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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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Mon, 04 Apr 2005

Links of April 4th, 2005
Three links of interest that I came across today.

posted at: 23:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 29 Mar 2005

Look Up More
Damn. I just read about this awesome performance art piece called Look Up More, performed here in New York a week ago Saturday. And I missed it! Damn! I needed better contacts here, apparently. I was about five blocks away when it went off, watching a play. Ah well.

They put volunteers in each of the windows of a massively huge building on the south side of Union Square, and had a conductor outside to coordinate them. They dressed all in black, and on cue, did jumping jacks, danced free style, did a few dance solos, jumping in unison, etc. It's totally awesome. Check out the video (mp4 format). This is exactly what I need more of in my life. Alas. I am disappointed I missed it, but I'm tempted to sign up for their mailing list just to continue reading about their exploits.

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

Mon, 28 Feb 2005

Quick hits of February
A couple random observations, then more links.

We'll return to your regularly scheduled rants about obscure topics tomorrow when I'm not braindead from trying to figure out my finances.

posted at: 22:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 05 Feb 2005


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

Wed, 02 Feb 2005

The Principles Project
I've ranted before on the importance of a clear message in politics. And that the Democrats were lacking that in the last election. It seems that I am not the only one who made that observation. A group called 2020 Democrats has started a website called The Principles Project, which is "an effort to develop a one page statement of principles that summarizes what we as progressives stand for." It's pretty interesting. They posted a draft, went through a round of revision, and are inviting comments on the second draft this week. I poked around for a bit, and added a couple comments of my own. I think it's a pretty decent stab at a coherent statement of progressive principles. I don't fully agree with it, but it's closer than anything else I've seen. So take a look and see what you think.

posted at: 23:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 23 Jan 2005

Whee, links
Couple more quick links I found recently.

posted at: 18:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 20 Jan 2005

I've been using more, so you can always go there to check out what I've been finding interesting in my trawls through the web, but I wanted to call out a couple specifically.

posted at: 22:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 04 Jan 2005

More links
You know the drill. I find some pages that amuse me. I yammer on about them.

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

Fri, 24 Dec 2004

Christmas Eve links
A batch o' links from the last several weeks that I've been too lame to upload until now. If you want a more consistently updated feed of web pages I find interesting, I'm starting to use more regularly, and you can check out my saved links there.

That's it for this round of links. I don't know if I'll get around to posting original content this weekend. For those of you who are dangerously addicted to the internet and are still online like me, I wish you a joyful non-denominational winter solstice celebration.

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

Thu, 09 Dec 2004

Links of the last two weeks
Since it's been a while since I've written, I have a lot of links to put up and comment on. So here we go.

posted at: 22:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 14 Nov 2004

Links of the day
Okay, so I'm utterly failing on writing more. Eit. Friday, I went and hung out at Christy and UBoat's, Saturday I went for a bike ride up to Skyline Blvd and then went over to the Lantzes to play with Max, and this morning I played ultimate for the first time in a month, which hurt about as much as might be expected. Despite my claim that I'd try to stay in shape, I pretty much failed. Alas. So I was getting beat pretty good today on defense because I was sloooooooooooow. I did make a couple nice plays when I was marking on D, and I got a totally totally sweet one-handed left-handed layout grab for a score, so that pretty much made my day. You know it's good when people from the other field tell you how good it was. This afternoon was a "Ow, ow, I'm out of shape" kind of afternoon. With football. I wish I'd had satellite TV, though, to watch the Bears win a game by a safety in overtime. How weird is that?

Um. Yeah. Sorry for the ramble there.

So, yeah, writing more. I figure I'll at least toss up the links I've been collecting for the last little bit. And after this I'll try to type up my AC2004 notes.

Right. To the links.

Okay, not as many links as I thought. Oh well. I think I'm going to punt on the AC2004 notes for this evening - a friend called me up while I was working on this, and I ended up talking to him for an hour, and now it's late, and I think I'm going to stock up on sleep for the week. Maybe notes tomorrow. Not that anyone cares. La la la. I could write complete gibberish and nobody would ever know! Ah, the freedom of having no readership. Wait, was that my out-loud voice? Oops. Bye!

posted at: 21:59 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 20 Oct 2004

Links of October 20, 2004
As usual, a couple links that I want to share.

posted at: 20:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 07 Oct 2004

Links of the day
A few quick links that I thought were interesting.

posted at: 21:39 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 15 Sep 2004

Political links
Links links links. Yes, I know I try to keep this blog to original content (or at least original to me) (I've got several longer pieces I've been mulling over that haven't quite come together yet), but occasionally a set of links comes in that I want to share.

Extreme Democracy Future Salon
I'll probably attend this tomorrow evening. I've been to only a couple of the Future Salons, but it's a good group, and this looks like a particularly interesting topic, given how much I've been ranting about politics this year. I'm excited about seeing Zack Rosen's presentation on CivicSpace, which I only heard about today, and then noticed that he was going to be at Future Salon tomorrow. He's working on developing software to enable bottom-up grassroots political networking (he started it for Dean's campaign, and has continued it with funding from a couple angel investors). Very neat stuff, and along the lines of some of my pipe dreams. Except that he has motivation. And competence.
Lawrence Lessig at SDForum
I really like Lessig's work, and have read Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas, but not Free Culture yet. So he's speaking next week. He's being introduced by Dan Gillmor, the author of We, the Media, a book that intrigued me recently. I'll probably attend. The entire Distinguished Speaker Series this year looks promising, actually. I've been to a couple before, including Paul Saffo, but I always forgot about them. Fortunately, they finally started an announcement list for these talks, so I should be attending more of them.
A march to irrelevance
I really liked this article over on Alternet about how many liberals' idea of protest is thoroughly antiquated in this new century, invoking a 1960s-era mentality that is pointless in today's world. Well written and thoughtful. I've had similar thoughts - last year during the anti-war protests in San Francisco, I asked my friend who participated what he was trying to accomplish - he said "We have to show people that we're against the war!" - "By annoying your neighbors who probably agree with you?" "Well, we have to show the whole world!" "Do you think you're being televised elsewhere?" "Well, it's important!" I wish I had been more eloquent, as this writer is.
Federalist Paper #10
I think I was reading the social interface design forum at Joel on Software, when somebody invoked this Federalist Paper, in response to how the designer can attempt to prevent cliques from forming. And this paper does a pretty good job of identifying how factions form, and what we can do to try to minimize their influence. It's interesting how several of their recommendations start to fall apart in the age of mass media. But the insight into human nature is unmistakable. I should really sit down and read the Federalist Papers at some point. And Tocqueville's Democracy in America. And all sorts of other things. *sigh*
George Lakoff's class Language of Politics
My hero, George Lakoff, is teaching a class in the Language of Politics this term. danah boyd is taking the class, and hosting a blog for those of us that aren't Berkeley students. Neat stuff. Two articles I've read so far that I particularly liked were one on reinventing the Republican party in a way that would actually appeal to me a lot, and one on reinventing the Democratic party, also in a way that appeals to me. Yay being a swing voter. Or at least a swing personality. I'm looking forward to following along with the class.

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

Sun, 12 Sep 2004

Ultimate frisbee video
The college national championships of ultimate frisbee were televised this year on the College Sports TV network. Unfortunately, that's not one I get - I think it's on deep cable someplace, or maybe only satellite. But they kindly have decided to post the video to several of the games online (they are archived down the right side). I've watched the first couple this weekend, and it's actually kind of fun to watch it with a couple different camera angles and expert commentary. The other thing that struck me was how the offense has such a huge advantage at the highest levels. It really is like volleyball in that the side that receives scores the vast majority of the time. Of course, to get to that level requires everybody on the team to have great throws, great cuts, and be in incredible shape. I'll be there any day now. Yeah. Right.

posted at: 19:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 09 Sep 2004

Pepsi Can Fu!
Pepsi Can Fu! Yay. Much like the ping pong Matrix-style video.

posted at: 20:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Paul Graham on essays
Paul Graham wrote a new essay this month about the process of writing an essay. Some interesting observations about the essay form, and why he writes essays. I particularly liked this nugget:

An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.

That's why I'm writing this blog: to take things I'm thinking about and try to flesh them out a little bit, and see where the process of trying to make my thoughts coherent takes me. I don't know if I'm successful towards that end, but I think it's good for both my thinking and my writing. Hopefully the process is also of interest to the reader...

posted at: 20:31 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 07 Sep 2004

Joel on Software on social interface design
As many of you know, I'm a total fan of Joel on Software. I even went to a fan club dinner of his when he was in the Bay Area (he posted that he was going to be at a restaurant in Berkeley about a week in advance, and about 30 software geeks of all sorts showed up - it was surprisingly fun). Anyway, he often posts longer articles discussing various aspects of running a software company or project (he started his own software company after working at Microsoft and several other places), or writing good software. Today's article was entitled "It's Not Just Usability".

Software in the 1980s, when usability was "invented," was all about computer-human interaction. A lot of software still is. But the Internet brings us a new kind of software: software that's about human-human interaction. When you're writing software that mediates between people, after you get the usability right, you have to get the social interface right. And the social interface is more important. The best UI in the world won't save software with an awkward social interface.
He goes on to describe good and bad examples of social interfaces (I'd never thought that the quoting feature of Usenet contributes directly to the line-by-line nitpicking argument style), and suggests that social interface design is going to be a hot new field over the next decade or so, as we figure out how people interact, and how we can use software to reinforce the ways we want people to interact, and to discourage the unsociable behaviors.

Those of you who have been shocked to hear that I occasionally have thoughts of going back to grad school, just so you know, I was never going to go back in physics. Social interface design is the field. I didn't have an appropriate label for it - I kept on calling it social informatics, or computer-mediated communities or something. But Joel nailed it with that label. It involves describing how people interact, a favorite topic of my rants about politics and management and people, and online communities, which have been a favorite topic of mine from way back. And I even know that Berkeley has the closest thing to a department in this right now, with illustrious students like danah boyd, whom Joel references in his article (I linked to the same talk actually). And, of course, I love the group blog at Many-to-Many, as my continual links demonstrate. I need to spend some time thinking about what research I could contribute this field, and how this could happen. Hrm.

Anyway, I felt I needed to link to Joel's article, because it's a really good overview that lays out the problems and gives anecdotal examples of possible solutions, and generally just does a good job of demonstrating what the field is. But, for now, I have to run to my real job.

posted at: 05:59 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 06 Sep 2004

Lego construction equipment
A friend forwarded me this link to this woman who builds working construction equipment models out of lego. She actually implements fully motorized cranes and all-wheel steering and things like that. It's spectacular. And kind of scary.

posted at: 08:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 15 Aug 2004

Phil Agre on Conservatism
I'm on Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater mailing list. Agre is a wonderful thinker about information systems and how they integrate into society. He hasn't posted as much to RRE as he used to, but he posted a new article today, which discusses the conservative movement in detail, what it represents, and how we should fight it. While I'm not sure I agree with all of his points ("Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.", for instance), he does a good job of identifying the tactics of the conservative movement, especially in their use of language (similar to George Lakoff), and identifying ways in which we can fight them. The article is long, but I found it interesting, so I figured I'd link to it.

posted at: 13:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 14 Aug 2004

Transit villages
There was an interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day about the rise of transit villages in the Bay Area, where transit villages are little groups of residences and shops that sprout up around public transit stops on BART and Caltrain. Since I am growing to detest driving and like the idea of having mixed use neighborhoods (as opposed to the new standard of subdivisions and strip malls), I support the idea of these transit villages. Fortunately, I already live in a nice neighborhood with easy access to BART, but I'm glad there's an effort underway to make it possible for others to do so as well. The article is not particularly well written, but it asks some good questions. A better treatment of the subject, for those who are interested, is available in the book The Geography Of Nowhere, which I liked a lot.

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

Sun, 08 Aug 2004

We the Media, by Dan Gillmor
I used to like reading Dan Gillmor's column in the San Jose Mercury News, but stopped reading it once I moved off the peninsula and stopped getting the paper. Which is lame, because it's available online. But anyway. Some page I was reading recently pointed to Gillmor's new book, We the Media. Even better, though, it pointed to the electronic version. I've read the introduction, and it seems like the book might have some interesting thoughts on the participatory nature of journalism in the future, as everybody becomes both a consumer and a producer. We'll see. This entry is mostly for me to have a convenient link to it, so I can read it...

posted at: 15:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 31 Jul 2004

Paul Graham
A friend of mine passed along the link to this article by Paul Graham, talking about what distinguishes great hackers from the rest of us, in light of my entry discussing the extreme gradient in the ability of programmers. I liked the article a lot, partially because it's eloquent, but mostly because he has similar thoughts to ones I've had. His analysis of how great hackers should be used behind the scenes to architect things, so that "the less smart people writing the actual applications wouldn't be doing low-level stuff like allocating memory. Instead of writing Word directly in C, they'd be plugging together big Lego blocks of Word-language. (Duplo, I believe, is the technical term.)" ties in nicely with my projections of where things are heading in the software industry. I also agree with his sentiment that hackers question the assumptions (his quote: "Programs are very complex and, at least in the hands of good programmers, very fluid. In such situations it's helpful to have a habit of questioning assumptions.")

I don't know who Paul Graham is. From poking around his site a bit, he sounds like an accomplished Lisp hacker. He's written a bunch of thoughtful articles, primarily on programming, but a few in other areas. I particularly liked this article about the unpopularity of nerds, where he points out that being popular in high school, dressing right and acting right and everything, is a lot of work, and nerds can't be bothered because they'd rather be smart and curious than popular. Interesting analysis of the dynamics of high school, especially in retrospect.

Some neat stuff. I'm not too interested in his programming essays, mostly because they seem to often end up proselytizing for Lisp, but the couple social essays I read were pretty interesting. I'll keep an eye on his site in the future, I think.

posted at: 00:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 27 Jul 2004

Height Study Redux Redux
Several months ago, I ranted about a height study that I thought was kind of bogus. Then I ranted about it again. And I just read a New Yorker article that is the article I could only wish I'd written, if I had, y'know, a research budget and stuff, instead of just my rantings. In particular, he supports my theory about childhood nutrition correlating with height.

Biologists say that we achieve our stature in three spurts: the first in infancy, the second between the ages of six and eight, the last in adolescence. Any decent diet can send us sprouting at these ages, but take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients and the body stops growing. ("Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimetres and fifteen I.Q. points," one nutritionist told me.)
So, yay. My crackpot theories hold some water after all. Or at least that's how I choose to read it.

What's also interesting is how I found this article. This week's New Yorker had an article about gifted education and nerd camps that sounded interesting to me (I have a previous interest). Unfortunately, it wasn't available online except for this interview snippet with the author. So I googled the author, looking for other articles, and found the height article. Wacky. It's like he's writing the articles I'd want to, if I were more than an Internet hack. Never fear, I did end up with a copy of the nerd camp article the old-fashioned way, by copying it from my friend's dead tree edition.

posted at: 16:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 23 Jul 2004

I just heard of a service called Bloglines, which is a great way to manage subscriptions to various blogs. I previously recommended Bloglet, but that service has failed to work for me for months. I tried NewsGator for a while, but it wasn't very convenient. Bloglines seems pretty good in the couple days I've used it so far. I can check it anywhere I have a web connection, and it lets me easily click and read on the newest entries in my blogs of interest. Thumbs up for now. If you're interested, you can look at my list of subscriptions there.

posted at: 17:54 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 18 Jul 2004

World Watch column by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card has written some of my favorite books, and his ideas have influenced my own in various ways. So when I came across his World Watch column, which he writes on a weekly basis, I was pretty excited. Until I started actually reading the columns. I knew Card was a devoted Mormon, but the stances he takes in these columns are so at odds with my own, it surprised me. Not only that, it was a great disappointment, because his arguments seem opposed to his own writing. In his book, Speaker for the Dead, the philosophy espoused is that nobody is evil in their own minds, that you can't judge somebody merely by the results of their actions, but must include a recognition of their intentions. He even has his protagonist explicitly mock the Calvinist student who says "Murder is murder ... If the act is evil, then the actor is evil." So it shocked me to find Card making similar statements in his columns, calling gay marriage wrong, and drugs "devastatingly harmful".

His inconsistencies also bother me. He was never particularly strong at consistency in his novels, but when he says things like we should be at peace with our bodies and "Even if a person is heavy because of his own choices, why does that give anybody else a reason to abuse them?" in one column, but tells gays that they should marry someone of the opposite sex if they want to be married, it bothers me. Of course, the fact that he's struggled with his own weight problems probably gives him more sympathy to the fat people.

I could spend a lot of time deconstructing his arguments, but suffice it to say that his columns disappointed me greatly. Even the ones where I agreed with him were unconvincing because they suffered from the same sense of moral outrage. I guess I'm particularly sensitized to this because it's one of my own failings as a writer. I assume that because something is obviously outrageous to me, it's outrageous to everybody, and my ability to convince people disappears in a blaze of self-righteousness. So I understand why it happens. But it still makes me lose respect for Card the columnist. He's still a good writer, especially in his use of adjectives to up the emotional quotient of his writing. But when he says that anybody who disagrees with him must be somebody out for personal gain, it's a great disappointment coming from the same writer who once described the Speaker for the Dead, and his ability to see everybody else's perspective.

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

Monkeys at Many-to-Many
I was catching up on the articles at Many-to-Many recently, and saw this entertaining one about "the monkey-mind, that primal and social part of our brains that evolved long before the human species emerged." I particularly like this rant about the Monkeysphere, where a guy uses the idea of Dunbar's number (Dunbar postulated that our brains are limited to being able to track only about 150 other stable social relationships at a time) to suggest that anybody outside our 150 people network, which he dubs the Monkeysphere, is treated by our brains as nobody worth considering, thus explaining our indifference to them in our actions. It's a bit of a rant, but it's got some interesting ideas. In particular, something along these lines is why I don't believe that anarchy can work at a large scale, despite my idealistic hopes that people would be responsible and take care of themselves and not screw each other over. At least until we all grow up and can see the value in everybody. Easier said than done.

posted at: 06:59 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 16 Jul 2004

Esther Dyson on LinkedIn
After reading danah boyd's post about autistic social software a couple weeks ago, it was interesting to read this CNET commentary by Esther Dyson on LinkedIn, discussing several of the same issues. Since Dyson is one of the high-powered elite of the computer world, she is looking for a tool to help her manage her own social network, which involves board members that she works with, friends, etc. As she put it, "LinkedIn should acknowledge that each person is a member of a variety of networks, of which that person is the center. Networks overlap through individuals, not as groups."

This is similar to danah's point that existing social software does a poor job of capturing the complexity of social relationships. I also really like Dyson's phrasing, because it makes a lot of sense to me. I recently had a BBQ to celebrate my birthday, and it was interesting because a couple representatives from each of my facets of life showed up. I had a few college friends there, a couple chorus friends, an ultimate frisbee friend, and my family there. All these different networks of people, intersecting through the locus of me. I'm not sure how best to capture that in an online setting. Perhaps something like does a better job, with its explicit acknowledgement of groups of people. I haven't played with that, though.

I guess the ideal social networking software would be something like the Remembrance Agent, except augmented to handle social duties as well. Something that unobtrusively tracks my interactions with people, and reminds me when something comes up that is relevant to another friend or contact. For instance, if I know that one friend is looking for a database programming job, and I hear that another friend has such a job open, I should put them together. That's simplistic, because that example is obvious enough that I'd probably put the pieces together on my own. But I could see a more complex version being of great use, especially to people who do a lot of business networking, keeping track of all of their contacts. Thoughts for future software...

posted at: 00:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 01 Jul 2004

The Living Web
I came across this article called "10 Tips on Writing the Living Web" today, which I really liked. Some things to think about when writing for the web. It's good to help me reflect on what I am doing with this weblog. On the occasional days when I actually write something. I should at least consider writing more regularly. Try to post something every day, even if it's just a paragraph. I'll think about it at least. Right now I tend to want to post something big every time, and that intimidation often keeps me from posting anything at all. So I have to consider what I want to do. Anybody that has an opinion, feel free to drop me a line.

posted at: 14:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 29 Jun 2004

Hypertext thesis
While talking to somebody today, I made a reference to the Panopticon, an idealized prison, but couldn't remember the details of it. So I typed it into Google, and found this page describing it. The page turned out to be part of a collection of pages that was this guy's master's thesis in English, titled "Argumentation on the World Wide Web: Challenging Traditional Notions of Communication". Lots of really interesting stuff in there describing the change in relationship between author, reader, and text. Worth a look if you're interested in postmodern theory and related issues.

posted at: 14:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 27 Jun 2004

"Autistic Social Software" talk by danah boyd
One of the few blogs I try to keep up with is the Many-to-Many blog at Corante, because the work they're doing involving studying community fascinates me. One of the posters there is danah boyd, who posted an interesting talk that she gave at a conference, noting that social software has many of the same tendencies of autism that are displayed by the programmers that write such software. She notes that social software not only allows, but often encourages, multiple personality disorder, as people are encouraged to make up different avatars to express different aspects of their personalities. As she says in exasperation, "Why on earth should we encourage people to perform a mental disorder in the digital world??"

One of the key points that she makes is that the programmers tend to have limited understanding of social roles themselves, and prefer social cues that are "programmatically and algorithmically processed and understood on simplistic categorizable levels". They don't have a feel for the full richness of social possibilities, and so it's not surprising that the social software they write, like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, asks you to boil down your friends to a binary "Is John your friend - yes or no?". As danah puts it, "It's so simplistic that people are forced to engage as though they have autism, as though they must interact procedurally."

Interesting talk. One of the thoughts I had after reading it was that many geeks might actually view the multiple personality aspect of social software as a feature, not a drawback, precisely because it lets them create new identities. Such people are often insecure with their real-world identity, and use worlds such as role-playing games, both on- and off-line, to experiment with new identities that have no "taint" of their real-world loserness. A similar case could be made for the simplistic view of friendships and social relationships. Until there are people involved in writing the code that take into account nuances like "I work with him, but I would never hang out with him outside of work" or "I'm friends with her in the context of the chorus we sing in", social software will always be deficient.

One of the other good points that danah makes is that people will make software serve their needs. She takes the example of Friendster ("users saw it as a flexible artifact that they could repurpose to reflect their social practices."). She proposes a Call to Action, "to make technology work in the context of people". I really like her second one: "#2: Make a technology, throw it out to the public and see what catches on. Follow the people who use it. Understand them. Understand what they are doing and why and how the technology fits into their lives. Evolve to better meet the needs and desires of the people who love the technology." This reflects my own biases, of course.

Oh, and she refers to a Douglas Adams piece, "How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet", which is just fabulous. I particularly like this bit, describing how technology is adopted:

1) everything thatís already in the world when youíre born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after youíre thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until itís been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Since I just turned thirty myself, I'm a bit distressed by this viewpoint, but I have to admit it's probably accurate. Alas. It's all downhill from here.

posted at: 09:00 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 15 Jun 2004

Keeping Score
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have apparently launched an effort to bring more people into appreciation of classical music and how it fits together (here's the Chronicle article this morning). The effort is called Keeping Score, and is going to be a five year multimedia effort. The first fruits of that effort are being broadcast this week on PBS in a Great Performances special focusing on Tschaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (Check local listings - it's at 8pm on KQED in the Bay Area). The first hour will apparently be a behind the scenes look at how the symphony rehearses and prepares for such a performance, and the second will be a complete performance of the finished work. Sounds like it could be really interesting.

The effort also includes an online component at, giving the interested viewer a chance to learn more. It looks like a neat effort all around, and entirely in fitting with what I know of Michael's desire to share the joy of music with everyone he meets.

posted at: 00:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 14 Jun 2004

Zoning at Burning Man
I went to Burning Man in 2000, mostly because a bunch of my friends were going, and I figured it was one of those things that everybody should experience once. It was an interesting experience. I think the best part from my perspective was getting there early before the party started (I was there nine days), and watching the city grow up around me. I was helping to set up the central cafe, and each morning as I wandered from our campsite to center camp, there would be more and more structures around; landmarks would change daily. It was fascinating to watch this city of 30,000 people appear around me.

Anyway, what reminded me of it was reading an article in the Chronicle this morning, discussing the planning that is necessary to make a town work. Even a town as anarchic and free-spirited as Black Rock City needs rules. They have roads, they have a public works department, and they try to situate similar camps together. Good article.

posted at: 23:47 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 11 Mar 2004

More links
I recently found the site AlterNet, a website devoted to alternative media. In particular, I've been regularly reading their election section. Some recent articles that I found interesting include Arianna Huffington's advice to the Kerry campaign, and an article describing the effect that Howard Stern, of all people, could have on the race. Interesting stuff. Another site that alternet often links to is, which has its own interesting set of articles.

As long as I'm doing random links, I just read an interesting speculation on the different sizes that a group can grow through, and in particular where the danger spots are. Things like the Dunbar number, which I first read about in The Tipping Point - the idea that humans can only maintain stable social connections with 150 others at a time. I find that his observations match up pretty well with my experiences in different organizations as they've grown and shrunk. Worth a read. Even if it doesn't display properly in Mozilla.

I also liked this article by Malcolm Gladwell, on the social life of paper. It speculates how we use paper and other aspects of our environment to externalize the contents of our brain, using it as a spark to memory. How many of us leave a pile of papers on our desk each evening to help remind us the next morning what we were working on? However, each of us organizes our stacks differently, and that's a reflection of how our brains are organized differently. I could spend all day looking at your stack of papers and not be able to extract the cognitive connections that you had developed. The documentation alone isn't enough, which is a point well-developed in The Social Life of Information. Gladwell makes the point as well:

The correspondence, notes, and other documents such discussions would produce formed a significant part of the documents buyers kept. These materials therefore supported rather than constituted the expertise of the buyers. In other words, the knowledge existed not so much in the documents as in the heads of the people who owned them -- in their memories of what the documents were, in their knowledge of the history of that supplier relationship, and in the recollections that were prompted whenever they went through the files.
And, yet another link that I'd meant to link to for a while, is an interview with Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and historian of the Wright brothers. Interesting discussion of the importance of experimentation to the process.

posted at: 14:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 09 Feb 2004

Links, Schminks
It's time for another round of links. As was the case last time, these are links that I found interesting for one reason or another, but I didn't have enough commentary to justify a full entry.

Dean's movement
Mitch Ratcliffe wrote an article, suggesting that "I think the opportunity now is to establish a permanent activism, one that can have the influence of the Christian Coalition and the roots of a populist movement." I don't know who Mitch Ratcliffe, but I like his thinking, since I suggested the very same thing a month ago. While poking around, I found another similar post. It should be noted that Dean shouldn't necessarily be counted out of the race yet. He's still second in delegates, and could still make waves at the convention. But I think if he can use his position to get issues on the table, he should consider it a success. And by those criteria, he's been a huge success; part of the reason he's lost ground is that all of the other candidates co-opted his defining issues.
Exiting Deanspace
As long as we're on the subject of Dean, I wanted to draw attention to this great article by Clay Shirky on what went wrong with Dean's campaign that turned the momentum against him so quickly. Or even whether there was any momentum to begin with: "...the hard thing to explain is not how the Dean campaign blew such a huge lead, but rather why we ever thought that lead actually existed. Deanís campaign didnít just fail, it dissolved on contact with reality." Well worth a read for some thoughts on political organization. And there are loads of links to other interesting posts on the topic in the comments section below.
I saw this post by David Weinberger linked to over at Corante, discussing the importance of the unspoken context of groups. Context is a topic that fascinates me. It's the basis of several forms of humor (changing the context makes things funny) and grounds most human relations. As Weinberger notes, the "knowledge management" industry was a perfect example of the futility of attempting to make the implicit context explicit (The Social Life of Information is an entire book devoted to that particular concept).

It's also amazing how good people are at context. While talking to my sister on the phone this evening I said something like "Remember that one place we went that one time?" And she knew what I was talking about, because the previous conversation set the context for which place and which time. But I just had to stop and laugh, because what I actually said was so devoid of information content that it was ludicrous. And yet she still was able to extract the meaning. Another example is my friends' toddler. He's just learning to talk, so he only has a few words, but can generally make himself understood because we can guess what he wants and say "Do you mean such-and-such?" and he says "Yeah!" and we go on. Unleash a speech recognition program on him and it would get gibberish. People understand him just fine. It's all about context. Hrm. I thought I could maybe expand this into a full post, but it looks like I'm striking out. Oh well. I'll pick up on this thread later. If I were more artsy, I could try to extend it into postmodernism and its tenet that nothing has any meaning without context, but I'd be faking it and somebody would probably call me on it, so I won't.

Fall of the Creative Class
I really liked reading The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida. So it was interesting to read this article, which I saw over at Corante attacking Florida's theories based on the actual economic performance of his Creative Centers. I think Florida did a good job capturing the spirit of my generation, even if it doesn't necessarily translate into the raw economic numbers that this article looks at. But it's good to have the discussion. It's boring when everybody agrees.
The Political Effects of Blogging
Saw this article over at Corante. Considering how I get basically none of my news from television at this point, I think the transition they're describing of the internet's influence overtaking that of traditional media is well on its way. The thing I wanted to comment on, though, was this quote describing how they might measure the effect of bloggers on political debate: "It might be possible to use textual analysis to track the passage of key phrases from their origin in blogs into use in official party or governmental position papers and debates, as well as the mass media." This entertains me because it reminds me of Ender's Game where Peter and Val use the nets to start influencing the political debates of the time (a storyline that continues to inspire me; heck, at some level, this blog is probably a result of my belief in the possibility of that happening):
Peter took careful note of all their most memorable phrases and then did searches from time to time to find those phrases cropping up in other places. Not all of them did, but most of them were repeated here and there, and some of them even showed up in the major debates on the prestige nets. "We're being read," Peter said. "The ideas are seeping out."
"The phrases, anyway."
"That's just the measure. Look, we're having some influence. Nobody quotes us by name, yet, but they're discussing the points we raise. We're helping set the agenda. We're getting there."

posted at: 14:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 27 Jan 2004

Creative Class War
I just wanted to link to this great article by Richard Florida that I saw referenced over at Corante's IdeaFlow. Richard Florida is the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, which I really liked. In this article, entitled Creative Class War, he takes his ideas and uses them to set the stage for this year's presidential election. In particular, he points out that the "blue" sections of the country that are considered Democratic or liberal tend to also be the cities that are attractive to the Creative Class and have a more technological creative focus, whereas the "red" sections are the ones that have a more traditional economic focus, such as assembly lines or agriculture. He also points out:

a much bigger problem. Other countries are now encroaching more directly and successfully on what has been, for almost two decades, the heartland of our economic success -- the creative economy. Better than any other country in recent years, America has developed new technologies and ideas that spawn new industries and modernize old ones, from the Internet to big-box stores to innovative product designs. And these have proved the principal force behind the U.S. economy's creation of more than 20 million jobs in the creative sector during the 1990s, even as it continued to shed manufacturing, agricultural, and other jobs.
Bush's policies, by focusing on traditional economic centers such as the steel industry and by discouraging immigrants, have driven many talented foreigners away to other "creative centers" worldwide, giving a jump start to other countries' creative economies. Bad news if America wants to maintain its preeminent economic status.

He also mentions in passing a point I touched on in my discussion of community, where I noted that "new technologies and cultural changes have created a nation which is slowly splitting itself apart into communities of choice." He calls the phenomenon the Big Sort:

City by city, neighborhood to neighborhood, Gimpel and others have found, our politics are becoming more concentrated and polarized. We may live in a 50-50 country, but the actual places we live (inner-ring v. outer-ring suburbs, San Francisco v. Fresno) are much more likely to distribute their loyalties 60-40, and getting more lopsided rather than less. These divisions arise not from some master plan but from millions upon millions of individual choices. Individuals are sorting themselves into communities of like-minded people which validate their choices and identities. ... More than ever before, those who possess the means move to the city and neighborhood that reinforces their social and cultural view of the world.
Good article. Well worth reading for a different perspective on how the real question may not be Democratic or Republican, but rather creative or industrial economy.

posted at: 23:54 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 13 Jan 2004

A smattering of links
I have a bunch of things that I've been meaning to link to when I got around to writing up an accompanying blurb. I'm not sure that will ever happen. So rather than lose the links, I'm going to post them with minimal commentary because I've found it incredibly handy for me to be able to access links to cool things that I've seen easily from any web-enabled location. There's no real order or organization here; just things that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.

The echo chamber
I liked this article on the perils of meetings of only like-minded people that I saw linked to in the comments section of a Clay Shirky article. If only because the idea that like-minded people tend to egg each other on in the absence of the brake of a dissenter appeals to me and fits in with my thoughts on political extremism, and my aspirations of becoming a contrarian. I especially liked this quote:
Research groups made of scientists from the same discipline and background have very efficient meetings but donít make as much progress as more diverse groups, who have more contentious meetings and spend more time explaining the obvious to each other and discovering that itís not quite as obvious as they thought it was.
As part of a twelve-person team at work, composed of four biologists, two marketing folks, three engineers and three physicists, I've seen this effect firsthand. When we were all at Signature and ensconced in our own groups, we all proceeded in our own directions with our own set of assumptions. One of the first things we did when this team was formed was spend an entire week locked into a conference room "explaining the obvious to each other." It was incredibly useful, and something that continues to be necessary, because our perspectives are so different. But it's contributed to genuine progress as we figure out things that are relevant to each others' research.
The contrast between my hometowns
I linked to this Economist article in my last post, but it deserves its own mention here. It's an article comparing and contrasting two congressional districts, those of Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, and Dennis Hastert in the western suburbs of Chicago. As somebody who grew up in those western suburbs and now resides in the San Francisco area, it was of particular interest to me. They really are alien lands. It's hard to explain to people who have spent their entire life in California or on the East Coast how different things are in the Midwest. But this article is a good start, so I wanted to link to it.
Are blogs just?
After a discussion started on the fairness of blogs by Joi Ito, Clay Shirky responded, and then later went back and took another crack. I don't really have much more to say, but some of the comments on those pages are interesting, and the discussion ranges across several blogs (follow the trackbacks in the comments) of varying interest.
Bay Area Future Salon
I joined the mailing list of this group recently, and have been impressed with the variety of discussion on it. I haven't made it to a real-world meeting yet, but one of these days... Okay, this link is mostly here for my own benefit.
Speaking of interesting groups, this group of people devoted to "doing strange things with electricity" is neat as well. I've only been to one meeting, but I may try to make tomorrow night's gathering.
Long Now seminars available online
I've been to two of the Long Now Seminars About Long-term Thinking now, including the talk by Peter Schwartz. I missed the talk by Brian Eno, but fortunately the talks are available online now. Now I just have to find time to listen to Eno's talk...
What's your law?
I am a subscriber to the Good Experience newsletter, which included this column by Mark Hurst describing "Five Ideas for 2004, which had a link to the Edge website, which I was already a fan of. In particular, Hurst linked to Edge's Annual Question, where they ask a question of their numerous member luminaries. This year's question asked for people to coin their own law in analogy to Moore's Law. Hurst linked to his own law, of course, but scanning the other laws turned up some very interesting ones. It's certainly worth skimming through the entire list.

My favorite by far were the laws by George Lakoff, especially his First Law, that frames trump facts. The framing of the question is more important in determining the answer given than almost anything else, a fact well known to pollsters. His example of framing tax cuts as "tax relief" is brilliant in showing how the use of that phrase immediately calls in the connotations of taxes as an affliction that must be relieved. As he suggests, if taxes were treated as a membership fee, "used to maintain and expand services and the infrastructure", they would have an entirely different connotation. The implications are endless, and I really want to write about them at some point (especially the inevitable consequence that he mentions that it is a myth that people make rational decisions based on the facts, which is insanely relevant to how politics is handled), but for now I'll just link to it. I need more time to develop my thoughts on the subject.

The size of the nation-state
I really liked this Economist article on the economically appropriate size for the nation-state. Definitely worth a read. I read it in the print edition; for finding the online version, thanks must go to the the blog of Charles Murtaugh, which I found through Corante's In the Pipeline blog. I'd been having thoughts along these lines recently; in my post about Peter Schwartz's talk, I say:
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.
I just want to note that I wrote that before reading the Economist article; unfortunately, unlike their referenced economists, I had no evidence to support my assertion other than my gut feeling. Alas. This thread also ties into my recent post about community, musing about how we are steadily segregating ourselves into smaller like-minded communities in both a physical and virtual sense. It all ties together. I just haven't figured out how yet.
And, on that note, I will conclude this post of updated links. I think I got all the ones I've been mulling over. If I remember more, I'll add them later I guess.

posted at: 16:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 07 Dec 2003

If you're interested in the content of this blog, but don't want to deal with checking the web page sporadically, I'd recommend using the service at Bloglet. Create a new account with your email address, click on "your subscriptions" on the right side" and enter in the box labelled "To subscribe to an RSS feed, enter the feed URL below:" and click on the Subscribe button. After doing this, the bloglet software will go out and check the website once a day and send you an e-mail with any updates. This is particularly convenient if there are several blogs or other web pages that you like to keep track of; I currently have eight web pages in my subscriptions list on bloglet.

posted at: 02:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 06 Dec 2003

The Semantic Web
The Semantic Web was recently brought to my attention after reading an article by Clay Shirky, previously mentioned in this blog. As usual, I agree with much of what Shirky has to say. But apparently, he ignited quite a discussion, including this rebuttal and the further discussion here.

In the terms that Shirky originally states, I have to agree with him. It does sound like proponents of the Semantic Web are vastly oversimplifying the problem. Even after reading the further discussion, I'm not sure such proponents disagree with Shirky. They provide as counterexamples very simple use cases, such as indexing books, where the information structure is already well-defined. If that's all they mean by the Semantic Web, then sure, that makes sense. But Shirky makes a good point that extending such a concept to more complicated scenarios is going to be an extremely difficult problem, where the Semantic Web folks are trying to gloss over the complexity by concentrating on the parts they already know how to do.

It sounds a lot like the debates on artificial intelligence to me. The AI researchers make grand statements about the future of AI. Critics say it's going to be a lot harder than that. The researchers show how they can do all these cool things in environments of limited scope (like chess-playing), without realizing that such demonstrations imply absolutely nothing about their ability to handle the general case. For the Semantic Web to be nifty cool, it'll have to be able to handle general implications on its own. And that will be tricky. In the meantime, the only metadata that is generated will be that which somebody has figured out a use for. The Semantic Web tools may make it slightly easier to deal with that metadata, but it won't be able to extend it by creating its own metadata, for instance.

I don't know. I thought I had something interesting to say about this topic, but maybe not. I'll still post this, because I think the links and discussions posted above are interesting, but I'm not going to spend any more time on extending out this post.

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

LookinGlass Architecture and Design
My friend, Emil Mertzel, and his business partner Nick were recently published in a Taiwanese design journal. The article is available from their website, at this link (down at the moment that I am posting, but I'm sure it will be back up eventually).

I sent Emil the following e-mail after reading the article:

So, basically, you're describing the process by which we put ourselves into The Matrix without the need for robots to stuff us in there :)

I think you make some interesting points about the role of architects in a world where physical space is starting to be de-emphasized. Your example of the call centers in India where the workers practice their Midwestern accent and make up suburban lives was excellent. Do architects move to constructing the mental spaces that people begin to occupy? I mean, there's already a whole field of information architecture, which is all about constructing mental structures of information that are compatible with how people think, in analogy to constructing physical structures that are compatible with how people live.

There's also a lot of work to be done in developing the tools to let people construct their own virtual worlds. I've been fascinated by such possibilities since I was introduced to MUDs (multi-user domains) in high school. Making the tools easy enough to use such that everybody can construct the virtual structures that they envision is a daunting task. Or maybe that level doesn't need to be reached; after all, we don't expect people to design and build their buildings in real life.

Definitely some interesting stuff there. I'll be thinking about it.

posted at: 14:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal