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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, 31 Mar 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 21:31 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | 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

Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell
I mentioned in this post how I picked up Me++ at the Whitney Museum, and started reading it. Some interesting ideas here. I found out later from Jofish that Mitchell is the current head of the Media Lab at MIT, which explains a lot about the book. There's nothing particularly innovative about his ideas, but he packages and explains them well, which makes sense since the Media Lab head is pretty much a public relations position.

It was a weird book to read in a way. While I really liked the general viewpoint of the book, there was nothing in it that made me scramble for a pen to note a particular idea (something which happens regularly with most nonfiction books I read). I think what I liked the most was the vision of our greater interdependence on each other in conjunction with our reduced ties to a particular location. In other words, to support my lifestyle requires a tremendous physical and electronic distribution network. For me to flit around the country, and be reachable no matter where I am because my cell phone and email are always with me is an astonishing phenomenon, even from the viewpoint of twenty years ago. I regularly remind myself on trips to not stress about packing because so long as I have my ID or passport, and a credit card, I can get whatever I need at my destination. I can walk down to the corner store and buy fresh fruit, or a replacement toothbrush, or a current magazine. It's amazing.

At the same time, our ties to an individual place and location are becoming far weaker. In some parts of the country, it is still common to grow up in one place, maybe go off to college, and then return to set up a home and family within thirty miles of your parents. My hometown is like that. But for many of us, we've developed our sense of virtual community, where between ubiquitous electronic communication and plane travel, I can almost as easily maintain ties with friends that live on the opposite coast as I do with my next door neighbor. I see my friend Batman, who currently lives outside of Toronto, more often than I see another friend who lives less than a mile from me.

The other point that I remember from the book was that we should be wary of the implicit nature of these networks. In ancient times, the distribution network was explicit; the entire town was centered around the granary. Even in more recent times, the networks of railroads or freeways made it evident where the centers were. These days, the networks are disappearing from view. The guy sitting in the park muttering to himself is as often a high-powered executive talking on his Bluetooth cellular headset as it is a bum these days. It's interesting that the networks are dropping from sight at the same time they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever. I suppose it makes sense - to quote McLuhan, "we don't know who discovered water but we know it wasn't a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception."

I also like the vision of circles of control radiating outwards from ourselves, each of which requires more cooperation. He uses the example of climate control. At an individual level, I can choose how many layers of clothing to wear to control how warm or hot I want to be. Moving outward, I can change the temperature of the room I'm in, with the consent of others in the room. Moving outwards, we can change the temperature of the building with a central heating system. He imagines having a weather bubble around the city, and the negotiations associated with that. At each step, it requires more power, and a greater degree of cooperation to achieve an effect. Our control of our environment doesn't end at our arm's reach; it attenuates with each sphere of control.

One last thought (wow, I had more to say about this book than I expected). I liked his question of what the Golden Rule means in a distributed society. When we are dependent on a worldwide distribution network, what does it mean to treat others as we would like to be treated? Our actions can have effects on people halfway around the world. If I choose to buy Nike sneakers made in a sweatshop in southeast Asia, am I supporting the children that work there or am I dooming them to continued indentured servitude? In a less polarizing example, anybody that has written on the Internet knows that it's amazing how your words can haunt you, where they will turn up in the most unlikely of places. When each of our actions can have worldwide consequences, even if those consequences are attenuated greatly, we have to become far more aware of our environment.

Interesting book. It's a nice summary of some of the social consequences of the new networked capabilities that technology has enabled. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it'd be a good book to give to a non-technology-oriented friend to have them start thinking about these issues.

posted at: 09:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith
While we were driving up to Cornell, Jofish recommended this book. I'd read another of Smith's books, Spares, borrowed from the library, but it made absolutely no impact on me, and I didn't remember a single detail. But, in the mornings, while waiting for others to wake up, I picked up Only Forward from Jofish's bookshelf, and slammed through it.

I thought it was interesting. I liked the world that it takes place in, which is sort of the logical extreme of the Burbclaves in Snow Crash, where the Neighborhoods grow to be completely separate and cut off from each other. And I really like how the protagonist's flexible viewpoint lets him move between the different Neighborhoods seamlessly, because it picks up on the contextual nature of reality that I've been thinking about. The second half gets more metaphysical, and I'm not sure I liked where Smith went with it. But it was a quick read, and had some interesting ideas, so it's a qualified thumbs up.

posted at: 08:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse
After seeing James Carse speak, I was eager to read his book, which I finally got around to doing on this vacation. It's a deceptively simple book, with lots of short, simple sentences. But there's a lot of thought packed into those sentences.

I covered his overall gist in that previous post, where finite games are played within boundaries and with the goal of winning and ending them, and infinite games are played to expand one's horizons and with the goal of continuing them. I just went and skimmed through the sections of this book that I noted as capturing an idea particularly well (the book is divided in 101 sections, each of which is only a page or two long), and it covers such a wide variety of concepts. I liked his application of the finite and infinite games idea in some cases more than others; in particular, I didn't get much out of his attempt to apply it to sexual relations.

One thing I really liked was the observation that in a finite game, the past is fixed, and can never be changed. No matter what happens, the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in January of 1986. That is a fact. However, in an infinite game, the past is fluid - we can always bring a new perspective to it that changes the way we view events. To use Robert Anton Wilson's example:

"A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying "Stay away from my wife" and has a fourth view of the "meaning" of the situation. Etc."

Each viewpoint opens up new ways of seeing the situation. We can always tell new stories and change the way we view the universe. I think that this is a powerful observation; far too many people are trapped in a finite world where they can't even question the assumptions, where there is only one way of seeing. Not only is it sad, but it's also dangerous; those trapped in a finite world are all too apt to impose their will on infinite players, destroying all alternative viewpoints, rather than open themselves up to the infinite possibilities.

For Carse, conversations should be infinite in the sense that we are open to the possibility of discovering new viewpoints in our interaction with each other. In a finite conversation, each person has their viewpoint and is not going to change, and it is more of a zero-sum negotiation where if I win, you lose ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"). In an infinite conversation, both of us may influence the other, and a new viewpoint can be constructed out of bits of each of our side, such that our eyes are both opened to a new way of viewing the world. Everybody wins. I love these kinds of conversations, where it's not about winning or losing, but striving to get a different perspective.

There's so much good stuff in this book. Just go read it. It's short, but thought-provoking; because it was a small paperback that fit in my jacket pocket, I was carrying it everywhere in New York, and was just as often re-reading previous sections as reading new material. It's the kind of book where you could read a random section, and ponder how it applies to one's life today. I need to think more about how I can make myself more of an infinite player, and to move beyond the constrictions of a finite life.

posted at: 08:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 28 Mar 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 20:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 24 Mar 2005

Virtual cues
There was one particularly interesting topic at the dinner party which I'll record here so that I hopefully pick up on it later. We were discussing the role of technology-mediated communication such as cell phones and email in our lives. One woman was trying to make the case that we should give up on it, that it was only making our lives shallower and more wasteful, that it wasn't "real" communication. She made the good point that we would never conduct an interview over email, because there's so many cues that you pick up when you're talking to somebody in person. Given how much of my social life I conduct via technology, though, I had to disagree that it was a complete waste of time.

My contention, which I need to develop further at some point, is that we've had centuries to develop our ability to read physical cues. And we can still easily get fooled, because people like con artists take advantage of our trust. I think that we are starting to develop the understanding of cues necessary to make similar distinctions in the virtual world. In the real world, we're well trained to thin-slice and ignore most of the information coming in. I think a few of us in my generation have, and many more in the next generation will have, the ability to effectively parse information online at a preconscious level and ignore big swathes of it to find what we're looking for. I used the example of me versus my mother as far as chain letters and other net dreck - my mom will sometimes forward me stuff that I immediately dismiss as outdated or a scam or something, just because I've been on the net longer and have more experience with understanding what a legitimate email looks like. Or my ability to effectively use google and other online tools to find things in a few seconds that other people can not find in an hour.

We'll also develop better tools for managing our virtual attention - right now, you pretty much have to look at everything in your inbox, but as spam filters get better, we'll find ways to reduce the cognitive load of dealing with computer communications. I think. It's yet another interesting area of exploration for products that would be really useful, even though I don't really have a good picture of what they would look like.

We also discussed how the use of such technologies changes our communication. The difference between writing letters to keep in touch versus an email list, for instance. The letter is good for deep one-on-one communication. The email list is good for shallow group awareness. Is one of these "better" than the other? It depends on your values. I think both have their place. I'm definitely in much better touch with my college group of friends because of various email lists than I ever would have been if I had to write individual letters to all of them. At the same time, I have my core group of close friends who I see regularly, even though some of them live on the other coast.

As somebody pointed out, to some extent, the email lists promoting shallow community awareness are a virtual replacement for the small town community we once had, where everybody was peripherally aware of everybody else's business, thanks to a few gossip-mongers at the general store. Instead of being tied to a physical location, though, these communities are now online, a topic which I started to address in this old post, where I point out that until recently, "the idea of being able to form a community with people who were not geographically co-located with you was laughable."

I guess the point is that communication technology is not good or bad in and of itself. It's how we use it. Certain technologies encourage certain ways of interacting, thank you McLuhan, but we still choose which technologies we use. If I want shallower group interactions, I use an email list. If I want a one-on-one conversation, I use instant messaging or a letter or a phone call or a personal visit. Having more options at our disposal is a good thing in my opinion, so long as we master how to use them effectively. Otherwise we disappear into information overload. And that's where developing better virtual cues to guide us through these virtual communication spaces is a high priority. Hah! Managed to complete the circle and bring us back to where we started!

posted at: 08:22 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/socialsoftware | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

posted at: 08:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 07:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 22 Mar 2005

What is powerful, part two
[Apologies for the barrage of posts - I'm trying to be more disciplined about spending a couple hours writing in the morning, and, well, I generate a lot of verbiage. The editing part still needs work obviously. But you'll have to suck it up. Or just skip it.]

In the previous post, I suggested a definition of powerful, as it relates to art and ideas, as being that which connects people. But being the contrary person I am, I'm immediately going to offer another viewpoint. Last night while thinking about what the value of a network of ideas was versus an individual idea, I wondered if I could tie this whole discussion into the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. Perhaps in the tipping point phenomenon. I mentioned in my first cognitive subroutines post how I occasionally have flashes of insight, where ideas realign into a new pattern. Is that a tipping point in my neural net? Do different people have different threshold levels of evidence, such that some generalize quickly, and others need a preponderance of evidence?

Then another thought struck me. The thing that makes the small world phenomenon work is the unanticipated links between disparate parts of the network. The small world phenomenon doesn't work if people only know their local friends. It's only when a few people (not many at all according to Watts) can link their local set of friends to a set of friends far away. The far links are the powerful ones that make the entire network "small".

Once I thought of it that way, the extension to ideas was obvious - ideas that connect wildly disparate modes of thought are powerful, because they link up different areas of the idea network. The most powerful ideas are the ones that cross disciplines, connecting things that nobody thought were even related. Maxwell unifying electricity and magnetism. The electron shell theory providing a basis for the chemical periodic table. I like this perspective because it makes the connection to the science of networks explicit. We can think about how the different idea networks interrelate, and how to construct links between them that will make the idea network as a whole more compact.

So this is a different definition of powerful than the one in the previous post. That previous post started with art and moved to ideas; can I do the reverse and apply this new definition to art? It's unclear. What does it mean to connect different areas of art? To take one example, music that breaks barriers is often seen as revolutionary. Rock and roll built off of the blues, but brought it into the mainstream. I suspect the same is true in art, but I'm not sure I know my art history well enough to come up with any examples. Perhaps Gauguin's incorporation of Pacific Island art into his work.

Now we have two definitions of powerful. One is about the effect something has on us personally, and our connections with each other. The other is about the effect something has on the network, growing the capabilities of the network by providing more links, where the advancement of the field is perceived as being a good in its own right. Is one definition "better" than the other? It's hard to say. But I find it interesting that my speculation on art as a web has opened up into this whole separate discussion on value and power. Down the rabbit hole we go.

posted at: 09:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

What is powerful?
In yesterday's post, I quipped "art is in the network, not in the nodes." While walking around yesterday, I started trying to figure out what I meant by that. It's a cute quip, but what does it mean? I also wanted to tie it into the ideas I presented towards the end of this post, where I say "It's about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn't very useful or exciting to me. It's about how it hooks into a big picture." Again, the network, not the nodes.

Where to start? Let's start with the idea of value. Or to put it more bluntly, power. What does it mean to be powerful? In art, we think of a piece as being powerful when it has an effect on us. Generally an emotional effect, but it may have an intellectual impact on us. Picking up from yesterday's discussion, though, the power is not in the piece itself; it is in the connection between the piece and the viewer. We can all think of pieces of art that have a powerful effect on us, that are disdained by the world at large. The TV show Buffy is a good example - many would not even call it art, but it resonated strongly with me. It may not be powerful to the general audience, but it is to this audience of one. I think this demonstrates that the locus of power is not in the work itself, but in my connection to it.

What do we mean when we say a piece of art is powerful, when we imbue the object itself with that quality? We generally mean that it has a powerful effect on most people that view it. There are always going to be curmudgeons or naysayers who dislike any given work. But the greatest of works are the ones that speak to everyone. They bring people together, by evoking similar reactions in a whole group, demonstrating that no matter what their surface differences, they have the same reaction to this piece. They create an instant community. I think Brahms Requiem is a good example of this. When we performed it soon after 9/11, it brought the whole symphony hall together into a powerful statement of mourning and hope.

How does this definition of power extend to the world of ideas? Are ideas powerful insofar as they help create connections between people? This is an attractive definition. What is the single most powerful idea in the world? "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." This idea has bound together hundreds of millions of people into a single faith. It has provided the basis for innumerable communities, both local and global.

What are some other powerful ideas in this bridging sense? The idea of the scientific method is one. The world of science extends across nations and continents. Perhaps sports, as I mentioned in that instant community essay. It also explains why it's so important to me to do my thought development in a blog, in public, garnering feedback. The ideas in and of themselves are interesting, but what I really want is to think of ideas that provide a new viewpoint on the world to myself and others. And I can't do that in isolation, only in connection with others.

I think the interesting thing here is that we have a definition of powerful as the quality that allows people to connect to each other. Art or ideas do not have an inherent value; they have value in their ability to connect people. Being the social creatures that we are, we place the highest value on things that let us create social bonds among us. I like this idea a lot. It re-orients us to the value of human connection, and indicates that our connections with our friends and family are our most valuable possession. And that is a message that I totally support.

posted at: 08:43 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 06:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 21 Mar 2005

Art as a web
DocBug put up an interesting post, wondering why we put all the fame and glory on a particular artist, when their work is often the result of a dense web of collaboration, influences and support. I started responding to that post in a comment, and then realized I had a lot more to say than I thought I did, so I'm responding in my own blog.

Here's the basic concept. Our culture has a tendency to try to objectify things, not necessarily in a pejorative sense, but in the objectivity sense most commonly associated with journalism. That there is a thing, and it has these properties that are part of the thing's ineffable nature. That things are one thing or another, in a Platonic ideal sort of sense. By associating qualities specifically with an object, rather than describing the object as possessing a quality that it could later give up, it tends to confuse things. This is one of the reasons that people like Robert Anton Wilson suggest we use a version of English called E-Prime, which abolishes "to be" and all of its variants.

How does this apply to the situation in question? We want to be able to easily assign credit or blame to people, to have a simple relationship between cause and effect. To take an unrelated example, when somebody does something hurtful to us, it's easier to say "They are evil" than it is to understand why they might have chosen to take that action. It's simplistic thinking, but it has pervaded our society, and holds true in art as well. If we like or dislike an art piece, we give credit/blame to the artist. We tend to project all of our personal feelings and perceptions of the art onto to the artist, and, in our own minds, give the artist all of those qualities.

This is why it is so easy to get in an argument about art; two people may have very different reactions to a piece of art, which they both associate with the piece of art itself, rather than with their own relation to art. So they can't understand what the other person is talking about, because they are seeing two completely different pieces of art, even though they're looking at the same physical object. The meaning is not in the art itself, but in each person's individual connection to the art.

And this is where I think I can tie it back into the original point that Bug was making. Art has no value in and of itself. If an artist makes a beautiful piece, and nobody ever sees it, or if a composer writes a beautiful song, and nobody ever hears it, is it art? I would contend that it is not. Art is about creating that connection between the artist and the audience via the piece of art. In geekspeak, art is in the network, not in the nodes.

That's also true for the creation of art, as Bug points out. Art does not get created in a vacuum. Artists need tools to do their work. They influence each other. They are influenced by what's going on in society. Looking at a piece of art divorced from all of its sociopolitical context is almost nonsensical. It's making the mistake of assuming that the piece of art carries all of its context with it, that any qualities associated with the art are contained within the object, not in the network. I'm pretty sure I'm restating the basic postmodernist position at this point, from my meager understanding of it, so I'll leave it at that, and move onto another question.

How did we end up here? Why is our American society so inclined to try to stuff all of the properties of an object into the object itself rather than the network of relationships surrounding the object? How did we get to a position that our president could declare entire nations evil, and be taken seriously? (okay, that's not directly relevant to this essay, but I think it's a manifestation of the same phenomenon).

Here's what I think. A hundred years ago, Americans would have had a very different perspective. At that point, we were all deeply embedded in our communities. There was a tight web of relationships in any given town, as none of us could be self-sufficient, so we had to know the butcher, or the farmer, or whatever. (I'm idealizing here - go with it). This let us appreciate the power of the network, of realizing how we depended on each other in a long-term sense.

In the modern age, we've moved to a far more self-sufficient model, where our relationships with many people happens in a purely transactional mode. I go to the supermarket, I pick out some stuff, I hand them money, and I leave. All of the networks and relationships necessary to make that happen, from the shipping and distribution networks, to the bar code scanner, to the credit card reader, is hidden. It's implicit, not explicit. So I treat the supermarket, and all of its employees as mere objects, rather than as people. I feed in money, I get out groceries. No human interaction. To use Fight Club's description, we are a single-serving society.

I'm going to posit that Asian and European societies do not have this same object-oriented perspective. (Wow. I just realized that object-oriented is the perfect nerd description of it, because a software object in OO design carries all of its properties and methods with itself. Damn.) Asian societies because of the pervasive influence of Zen and Buddhism and Hinduism, which explicitly state the way that we are all interconnected. And European societies, because they have done a better job of clinging to the human side of interaction, of having the denser communities.

The connection between the American single-serving society and the American tendency to view art (and everything else) in an object-oriented fashion is still a bit fuzzy, but I think it makes sense. When we treat everything in our lives as objects from which we are trying to get stuff, and which we evaluate based on whether it has the qualities that we need at any given point in time, it's not surprising that we start to associate the qualities directly with the object itself, rather than with the network of relationships associated with the object.

I think there's some really fertile ideas here, especially in trying to think about what it means for the value to be in the network, how that could be measured, and how that could be applied if we recognized it explicitly. But I'm going to pick up on those another time. Or not.

posted at: 06:44 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 20 Mar 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 12:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 19 Mar 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 19:58 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 18 Mar 2005

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

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

posted at: 14:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

posted at: 09:47 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Metablog - Improvements
Things I wish I were better at in blogging:

This is a post I've been mulling about for a while. It's not a cry for help or reassurance or anything like that. Just things I'd like to work on. I guess the reason I'm stating it publicly is that laying it out explicitly is helpful in getting me to recognize these tendencies in myself. First step is admitting you have a problem, and all that.

posted at: 07:52 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 07:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 17 Mar 2005

Cognitive subroutines extensions
In my last post about cognitive subroutines, I extended the idea to allow for us to use other people as part of our internal routines. I was using this in the idea of team building, but this idea of leveraging elements outside of ourselves can be extended even further. While I was at the Whitney yesterday, I was poking around their bookstore and saw a book called Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell. I picked it up, flipped through it, and every page I flipped to seemed to have an interesting observation. So I bought it on the spot. The other book I'd brought on this trip (Politics of Nature by Bruno Latour) was just proving too dense for me to deal with, so I figured I would read this instead. It's excellent. He describes how our individual selves are slowly melting into the environment where it's hard to say where our "self" ends. A great non-cyber example he gives is of a blind man walking down the street using a stick to navigate. Is the stick part of his sensing system? Absolutely. Is it part of "him"?

Tying this back into the cognitive subroutines theory, in the same way that cognitive subroutines can rely on other people to perform part of their processing, it's obvious that it can rely on other external mechanisms as well. I don't bother remembering where anything online is any more, because I can just use Google. On the output side, I don't have to think about the individual physical actions necessary to drive a car; I just think "I want to go there", and it pretty much happens automatically. So we can use elements of our environment to increase our processing power, and to increase our ability to influence that environment.

In fact, this is really interesting, because it gets back to a question I asked at the end of this post, which was how to reconcile this theory with the ideas in Global Brain. By expanding the scope of the cognitive subroutines to include external influences and external controls, we then build in the power of the collective learning machine, because each of us will choose which elements of the external environment to leverage. Things that are useful, whether as mental constructs for easing cognitive processing or as physical artifacts for increasing our control, will get resources shifted towards them.

This is essentially the idea of the meme at work. A good idea, a good viewpoint of looking at the world, is viral in nature. I come across a way of looking at things. I start using it, and it explains a lot to me, and I find it valuable. I start telling other people about it, whether at cocktail parties or via this blog. If they find it useful, they pick it up. And so on and so forth. It gets incorporated into their internal cognitive subroutines, and soon it is embedded so deeply that they can't distinguish it from "reality".

I was thinking about this recently in the context of books. I like reading, obviously. I like books with ideas, books that express a certain viewpoint on the world. I was trying to answer the question of why I read, what makes a book like Me++ so compelling to me? I think it is this opportunity for picking up new ideas, new cognitive subroutines that I can then apply elsewhere. I described in that original cognitive subroutines post that moment when a bunch of synapses light up, and a whole new set of connections are made in my brain. There's almost an audible click as ideas lock into a new formation. And books are a way of finding those formations. They are an opportunity to hook the ideas I have in my head into the unfathomably large set of ideas that is already out there in the space of human knowledge. Books help me to find ways to hook my ideas into those of thinkers past, as well as giving me the ability to leverage the insights of those thinkers, by not having to recreate their work.

It's about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn't very useful or exciting to me. It's about how it hooks into a big picture. This is probably because I'm a highly deductive thinker. When I was a physics student, I would struggle woefully for the first half of the term, as they introduced individual concepts in an isolated context. At some point, though, the light would go on, and I'd see the whole structure, and then it all made sense; I could see how the individual concepts fit together, and how to use them. I need those kinds of structures to sort through ideas. That may be an individual thing, though.


This isn't the clearest post I've done. But I like the direction this is heading. I think I have a provisional way of hooking the cognitive subroutines theory into the global brain network emergence theory. I like Me++'s idea of extending ourselves out into infinity, and how that applies. I like how I can tie it into my own tendencies, from liking to read, to deductive thinking. This is actually getting to the point where it's almost coherent and consistent. Now I just have to put together an outline. Yeah. Any day now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 08:03 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

posted at: 07:56 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 07:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Cognitive trust
[Bonus post that I wrote at the airport last night]

I liked this quote from Emotional Design:

"Cooperation relies on trust. For a team to work effectively each individual needs to be able to count on team members to behave as expected. Establishing trust is complex, but it involves, among other things, implicit and explicit promises, then clear attempts to deliver, and, moreover, evidence. When someone fails to deliver as expected, whether or not trust is violated depends upon the situation and upon where the blame falls." (p.140)

This would seem to be the team equivalent of cognitive subroutines. I can imagine that analogous negotiation and trust-building is happening within the swirl of our subconscious as we navigate through the world. Stereotypes that seem to work well get reinforced, and encoded into cognitive subroutines. Assumptions that prove to be wrong are trusted less the next time, with more restrictions placed on their activation conditions.

It's interesting to me because it provides an obvious extension of the cognitive subroutines theory to interpersonal interactions, at least in a team sense. I've talked about team building before (and actually say something very similar to Norman's quote), and part of what I think makes a good team is that we can offload tasks onto other people; as I put it in that post, "my teammates trust me to deal with fixing the bugs; once it's reported to me, they forget about it and move on." A team can achieve more than the sum of its parts because each can farm out processing to others who are in a better position to handle a given situation.

It's the cognitive equivalent of labor specialization. If I'm good at software, and my coworker isn't, then it makes sense for them to ask me to perform a software task that they need to do, because I'll do it in far less time than them. In return, my coworker who is better in lab may run an experiment for me. Both of us stick to what we're good at, and we can leverage our expertise to make everybody more productive and efficient.

The other analogy that I like is that if we treat the brain as a set of cognitive subroutines that can call each other, then there's no reason not to think of other people as subroutines that we can also call upon. When we first start working with another person, we don't quite know what their API is or what their capabilities are, but as we learn to trust and respect them, we can learn to call upon them with little more overhead than we do a subroutine in our own head. It's kind of a bizarre concept, but it's the first step in the steps towards a Global Brain if it works.

posted at: 15:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 15:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Cognitive subroutines and learning
I was reading Emotional Design by Don Norman the other day, and he was contemplating ways in which we could leverage emotional machines to improve the learning process. This got me kick-started again on thinking about applications of the cognitive subroutines theory that I've been playing with. As a side note, I think I'm finally emerging from the dearth of ideas I was suffering for a week or so. Apologies for the banality of posts during that time.

So the question of the day is: How do we leverage cognitive subroutines for the sake of learning? What does this theory tell us about how to teach people something new?

I covered this a little bit in the footnotes of that first post. To teach somebody a new physical action, it requires breaking it down into easily digestable chunks. Each chunk is practiced individually until it's ingrained in the subconscious and can be performed autonomously. In other words, we build and train a cognitive subroutine that can then be activated with a single conscious command like "hit the ball" instead of having to call each of the individual steps like "take three steps, bring the arms back, jump, bring the right arm back cocked, snap the arm forward while rotating the body, and follow through". Watching toddlers figure out how to walk is also in this category. At first, they have to use all of their concentration to figure out how to take a step, but within a short period of time, they just think "I wanna go that way" and run off.

For physical activities the analogy to cognitive subroutines is pretty straightforward, and was what I was thinking of when I first came up with this idea. How does it map to other, less concrete activities? Let's take the example of math. We start out in math learning very simple building blocks, like addition and subtraction. We move from there to algebra where we build in an abstraction barrier. As we learn more advanced techniques from calculus to differential equations, we add more and more tools to our toolbox, each of which builds on the one before. Trying to teach somebody differential equations without them understanding calculus cold would be a waste of time. So in a relatively linear example like math, the analogy to cognitive subroutines is also straightforward.

What about a field like history? Here it becomes more difficult. It's unclear what the building blocks are, how the different subfields of history interrelate, and what techniques are necessary at each level. Here we start to get a better picture of where the cognitive subroutines analogy may start to fail. It applies when there are techniques to be learned, preferably in a layered way where each technique depends on learning the one below it, much in the way that subroutines are built up and layered. Trying to fit more broad-based disciplines such as history into that framework is going to be a stretch.

Perhaps history might be a better example of the context-dependent cognitive subroutines, where we have a few standard techniques/theories that get activated by the right set of inputs. So we have our pet theory of socioeconomic development and see ways to apply it to a variety of different situations (I'm totally making this up, of course, since I'm realizing that I don't actually know what a historian does). Actually, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, I'm doing it right now; I came up with a theory (cognitive subroutines), and am now trying to apply this theory everywhere to see how it fits. By trying it in a bunch of places, I'm getting a better sense of what the proper input conditions for the theory are, and can see how to refine it further.

So for history, the important thing to teach may not be individual theories, but the meta-theory of coming up with good theories in the first place. In other words, critical thinking skills. As mentioned in my new directions post, I think such skills are broadly applicable, from politics to history to evaluating advertising. With such meta-skills, there would be an infrastructure in place for building up appropriate cognitive subroutines, and for understanding the limitations of the cognitive subroutines we already have.

One last thought on the subject of cognitive subroutines and how they apply to learning. What does the theory have to say about memorization-based subjects? From medical school to history taught poorly, there are many subjects which are memorization-based. I don't think there's really anything to be gained here. Memorization, like cognitive subroutines, is all about repetition, but I don't think that the cognitive subroutine theory gives us any new insight into how we can improve somebody's memorization skills.

I also tend to think that memorization will become less and less useful moving forward, as I noted in my information carnivore post. Why memorize when you can Google? However, developing the cognitive filtering subroutines necessary to handle the flood of information available is going to be tricky. That was the point of that information carnivore metaphor, but it's interesting that it comes back up again in this context.

Anyway. There's some fertile ground here for thought, again trying to think of ways in which this theory can be less descriptive, and more prescriptive. I'll have to spend some time trying to flesh things out.

posted at: 20:26 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Emotional Design, by Donald Norman
I go back and forth on my feelings about Donald Norman. I think that his observation of The Design of Everyday Things was a really important insight in understanding how omnipresent the role of design is. I liked his idea of information appliances in The Invisible Computer. But I've always been left a little bit annoyed at how simplistic his analysis tends to be. Alas, Emotional Design continues in that vein.

Interestingly, Emotional Design ties into Blink and Sources of Power. In the prologue, Norman is trying to establish that "emotion is a necessary part of life" and then states "The affective system makes judgments and quickly helps you determine which things in the environment are dangerous or safe, good or bad." Sounds an awful lot like thin-slicing to me. His ideas also share characteristics of Bloom's inner-judges in Global Brain, as Norman refers to research showing that "positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought" and anxiety tends to narrow thought processes, much like the Bloom's inner-judges help reward creative behavior with positive emotion and vice versa.

So there's not much that's new to me in Emotional Design. I did like his partition of thought and design into the visceral (pre-conscious initial reactions), behavioral (learned structures corresponding to our experiences (which I think is essentially the same idea as cognitive subroutines)), and reflective (conscious thought, generalizations and recursion). He spends some time delving into how the three levels interact in design; for a good chef's knife, it's satisfying on the visceral level ("Ooh, shiny!"), behavioral level (it performs consistently and precisely), and reflective level (appreciating how its form follows its function). More importantly, he addresses situations where the three levels are in conflict, where something is viscerally attractive, but reflectively repugnant, like junk food, or viscerally repugnant and reflectively attractive, like most of modern art.

The rest of the book kind of meanders around discussing various aspects of this three-level approach to design, and then takes a bizarre turn into making the case for machine emotions. I think he's trying to make the point that machines need to have the ability to learn autonomously and be able to express their inner state more effectively. In other words, we know that we get cranky when we get hungry. He suggests that machines should become cranky when they're low on power, so that those interacting with them, whether machine or human, could know what's going on internally. I think this is stupid - a power gauge is a much easier thing to read. I also think that the ability for a machine to learn reflectively, in the manner of the cognitive subroutines that I am suggesting as a model for our brains, is a far more difficult problem than Norman suspects.

There's not a lot here. I finished the book yesterday, and it's already pretty much completely faded from my consciousness. I'm glad I got it from the library, because I would have felt gypped if I'd bought it. It is encouraging in one sense - I think I have enough ideas from my blog in various forms to write a far more interesting and thought-provoking book. Now I just need to buckle down.

posted at: 20:24 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Clay Shirky on cognitive maps
Clay Shirky had an interesting idea in an article over at Many-to-Many, where he divides the world between radial and Cartesian thinkers. Here's how he makes the distinction:

Radial people assume that any technological change starts from where we are now - reality is at the center of the map, and every possible change is viewed as a vector, a change from reality with both a direction and a distance. Radial people want to know, of any change, how big a change is it from current practice, in what direction, and at what cost.

Cartesian people assume that any technological change lands you somewhere - reality is just one point of many on the map, and is not especially privileged over other states you could be in. Cartesian people want to know, for any change, where you end up, and what the characteristics of the new landscape are. They are less interested in the cost of getting there.

It's a handy distinction. The radial thinker says "Okay, this is where we are, let's see where we can go from here." The Cartesian thinker says "Over there is where we need to be. I don't care where we are, but let's go that way." It's the practicalist vs. the idealist, the engineer vs. the scientist. Incremental improvement vs. paradigm shifts. Shirky applies the distinction to help dissolve some of the differing perspectives on Wikipedia, and clarifies why he thinks the two sides are talking past each other.

The interesting thing was what happened when I tried to figure out which kind of thinker I was. My first reaction was, "Oh, yeah, I'm totally a radial thinker", thinking about my tendencies at work where I figure out the minimum change I can make to get something working right now. That's partially out of efficiency (aka laziness), and partially a result of having seen far too many Cartesian thinkers get bogged down trying to do a total redesign in a world of changing requirements. So when presented with a feature request, I tend to take stock of what I have already implemented, and think about the easiest way to kludge it to add the feature, rather than spend (waste) time thinking about what future features might be added, thinking about how I should design to handle the most general case, etc. From this viewpoint, it seemed obvious that I was a radial thinker.

Then I thought about it some more, and realized that in my personal life, I'm far more of a Cartesian thinker. I have a vision of an ideal, but it's far from what I currently have, and making a few minor changes will make very little headway in terms of moving me towards that ideal, so I don't bother doing anything at all. We can see this in my lack of progress towards finding a new host for this blog, or towards becoming a social software programmer, or even in little things like how long it took me to buy a bed.

So now I'm both a radical and a Cartesian thinker. That doesn't make sense. Except that I think it does, in light of my theory of context-activated cognitive subroutines. In one context, I think one way. In another, I think the other. When I poke and prod further, I can think of reasons why I have different opinions in different contexts; I'm a radial thinker at work because I've seen too many efforts fail at trying to achieve the ideal general case, whereas my approach of rapid prototyping and incremental improvement has done well for me so far. I'm a Cartesian thinker in my personal life because I tend not to compare myself to others, and instead compare myself to my potential, to a putative ideal version of myself. Different contexts, different identities.

And I can break it down even further. In my life at work as a programmer, I'm a radial thinker, as previously noted. In my dealings with management, though, I'm still an unrepentant idealist. I know there are reasons for timesheet software or process and micro-management, but I can see where I think we should be, and get really frustrated that we seem stuck in an entirely different part of the phase space. Such frustration is a Cartesian reaction, because Cartesian thinking (in Shirky's definition) doesn't accept reality as the starting point, but only as a possible destination. So even my work identity is fractured along these lines. Lots of grist for the cognitive subroutine theory in this seemingly simple observation of different thinking patterns.

I'll close with some thoughts on the radial vs. Cartesian dichotomy that Shirky suggests. In the long run, I think the radial thinkers will have the advantage, for all the reasons that Shirky has mentioned previously with regard to Wikipedia. Cartesian thinkers spend a lot of time discussing how things should be, and complaining that the world doesn't match the ideal they have in their head - danah's response illustrates this attitude where she says essentially that the radial thinkers' improvements are horizontal moves that don't address the underlying problems she was with Wikipedia (or Brittanica for that matter). Radial thinkers don't spend their time exploring the entire possible phase space of what might be possible; they start with the way things are, and get to work changing it. It's using one's effort efficiently. In my work life, some of my most frustrating coworkers have been incredibly intelligent PhDs who want to spend several months perfecting a mathematical model or nailing down every possible contributing factor to an analysis, instead of saying "Okay, it's good enough, let's see what we can do." Again, it's the engineer vs. scientist viewpoint. There's a place for the academics, and for the dreamers, to help imagine new ideals, and guide the incremental changes of the radial thinkers. But in the end, the radial thinkers are going to be the ones building tools and getting stuff done.

posted at: 22:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

As I mentioned in my post on Firefly, I also got the DVD set of Wonderfalls in the same Amazon order. And I've watched that whole series now as well. My original review actually stands up pretty well even after watching the rest of the unaired episodes, in terms of describing the overall feel of the show.

I do think it was a pity that the show got cancelled. There were several excellent episodes that were never aired. Fortunately, the creators had a feeling they were going to be cancelled (they actually started their "Save our Show!" campaign before the pilot even aired according to one of the featurettes), so the thirteen episodes produced tell a relatively coherent story that has a happy ending.

I'm not sure whether the show's premise would have held up long term, though. The talking animals schtick is very cute, but the need for the "muses" to be deliberately unclear (e.g. "Save him from her!") to create wackiness and confusion gets more annoyingly obvious throughout the episodes. Of course, when the plot demands it, the muses can also be very clear (e.g. "Take a picture!" or "Lick the light switch!"). So they essentially end up as writer bailouts, letting the writer extricate themselves from situations at will. Or for writers to create ridiculous situations; the entire Heidi storyline, which dragged on for four episodes, was manufactured by the muses for no apparent reason. However, it let us see a lot of Heidi, played by Jewel Staite, who played the cute mechanic on Firefly, so that wasn't so bad.

One thing I noticed while watching the series is that the show totally depended on the wonderfully expressive Caroline Dhavernas. Her annoyance and exasperation with the muses shines through, even as she grudgingly does their bidding. It was even more apparent when I watched a couple of the episodes with the commentary tracks turned on, and even without the dialogue, you could track what was going on just by watching her face. In fact, all of the actors are excellent. I happened across a site that has shooting scripts, and while the scripts are fun to read on their own, they definitely reach a new level of humor with the reading by the actors, either in their comic timing, or their facial expressions, or even just waiting a beat before delivering their lines. The co-creators lauded their actors on the commentary tracks, and I think the praise is well-deserved.

Anyway, yeah. I recommend the series, if you like screwball type comedy with an overlay of existential angst and confusion. Several of the episodes are really funny - I was watching an episode last night and just laughing out loud at some of the dialogue and absurd situations. Plus, it's relatively cheap - $28 at Amazon for all thirteen episodes plus some featurettes - that's $2.22 per episode! Thumbs up.

P.S. Parents are still in town, brain is still dead. No interesting thoughts. I'm hoping to get recharged next week when I head to New York. I've got a ton of backlogged ideas to work on, but just can't quite get started on them.

posted at: 22:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/tv | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk
Picked this up in my big library trip of a couple weeks ago. Again, recommended by a friend. Plus, I've been curious about Palahniuk since seeing Fight Club. I really like his stylized writing in a lot of ways, and it's easy to see the resemblance to the style of Fight Club. I didn't really connect to any of the characters, though, so I didn't get into it as much as I do some other fiction. For me, fiction is all about identifying with characters, I think. The early years of Buffy, when the Scooby gang were all high school outsiders? Total identification. Gilmore Girls with Lorelai's mother issues? Yup. Miles Vorkosigan's brand of demented genius. Ender's loneliness and supernatural observation skills. Pretty much all of the fiction I like has a central character that I identify with strongly. So when I don't connect to the characters, I tend to feel eh about a book, no matter how beautiful or creative the writing. I'm just not enough of a literature geek yet, I guess.

posted at: 22:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 06 Mar 2005

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

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

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

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

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

posted at: 15:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

King Rat, by China Mieville
I remembered China Mieville's name from Aneel's book page, so when I stopped by the library, I looked him up, and this was the one book by him that they had. It's somewhat in the same vein as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, describing a London with more dimensions than most of us ever get to see, or the urban fantasies of Charles de Lint. The cover description plays up the importance of drum and bass techno music to the story, but I think that's just to draw in the hip kids. I thought it was okay. The writing is gorgeous in spots, but the narrative seemed to kind of wander without a clear idea of where it was heading at times. It was okay. I'm happy I got it from the library.

posted at: 14:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/scifi | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Well, I was on an almost-daily posting schedule there for a bit. But I failed to stay ahead, used up my backlog of posts, and then the last two nights, Christy lured me over to The Nursery with twin enticements of dinner and company, Krevice last night, and Tstop tonight. Evil temptress! So no interesting posts. Or even interesting thoughts. I'm tired. Too much socializing for Perlick. Go read the comments on my last post if you want some substantive thought.

Oh, I'm going to New York City for vacation soon. If you know of something cool that I absolutely should do, let me know either by email or through livejournal comments.

Random observation of a couple days ago - when I was pondering whether I could actually write enough to fill a book, I took all my blog posts from 2004 and pasted them into Microsoft Word. Turns out to be 153 pages of 10 point Times New Roman font. Yikes. And I've been blogging even more this year: 54 pages in just two months. Craziness. Not that it's all on one topic, but generating verbiage is apparently not the problem. That whole coherence thing might be, though...

posted at: 23:51 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 01 Mar 2005

Prescriptive context
Picking up on the identity as context post (as an aside, I need to figure out a way to thread posts, like on a bulletin board, except with comments - I've got to start doing research on my blogging software options - yes, I know I've said that before), it's time to think about how such ideas can be used. This is part of my new attempt to move away from my typical passive descriptive stance and towards an active prescriptive role, because all the cool pundits offer solutions as well as new ways of looking at the world. And I want to be a cool pundit, after all.

One obvious consequence of the idea that we are choosing our identity by choosing our social groups is that we can modify our identity by putting ourselves in situations where the environment reinforces behaviors we want to encourage. I'm thinking specifically of Alcoholics Anonymous here, where part of the power of AA is the social structure that it provides to help alcoholics quit. It is always easier to do something when other people are doing the same thing around you. Our herd instinct takes over and helps to reinforce the behavior.

We can leverage our social tendencies even more explicitly. For instance, it is drilled into us that it is important to keep promises to others, that trust is the framework around which our society is built. It's entirely possible that such behavior is wired into us evolutionarily via social feedback mechanisms. So when we really want to change our behavior, we make an announcement publicly that we are planning to do so. Then all of the social feedback mechanisms are called into play, and we are more likely to stick to our resolution. This is the basic idea of the wedding, for instance.

As a specific example, I started this blog in part as a public resolution of this type. I had all of these interesting thoughts, but I would never get around to writing them down. Putting them in a blog, thereby getting encouragement and feedback from readers, made it easier to motivate myself to write down the next set of observations, which engendered more feedback, and so on, creating a virtuous circle of behavior modification. At this point, I think it's self-sustaining, where I am enough in the habit of writing that I don't necessarily need the public feedback, but it took over a year for that to happen. And I don't think I would have had the self-discipline to write consistently for a year if it were just for myself; as a counterexample, I have tried many times to start keep a personal journal, and always fail. So by leveraging my social instincts in terms of not wanting to disappoint my (few) readers, I was able to change my behavior.

Another example is the importance of teamwork to a project. On a good team, everybody is doing their best, not wanting to disappoint their teammates. The team jells, and synergistically achieves much more than each person would have achieved working independently. From a personal point of view, I tend to be more productive when working with a partner. I am willing to accept failure for myself, but I don't want to fail somebody else. Again, leveraging our social instincts changes the way we behave.

A further consequence of the "identity as context" theory is the negative connotations. I mentioned how it applies to cults in the original post, but it can be applied more widely than that. For example, expectations play a huge role in determining how we behave. I've alluded to this before in the context of education; kids that are told they're smart will often act smarter. Kids that are told they're stupid will act stupid. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of the advantage that gifted kids have is that they are placed in gifted programs, surrounded by other smart kids and say to themselves "Hey, I can do that!" They are placed in social contexts where they will succeed. Meanwhile, kids placed in a remedial program will think of themselves as stupid, blaming every failure on themselves, leading to a vicious circle of self-unconfidence.

So what's the upshot of this post? If we believe the idea that social context helps to determine how we behave and thereby who we are, then we can take advantage of the idea that, as I quipped last time, "I choose to be the self that is activated by this group." By choosing the right group, we can modify our own behavior and create a new self. It's never easy; changing one's tendencies is hard work. That's why it's so important to use all of the tools at our command to help reinforce such changes.

Man. This post was much harder to write than I thought it'd be. It just never quite came together. But I've poked and prodded at it for well over an hour now, so I'm going to give up. I'll write a clarifying post if necessary. I might take a break for a couple days to let some ideas simmer and see if I can come up with a clearer line of attack.

posted at: 22:43 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal