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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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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: 12:56 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: 16:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | 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: 15:03 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: 02:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 13 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: 00:29 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 25 Sep 2003

The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin
Trillin wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker over the course of 15 years called "U.S. Journal". As part of that, every now and then he'd throw in an article about eating, as he tasted some outstanding local cuisine someplace. Mind you, he's not necessarily talking about fancy haute cuisine, something which he actually came to dread; as he put it, "A visitor is invariably subjected to... some comment like 'We happen to have an excellent French restaurant here now.' The short answer to that one, of course, would be 'No you don't.'" (this quote was actually the one that got me to read this book - a friend of mine mentioned it, I was amused, he let me borrow the book).

Instead Trillin celebrates the wonderful glories of little hole-in-the-wall places across the country. His favorite is Arthur Bryant's BBQ in Kansas City where he grew up. I've now been to Arthur Bryant's, and it's pretty darn good. And it oozes character. So I can see where he's coming from. This book (well, trilogy of books - it's a collection of "American Fried", "Alice, Let's Eat", and "Third Helpings") collects most of those food-related articles in one place.

I thought the book was entertaining, but in small doses. An article a day is about the right pace. Otherwise, it becomes overwhelming. And because the articles were written three decades ago for the most part, it's slightly dated. But anyway.

posted at: 01:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 22 Sep 2003

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, ed. by James B. South
As a fairly rabid devotee of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as somebody who likes thinking about deeper issues on occasion, this book was irresistible: a collection of articles by philosophy professors and students discussing how various philosophical theories are exemplified by Buffy. It's interesting how many different ways the same episodes can be viewed. We have feminist ethics, Kantian categorical imperatives, Platonic ideals, Freudian thinking, the Nietzschean will to power, and the most entertaining one, Buffy as a fascistic ideal, with the young brave Aryan girl leading her troops against the mixed-blood demon vampires in an unholy campaign of genocide. I enjoyed reading it - I'd read of many of the philosophical concepts before but it helped my understanding to see how they could be applied to a canon that I knew well. I'm not sure it would be as entertaining to somebody who didn't know the series inside and out, though. As a note, it's part of a book series called Popular Culture and Philosophy, including Seinfeld and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and The Matrix and Philosophy, in case any of those bits of popular culture fit your tastes better.

posted at: 00:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 14 Jun 2003

21 Dog Years, by Mike Daisey
Subtitled "doing time @", this is a memoir of Daisey's two years at Amazon. It's an entertaining account, starting with his being interviewed at Amazon because he fit their profile of being a freak (or as he more charitably describes himself, a dilettante). He suffers through life in customer service, figuring out how to game the system to make himself look better (to keep his time/call average down, he would just hang up immediately on every third or fourth caller). He eventually manages to talk his way into a position in business development, which he admits he still can't define. Along the way, he contemplates the "Cult of Jeff" (Bezos, founder and grand poobah of Amazon), the hell of Christmas season, mission statements, the rules that made Amazon work (e.g. The Heisenberg Happiness Principle, "As the uncertainty about what is rises, so rises Amazon's stock price."), the joys of One-Click ordering when stuff will get delivered right to your desk, etc. Daisey eventually manages to extricate himself from Amazon (turning down a bunch of job offers from other dot-coms who latch onto his status as a bizdev person from Amazon) and start to try to make his life real again. It's a quick read, so I'm glad I got it from the library.

posted at: 08:14 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 31 May 2003

Gearheads, by Brad Stone
Subtitled "The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports", this book takes a look at the rise of Robot Wars, Battlebots, and the several other TV shows associated with robotic warfare. It's interesting to me as somebody who watched a lot of these things develop from afar, from being a fan of SRL to cheering my friends on at MIT's 2.70 contest to seeing the first article about Robot Wars in Wired magazine, back in 1994, featuring a tank-like robot with a chainsaw on top. Stone does a good job of interviewing all the people associated with the rise of robotic sports, and detailing the various legal shenanigans that eventually sucked many of them in.

posted at: 09:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 03 Mar 2003

A Year at the Movies, by Kevin Murphy
Kevin Murphy, formally associated with MST3K, decided to embark on an unusual (some might even say foolhardy) quest. He decided to watch a movie a day, every day, for an entire year. And to watch movies under as varied conditions as possible. He sees movies at film festivals in Norway and projected onto a bed sheet in Mexico, as well crashing the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals. It's an amusing memoir of his travails trying to stick to his self-imposed duty, with lots of insights into the movie-going mind in the process, and why we love the movies so much.

posted at: 16:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
This is one of the few books that takes a close look at the medium of comics. Scott McCloud uses the comic book format to explore the conventions of comics, and how comics use our brain to do most of the heavy lifting for them. It's an interesting look into what makes the medium work, and as a guide to studying the ground rules in any medium.

posted at: 16:43 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Poker Nation, by Andy Bellin
This book is an interesting peek into the world of professional gambling from one of its practitioners. With chapters ranging from poker strategy to the history of Vegas, the book necessarily is shallow in its exploration of various topics. But it definitely whets the appetite. After Bellin describes the thrill of bringing a huge bet home, it got me tempted to go out looking to play poker someplace. Instead I settled for downloading a shareware Texas Hold'em Poker game. I'm currently down $500 from my stake of $2000. Perhaps I'll hold off on the casino a while longer...

posted at: 16:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/fun | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal