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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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Thu, 13 May 2004

All cultured and stuff...
I was in London last week and used it as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the artwork of JMW Turner, a British artist that I learned about the last time I was in England. In particular, I love his use of light and dark in his paintings. While wandering through the National Gallery, I found a few of his paintings, including this month's Painting of the Month, and enjoyed seeing the striking patterns in the skies of his seascapes. I continued wandering through the galleries, taking the approach of walking into a room, doing a quick scan of the paintings and only looking at the ones that caught my eye for some reason. When I walked into one room, I was struck by the luminous quality of the light in one painting; it was a sunrise that reminded me of how Turner would approach a similar subject. It was a 15th century French painter named Claude that I had never heard of before. I was surprised I knew nothing about him, because his paintings grabbed my eye so readily while just walking through the room.

A few minutes later, I walked into a small antechamber that had four paintings in it. Two by Turner, and two by Claude. And it turns out that Turner had left his collection of paintings to the British Government, and, in particular, made it part of his bequest that these two paintings of his were to be hung in a room with two paintings by Claude, because Turner admired Claude's work so much. I was very much pleased with myself to have observed a connection between the artists before having it confirmed. It made me feel all cultured and stuff. So I figured I would share that with y'all.

posted at: 09:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Catching up...
As is probably obvious, even though I put up reviews of five books today, I didn't read them all recently. I finished them over the course of the last month or so, but I did want to continue my policy of reviewing every book that I read, so they piled up on my desk until I got the chance to sit down and write something up about each of them. And there will be more on the way - I'm about halfway through the book Moral Politics by George Lakoff, and I have a couple other novels from the library that I'll probably read this weekend...

posted at: 09:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
I never got around to reading Ayn Rand in college when everybody else did, but I was going away for a week on business, and wanted something long but compact to read, so I picked this up in paperback form at the used bookstore. Her basic thesis of Objectivism is that reason and egoism should be the principles upon which society is based. In particular, capitalism is the ultimate economic system because rational self-interest will cause great things to happen. Rand also has a view of the world where there are great heroic humans that we should not hold back. From the Ayn Rand Institute webpage, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Atlas Shrugged is a morality tale, expounding the dire consequences that would occur if we went down the road of communism rather than capitalism (the book was written in 1957, so this was a relevant question). I think she takes things to too extreme a level, but her ideas are interesting. And I can definitely see why many nerds take up the banner of Objectivism so enthusiastically in college. Early on, she captures the feeling of being surrounded by people who don't get you, who prattle on endlessly about meaningless topics, which is a feeling that nerds are all too familiar with when trapped in parties with people talking about fashion and the like.

She also makes a pretty compelling case to me of the result of truly following the concept of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." She talks about the inevitable race to the bottom that would occur if such a philosophy were truly put into place as each person tries to outneed the next, and the corruption that would be endemic to such a system. Not a bad description of what happened in the Soviet Union, from what little I know. She also emphasizes the total disincentive for people of ability to work under such a system. In fact, the whole book is a novelistic exploration of what happens when the heroic producers go on strike against such an unjust system.

All in all, I think she makes a lot of good points, especially given the era in which she was writing. The novel definitely drags in places (1000+ pages), especially where she inserts multiple page soliloquys about the horrors of a communistic system and how it holds the true heroic producers in shackles. In fact, I skipped the final 50-page long speech by John Galt, because I just couldn't take it by that point. But it was worth reading, and I have to admit that my personal philosophy has a lot of similar elements to objectivism. And the novel was persuasive enough that even though I think she goes too far, I spent some time thinking about what she had to say and trying to figure out why I thought she was too extreme. And a book that makes me think is always a good thing.

posted at: 09:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Aramis or the Love of Technology, by Bruno Latour
I really liked Science in Action, another book by Latour, so when I saw this on a friend's shelf, I borrowed it. Unfortunately, it took me several months to actually get through it; I started it over Christmas vacation, but I kept on getting distracted by other things, until I finally powered through the last bit a few weeks ago. And now I'm finally writing it up.

Aramis was a proposed public transit system in France, one that would combine the best aspects of the train and the automobile. It was designed to be a point-to-point train system, with small cars that would pick you up at your home and take you directly to your destination with no stops in between. To do this involved many technology leaps, such as "nonmaterial coupling", where two train cars would act as a train without any physical connection (so that a car that was speeding out of a stop could hook up to the train in front of it, and another car could drop out and stop without stopping the whole train). It sounds like a fantastically cool system. The project existed in various forms from 1970 to 1987, through several iterations of prototyping and proof of concept. The technology even worked - the book has some great photographs from the final testbed of cars actually travelling together without being connected physically. But Aramis never made it to the real world. And this book is the tale of a sociologist hired to find out "who killed Aramis?" - what was the fatal flaw in the project or in the management of the project that prevented Aramis from achieving reality?

Latour takes an interesting approach to the book, using a form that he calls scientifiction, a cross between narrative and history, of culture and technology. His protagonist is a young engineer working with the sociologist to figure out the history of Aramis and where things went wrong. Interspersed throughout the work are interview excerpts from people they talk to, as well as impersonal observations from the author himself. Plus there are bits where Aramis itself speaks and asks to be born. These different authorial voices are distinguished by typeface, but that only makes it slightly less confusing. And it made it a bit of a slog to try to keep everything straight, so every time I put it down for a couple weeks, it would take some effort to figure out where I had been and what was going on.

It's pretty interesting, though. Latour is a philosopher of science, emphasizing the culture in which the science is embedded. In Science in Action, he talks about how the bureaucrat lobbying for a laboratory in his district is doing science, because it's all part of the same process. Here he is taking the same approach to project management. The main idea of his that I took away from this book was that a project is not real until it's built. Until there's something physical that everybody can point to and say "That's Aramis", it exists in a realm of uncertainty, where all of its parameters can still be negotiated. Latour goes one step further in fact; like his idea of black boxes in Science in Action, where things are packaged up so we don't think about them, Latour claims that the project doesn't really exist until it no longer exists. That sounds contradictory when I say it that way, but his point is that if Aramis had been built, people would have started using it and it would have faded from their consciousness. They would not have said "I am taking Aramis to meet you at the theater", they would have just said "I'll meet you at the theater". Only when something is taken for granted is it truly real.

The book is fascinating because the sociologist and his engineer intern interview all the various parties involved with the Aramis project, and trace it through its various ups and downs, and the number of different viewpoints is astounding. Everybody has a pet theory of why the project eventually failed, but none of them seem to match up with what happened. If it had really been a critical technical failure, it would have been caught much earlier in the process. If certain people had the antipathy towards Aramis that others suggest, it would never have been approved to go forward with the final full trial. If it was all just politics, that doesn't quite sync up either. It's a conundrum.

Latour brings out all of this and presents it to the reader. His authorial viewpoint sections also point out the negotiations that are taking place in the design of Aramis. As new people get involved, the vision of Aramis changes as do the requirements ("The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises."). He points out that in a successful project, these requirements eventually converge and a physical thing actually gets built which sets the technology into a concrete reality. In Aramis, that never happened; the requirements shifted on a yearly basis depending on which branch of the government was involved, and where they were trying to build it. Latour warns the reader:

If we say that a successful project existed from the beginning because it was well conceived and that a failed project went aground because it was badly conceived, we are saying nothing. We are only repeating the words "success" and "failure", while placing the cause of both at the beginning of the project, at its conception... All projects are stillborn at the outset. Existence has to be added to them continuously, so they can take on body, can impose their growing coherence on those who argue about them or oppose them.
Those projects that succeed are those where the actors involved agree on a coherent vision of what they are building, or alternatively where one of the actors is strong enough to impose their vision on others. This did not happen in Aramis. There was actually a nice compare and contrast project that Latour uses, called VAL, which was an automated rail system built during the same timeframe by the same company. That was an instance where the desires of the company matched up with the desires of the city where it was to be built, and the project went smoothly and VAL came into existence. It's interesting to see how things went differently in the two cases.

This whole thinking of the project as a continuous negotiation is of great interest to me. At work, I couldn't see the point of spending weeks writing a Product Specification Document. But reading Latour made me realize that the point was that setting things down in such a document was a process of negotiation and compromise, and the reason that people took the document so seriously is that they were authoring their vision of the future. My cry that "It's just a document - it's not real!" is inappropriate, because the document will define reality for this instrument, and now is the time when all of the various actors need to address their issues and balance their needs. The project is a living thing, with the documents being merely the history of the compromises necessary to move the product along.

It's an interesting viewpoint, and one that should have been obvious to me, but reading this book really made it evident. Latour's emphasis that technology is always embedded in a social and cultural context, and that the technology does not bring itself to life, but requires real people (the sociologist in the book repeatedly emphasizes following the actors) to invest in it, both fiscally and emotionally. And following the trail of negotiations and compromises as Aramis moved from phase to phase, with new interests being brought aboard at each stage, was a fascinating mystery hunt for Latour to try to solve. I won't give away the ending of who actually killed Aramis, though - it won't make sense without reading the book...

posted at: 01:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, by Ellen Ullman
Saw this at the used bookstore, and it looked sufficiently interesting that I picked it up. Ullman worked as an independent computer programmer contractor throughout the dot-com years, and this book is a sort of memoir of her dedication to the machine, sometimes at the cost of losing track of the people involved. She confronts the problem I mentioned where real users are so much more messy than dealing with the software:

Before this meeting, the users existed only in my mind, projections, all mine. They were abstractions, the initiators of tasks that set off remote procedure calls; triggers to a set of logical and machine events that ended in an update to a relational deatabase on a central server. Now I was confronted with their fleshly existence... I wished, earnestly, I could just replace the abstractions with the actual people. But it was already too late for that. The system pre-existed the people. Screens were prototyped. Data elements were defined. The machine events already had more reality, had been with me longer, than the human beings at the conference table.
And even after meeting the users, it doesn't take long to fade back into the code zone, where she boils their objections down to easily makeable changes to the code. Her meditations on programming are pretty observant, I thought. One passage I particularly liked was comparing the internet to a spreadsheet:
What is it about the Internet, with its pretty graphics and simple clicks, that makes users feel so inundated; and about the spreadsheet - so complicated a tool - that makes them bold? The received wisdom about user-friendliness is challenged here. Human beings, I think, do not like to be condescneded to.

The spreadsheet presumes nothing. It has no specific knowledge, no data, no steps it performs. What it offers instead is a complex vocabulary for expressing knowledge. It is, literally, a blank sheet of paper with a notion of columns and rows - and everything held on that sheet is presumed to come not from the program but from the human user. In the relationship between human and computer that underlies ths spreadsheet, the human is the repository of knowledge, the smart agent, the active party. The user gives data its shape - places it in columns and rows - and eventually turns data into more knowledge. It is the end user who creates information, who gives form to data, who informs the spreadsheet.

This is a stab in the back to most user-friendly design guides I've read. And it makes a lot of sense. Insulting the user's intelligence is not a good thing - that's why everybody hates the Microsoft paper clip. People don't necessarily want things easier, to be talked down to. They want things sensible. It's all about consistent usable feedback. The spreadsheet is a great example. The idea of leaving the user in charge is a point I am pondering a lot in the design of the user interfaces I'm helping to develop at work.

The book was a surprisingly touching meditation on the life of a programmer in the dot-com era, when unreality always beckoned. When it didn't seem unreasonable that everybody knew somebody who had made millions. When people really believed that computers would change everything. Unfortunately, the computers eventually ran into the reality of people, and slammed to a halt. People change slowly. They will adopt new technology, but only if it fits into their life. This is why radically new technology and ideas typically have to wait twenty years for a generation of kids to grow up with those tools. Anyway. Good book. Interesting thoughts. Good writing.

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

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz
I liked the talk by Peter Schwartz that I went to, so when I saw his most well-known book at the used book store for $3, I picked it up. A pretty quick read detailing the idea of scenario planning, a management strategy involving coming up with several detailed future possibilities for the world and playing them out to see how they would affect your corporate strategy. The point is not to predict the future, but to prepare for it; by having thought through how different factors in the world may affect you, you will be better prepared to deal with any of the myriad things that actually do happen. He emphasizes that a scenario fails if the people it is presented to don't consider it. It has to be realistic and detailed enough to be considered as a possibility, but it also has to challenge the audience enough to change how they think. As he says, "The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future."

After making the case for scenarios, Schwartz then goes into the details of how to prepare scenarios, how to identify critical decision points, how to gather information to construct the scenario story, balancing between pre-determined elements such as demographics versus unexpected possibilities, and composing a plot (he mentions several standard plots, including Winners and Losers, Challenge and Response, Evolution, et cetera).

Finally, he takes these ideas and uses them to construct three possible scenarios for 2005 (the book was written in 1991). And this is fairly interesting, since we're living in that future now. So it was fun to check how various trends that he identified either failed to come to fruition or achieved success that he wouldn't have believed. Not surprisingly, the world that exists has elements from all three of his scenarios (New Empires (where Europe matches up against a Pacific Bloc of North America and Japan and Southeast Asia), Market World (where laissez faire capitalism dominates - this is actually pretty close to what happened), Change Without Progress (our world has elements of this as well, particularly politically)). Interesting stuff.

I like the idea that scenario planning is centered around stories. Stories are one of the most powerful and compact ways to affect people's behaviors. This is the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell would say. Stories tell us what to do, and serve as guides to our daily lives. Scenarios are a way of consciously constructing those stories in a way that is immediately relevant to corporate management. I'm not sure I'd recommend reading this specific book, because it doesn't really have a lot of information; ipso facto, it's a quick read, though.

posted at: 00:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal