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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: 12:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | 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: 11:33 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: 23:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 22 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: 00:48 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 18 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: 00:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 28 Jan 2005

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: 03:04 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 11 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: 02:38 by
Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | 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: 23:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | 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: 12:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 13 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: 00:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | 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: 03:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | 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: 07:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 01 Jan 2004

Small Things Considered, by Henry Petroski
Subtitled Why There Is No Perfect Design, this book by an engineer describes the compromises necessary in any design. This was recommended as a book-of-the-month by Joel Spolsky - scroll down for his snippet on this book. I was intrigued enough to toss it into my latest Amazon order, and read it while at my parents over Christmas.

Petroski does a good job of looking at the simplest things and the design inherent in them. In one chapter, he discusses the design of the drinking glass sitting on his desk as he's writing. How wide should it be for people to get a comfortable grip on it? It has to be a compromise, because people have differently sized hands - do you design for the average? How tall should it be? Short and squat means it's less likely to tip over and spill its contents all over your desk. But taller means more capacity, which means fewer refills. How thick should the glass be? On the sides? On the bottom? More glass on the bottom means it's more stable, but it also weighs more, so it's harder to pick up. He mentions the convenience of the glass being round, so you can pick it up without looking at it, because any alignment is equally suitable for drinking, but square glasses would pack better into cabinets. All of these decisions had to be made by somebody while making this glass. And there's no perfect design. It depends on the situation; if you're thirsty, you want a bigger glass, if you're going to be working with a lot of papers, you want a short, more stable glass. If you're a big person, you may want bigger glasses to fit your hands better. All of design is contextual. All design choices are compromises when designing for the use of more than one person, or even the same person at different times (clothes that are appropriate for lounging around the house in are not appropriate for going to the symphony in, even if they fit equally well).

I thought this discussion was interesting, but the book never really changed in tone. Each chapter was basically a repeat of the same thesis and the same detailed examination of an object, starting with the drinking glass, but later touching on one's house, lighting from MagLites to light bulbs, cars, supermarkets, duct tape, toothbrushes, etc. Some of the details were interesting, explaining why certain design choices were made in the development of some of these products, but the sameness of the discussion was evident by the end. I'm not sure what I would have done differently as the author, but by the end, I was starting to skim, and even though it was a relatively quick read, I was glad it was over when I finished. I can't say I recommend it unless you're interested in the specific design choices made for some of these products; the previous paragraph basically gives you the entire thesis of the book, and there's no reason to read any more than that.

posted at: 05:57 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 24 Dec 2003

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens
I read a brief excerpt from this book several months ago in NewsScan, and was intrigued enough by the concept of a "contrarian" to add it to my Amazon wish list, but never got around to buying it. A few weeks ago, I was at a friend's house for dinner, and noticed that he had a copy on his bookshelf, so I asked if I could borrow it and read it.

I like it a lot. I have no idea who Hitchens is. According to the book jacket, he's a columnist and an author. But he was asked to take part in a series, "The Art of Mentoring", "based on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Like the text it emulates, the series invites leaders of the arts, vocations, professions, obsessions and missions to contribute a text meant to shape the future of their disciplines and to inspire the careers of the next generation..." (quote from the book jacket) So he wrote a book on how to be a radical, a curmudgeon, a dissenter, or the word he eventually settled on, a contrarian.

The book is structured as a series of letters to a generalized student of his, examining several aspects of being a contrarian sprinkled liberally with historical examples as well as personal anecdotes from Hitchens's travels. He takes on political dissent, religion, debate, humor, and psychology in various letters, with admonishments on his preferred view of the world. I think a paragraph from the last letter does a good job of summing up:

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the "transcendent" and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
I really liked this book. I'm definitely getting a copy of my own at some point. Every letter has something to think about, an idea or a viewpoint that's worth considering. One great example is a strategy that Eastern European dissidents used in the Cold War, the "as if" strategy. Vaclav Havel, among others, "realised that "resistance" in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living "as if" he were a citizen of a free society, "as if" lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, "as if" his government had actually signed the various treates and agreements that enshrine universal human rights." Hitchens goes on to detail other examples of this strategy like the American civil rights movement or Solzhenitsyn's writings against the gulag. It's a powerful idea. It's a basis for nonviolent protest. It's also, he warns, a lonely and tiring strategy, as everybody asks you why you're trying to fight the system. But this is the life of the contrarian in his view. "In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, or some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority... try behaving "as if" they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable."

I'll never be the devoted radical that Hitchens is. I'm not going to fly off to the Balkans to document and publicize extensive human rights violations. But his viewpoint is a valuable one. Society needs people who are willing to go against the grain and question what is the norm. They serve the function of the "social T-cells" that David Brin mentions. And I can only aspire to be one of them.

posted at: 02:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 06 Dec 2003

Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa.
(originally posted on 8/17/03, link fixed on 11/17/03) I found this book in a roundabout way. In Conscientious Objections, Neal Postman reviewed the book Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, calling it one of the most important books of the last century. Korzybski developed the field of general semantics, a system of thinking about language and thought. I was going to get it, but was a bit intimidated by the reviews at Amazon, many of which recommended Hayakawa's book as an easier to read introduction to the field. So I got this book instead.

It's amazing. It codifies a lot of my personal philosophy and attitudes in a more coherent manner. In particular, it focuses on several cognitive mistakes that drive me crazy, including the confusion of the map with the territory (or the generalization with the specific, or the word with the object), the perils of the two-valued orientation (which dominates news and other venues because of the ratings appeal of arguments - see Breaking the News, by James Fallows for a more thorough investigation), and the inability of some people to move up and down the abstraction ladder.

There were so many great ideas in this book that I wish everybody would read and live by the precepts in this book. I'm definitely interested in reading more on the subject of general semantics, and one of these days I may get around to tackling Science and Sanity. We'll see.

Specific things that I took note of in the book include:

posted at: 17:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 01 Dec 2003

The Transparent Society, by David Brin
Like The Humane Interface, I picked this up when a friend was giving it away. I read most of it last month, and then finally finished it over Thanksgiving weekend. Brin is asking an interesting question: is privacy a lost cause? And, if so, what is the proper way to respond?

His suggestion is that it is, and rather than ineffectually fight to preserve it, we should seek to create the best possible society in light of its loss. His suggestion is that we move towards a transparent society, where everybody is visible to everybody else. His reasoning is that if there is secrecy and stealth, those who are in power will benefit most, because they will be able to hide their lives more effectively than the common man. So the best we can hope for is that everybody is equally exposed.

It's an interesting thesis, and it's unclear whether Brin really believes it or whether he's merely advancing it to jump-start a discussion. Regardless, I think he makes a lot of good points throughout the book, and I'm halfway convinced. Interestingly, Brin doesn't argue for openness and transparency from a moral perspective; he argues for it on purely utilitarian grounds. The "keystone epigram" of the book is: "Humans have found one fairly reliable antidote to error: criticism." He points out that science, with its tradition of openness and criticism, has advanced much further than any other area of human knowledge. He proposes that society needs those same qualities. American society has come closer to achieving this ideal than any other in history, due to its constitutional emphasis on free speech, freeing up journalistic investigations and various issue groups such as the ACLU. Brin advocates the promotion of "social T-cells", "independent-minded persons who are well educated, skeptical, and driven by pumped-up egos to the point where their most devout goal is to find and reveal some terrible mistake or nefarious scheme."

Other points that I liked included his emphasis that "those in power" did not just include the government, the great enemy that cypherpunks and militiamen alike fear. It could be corporations. It could be an elite group of hackers. But the point remains the same: those in power tend to act in ways so as to preserve their power. The best brake to prevent their running amok is to expose their shenanigans to the light.

He also decries the "Singapore Question, which proclaims that we must either be protected slaves or else liberated savages." This false dichotomy encourages people to choose to give away their freedom for safety. He believes that the transparent society is an opportunity for metaphorically having their cake and eating it too.

There are difficulties with the transparent society, of course. Nobody among us really wants to expose all of their private lives to the world. We have curtains on our windows for a reason. But in a world where gnat cameras become ubiquitous, where monitoring somebody's e-mail becomes as easy as downloading a freeware program, and where all of our information will be kept in massive corporate databases, there may be no choice. So if we're going to be exposed regardless, the only thing we can hope for is that we can control our information or at least take steps to find out where it's going.

Speaking of controlling information, Brin points out that most companies have a policy in place allowing them to snoop on your telephone calls or e-mails already, under the guise that you're using their property. I've taken the step of creating a roving privacy zone, by owning a cell-phone/PDA. All my personal calls go through the cell-phone, so there's no interaction with the company's system. My e-mail is sent to my home account, separate from the company's address, which I can either access through the web or on my Sidekick. Minor steps that could easily be overcome, of course, but it's like using the Club when parking my car; I don't have to make myself impervious - just harder than the next guy to deal with.

Back to the book, Brin points out that common courtesy may point the way to living in a transparent society. When we go to a restaurant, we generally don't stare at other patrons or listen to their conversations. Even though we share a space, we ignore them and they ignore us. The same may hold true in a transparent society. I'm sometimes asked whether I feel comfortable putting up my thoughts on a public website. My response is generally "Who's going to read it?" Most people that find their way here know me personally, and I'd have no problem saying such things to them in person, so why should I have a problem posting it here? And for those that find their way here randomly, that's okay, too. I'm not a famous person or anything, so I severely doubt that somebody's going to start stalking me with this information. So it all works out. And I could see how it could all work out in the transparent society. Assuming that we all grow up and learn courtesy first.

All in all, I liked the book. There were several thought-provoking questions asked, and an interesting new viewpoint was developed. I'm not sure I agree with everything that Brin is espousing, but I appreciate his opening up the debate. Who's next?

Brin sprinkled interesting quotes throughout the book. A couple I really liked were:

posted at: 17:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 17 Nov 2003

Quantum Psychology, by Robert Anton Wilson
I saw this book while looking around on Amazon for books related to Korzybski's Science and Sanity (much like how I found Hayakawa's book). I picked it up because I've read two of Wilson's sci-fi trilogies, the Illuminatus trilogy and the Schrodinger's Trilogy. I liked them, but they were very weird, so I was surprised to find out that his works would be referenced next to serious academic works like Hayakawa and Korzybski.

It turns out that Wilson calls himself a Transactional Psychologist, which he says "holds that we do not passively receive data from the universe but actively "create" the form in which we interpret the data as fast as we receive it. In short, we do not re-act to information but experience transactions with information...derived from our gambles as our brain makes models of the ocean of new signals it receives every second." In this book, he's basically trying to take a layman's impression of quantum mechanics and apply it to psychology, with varying degrees of success. The most interesting correlation was the idea of the observer-created universe. In quantum mechanics, when doing an experiment, there is no "result" until the experimenter makes a measurement or an observation. Until that time, the experimental system exists in a state of superposition, and the waveform does not collapse. This sounds spooky and non-intuitive, as has been illustrated by Schrodinger's thought experiment with his infamous cat.

Wilson takes this idea and several of Korzybski's ideas to try to develop the theory that the entire universe is observer-created. And there's a lot of merit to that idea. Two people observing the same event will often tell two completely different accounts, depending on their backgrounds and their predispositions. This comes up often in our judicial system where eyewitness accounts are incredibly unreliable. 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."

He also delves into several of the same issues as Hayakawa's book, such as the perils of confusing our mental maps and symbols with reality, and the dangers of saying something "is" something else. In fact, Wilson recommends using a modification of English called E-Prime, where "is" doesn't exist, instead using "appears" or "is observed as". For instance, the wave-particle duality issue of physics goes away by using E-Prime - instead of "The photon is a wave" or "The photon is a particle", we have "The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments" and "The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments." The wave-particle "paradox" is due to our language and preconceptions because we "know" that a photon can't be two things at the same time. By saying it has to be one or the other, we get confused. But the "paradox" is the result of our trying to impose our Aristotelian classification system onto the world, rather than accepting what the world is telling us. It's not an either-or world - what we see depends on how we choose to observe the world.

Wilson ridicules the whole idea of "is"-ness. When we say something "is" something, we are contending that the object has some sort of ineffable, eternal quality about it that Wilson calls "spooks" (after Max Stirner) or "semantic noise". As before, he uses the ideas of quantum mechanics to demonstrate that everything is always changing, and the question of what something "is" at any moment is ultimately undefinable, due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the distributed nature of probability waveforms.

From there, he departs into some much stranger ideas, including the idea that faith healing may be related to the dispersion of neurotransmitters through the body, and the possibility of non-local phenomena related to the non-local correlations demonstrated by the EPR paradox and the Paris Aspect experiment. He concludes by hoping for "a HEAD Revolution - Hedonic Engineering And Development" where "the neurosomatic healings and neurosomatic "highs" (yogic or chemical ecstasies) found intuitively or accidentlaly in the past will then give way to a precise technology of staying High and living Well."

All in all, I liked a lot of what Wilson had to say. But I think his application of quantum mechanics to psychology was seriously flawed. He makes the mistake of doing what he criticizes, by taking language and treating it as reality. The language of quantum mechanics is linear algebra. Not English. I took quantum mechanics at three levels on my way through my physics career, and the math is gorgeous. After they introduced the linear algebra notation (instead of the horribly clunky integral notation originally used), the equations just fell out so beautifully. They are wonderfully predictive and useful, as evidenced by the omnipresence of semiconductor technology in the modern world. However, despite having been fairly adept with those equations, I still couldn't tell you what they "mean" or how to interpret those results in an intuitive sense. The equations are the equations. The math is the math. Trying to apply them to systems other than subatomic particles, even as an aid for intuitive understanding, is using an inappropriate tool, like trying to use a hammer for measuring distances.

By the same token, any description of quantum mechanics that happens in English is automatically imprecise and inaccurate. So to take those descriptions and treat them as reality and draw conclusions from them is a flawed process (Wilson admits that he has never taken a physics course and is going purely on descriptions). I think that many of the conclusions that Wilson draws are interesting and possibly useful, but not because of their derivation from quantum mechanics. They are (or, I should say, they appear as, to properly use E-Prime) interesting and useful in their application to human relation and our daily lives. And, as Wilson says (and I agree), utility should be the judge of ideas and systems, not some ineffable essence.

posted at: 19:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 06 Oct 2003

The Humane Interface, by Jef Raskin
Jef Raskin was one of the primary designers of the Apple Macintosh, and has been respected in the human-computer interaction field ever since. I'd been meaning to pick up this book ever since I first read about it in the Good Experience newsletter. So when a friend was giving his copy away, I grabbed it. I have to agree with his review, though. The first four chapters are interesting reflections on what it takes to make a good interface; I especially like his discussion of how to design an interface such that it fades into being automatic (tips include reducing modal interfaces, because modes mean you have to think about what mode you're in before launching into your automatic keystroke sequence). His point is that we as humans will develop habits, and computers should adapt to those habits rather than the other way around. This first part of the book deals with cognetics, a term he coins in analogy to ergonomics, the study of arranging things to be most efficient and comfortable for the human body. Cognetics is designing for the limitations and tendencies of the human mind. Raskin has several good observations about our tendencies as users, and how interfaces can be designed to accommodate those tendencies.

Then Raskin decides to evangelize for the operating system that he designed for the Canon Cat. I like a lot of the ideas he's trying to design to, but his actual design choices seem pretty awful to me. Maybe that's because I'm brainwashed by the current design of computers and have gotten used to them. But it does get repetitive hearing him talk about the wonders of his own design. And his detours into hard-core quantitative user interface testing were really dull to me. So I skimmed through a lot of the second part of the book.

Overall, probably worth a library checkout. Not a purchase.

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

Tue, 16 Sep 2003

Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
When I was in high school and college, Orson Scott Card was one of my favorite writers. Several of his books are still among my most cherished re-reads. And one of the main reasons for that was his powerful characterization. He made characters that I identified with and cared about. So when I happened across this book by him with lessons on how to create vivid and memorable characters, I picked it up to see what insight he might have into his technique, even though I have no interest in fiction writing.

And it was pretty interesting. He details different choices that have to be made in what kind of story you're writing, what the characters are like, who's detailing the action, etc. He writes all these great little examples in different styles to illustrate the impact of the techniques that he's describing. He does a good job of laying out the toolbox necessary to do character work, and more importantly, asks the questions that need to be asked when creating somebody. It was nice insight into the writer's mind and what's going on. And I think it wouldn't hurt for Card to go back and read this book (written in 1988), given the poorer quality of the fiction he's written recently...

posted at: 18:04 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 21 Aug 2003

Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, by George Woodcock
I picked this book up at the used book store because I've always been interested in anarchism as a political theory but didn't know much about its history or philosophy. Plus the book was only a couple bucks.

It was a decent overview of the writings of several of the prominent anarchist philosophers from William Godwin to Proudhon to Kropotkin and Bakunin. It was good to read about the main ideas that each of those figures proposed, and how others of the time reacted to them. And it was historically interesting to read about the different movements spun off from anarchism, from the collectivists to the violent anarchists assassinating government officials to the anarcho-syndicalists trying to usurp the political process for the sake of anarchism. But it did drag on a little bit; when he descended into tracking the anarchist movements of individual countries, I started skipping a lot.

The answers I was looking for were not evident in this book, though. None of the anarchist theorists could articulate a vision of the future that was compelling, or even possible. Kropotkin even explicitly rejected such plans - "Kropotkin accepted the view that society, especially after the social revolution, will never cease growing and changing, and that any exhaustive plans for its future are absurd and harmful attempts by those who live in an unhappy present to dictate how others may live in a happier future." Later in the book, Woodcock states "Anarchists have been especially conscious of this duality of universal man and particular man, and much of their thought has been devoted to seeking a balance between the claims of general human solidarity and those of the free individual. In particular they have sought to reconcile internationalist ideals - the idea of a world without frontiers or barriers of race - with a stubborn insistence on local autonomy and personal spontaneity."

This is always the question of anarchy. How does everybody get to do whatever they want and not infringe on each others' rights? Most anarchists believe strongly in man's inherent leaning towards social responsibility, but I have less faith in my fellow man than they do. If anything, these questions are magnified in the present age, with an unprecedented interdependence across human society. For my food and possessions and well-being, I'm dependent on thousands of other people scattered across the whole world. In a world of anarchy, how would I ever survive?

I tend to believe that anarchy can only work at small scales, where social feedback mechanisms can operate. Sociologists estimate this size to be 100-150 people, which is small enough such that everybody knows everybody else at least to the level of feeling comfortable saying hi, and small enough for gossip to work effectively. When somebody slacks off in such an environment, people know, and the slacker is shunned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways until they shape up. In larger environments, it is much easier to hide, and much easier to rationalize away socially irresponsible acts.

Anyway, I liked the book. Bogged down a lot in the second half, but overall a worthwhile read.

Oh, and I liked the quote from Thomas Jefferson I quote in my weblog.

posted at: 16:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 17 Jul 2003

Conscientious Objections, by Neil Postman
Subtitled "Stirring up trouble about language, technology, and education", this book is a collection of essays by Neil Postman. Postman's best known work is "Amusing Ourselves to Death", a book describing how television is destroying American's ability to think critically. Postman's main interests include semantics (the study of meaning and language) and education and culture. These essays cover all of these topics and more.

He proposes several radical ideas to improve education - I especially liked the idea of including Creation Science in the curriculum of schools (in the essay "Columbusity"). Wait, you say, that's a terrible idea! His point, though, was that we include it and then judge it by the standards of science. Rather than teach evolution and natural selection by rote, as if we were quoting the scripture of Darwin, start by teaching the scientific method, the idea of falsifiability of hypotheses, etc. Then take the two theories and put them up against the scientific method. It will teach the students to think critically and judge for themselves, rather than blindly accept what they're told. Another idea was to treat education like we treat health ("The Educationist as Painkiller"). Doctors don't try to instill health, they try to cure sickness. He proposes that educators don't try to make students intelligent, because we don't know how to do that, but instead try to cure stupidity in "some of the more obvious forms, such as either-or thinking; overgeneralization; inability to distinguish between facts and inferences; and reification, a disturbingly prevalent tendency to confuse words with things."

He also has several scathing essays about the overwhelming power of television, from instilling a new set of ethics and morality (in "The Parable of the Ring around the Collar" and "The News"), to the fear that the medium is turning us into an aliterate (able to read, but choose not to) culture dominated by images and sound bites ("The Disappearance of Childhood"). Lots of very interesting ideas. I actually kept this book past its due date to finish reading it (because I didn't pick it up until the day before its due date to start reading it).

Some of his writings are available on the web if you're curious to read more.

posted at: 03:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 15 Jul 2003

The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida
I can't remember who recommended this to me, but it's an interesting book. Richard Florida is a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He loves the Pittsburgh area, and was dismayed to find that high tech companies such as Lycos were moving away from Pittsburgh to other locations such as Boston or Silicon Valley. What was Pittsburgh missing that they were looking for? He started surveying high-tech professionals and finding out where they wanted to live, and noticed the same few cities appeared at the top of each list: San Francisco, Boston, Austin, Seattle, Portland, Boulder, etc. Then, as he puts it, "came the real stunner." He met Gary Gates, a graduate student at CMU, who was studying the location patterns of gay people. The lists corresponded almost one-to-one. Florida's conclusion was that "rather than being driven exclusively by companies, economic growth was occurring in places that were tolerant, diverse and open to creativity - because these were places where creative people of all types wanted to live." The more he researched this thesis, the more evidence he found to support it. This book is the result.

Florida postulates the rise of a "Creative" class. As he tells it, the twentieth century was the story of three classes. The first was obviously the working class, which dominated the early part of the century. Throughout the century, as things became cheaper to manufacture off-shore, the service class came to dominate, to the point where 40% of the jobs in America were related to service in some form or another. As we enter the 21st century, he describes a Creative Class, which involves anybody doing creative work of any kind, from scientists and engineers to musicians and artists. I personally think it's a bit broad in that formulation, but it lets him draw some interesting conclusions.

Florida pictures this book as the modern day equivalent of William Whyte's classic 1956 book, The Organization Man, which described the ideal company man of the day, going to work, living in the suburbs, existing in a perfect "Leave it to Beaver" kind of life. Florida is attempting to describe what the "Creative Person" is doing today. What kind of jobs do they do? What kind of experience at work do they want to have? For instance, he takes the example of "The Machine Shop and the Hair Salon". He asked his students (and many other people) "If you had just two career choices open to you, where would you work - in a machine shop, with high pay and a job for life, or in a hair salon, with less pay and where you were subject to the whims of the economy? ... Time and again, most people chose the hair salon, and always for the same reasons. Sure, the pay isn't as good, but the environment is more stimulating. It's more flexible; it's clean; you're scheduled to meet your clients and then left alone with them, instead of grinding away to meet quotas and schedules with bosses looking over your shoudler. You get to work with interesting people and you're always learning new things, the latest styles. You get to add your own touches and make creative decisions, because every customer is a new challenege, and you're the one in charge. When you do good work, you see the results right away: People look good; they're happy." (p.86)

The point he's making is that today's workers are more demanding of their work environment. They will not slavishly follow jobs around. They are putting their lifestyle first. Hence, the behavior he noted initially, where companies were moving to where the talented people are, rather than the other way around. He goes on to make several points about how to get the most out of creative class employees, with chapter titles like "The Horizontal Labor Market" (noting how most people don't expect to climb the corporate ladder these days, instead getting ahead by transferring between companies), "The No-Collar Workplace" (emphasizing the flexibility people expect), and "Managing Creativity" (explaining how to motivate people - money isn't the answer - more control over their environment, more immediate feedback, more sense of ownership of their work is).

Florida also notes the steady speeding up of time. As our days become more packed, people demand more flexibility so they can keep their lives together. They feel the need to spend what little free time they have in more exciting, more experiential environments. They want to get the most from their time off. Hence the steady rise in "extreme" sports. He also points out the choice of many such people to go to the local neighborhood (such as Greenwich Village in New York or the Haight in San Francisco) and wander around rather than attend a highly structured event such as the symphony or a professional sporting event. In one case, you're stuck passively watching one thing for several hours. In the other, you sample and choose among the different activities available, browsing in galleries, sitting at a coffeeshop, listening to a band at a bar, etc. Hence the preference for time-crunched people of the Creative Class for places which support such neighborhoods and thriving local arts scenes.

Florida makes a couple interesting rebuttals/additions to other social scientist's theories. One of the best known is Robert Putnam's social capital theory, as described in Bowling Alone. Putnam believes that the problem with American society is a lack of social capital - social ties are weaker, people do not commit to organizations as much as they did in the 1950's, etc. Florida turns this theory around and explains how members of the Creative Class are explicitly rejecting such a lifestyle. They're choosing to live in "quasi-anonymous" communities with weak social ties, rather than strong. Why would this be?

Florida postulates that communities with high social capital, in the Putnam sense, also have a high barrier to entry. Everybody knows each other, they interact with each other regularly, everybody knows what's going on. That means it's very hard for an outsider to break in, become one of the club and access economic opportunities. Meanwhile, the Creative Class member is looking for places that are tolerant of high mobility, very diverse, with low barriers to entry, where people can drop in when they have time. Strong ties such as Putnam describes are actually very limiting - they take a lot of time to support and maintain, leaving less time for other ties. Today's economy favors somebody with a much larger network of weak ties - when looking for a new job, the more connections you have, the more likely somebody will be able to give you a lead. "Weak ties are critical to the creative environment of a city or region because they allow for rapid entry of new people and rapid absorption of new ideas and are thus critical to the creative process." (p. 277) In fact, Florida does some statistical work to demonstrate that communities which most closely match Putnam's ideals of social capital turn out to be doing most poorly economically. They were stuck in old modes of working and living that were not appropriate for today's world.

His last couple chapters are prescriptive, describing how cities and regions can start to attract more members of the Creative Class. Unfortunately, as he points out, because of network effects (network connections go up with the square of the number of people, so the usefulness of a network grows exponentially), there is a looming social divide. Creative Class people want to go where there are jobs and interesting environments and other Creative Class people. That fosters a virtuous circle for areas which are already attractive to and home to such people. However, it means that such areas are drawing people away from areas such as Pittsburgh, as Florida laments. I'm not sure what can be done about that.

Overall, I thought Florida's theory of the Creative Class was thought-provoking and had a lot of merit. As a putative member of said class, I was impressed with how well he nailed my preferences and my attitudes. Interesting book. Worth reading.

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

Sat, 31 May 2003

How The Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker, a professor in the cognitive science department at MIT, is best known for his theories of language acquisition, as described in his book The Language Instinct. In this book, he takes a swing at the larger problem of how the mind works. His thesis, in his words: "The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people." (p.21) He examines each of the problems that parts of our brain were designed to solve, from vision to emotions to social relationships, and theorizes about why certain algorithms were developed by natural selection. It's a somewhat reductionist approach, and he freely admits that he has no answer to some of the harder questions, like where consciousness, or sentience, comes from. But it is an interesting attempt to break down some of the mind's behaviors into understandable chunks. I didn't really get any sense of "aha!" from reading this, but there were lots of small-scale points to ponder.

posted at: 11:21 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 10 Apr 2003

Neural Computing: An Introduction, by R. Beale and T. Jackson
I borrowed this from a friend when it looked like I might be trying to do something with neural networks at work. It's a nice little summary of the basic neural network algorithms, with derivations of the equations and things like that. Useful for a quick overview, which was what I wanted, so that worked out well.

posted at: 17:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 22 Mar 2003

Wittgenstein's Poker, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
On Oct. 25, 1946, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, two great philosophers of the twentieth century, met for the first and only time at a philosophy club meeting at Cambridge University. Recollections vary as to exactly what happened, but strong words were definitely exchanged, and Wittgenstein may have picked up the fireplace poker and threatened Popper with it. This book (subtitled "The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers") uses the incident as a springboard for exploring the careers of both men, as well as touching on the lives of various people who interacted with them. It's a quick overview, with less philosophical discussion than I had hoped. But as somebody who know nothing about Wittgenstein, and very little about Popper other than my appreciation for this theory of falsifiability, this book served as a good introduction to their work. Now I'll have to go track down some of their work and read their ideas firsthand, I think.

posted at: 11:01 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal