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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sat, 15 Nov 2003

Rant craziness
I'm in the process of trying to consolidate the two blogs I've been vaguely keeping (the reading list one and the journal one) into blosxom, so I just dumped the last few months of posts into blosxom. That's why it claims I wrote a bunch of posts this afternoon. I put in the actual dates that the posts were written in, which should help clarify things. I think. We'll see.

posted at: 09:29 by Eric Nehrlich | path: | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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: 09:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Question the assumptions
(written 11/14/03) A friend of mine offered up this piece of advice about how to deal with children, learned from experience with his own two-year-old: Offer them choices where you're happy with both outcomes. That way, they get to make a choice and feel in charge of their life, and you're happy regardless. Choices like "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?" or "Do you want to eat your vegetables first or second?" The question is framed to eliminate the assumptions that the child may want to question, like "Why do I have to wear the shirt at all?" or "I don't want to eat vegetables."

This may seem like a non sequitur, but it occurred to me recently while considering the survival strategies of organizations, a point I touched upon in the last post. After all, isn't this the strategy used by the organizations in power to perpetuate themselves? ABC or CBS or NBC is the choice offered, not whether to watch television. Democrat or Republican. Catholic or Protestant. The dangers of the two-valued orientation should be evident (read Hayakawa's book for more discussion), but is often overlooked in our society. By giving people only two or three choices, it eliminates the possibility of throwing out the question entirely, much like my friend only gives his two-year-old pre-approved options.

It's interesting because people become so attuned to societal rules that they don't even consider what assumptions are ingrained in those rules. For some reason, it's very clear to me that the rules define a game, and define a world-view. So I speculate on the rules of the game, and how they serve to perpetuate power. And I feel free to step outside them when I think it's necessary. Not that I'm some sort of crazed outlaw or anything, but I know that the rules exist for certain reasons and certain situations. If I don't believe the rules apply, then why should I observe them? I liked Heinlein's expression of it in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Professor Bernardo de la Paz describes himself as a rational anarchist, one who understands that rules exist in society, but also understands that those rules apply to him only as long as he lets them. There are consequences to breaking the rules, of course, but that is factored into my decision as to whether to abide by them.

The difficulty comes in dealing with people who believe that the rules are the rules full stop. People who believe in the organization chart in a bureaucracy and are terrified of breaking the chain of command. People who are brought up as Republicans and will never question their allegiance. People who believe that homosexuality is wrong or birth control is wrong, when I think those are mostly rules that the Church put in to ensure that its followers would "be fruitful and multiply", thus ensuring the numerical and eventual political sovereignty of the Church.

How do you get people to question the rules? How do you get them to understand that the rules were put in place, often by a political aristocracy to preserve their power? How do you explain that they're just rules, like in a game, not laws of nature? You'd think it would be easy for Americans to understand this; our entire country was based on the idea that our forefathers broke the rules, and rebelled for the sake of universal principles that they believed took precedence. But at this point, many Americans are just happy to treat the new rules as handed down from above, like Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Points I want to pick up in later posts: How and why I think I ended up with a decidedly independent viewpoint? And whether I think everybody should be trusted with the empowerment of deciding whether the rules apply to them. Also, I'll see if I can come up with some ideas for encouraging the independent viewpoint I crave. But for now, I'm going to run off to a talk by Brian Eno.

posted at: 09:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

New vs. the Old Testament
(written 11/12/03) Whee. Short post. Too much going on in life (chorus rehearsal last night, salsa class tonight). Maybe another long post tomorrow.

While I'm on the general anti-religion bashing theme, I was chatting with a friend about the people who think that the Bible is the literal word of God. The interesting bit to me is how they can reconcile the gods of the Old and New Testament. Old Testament is all "I am a vengeful God full of wrath"; New Testament is "For God so loved the world..." Plus, the Old Testament has all sorts of crazy stuff that I don't see how people can take literally; my favorite example is Genesis 19:8 where Lot tells a mob in Gomorrah that they can have his two virgin daughters and do with them what they please, if they'd just leave him alone. And Lot is the one guy God saved from Sodom. This is the approved behavior. Craziness.


My theory on the whole Old and New Testament thing is that it makes perfect sense if you treat the church as a meme, designed to perpetuate its own survival. Once you have a loving, merciful New Testament God, how do you keep the rabble in line? You've got good cop, you need bad cop. Old Testament God serves in the role of bad cop. He's angry, He's vengeful, He'll smite you down just for thinking the wrong thing. So now you have the carrot of "Jesus loves you", and the stick of "And if you don't do what He says, He will smite you down and punish you with an eternity of Hell." This makes it much easier to run crowd control.

In fact, I'm going to do a whole post at some point about rule design to perpetuate power, but not tonight.

posted at: 09:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Evil cults
(written 11/10/03) This is going to be a rant. It's not a reasoned discussion, it's not an unbiased look at the facts, it's pretty much just a rant. Go with it.

It started with a friend of a friend trying to drag people to a Landmark Forum event, raving about how it had changed their life. I was skeptical, to say the least. Landmark Forum, according to skepdic, is an offshoot of est, which is itself an offshoot of Scientology. I didn't end up going to the event, because it conflicted with another obligation, but I did a little reading and thinking, and I'm mostly just recording that here.

Here's what I don't get. Why do people believe in crap like this? As far as I can tell, most of these cults (from Jesus Christ onwards) have one message: "You're a good person. You are valued. Keep on paying us, and we'll continue to value you." I can understand the need for validation, and for external approval. I crave it myself. But I don't understand why people think that such validation that comes with a price tag is worth anything. I only hope I never get that desperate.

It's a weird thing. Many of these programs, apparently including Landmark Forum, strive to break down the participants in order to build them back up. Things like refusing bathroom breaks, holding the meetings at odd hours (Landmark Forum meetings are typically at 10pm, I assume to take advantage of people being tired and slightly disoriented, and therefore more impressionable), sleep deprivation, and repetition of the core message. When you're broken down, then they can build you back up, and you'll forever be dependent on them.

But, as my friend pointed out, even skepdic admits that sometimes these programs help people. And that doesn't surprise me. After all, the placebo effect helps people about 30-50% of the time even when dealing with actual physical diseases. And I can even see how these programs could help people deal with their life better, providing a crutch to help them get on with their life.

The evil part is that, instead of teaching them to walk first with the crutch and then on their own two feet, they teach them to walk with the crutch, teach them to be dependent on the crutch, and then threaten to take the crutch away unless they pay up. That's pure unadulterated evil. I have a strong belief in the right of people to attempt to achieve their potential, and deliberately crippling people with a mental crutch like that flies in the face of all that I hold dear. Teaching people to believe in themselves is valuable. Teaching people that they hold their destiny in their own hands is wonderful. Teaching people that to achieve their destiny, they must attend the advanced course is pure poppycock.

The other thing that I thought was interesting was that this friend of a friend apparently made a comment to the effect of "I really got to reinvent myself" at a Landmark Forum event over the weekend. My immediate thought was "So is 'reinventing myself' code for 'making myself feel better about myself'?" I'm skeptical that one can "reinvent" oneself in the sense of making measurable alterations in one's behavior over the course of a weekend. One's behavior is so locked in by nature and nurture that changing anything fundamental about yourself is really really hard. Learning to accept one's limitations and working within one's behavior patterns is one thing. Changing them is another. I've spent a lot of time trying to change what I don't like about myself, and have learned there's no shortcuts. There's no easy path. It's long, it's hard, it's miserable, and sometimes it's just not worth it, and you have to just accept the way you are.

I can definitely see the appeal of somebody offering a shortcut. I'd love to become instantaneously more sociable and more comfortable around people. But it doesn't work that way. It's the equivalent of dieting. Dieting, in the end, is about eating right and exercising. There's no shortcuts. But that doesn't stop people from trying every fad diet that comes along, and paying for the right, to the tune of $40-100 billion a year in the US. I see these programs like Landmark Forum to be the mental equivalent of the diet industry. They're there to give you a temporary boost, which is doomed to fail in the long term, so that they can get you to pay more money for another go-round. And the real solution is free and available - it's just hard work.

Anyway. I think I've said what I want to say for the moment. I'm sure I'll come back to this subject over the next few days.

posted at: 09:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/religion | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Being tall makes you richer!
(written 11/8/03) A few weeks ago, I read an article on Yahoo that caught my eye because the headline mentioned claimed that tall people earn more. In particular, "Tall people earn considerably more money throughout their lives than their shorter co-workers, with each inch adding about $789 a year in pay, according to a new study." As I'm 6'3", this amused me and I sent it off to a few of my shorter friends who reacted with the expected grumpiness.

But after thinking about it some more, I don't buy it. I don't think that height matters so much that I earn $10k a year more than a friend of mine with the same capabilities that's 5'3". That just doesn't sound right to me. And I came up with a theory that I think probably explains most of it, and doesn't seem to have been addressed by the researchers, who, at least according to that article, only controlled for gender, weight and age.

I would expect that height correlates with childhood nutrition. I'm going mostly based off of my own experience here, but with my mother being 5'2" and my dad being 6' if he stretches, it's not entirely in line with genetics for me to be 6'3" and my sister to be 5'8". My mom has always preached the importance of meat and milk for kids, and considering the way my sister and I grew, I don't think she's wrong. I think that one's genetics pre-specify a range of possibilities, but where in that range you fall may have a lot to do with what you're fed and how much exercise you get as a kid.

Extending that further, I would also expect that childhood nutrition correlates with mental development. In terms of evolution, the brain is a luxury and is way overpowered compared to what it needs to be for mere survival. So I would guess that if one is undernourished as a kid, the body gets most of the nutritive value and the brain is starved. It's only when you have a surfeit of nutrition that the brain gets fully nourished. Note: I'm not a nutritionist, I've got less than zero expertise here, I'm just guessing. But it makes sense to me.

So my theory is that people with height tend to have had more privileged childhoods. They got more to eat, they probably had better schools, and generally had a better chance in life. If the study had controlled for childhood socioeconomic status, I suspect the observed differentials in salary would be drastically reduced. In fact, I was intrigued enough to go to the UFL press release on the study, and send an unsolicited email to one of the authors with this theory. We'll see if anything comes of it.

posted at: 09:21 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Joe "Bush" Millionaire?
(written 11/7/03) We were talking yesterday at lunch about the new Joe Millionaire. Apparently, it features a young Texas cowboy, who's pretending to be the heir to an oil fortune worth $80 million. The women wooing him are European women, who appear to be a gaggle of loud-mouthed, ineffectual, jealous moneygrubbers. My immediate thought is that this program must be sponsored by the Bush administration. Make Europeans (and particularly the French) look like they're just jealous of our wealth and want to grab it for themselves. Make a regular Texas boy the star of the show.

Of course, I'd extend the analogy further and say that the Texas boy in the White House is just as much of a pretender as the new Joe Millionaire. But that's another rant.

posted at: 09:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Howard Dean and the South
(written 11/5/03) Just after writing my previous post about how Howard Dean is a hopeless case in the South, I read an article on Yahoo today, where he apologized for making an insensitive mark about the South. Apparently, "Dean got in trouble while defending his moderate views on gun ownership, saying Democrats need to address such cultural issue if they want to appeal to Southern white voters who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags in the windows." The implication that all Southerners are white trash who worship the Confederate flag apparently offended many blacks and all of the other Democratic candidates.

The really crazy thing is that Dean was on the right track. They do need to find a way to appeal to those folks. Even though one South Carolina democrat disgustedly said, "My God. Couldn't he have simply said we need to appeal to the 'Bubba vote' or 'good ol' boy vote?'", that's exactly what the Democrats need to do to have a chance. But now that Dean handled it poorly, nobody else is going to try to touch it, which means that the South will be lost as expected, and the Democrats will lose. It's almost like the Democrats are trying to find ways to make their position worse. Crazy stuff. I'm more and more resigned to Bush having another four years in office to destroy the American economy and any credibility we have overseas, because the Democrats don't have anybody who can politick their way out of a paper bag.

posted at: 09:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Projection and insanity
(written 11/3/03) About a month ago, I was in the toll lanes leading towards the Bay Bridge and waiting in line when a guy tried to cut me off and just muscle in front of me. I didn't let him. The guy behind me did. As he swerved in behind me, he yelled "Asshole!" at me, which I heard since my windows were down. I find this to be a kind of weird and interesting case of projection. He's the one being rude, barging in without even the courtesy of a signal, and I'm the one who's an asshole for not backing down? I don't get it. It's somewhat disturbing that he expects everybody to be a doormat for him.

I think the only reason it sticks in my brain is because I read a lot of Phil Agre, and he's commented at length on the issue of how the conservatives of this country have taken projection to a whole new level. As he puts it in one post:

America is now Upside-Down-Backwards Land; it is filled with people who are 
capable of doing *anything*, because whatever they do, no matter how crazy
or extreme, they hallucinate that it is really being done to them.
That's what I felt like when dealing with that other driver. And I don't know how to respond. Agre believes that continued and patient re-assertion of the truth and analyzing the sheer irrationality will eventually win through. I'm unconvinced. I tend to uncharitably think that people want to be irrational, to hold onto their cherished beliefs, and to be told what to think. But that attitude doesn't help. However, engaging with the enemy is so exhausting when everything you say gets twisted around and taken out of context that I don't know how people do it. I'd explode (and be mocked as a crazy liberal). It's distressing because the situation is only getting worse as the divide between the cities and the heartland of this country grows wider. It's hard for many of my friends in Boston and San Francisco to realize just how unrepresentative of America as a whole they are. Argh.

posted at: 09:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Why Howard Dean should leave the race
(written 11/3/03) As long as I'm ranting about politics, it's time for Howard Dean to get the hell out of the race for the Democratic nomination while he still has credibility, and throw his support to Clark. If he were serious about the priority being to get Bush out of office, that's what he would do. Why do I say this?

It's simple electoral politics. Southern states won't vote for a damn yankee, New England, upper crust liberal. Period. End of story. Dean can't win a general election against Bush. Same goes for Kerry, Lieberman, Kucinich and the rest. As my friend from Atlanta used to joke, "I didn't know DamnYankee was two words until I was in high school!" Since JFK, no Democrat has won the presidency without being a Southerner (LBJ, Carter and Clinton), and the ones that were New England liberals were subject to the worst landslides ever recorded (Dukakis anyone?). JFK is an exception, but he barely squeaked into office, and wouldn't have been elected if Mayor Daley hadn't rigged Chicago (see Ted White's The Making of the President 1960 for details - I'm going off somewhat foggy memory here). In fact, if I remember correctly, JFK's election was the event that turned southern states away from their traditional Democrat leanings and made them the staunch Republican stronghold they are now.

The only Democratic candidate with a chance is Clark, because he has the Southern gentleman thing going for him, and because he can pound Bush for being a Commander in Chief who ducked out of military service into the National Guard. I'd love to believe that people nationwide will realize the tremendous damage Bush has done to this country in the last four years and rationally vote him out of office, but since my state just elected Schwarzenegger as its governor, I have to believe that most voters vote by instinct. And expecting southerners to vote against instinct to elect somebody who's definitely not one of them seems unrealistic. Clark needs to be the Democratic candidate. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if Karl Rove (Bush's political advisor) were doing his best to support the Dean campaign. There could be absolutely nothing better for the Bush campaign than a Dean candidacy. Rove would tear Dean apart. Anyway. These are the things I think about...

posted at: 09:18 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

I hate meetings.
(written 9/28/03) Not exactly a rare sentiment, I know. But I've been trying to consider why I dislike certain meetings so much. I think it has a lot to do with how I like to take in information. I'm not a linear thinker. Or, perhaps, I'm too accelerated a linear thinker. When somebody is presenting an argument to me, I can generally see where they're going, and want to skip ahead, because it's a straight line. So I get really impatient when they go through every step of the argument, and tune out and think about how much I hate meetings.

I recently read Edward Tufte's rant about Powerpoint, which is where some of these ideas are coming from. Tufte laments the growing prevalence of Powerpoint and slideware in our organizations, feeling that it weakens verbal and spatial reasoning by forcing all arguments into an abbreviated, bullet-pointed, linear form. The human brain is much better at coordinating things spatially than temporally, so expecting people to remember the bulletpoint from four slides ago and coordinating those with the graphs on the next three is foolhardy.

But, back to meetings. I don't think I'd be going out on a cognitive science limb by saying that different people have different preferred methods of absorbing information. In my case, I prefer a random-access approach, being able to flip back and forth, rather than being held to somebody else's idea of how I should view the information. Other people prefer graphical representations. Some people learn best through hearing, some by reading. It varies wildly. Meetings impose a linear auditory information transfer on everybody, which makes it inefficient for everybody. I can't tell you the number of hour-long meetings which I've missed and/or skipped and been able to extract all the information useful to me by asking somebody three minutes worth of questions. That's an inefficiency rate of 95%!

Back when I was a grad student TA, I hated teaching sections. Even with a lesson plan, I felt that it was hard to convey useful information to people without customizing it for them. I much preferred one-on-one problem-solving sessions, where there was an immediate feedback that allowed me to figure out how to map the problem-solving methods into terms that each individual student would understand. For some of them, the Socratic method of asking questions worked well, for others working examples with them helped, for others a discussion of the general principles was what they needed. Trying to incorporate all of those into teaching a section was impossible. But when they came to the TA's lounge and asked for help during office hours, I felt I could really get through to them.

One of the ideas that has floated around my mind for years is something I read in a science fiction novel, Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress. The details of the book are unimportant because it's not really that good, but she postulated an existence of a group of super-geniuses who developed methods for optimizing information transfer between them. By mapping out their preferred brain tendencies, they were able to take the ideas and arguments from one person and transform them into the preferred method of information transfer for another person, so that they essentially became telepathic.

Obviously that's unrealistic, but we can start considering ways we can customize the flow of information to take advantage of our brains' preferred methods of data entry. In a rudimentary sense, that's what I was doing in those one-on-one sessions as a TA. But there's a lot of work to be done in this area. I'm sure a field of study exists studying how people absorb information, but I don't know what it's called or who's studying it. If somebody reads this who knows, please drop me a line. But I think it'd be fascinating and immensely useful.

The world has grown too complicated for any one person to understand it all even at a basic level. But many breakthroughs in science and engineering come from crossover of knowledge, when techniques and ideas from one field are applied to another. With the exploding amount of information in each field, it's almost impossible to keep up even within one's own specific sub-discipline, let alone across fields. So methods of improving information transfer should be a higher priority than ever. It may be our only hope of catalyzing new breakthroughs in the future.

Plus, it'll get me out of all those damn meetings.

posted at: 09:18 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Clay Shirky on Process
(written 9/25/03) I've been starting to read more blogs recently, including VentureBlog, Corante and that of my friend DocBug, and I figure it's time for me to start posting thoughts on the web again. We'll see how long this lasts.

The post in particular that inspired me to post was over at Corante, by Clay Shirky (who wrote a really great article on the perils of grouphood that introduced me to corante in the first place). In this article, Shirky makes the claim "Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity".

I've been thinking about process recently, as I've gone from working at a freewheeling startup to working at a larger, established company with a process for everything. Every decision is accompanied by reams and reams of paper. We even had to be trained on the processes so that we could understand what was going on. It's crazy.

In light of that, I like Shirky's statement a lot. It's clear that many of the processes that have been put in place are to correct mistakes that were made in the past. It's a way of institutionalizing knowledge gained. And that's a good thing. But when the processes ossify and get in the way of the main objective, which is to build great products, then it seems like more reflection is necessary. In other words, when the process becomes the end, rather than the means, it's time to re-evaluate the process.

I'd even extend Shirky's statement further. Process is a way of covering your ass as a manager. If you go "by the book", then you can't be criticized, even if the book tells you to do something patently stupid. As people used to say, "You'll never get fired for buying Microsoft" (or IBM before that).

As in all things, there has to be a balance. Process is a good guide to the past, to what has come before. But it should not limit what can be done in the future.

posted at: 09:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson
(written 7/30/03) I'm reading a book on the history of anarchism (Anarchism: a history of libertarian ideas and movements, by George Woodcock), because I've been interested in the political concept of anarchy for a while, but didn't really know anything about the historical and theoretical tradition of it. Plus the book was only a couple dollars at the used book store. Anyway, the book references an interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson:

The influence over government must be shared among the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates in the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting of the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth.
It's interesting because it's no longer true. In his time, reaching the entire electorate was impossible, due to travel and communication constraints. But with the introduction of mass media, it's trivial for someone to "corrupt the whole mass", and within the private resources of many people. Well, okay, some people. This is one of the things that disturbs me about direct democracy - it's far too easy for the electorate to be swayed on many issues by propaganda. Heck, I freely admit that most of the time I don't know what the "right" answer is on several of California's ballot propositions. So I'm dependent on trying to pluck the truth out of the TV ads and other propaganda going back and forth. It's a crazy system, and has led to the crushing deficit facing the state government, because the propositions have limited their discretionary spending to such an extent that they can't even make sensible choices any more.

I guess I'm not sure what my point is. Except that that quote is interesting. It makes one wonder whether Thomas Jefferson would even recognize our government today as a "democracy".

posted at: 09:17 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/politics | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal