretty useful if you follow sci-fi, because it gives you an idea of what they like and what they respond to. Of course, you have to be a pretty big geek to catch all the references.

Overall, the book has a Snow Crash-like feel to it in a lot of ways, with African mythology replacing Sumerian mythology. It has the same sort of breezy action-packed narrative, with a bit of "Um, what the hell" when it delves deeper into the mythology. One of the interesting narrative tricks used is to write in first-person, but switch the character speaking to provide different perspectives. Each character is introduced by the D&D sheet before their first narrative section, and after that, you have to keep track of who's talking by the different authorial voice used. It's artificial, but it gives a bit more insight into what's going on in the other characters' brains.

The other thing I liked about the book was the author's willingness to explain things slowly. Because it's first person, he'll have a character drop a reference to something, and not explain it until 200 pages later when that character is talking to somebody else. It gives you something to look forward to as you're trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It's also interesting because the main character is writing his sections after the book's events have taken place, so he gets to drop in remarks about what's going to happen (early on, you read this sentence, "In a few days' time, when machetes are pointed at me, when an old, old friend betrays me, when a sharpened ice-cream scoop is poised to scrape out my eyes, I'll be wishing I'd never met this woman") to sharpen the anticipation.

Overall a fun read. Not one I'm planning to buy and/or re-read, but pretty entertaining.

posted at: 10:01 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks
Christy read this and then gave it to me. It didn't do a lot for me. Several of my friends really like Iain Banks, so I keep on trying his work, but very little of it sticks with me. I think I have three or four of his books on my bookshelf, and I honestly couldn't tell you anything about what happens in them without re-reading them, whereas there are books that I read once and grab me and stick in my memory. I mean, it's competently executed, and a tolerable way to pass the time, but that's about it. And since these reviews are my way of recording what struck me about a book, and I don't have anything to say, I'm just using it as an excuse to comment about this weird disparity between the high regard people I know have of Banks and the disconnection I feel from his work. Anyway.

posted at: 09:57 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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: 20:56 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

Wed, 20 Oct 2004

Sucker Bet, by James Swain
I've liked Swain's previous books, so when I saw this one in paperback at the used book store, I picked it up. Not as entertaining as the previous entries in the series, partially because Swain doesn't spend as much time explaining various casino swindles. The centerpiece scam isn't as interesting or intricate either. Still an okay read. Not much more to say than that.

posted at: 20:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/mystery | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 28 Sep 2004

Home from Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler
I quite liked The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler's previous book about civic planning, so when I happened to see this in the library while picking up Infinite Jest, I grabbed it. Unfortunately, because Infinite Jest took so long to read, I had to slam through this book because they're all due today. Fortunately, Home from Nowhere is a quick read.

It's basically a restatement of The Geography of Nowhere, decrying how the car-based lifestyle has destroyed the essence of towns and cities throughout the country. Kunstler believes strongly in mixed-use neighborhoods, where all necessities are available within walking distance. As I noted in my previous review, I totally agree with him. Probably even more so now, since traffic has gotten worse in the Bay Area.

Home from Nowhere is meant to be a prescriptive book, where Geography was more descriptive, but I didn't really see much new here. He does mention the rise of organizations dedicated to designing such human-scale communities, organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism. He spends a chapter restating some of the principles he identified in Geography. The rest of the book is devoted to listing case studies of various success stories, where new neighborhoods were designed with these principles to the happiness of all.

He did make two observations that I really liked. One was about charm, and what it is.

In terms of human behavior and self-consciousness, charm is the quality of inviting us to participate in another pattern, for instance, to glimpse the pattern of another personality through the veil of manners, customs, pretence. When we say that a person is charming, we mean that he makes himself permeable, and, in so doing, invites you to do likewise, so that the two patterns of your personalities may intersect for a while. I think the same principle is true of the things around us. As Christopher Alexander has ably pointed out, what we perceive to be things in our everyday surroundings - buildings, walls, streets, fences - are more properly understood as patterns intersecting with patterns, relationships between other relationships.
I like this concept. It ties into ideas about user interaction design, as described by Don Norman or Alan Cooper, where the goal is to give the user all the controls they need to accomplish their tasks, and invite them to play with the controls. Don Norman uses the term "affordances" to describe ways in which people can interact with objects. I think Kunstler is pointing out that buildings and towns can have affordances as well; a downtown area with shops that push out to the sidewalk, with large display windows at eye level, provides a completely different interaction than a strip mall, set back 100 feet behind a parking lot.

The other observation I liked was how the concept of pure moral relativism which arose after World War II has destroyed design in this century:

...the idea that some things might be better than other things, or that some people might better than other people - an obscene notion in the aftermath of Auschwitz. To protect society against future political obscenities, American intellectuals of what was then called the political left led a revolt against elitism that was strangely consistent with the psychology of mass consumer culture. The revolt soon featured a campaign against standards in the arts and humanities, including a ban against "value judgments", which led to an inability to make distinctions in the quality of anything, and a paradoxical devaluation of intellectual excellence itself. ...Cultural relativism beat a quick path to cultural despotism, the dictatorship of the mediocre.
In other words, since all forms are valid, the ones that are easiest to build might as well be chosen. He draws the somewhat shaky connection between cultural relativism and the rise of Modernist architecture, where large concrete boxes dominate the landscape. I'm not sure I entirely buy that extension, but the idea of postmodern relativism coming out of the horrors of WWII is pretty interesting. I also like his point that we have thrown away hundreds of years of design and experience in how to build physical communities for the sake of an ill-conceived design movement, where we can't say "That's just wrong and stupid" without being declared a philistine or unappreciative of truly modern or post-modern design. If there are no value judgments, then there is no difference between a Walmart building and a beautiful Gothic church. And Kunstler doesn't buy that. And neither do I.

Anyway. Not a lot here that wasn't in his previous book. Some of the case studies were interesting, especially the ones showing how several different people came up with similar principles at the same time. All in all, I'm glad I grabbed it from the library rather than buying it.

posted at: 09:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
As previously noted, I picked this up after reading a book of Wallace essays and enjoying them quite a lot. It's an enormous book, 980 pages with a further 100 pages of end notes. I've been slogging through it for the past six weeks after borrowing it from the library, and finished it yesterday.

It's a sprawling book. And yet, none of the dozens of characters end up being well-developed. There's not a single character that I feel like I "know" them after reading this book, the way I do in character-based fiction like the Vorkosigan series or the Stephanie Plum series. There really isn't a plot to speak of. The ending just kind of fizzled out without ever following up on events that are mentioned earlier. There's some interesting digressions, but it's hardly worth reading the entire novel for. Maybe I'm missing something, but it really seems like Wallace is an excellent short-form writer who strung together some brilliant observational essays interspersed with hundreds of pages of relatively uninteresting events. Wallace's random one-liner observations about people are often far more interesting than the actual episode surrounding them. I was pretty disappointed by the experience, obviously.

The digressions I liked included:

Anyway. I think I might pick up some more of Wallace's shorter works, fiction and essays, because I do like his writing and his sharp eye for absurdity. But I'm going to steer clear of the novels in the future.

posted at: 13:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 12 Sep 2004

Travels in Hyperreality, by Umberto Eco
I picked this up at the library, because I really liked Foucault's Pendulum and the snippet I read of the title essay intrigued me. The book is a set of essays by Eco, obviously. Eco is a well known semioticist, where semiotics is the study of signs. These essays were written for a variety of outlets on a variety of subjects. I think the most interesting ones where he applied his knowledge of semiotics

The title essay is a good example. Eco takes a tour of America, but an America of "hyper-reality", where we re-make things to be better or more than the real thing. He starts off with wax museums, where, as he puts it, "We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original" (I was particularly amused by his description of the no less than seven wax museums which had reproductions of The Last Supper, all of which had a low quality copy of the painting nearby to make the wax reproduction look better in comparison). He points out how such reproduction is a trend of America, with parks like Disneyland, which reproduce Main Street USA, etc. His insights into how we experience such reproductions were really interesting.

Another essay I liked was "Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare". He takes on McLuhan's claim that the media is the message, by deconstructing what media really is. "The Communication chain assumes a Source that, through a Transmitter, emits a Signal via a Channel. At the end of the Channel, the Signal, through a Receiver, is transformed into a Message for the Addressee... the other fundamental requirement of this chain is a Code, shared by the Source and the Addressee." He claims that McLuhan confuses all of these different links in the chain - that the alphabet (a Code) and a suit of clothes (a Message) are being used in different ways, and neither one is the totality of media in the sense McLuhan claims. "The message becomes what the receiver makes of it, applying to it his own codes of reception, which are neither those of the sender nor those of the scholar of communications." This leads into a prescient observation for an essay written in 1969: "The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives." It's controlling what codes people use to decipher the message. To use Lakoff's terminology, it's controlling the frame. Eco points out that if you control the frame, you don't need to control the source of the message, and we now see how the integrated conservative movement has successfully constructed a frame for its followers such that all media they view is immediately filtered to convey the message that the conservatives want.

I also liked "The Multiplication of the Media", about how messages get passed around the media in an incestuous manner, where "A firm produces polo shirts with an alligator on them and it advertises them... Each consumer of the polo shirt advertises, via the alligator on his chest, this brand of polo shirt... A TV broadcast, to be faithful to reality, shows some yong people wearing the alligator polo shirt. The young (and the old) see the TV broadcast and buy more alligar polo shirts because they have 'the young look.'"

I liked this quote in a review of Casablanca as a cult movie: "When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion...the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime."

There were a bunch of essays that I ended up skimming through, due to lack of familiarity with the subject matter (anything written about Italian politics), or lack of interest (meditations on the Middle Ages). But the essays where he deconstructed media in various forms were worth the read. I'll probably never re-read it, so it's good I got it from the library, but I'm glad I read it.

posted at: 21:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 21 Aug 2004

Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff
Subtitled "How I survived the Gold Rush years on the Internet". I had seen this book around and had some vague interest in reading it, but never got around to it until a friend of mine was giving away a free copy. So I borrowed it and read it. It was pretty nondescript. Wolff tried to ride the Internet wave, and even though he had a fair degree of success, never really bought into what the Internet was enabling, which was the democratization of media. As a writer himself, he felt that "my business, my somewhat unique skill set, was to compose point of view and story and character in such a way that a more or less broadly defined group of people knows what I'm talking about and perhaps even thinks what I want them to think or feels what I want them to feel." He's selling his point of view, which he believes to be educated and privileged. Instead, he found out, "the Internet was an instrument through which we were all finding we could exercise a highly individual and idiosyncratic control over the messages we were getting... you could, if you wanted, make your voice as powerful as any other. You could send your own message." His response? "Good for you. God save us." The rabble is loose.

Since I think that's one of the most exciting bits of the internet, I didn't really feel too much for his sadness as he comes to this realization. And the book itself was kind of dull. Despite reliving the times when everybody was trying to figure out what the internet was good for, from 1994-96, Wolff doesn't really capture the dreams and anticipation we all felt living through it. Not really worth the read, I'd say.

posted at: 11:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 10 Aug 2004

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
Several people have highly recommended to me Wallace's novel, Infinite Jest, but I've been too intimidated by its 1000 page length (of which 300 pages are footnotes) to try it. But when I saw a collection of his essays in the used bookstore, I figured that might be a way to ease in and see if I liked his writing style. And the verdict? I do.

Wallace is a highly talented writer and observer. The book consists of seven essays, written for a variety of magazines about a variety of events, ranging from a tennis tournament to the Illinois State Fair to a Caribbean Cruise. Wallace does a great job of focusing in on the absurdities of a situation, and why we react the way we do. Or at least on why he reacts the way he does. And he writes beautifully (or belletristically, as he would say - he's one of the few writers in the last ten years for whom I had to use a dictionary). His style does tend to be verbose - the essay on a one week Caribbean Cruise is 100 pages, with pages devoted to insignificant details like the design of the portholes, or the various machinery in his bathroom. But it's consistently interesting. I especially like his ruminations on the atmosphere of forced fun (with an attitude like We've paid to have a fun-filled active vacation, and by golly, we're going to have one). I also found the footnotes to be entertaining. As one who tends to go off on parenthetical digressions myself (gee, ya think?), I find his work to have lifted the digression to an art form, with footnotes that are often a page long themselves, with references to other footnotes.

A couple of the other essays reveal his deep grounding in postmodern philosophy and critical theory. Actually, all of the essays do, but particularly in the one meditating on the role that television has played on the literary scene, the one that previews David Lynch's film Lost Highway and reviews Lynch's work, and, of course, the one reviewing a book that is a survey of poststructuralist critical theory. Since I'm curious about postmodern theory, it was interesting to read his asides on the subject.

I also liked his essay about the tennis tournament, where he is following a tennis pro who's trying to make The Leap to the top-ranked players - he's 79th in the world at the time Wallace follows him. And yet, even to make it to that point, this player, Michael Joyce, has sacrificed his entire life, concentrating only on tennis since he was two years old (the essay title is a work of art itself - "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness"). It actually reflects things I've been thinking a lot about myself, which is the tension between trying a lot of different things but being mediocre at all of them, or focusing on one thing and getting really good at it, at the cost of not doing anything else. Michael Joyce (and all professional athletes really) are an example of the latter option, and Wallace makes it very clear what Joyce gave up to achieve what he has (hence the reference to "Grotesquerie" in the title). I lean towards the generalist approach currently, but in a world of increasing specialization, where you really have to focus in on something for 20 years to be able to do anything of note, is there really a place for the generalist any more? This is probably fodder for another post at some point. When I've thought about it some more. Anyway.

Good stuff. Thoughtful. Well written. I'll be looking for copy of Infinite Jest at some point. I think it'll entertain me.

posted at: 15:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 08 Jul 2004

Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology, by Paul Rabinow
A friend lent me this book, purporting to be "an ethnographic account of the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction" at Cetus, one of the first biotech companies. Unfortunately, I think that the book fails at both of its primary tasks. As somebody who still doesn't understand a lot of biochemistry despite having worked at a biotech firm for a few years, the book does an extremely poor job of explaining the scientific concepts involved. It throws around the terms primers, polymerases, and oligonucleotides as if the reader should already understand them. I never got a clear sense of what the science was, and the book suffered for that.

The book also fails as ethnography. It doesn't do a good job of stepping back from the account and giving a larger picture of the scientific process. This would be okay in a case study, but it doesn't cover the discovery in enough detail to make it work as that either. It's trapped in between - a history of a specific company and a specific technology without enough detail to allow the reader to pick out the universal aspects. At the end, Rabinow draws some conclusions, but they aren't well supported by the previous text, and are not very interesting conclusions anyway. For a more interesting take on the subject of technology discovery and how credit and blame gets distributed, I preferred Aramis, by Bruno Latour.

Lastly, the book is just poorly written. As noted, the scientific concepts and jargon are never explained. The book does not appear to have a tight focus. It wanders from the founding of Cetus and the difficulty of getting academic researchers to work in a corporate lab at that time, to Cetus's attempts to get into the diagnostic probe market, to the theory of PCR, to the implementation and application of PCR. There's very little holding the book together. Rabinow also includes interviews with several Cetus employees, but the interviews seem to be randomly dropped into the text without any connection to the text around them. It's a frustrating read. I can't say I recommend it.

posted at: 00:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 01 Jul 2004

Seven Seasons of Buffy, ed. by Glenn Yeffeth
This is the third book analyzing Buffy that I've bought, after Reading the Vampire Slayer and a Buffy philosophy book. This one takes the angle of inviting other authors (the book is subtitled "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show") to analyze the show. There wasn't actually a lot of insight from most of these essays, unfortunately. I did really like the one by Sarah Zettel, which articulated one of the reasons I grew disenchanted with the show as it progressed; she noted that the protagonists, who started out as total outsiders living through high school hell, eventually became the ultimate insiders, protecting the world against the perils of the supernatural. Unfortunately, a lot of the fans like me were more sympathetic to the characters when they were outsiders, because we're outsiders. Alas. There were a few interesting perspectives, and a lot of worshipful paeans to the show which, while dull, actually did remind me of why I liked the show so much. I may have to go watch some DVDs. Or possibly even my tapes of the later seasons. We'll see...

posted at: 14:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 25 Jun 2004

Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich
I read a Wired article a couple years ago about the MIT blackjack team, a group of MIT students who used their ability to count cards to beat the system at Vegas and make a lot of money. Millions of dollars allegedly. This intrigued me both because it was about MIT students, but also because it turned out one of the guys I knew at MIT had been on one such team. The Wired article turned out to be a condensed version of a book, Bringing Down the House, which I finally managed to borrow a copy of recently.

The book-length version is also pretty entertaining. It's undoubtedly exaggerated, but it's a good story, and a real page-turner - I read the book in a couple nights, staying up way too late to do so. The explanation of how you can set up a team to beat the system at blackjack is interesting, and the vision of these MIT geeks playing the part of high-rollers in a Vegas casino cracks me up. It's a quick fun read, probably not worth buying unless you see it cheap.

posted at: 01:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 03 Jun 2004

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
I'm a big fan of Dennis Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro series. I didn't enjoy Mystic River as much, although the movie was well done. So I didn't know what to expect from this novel, which I picked up from the library. It was okay. Pretty standard psychological thriller. Interesting characters, breezy writing. I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn't. It's a quick read. Not much more to say than that.

posted at: 15:55 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/mystery | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 24 May 2004

Inside the Tornado : Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting Edge, by Geoffrey Moore
After reading Crossing the Chasm by Moore a few months ago, I had some interest in reading his next book Inside the Tornado but didn't quite get around to it. However, one of my coworkers brought it into work last week, and I borrowed it and read it over the weekend.

Inside the Tornado picks up where Crossing the Chasm left off. Crossing the Chasm was about managing the transition from a "gee whiz!" technology company to one that serves the mainstream customer base. Inside the Tornado discusses the difficulties of managing the mainstream. To be specific, Moore identifies three different phases once the chasm is crossed: the Bowling Alley, the Tornado, and Main Street. Each of these phases has different priorities and different management objectives. The critical observation that Moore makes is that the priorities and objectives are diametrically opposed from phase to phase; the same management strategy that works in the Bowling Alley will be a complete disaster in the Tornado, and vice versa.

Moore does a good job of identifying key forces at work within each phase, and how those forces interact to create roles; in the Tornado phase, he talks about the gorilla, the chimps and the monkeys of each market. He also lays out the various strategies necessary to be successful in each phase in terms of partnering, positioning and management, and, more importantly, gives advice on how to identify which phase your company/technology is in. It's interesting how the focus must shift from technology excellence to organizational efficiency to customer-focused marketing in each phase, and the reasons for it.

Above all, Moore emphasizes the importance of long-range strategic thinking in a high-tech organization. It is all too easy to chase immediate revenues at the expense of long-term growth, or to get dangerously distracted by a side business when you should be focused on expanding your main business, and Moore gives good examples of each of these. By having the Chasm/Tornado paradigm available as an explanatory and strategic tool, companies can use Moore's insights and vocabulary to help chart their own strategy and have the necessary discussions about the market strategy and positioning at each stage. In particular, while reading this, I was continually thinking about how it related to the project I'm currently working on, and trying to figure out where it fit into this scheme of things. Good book. Nice succinct summary of the market forces at work in the high-tech world. And surprisingly undated despite having been written almost ten years ago in 1995.

posted at: 02:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 22 May 2004

Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff
I've been pretty interested in the work of George Lakoff recently, so I figured I should read one of his books to learn more. Moral Politics was the one available in a bookstore when I stopped by, so that's the one I picked up. It's also the one most relevant to my political rants recently. This book is Lakoff's attempt to explain how the typical conservative and liberal positions tend to cluster. Why is that liberals are in favor of preserving the environment, against the death penalty, pro-choice on abortion, pro-affirmative action, etc? And why are the conservatives opposed? Why is that certain issues like abortion tend to be such hot points and others elicit only a shrug of the shoulders?

Lakoff, being a cognitive scientist, relates the question back to mental models. In particular, mental models of the family. To quote an interview with him:

...the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

He posits that these mental models of the family and of the world project directly onto people's view of government. Government is metaphorically viewed as a family, with the president acting like a father. Therefore, your view of how a family should be run will influence your choice of presidential candidate. These mental models explain a lot about why certain people get elected (that interview has a good one paragraph synopsis of how Arnold Schwarzenegger exemplifies the Strict Father model), and why they take the political positions they do. That's the basic thesis of the book - most of the book is an exploration of how these models and metaphors apply to various political issues.

These models makes a lot of sense to me. I can see them everywhere now that Lakoff has brought them to my attention. And I'm sure I'll be making reference to them in my political rants going forward - heck, I've already started. I'm not sure it's necessary for most people to read the whole book - the two paragraph summary from the interview above gives you the basics, and the book is mostly an exploration of specifics to bolster his argument. If you're into that sort of thing, it's of interest to see how he believes people apply the models in various cases.

In particular, the different models have a lot of utility in helping to explain some apparent conflicts in positions. One obvious one is how conservatives can be "pro-life" when it comes to abortion, and for the death penalty at the same time. Lakoff explains that it's a consequence of the Reward and Punishment system - if you do wrong, you must be punished; hence the death penalty. It also applies to abortion - the conservative model has a strong moral component. Most abortions in conservatives' minds are due to "lust" and unsanctioned sex between unmarried couples; that is wrong in their minds, and therefore the parents should suffer the consequences of their actions and be forced to have the baby, to take responsibility and learn the self-discipline necessary to survive in the Strict Father world. There are many such analyses in the book that I found interesting, but I'm not sure they're of general interest.

What I'm going to spend a while ranting about here, is how these models interact in my own mind. I grew up in the Midwest, outside of Chicago, in a suburb which was all about the Strict Father model. It was a heavily conservative, heavily Christian fundamentalist town and, according to Lakoff, those tendencies tend to go together, because one of the main components of the Strict Father model is the concept of Moral Order, where God has dominion over Man, and the father has dominion over his family. Since that was the only model on display in my hometown, that is the one I adopted.

As I grew up, moved away from Illinois and was exposed to other viewpoints, I moved towards more of a Nurturant Parent morality. I don't believe in the power of punishment that is central to the Strict Father model - I believe that punishment only engenders resentment and leads to a vicious circle (one might note the parallels to the Middle East here). I don't believe that there are evil people in this world, or evil nations - I believe that nobody is evil in their own minds, and you have to work to understand their viewpoint if you ever want to make progress - calling them evil is just a short circuit that leads to inevitable conflict - it's pointless. Their actions may have negative consequences (as I believe, say, Bush's do), but you have to attempt to reason with them on their terms or you will never change their mind. I tend to be a social relativist - what people do with their own lives is their own choice, so long as they don't impact mine. I am liberal on most issues - most would call me very liberal, but since I live near Berkeley and San Francisco, my scale is shifted :).

But my underlying mentality is still that of a Strict Father mold. This is unsurprising, given that a lot of our fundamental attitudes are set in childhood. My instinctual response to many situations is definitely of the Strict Father model. I tend to believe that people should have to earn what they are given; one of my pet peeves is being congratulated or rewarded for something I did poorly - unearned praise feels wrong to me. I tend to believe that people should be given opportunities, but if they don't take advantage of them, that's their responsibility. I don't believe that people can change their fundamental nature, their "character"; if somebody betrays me, I rarely ever trust them again. These are all aspects of the Strict Father model.

So it's an interesting mix in my head, and it definitely causes conflicts occasionally. The question of the poor is a good example. I tend to be against welfare (and I never give money to beggars on the street) because of my belief in earning what you are given. But I am in favor of work or educational programs targeted to the homeless to give them the opportunity to move towards getting a job. It's things like that where I straddle the conservative/liberal line, and I think it's because of the conflict between the empathetic compassionate Nurturant Parent model, and the Strict Father model of my youth. Then there's that libertarian or objectivist streak in me, which Lakoff deems a different variant of the conservative model, but definitely also ties into the "earning what you're given" belief.

I guess I don't really have a point here, except that the different models provide a useful tool for analyzing how people think about different issues. And since one of my main interests is trying to understand how people (both myself and others) think, this book and Lakoff's work in general is of great interest to me. It's definitely provided a good vocabulary for discussing various issues, especially with regard to the campaign this year, and even of my own mind.

As a last side note, Lakoff's work was of such interest to me that I actually applied for an internship at his institute this summer. Alas, I was not accepted, but I'm glad I at least tried. Maybe next year. I'll definitely still keep an eye on his work.

posted at: 04:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Funny Money, by James Swain
I picked up Grift Sense, the first book by James Swain, randomly while browsing in a bookstore a couple years ago because I liked the title. It was a story about Tony Valentine, a retired cop who worked in Atlantic City busting casino scams. The author Swain is a sleight-of-hand and gambling expert, so his details of all the cons that people pull to try to cheat the casino of money is fascinating. It's pretty much a neo-noir kind of novel. Anyway, I really liked Grift Sense, so when I saw Funny Money, the second Tony Valentine novel, at the library, I picked it up and read it last weekend. I liked this one too. I think it's the details that make it enjoyable, especially on life at the casino. Plus, there are several interesting characters floating around. All of whom have flaws - there are no superheros in this novel (Valentine gets beat up several times, for instance). Makes it more enjoyable somehow. Anyway, fun read if you're interested in casino life or hard-boiled type mysteries.

posted at: 03:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/mystery | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 13 May 2004

Catching up...
As is probably obvious, even though I put up reviews of five books today, I didn't read them all recently. I finished them over the course of the last month or so, but I did want to continue my policy of reviewing every book that I read, so they piled up on my desk until I got the chance to sit down and write something up about each of them. And there will be more on the way - I'm about halfway through the book Moral Politics by George Lakoff, and I have a couple other novels from the library that I'll probably read this weekend...

posted at: 08:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
I never got around to reading Ayn Rand in college when everybody else did, but I was going away for a week on business, and wanted something long but compact to read, so I picked this up in paperback form at the used bookstore. Her basic thesis of Objectivism is that reason and egoism should be the principles upon which society is based. In particular, capitalism is the ultimate economic system because rational self-interest will cause great things to happen. Rand also has a view of the world where there are great heroic humans that we should not hold back. From the Ayn Rand Institute webpage, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Atlas Shrugged is a morality tale, expounding the dire consequences that would occur if we went down the road of communism rather than capitalism (the book was written in 1957, so this was a relevant question). I think she takes things to too extreme a level, but her ideas are interesting. And I can definitely see why many nerds take up the banner of Objectivism so enthusiastically in college. Early on, she captures the feeling of being surrounded by people who don't get you, who prattle on endlessly about meaningless topics, which is a feeling that nerds are all too familiar with when trapped in parties with people talking about fashion and the like.

She also makes a pretty compelling case to me of the result of truly following the concept of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." She talks about the inevitable race to the bottom that would occur if such a philosophy were truly put into place as each person tries to outneed the next, and the corruption that would be endemic to such a system. Not a bad description of what happened in the Soviet Union, from what little I know. She also emphasizes the total disincentive for people of ability to work under such a system. In fact, the whole book is a novelistic exploration of what happens when the heroic producers go on strike against such an unjust system.

All in all, I think she makes a lot of good points, especially given the era in which she was writing. The novel definitely drags in places (1000+ pages), especially where she inserts multiple page soliloquys about the horrors of a communistic system and how it holds the true heroic producers in shackles. In fact, I skipped the final 50-page long speech by John Galt, because I just couldn't take it by that point. But it was worth reading, and I have to admit that my personal philosophy has a lot of similar elements to objectivism. And the novel was persuasive enough that even though I think she goes too far, I spent some time thinking about what she had to say and trying to figure out why I thought she was too extreme. And a book that makes me think is always a good thing.

posted at: 08:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Aramis or the Love of Technology, by Bruno Latour
I really liked Science in Action, another book by Latour, so when I saw this on a friend's shelf, I borrowed it. Unfortunately, it took me several months to actually get through it; I started it over Christmas vacation, but I kept on getting distracted by other things, until I finally powered through the last bit a few weeks ago. And now I'm finally writing it up.

Aramis was a proposed public transit system in France, one that would combine the best aspects of the train and the automobile. It was designed to be a point-to-point train system, with small cars that would pick you up at your home and take you directly to your destination with no stops in between. To do this involved many technology leaps, such as "nonmaterial coupling", where two train cars would act as a train without any physical connection (so that a car that was speeding out of a stop could hook up to the train in front of it, and another car could drop out and stop without stopping the whole train). It sounds like a fantastically cool system. The project existed in various forms from 1970 to 1987, through several iterations of prototyping and proof of concept. The technology even worked - the book has some great photographs from the final testbed of cars actually travelling together without being connected physically. But Aramis never made it to the real world. And this book is the tale of a sociologist hired to find out "who killed Aramis?" - what was the fatal flaw in the project or in the management of the project that prevented Aramis from achieving reality?

Latour takes an interesting approach to the book, using a form that he calls scientifiction, a cross between narrative and history, of culture and technology. His protagonist is a young engineer working with the sociologist to figure out the history of Aramis and where things went wrong. Interspersed throughout the work are interview excerpts from people they talk to, as well as impersonal observations from the author himself. Plus there are bits where Aramis itself speaks and asks to be born. These different authorial voices are distinguished by typeface, but that only makes it slightly less confusing. And it made it a bit of a slog to try to keep everything straight, so every time I put it down for a couple weeks, it would take some effort to figure out where I had been and what was going on.

It's pretty interesting, though. Latour is a philosopher of science, emphasizing the culture in which the science is embedded. In Science in Action, he talks about how the bureaucrat lobbying for a laboratory in his district is doing science, because it's all part of the same process. Here he is taking the same approach to project management. The main idea of his that I took away from this book was that a project is not real until it's built. Until there's something physical that everybody can point to and say "That's Aramis", it exists in a realm of uncertainty, where all of its parameters can still be negotiated. Latour goes one step further in fact; like his idea of black boxes in Science in Action, where things are packaged up so we don't think about them, Latour claims that the project doesn't really exist until it no longer exists. That sounds contradictory when I say it that way, but his point is that if Aramis had been built, people would have started using it and it would have faded from their consciousness. They would not have said "I am taking Aramis to meet you at the theater", they would have just said "I'll meet you at the theater". Only when something is taken for granted is it truly real.

The book is fascinating because the sociologist and his engineer intern interview all the various parties involved with the Aramis project, and trace it through its various ups and downs, and the number of different viewpoints is astounding. Everybody has a pet theory of why the project eventually failed, but none of them seem to match up with what happened. If it had really been a critical technical failure, it would have been caught much earlier in the process. If certain people had the antipathy towards Aramis that others suggest, it would never have been approved to go forward with the final full trial. If it was all just politics, that doesn't quite sync up either. It's a conundrum.

Latour brings out all of this and presents it to the reader. His authorial viewpoint sections also point out the negotiations that are taking place in the design of Aramis. As new people get involved, the vision of Aramis changes as do the requirements ("The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises."). He points out that in a successful project, these requirements eventually converge and a physical thing actually gets built which sets the technology into a concrete reality. In Aramis, that never happened; the requirements shifted on a yearly basis depending on which branch of the government was involved, and where they were trying to build it. Latour warns the reader:

If we say that a successful project existed from the beginning because it was well conceived and that a failed project went aground because it was badly conceived, we are saying nothing. We are only repeating the words "success" and "failure", while placing the cause of both at the beginning of the project, at its conception... All projects are stillborn at the outset. Existence has to be added to them continuously, so they can take on body, can impose their growing coherence on those who argue about them or oppose them.
Those projects that succeed are those where the actors involved agree on a coherent vision of what they are building, or alternatively where one of the actors is strong enough to impose their vision on others. This did not happen in Aramis. There was actually a nice compare and contrast project that Latour uses, called VAL, which was an automated rail system built during the same timeframe by the same company. That was an instance where the desires of the company matched up with the desires of the city where it was to be built, and the project went smoothly and VAL came into existence. It's interesting to see how things went differently in the two cases.

This whole thinking of the project as a continuous negotiation is of great interest to me. At work, I couldn't see the point of spending weeks writing a Product Specification Document. But reading Latour made me realize that the point was that setting things down in such a document was a process of negotiation and compromise, and the reason that people took the document so seriously is that they were authoring their vision of the future. My cry that "It's just a document - it's not real!" is inappropriate, because the document will define reality for this instrument, and now is the time when all of the various actors need to address their issues and balance their needs. The project is a living thing, with the documents being merely the history of the compromises necessary to move the product along.

It's an interesting viewpoint, and one that should have been obvious to me, but reading this book really made it evident. Latour's emphasis that technology is always embedded in a social and cultural context, and that the technology does not bring itself to life, but requires real people (the sociologist in the book repeatedly emphasizes following the actors) to invest in it, both fiscally and emotionally. And following the trail of negotiations and compromises as Aramis moved from phase to phase, with new interests being brought aboard at each stage, was a fascinating mystery hunt for Latour to try to solve. I won't give away the ending of who actually killed Aramis, though - it won't make sense without reading the book...

posted at: 00:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 12 May 2004

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, by Ellen Ullman
Saw this at the used bookstore, and it looked sufficiently interesting that I picked it up. Ullman worked as an independent computer programmer contractor throughout the dot-com years, and this book is a sort of memoir of her dedication to the machine, sometimes at the cost of losing track of the people involved. She confronts the problem I mentioned where real users are so much more messy than dealing with the software:

Before this meeting, the users existed only in my mind, projections, all mine. They were abstractions, the initiators of tasks that set off remote procedure calls; triggers to a set of logical and machine events that ended in an update to a relational deatabase on a central server. Now I was confronted with their fleshly existence... I wished, earnestly, I could just replace the abstractions with the actual people. But it was already too late for that. The system pre-existed the people. Screens were prototyped. Data elements were defined. The machine events already had more reality, had been with me longer, than the human beings at the conference table.
And even after meeting the users, it doesn't take long to fade back into the code zone, where she boils their objections down to easily makeable changes to the code. Her meditations on programming are pretty observant, I thought. One passage I particularly liked was comparing the internet to a spreadsheet:
What is it about the Internet, with its pretty graphics and simple clicks, that makes users feel so inundated; and about the spreadsheet - so complicated a tool - that makes them bold? The received wisdom about user-friendliness is challenged here. Human beings, I think, do not like to be condescneded to.

The spreadsheet presumes nothing. It has no specific knowledge, no data, no steps it performs. What it offers instead is a complex vocabulary for expressing knowledge. It is, literally, a blank sheet of paper with a notion of columns and rows - and everything held on that sheet is presumed to come not from the program but from the human user. In the relationship between human and computer that underlies ths spreadsheet, the human is the repository of knowledge, the smart agent, the active party. The user gives data its shape - places it in columns and rows - and eventually turns data into more knowledge. It is the end user who creates information, who gives form to data, who informs the spreadsheet.

This is a stab in the back to most user-friendly design guides I've read. And it makes a lot of sense. Insulting the user's intelligence is not a good thing - that's why everybody hates the Microsoft paper clip. People don't necessarily want things easier, to be talked down to. They want things sensible. It's all about consistent usable feedback. The spreadsheet is a great example. The idea of leaving the user in charge is a point I am pondering a lot in the design of the user interfaces I'm helping to develop at work.

The book was a surprisingly touching meditation on the life of a programmer in the dot-com era, when unreality always beckoned. When it didn't seem unreasonable that everybody knew somebody who had made millions. When people really believed that computers would change everything. Unfortunately, the computers eventually ran into the reality of people, and slammed to a halt. People change slowly. They will adopt new technology, but only if it fits into their life. This is why radically new technology and ideas typically have to wait twenty years for a generation of kids to grow up with those tools. Anyway. Good book. Interesting thoughts. Good writing.

posted at: 23:29 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz
I liked the talk by Peter Schwartz that I went to, so when I saw his most well-known book at the used book store for $3, I picked it up. A pretty quick read detailing the idea of scenario planning, a management strategy involving coming up with several detailed future possibilities for the world and playing them out to see how they would affect your corporate strategy. The point is not to predict the future, but to prepare for it; by having thought through how different factors in the world may affect you, you will be better prepared to deal with any of the myriad things that actually do happen. He emphasizes that a scenario fails if the people it is presented to don't consider it. It has to be realistic and detailed enough to be considered as a possibility, but it also has to challenge the audience enough to change how they think. As he says, "The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future."

After making the case for scenarios, Schwartz then goes into the details of how to prepare scenarios, how to identify critical decision points, how to gather information to construct the scenario story, balancing between pre-determined elements such as demographics versus unexpected possibilities, and composing a plot (he mentions several standard plots, including Winners and Losers, Challenge and Response, Evolution, et cetera).

Finally, he takes these ideas and uses them to construct three possible scenarios for 2005 (the book was written in 1991). And this is fairly interesting, since we're living in that future now. So it was fun to check how various trends that he identified either failed to come to fruition or achieved success that he wouldn't have believed. Not surprisingly, the world that exists has elements from all three of his scenarios (New Empires (where Europe matches up against a Pacific Bloc of North America and Japan and Southeast Asia), Market World (where laissez faire capitalism dominates - this is actually pretty close to what happened), Change Without Progress (our world has elements of this as well, particularly politically)). Interesting stuff.

I like the idea that scenario planning is centered around stories. Stories are one of the most powerful and compact ways to affect people's behaviors. This is the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell would say. Stories tell us what to do, and serve as guides to our daily lives. Scenarios are a way of consciously constructing those stories in a way that is immediately relevant to corporate management. I'm not sure I'd recommend reading this specific book, because it doesn't really have a lot of information; ipso facto, it's a quick read, though.

posted at: 23:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal