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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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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

New directions
This post is to give people a heads up on the sorts of things I'm planning to write about here for the next little bit. And to give people the opportunity to provide feedback, if they so desire. This is pretty much the result of a long conversation I had with Brad and Jill before Thanksgiving where I was trying to articulate to them the sorts of things I was interested in and cared about. And I think I've boiled it down to a few areas of concentration.

Social Software
As a recent post demonstrated, the potential of social and collaborative software is one that fascinates me. I think that it will be the key to unlocking the ideas that are collectively in our heads, the tool by which we can overcome the growing specialization of science. But to do that, it's going to require a better understanding of how people think, and how we communicate with each other. Part of this is going to be developing an understanding of context. danah's post is just skimming the surface. Software that can help us set the context in which we're writing makes it easier for others to understand what we are trying to communicate.

It's an enormous problem. Hypertext is part of the answer in a crude form. When I refer to something in a blog post, I can link that idea to another post which explains it more fully. Part of the reason I'm writing this blog is to help map out my brainspace so that I can refer to it more easily. One of my major tasks in this blog over the next couple months is going to be writing out this fairly large (but currently fuzzy) structure of ideas I have in my head so that some of my other ideas make sense. I'm a little bit intimidated by the process. I have the beginnings to a bunch of posts sketched out, but they only make sense when you know that I think these other N things are related, and everything's connected in my head, but I don't even really know which end to tug on to start. But I have to start somewhere. So part of my commitment to write more is to just start writing some of this stuff down, and hope that the problem becomes more manageable.

But this gets away from the point here. Wouldn't it be cool if software tracked everything I wrote and discussed, and was able to develop this structure of ideas itself? And then was able to translate other ideas into this structure? I know this is beyond science fiction at this point, but one of the things I love about good conversations and good books is that "Aha!" moment when something clicks into place in my head, and a new relationship in my internal idea database is forged. I'd love it if somebody talking to me could leverage my internal idea structure to make it more obvious where their ideas fit in. It would be one step short of telepathy.

So, yeah. That's my ultimate goal. Which is probably impossible. But I feel like there are probably baby steps in and around the area of social software which will move towards that goal. So I'm hoping to think and write about such things as I think of them.

Critical thinking skills and education
I mentioned this in the links post, but I think that one of the greatest problems facing this country right now is the lack of critical thinking skills. People don't know how to evaluate information. They choose based on feelings or what somebody told them. And there's a place for that, certainly. But I think that we could do so much more to help people learn to function in an environment of information overload. It's a matter of understanding how to process information, how to choose who to believe and who not, etc.

An added benefit of tackling this is that it handles the message problem of politics from the other direction. Rather than trying to convince politicians not to promise the moon in order to get elected, it changes the electorate to one that will ask the right questions, examine the tradeoffs and hopefully demand politicians that will respond to their needs. It's trying to figure out how to teach the 40% of Americans that believe that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11 that they can't necessarily trust everything that the government (or Fox News) tells them.

Again, this is a really hard problem. I'm not sure where you even start. It involves education reform, clearly. But reforming implies a new plan. I think that some work needs to be done on how we move forward from a fact-based education system to a discovery-based system. I don't need to know anything myself any more. Google has it all. What matters is being able to look at the results of a Google query (or a library search or the nightly news) and evaluate which of the multitude of results is relevant and reliable. How do you teach that skill?

Politics is obviously an issue much on my mind. I want to do something to help change the direction that this country is heading. I want to make a difference. I don't really know how, though. I think that stories and narrative is part of it. It's developing more consistent stories to get the message out. It's figuring out what stories will resonate. For now, I'll probably restrict myself to commenting on politics when it suits me, and maybe spend some time thinking about how to develop a message on particular issues.

I want to continue thinking about stories. I doubt I'll ever collect these thoughts into a book or anything, but it's definitely one of the unifying concepts of my brain right now. I'm seeing everything as stories, from product pitches to politics. Every effective message has a story to convey it, as the parables of Jesus demonstrate. So some thoughts that I'd like to pursue are what makes a good story, and how can we turn messages we care about into good stories that will propagate themselves?

Wrap up
So those are the major directions I currently have mapped out. If I could figure out how to turn any of these into a career, that'd be something to pursue. For now, I plan on keeping my day job, thinking about this stuff when I can, and writing about it here. Thanks for coming along on the journey.

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

I'm not dead!
Yes, even though I haven't updated in two weeks, I am not dead. Really. I've just been pretty busy. And distracted.

What have I been doing? I bought a dining room table off of craigslist over Thanksgiving weekend, which I was able to move with Christy's help. I had a games day, where we played Strange Synergy, Carcassonne, and, after a dinner of Christy-provided Thanksgiving leftovers, Trivial Pursuit. Fortunately, I was able to back up my Trivial Pursuit trash talk (back in my high school Scholastic Bowl days (check it out - Wheaton Central, runner-up in 1988, my sophomore year), I had memorized a large portion of the Trivial Pursuit deck, and once won Trivial Pursuit in something like three turns and 15 minutes) and pull out a victory, although that was partially getting lucky, because Christy had a couple shots to win before I snuck in. Wow. Christy shows up a lot in that paragraph. Hi Christy!

Oh, and my laptop is finally coming tomorrow. I think. It's allegedly in Oakland tonight, according to internet tracking. I'm still pretty mad at HP, but they agreed to refund the extra charges, and if I wanted a laptop before the holidays, I was pretty much stuck. The computer got delayed a few extra days even beyond the initial delay, but there was really nothing I could do at that point. But it'll finally be here tomorrow. And the wireless router I bought from arrived yesterday, so I should be wireless-enabled after this weekend. Yay! Oh, hp did offer me a $50 coupon to for my troubles. I may use it in a couple months to get an extra battery or something. Even though their prices are outrageously high. I'm also somewhat tempted to get a new calculator with the coupon.

What else? I played in an ultimate frisbee hat tournament last Saturday, which was a lot of fun (hat tournament just means that the teams are randomly drawn, e.g. drawn out of a hat, so you get to play with and meet some new people), but it wore me out - four hours of running around. And I'm out of shape. Again. Blah. Since I hadn't played in two weeks, I played pretty poorly the first game, but got better as the afternoon went on. Three highlights of the day:

So that was a lot of fun. Even though I was totally beat up, and ended up lying pathetic on the couch for a couple hours after getting back before getting up to do some stuff.

On Sunday morning was my normal league game. I figured I'd take it easy, sit on the sidelines a bunch. I get to Golden Gate Park. It's bitterly cold. Like 45 degrees with a 20 mph wind. I'm in sweats, sweatshirt, jacket, and a hat, and I'm still jumping up and down trying to stay warm. It's also the 9am game, so everybody's late. By 9:30, we're told we have to start playing. At this point, the other team has 12 or 13 players there. We have 6. You need 7 on the field. Rather than forfeit, we agree to play 6 on 7. Again, remember than I'm exhausted because I'd played 4 hours the day before. As had the other two guys who were there from my team. And the other team had lots and lots of subs, so they could run all they want, and then take a break. We were hosed.

We actually did okay for about 45 minutes. At that point, it was 6-4 them. And we weren't cold any more, given how much running we were doing. We'd done a good job of switching on defense, mixing things up on offense, and generally not letting them take advantage of their extra player. But then I think we all hit the wall. They ended up scoring the next 9 points to win 15-4. Sheer exhaustion. I've mentioned before how being tired affects even simple skills like catching the disc. On one point, I think I ended up dropping four throws in the end zone. Any of them would have been a score, stopped their run, and given our team some life. And every one I dropped. Admittedly, none of them were easy catches. One I was double-covered, and, again, mis-timed my jump. One was a race to the disc, and my defender just out-ran me and was able to knock it away. One was a couple inches off the ground and I wasn't able to dig it out. It was incredibly frustrating - I lost my temper after blowing that last one and just screamed. I went to the other team after they eventually scored and apologized. But, man, it sucked.

Anyway. Playing 6 on 7 with no subs for an hour and a half is incredibly tiring. After I'd worn myself out the day before, it was even worse. I got back to my place, collapsed all afternoon, and then had to do run some errands. This week? More work. Plus a chorus rehearsal on Tuesday.

But I'm finally caught up, at least for a day, so I'm going to take this opportunity to write some. Whee!

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