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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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Fri, 01 Apr 2005

The last days of New York (March 29-31)
Nothing too exciting to report on my last few days in New York. On Tuesday, March 29, I wrote up a few book reviews in the morning, and headed over to see the Guggenheim Museum in the afternoon. I don't think I'd visited the Guggenheim before, so seeing the space was a wonderful experience. I loved the big skylights, the way the various galleries flow into and through each other, and the way you can often peek into galleries from a floor above or below. It plays with the space, and I just love that. So yay.

I wasn't all too impressed with the main exhibit by Daniel Buren, the centerpiece of which is two large mirrored walls installed in the main circular atrium, forming a corner. It looks kind of neat, especially from the angles where it almost perfectly reflects the atrium, forming a complete circle, but it doesn't really do much for me. And his work with repetitive stripes is just dull. I did like what he did with the secondary atrium, where he covered the windows with colored films - you can see the splashes of colored light on the right.

None of the rest of the art on display was too exciting. I think they were between exhibits because the main spiral was devoid of art, which is not normally the case. The permanent galleries had some good early modernist work. I did like the work of Franz Marc, particularly Stables (seen at left) and Broken Forms, as well as Robert Delaunay's Eiffel Tower. Of the Kandinsky collection, I liked their initial acquisition, Composition #8, the best. Having realized my artistic preferences while I was visiting the Met, it was amusing to see how all of the stuff that caught my eye fit those criteria. I'm so predictable.

The next day (Wednesday, March 30), I went out to lunch with a friend of a friend at Junior's deli in the Grand Central Station food concourse. There was an enormous amount of meat on my reuben. Yummy, but almost painfully too much food. I'm such a lightweight these days. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and with a high of 60 degrees, so I headed uptown to explore the northern half of Central Park, which I'd never done. I started off walking around the reservoir, which I captured in a landscape photo above, and then just kind of wandered around for a bit, by the ice rink (sponsored by Trump!), the ornamental gardens, and the Harlem Meer (Meer is apparently Dutch for lake). It was fun to see all the different people out in the park, from the mothers walking their kids, to the joggers, to the guy practicing his golf swing with what looked like whiffle golf balls, all enjoying the weather.

Afterwards, I wandered by the immense Cathedral of St. John the Divine, since I was in the area. It's in bad shape, having suffered a fire a few years ago, but its sheer bulk is astonishing. I took off my headphones when I walked in, and then had a better idea, firing up the Requiem of Tomas Luis de Victoria, as performed by the Tallis Scholars. That was cool, walking around this enormous space with this amazing music playing in my ears.

Then back down the island to check out an art exhibition my parents had told me about called Ashes and Snow. It's this guy who's spent the last 13 years going around the world and staging photographs of people with animals in a way that's meant to evoke the fundamental interconnectedness of us all - you can see a bunch of examples on the website. But I thought it was pretty lame. I felt that it was designed to tug on the emotional heartstrings, with wide-eyed children sitting near elephants, falcons, jaguars and other animals. But it felt overtly manipulative to me, sentimental pablum, with the emotional depth of a Hallmark card. I hate being manipulated. I had to blast Nine Inch Nails on my headphones for thirty minutes afterward to scour my brain out.

I hit the Life Cafe for dinner. The place where I was staying was two doors down from the Life Cafe, and I'd been thinking of stopping there my entire time in New York, but it was finally clinched when I noticed the poster for the musical Rent, with a comment that they were mentioned in a song. I was like, "Wait a second! I know that song!", at the end of the first act, where they all go to the Life Cafe to hang out and drink "Wine and Beer!". So I had to go there. It was okay. I had a draft Guinness and a bowl of chili. But the Rent connection is pretty amusing.

The next day was my last day in New York, at least this time around. It was another relatively nice day, so after I finished packing up, I wandered down through the Lower East Side to go walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, because I thought that'd be cool. I was walking along the way I thought I needed to go when I saw a sidewalk up onto the bridge. Excellent. I started walking out over the river, and got a good five minutes before I realized I was on the wrong bridge. Oops. This was the Manhattan bridge, not the Brooklyn Bridge. So I retraced my steps, walked further, found the right bridge and walked it. For future reference, Brooklyn Bridge has the pedestrian walkway down the center where you can see stuff. The Manhattan Bridge has a bikeway suspended underneath the bridge, next to the subway tracks, where you can't see anything.

It's a pretty walk, with good views of the New York skyline. Plus the bridge itself is a great piece of engineering. And walking across the bridge had the added (uncoincidental) bonus of delivering me to near where Grimaldi's is, a pizzeria located under the bridge on the Brooklyn side. I'd read a couple good reviews of the place (the Zagat survey rates it as the best in New York), and I had realized that I hadn't had real New York thin crust pizza in my time in New York, which was unacceptable. This was good stuff. I don't remember the pizza we had at John's Pizzeria well enough to compare, alas, but both places are darn good. Grimaldi's was absolutely packed, which makes sense since it was the tail end of lunch hour, but a bit surprising, because there really didn't seem to be anything else around it, so I wondered where all the people were coming from. Anyway, I ordered a 16" pizza (they didn't do slices), and ate 2/3 of it, which was a bit much. The advantage was that it solved the question of what I was going to do for dinner at the airport, since I now had leftovers.

Then back to the apartment for a final once-over, grab the bags, and head out on the subway to JFK and thence back to my life in the Bay Area. I had a great time in New York. I think this trip might have been long enough. I did pretty much everything I had planned to in New York, and I'm ready to sleep in my own bed again. I'm not quite ready to deal with going back to work, but that's the way it goes. Gotta pay for this vacation somehow.

P.S. I wrote most of this entry on the plane. Yay laptop. I had been planning to read a bunch more of Latour's book, but the reading light was busted for my seat, which was a first for me, and so when they turned out the lights, I didn't have a lot of choices. I worked on this entry, napped a bit, I read some of a social software essay I had downloaded, I rewatched "After the Sunset", which doesn't really make any more sense the second time around, I listened to music. Plane rides without reading suck. On the other hand, I read the book on the BART ride home, and I only was able to struggle through about ten pages. Man, that book is dense.

P.P.S. The trip home was a delightful(?) conglomeration of transit options. I left the New York apartment, walked the half mile to the subway, took the subway to near the JFK airport, took the "AirTrain" from the subway stop to the airport terminal, took a plane from JFK to SFO, took BART from SFO to the Macarthur stop, and took a taxi home rather than carry my suitcase for that last mile. Trains, planes, and automobiles, oh my.

posted at: 00:31 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 28 Mar 2005

Henry Rollins and Cornell (March 24-28)
Thursday, March 24, was pretty much a lost day. I was worn out from too many days of sight-seeing and meeting people, and the weather wasn't great, so I found it difficult to drag myself out. I did a bunch of blog updates in the morning, punted around a bit in the afternoon, and finally headed out in the late afternoon. I walked up Fifth Avenue, admiring the Empire State Building, before heading over to the Theater District to see if I could get a ticket to see Henry Rollins in his new show. I didn't really know anything about Rollins, but a friend of mine had told me that Rollins was going to be doing shows in New York while I was here, and recommended that I check him out. So I did.

Excellent stuff. Rollins calls himself a spoken-word artist, which basically meant that he got up on stage, and ranted for two and a half hours straight. And he was utterly engrossing the entire time. Whether he was railing against the Bush administration, or describing the seven day plus two hours that he spent on the Trans-Siberian railway, or spending thirty minutes leading up to the "time I was funny", where the punchline is anticlimactic, but the thirty minutes of storytelling was wonderful, or how he went on a USO tour, and then visited injured soldiers in hospitals in Washington DC, he was always interesting. And it's hard to do that. Well worth seeing, if you get the chance.

Friday morning, my friend Jofish picked me up. We stopped by his friend's art installation at a gallery in Chelsea (one of many I didn't get to), and then headed off to Cornell, where he's a grad student. Batman drove down from Toronto to meet us, and we spent the weekend talking and eating and drinking, hence the lack of blog updates. I met some of Jofish's cohort of grad students, and it was fun discussing the research that people were doing. I don't think I'm ready to go back to grad school yet, but I could see it as a possibility in the right situation. Something in the space of science and technology studies, maybe. Or something about the intersection between social practices and computers.

Monday morning, it was miserable and raining, and since Jofish had a ton of work to do, Batman and I decided to clear out, him driving back to Toronto, and me taking the bus back to NYC. At Ithaca, the bus only had about ten people on it, and I stretched out and it was quite nice. When we hit Binghamton, though, the bus filled up, with every seat taken, so that was less fun. But the bus got back to New York in about five hours, which wasn't so bad, although I was amused to realize that it took the same amount of time to take a bus from western New York to NYC as it does to take a flight from San Francisco. Distance just doesn't mean anything any more.

The other nice thing about the bus trip was that I finished off Me++ (Man, I'm like three book reviews behind at this point - maybe tomorrow morning) and picked up Latour's Politics of Nature, where I slogged through the really dense 20 pages necessary to figure out what's going on, where he does a four page overview of the book, with 15 pages of term definitions. I think I have a grasp on the overall thesis of the book now, so I think I'm going to be able to tackle the rest of the book now. But man, reading through that hypertextually linked glossary was hard - the perfect task for a cramped bus ride on a rainy day where there's nothing to see.

So, yeah. Back in New York City. I've got two and a half days left before I return to my normal life. Kinda scary. I haven't even started on a couple of the things I said I was going to do on this vacation, like lay out the outline for the cognitive subroutines book. Man. I need to buckle down.

posted at: 23:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 24 Mar 2005

The Met (Wednesday, March 23)
I'd been saving the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a rainy day, and Wednesday definitely qualified. It wasn't just raining, it was snowing, and cold and miserable. A perfect day to spend inside. As usual, I got off to a late start, but it worked out fine. I got to the museum around 1:30pm, and spent the next four hours until the museum closed at 5:30 wandering around. Their collections are just too huge. I had to do some massive triage to even have a hope. So I ignored all sculpture and decorative arts, because I generally don't find those interesting. I punted on most of the art of other cultures, although I did walk through the big Egyptian temple, because that's just neat. So I mostly concentrated on the American wing and European paintings, with visits to old favorites like Arms and Armor, and Musical Instruments.

I had an insight into my own preferences while walking around the paintings. I realized that I didn't care for bright primary colors, for simplistic shapes, and for "realistic" depictions. Anything that seems to say "this is the way it is". I like having different perspectives, of having new ways of looking at things. I live in a world of grays, not in a world of black and white, right and wrong. So paintings that are slightly abstract, paintings that have a more muted palette with faded blues and greens and grays, those appeal to me. Not fully abstract. I still can't get into the work of Rothko or Pollock or anything. Anyway. It was interesting to me.

It was also fun to realize my eye for art is slowly improving. I was able to recognize the work of most of the masters like van Gogh and Monet. When I was walking through the American wing, I saw a painting and thought "Wow, that looks like JMW Turner's work." Then I read the little placard which said that the artist's use of light "suggests the artist's appreciation of the English master JMW Turner". It turns out there was a whole school of American landscape artists, the Hudson River School, whose work was heavily influenced by Turner, so I spent some time browsing that section, because I love that particular use of light, the way it is almost impressionistic in the way it illuminates a scene, as illustrated by the work by Thomas Cole seen to the right.

After getting kicked out of the museum at closing, I had to head crosstown to get to the dinner party I was going to attend. Rather than take the subway down, across and back up, I decided to brave the elements and walk across Central Park. It was a reminder of things I don't miss about the East Coast - by this point, the snow had accumulated enough on the warm ground to turn to slush. Yum! I made it across the park, found a cafe, and hung out there reading and warming up for a bit. Unfortunately, by the time I left, the snow was actually blowing sideways. I gave up on the umbrella as being useless in that strong a wind, and trudged through the slush off to my dinner party, where we ate good food and had interesting conversations until midnight, of which more in another post.

posted at: 11:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Chelsea art and Shockheaded Peter (March 22)
I spent the morning catching up on blogging, and blathering on about the meaning of power, before heading out at lunch time. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny and getting up to about 50 degrees or so. That, combined with the fact that my one-week unlimited subway ride card had run out, convinced me to walk rather than take the subway. I walked from the East Village over to Chelsea again, and spent a couple hours wandering through the galleries there. Since it was a nice day, I wore my spiffy sportcoat, which immediately upgrades anything I wear it with. That plus the hip Adidas sneakers that I bought with my friend Wilfred, at least made me feel like I was dressed well enough to venture into these galleries and be taken seriously.

A few exhibitions that I thought were neat (again, this is mostly for my own recollection):

David LaChapelle had a really neat exhibition. He's a photographer - the exhibition had two sets of photographs, one with him staging somebody dressed as Jesus in a bunch of sketchy situations, like Jesus presiding over a gang meeting posed as the Last Supper, reminding us that Jesus spoke to and was with the outcasts of his day, the disenfranchised. The other was similarly stark but brightly colored stagings of what looked like a pimp and prostitute. Very colorful and somewhat shocking. Looking at his website, I really like the portrait work that he's done too.

I liked the black and white photography of Masato Okazaki. He starkly captures the decay of buildings, such as the piece to the left.

I liked the Sublime Sanctum exhibition I saw of Madalina. I particularly liked Freedom, seen at the right.

After that, I walked over to the Theater District. I'd had vague thoughts of trying to get rush tickets to Wicked or Avenue Q. The way it works for those two musicals is that you fill out an entry form for a lottery ticket, and then they pick the 12-20 lucky winners. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but when I showed up, and saw the hundreds of people lined up to fill out the form, I punted. I walked over to the half-price booth to see what was available, and saw that they had tickets for Shockheaded Peter for 35% off, so I took one of those tickets. It turned out to be way in the back and off to the side, but the theater was small enough that it didn't matter.

I had wanted to see Shockheaded Peter when it came to San Francisco, but never got around to it. It had been described as subversive, sinister and stylish, all of which appealed to me. Alas, it was a disappointment. It's supposed to be shocking because it tells fractured morality tales where children misbehaved and are killed or punished. Like the girl who plays with matches and burns herself up. Or the boy who's told to stop sucking his thumbs and doesn't, and gets his thumbs cut off. But that's it. They tell you they're going to do that at the top of the show, and then they do it. There's nothing surprising, nothing even particularly whimsical about their presentation of the material. I wanted something that would make me involuntarily grin or be shocked or something. It was just kind of eh.

That being said, the production and staging was fabulous. This was a show that people who produce shows should see to note how a little can go a long way with some imagination. For instance, the bit with the girl burning herself up with matches. To simulate that, she had on a skirt, with a bunch of red-and-yellow colored underskirts. As she allegedly caught on fire, she started lifting her outer skirt a bit, so that the red poked through, and then started dancing around the stage, with her lifting the skirt higher and higher, until it was over her head and all you saw was the red and yellow underskirts. And then she jumped into a stage trapdoor. Creative and simple staging of something that could have been done very poorly.

There were lots of nice little touches like that, with effective use of paper cutout scenery and dropping things from the top of their set. But the stories they were telling were just not interesting enough to me. Maybe I just didn't get it. Alas.

posted at: 10:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 22 Mar 2005

Lazy couple days (March 20 and 21)
After staying out til 2am the previous couple nights, I ended up sleeping in until noon on Sunday morning. I had kind of planned that - the weather forecast had said that it was going to be cold and rainy on Sunday, so I figured I should get my fun in while I could. I puttered around the apartment for a bit and did some laundry, before heading out to meet up with the sister of a friend. We hung out at a Belgian frites place in the Village, had a couple beers, went out for falafel, and then she headed home, because she's working as a teacher, so had to be up early.

Monday was more of the same. Cloudy, not quite raining, and cold. Again, I ended up puttering around the apartment a lot, playing with some blog entries and reading. There's nothing to do in New York on a Monday, it turns out. All the museums are closed, except for the Guggenheim, whose website said that half their space was closed in preparation for opening a new exhibition this weekend. Broadway is shut down as well, so no plays in the evening. I was at a loss for what to do.

I did eventually drag myself out, and over to Katz's Delicatessen, made famous by the scene from When Harry met Sally (they have a little sign over the table that says "I hope you have what she's having!"). I got a pastrami on rye, and, wow, it was good. Thick slabs of juicy hot pastrami. Simple, but yummy.

I headed over to Times Square, where I stopped by the AXA Gallery, which has a retrospective on Times Square after one hundred years. It has pictures of Times Square over the past century, from the initial excitement of movie theaters and electronic signs, through the down years of porn theaters and crime, and the renovation back into a place safe for the whole family. Kind of neat. I didn't know that Times Square was named as such when the New York Times put their offices there for a while back in the early 20th century, for instance.

After seeing the Tim Hawkinson exhibit at the Whitney last week, I wanted to check out the Uberorgan installation in Midtown. So I stopped by there in time to see the 6pm performance. It's basically a music box/player piano, blown up to be absolutely immense. Kinda neat.

Then I spent some time browsing at a bookstore called Rizzoli, and then off to grab a hot chocolate before heading to the evening's entertainment, a performance at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, featuring the music of John Adams. I'm torn about John Adams - some of his stuff is amazing, and some of his stuff is just kind of there. And that impression was reinforced by this concert.

He was apparently in town for a program where they select some up-and-coming young musicians and have them work with a modern composer on one of his pieces. This year's composer was John Adams, and the piece was Chamber Symphony. To fill out the program, they had a few other short works by Adams, and a session where a Carnegie director interviewed Adams for a while on stage. I always find it interesting to hear what was in the composer or artist's mind, so I liked that part, especially with the works being played immediately afterwards. For instance, his work for two pianos, Hallelujah Junction, was inspired by an intersection near his cabin of the same name. He loved the name, wanted to write a piece to go with it, so he started with the most famous Hallelujah, the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah. And when he says that, the music makes much more sense, as you catch the allusions to the chorus in his work.

Of the pieces themselves, I really liked Hallelujah Junction. The two pianos playing together and drifting into and out of sync reminded me of Music for 18 Musicians, a piece I adore. And I also liked Road Movies, a work for violin and piano, which probably had a lot to do with the spectacular violinist, Leila Josefowicz, who reminded me of Lauren Flanigan in the way she threw her entire body into the music, wrestling it into submission. Adams himself noted that sometimes the composer gets too much credit, and that she and the pianist took the piece beyond what the notes on the page alone were.

The second half wasn't nearly as compelling. I didn't like either American Berserk, a work for solo piano, or the Chamber Symphony. There was lots going on, and the performances were technically excellent, but the music didn't have the same core as the first half, I thought. It was great to see the young performers in Chamber Symphony, though - they were clearly having a blast, and they were pretty darn good.

Overall, it was a worthwhile experience - Zankel Hall was a really great space, seating about 500 people underneath the main Carnegie performance hall. It was much smaller and more intimate, and that was appropriate for the night's performance; even though I bought tickets at the last minute, I was in the 13th row (of 20), and had a great view. I was introduced to a couple pieces that I really enjoyed - I'm likely to get Road Movies, the CD that features Hallelujah Junction and Road Movies, using the performers I saw. So, yay.

posted at: 09:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 20 Mar 2005

Carmen (March 18)
Apologies for the out of order entries here. This actually happened before the last entry, but I wanted to write about the play immediately while it was fresh in my brain. So now we're back to Friday, where I spent the morning sorting out my back entries and going to the coffeehouse and uploading a whole slew of stuff. I should note that a lot of the detail in these entries is for my own benefit. Years from now, when I want to remember "Hey, where was that restaurant with the soup dumplings?" or "What was the name of that artist I liked?", I can go back to these entries. I don't necessarily expect them to be of interest to anybody else.

After dealing with the blog stuff, I headed uptown to see how the Squid:Labs sculpture turned out. Pretty excellent. You can see the fully operational sculpture at the left; the way it works is that if you pluck any of the blue cords, a signal is sent to the computer housed in the spool at the lower left, and a tone sounds. There's also visual feedback on the screen in the spool of how hard you're pulling the rope. It's pretty neat. On the right, you get a better sense of how the ropes are attached between the pillars in a spline-like skew pattern. I don't know how to describe it any better than that. But very neat. I'm sure the kids are going to absolutely love playing with this thing when the exhibit opens next month.

Afterwards, I wandered across Central Park, and poked around the Upper West Side for a while. And, as long as I was over there, I picked up a dozen bagels from H&H bagels, since they're, y'know, awesome. Back down the island, I stopped by the Times Square half-price booth to see what was available, but nothing really appealed.

I was okay with taking the night off, but then Sasha called me and said that he and his girlfriend Rena were going to see their friend sing in a production of Bizet's Carmen that evening at a church in Brooklyn. That sounded like a New York kind of thing to do, so I said sure. The production was remarkably good. I think the One World Symphony is an amateur orchestra, and it showed, but they tried hard. But the singers were very good. Okay, yes, I'm biased towards singers, but it also means I can be more critical of them. None of them had the kind of powerhouse voice necessary to make it in a full-size opera hall, but they had plenty of power for the church, and negotiated some fairly tricky passages with aplomb.

The staging was also quite well done, despite the lack of a stage. Just a big open space between the pews and the altar. The orchestra was on the left half, the singers on the right. No sets. No subtitles. But it worked. The description in the program was enough to help figure out the context, and the choreography and acting made it pretty clear as well.

Carmen is just fun. I'd never seen it before - I was thinking about it during the performance and realized I'd probably performed more operas than I'd seen - I think I've only been to the opera twice - I'd been to the Met last time I was in New York, and this time, whereas I've been in three semi-staged operas, I think (Dido and Aeneas at Stanford, The Flying Dutchman and Mlada with the Symphony). But even though I hadn't seen it, I knew the music. Everybody does, if you've watched Bugs Bunny. So it was fun - good music, good performance.

I also liked the sheer incongruity of it all. We're sitting in this beautiful old church in Brooklyn, watching an opera. If you'd walked by on the street, you would never have guessed. The floor would rumble regularly with the subway going underneath. But rather than detracting from the experience, it added to it, because it underscored the obstacles the performers were overcoming to make this performance happen. They were doing it because they loved music and wanted to make it happen. And I think that's great.

Afterwards, we went to Faan, an Asian fusion place near where Rena lived. She's a regular there, and so we had a blast, hanging out with the restaurant host and having some really excellent sushi. I think we got out of there after 1am, and then I took the subway home. Yay public transportation that doesn't require pumpkinulation at midnight. And also yay a city where even at 1:30 in the morning, the streets are still crowded with people, as they were on my walk back from the subway. In most parts of San Francisco, the streets are dead at 11pm, let alone at 1am. In the East Village, it's hopping until much later - I went to the midnight movie last night and lots of people were still out at 2am when I got out. Crazy stuff.

posted at: 15:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 19 Mar 2005

This Is How It Goes
I've been a fan of Neil LaBute's work since seeing the movie In the Company of Men, which I saw based on this review by James Berardinelli. I also saw Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, which didn't impress me as much, and his play, The Shape of Things, which was okay (and later also made into a film). LaBute's work all centers around the ruthless way in which we all manipulate each other to get what we want. It's sometimes painful, but always thought-provoking, because we can always recognize in ourselves the inclinations towards such behavior, even if we haven't taken it to the lengths that his characters do. By baldly stating some of the thoughts that we would never admit to thinking, LaBute forces us to confront our own inhumanity.

While perusing TimeOut, I noticed he had a new play out, This Is How It Goes, starring Ben Stiller, Amanda Peet, and Jeffrey Wright. It immediately shot to the top of the list of "shows I want to see in New York". So I managed to snag a rush ticket this evening. Obstructed view, but it was half price, and the view wasn't that obstructed. It was a great little theater, about 250 seats, with seats surrounding the thrust of the stage on three sides. So I was in the sixth row (of seven) all the way around towards the side, but since most of the action happened out on the thrust, that was no big deal. And it was kind of cool to be thirty feet away from movie stars like Peet and Stiller. Anyway.

The PR tagline is "LaBute trains his eye on a small town in America for what is billed as a 'new tale of manipulation, exploitation, race and infidelity,' through 'the story of an interracial love triangle.'" One white man, one white woman, and her black husband. I liked it a lot. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead, so if you're thinking of seeing this, and want to know nothing, you should probably stop here.

One of the things I liked about it was the bit I mentioned in my first paragraph above, where LaBute makes us, his audience, decidedly uncomfortable, by having our likable narrator, Ben Stiller, make horrid racist comments. The bit that makes it uncomfortable is that he makes them in his exposition of his thoughts, where he's speaking directly to the audience. We've all had awful thoughts. We might never admit it, but we do. Maybe not racist thoughts, but perhaps misogynistic thoughts or elitist thoughts - thoughts where we downgrade somebody to a stereotype, and treat them as an object, not a person. That guy that cuts us off in traffic? Asshole. Our conscience will almost immediately edit the thought and we would never say such things out loud, but they're there, lurking beneath the surface, as Stiller comments at one point. And to hear them, out loud, makes us uncomfortable, because it forces us to confront the awful things we think. That we, no matter how politically correct we aspire to be, still have a primate brain that is instinctually distrustful and hostile towards those that are not like us (as I put it in this post, "in an emotional sense, they aren't people to us. They don't evoke our rules of fairness. They are objects in the world, to be used and disposed of.")

Another thing I liked about the play was the fact that Stiller's character states at the very beginning that he's an unreliable narrator. He skips around in time, says things like "Oh, yeah, I should have mentioned this bit that happened two weeks before", etc. I just like meta-humor, so it works for me. And it works for the play, because it lets LaBute control how information gets dripped to the audience because, as usual, there's a twist.

I also liked how LaBute brings up the question at the end of whether the ends justify the means. If you had the opportunity to live "happily ever after", what would you be willing to do to make sure it happened. Would you lie? Steal? How far would you go to get the life that you feel you deserved? Is truth always the best policy? What is truth, anyway? Personally, I feel there are no moral absolutes. There are always exceptions. In each situation, several factors are in play, and which ones you value more highly will determine how you respond. (I can't resist - in cognitive subroutines speak, the prerequisite conditions for various moral precepts will vary from person to person). LaBute, or, rather, Stiller's character channeling LaBute answers the question the way most of us probably would, choosing happiness over a strict moral code.

On the way out of the play, they had posted a placard with a reproduction of a letter that LaBute got after the movie Nurse Betty. The writer said they were a fan of Renee Zellweger, and of LaBute's work, but that the part where Zellweger had kissed Morgan Freeman in the movie was unacceptable, and that left-wing activists like LaBute shouldn't put that sort of immoral stuff in people's faces, because most Americans think it's wrong, and that the writer was going to boycott LaBute's work and Zellweger's work from now on for having offended them. Wow. LaBute cites the letter as the inspiration for this play.

They also had an interview from TimeOut, which is not available online as far as I can tell. It had a great quote where the interviewer referred to LaBute's infamous tendency to avoid happy endings. LaBute's response: "Happy relationship, shitty play." Drama comes from conflict. You can see why I like this guy.

I wanted to get my thoughts down on the play while it was fresh in my head. Today I didn't do much that was exciting. I got off to a slow start, again, because I didn't get in til 2am last night (I'll write up yesterday tomorrow, because it's supposed to rain tomorrow), but I eventually dragged myself out because it was a sunny nice day. I wandered through Chinatown (and stopped for lunch at a place called Mandarin Court, and had what I think was my first significantly subpar meal in New York), then over through SoHo some more (where I put a bid in on a piece of art up for silent auction (seen at right) - I doubt I'll win it, but it was neat, and it was relatively cheap, and I figured what the hell), then up through a street fair in Greenwich Village, then back to my place for a break before heading out to dinner at a ramen house and off to the play. And now I'm psyching myself up to go catch a midnight showing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I really liked when it first came out, at the local independent theater, because midnight movies are always fun. Yeah.

posted at: 22:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 18 Mar 2005

Yup, I'm a dumbass
In case there was any question, it is confirmed that I am, in fact, a dumbass. When I got back to the apartment, and opened up the laptop, this time with wireless enabled, there were something like nine networks in sight, four of which were open access. Words don't describe how dumb I feel.

This would be a good excuse to pull a Don Norman, and complain about the idiotic user interface design of the wireless interface, which should be able to detect that the wireless is turned off, and should therefore tell me when I do "View available wireless networks" that "Hey, dumbass, turn on your wireless before you try that!" Except that I just realized that the wireless switch is probably a hardware switch put in by HP, and Windows doesn't talk to it. *sigh* I can't escape the derision I'm gonna get on this one.

posted at: 17:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Blog uploading
So I've been writing entries on my laptop, but had not yet figured out how to get them uploaded to my site. My host has cable internet, but when I plugged his network cable into my laptop, I couldn't get a connection, probably because my MAC address doesn't match or some nonsense. And I couldn't find a wireless connection. This morning, I finally got around to wandering over to the local internet cafe, got a mocha and a croissant, and hung out here for an hour or so with my laptop uploading stuff.

Of course, I may have pulled another stupid Perlick trick. I got here, and knew that they had WiFi. But my laptop wasn't finding a network. I thought, "Huh. That's odd." Then I look down and realize that the wireless was turned off on my laptop - I'd turned it off before getting on the airplane in San Francisco in case I had wanted to play with my computer during the flight. Why I thought that would happen on a red-eye flight is beyond my current comprehension. I turned the wireless back on, and four networks show up. So when I go back to my apartment and find out that there's wireless available there, and all of this could have been avoided, I'm going to feel pretty damn stupid. If there is a wireless network over there. Which there probably is.

Even if there isn't, though, this is a pretty cool coffeehouse, so I may just end up spending mornings over here anyway.

posted at: 12:47 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (March 17)
It was a relatively nice day, so I decided to spend it wandering the streets. In particular, I chose to go investigate the art galleries of Chelsea. First I had lunch at Bongo's Fry Shack, which was recommended by last week's TimeOut magazine, but which was disappointingly overpriced and not very good, as this review indicates.

Then it was off to find the galleries, which took me a while. I had the address of one, and it turned out to be almost at the western edge of the island. The first one wasn't very interesting (Amy Globus at D'Amelio Terras), but then I found another, which also wasn't very interesting, but had a map of the local galleries, so I found the dense concentration of galleries on 23rd and 24th between 10th and 11th Ave. That was fun - I just wandered into each one, glanced a bit at the work, and moved on. There were a few art students doing the same, taking copious notes. The Gagosian Gallery had an exhibition of Damien Hirst's work, called The Elusive Truth. I've liked some of Hirst's other work, but this did nothing for me.

In fact, I really only saw one artist in any of the galleries that really appealed to me. That was Gordon Terry at the Mike Weiss Gallery. I particularly liked "Below the Moon and Above the Clouds", on that page. He had several relatively large scale paintings in that style of abstract swirls of color mixed together on translucent plexiglass. I wish I could analyze what made it work for me, but it definitely did. Alas, it is $12,000, so it will not be adorning my living room wall any time soon.

I then took the subway over to SoHo, and started walking around a few galleries there, killing some time before my friend A. arrived on the train from New Haven. Nothing really caught my eye, except for a store called Modern Stone, which had all sorts of neat stone products, from bookends to tables.

I met up with A. at Grand Central station at rush hour without a problem. Fortunately, I'm tall and easy to spot in crowds. We wandered around Times Square for a while just talking and catching up, had dinner at Pongsri Thai, which was quite tasty, and then went to see "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Longacre Theatre, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. A. is in the Yale drama school, so he'd managed to score us free tickets during this preview week (one of the Yale drama professors did the costuming for the show). How cool is that?

I knew nothing about the play going in, other than it had been made into a movie and that it was a well-known play about people being awful to each other. I think my taste in movies such as In the Company of Men has inured me to such things, because it wasn't nearly as caustic as I'd expected. Then again, given that it was written in the 1960's, I can imagine it was absolutely shocking at that point. The production was quite good, as would be expected.

A. caught the train back to New Haven, I came home, and crashage ensued.

posted at: 10:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 17 Mar 2005

Whitney Museum (March 16)
Today I got off to a slow start. My fourth day in New York, and I'd already worn myself out. So I took the morning off, reading and relaxing. I ventured out for lunch, stopping by a Korean place I'd seen the night before in the East Village. I liked it - I got the stone bowl bi bim bop, which is one of my favorites.

After that, I headed uptown to the Whitney Museum. I got on the 6 train, which was the straight shot subway ride. Alas, there was a power outage or something uptown, so that line was shut down for a while, so I took another line up towards Carnegie Hall, and then had to suffer the horrors of having to walk through Central Park to the Whitney. That's sarcasm, by the way - walking through Central Park is one of my favorite parts of visiting New York. I was comparing it to Golden Gate Park in my head, and realized the thing that made Central Park seem more impressive to me. In Golden Gate Park, there are numerous places where you can be walking through the woods, and there's very little intrusion of city life. In Central Park, the city is always there, asserting itself by the skyscrapers rising in the distance above the trees. It's intimidating in a "You can never escape" sort of way, but also makes the park seem like a powerful gesture of defiance. And being the anti-authoritarian I am, I like gestures of defiance.

Anyway, I eventually wound my way to the Whitney. I'd read someplace online about an exhibition by Tim Hawkinson there that sounded intriguing, and my interest was only whetted when one of Dan's friends yesterday had raved about it. I'll let this review describe it, but I liked it. His sense of whimsy is infective, and his creations of electromechanical contraptions out of found junk is inspiring to a geek like me. I particularly liked his "Secret Sync" set of sculptures, where he built a set of clocks out of seemingly ordinary objects, like a Coke can where the can rotates such that the opening is the hour hand, and the pull tab is the minute hand, or a hairbrush with two almost-invisible hairs marking the time.

The rest of the museum wasn't as inspiring, alas. The other major exhibition was by Cy Twombly, whose work I just don't appreciate. It just looks like scribbling to me. I'm sure he had a big message, but it's not satisfying.

As far as the permanent collection, I liked the Calder collection, because Calder is just neat. They had a videotape of the Calder Circus, a set of wire figurines that he'd made and used to put on shows towards the beginning of his career, with trapeze artists flipping from one swing to the next. I also liked a work I saw by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, called "Oriental" or some such (seen at right). I'm not quite sure why; I think I liked the way it evoked shapes without quite making them explicit.

Afterwards, I walked back along Madison Avenue downtown. Madison Avenue is ridiculous. Every single high end designer I've heard of, and many I haven't, had big stores along there. I'm blanking on the names now, other than Prada, but it was highly impressive. A one stop shopping expedition for the fashion-conscious. Except that I'm not willing to spend that kind of money on clothes, so I just walked on by.

I wandered over to the Times Square area to try to get rush tickets to Shockheaded Peter. Like Patti Lupone a couple days ago, Shockheaded Peter had been in San Francisco and I'd missed it. But tickets are expensive. I knew rush tickets went on sale at 6pm, and I got to the theater at about 6:10. All gone. They explained to the woman in front of me that people had camped out since 3pm to get the tickets. I'll either have to pay up, or wait a long time. I'll have to think about it.

I decided to head back to my place to figure out what to do next. I tried getting to the most direct subway line at Times Square, and got caught in a massive crowd of people. It was awful. They had closed one of the walkways, so you had to walk through a crowded platform to get to the other line, and people were crowding onto the platform from both ends, so it was pretty much a disaster. A few cops showed up and eventually stood at the top of the stairs to the platform, blocking anybody from entering so that those of us trapped on the platform could escape. I took another way home.

I thought about getting tickets to the newest Neil Labute play, in the East Village, but I was pretty much dead on my feet at that point, so I just headed back and took the evening off. I have to pace myself if I'm going to make it through three weeks of this vacation.

posted at: 11:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Cooper-Hewitt and Squid:Labs (March 15)
My friends at Squid:Labs are doing an installation at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum for an exhibition on "Extreme Textiles". Their exhibit is called "Rope and Sound", and it's essentially a three-dimensional harp with three steel pillars each holding each other up with rope strung between them. The rope is Squid:Labs' electronic rope, so the ropes are going to be hooked up to a computer which will then play sounds or music as the ropes are plucked. Should be really neat when it all comes together.

Anyway, installation was happening this week, and they needed some help with the physical labor of actually assembling the thing. And when they found out I was going to be there on vacation, they asked me if I'd be willing to lend a hand. I said sure, figuring that it's not often one gets to help with a museum installation. And it was fun - we polished up the steel pillars, and then manhandled them into place on a scaffolding, which was needed because the sculpture is not self-supporting until a bunch of the ropes are tightened. Once in place, we started threading the ropes, which was a kind of a fun puzzle as we tracked down which ropes went where. A break for lunch, and then back for a few hours of tying knots and starting to tension the ropes, until the thing was stable. We removed the scaffolding, and voila. You can see a terrible picture taken with the Sidekick of it at this stage. I think I'll be using my camera rather than my Sidekick from now on. Dan was going to spend the rest of the week finishing the connections, and then working out the software for connecting sound to movement. I'm hoping to stop by on Friday to see the (hopefully) finished piece.

Afterwards, we went back to where they were staying near the lower tip of Manhattan, went out to dinner at one of the Indian restaurants along 6th St near 1st Ave, and then I called it a night.

posted at: 10:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

MOMA and Patti LuPone (March 14)
Monday morning, I had a brief crisis, when I woke up and found that the screen on my Sidekick had failed. It turns out that a Sidekick without a screen is completely useless. I used my host's computer to find a nearby T-mobile store, and found out that my options were to (1) get a loaner phone and wait two weeks for a replacement, or (2) buy a new Sidekick II. Since I'd been thinking of getting a Sidekick II anyway, I decided to just spring for it. The transition was surprisingly painless - pop the SIM out of the old phone, pop it into the new phone, and all my information was there. Yay!

I read in TimeOut magazine that Patti Lupone was going to be doing her show, Lady with a Torch, at Carnegie Hall that evening, and that obstructed-view rush tickets were available at the box office for $10 starting at noon. I've adored Patti ever since singing behind her in Sweeney Todd, where she was just fabulous. I'd read about her new show last year when she was working on it in San Francisco, but when I found it was $100 or something outrageous, I decided to pass. However, for $10, I said sure.

From there, I decided to go to MOMA since I was in the area and since MOMA was pretty much at the top of my list of museums to see with the new redesign. On my way over, I stopped for lunch at a place called Joe's Shanghai, which had these cool soup dumplings, which look like regular pork dumplings until you bite into them and they essentially explode because there's soup inside. Took me a couple tries to figure out how to eat one without making a mess. They also had yummy scallion pies.

MOMA was fabulous. I love the new building. The collection was huge, but not as awe-inspiring as I'd imagined, partially because I've been spoiled by being a member of SFMOMA, which has regular rotating exhibitions of interesting modern work. For instance, I'd seen the epic scale photography of Andreas Gursky at SFMOMA, but was reminded of it by seeing it again at MOMA. Same for many of the great modern artists from Warhol to Pollock.

But the building was great. It's got a central atrium that goes all the way up to a skylight over the sixth floor. Many of the galleries have windows peeking out at the atrium, so you can get glimpses of the rest of the museum. It reminds me of the Chinese Tea Garden I saw in Sydney, with its sense of discovery, the way that views were framed to provide interesting perspectives on the space, with unexpected connections between the different floors. I ended up taking a bunch of pictures from different perspectives, because it fascinated me so much.

After that, I came back to my place to relax for a bit before heading out to see Patti. I decided to get dressed up in my sportcoat and tie; I figured that, unlike San Francisco, East Coast concert-goers would have a sense of decorum. Alas, I was proven wrong. Barely a tie in sight, with a few audience members showing up in T-shirt and jeans. This concert was as much about nostalgia for me as it was about Patti, remembering the twin peak experiences of Sweeney Todd and of being onstage at Carnegie Hall myself. Having said that, Patti's got a set of serious pipes - I love the way her voice can go from whispery and intimate to blaring and brassy. Fun evening of torch songs.

posted at: 10:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 13 Mar 2005

New York City, March 13
I took the red-eye flight out of San Francisco. Normally, it's not too big a deal for me because I can sleep on planes, but for some reason, I had a hard time sleeping this time around. Probably because I gloated to a coworker that I could sleep on planes. I did sleep for most of the flight, but mostly in 45 minute chunks or so. And, of course, the flight was only 4.5 hours, so I probably only got about 4 hours of sleep all told.

But I arrived, got my checked bag, and then navigated the subway system to the East Village. And, even better, the scheme that the guy I'm subletting from had cooked up to get me the keys worked out fine, which was the thing I was most worried about. So I'm crashing at this place near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. It's a tiny place, but, hey, it's bigger and yet cheaper than a hotel room.

The first thing I did was crash for another three hours of sleep, dragging myself out of bed at 12:30 to at least make an attempt to get myself onto New York time. I grabbed lunch at Rai Rai Ken, a ramen house that I'd read about in the New York Times travel section, and then went looking for the East Village Safari. I was, alas, unable to locate them, and so I was on my own for the afternoon.

First order of business: actually get a NYC map and/or guidebook. I'd meant to before I left, but had run out of time. I knew there was this awesomely huge used bookstore somewhere near where I was, but I couldn't remember where. So I walked into a Barnes and Noble, picked up a guidebook, found the address of the Strand bookstore, and then went there to buy a guidebook. While poking around their New York guidebook section, I happened to see a New York Access guide, which is edited by Richard Saul Wurman. I really liked Wurman's book, Information Architects, so I was curious what the guidebook was like. It seemed to have a decent breakdown of the city, and good maps, and it was only $5 used, so I got it. Whee!

From there, I wandered up to Union Square and hung out there in the sun reading the guidebook, while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do this afternoon. I didn't have any brilliant thoughts, so I figured I'd just wander through Greenwich Village and Soho, because that's always fun. I don't think I'd ever been in Soho during the day before - it's fabulous. I loved browsing at moss, even though everything there was outrageously out of my price range. I was particularly amused by the "Internal Rolex" bracelet that I saw, designed by Leon Gilliam Ransmeier, which is a Rolex replica, wrapped in leather so that it is totally useless as a timepiece, and is merely a watch-shaped bracelet.

The other store I liked was Room and Board, which had a bunch of interesting furniture. They looked like an intermediate level between Ikea and Design Within Reach, which is where I aspire to be. I didn't see much that would really work at my place, except for the Gallery leaning shelves, which I liked a lot. If I were ready to drop $1000 on bookshelves, I'd lean towards those, because I think they'd look good at my place.

And then I was tired of walking, so I saw a cafe that advertised Wifi access and bought a mocha. Alas, my computer can't find a wireless network in range, so I don't know what's going on. But I figured I'd at least type up my notes so far. For kicks. Of course, this isn't the deep thinking that I'm supposed to be doing. I'm not sure when I'll get to that. I think my current plan is to hit a museum or other touristy thing in the morning/early afternoon, spend a couple hours each afternoon writing, and then head out to dinner with a friend, or to a club or show or something. Yeah. Something like that. We'll see how it goes.

(later) After leaving the cafe, I wandered a bit more in SoHo, and saw a big building with a bunch of mannequins inside in a hella cool layout. With no clue what it was, I went inside, because I was curious. Turned out that it was the Prada flagship store, designed by Rem Koolhaas. Very neat layout. I didn't even look at the clothes, though, because, well, that would be ridiculous.

And then I was exhausted, and returned to my room via the subway. At the airport, I got the one week unlimited ride for the subway for situations such as this, where it wasn't _that_ far to walk (maybe a mile and a half), and it would have been hard to justify paying $2 to avoid that walk. But with an unlimited card, I could take the subway without guilt, and be less cranky when I got back. And the subway stop was near a bagel place, so now I've got bagels for breakfast.

I'll venture out in a bit for dinner and maybe see if I can find a decent bar or club in the area. But I figured I'd get this posted just to see how this works - I haven't found a Wifi access point yet, so I'm going to try posting this via a USB connection to my host's computer (and yes, I tried just taking his internet cable and plugging in, but it didn't want to talk to me, probably something to do with not being registered with his ISP. Whee!

posted at: 18:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 06 Mar 2005

The Rebirth Brass Band
Last week a friend of mine from ultimate frisbee emailed some folks to ask if we wanted to see a show on Friday. A friend of his had been at this club the previous week, bummed a cigarette from an employee and asked him "If I only came to one show next month, what should it be?" The guy recommended the Rebirth Brass Band. With a recommendation like that, how could I not go? Okay, I checked out a few of their tracks on their site first, but then I said I was in.

It was a really fun evening. A couple of us met for dinner and beer beforehand at Fly on Divisadero, which was pretty good. It was crowded, but decent food. And I ran into an ex-co-worker of mine from Signature, which was pretty odd. We hung out there for a bit, and then headed over to the show.

The band was pretty darn good. Imagine a straight up New Orleans jazz brass band, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Now make them younger, way funkier, more modern, and louder. That's what the Rebirth Brass Band was like. Lots of fun, fun bass line provided by the tuba and bass drum, good beat, you could dance to it.

The club employee was right - the show sold out a day early, and the club was packed, so this was definitely a popular show. It was a little loud, though. Yes, I'm old. But, y'know, from experience, I know that a single unamplified trumpet can easily fill a symphony hall and upstage a two hundred person chorus. So three trumpets and two trombones, at full blast, blowing straight into their individual microphones for amplification, in a relatively small club, was deafening. My ears were ringing for a couple hours afterwards. But the music was good, and it was fun to hang out with some friends from ultimate (one of them lived across the street from the club, so we had shots there before the show), even though I stayed out way past my bedtime, since the show didn't end til after 1:30. Since I'd been over at Christy's for dinner the two nights before that, it was a full week of socializing for me!

More blog updates when I get a chance. With my parents in town, I'm not left with enough downtime to get bored enough to blog :)

posted at: 18:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 16 Jan 2005

James Carse at the Long Now
I've been to a few of the Seminars about Long-term Thinking, sponsored by the Long Now Foundation. They're hit and miss. Sometimes they're really interesting, sometimes they're kind of boring. This week's speaker was James Carse, author of a book called Finite and Infinite Games. I'm not sure where I'd heard of Carse (although reviewing my notes beforehand, I found his book mentioned in a talk by Jaron Lanier at AC2004) (I should really type up those notes at some point). Anyway, he sounded interesting, so I went. And it was a great talk. Carse was a fun guy to listen to. He just kind of rambled on about topics that interested him. And he would occasionally pop out with these quotes that were just perfect observations about the state of the world. I tried to scribble down as many of those as I could, and I'll drop them in as appropriate.

So in this talk, Carse was applying his theory of finite and infinite games to larger societal questions. In particular, he claimed that war was the ultimate finite game, and religion the ultimate infinite game. He also wanted to make the case that belief and religion were two different things; he's apparently working on a book that's tentatively titled "Higher Ignorance - The Religious Case Against Belief". That distinction is important because he observed that any kind of war anywhere eventually involves the phenomenon of religion. But he didn't want to blame wars on religion, but on belief. So he had to differentiate the two. But first he went back to reviewing the concepts of finite and infinite games, as described in his book (which I haven't read, but plan to now).

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that finite games are played within a well-defined set of rules, where for one player to win, the others have to lose. The boundaries are important to finite games. There has to be an ending, and there has to be an agreement on how you get there. If you can play with the rules, the game might never end (e.g. Calvinball). Carse posits infinite games as those where the point of playing is to continue the play, changing the rules if need be. He compares the difference between finite and infinite games as the difference between a boundary and a horizon. You can approach a boundary, and cross over it, and then you're on the other side. However, as you move towards the horizon, the horizon keeps on moving away from you, and you have changed your perspective.

He also pointed out that finite games requires "veiling", where we consciously restrict ourselves to play the game, take it seriously, and ignore any other considerations. We are playing within the rules. He points out that it is important to realize that such "veiling" is done freely, by choice. He quoted Sartre, who apparently wrote that you always have the freedom not to fight in a war. Even if they kill you. Think Gandhi.

Random quote: "Whoever must play, can not play" i.e. forgetting that a finite game is played freely kills the spirit so that one no longer remembers the sense of play. Or so I interpret that.

So since he was blaming wars on belief rather than religion, he asked the question "What is the nature of belief itself?" Good question. He then made several observations about belief that many people would find rude, but I found wonderful.

Then he got back to his original topic of religion. He had realized at some point that the great religions were among the longest lasting cultural traditions in the world, which made him speculate whether they were, in his terminology, infinite games. He pointed out that the most successful longest-lasting religions were ones that had transcended space and time. They were not tied to a specific cultural context, or to a specific place. When one asks "What is Christianity?" (or Buddhism or Islam or Judaism), the question is not answerable; it's almost as if there's no definable identity, no core. He posited that this was characteristic of infinite games, that they are infinitely adaptable and non-contextual, that they are slippery and elude definition because they are not tied to a specific set of rules. It's a bit of a stretch, but maybe it will make more sense after I read his book.

Then he moved on to war. He pointed out that "War is brevity", and that the enemy has to be veiled, because it's important for us to think of the enemy as "one of them", and having no otherwise humanizing characteristics because once we do, they're no longer monkeys, and we have to treat them fairly. In a similar way to the true believer, "the army creates its enemies". The soldier must take on most of the same characteristics as the true believer; when you are in combat, you must have put aside thinking, and just believe that you are on the right side. I don't think it's a coincidence that people in the army tend to vote Republican, the party of the true believer these days.

Random quote: "We get up every morning deciding to be San Francisco, our church, America." I loved this quote, partially because I wrote something similar: "The country of America is nothing more than a shared story".

He then moved on to the role of the poet as a possible enabler of infinite games. While Plato apparently pointed out in the Republic that poets can deceive you and bend reality, Carse pointed out that poets can also unveil us and help us escape the finite games that we are trapped in. Carse believes that we need poets to "cure" blind faith and believers, to be non-judgmental, to create a larger inclusive context (which I loved, because I've been positing the same role for stories). Because "finite players will destroy themselves". Which I thought was interesting, in light of Beemer's comment (quoted here) that "you'd be able to tell that Good was Good because Evil eventually annihilates itself when correctly applied."

Unfortunately, he ran out of time around here (I would have happily listened to him talk for much longer), and was forced to take questions, so the rest of my notes are just random quotes.

Really interesting talk. Carse had a lot to say that I totally agreed with. I like his conception of poetry as the generator of infinite games, because I've been on my story kick. I'll read his book at some point, and report back here.

posted at: 02:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 19 Dec 2004

Birdhouse Factory
After seeing the 7 fingers circus last year, I said that I would go to the annual holiday circus show by the Circus Center. This year's show is called Birdhouse Factory. I only convinced Colin and Brad to go with me this year, but next year, I'm dragging more. If you live in the Bay Area, and you don't go see this show in the next couple weeks, you're cheating yourself of one of the most amazing shows I've seen in a while. The San Francisco Chronicle agrees.

I don't think I've been to another performance that made me go "Whoa" out loud as often. Or "They're not going to do that, are they?!" It was just plain fun. The Chronicle article does a good job of describing the various acts, and even the unconventional elements. I've been to a few Cirque du Soleil shows, and a few other circuses here and there, but this may have been the most enjoyable one I've seen. The Cirque shows are fantastic, to be sure, but they sometimes seem inhuman and distant in their pursuit of art. This show was populated by bright human characters, that just happen to be insanely talented. They felt like real people. And that makes all the difference to me.

I think my favorite act was the juggling by Steven Ragatz. He was dressed as a businessman, with a hat, a briefcase, and a cane. A bright red ball is tossed to him. He starts playing with the ball on the briefcase, balancing it on each of the sides of the case, then starting to bounce it back and forth between different sides. Then he took off his hat, bounced the ball on his head for a while, and then started playing with the ball and the hat, doing some contact juggling. He eventually worked his way up to juggling three balls, took off his hat, caught one ball in the hat, juggled two balls and the hat with the ball in it, then popped the ball out of the hat, and juggled three balls and the hat. Then he started juggling while using the cane instead of his hand. Man. Looking at what I've written, it doesn't begin to capture the sheer wonder that informed his act. It was just so much fun. He was a great performer. Check out his essays at, for some insights into his method.

The other spectacular act was a "vertical tango" where two performers (apparently Sandra Feusi and Sam Payne) danced with and around each other up and down a vertical pole. It was fantastic - they did several tricks that I've never seen before. And their sheer strength was astounding. When we saw Sam go up the pole using only his hands, his feet held out away from the pole, I think the mouths of everybody in the audience just dropped wide open. The story and choreography was also well integrated into the routine. It starts with Sam flirting with Sandra, and she's a demure bookworm ignoring his attentions. And she starts off by running away from him, across the stage, up the pole, etc. Then as the routine continues, they get closer and closer until they're dancing a steamy tango across the stage and then up the pole. Utterly amazing.

The contortionist was also fabulous. And the set design. And the musical selections. And the general tone of whimsy that informed the performance. It was all amazing. And since this year I didn't go on the last night, I can tell you all: GO SEE THIS SHOW!! For $32, we got dead center seats (Thanks Colin!). It's an unbelievably good deal when you consider Cirque shows are often $70 or more. You won't regret it. You have until January 2nd.

posted at: 18:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 07 Nov 2004

BloggerCon writeup
Quick update. I went to the Accelerating Change conference this weekend. I also went to BloggerCon on Saturday. I'd been waitlisted at BloggerCon, but got in last week, and since the two conferences were a 5 minute walk apart at Stanford, I decided to try to cherry-pick the best of both worlds. I think I did okay, with some judicious running around.

I'll try to do a full writeup of Accelerating Change at some point, with all of my notes and quotes and everything. But I'm pretty busy this week (couple deadlines at work), so it may not be until next weekend. My notes from BloggerCon were pretty brief, though, so I'll put them up now.

I attended the first and last sessions, the journalism session and the election session. The journalism session was the most interesting from my perspective, even though it eventually degraded into a "Are bloggers journalists or not?" debate, especially when the folks from the AP and CBS chimed in.

Some thoughts I took away from it:

The election session was a bit of a disappointment. Although Ed Cone, the discussion leader, tried to keep it from turning into a shared disappointment-fest, he wasn't entirely successful. It was also interesting how few suggestions I heard that I thought would make a difference in increasing the usefulness of blogging. The main point people made was that e-mail was, by far, the most useful networking tool of this election (and my experiences in Ohio bear that out). So what do blogs have to offer? Somebody made the point that we should be using blogs as a chance to engage people different from us, rather than sitting in the liberal echo chamber. Jay Rosen suggested that candidates should be blogging themselves to get their personal voice out there (although I think that might be difficult to reconcile with keeping a consistent message). Lots to think about. I especially want to spend some more time thinking about the use of blogs as a tool for inviting dialogue with people we don't agree with. Not sure where to even begin with that.

The first and last sessions were pretty uneventful, so that's pretty much my report. I stopped by the Larry Lessig discussion on law and blogging because I think he's cool, but it didn't really do much for me, and there was another presentation at Accelerating Change that I really wanted to see.

General thoughts. The "unconference" format was a little bit odd. Because the discussion leader had a microphone and everybody else had to wait in line for one, the power dynamic didn't lend itself to a real sharing of ideas I felt. In a couple sessions I attended, the dialogue got off into a thread that I thought was pretty uninteresting, but there wasn't really a mechanism for shutting it down and starting a new thread. I almost felt that it'd be better if the first part of each session were a brainstorming of topics and then the room could be split up into people that wanted to follow each topic, with people being free to float from one topic to another. But, then again, I'm a generalist and prefer skimming.

Neat idea overall, though. I'm glad I stopped by. It was kind of neat to see some of the powerhouse bloggers in person (I think two or three of the bloggers who blogged the national conventions were there - Dave Winer and Doc Searls for sure). And interesting to hear some of the different perspectives on blogging from people who are a lot more into it than I am.

posted at: 23:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 04 Nov 2004

Was it worth it?
A coworker of mine asked me today what it felt like to have worked for several days and have accomplished nothing. And I took issue with that. Sure, judged from a national perspective, it was a failure. But, if that's the only metric of success, it's hard to justify doing anything, because it's very hard for any of us to have an effect nationally.

Judged in a local context, the Oberlin Votes! effort was a fantastic success. It got the vast majority of Oberlin students to vote, galvanizing them, something the nationwide youth turnout demonstrates is quite difficult. If even half of these students continue voting, I would think it would be a success.

Plus, the huge turnout in Oberlin had a large impact on county races. Several long-held Republican seats went over to the Democrats, thanks to the Oberlin students. It's not much, viewed from the national level, but it's something.

We also brought a community closer together. It seemed like everybody was contributing to helping out with the long lines at the church, from local restaurants donating food, to local musicians providing entertainment, even to the plumber showing up almost immediately when the sewage system clogged under the strain of supporting that many people. That sort of event can only help bring a town closer together, and I think that's a good thing. We start at the grassroots and build up. Every little bit helps.

Is this just post-defeat rationalization? Yeah, to some extent. All of these events would have been even more amazing if they had contributed to a win. But we did what we could. In a town of 8000 or so, we think we got about 5500 people to vote. Of those, the article said 583 voted for Bush, which leaves about 5000 voting for Kerry. That's 4500 votes in the plus column for Kerry. Pretty astounding.

I spent today trying to figure out where we go from here. On a personal level, I'm mad. Mad about losing. Mad that the conservatives are so much better at fighting these fights than the liberals. I'm also disappointed in my fellow Americans who believe that "moral values" means things like gay marriage, and thinks that a former alcoholic drug-abusing draft-dodger is more moral than a man who fought for his country and what he believed in. How do we start changing these people's minds?

My friend Jessie wrote an inspiring plea today for us to keep fighting. Every little bit helps. I have another blog entry that I want to do about how you deal with the situation where your individual values do not match those of the people around you. It was originally aimed at dealing with that situation in a corporate sense, but it's clearly relevant now in a national sense. I'll find time. Soon. Well, after this weekend, where I may be trying to double-dip at the Accelerating Change conference, and BloggerCon, a free conference that I originally got waitlisted on, but now appear to have gotten in. Fortunately, they're two buildings apart at Stanford, so I should be able to bounce between them, depending on my interest level. I'm slightly overbooked. In all ways. But anyway.

The point is, it's worth it to keep fighting. Even if you just live your life as well as you can, you are fighting. You are demonstrating to others that your life is worth living, and setting an example for others to follow. That's worth a lot. All it takes is one person to stand up for what they believe in. That's the principle of nonviolence espoused by Gandhi and MLK, and heck, it may even work.

posted at: 22:23 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Election day
I got off to a late start on election day, after staying up until 2am the night before working on the database with Ken. But I got over to HQ by 10am, and immediately left with Ken and Brian. It had been decided that Brian and I, as the out-of-towner carpetbaggers, should be running tech support, while the locals did the canvassing, since they actually knew people. There were two main precincts we wanted to cover, First Church and the Oberlin Public Library, because those two precincts were where the majority of Oberlin students would be voting. So Brian and I each took a laptop and a printer, and headed off with Ken.

It's raining and miserable and gray. And yet, when we get to the library, there's a line out the door of people waiting to vote. Way out the door. Like a block out the door. Yikes. We got Brian set up and trained on what we wanted him to do, and then Ken and I went over to First Church, which had a similar scene. It turns out that the Board of Elections didn't believe Ken when he warned them that there would be a massively increased voter turnout, so they hadn't gotten extra voting machines. I heard that the line at First Church was already over an hour long when the polls opened at 6:30am, and by the time we got there a little after 10am, the line was over 3 hours. Unbelievable.

First Church was kind enough to let us use their back office, so I set up back there. And we waited for the 11am distribution of voter lists. Unfortunately, it got delayed. The poll workers were swamped just trying to help people vote, and didn't have time to make the list until around 12:30pm. We finally got it, I entered the 215 voters and generated lists of non-voters for the volunteers to track down. Turnaround time: 20 minutes. Much better than it would have been trying to do it by hand. I sent it off with a volunteer, who took it back to headquarters so that the remaining people can be contacted.

By the afternoon, the line was over five hours long. The church opened up the church hall itself so that people wouldn't have to wait in the rain, and all of the pews are filled with people waiting to vote. But it's all still relaxed. People were sticking around.

And then the community started really coming together. Folks who had already voted started buying food and water and making sure the people in line were well supplied. Others donated halloween candy, or baked goods. People stepped up and provided entertainment - there were students practicing in line. Plus, the organist came by and gave an impromptu concert to the people waiting in the hall. Then when he got tired, he contacted his organ students and told them that if they wanted any practice time on the organ the rest of the year, they needed to stop by and play this afternoon. First Church had turned into what the church secretary dubbed a "vote-in". It's a big party. It was so impressive that a Cleveland news crew came by and got some footage, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a reporter down to observe the party.

Because the rules say that if you're in line by 7:30pm, you get to vote no matter how long it takes, Oberlin Votes! embarked on trying to make sure everybody will be in line by then, and then figuring out how to make sure everybody in line gets fed, ordering pizza, etc. First order of business was getting them in line.

The 4pm lists of who's voted never came out for the big precincts - they were just too swamped. We did generate a couple new lists for smaller precincts - in one of them, we had 303 people on our list, and 222 or so of them had voted by 4pm, with only 10 students among the non-voters. Megan, the Ohio PIRG coordinator, saw this and her eyes lit up. She grabbed the list saying that she was going to get every last one of them. At that point, our job in tech support was done, so Brian and I packed up from our respective precincts and headed over to the Oberlin Votes! headquarters at Wilder Hall on campus.

Which was a madhouse. There were probably a dozen volunteers making phone calls, from cell phones, and from every campus phone they could find. As I wandered the halls, I saw people making calls from a phone booth and from the phone in the computer cluster. It was pretty amazing. Plus, there were many more volunteers running around knocking on doors.

As far as we could tell, by 6:30pm, we had achieved total saturation. Between all of the calling and door-knocking that was being done, I think we had found only one or two people that hadn't voted. In fact, by the end, the phone bank was contacting more people who were calling other people (as in "Hi, this is from Oberlin Votes! Have you voted today?" "Yes, I've voted, and I'm actually volunteering and calling people myself." "Oops.") than they did non-voters in that last hour before the polls closed at 7:30. Brian related the story of walking down the hall of a dorm, seeing a woman, calling out "Have you voted yet?". She walked by him, said "I have mono, I'm really sick" as she fled for her room. I guess she'd been asked too many times. But she's the only student non-voter that we know about.

At 7:30, we'd done all we could. Nobody else was going to be allowed to join the line. But there were still huge lines at First Church and the Library waiting for their chance to vote. We checked in, and asked if they needed food or anything, but by that time, word had spread even further, and apparently local busineses were chipping in to feed the line. The last voter at the library was Ken, who got in line at the last minute, and ended up voting at around 8:30. The church took even longer - the last voter got through a little after 10pm, and the local news crew apparently interviewed them on camera.

Then we retired to Ken's place for the party. Yay.

posted at: 11:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Helping out
So, as mentioned last week, I decided to go to Ohio for the election this year. And, despite the national result, I'm glad I went.

Brian and I ended up spending our time in Ohio helping out the local Oberlin effort, Oberlin Votes!, run by Rob's friend Ken. Oberlin Votes! aimed "to identify every individual who is eligible to vote in November and motivate them to register and vote in the upcoming Presidential election." They started back in March canvassing the campus and the town, and managed to register over 2000 new voters in a town of 8000. They did so well that the local Republican party chairman accused them of voter fraud. But the job wasn't done just getting them registered. We also had to get them to vote.

In the last couple days before the election, I helped out with pulling the databases together. We wanted to crossreference the records of Oberlin Votes! with the Board of Elections database so that we could identify any discrepancies ahead of time and warn people if the BoE had the wrong address or something. We also generated walk lists, organized by address, of voters so that volunteers could knock on doors, remind people to vote, and ask them to commit to voting by a certain time. Ken's theory was that by making people commit to a time, it makes them more likely to keep that appointment. Plus, if they voted early, that would free up the polls for us to send people later in the day as we found people that hadn't voted.

Rob did a huge amount of work crafting a tool to send out email to everybody in the database of Oberlin Votes!, giving them their address as listed in the Board of Elections, their precinct and their polling place. It was much appreciated by many students, because it had all of the relevant information in one place. In fact, we didn't get even a single complaint of spam, despite sending out close to 2000 emails.

Brian wrote up the press release countering the accusations of fraud. He did a great job, especially in tracking down some former Oberlin students who were still on the electoral rolls and getting some good quotes from them. We unfortunately got the press release out too late for it to get any play in the media, but we wanted to make sure it got out before election day. Given the widespread allegations of voter fraud that were being lodged by Republicans at several levels, we believed that the Republicans were setting the stage for their appeal if they lost Ohio, and we wanted to make sure we had our defense in place before it started. It turned out not to matter, but we felt we had to try.

Then it came down to election day itself. On Monday night, Ken and I stayed up until 2am getting the final lists together, and figuring out how we were going to enter data the next day. The polling places release a list at 11am and 4pm of everybody who has voted by those times. We put together a tool that would let us enter that voting data quickly, and then generate a list of non-voters by address so that we could go send volunteers to knock on their doors and/or call them.

Then it was time for election day itself.

posted at: 11:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Amusing anecdotes
There were a couple anecdotes that I wanted to record but didn't really fit into the narrative elsewhere, so I'm recording them here.

I already related this one over at LiveJournal, but it's pretty funny, so I'm putting it in my official blog.

Brian and I arrived in Cleveland at about 9pm Saturday evening. We get to the rental car desk, say that we reserved a car. The clerk starts doing the appropriate computer and paper work, and asks us, "So what brings you to Cleveland?"

Brian: "Oh, we're planning to do some get out the vote stuff."
Her: "It figures - you're about the 14th or 15th folks coming through today doing that."
Us: "Oh."
Her: "Are you guys from California? That's where people seem to be coming in from."
Us: "Um, yeah, actually."
Her: "Do you want a minivan like everybody else so that you can drive people to the polls?"
Us: *getting increasingly more flustered* "Um, no thanks."

We collected our car and drove off.

Another amusing anecdote:

What would you think if you came home and there was a cardboard box sitting on the kitchen counter, modified so that one flap was sticking out. There's a bowl in the box, with chili spattered all over the inside of the box.

Rob's reaction: "The only thing I could come up with was that a raccoon had managed to get inside, open the fridge, get out the chili, and then try to eat it inside the box. I tried to come up with another explanation, but that was really it."

Elizabeth's reaction: "How did he get the box inside the microwave?!" (on the theory that somebody had heated the chili too long in the bowl, thus spattering it)

What actually happened: Brian was running around on election day. He stopped by the house, grabbed some chili, put it in a bowl, but decided to eat it over at headquarters. He saw the cardboard box, realized that he could use it to keep the voter guides out of the rain, which would work better if he modified it to extend one flap. So he modified the box, put the bowl of chili inside, and left. As he went down the sidewalk, he thought to himself "It's really slippery, I need to be careful, it's really slippery, I need to be careful, hey, I need to remember to do that when I get to HQ..." and WHAM! Down he went. The chili went everywhere. He fortunately did not hurt himself, but he was already running late, so he ran inside, changed his pants, and left the box for later, setting up the tableau which Rob and Elizabeth later observed.

An annoying anecdote:

When we were leaving Cleveland on Wednesday, our plane to Chicago was cancelled. The plane apparently had mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and was unable to take off.

There was this businessman who starts ranting immediately. "I have a meeting at 12:45, I can not miss it, you need to get me a flight!" The gate attendant says "The best I can do is get you there at 3pm. The earlier flights are all booked." He says "That's not good enough." She starts trying other options, but just everything is booked. He says "How can the airline cancel this flight and not give me any other options? It's unacceptable!" I'm not sure what he wanted her to do - go fix the plane in Chicago? It was really uncomfortable. She handled it patiently and gracefully. And continued to do so when the next guy in line, another businessman, started giving her the same schtick - "I need to make this meeting, I'll pay anything, first class, give me something".

Meanwhile, Brian and I waited our turn in line, and got a ticket out to SF via Dallas/Fort Worth, and ended up getting home only about 30 minutes after our scheduled arrival time.

I don't get it, though. How do these people go through life in their little bubble, where the only thing that matters is what happens to them? What did those guys expect these women to do? They looked for alternative flights. They did what they could. It's like they were blaming these women for the failure of the plane. Yes, they're representatives of the airline, and it's easy to berate them because you know they can't talk back, but it's just rude. And pathetic. I bet they're selfish conservatives.

posted at: 11:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Closing thoughts
Was it worth it?

I think so. Yes, our guy didn't win. But I feel like I did what I could for the cause. I was in the right state, the one it all came down to. I helped out with an effort that achieved a truly ridiculous voter turnout for a relatively small town. I got to work with some amazing committed people on something we all believed in. I feel like I did something.

I'm very disappointed with the election results. I think the next four years could irretrievably damage this nation, both fiscally with the insane deficit and legally with the Supreme Court implications. But, as my LiveJournal post from the morning after indicates, we can't give up. We need to start organizing now to take back Congress in 2006. Maybe a couple of the more liberal Justices can hold out until then, and we can at least get a Senate in place that won't rubber stamp an arch-conservative. Maybe.

In closing, I just want to say thanks to everybody who made this trip possible:

Thanks to Brian for getting me to go by deciding to do it himself.

Thanks to Rob and Elizabeth for giving Brian and me a place to crash, and feeding us, and getting us involved with Oberlin Votes!

Thanks to Ken and Marta for organizing Oberlin Votes! and for their hospitality.

Thanks to Annie, Megan, Jeremy, and all of the other great volunteers we met working with Oberlin Votes and Ohio PIRG. It was inspiring to see a dozen people in the lobby of Wilder making phone calls, with another dozen running around campus knocking on doors. People do care. And that's awesome.

Thanks to all of the students and residents of Oberlin. It was really inspiring to see a whole town out voting, waiting through five hour lines in the rain. And to see the community come together, with people chipping in food and water to give to the people waiting in line and people coming out to entertain them, like the jazz combo that was playing at the public library. It wasn't just me that was impressed: the local news crew came by and took some footage, and even interviewed the last person to vote in Oberlin, the Cleveland paper sent out a reporter, and Oberlin was mentioned on both the local and national feeds of NPR.

posted at: 10:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Lawrence Lessig at SDForum
I mentioned this talk last week, and I did go to it. Lessig is a fantastic public speaker. Organized and cogent. While watching his talk, I was reminded that I'd read somewhere that if you want to see Powerpoint used appropriately, go to a Lessig talk. And it's so, so true. He takes what Tufte views as disadvantages and turns them into advantages. You can only fit a few words on a slide? Great! Put up the point you're making in a one or two word phrase, and leave it there while you expand upon it. It provides the audience focus, but doesn't lead to you reading the slide. It helps that Lessig's presentations are idea-centered, not data-centered, so no need for graphs. But anyway...

As far as the talk itself, he didn't say anything particularly surprising to those of us who have read his books (particularly The Future of Ideas), so go check those out for details. The main idea was drawing a distinction between "rivalrous resources" such as land, that leads to the infamous Tragedy of the Commons, where "Freedom ... will bring ruin to all", and "nonrivalrous resources" such as ideas, as described by the Thomas Jefferson quote at the top of this article. Rivalrous resources are naturally competitive; if you use more, I get to use less. Nonrivalrous resources are not necessarily so; Lessig used language as an example, where the more people use language, the more people benefit. It's a network effect.

He then went on to discourse about the importance of the commons for ideas, and how we all benefit by having a commons. He identified two types of commons: an innovation commons (as exemplified by the end-to-end nature of the internet (aka a stupid network) and a creative commons (where ideas and images are in the public domain, as opposed to locked up in copyright, due to the ridiculous extension of copyright pushed by Disney) (he pointed out that the default is now to lock up your work - he wasn't even sure it was possible to declare that your work was in the public domain, even if you wanted it to be).

The last part of the talk was the most interesting to me. He pointed to the rise of Intellectual Property Extremism, where IP becomes a goal in itself. He pointed out that Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution intended IP to be used to promote the public good, by making a sufficient incentive to create. His point was that IP is a means not an end. Or as he put it, "Property is a tool, like a hammer." There are appropriate and inappropriate uses for it; for a hammer, a nail is appropriate, a butterfly is not. You judge a tool and its appropriateness for a task by its effects, not support it regardless of consequences; otherwise, you fall into the "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" trap.

So Lessig's question was simple: does IP and current copyright law promote behavior that we want to value? His answer is no. I suspect his new book, Free Culture, available online, makes the argument more convincingly, but the gist of it is that we move forward in innovation and creativity by building off of what came before. So locking up ideas destroys our capacity for innovation. Therefore, if we judge IP and copyright law by the standard of its effects, we have to say it's a bad idea. There are appropriate uses of copyright law and IP, and Lessig is happy to argue for them. But IP as an unalloyed good is a myth in his eyes.

Couple last vignettes:

Good talk. Go see Lessig if you get the chance. And read his books. Good stuff.

posted at: 12:49 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 21 Sep 2004

Accelerating Change Conference
I think I'm going to sign up to go to this conference on Accelerating Change at Stanford in early November. It's only $350 if I sign up before September 30, and $300 if I take advantage of the discount listed here. Looks like it could be pretty interesting - some potentially interesting speakers, from Doug Engelbart to David Brin to Will Wright to Dan Gillmor. It looks like an opportunity for good conversations.

The Accelerating Change folks are interesting. I ran into them for the first time at Burning Man in 2000, where they were hosting daily discussions about various future-oriented topics. Had some thoughtful conversations with them, often playing devil's advocate to their technology-oriented singularitarian extropian point of view. Didn't think much more of it, until I started getting email a while later from them, as they started to put together an institute to study the impact of accelerating change on society. And then I started going to these future salons and found out that Mark Finnern, the organizer, started them in response to meeting the Accelerating Change folks. And now they've put together this conference, for the second year running, with relatively low conference fees, and a pretty interesting lineup of speakers. Even more amazing is the fact that most of the speakers have apparently agreed to waive their speaking fee in order to keep costs low. Neat stuff. I feel like I should support them. It's really cool that they started off with a dream, and they're putting it into action, and making it happen, as Mark Finnern reflects at the end of this post. It's inspiring, really.

Anyway, you should come to the conference if you're interested in such things. Heck, several of the people reading this probably qualify as potential presenters - I think the organizers may still be looking for speakers, although the schedule looks pretty packed at this point. And, no, I'm not getting any kickback for this invite, although I am thinking about volunteering at the conference itself. Yeah.

posted at: 11:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Extreme Democracy at Future Salon
I went to the Future Salon on Extreme Democracy last week. Some really interesting stuff was discussed. The Future Salon weblog has a full description with links, so I'll just add my couple thoughts.

I really really like what Zack Rosen is doing over at CivicSpace. By making it easier for grass roots groups to hook up and exchange information, he's building the infrastructure tools necessary for a new kind of bottom-up democracy that lets the best ideas bubble to the top. While I like the idea of representative democracy, it becomes hard to deliver when the representation is so coarse; in a discussion over at livejournal in response to one of my posts, doing the math made me realize that a House representative represents close to 600,000 people. That seems like far too big of a group to represent. Yet 435 Representatives in the House is already too many to have a substantive discussion. Over in that discussion, we posited the existence of something like "fractal democracy" where you have representatives of relatively small groups get together and hash things out, and then have a representative of that group go up to the next level, where it's the same self-similar structure all the way up. And tools like CivicSpace are the way to enable such a thing. Very neat stuff.

I was also surprised by how much I liked the talk by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute. Words like co-intelligence set off triggers in my brain of hippie new-age sentimentality, but Atlee concentrated on one key point, which is that discussions among different people often lead to better decisions. Just the very act of bringing people together who disagree can generate new and surprising solutions to old problems, as he outlines in this article. What struck me about his talk, which he outlines here, was that such deliberations allow for a new and better democracy. I lamented about democracy recently, partially based on the tendency that "When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one." Given that such questions from pollsters are always framed multiple choice questions, it can lead to some pretty dumb choices. By giving citizens a forum in which they can discuss what they are actually looking for, rather than forcing them to choose among several ill-suited options, we could improve the feedback loop to government, which will hopefully lead to better decisions. It's a way out of the bi-modal thinking that is so cognitively dangerous and limiting. A pollster asking "Are you for or against tax relief?" shuts down all other options. But in a dialogue, I could expand on my answer and say "Sure, I want lower taxes, but I also want better schools and transportation. I'm fine with the level of my taxes, but I'd like my taxes to be better spent, less on ridiculous boondoggle pork barrel defense contracts, and more on my local community." It will be really interesting to see how Atlee's focus on dialogue and mediation will cross-pollinate with the technology community represented by Zack Rosen at CivicSpace and Ross Mayfield at Socialtext.

It makes me want to get involved somehow. Need to start building up those tools, learning Perl, setting up a web server, etc. One step at a time.

posted at: 10:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Political training with Democracy for America
Democracy for America is the political action committee started by supporters of Howard Dean to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party". I happened to hear of a training course they were doing on political campaigns in conjunction with 21st Century Democrats. Given my recent interest in politics, I was curious, so I signed up.

It was pretty interesting. I'm not an activist, and I've never worked on a campaign, which may have put me in a minority of one in the room of 150 or so people. But hearing from these people that have worked on numerous campaigns and were laying it all out for us was impressive. They get it. All of those complaints I had from the outside - they understand them. Kelly Young, the founder of 21st Century Democrats, started things off with a great presentation which pointed out that the point of a campaign is to win an election. That's it. It's not to spread the word about your views, it's not to win people over, it's to win an election. You may do those other things in the service of the campaign, but keep your eye on the goal.

She also ran some scary numbers if you believe in democracy as an idea (not that I do). Take a typical district of 75,000. That's an overwhelming number of people you have to convince to win an election. But, of those, maybe 50% are registered voters. That's 37,500. And, of those registered voters, maybe 40% actually show up to vote. That's 15,000. And of those, you only have to get 50% plus one. That's 7,501 voters you have to convince. That's significantly more tractable and gets more so, when you break it down even further, which they covered later. So the importance of a field campaign (which is Kelly's specialty) is paramount in convincing swing voters and getting out the vote.

When you step back and look at that, 10% of the people in a district will enforce their will on everybody else. And that frightens me a little bit. That doesn't seem very democratic. It's how you win an election right now, but I'd idealistically like to think there's some way to change the system to make it more representative. We had some interesting comments over on LiveJournal about possible fractal government structures, where self-similar structures coalesce all the way up. I'd like to develop that further at some point (and think about how to design the social interface), but back to the training for now.

Kelly also made great points about the importance of organization. Make a campaign plan - "If it isn't written down, it doesn't exist". Make a timeline so you know when things will happen. Keep track of your voter lists, so you know who to help go vote on election day. Develop your story - why should people vote for your candidate? Then she got into details of each of these things. I thought the parallels to project management are obvious: Gant charts (timelines), Product Concept Documents (the story), Product Specification Documents (the detailed campaign plan), etc. That probably only amused me, though.

The rest of the day had some great talks as well. Dan Chavez and Steve Ybarra from Latinos for America had some good advice about how to be effective in the field. "Drive the county" and "Visit Walmart" were notable quotes. When Steve asked the crowd how many of us had shopped at Walmart, it cracked me up when nobody raised their hand - Steve said "That's average America - that's who you have to talk to!".

Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party, chatted about campaign strategy and reality - I think my favorite piece of advice was to keep it simple. Don't get into explaining stuff. His example was make your message "Stop Bush!" If you leave it at that, the person that sees it applies their own context and interprets in terms of their own personal woes. If you keep on going and say "Stop Bush because he's against gay marriage", then maybe that person goes "Well, I don't know how I feel about gay marriage, so maybe I don't agree with this campaigner." Use the voters' ability to supply context to your advantage. He also said it's all about attack, attack, attack. When questioned by the audience why Kerry wasn't following that strategy, he said he wasn't on the campaign, but he'd guess that it wouldn't play well with the appropriate voters of the swing states. I thought that was an interesting observation - we all assume that other people are like us, and they'll be convinced by similar things. So because we rabid progressives want to see Kerry destroy Bush, we assume other people do as well. Maybe we're wrong (despite my rants to the contrary).

Dan came back with some thoughts about targeting voters in an election campaign. Remember those 7501 voters you needed for that theoretical district of 75,000? How do you find the right 7501? You use the National Committee for an Effective Congress to get the numbers breakdown on your district to find out if it's even possible, and to find out who has voted in which elections recently. Then you go out and ask people their positions. Doing that, you can start throwing people out right away. Anybody that doesn't vote, punt. Anybody that consistently votes Republican, punt. People that regularly vote, and consistently vote Democratic, punt (this one brought protests from the audience, but he made the point that you're wasting resources on people that are already on your side). So that leaves two main groups that you have to address. Undecided voters who always vote - these are your top priority, because not only will they not vote for you, they will vote for the opposition - you have to convince them. Then there's the voters who consistently vote for the Democrat when they do vote, but don't make it to all the elections - these are voters you have to make sure show up on Election Day. So you've winnowed the district down to a manageable number of key people. Again, that's how the math works to win elections right now. Kind of unromantic, though :)

Ralph Miller followed with a great presentation on dealing with the media. The important points I wrote down were "People don't read!" so make sure that your main point is in the headline, and that your entire story (who, what, where, when, why and how) is in the first paragraph of press releases. Second, press people are normal people (he apparently has been a press guy for years) that respond to kindness, so do your best to make their lives easy. Feed them stuff in a format they want, give them good visuals, make sure you know their deadlines so you can get stuff to them well in advance, thank them afterwards. They will appreciate it, and you'll get more favorable responses from them in the future. It makes a lot of sense,but it doesn't surprise me that people forget about the basics in the stress of a campaign. Ralph was also kind enough to stick around during the "breakout sessions" to talk with a few of us some more about the use of media in politics.

Oh, somewhere in there, Steve emphasize 27-9-3. If you want to get a message across, especially on TV, say it in 27 words and 9 seconds, making 3 points. He had a great example, which I unfortunately can't remember at all. But he guarantees it will work. And it makes sense. However, I don't think I'll ever be able to compress my ideas down that well :)

The day finished with a talk by Jeani Murray, the director of Dean's campaign in Iowa, about developing and controlling your campaign message. It's all about telling a story. I think the most interesting aspect of the presentation was when she illustrated the use of a "Message Box", where you lay out what you're saying about yourself and your opponent, and what your opponent is saying about himself and you. She used the example of Kerry and Bush. And it was absolutely telling that even in this group of devoted progressives, it was hard for us to articulate what Kerry was saying about either himself or Bush. And yet, all of us knew exactly what Bush was saying about himself ("strong leader" "war on terror") and Kerry ("flip flopper" "weak leader"). That's a bad bad sign.

I've rambled on too long, as usual. Some really interesting stuff. I ended up skipping the second day of training out of exhaustion and lack of interest - it was covering the details of fieldwork (volunteer recruitment, voter contact, unions, organizing canvasses and phone banks, and getting out the vote), which interest me less than the big picture of the campaign. I have a huge book of notes that they gave out on each of the aspects of the campaign, which I'll probably look at more later. Overall, I was very impressed by the people running the training. They were focused, efficient, experienced, and ruthless about trying to get the greatest return on their investment of time and money. I wasn't sure such people existed in the Democratic organization (although the fact that most of these people were in Dean's campaign says something to me). I was less impressed with some of the audience, who displayed many of the same self-righteous pleading tendencies that make me less inclined to be associated with liberals. But I think the training sessions are a great idea - we need more people out there who are willing to play hardball with the conservatives. The conservatives have developed a tremendous base of political experts in their think tanks. These training sessions and things like Lakoff's Rockridge Institute are the start of fighting back.

posted at: 01:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 31 Aug 2004

Circus Contraption
Last Friday, I went to see Circus Contraption based on the strong recommendation of a friend of mine. I like circuses. Unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed by Circus Contraption. Part of it was that the last circus I'd seen had been the 7 fingers circus, which was phenomenal. Part of it was that the recommendation set my expectations pretty high. And part of it was that their show didn't really work for me.

Don't get me wrong - Circus Contraption was good. They had some nice trapeze acts, and some really good hand balancing stuff. The music was surprisingly well done, with an old-time jazz feel (string bass, trombone, trumpet and clarinet for a lot of songs). And I really liked their juggling act - it was pretty basic ball juggling, except that they did it in the dark with lighted balls, which left a visual trail as they were thrown around the room among the four jugglers. Their final act was also amazing - the band slowly wound down the finale, and then a band member picked up a couple bottles and walked to center stage, blowing over the top of the bottles to fill in notes in what the rest of the band was playing. And each of the band members put down their instrument one by one to join the first guy. Meanwhile, the rest of the performers were coming out with two to three bottles of their own. And when they were all assembled, they put on a credible rendition of the show theme, which they'd played throughout the show, with a complex bass line and melody. It was pretty darn cool. Kind of like hand bell ringing, but blowing bottles. We were speculating afterwards how hard it must be to fill the bottles to the right height to tune everything each night.

So that was neat and a breath of joy to finish on. But overall, I was disappointed. And I spent some time trying to put my finger on what I thought was missing. Their connective tissue was definitely weak - they had several skits which didn't really work for me. And I think it was because it was clear they were acting. One of the performers dressed up as a caveman and stomped around the stage, but it was just an act - it didn't really seem to be an extension of him. And when I thought about it, I felt that way about a lot of the performance, that it was forced, especially the skits.

I used to think that what made me enjoy a performance was seeing that the group on stage was enjoying the performance. But I think it's not enough. It makes a huge difference certainly, but the group on stage also has to convey to and include the audience in their enjoyment. A lot of the bands I have seen live multiple times do this well (bands like the House Jacks, or Moxy Fruvous, or They Might Be Giants). And they do it by being themselves on stage - they happen to be performing, but you can imagine them bantering with each other the same way even if there wasn't an audience. And they take it a step further by often including the audience in their banter, riffing off of catcalls and cheers and stuff. I really enjoy that, to the point where I often enjoy the House Jacks bantering between the songs more than the songs themselves. The 7 fingers circus had a similar feel as well - it felt like the performers were real people - people who could perform amazing physical feats, but their acts still managed to show some aspect of their personality.

I didn't get that sense from Circus Contraption. It felt too artificial, too staged. You know that feeling you get from some people who are trying so hard to be one of the group ("Hey guys, whatcha doing? Where should we go for lunch?"), where they're really nice but just aren't fun to be around because they're trying too hard instead of just being themselves? That's kind of the feeling I had. Which was a pity. But it made for some interesting reflections on what I look for in a live performance. So that was neat. I think. You're probably just bored.

posted at: 01:41 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 08 Aug 2004

Greg Maddux wins his 300th game
Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs won his 300th game yesterday. And I was there (page on another site because I have more disk space for pictures on that one).

posted at: 06:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 24 Jul 2004

The French Laundry
Last week, my friend Wilfred said "Hey, are you interested in going to the French Laundry on Sunday?" I said, "Um, the best restaurant in the country (and, some say, the world) French Laundry? The one where you have to call two months in advance to dine, and even then you have to be lucky to get through and actually make a reservation?" He said "Yes, that one." It turned out a friend of his had a reservation for 6 people on Sunday they couldn't use, and had asked Wilfred and his friend if they were interested. They said yes, and were gathering people. I dithered for a minute or two, thinking about how expensive dinner would be, and then kicked myself. I'd heard about this restaurant for years, I had always wanted to go, and now a chance was being dropped in my life and I was being indecisive? I told Wilfred I was in.

It was amazing.

Where to start? Let's start with the food. The food was exquisite. I don't have a particularly discerning palate. I tend to prefer quantity over quality. So I've never seen the point of spending a lot of money on going to fancy restaurants. The nice restaurants I've been to had good food and all, but it wasn't that much better than stuff I can make myself. This was different. This was a whole 'nother level of culinary mastery, one that I had no idea existed. I now understand Wilfred when he raves about a wonderful gourmet meal. It was unlike anything I've ever had before.

We all chose the chef's nine course tasting menu (click on the image to see a copy). Every course was fantastic. Each bite would melt in my mouth with a subtle blend of different flavors. I would get a big involuntary goofy grin on my face. It was that good. I'd talk about highlights, but I would have to talk about every course. I don't think I'd ever had caviar before, or foie gras. And having started out with the best, I may not ever want anything less. This could be a problem. Every course was like that. The lobster was oh so good. The steak was phenomenal, with a pepper rub that brought out its flavors even more. Even the dinner roll was fantastic, clearly just made in the kitchen.

Part of it was the ingredients, which were, of course, top notch - the waiter noted that all of the vegetables we were eating had been harvested that day from the farm over the hill, taken straight of the ground, prepared, and served. The steak was from a herd of Kobe cattle in the Snake River valley of Idaho. The caviar was Iranian, which I was told is the best in the world. Et cetera.

But credit is definitely due to the chef Thomas Keller. The juxtaposition of ingredients and flavors was playful and interesting. Man, that sounds so snooty, but I get it now. The quail had these little pickled Granny Smith apple balls off to the side, and the tartness helped awaken some of the taste buds that the quail missed. The "Suzuki" fish course had a green orange sauce that really added some zest to an already tasty fish. Those sort of combinations are what took each course from great ingredients to extraordinary cuisine.

Beyond the food was the experience. When we arrived, we were seated instantly. The staff was helpful without being condescending; the sommelier in particular was excellent at describing the wines and recommending choices to go with the various courses. Each course was presented with style - three members of the staff would bring out six plates, serving first the three women at the table, and then the three men. Then one of them would wait patiently for the table conversation to die down, and then announce the course. Dishes were cleared between each course. Nothing was rushed. And yet time flew by. We ended up spending five hours there. But it didn't feel like it. We ate, we talked, we drank some wine, we talked some more about the spectacular quality of both the wind and food, we ate some more, etc. And it was wonderful. Since the majority of the tables are a single seating for the evening, there's no sense of urgency from the staff. We took our time, appreciating the food, and taking breaks between courses. For instance, between the two dessert courses, we drank port out in the garden and looked up at the stars. How cool is that?

The French Laundry isn't just about the food, although the food is absolutely phenomenal. It's about the whole experience. It's about driving up north into Napa Valley, away from the city into the countryside. It's about being treated with respect for the evening, where the staff is almost telepathic in responding to your desires. It's about making the whole environment inviting, from the garden to the interior, to having comfortable chairs at the table. Here's one example that amused me but in some ways sums up the experience. While we were out in the garden drinking port, a member of our group wanted a cigarette. Unfortunately, none of us had one she could bum. So she asked the maitre d'. The maitre d' went and found a cigarette (we suspect she ran into the kitchen and asked if anybody had one). It was a Marlboro Red. But rather than just coming out and handing the cigarette to our friend, she placed the cigarette on a silver tray, along with an ashtray and a book of matches. Even for something as prosaic as a mass market brand of cigarette, they took the time to make the presentation special, covering all the needs of their customer. That attention to detail, that desire to go further to make the experience special, that is why this was a great evening.

Yes, it costs a lot of money. Yes, it's almost impossible to get in. But it was an experience unlike any other I have ever had. If you can afford it, I highly recommend it.

posted at: 05:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 03 Jun 2004

Word Wars
I've been a big fan of Andrew Chaikin for a long time. He's an amazing vocal percussionist who I first saw performing with the House Jacks, but now does a variety of independent stuff. I'm on his email announcement list, so I get a heads up of all the neat and cool places he appears (that's what convinced me to see the 7 Fingers Circus, for instance). On his last email, he mentioned that he was going to be doing a mini-show at the San Francisco premiere of a documentary that his brother had done on tournament Scrabble players. I was skeptical. Then he described the movie:

My brother Eric has spent the last 3 years making Word Wars, a documentary about the world of tournament Scrabble. It got into Sundance this year, and is now inching through theaters.

Word Wars follows four of the nation's top-ranked Scrabble players as they vie for the National title. Each is intensely wacky in his own way: Joe Edley, the fearsomely calm tai-chi yogi; Matt Graham, the wired, smart-drug-popping standup comic; "GI Joel" Sherman, the gastrointestinally challenged (that's what the "GI" stands for) world champ; and Marlon Hill, the spliff-smoking Black Power prodigy.

This is not your grandmother's Scrabble. SF Weekly calls Word Wars "charming, hilarious, and brisk." The Bay Guardian calls it "fresh and funny." The Washington Post calls it "poignant... extraordinarily intimate." The SF Chronicle called it "marvelous... thoroughly entertaining and hilarious," and the little man is jumping out of his chair!

I figured, what the heck. If nothing else, a mini-show by Andrew would be worth the price of admission. And it was, especially the new live-looping stuff, which I hadn't seen before; he uses a computer and some foot pedals to record a beat, starts that looping and then starts layering more stuff including vocals on top of it. Really incredibly neat stuff.

But the movie was awesome too. It was incredibly entertaining watching these obsessed Scrabble players. They are incredibly peculiar characters, at least the ones they followed. Most of them don't have jobs; they're too busy studying the dictionary four hours a day and playing several games of Scrabble after that. They study words constantly. Find anagrams everywhere. It's kinda scary, actually.

A sold out show composed of geeks and nerds definitely helped the experience. At one point, they're filming a critical game at Nationals. They zoom in on one player's rack, something they'd done throughout the movie to show people the "Before" and later the "After" as the player then put down a seven-letter word using those letters. Except in this case, the letters are terrible. Something like AAOODEE. The audience audibly gasps. That's what got me. That the audience gasped in horror at the sight of...letters on a Scrabble rack. How cool is that?

Go see it if you have any interest in Scrabble. It's playing this week at the Roxie (they extended it a week because it was so popular) and up in San Rafael, or check out other upcoming screenings.

posted at: 18:50 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 01 May 2004

Jaron Lanier
I've been a big fan of Jaron Lanier since I first heard him talk several years ago at Stanford. So when I read that he was going to be speaking at the Bay Area Future Salon, I made sure to be there. Really interesting stuff. I'll try to preserve the flavor of the talk by recounting his talk in chronological order, at least according to my notes, but he skipped around a lot, so apologies for the confusion. Plus, as usual, I won't be able to resist editorializing.

One of the things I like a lot about Lanier is that he's a great public speaker, willing and able to adapt his talk on the fly to his audience. He did that again for this talk, where he started out "exploring the talk space", by giving descriptions of several different sorts of talks he could give, and ideas he'd been exploring. The talk was nominally about the Singularity, an idea that Vernor Vinge has been promoting for about ten years, where we can see that change, especially technology change, is changing at an ever faster rate; therefore, at some point, the change rate will essentially go vertical, and we will no longer be able to predict past that point. Vinge associates this with the moment when we create self-programming, self-aware computers (think the world of Terminator 2 for a pop culture reference). Others associate it with when nanotechnology makes the first molecular self-assemblers. In any case, it's been a powerful meme, one taken up by Ray Kurzweil, among others. Jaron Lanier composed his response to this "cybernetic totalism" in his "One Half of a Manifesto". This talk was aimed at conveying ideas about the other uncompleted half of that manifesto.

However, when he surveyed the room, he realized that most people in the room didn't really believe in the Singularity (my comment was that since technology has to be embedded into social contexts to be adopted, and social institutions adapt more slowly than technology, I wasn't particularly worried), he skipped the anti-Singularity portion of his talk, except to note that software had become the anti-Moore's Law. He showed a bunch of interesting graphs allegedly from NIST showing that software is taking longer to develop, is much slower to run, and is becoming harder to manage (he showed one great graph illustrating the difference between estimated completion of software projects and actual completion was growing exponentially). So he's not worried about software taking over the world no matter how far Moore's Law takes us, because, well, we suck at software.

He then went on to throw some other ideas out there. One question he raised was "How do people use theories of the future to inform the present?", a question touched on by Peter Schwartz when I saw him talk, and one that informs the whole concept of scenario planning. So he used the rest of the talk to throw out his own theory of the future that was, as he put it, somewhere "between truth and bullshit" hopefully hitting "the sweet spot of utility".

He started by discussing the idea of different ramps. A lot of engineers and scientists like what he called the ramp of technology progress, the idea that we are increasing our power of technology and our understanding of the world in a continuous fashion. We are on a one-way ride to a future powered by technology. And things like Moore's Law and the idea of the Singularity seem to reinforce there's no getting off this ramp and that this is inevitable. But Lanier has issues with developing technology for technology's sake. I'll get to those in a second, in an attempt to follow the way the talk actually went.

So if we don't believe in the technology ramp, what should we believe in? Well, Lanier pointed out that some people believe in a ramp of moral improvement, where we are all becoming better people, and will eventually all be paragons like Martin Luther King or Gandhi. As Lanier pointed out, there _may_ be continuous progress made along those lines, but it's hard to see because there's a lot of noise in that system, and people today are still doing awful things to each other.

After rejecting that ramp, Lanier proposed a McLuhan-esque ramp, one based around media and ever-increasing interpersonal connection. This ramp roughly goes along the lines of grunting to language to arts to writing to printing to today's computer-mediated-communication and beyond to things like virtual reality, of which Lanier is a big proponent. But Lanier immediately asked the question: what are the job requirements of a ramp? If a ramp comes up to us and applies for a job as our dominant paradigm, what should we be looking for? This is a meaningful question, since, as he said at the beginning, theories of the future determine how we act in the present, so choosing the right ramp can be of great importance.

The criteria he proposed are that the ramp allows us to talk about the future in a way that is not immediately self-destructive. He started with the moral ramp, because he had the most snide comments about it. One of the problems with the moral ramp is that any moral system so far developed that gave a strong enough sense of identity to provide guidance, also created a sense of exclusion, which immediately leads to problems. As soon as some people are on the outside, they want to fight to get in, and thus the system is empirically self-destructive. He does concede that there is definite progress on the ramp of morality; if we look at the past, we see that things have been much worse. But there's definitely still a lot of work to be done, and going around trumpeting one's own superiority is probably not the way to do it.

We took a detour here (which is a good thing - Lanier's digressions are more interesting than most people's entire talks). I'm not sure whether these are my comments or his, but improving technology actually has enabled the moral ramp; because we have been brought closer together, both by improved transportation and improved communication, we are more likely to treat each other as people rather than disembodied enemies. Then I have another side comment of his about the "Marin approach", where people check out and do their own thing, which he derides because it doesn't accomplish anything and is narcissistic.

Back to the ramp discussion, and on to the technology ramp. He points out that our planet is very much like a group of extremely clever bored teenage hackers trapped in a guest house equipped with a chemistry lab, all sorts of electronics, etc. What is the inevitable result? The house blows up. "Boredom is the most powerful force in the universe to smart people." and "Armageddon is a disease of young men." Because of that, there is an inherent tendency towards an academic desire for stasis, for completeness, where everything just stays the same (I'd say that this is extremely related to the conservative movement's desire to turn back the clock to the happy days of the 50s). But it's impossible. As we all grow more connected in an attempt to create wealth, we are also creating hazards as well. Most technology is value-neutral; it can be used for constructive or destructive things. So the technology ramp is also the ramp of being able to do increased damage to each other. He detoured again into the history of arms races, starting with the Greeks who realized they could overcome being outnumbered by fighting as a synchronized unit in a phalanx. They kicked off an organizational theory arms race that basically hit its own singularity when the atomic bomb was created, whereby everybody dies if a war happens. But because the technology ramp enables and encourages increasing technology without bounds, he feels that it will inevitably lead towards self-destruction as well, since if the technology exists, he thinks people will be unable to resist using it.

So he dismissed both the moral and the technology ramp because they were inherently self-destructive. But he proposed some other criteria for a good ramp. One quality is that it needs to be challenging for smart people; again, smart people get bored easily - they need to be engaged, or they'll go off and blow things up. It needs to be fascinating in a non-destructive fashion. It needs to sustain interest in technology without the accompanying tendency to kill ourselves. He believes that we are at the stage where we need to turn away from the technology ramp and to the McLuhanesque ramp. He feels that we are not at the edge of technology transition, as the proponents of the Singularity would have you believe, but at the edge of a cultural transition.

Then he got really distracted for a bit. He discussed the cephalopods that he brought up in the talk I saw several years ago, except that this time he had a video of the mimic octopus, which are just mind-blowing. Nobody in the room believed it was real - they all thought it was computer animation. The octopus can control both its skin color on a pixel-by-pixel basis, and distort its shape using muscles under the skin to mimic its background incredibly well. The video clip in question had a scuba diver sneak up on one that was hiding in a bush, and we all were shocked when it suddenly appeared and swam away. Even on a frame-by-frame rate. Very neat stuff. Roger Hanlon from Wood's Hole is the marine biologist that he references, but I haven't had a chance to follow up.

He then started talking about early childhood, and the confusion of reality and fantasy that is part of childhood, where anything you imagine pops into being, making the child basically a god. If a kid imagines a mile-high tarantula made of amethyst crawling around Palo Alto, they can see it there in their mind's eye immediately. If somebody actually wanted to create such a thing, it could never happen. So the moment when kids realize that the world is not theirs to control, that they are not gods, is a moment of leaving childhood. The real world has its benefits, like companionship and other people, but it's still quite a loss. But it immediately begs the question for the child: what parts of the real world _can_ be controlled?

Then he got distracted again by his continuing interest in post-symbolic communication, which he also referenced in that earlier talk. The idea is that "Symbolism is a speed hack". If I actually wanted to show you a mile-high amethyst tarantula over Palo Alto, it would take forever to construct it. But if I use the symbols to represent it, you can imagine it without me having to do that work. It's easier and faster. The natural followup is what would our lives be like if symbols weren't necessary, if it was as easy as thought to create things? How would that be possible? Given his history with virtual reality, Lanier's answer isn't surprising. If children grew up in a world of virtual reality, where imagining made things real, that they could share and show to others, they would develop a completely different language than the one we have based on symbols.

He tied that idea back into the cephalopods. Given their ability to mimic things, they could use their morphing abilities to communicate. Rather than use symbols to represent an object, they could just turn themselves into it. They don't appear to do that, but that's probably a good thing. If they developed language and the ability to transfer information between generations, Lanier feels that they would rival humans in their mastery of the world. In fact, he made the analogy that "humans plus virtual reality equals cephalopods plus culture". An interesting thought to be sure. And the idea that our childhood matters, since that is when we are brought up to speed on a whole host of accumulated learning in the form of culture, is pretty compelling.

Lanier started talking a little bit about his previous work in virtual reality, from way back in the early days of the 80s, when everything was incredibly clunky. He said there was some really interesting work done with avatars, where people given distorted bodies adapted incredibly fast, whether they were given really long legs, or huge hands, or whatever. In fact, if you gave them a completely different body, such as a lobster body with too many limbs (the middle limbs of the avatar were controlled by a combination of trunk and hand movements), people were still able to figure it out quickly. Somebody in the audience pointed out his own similar experience in real life when he learned to drive a forklift; even though it had five levers and all sorts of pedals, by the end of the day, he was just lifting things without thinking about the controls.

I'm going to go off on my own here, because I didn't get a chance to mention this at the talk, but I'm pretty sure that the key here is feedback. If you provide consistent, useful feedback to a human, they can figure out how to do pretty much anything, whether it's drive a forklift, control an avatar, or do a handstand. This is why current software is so terrible; it provides inconsistent, unuseful feedback, so it's impossible to figure out what's going on. The editor vi is a great example; it's apparently incredibly powerful once you learn to use it, but if you're thrown into it, it's bewildering. The behavior of keys changes depending on what mode you're in, or what order you hit them. Terrible feedback, making it impossible to learn naturally. In a virtual world, providing useful feedback is critical to engaging the learning sections of our brain. In the real world, there are all sorts of constraints and ongoing feedback from our bodies that we integrate in our brain to learn. Driving a car is a perfect example - you see how the car changes positions in the lane depending on your movement of the steering wheel, and that's it - people learn how to drive pretty much instantaneously. And yet, put the same people on a driving video game, they do much worse, because the connection between their controls and the feedback that they get is minimal, making it much harder for them to adjust. Anyway. Back to Lanier's talk.

Lanier went on a rant that believing in strong artificial intelligence correlated with designing terrible software. Designing for AI is designing for the computer, not for the person, and therefore such software has horrible usability. He said that the Turing Test was terrible for AI because you can't tell the difference between the computer getting smarter and the human getting dumber to compensate. It's not empirical. His example was credit ratings (the same one he used in his previous talk), where credit companies have these really dumb algorithms that determine your rating, which allegedly predict your creditworthiness. Instead, sensible people do dumb things, like borrow money they don't need, to increase their credit rating. He also referred to Ask Jeeves vs. Google in the search engine wars. Ask Jeeves tried to put the intelligence in the server. Google made the server side simple and relied on people to do its work for it.

He related a cute anecdote about a meeting back in the 50s between Marvin Minsky and Doug Engelbart. Minsky was so excited, talking about all the ways he was going to make computers better and smarter. Engelbart said "You'll do all that for a machine, but you won't do anything for people?" Engelbart, of course, went on to do the famous 1968 demo, which basically demonstrated every user interface technology that has been used since, including the mouse, windows, file systems, etc.

Lanier then implored the audience, a majority of whom were software engineers, to design for the user. Design for people. Join the McLuhan ramp, oriented towards people, rather than the technology ramp, oriented towards the machine. He pointed out the benefits - that the results would be empirical, because you can measure the happiness of the user, that it's just darn cool and intense because helping other people is evolutionarily bred into us, and that it's just better. And I actually piped up here to argue with him. While I totally agree that software should be user-oriented, I thought it was unrealistic for Lanier to try to sweep the culture away like that. For one thing, his definition of empirical is pretty weak. Most software engineers like their metrics of algorithmic efficiency, and cycle time, and things like that, compared to the messiness of dealing with real breathing humans that don't think like you want them to. Lanier responded that those were "fake metrics", that didn't measure anything useful - you could develop software that met those metrics, and still not produce something usable.

Again, I totally agree with him, as my previous post illustrates, but I think it's hard to change the culture. As I pointed out, "That's nice, but the people doing the hiring of software engineers like those fake metrics and will hire people that fill them", which was the basis of my complaint in that post. I kind of suspect that Lanier has the opinion that I once heard from Richard Stallman, when he advocated that all software engineers should only work for companies that had open source code. When somebody asked him what they should do if they were at a company that didn't, Stallman told them to quit, because if they were any good, they should be able to dictate the terms on which they work. And while that may work for the geniuses like Stallman and Lanier, for the rest of us trying to pay our rent and the like, it's not so easy.

But I do agree with Lanier on the intensity and pleasure of a user-centered engineering effort. The first time I built something as a consultant where the customer turned to me and said "Wow. This is so cool! I could never do this before!" I was hooked. It was so much more satisfying to me than the ineffable rewards of academia that my graduate school career tried to promote. And I have run my career ever since in that way. But I'm not sure I'm hireable. I don't have the right skill sets. I don't care about the right things. I don't write code in the most efficient way, so when they ask me the interview question of "write a function that reverses a string" I do it in the non-optimal way, and lose points. Anyway. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Lanier, as usual, had a bunch of interesting ideas. I'm not sure I agree with all of them, but they're thought provoking, and tie into a lot of my own thoughts. If you get the chance to hear him speak, I'd highly recommend it.

Most of the rest of my notes are one-liners:

posted at: 07:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 26 Jan 2004

Talk by Paul Saffo
A couple weeks ago, I went to a talk by Paul Saffo down at Xerox PARC. I knew very little about Paul Saffo, other than that he was a well-known futurist, but I had heard good references to him in enough places that I wanted to see what he had to say. So I went.

It was a great talk. If you ever get the chance to see Saffo speak, do so. He's an excellent public speaker, comfortable in front of a crowd and always ready with an appropriate and interesting anecdote. Moreover, he's got something to say. He has a coherent viewpoint that has stayed relatively consistent over time; several points in his talk were similar to points he had made in older articles that I had read on his website before going to the talk (go see my footnote for more discussion of one of those essays).

Saffo centered his talk about the well-known S-curve of technology adoption (PDF file). But unlike most people, he didn't talk about the steep part of the curve, where everybody's adopting the technology and the investors are making more money than they could have imagined. His talk was focused on the flat part of the S-curve, long before the steep part. As he quoted, "It takes twenty years to be an overnight success." His first example was Douglas Engelbart and his famous 1968 demo, where he debuted the mouse, a graphical user interface, hypertext, word processing, dynamic file linking, and many other innovations. Note that it took until at least the Macintosh in 1984 for such innovations to reach the mass market, and until Windows in 1990 for them to become commonplace. Twenty years. In the years following the demo, Saffo said that Engelbart must have felt like a genius elevated to tragic hero, as people took his ideas and ran with them, but in stupid and brain-damaged ways that made it clear they didn't see the whole picture. Saffo joked that Engelbart must have wanted to say "Wait! Wait! No, you don't understand!" Thus, Saffo's thesis for the talk was that the secret to innovation was to pay attention to the flat part of the technology curve. There's a lot of stuff there that is ripe to be exploited.

He pointed out that most people's tendency to project the future linearly leads them to be wrong twice if the technology S-curve is the right model. They both overestimate the immediate future (where the S-curve is flat, and they're trying to project a linear rise), but underestimate the further future (where the S-curve rises above the linear projection). So his Rule #1 of Innovation was know where you are on the S-curve. In particular, to get a short-term success, look for something that's been failing for twenty years. That means it's just about finished the flat part of the S-curve and is ready for the steep rise where somebody can make money off of it.

He then bemoaned the fate of a technology forecaster (the term he uses for himself rather than futurist). The problem is that when the future happens, it happens late and different and in an unlikely fashion. For a technology forecaster to be credible, their predictions must be plausible, consistent and believable. Reality is not constrained by any such characteristics. So the outlandish will often come to pass before the credible. His example was flight. When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they invented a one person aircraft. If you'd asked them how long it would be until personal aircraft were as common as cars, they would have thought it reasonably soon. If you'd described a 747 to them, and said that was going to happen first, they would have laughed at you. Outlandish before the credible.

Rule #2 of Innovation was that innovation is built on failure, not success. His example was that interactive television was a total failure. It imploded in the early 90s, leaving "one very important byproduct, a community of laid-off C++ programmers who were now expert in multimedia design, and out on the street looking for the next big thing." (see his article for more discussion) Sure enough, the web appeared as an idea, they all leaped on it, and look where we are today. But if there hadn't been this ready pool of talented programmers available, would the web as we know it exist? Saffo finds it unlikely.

So his advice to the aspiring entrepreneur is to look for total failures and see if they've matured enough that they're almost through the flat part of the curve ("look for diamonds in the bubble rubble"). In particular, something is ripe for takeoff when people dismiss it and make fun of it. Interactive television was one example. Push technology was another; why was push technology a disaster? Because the vast majority of people were connected to the net by dialup at that point, and nobody wants data pushed to them when they have to pay for bandwidth. In an always-on broadband world, the equation changes, and we're already starting to see that with aggregators and their kin.

Why is the flat part of the curve so long? Why does it take twenty years? Why are things slow? Because people are stubborn. They hate change. It's not a coincidence that the flat part is 20-30 years, an interval that also corresponds to a human generation. That's how long it takes for a new generation to grow up comfortable with the new technology.

Saffo then moved onto the second focus of his talk, which was the declaration that the Information Revolution is over. It's won. Information is no longer scarce, a precious commodity to be husbanded. It is mobile. It is ubiquitous. It has become media, and with its ubiquity, it has become personal media. In fact, he says that a technology has matured when it becomes media. His examples were that television was invented in the 1930s, but it took until the 1950s for broadcast television to become a standard, that time sharing computers were invented in the 1960s but email was not common until the 1980s, or that client-server computers were developed in the 1980s but took until the mid-1990s to become the Web. He also noted that the cycle appears to be quickening (peer-to-peer became Napster almost immediately). His prediction for the next wave would be for sensors to become "smartifacts" (see this article or this interview for further discussion).

The Media Revolution (analogous to the Information Revolution) is happening now. We are experiencing the transformation of media from mass media to personal media. The selection of media is quickly becoming tied to our selection of physical artifacts. His example was that he realized that his Mercedes was basically a computer with wheels. You're paying for the software on those myriad of chips, from the fuel injection systems to the electronic stability control. In fact, with the addition of Tele Aid to Mercedes cars, some of the software is now subscription-based. He told the funny story of how, at the end of his free first year, a Tele Aid operator called and talked to him in his car and tried to convince him that he should renew the service. He said it wouldn't be long until the car was given away, and all the money would be made on subscription fees. And I'm not so sure he's wrong.

Another interesting point was that the Media Revolution entails the death of interfaces. The idea is removed from the vocabulary. You interact with media in various ways, but you don't need an interface as a window to some remote world of information. You read the newspaper, or you watch television. When the interface fades to invisibility, then the technology has turned the corner. Donald Norman makes the same point in his book The Invisible Computer. The iPod is a media object in that sense; we don't think of it as technology with all the negative connotations. It's just like a walkman. And that's why it continues to outsell its competitors (I own an Archos Jukebox that is a pain to use).

Along the same lines, he mentioned how technology enables the next round of media. Voice over the Internet (aka VoIP) is a technology. It's kind of lame. Very few people use it. However, iChat AV makes using VoIP so easy that you don't think of it as a technology. You just click on your friend and start talking. It's so easy that you've now created a shared space. John Perry Barlow has a nice account of how it changes how you think about communication. In fact, it's so easy that it will probably replace phones in the future to the point where Saffo predicts that the touch tone pad will disappear. Who would dial a number when you can just click?

Okay, the rest of my notes are pretty disjointed so I'll just type them up (this is what happens when I don't type up my notes immediately after the talk). He talked about the rise of personal robots, and noted that most Roomba owners had named their Roomba, and 25% had taken their Roomba on vacation. He talked about the rise of gnat cameras (as also discussed by David Brin in The Transparent Society). He said that even though the invasion of Iraq saw the first extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in war, we'll know that UAVs have really arrived when we see them with a CNN logo filming the next war.

Then we got into the question and answer session, so the thoughts get even more disconnected...

All in all, a great talk. Lots to think about, and more importantly, it provided a nice framework to tie together some ideas I had and gives me some terminology to start using with those ideas.

Saffo spun off many amusing quotes during the talk. Since they were often tangential, I'll just collect them all here:

Footnote to Saffo's talk This doesn't really have anything to do with Saffo's talk, which is why it's in a footnote, but I really liked his article on information surfing. Written in 1989, long before the rise of the web, Saffo projects the idea of information surfing. I especially like this bit:
We have become a society of specialists, each knowing more and more about less and less.

An information surfing future will be one of generalists capable of teasing knowledge and understanding out of large information flows. Information surfers will be pattern finders applying new intellectual skills and working in close concert with radically more powerful information tools.

That is exactly the role that I am moving towards in my career. I no longer have to know everything or even anything myself. I just have to know enough to know where to look it up or who to ask. As specialists become more and more wrapped up in their individual subfields, I think there will be a greater call for people who can tie things together. My dream job was described in Stand on Zanzibar, a sci-fi novel by John Brunner written in 1968. One of the main characters is hired by the government as a "Synthesist, Dilettante Department". As he puts it, when told there's too much to learn,
"Of course you can't if you've been taught the way I have, on the basis of memorising facts, but what one ought to learn is how to extract patterns! You don't bother to memorise the literature - you learn to read and keep a shelf of books. You don't memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer! ...You don't have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary."
So his job is to go to the library, read up on disparate fields, make any connections that he can, and report them upwards so that the scientists involved can coordinate their research. Insights in one field applied to the other. Such a cool job. Anyway. I find it interesting that the quote from Brunner mirrors Saffo's quote so well despite preceding it by twenty years. Which ties back into Saffo's talk, so if you got here by the link, go back now to read about the talk.

posted at: 19:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 04 Jan 2004

7 Fingers circus
Every year, the Circus Center of San Francisco puts on a circus show around the holidays. I always read about it, and then never end up going. Usually, it's a production of the New Pickle Circus, their in-house performing troupe, but this year, they invited a group called les 7 voigts de la main, or the 7 fingers of the hand, to do the holiday show. I'd read the Chronicle article about the performance, but didn't get tickets right away, because I couldn't find anybody else that was interested in going. Then Andrew Chaikin, a rocking vocal percussionist, sent out email to his announcement list that he was going to be doing a cameo in the last performance. So I decided to go by myself. And I'm glad I did. Fortunately, the performance wasn't sold out yet, and I was able to get a single seat left over in the fifth row.

Very cool stuff. The performers each have extensive circus experience; most of them have been featured in multiple Cirque du Soleil shows. But they wanted to branch out and do something new and different - one review described the show as the disgruntled teenage child of Cirque du Soleil. So the seven of them formed a collective to develop a new show. It's much more intimate in feel than Cirque du Soleil from the very moment of walking into the auditorium. As I walked into the theater, they looked at my ticket and told me to keep walking. The next usher looked at it and told me to keep going, which was weird because I was now backstage. After a few more twists and turns backstage, us audience members were shown through a doorway shaped like a refrigerator onto the stage itself. A few of the performers were lounging around on stage and said hi to people as they walked in, as if we'd just wandered into their home (the stage set was that of a loft). We shuffled across the stage to the auditorium and our seats. Meanwhile, some of the performers were wandering through the audience, bringing coffee to people, showing them to their seats, or just chatting. Very laid-back feel, which set the tone for the whole show; these performers were just hanging out in their loft and killing time by occasionally doing amazing feats of performance, and occasionally singing and dancing.

Some very neat stuff. The reviews do a better job of describing the acts than I could. Or you could check out this video with snippets from their website. But the thing I liked most was that even while one person was doing their act, the rest of the troupe was doing their own things, even if it was just puttering around the loft. And in several of the acts, so many things were going on that I'd have been psyched to see it again just so I could see what was going on in the background. I also really liked the sense of whimsy evident throughout the performance; for instance, they started by flipping through channels on an onscreen television (and projected video for the people in back). They end up on a weather report by a local weatherman, describing a cold front sweeping in, so if you're going to the theater, you might want to bring a sweater. Then he goes on to tell the audience where the exits are and to turn off their cell phones. The co-option of the local news to be part of the performance entertained me greatly.

Anyway. Very cool. I'd tell you to go see it, except that I went on closing night. Oh well. I'll definitely check out the circus next year, even if I can't persuade any of my lame friends to go.

posted at: 04:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 14 Dec 2003

A talk by Peter Schwartz
After missing the talk by Brian Eno last month, I really wanted to see the next talk in the Long Now series. The December talk was by Peter Schwartz, a well-known futurist and business strategist. Schwartz was a co-founder of Global Business Network, a consulting company that uses scenario planning, a strategy of exploring possible outcomes and how they affect one's strategy. Schwartz has also written several books on corporate strategy, including The Art of the Long View. This talk was appropriately titled The Art of the Really Long View, purporting to talk about planning for decades if not centuries into the future.

I went in with a fair amount of skepticism because the accelerating pace of change seems to make it impossible to project into the future with any degree of reliability. Several authors have commented on this phenomenon; Vernor Vinge and his description of the Singularity and Ray Kurzweil in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, both address the question of what happens when computers become self-evolving. Other technological phenomena that have the potential to drive change at an exponential rate include nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetic engineering, all of which are poised to become commonplace in the next few decades. So how can one make any plans for the future when the ground rules seem likely to be changed in the relatively near future?

In my understanding of scenario planning, the idea isn't necessarily to predict a single future, but to identify key issues and key questions and answer those questions in a variety of ways to see how the different answers affect the future. That's the approach that Schwartz took in this talk; he identified what he saw as being the important questions and how they might affect what happens. To use a concrete example, he started with discussing the effects of population on the environemtn. Paul Ehrlich apparently once identified environmental impact as being a function of three variables: population size, affluence, and technology. So Schwartz quickly outlined a variety of possibilities along those three axes. We could keep growing to a size of 50-100 billion, crammed in tightly all over the globe, living in relative squalor. If technology improves to reduce the environmental footprint of humans, perhaps it could even be done sustainably. We could level off demographically at around the size we are now. There could be a drastic reduction of population, accompanied by an increase in technology, such that millions of people could enjoy what he called "100,000 acre haciendas". Or there could be a disaster such as an asteroid or a plague, and the millions of people would be living in a hunter-gatherer state. All sorts of possibilities. But the world is very different depending on how those possibilities develop.

So what are some of the questions that Schwartz asked? The first one he addressed was the question of evil. If people do bad things, do we view them as evil or do we view them as mentally ill? The answer determines a lot of how we react to the situation. Mental illness can be treated, and then it's over. Evil is an eternal struggle against the devil. Societies based on one premise will be very different than one based on the other. Another example was reason vs. faith. How are they balanced? He noted in passing that it seems likely that faith is going to win this one, not because of its merits, but purely by demographics; people of faith have more babies than the "intelligentsia". He claimed that going by current demographic trends and birth rates, all of America will be Mormon by 2085 :)

Another interesting question is the question of citizenship and governance in societies, especially as we move towards a global society. How do we construct world-spanning governments that have the loyalty of people? People are evolutionarily programmed to be loyal to a tribe; how do we transfer that allegiance to larger and larger organizations? What does it mean to be a global citizen? Is the EU a good example of how we should be proceeding? (their pathetic attempts at a constitution would seem to indicate otherwise) (although he did make an interesting point that the EU is not about merging economies; it's primarily about keeping the Europeans from war - in particular, keeping France and Germany from trying to take over the continent. Again.) A related question is whether we will learn how to build and fix countries, a question of obvious current relevance with America's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the EU's experience in the Balkans. An obvious extension in my eyes is whether countries are going to continue to be a relevant social entity. It seems likely to me that nation-states are at an awkward size - too big to earn the personal loyalty of its citizens, but too small to deal with issues of global significance like the environment, or even terrorism. I can see the powers of the nation-state devolving in both directions, where the personal loyalty will move down the chain to a tribal level, and the global problems move upwards to some sort of global association of tribes, like the United Nations except more effective. Anyway.

Some science and technology questions that Schwartz singled out as potentially having a large impact include:

The rest of my notes are kind of disjointed, which is somewhat of a reflection of his talk, which had a lot of interesting ideas, but no real continuous thread to tie them together.

One thing he mentioned was that his definition of "better" in terms of evaluating decisions is that which creates more options for the future. He wondered whether we would be the first generation to leave our children with fewer options than ourselves. I think he's being unnecessarily pessimistic. Just in my memory, there have been vast changes as far as providing more options to people: the internet allows a plethora of communication channels, airflight deregulation has made it totally reasonable to fly across the country to visit friends regularly (at one point a few years ago, I met up with one friend 5 times in 5 different cities over the course of 7 months), etc. But it's an interesting way to evaluate decision-making processes, and one that I suspect scenario planning does well on.

Another interesting thread was discussing the difference between powerful ideas and good ideas. Powerful ideas are those which are strong memes, which persist and spread, cooperate and compete, and which increase options. Good ideas are those which improve the lot of human hosts, help humans adapt to new situations, and which increase options. There are plenty of ideas which satisfy only one of these - a couple virulent powerful-but-not-good ideas are Naziism and Communism. The best ideas are those which are both good and powerful, obviously. So keep an eye out for those. In particular, he likes "meta-inventions", inventions which allow other inventions to be made, again keeping with the idea of increasing options.

He referred to one topic that Brian Eno apparently discussed, called the Big Here in analogy to the Long Now. The Long Now is about expanding our consciousness to take responsibility for our actions across a long time frame. The Big Here (in my understanding since they still haven't posted Eno's post yet but they promise to do it at some point) is about expanding our consciousness outside of our normal social circles and communities to a larger community, possibly including the whole world. I just like the concept of the Big Here, and how it changes your viewpoint to even be aware of it. He suggested the questions of "How Long is your Now?" and "How Big is your Here?" when evaluating projects.

Other quick one-off comments that he made:

A pretty decent talk all told. It could have used a better unifying theme, and the discussion felt superficial to me. But some thought-provoking ideas regardless.

posted at: 19:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 15 Nov 2003

Missing Brian Eno
(written 11/14/03) So I missed the Brian Eno talk because I was blogging here. D'oh!

Okay, not quite. The talk was at 8pm, and they warned that people should get there early because it was a free talk. But I go to a lot of weird little events where nobody shows up, concerts where there were more people on stage than in the audience, that I took it with a grain of salt. So I decided not to show up at 7pm, because I thought I'd just sit there for an hour and be bored. I compromised and showed up at 7:30.


The line was over two blocks long at 7:30, not counting the people they'd already let in. I ended up being several hundred people away from getting into the theater. They let us into the lobby area, and tried to pipe the audio in, but it was so muddy that he sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown. So I left, to await the video they promised to upload to the Long Now website.

The experience wasn't a total waste, though. The lobby area was the site of an American Express-sponsored exhibit of portraits by Annie Leibowitz. Wow. I hadn't seen any of her photography before, and it's just amazing. I really liked the portraits of Steve Martin (in a white tux daubed with black paint in front of a large abstract black and white painting), Yo-Yo Ma (with his cello in an autumn setting with falling leaves) and Andy Warhol (taking a picture of her, naturally). Very cool stuff. Worth the visit.

posted at: 11:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal