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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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Sun, 17 Apr 2005

New feed
For those of you who read this via RSS, you may not be aware that I switched to a new server last week. I tried making the old feed work, but I've been having trouble getting bloglines to recognize it, so I assume other RSS readers may be having a similar issue. So I'm putting up one last post at the old feed location of to let people know to switch to the new feed location of Thanks!

posted at: 08:42 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mon, 07 Feb 2005

Punditocracy and other notes
I've often joked recently that I'd like to become a pundit, holding forth on various and sundry topics for the amusement and edification of my listeners. Alas, the hard part about becoming a pundit is finding an audience. But if you can find one, it is apparently quite lucrative. A coworker of mine said that a friend of his had brought Malcolm Gladwell (who I've been pimping way too much recently, especially since I haven't actually read his book yet) in to speak to his company for an hour, and had to pay some totally outrageous fee. Man. All I have to do is become a senior columnist for the New Yorker and write two best-selling books and I could be making it big as a pundit! Yeah. Um. *sigh*

Oh, as long as I'm writing a journal-type post, I have talked to a couple readers recently who expressed their dismay over my tendency to sit down and write several posts at a time, clobbering them with pages of text when they next log in. I tend to only have time to write posts a couple times a week, so I tend to write a bunch of posts when I actually sit down. But I'll try to remember from now on to actually post the posts one at a time over a few days, thus evening out the absorption burden on my readers. Except tonight, because this post doesn't really count. Really. Honest.

I had a great Super Bowl party yesterday; thanks to all of you who stopped by. I think we had ten or so people at one point or another, eating food, watching the game, and mocking the ads (the consensus was that we liked the monkey ads, and the first Bud Light ad (the skydiving one) - other than that, it was pretty desolate). Note to self for next year: don't buy as much pre-packaged junk food (on the bright side, I'll be eating junk food for dinner all week), and don't buy any beer, because my friends don't drink beer. Even on Super Bowl Sunday. Un-American commie pinko freaks. They probably don't buy pickup trucks either. Craziness. Wait, was that my out-loud voice?

posted at: 22:49 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 15 Jan 2005

James Carse at the Long Now
I've been to a few of the Seminars about Long-term Thinking, sponsored by the Long Now Foundation. They're hit and miss. Sometimes they're really interesting, sometimes they're kind of boring. This week's speaker was James Carse, author of a book called Finite and Infinite Games. I'm not sure where I'd heard of Carse (although reviewing my notes beforehand, I found his book mentioned in a talk by Jaron Lanier at AC2004) (I should really type up those notes at some point). Anyway, he sounded interesting, so I went. And it was a great talk. Carse was a fun guy to listen to. He just kind of rambled on about topics that interested him. And he would occasionally pop out with these quotes that were just perfect observations about the state of the world. I tried to scribble down as many of those as I could, and I'll drop them in as appropriate.

So in this talk, Carse was applying his theory of finite and infinite games to larger societal questions. In particular, he claimed that war was the ultimate finite game, and religion the ultimate infinite game. He also wanted to make the case that belief and religion were two different things; he's apparently working on a book that's tentatively titled "Higher Ignorance - The Religious Case Against Belief". That distinction is important because he observed that any kind of war anywhere eventually involves the phenomenon of religion. But he didn't want to blame wars on religion, but on belief. So he had to differentiate the two. But first he went back to reviewing the concepts of finite and infinite games, as described in his book (which I haven't read, but plan to now).

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that finite games are played within a well-defined set of rules, where for one player to win, the others have to lose. The boundaries are important to finite games. There has to be an ending, and there has to be an agreement on how you get there. If you can play with the rules, the game might never end (e.g. Calvinball). Carse posits infinite games as those where the point of playing is to continue the play, changing the rules if need be. He compares the difference between finite and infinite games as the difference between a boundary and a horizon. You can approach a boundary, and cross over it, and then you're on the other side. However, as you move towards the horizon, the horizon keeps on moving away from you, and you have changed your perspective.

He also pointed out that finite games requires "veiling", where we consciously restrict ourselves to play the game, take it seriously, and ignore any other considerations. We are playing within the rules. He points out that it is important to realize that such "veiling" is done freely, by choice. He quoted Sartre, who apparently wrote that you always have the freedom not to fight in a war. Even if they kill you. Think Gandhi.

Random quote: "Whoever must play, can not play" i.e. forgetting that a finite game is played freely kills the spirit so that one no longer remembers the sense of play. Or so I interpret that.

So since he was blaming wars on belief rather than religion, he asked the question "What is the nature of belief itself?" Good question. He then made several observations about belief that many people would find rude, but I found wonderful.

Then he got back to his original topic of religion. He had realized at some point that the great religions were among the longest lasting cultural traditions in the world, which made him speculate whether they were, in his terminology, infinite games. He pointed out that the most successful longest-lasting religions were ones that had transcended space and time. They were not tied to a specific cultural context, or to a specific place. When one asks "What is Christianity?" (or Buddhism or Islam or Judaism), the question is not answerable; it's almost as if there's no definable identity, no core. He posited that this was characteristic of infinite games, that they are infinitely adaptable and non-contextual, that they are slippery and elude definition because they are not tied to a specific set of rules. It's a bit of a stretch, but maybe it will make more sense after I read his book.

Then he moved on to war. He pointed out that "War is brevity", and that the enemy has to be veiled, because it's important for us to think of the enemy as "one of them", and having no otherwise humanizing characteristics because once we do, they're no longer monkeys, and we have to treat them fairly. In a similar way to the true believer, "the army creates its enemies". The soldier must take on most of the same characteristics as the true believer; when you are in combat, you must have put aside thinking, and just believe that you are on the right side. I don't think it's a coincidence that people in the army tend to vote Republican, the party of the true believer these days.

Random quote: "We get up every morning deciding to be San Francisco, our church, America." I loved this quote, partially because I wrote something similar: "The country of America is nothing more than a shared story".

He then moved on to the role of the poet as a possible enabler of infinite games. While Plato apparently pointed out in the Republic that poets can deceive you and bend reality, Carse pointed out that poets can also unveil us and help us escape the finite games that we are trapped in. Carse believes that we need poets to "cure" blind faith and believers, to be non-judgmental, to create a larger inclusive context (which I loved, because I've been positing the same role for stories). Because "finite players will destroy themselves". Which I thought was interesting, in light of Beemer's comment (quoted here) that "you'd be able to tell that Good was Good because Evil eventually annihilates itself when correctly applied."

Unfortunately, he ran out of time around here (I would have happily listened to him talk for much longer), and was forced to take questions, so the rest of my notes are just random quotes.

Really interesting talk. Carse had a lot to say that I totally agreed with. I like his conception of poetry as the generator of infinite games, because I've been on my story kick. I'll read his book at some point, and report back here.

posted at: 23:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 10 Jan 2005

Performing Janacek's Glagolitic Mass
Oh, I forgot to mention it, but the chorus performed Janacek's Glagolitic Mass last week, and now I've updated my chorus page to reflect that.

posted at: 06:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 28 Dec 2004

Back in Oakland
I flew back last night. Took BART home from the Oakland airport, which took way longer than it should have. We touched down at 6:01pm. I didn't get my checked bag until 6:37pm. As I was waiting for my bag, I saw the AirBART bus go by. It turns out there was only one bus running, so it was after 7pm before the bus came back. Get to the BART station, turns out I just missed the relevant train. Wait another 15 minutes for the next one. It's 7:35 or so by the time it comes. By the time I got off BART, I decided to just take a taxi home rather than walk the last mile in the rain with my bags, getting me home at around 8pm, two hours after my flight landed, close to an hour and a half after I left the airport. Next time, I may consider doing the taxi or shuttle thing.

I think it's actually easier to fly out of SFO now that BART's been extended, even though I live in Oakland. No bus to deal with. Just some trams that run regularly and can easily handle the crowds, unlike the AirBART bus which is always packed full when I'm on it. And AirBART charges $2 for the privilege of squeezing in!

On a positive note, I'd like to praise the Dell Digital Jukebox, Dell's MP3 player. I was listening to it on the bus. As we got to the station, I heard a BART train arriving above on the platform. I start running towards the stairs with my bags flapping. I forget that my MP3 player is in my (loose) jacket pocket. It flies out, hits the concrete floor from a height of about 3 feet, skids across the floor, through a half-inch deep pool of water, before sliding to a stop 10 feet later. I pick up the wet MP3 player, which is still on and playing music. I turn it off. I dry it off as best as I can with my t-shirt. I turn it on. Works fine. The thing is pretty durable. It's the second time I've dropped it on concrete without it breaking. Good stuff. It ain't an iPod, but, for what it is, it's pretty darn good. Oh, and, of course, the arriving BART train was the wrong one. Eit.

And now, a plea. I still have no idea what I'm doing on New Year's Eve. Does anybody in the Bay Area have interesting plans? If nobody has interesting plans, would anybody be interested if I threw open my doors for the evening for a mellow get-together?

posted at: 23:46 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Fri, 24 Dec 2004

On Whidbey
Ah, this is the life. I'm sitting in the living room of my parents' house on Whidbey Island outside of Seattle, lounging in a comfortable leather chair in front of the fireplace, looking out the window at the trees and bay, typing away. Laptops are cool. And since I acquired an extra wireless hub and brought it up with me, I even have internet access from the chair. Life is good.

Not much to report. I overdosed on the weighty stuff for a while, and took a break with lighter posts for the last week and a half. I had planned to get back to more thoughtful posts during this Christmas break, but I'm not really feeling the inspiration. Lounging around, reading my book, and watching TV and DVDs is more my speed. But give me a couple days and maybe I'll overdose on that and be ready for some hot philosophy action again. Or maybe I'll finally clean out my email inbox (all 300+ messages) instead.

Speaking of DVDs, y'all might be amused by this. In my last Amazon order, I got the first two seasons of Gilmore Girls, a show which I greatly enjoy despite not being in the target demographic. How do I know I'm not in the target demographic? On one of the DVD sets was a sticker alerting me that with the purchase of the set I could get a four month free subscription to Teen People! Um. Yeah. Then again, I've known that my tastes are eclectic for a while. I'm always amused at the contrast between the ads I see when I'm watching football (pickup trucks, beer and Viagra) and when I'm watching Buffy or Gilmore Girls (makeup, romantic movies). I think I'd drive Nielsen marketers crazy with my television watching habits. Anyway.

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

Sun, 19 Dec 2004

Birdhouse Factory
After seeing the 7 fingers circus last year, I said that I would go to the annual holiday circus show by the Circus Center. This year's show is called Birdhouse Factory. I only convinced Colin and Brad to go with me this year, but next year, I'm dragging more. If you live in the Bay Area, and you don't go see this show in the next couple weeks, you're cheating yourself of one of the most amazing shows I've seen in a while. The San Francisco Chronicle agrees.

I don't think I've been to another performance that made me go "Whoa" out loud as often. Or "They're not going to do that, are they?!" It was just plain fun. The Chronicle article does a good job of describing the various acts, and even the unconventional elements. I've been to a few Cirque du Soleil shows, and a few other circuses here and there, but this may have been the most enjoyable one I've seen. The Cirque shows are fantastic, to be sure, but they sometimes seem inhuman and distant in their pursuit of art. This show was populated by bright human characters, that just happen to be insanely talented. They felt like real people. And that makes all the difference to me.

I think my favorite act was the juggling by Steven Ragatz. He was dressed as a businessman, with a hat, a briefcase, and a cane. A bright red ball is tossed to him. He starts playing with the ball on the briefcase, balancing it on each of the sides of the case, then starting to bounce it back and forth between different sides. Then he took off his hat, bounced the ball on his head for a while, and then started playing with the ball and the hat, doing some contact juggling. He eventually worked his way up to juggling three balls, took off his hat, caught one ball in the hat, juggled two balls and the hat with the ball in it, then popped the ball out of the hat, and juggled three balls and the hat. Then he started juggling while using the cane instead of his hand. Man. Looking at what I've written, it doesn't begin to capture the sheer wonder that informed his act. It was just so much fun. He was a great performer. Check out his essays at, for some insights into his method.

The other spectacular act was a "vertical tango" where two performers (apparently Sandra Feusi and Sam Payne) danced with and around each other up and down a vertical pole. It was fantastic - they did several tricks that I've never seen before. And their sheer strength was astounding. When we saw Sam go up the pole using only his hands, his feet held out away from the pole, I think the mouths of everybody in the audience just dropped wide open. The story and choreography was also well integrated into the routine. It starts with Sam flirting with Sandra, and she's a demure bookworm ignoring his attentions. And she starts off by running away from him, across the stage, up the pole, etc. Then as the routine continues, they get closer and closer until they're dancing a steamy tango across the stage and then up the pole. Utterly amazing.

The contortionist was also fabulous. And the set design. And the musical selections. And the general tone of whimsy that informed the performance. It was all amazing. And since this year I didn't go on the last night, I can tell you all: GO SEE THIS SHOW!! For $32, we got dead center seats (Thanks Colin!). It's an unbelievably good deal when you consider Cirque shows are often $70 or more. You won't regret it. You have until January 2nd.

posted at: 15:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sat, 11 Dec 2004

New laptop
So my laptop finally came yesterday. I had to make one more phone call this morning, because they only refunded the bogus shipping charges when it shipped, and forgot to refund me the $25 for the coupon that they first accepted, and then denied. But they agreed to do that after leaving me on hold for 15 minutes. Wankers.

I like the laptop, though. I got my wireless network set up last night with astonishing ease. Pull the thing out of the box, hook it up, change a few settings, and boom, I have wireless. For those of you with wireless networks, do you use WEP? I set mine up with that, mostly because I figured some security is better than none, but I don't really know anything. And, hey, now I can have houseguests that won't scorn my lack of wireless!

I got all of my files transferred over this morning, and I'm happily typing away while lying on the couch. Life just became even more indolent. Whee!

posted at: 10:33 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 09 Dec 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 11 Nov 2004

Writing more
In between all the craziness of AC2004 and BloggerCon and trying to meet a deadline at work and doing some consulting work for a friend, I've been thinking. Several different threads going on here:

So all of these different threads are running around in my head. And the thing that I think ties them together is this blog. I want to write more. Writing essays on here is one of the few things that I do right now that's satisfying when I finish it. And I feel like I've become better at expressing my thoughts because I'm writing more. And I hope that if I can continue to get better, I can eventually help out with some of the issues associated with message in the liberal movement. It's all sorts of hubris, but, what the heck. As Miles Vorkosigan once quipped, "Aim high. You might not hit what you're aiming for, but at least you won't shoot your foot off."

We'll see if I can carry through on writing more. Part of the reason I'm writing this entry and declaring it publicly (publically? Neither one looks right, but Merriam-Webster says both are valid) is to help give myself the willpower to carry through. It's not like I'm suffering for a lack of ideas. In the little notebook where I've been trying to jot down ideas for this blog when I think of them, I have a backlog of about 15-20 ideas. I just need the kick-in-the-pants to sit down in front of the computer, even when I'm not feeling motivated, and pick one out and start working on it, instead of flopping down on the couch and watching TV or re-reading a favorite sci-fi novel. We'll see what happens. You can mock me lots in a month when I haven't done anything.

I also want to look into more venues for writing. Possibly submitting some of my pieces (with judicious editing) to various online sites. If people know of sites that might be appropriate for opinion pieces of the type that I do, please let me know. I don't even really know what I'm looking for. Perhaps something like PopPolitics, which I found in a random google search for something related to politics. Plus commentary fora like that would be a good place to work on expressing myself more concisely. In a semi-related thought, I'm thinking of getting a laptop so I can finally join the wireless age, and so that I can write from anywhere. In particular, while traveling (or possibly, on my couch). We'll see if I actually pursue that. Right now, although I adore and lust after the PowerBook, I'm probably going to get a Windows laptop so that I can use it for work if I need to. Something like an IBM thinkpad or an HP zt3000. Any advice that people have is welcome.

On another semi-related note, I'm thinking of putting together a salon (intellectual, not hair) at some point. Mostly an excuse to get together with some friends and have a good conversation. Maybe the last week of November, first week of December? Heck, it could even be during Thanksgiving weekend if people were going to be around. If you'd have interest in something like that, let me know. Or maybe I'll just throw a party instead :).

And now, since there's no time like the present, I'm going to go write one of those backlogged posts that's been hanging around the back of my brain for months.

posted at: 23:30 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 07 Nov 2004

BloggerCon writeup
Quick update. I went to the Accelerating Change conference this weekend. I also went to BloggerCon on Saturday. I'd been waitlisted at BloggerCon, but got in last week, and since the two conferences were a 5 minute walk apart at Stanford, I decided to try to cherry-pick the best of both worlds. I think I did okay, with some judicious running around.

I'll try to do a full writeup of Accelerating Change at some point, with all of my notes and quotes and everything. But I'm pretty busy this week (couple deadlines at work), so it may not be until next weekend. My notes from BloggerCon were pretty brief, though, so I'll put them up now.

I attended the first and last sessions, the journalism session and the election session. The journalism session was the most interesting from my perspective, even though it eventually degraded into a "Are bloggers journalists or not?" debate, especially when the folks from the AP and CBS chimed in.

Some thoughts I took away from it:

The election session was a bit of a disappointment. Although Ed Cone, the discussion leader, tried to keep it from turning into a shared disappointment-fest, he wasn't entirely successful. It was also interesting how few suggestions I heard that I thought would make a difference in increasing the usefulness of blogging. The main point people made was that e-mail was, by far, the most useful networking tool of this election (and my experiences in Ohio bear that out). So what do blogs have to offer? Somebody made the point that we should be using blogs as a chance to engage people different from us, rather than sitting in the liberal echo chamber. Jay Rosen suggested that candidates should be blogging themselves to get their personal voice out there (although I think that might be difficult to reconcile with keeping a consistent message). Lots to think about. I especially want to spend some more time thinking about the use of blogs as a tool for inviting dialogue with people we don't agree with. Not sure where to even begin with that.

The first and last sessions were pretty uneventful, so that's pretty much my report. I stopped by the Larry Lessig discussion on law and blogging because I think he's cool, but it didn't really do much for me, and there was another presentation at Accelerating Change that I really wanted to see.

General thoughts. The "unconference" format was a little bit odd. Because the discussion leader had a microphone and everybody else had to wait in line for one, the power dynamic didn't lend itself to a real sharing of ideas I felt. In a couple sessions I attended, the dialogue got off into a thread that I thought was pretty uninteresting, but there wasn't really a mechanism for shutting it down and starting a new thread. I almost felt that it'd be better if the first part of each session were a brainstorming of topics and then the room could be split up into people that wanted to follow each topic, with people being free to float from one topic to another. But, then again, I'm a generalist and prefer skimming.

Neat idea overall, though. I'm glad I stopped by. It was kind of neat to see some of the powerhouse bloggers in person (I think two or three of the bloggers who blogged the national conventions were there - Dave Winer and Doc Searls for sure). And interesting to hear some of the different perspectives on blogging from people who are a lot more into it than I am.

posted at: 20:10 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Thu, 04 Nov 2004

Was it worth it?
A coworker of mine asked me today what it felt like to have worked for several days and have accomplished nothing. And I took issue with that. Sure, judged from a national perspective, it was a failure. But, if that's the only metric of success, it's hard to justify doing anything, because it's very hard for any of us to have an effect nationally.

Judged in a local context, the Oberlin Votes! effort was a fantastic success. It got the vast majority of Oberlin students to vote, galvanizing them, something the nationwide youth turnout demonstrates is quite difficult. If even half of these students continue voting, I would think it would be a success.

Plus, the huge turnout in Oberlin had a large impact on county races. Several long-held Republican seats went over to the Democrats, thanks to the Oberlin students. It's not much, viewed from the national level, but it's something.

We also brought a community closer together. It seemed like everybody was contributing to helping out with the long lines at the church, from local restaurants donating food, to local musicians providing entertainment, even to the plumber showing up almost immediately when the sewage system clogged under the strain of supporting that many people. That sort of event can only help bring a town closer together, and I think that's a good thing. We start at the grassroots and build up. Every little bit helps.

Is this just post-defeat rationalization? Yeah, to some extent. All of these events would have been even more amazing if they had contributed to a win. But we did what we could. In a town of 8000 or so, we think we got about 5500 people to vote. Of those, the article said 583 voted for Bush, which leaves about 5000 voting for Kerry. That's 4500 votes in the plus column for Kerry. Pretty astounding.

I spent today trying to figure out where we go from here. On a personal level, I'm mad. Mad about losing. Mad that the conservatives are so much better at fighting these fights than the liberals. I'm also disappointed in my fellow Americans who believe that "moral values" means things like gay marriage, and thinks that a former alcoholic drug-abusing draft-dodger is more moral than a man who fought for his country and what he believed in. How do we start changing these people's minds?

My friend Jessie wrote an inspiring plea today for us to keep fighting. Every little bit helps. I have another blog entry that I want to do about how you deal with the situation where your individual values do not match those of the people around you. It was originally aimed at dealing with that situation in a corporate sense, but it's clearly relevant now in a national sense. I'll find time. Soon. Well, after this weekend, where I may be trying to double-dip at the Accelerating Change conference, and BloggerCon, a free conference that I originally got waitlisted on, but now appear to have gotten in. Fortunately, they're two buildings apart at Stanford, so I should be able to bounce between them, depending on my interest level. I'm slightly overbooked. In all ways. But anyway.

The point is, it's worth it to keep fighting. Even if you just live your life as well as you can, you are fighting. You are demonstrating to others that your life is worth living, and setting an example for others to follow. That's worth a lot. All it takes is one person to stand up for what they believe in. That's the principle of nonviolence espoused by Gandhi and MLK, and heck, it may even work.

posted at: 19:23 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Election day
I got off to a late start on election day, after staying up until 2am the night before working on the database with Ken. But I got over to HQ by 10am, and immediately left with Ken and Brian. It had been decided that Brian and I, as the out-of-towner carpetbaggers, should be running tech support, while the locals did the canvassing, since they actually knew people. There were two main precincts we wanted to cover, First Church and the Oberlin Public Library, because those two precincts were where the majority of Oberlin students would be voting. So Brian and I each took a laptop and a printer, and headed off with Ken.

It's raining and miserable and gray. And yet, when we get to the library, there's a line out the door of people waiting to vote. Way out the door. Like a block out the door. Yikes. We got Brian set up and trained on what we wanted him to do, and then Ken and I went over to First Church, which had a similar scene. It turns out that the Board of Elections didn't believe Ken when he warned them that there would be a massively increased voter turnout, so they hadn't gotten extra voting machines. I heard that the line at First Church was already over an hour long when the polls opened at 6:30am, and by the time we got there a little after 10am, the line was over 3 hours. Unbelievable.

First Church was kind enough to let us use their back office, so I set up back there. And we waited for the 11am distribution of voter lists. Unfortunately, it got delayed. The poll workers were swamped just trying to help people vote, and didn't have time to make the list until around 12:30pm. We finally got it, I entered the 215 voters and generated lists of non-voters for the volunteers to track down. Turnaround time: 20 minutes. Much better than it would have been trying to do it by hand. I sent it off with a volunteer, who took it back to headquarters so that the remaining people can be contacted.

By the afternoon, the line was over five hours long. The church opened up the church hall itself so that people wouldn't have to wait in the rain, and all of the pews are filled with people waiting to vote. But it's all still relaxed. People were sticking around.

And then the community started really coming together. Folks who had already voted started buying food and water and making sure the people in line were well supplied. Others donated halloween candy, or baked goods. People stepped up and provided entertainment - there were students practicing in line. Plus, the organist came by and gave an impromptu concert to the people waiting in the hall. Then when he got tired, he contacted his organ students and told them that if they wanted any practice time on the organ the rest of the year, they needed to stop by and play this afternoon. First Church had turned into what the church secretary dubbed a "vote-in". It's a big party. It was so impressive that a Cleveland news crew came by and got some footage, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a reporter down to observe the party.

Because the rules say that if you're in line by 7:30pm, you get to vote no matter how long it takes, Oberlin Votes! embarked on trying to make sure everybody will be in line by then, and then figuring out how to make sure everybody in line gets fed, ordering pizza, etc. First order of business was getting them in line.

The 4pm lists of who's voted never came out for the big precincts - they were just too swamped. We did generate a couple new lists for smaller precincts - in one of them, we had 303 people on our list, and 222 or so of them had voted by 4pm, with only 10 students among the non-voters. Megan, the Ohio PIRG coordinator, saw this and her eyes lit up. She grabbed the list saying that she was going to get every last one of them. At that point, our job in tech support was done, so Brian and I packed up from our respective precincts and headed over to the Oberlin Votes! headquarters at Wilder Hall on campus.

Which was a madhouse. There were probably a dozen volunteers making phone calls, from cell phones, and from every campus phone they could find. As I wandered the halls, I saw people making calls from a phone booth and from the phone in the computer cluster. It was pretty amazing. Plus, there were many more volunteers running around knocking on doors.

As far as we could tell, by 6:30pm, we had achieved total saturation. Between all of the calling and door-knocking that was being done, I think we had found only one or two people that hadn't voted. In fact, by the end, the phone bank was contacting more people who were calling other people (as in "Hi, this is from Oberlin Votes! Have you voted today?" "Yes, I've voted, and I'm actually volunteering and calling people myself." "Oops.") than they did non-voters in that last hour before the polls closed at 7:30. Brian related the story of walking down the hall of a dorm, seeing a woman, calling out "Have you voted yet?". She walked by him, said "I have mono, I'm really sick" as she fled for her room. I guess she'd been asked too many times. But she's the only student non-voter that we know about.

At 7:30, we'd done all we could. Nobody else was going to be allowed to join the line. But there were still huge lines at First Church and the Library waiting for their chance to vote. We checked in, and asked if they needed food or anything, but by that time, word had spread even further, and apparently local busineses were chipping in to feed the line. The last voter at the library was Ken, who got in line at the last minute, and ended up voting at around 8:30. The church took even longer - the last voter got through a little after 10pm, and the local news crew apparently interviewed them on camera.

Then we retired to Ken's place for the party. Yay.

posted at: 08:13 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Helping out
So, as mentioned last week, I decided to go to Ohio for the election this year. And, despite the national result, I'm glad I went.

Brian and I ended up spending our time in Ohio helping out the local Oberlin effort, Oberlin Votes!, run by Rob's friend Ken. Oberlin Votes! aimed "to identify every individual who is eligible to vote in November and motivate them to register and vote in the upcoming Presidential election." They started back in March canvassing the campus and the town, and managed to register over 2000 new voters in a town of 8000. They did so well that the local Republican party chairman accused them of voter fraud. But the job wasn't done just getting them registered. We also had to get them to vote.

In the last couple days before the election, I helped out with pulling the databases together. We wanted to crossreference the records of Oberlin Votes! with the Board of Elections database so that we could identify any discrepancies ahead of time and warn people if the BoE had the wrong address or something. We also generated walk lists, organized by address, of voters so that volunteers could knock on doors, remind people to vote, and ask them to commit to voting by a certain time. Ken's theory was that by making people commit to a time, it makes them more likely to keep that appointment. Plus, if they voted early, that would free up the polls for us to send people later in the day as we found people that hadn't voted.

Rob did a huge amount of work crafting a tool to send out email to everybody in the database of Oberlin Votes!, giving them their address as listed in the Board of Elections, their precinct and their polling place. It was much appreciated by many students, because it had all of the relevant information in one place. In fact, we didn't get even a single complaint of spam, despite sending out close to 2000 emails.

Brian wrote up the press release countering the accusations of fraud. He did a great job, especially in tracking down some former Oberlin students who were still on the electoral rolls and getting some good quotes from them. We unfortunately got the press release out too late for it to get any play in the media, but we wanted to make sure it got out before election day. Given the widespread allegations of voter fraud that were being lodged by Republicans at several levels, we believed that the Republicans were setting the stage for their appeal if they lost Ohio, and we wanted to make sure we had our defense in place before it started. It turned out not to matter, but we felt we had to try.

Then it came down to election day itself. On Monday night, Ken and I stayed up until 2am getting the final lists together, and figuring out how we were going to enter data the next day. The polling places release a list at 11am and 4pm of everybody who has voted by those times. We put together a tool that would let us enter that voting data quickly, and then generate a list of non-voters by address so that we could go send volunteers to knock on their doors and/or call them.

Then it was time for election day itself.

posted at: 08:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Amusing anecdotes
There were a couple anecdotes that I wanted to record but didn't really fit into the narrative elsewhere, so I'm recording them here.

I already related this one over at LiveJournal, but it's pretty funny, so I'm putting it in my official blog.

Brian and I arrived in Cleveland at about 9pm Saturday evening. We get to the rental car desk, say that we reserved a car. The clerk starts doing the appropriate computer and paper work, and asks us, "So what brings you to Cleveland?"

Brian: "Oh, we're planning to do some get out the vote stuff."
Her: "It figures - you're about the 14th or 15th folks coming through today doing that."
Us: "Oh."
Her: "Are you guys from California? That's where people seem to be coming in from."
Us: "Um, yeah, actually."
Her: "Do you want a minivan like everybody else so that you can drive people to the polls?"
Us: *getting increasingly more flustered* "Um, no thanks."

We collected our car and drove off.

Another amusing anecdote:

What would you think if you came home and there was a cardboard box sitting on the kitchen counter, modified so that one flap was sticking out. There's a bowl in the box, with chili spattered all over the inside of the box.

Rob's reaction: "The only thing I could come up with was that a raccoon had managed to get inside, open the fridge, get out the chili, and then try to eat it inside the box. I tried to come up with another explanation, but that was really it."

Elizabeth's reaction: "How did he get the box inside the microwave?!" (on the theory that somebody had heated the chili too long in the bowl, thus spattering it)

What actually happened: Brian was running around on election day. He stopped by the house, grabbed some chili, put it in a bowl, but decided to eat it over at headquarters. He saw the cardboard box, realized that he could use it to keep the voter guides out of the rain, which would work better if he modified it to extend one flap. So he modified the box, put the bowl of chili inside, and left. As he went down the sidewalk, he thought to himself "It's really slippery, I need to be careful, it's really slippery, I need to be careful, hey, I need to remember to do that when I get to HQ..." and WHAM! Down he went. The chili went everywhere. He fortunately did not hurt himself, but he was already running late, so he ran inside, changed his pants, and left the box for later, setting up the tableau which Rob and Elizabeth later observed.

An annoying anecdote:

When we were leaving Cleveland on Wednesday, our plane to Chicago was cancelled. The plane apparently had mechanical difficulties in Chicago, and was unable to take off.

There was this businessman who starts ranting immediately. "I have a meeting at 12:45, I can not miss it, you need to get me a flight!" The gate attendant says "The best I can do is get you there at 3pm. The earlier flights are all booked." He says "That's not good enough." She starts trying other options, but just everything is booked. He says "How can the airline cancel this flight and not give me any other options? It's unacceptable!" I'm not sure what he wanted her to do - go fix the plane in Chicago? It was really uncomfortable. She handled it patiently and gracefully. And continued to do so when the next guy in line, another businessman, started giving her the same schtick - "I need to make this meeting, I'll pay anything, first class, give me something".

Meanwhile, Brian and I waited our turn in line, and got a ticket out to SF via Dallas/Fort Worth, and ended up getting home only about 30 minutes after our scheduled arrival time.

I don't get it, though. How do these people go through life in their little bubble, where the only thing that matters is what happens to them? What did those guys expect these women to do? They looked for alternative flights. They did what they could. It's like they were blaming these women for the failure of the plane. Yes, they're representatives of the airline, and it's easy to berate them because you know they can't talk back, but it's just rude. And pathetic. I bet they're selfish conservatives.

posted at: 08:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/ohio | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Closing thoughts
Was it worth it?

I think so. Yes, our guy didn't win. But I feel like I did what I could for the cause. I was in the right state, the one it all came down to. I helped out with an effort that achieved a truly ridiculous voter turnout for a relatively small town. I got to work with some amazing committed people on something we all believed in. I feel like I did something.

I'm very disappointed with the election results. I think the next four years could irretrievably damage this nation, both fiscally with the insane deficit and legally with the Supreme Court implications. But, as my LiveJournal post from the morning after indicates, we can't give up. We need to start organizing now to take back Congress in 2006. Maybe a couple of the more liberal Justices can hold out until then, and we can at least get a Senate in place that won't rubber stamp an arch-conservative. Maybe.

In closing, I just want to say thanks to everybody who made this trip possible:

Thanks to Brian for getting me to go by deciding to do it himself.

Thanks to Rob and Elizabeth for giving Brian and me a place to crash, and feeding us, and getting us involved with Oberlin Votes!

Thanks to Ken and Marta for organizing Oberlin Votes! and for their hospitality.

Thanks to Annie, Megan, Jeremy, and all of the other great volunteers we met working with Oberlin Votes and Ohio PIRG. It was inspiring to see a dozen people in the lobby of Wilder making phone calls, with another dozen running around campus knocking on doors. People do care. And that's awesome.

Thanks to all of the students and residents of Oberlin. It was really inspiring to see a whole town out voting, waiting through five hour lines in the rain. And to see the community come together, with people chipping in food and water to give to the people waiting in line and people coming out to entertain them, like the jazz combo that was playing at the public library. It wasn't just me that was impressed: the local news crew came by and took some footage, and even interviewed the last person to vote in Oberlin, the Cleveland paper sent out a reporter, and Oberlin was mentioned on both the local and national feeds of NPR.

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

Wed, 20 Oct 2004

Going to Ohio
After going to that political campaign training, I mentioned to my friend Brian that I thought it was neat that many of the participants were planning to vote absentee in California, and head to a swing state for the election itself to help get out the vote. I didn't think anything more of it until a couple days ago, when Brian said that he thought it was a good idea and he was going to fly to Ohio for the election, crash with our friend Rob in Oberlin, and do some volunteer work. I was kind of shocked. And then I thought to myself that I really had no reason not to do the same. I have some extra vacation time, I can afford the trip, and I've been kicking myself to get out and do stuff. So, the upshot is that Brian and I bought tickets last night for Cleveland. We'll be there from the evening of Saturday October 30th through Wednesday after the election. We're still working out exactly how we're going to contribute, whether it's through Kerry's campaign, MoveOn or the local Oberlin effort. But we'll figure something out. I think it'll be good for me to get out and do something; at least I'll know I made an effort, even if Bush wins.

Of course, I have to spend some time between now and then figuring out why I'm a Democrat, and why I support Kerry, so that I can articulate it to voters. That's a post I've been playing around with for a while in my head, after the political training where one of the leaders asked that question to audience members: "Why are you a Democrat?" Nobody could articulate an answer on the spot. And it's surprisingly hard to do concisely. My current best attempt at an answer, using his 27 words, 9 seconds, 3 phrases guideline is "I'm a Democrat because I believe in equal opportunity for all, equal rights for all, and that citizenship is not a right, it's a responsibility." I'll expand on that more later, because understanding my motives is always interesting to me, and trying to figure out why I feel such an antipathy towards Bush that I'd vote for a small stuffed animal over him is a good question. But I think I'm written out for the evening.

posted at: 21:28 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Participant statement for AC2004
As I mentioned before, I'm signed up to go to the Accelerating Change conference. One of the things they suggest doing is to put together a participant statement. Here's mine.

1. Passions and Futures
I am fascinated by the topic of how people communicate, whether it's in the form of how a company makes its management decisions, or how people coordinate on a project, or how we decide who to vote for. I think that one of the most valuable aspects of the internet and its offshoots is the ability to support such communication. While I don't believe in the technology-led paradigm shifts that we once dreamed of, I think it's interesting how we have found ways to embed technology into our lives. It's only when technology is no longer technology that it has crossed over into the mainstream. So my interest is more in understanding the social aspects of interaction that can then be buttressed by an appropriate use of technology, or as Joel on Software dubbed it, social interface design.
2. Projects and Problems
I don't have any specific projects or problems I'm working on. I'm interested in hearing about research into tools for supporting new group interactions. Technology in and of itself isn't of much interest to me. Technology in support of a real, identified problem is.
3. Resources to Recommend
My personal web page is at, which is where I post my thoughts on a variety of subjects. It also includes links to blogs I follow. Relevant to the issues I mentioned above is the Many-to-Many group blog, discussing how technology can be used to support group communications, from blogs to wikis to social tagging like, etc.

posted at: 21:15 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Lawrence Lessig at SDForum
I mentioned this talk last week, and I did go to it. Lessig is a fantastic public speaker. Organized and cogent. While watching his talk, I was reminded that I'd read somewhere that if you want to see Powerpoint used appropriately, go to a Lessig talk. And it's so, so true. He takes what Tufte views as disadvantages and turns them into advantages. You can only fit a few words on a slide? Great! Put up the point you're making in a one or two word phrase, and leave it there while you expand upon it. It provides the audience focus, but doesn't lead to you reading the slide. It helps that Lessig's presentations are idea-centered, not data-centered, so no need for graphs. But anyway...

As far as the talk itself, he didn't say anything particularly surprising to those of us who have read his books (particularly The Future of Ideas), so go check those out for details. The main idea was drawing a distinction between "rivalrous resources" such as land, that leads to the infamous Tragedy of the Commons, where "Freedom ... will bring ruin to all", and "nonrivalrous resources" such as ideas, as described by the Thomas Jefferson quote at the top of this article. Rivalrous resources are naturally competitive; if you use more, I get to use less. Nonrivalrous resources are not necessarily so; Lessig used language as an example, where the more people use language, the more people benefit. It's a network effect.

He then went on to discourse about the importance of the commons for ideas, and how we all benefit by having a commons. He identified two types of commons: an innovation commons (as exemplified by the end-to-end nature of the internet (aka a stupid network) and a creative commons (where ideas and images are in the public domain, as opposed to locked up in copyright, due to the ridiculous extension of copyright pushed by Disney) (he pointed out that the default is now to lock up your work - he wasn't even sure it was possible to declare that your work was in the public domain, even if you wanted it to be).

The last part of the talk was the most interesting to me. He pointed to the rise of Intellectual Property Extremism, where IP becomes a goal in itself. He pointed out that Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution intended IP to be used to promote the public good, by making a sufficient incentive to create. His point was that IP is a means not an end. Or as he put it, "Property is a tool, like a hammer." There are appropriate and inappropriate uses for it; for a hammer, a nail is appropriate, a butterfly is not. You judge a tool and its appropriateness for a task by its effects, not support it regardless of consequences; otherwise, you fall into the "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" trap.

So Lessig's question was simple: does IP and current copyright law promote behavior that we want to value? His answer is no. I suspect his new book, Free Culture, available online, makes the argument more convincingly, but the gist of it is that we move forward in innovation and creativity by building off of what came before. So locking up ideas destroys our capacity for innovation. Therefore, if we judge IP and copyright law by the standard of its effects, we have to say it's a bad idea. There are appropriate uses of copyright law and IP, and Lessig is happy to argue for them. But IP as an unalloyed good is a myth in his eyes.

Couple last vignettes:

Good talk. Go see Lessig if you get the chance. And read his books. Good stuff.

posted at: 09:49 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Tue, 21 Sep 2004

Accelerating Change Conference
I think I'm going to sign up to go to this conference on Accelerating Change at Stanford in early November. It's only $350 if I sign up before September 30, and $300 if I take advantage of the discount listed here. Looks like it could be pretty interesting - some potentially interesting speakers, from Doug Engelbart to David Brin to Will Wright to Dan Gillmor. It looks like an opportunity for good conversations.

The Accelerating Change folks are interesting. I ran into them for the first time at Burning Man in 2000, where they were hosting daily discussions about various future-oriented topics. Had some thoughtful conversations with them, often playing devil's advocate to their technology-oriented singularitarian extropian point of view. Didn't think much more of it, until I started getting email a while later from them, as they started to put together an institute to study the impact of accelerating change on society. And then I started going to these future salons and found out that Mark Finnern, the organizer, started them in response to meeting the Accelerating Change folks. And now they've put together this conference, for the second year running, with relatively low conference fees, and a pretty interesting lineup of speakers. Even more amazing is the fact that most of the speakers have apparently agreed to waive their speaking fee in order to keep costs low. Neat stuff. I feel like I should support them. It's really cool that they started off with a dream, and they're putting it into action, and making it happen, as Mark Finnern reflects at the end of this post. It's inspiring, really.

Anyway, you should come to the conference if you're interested in such things. Heck, several of the people reading this probably qualify as potential presenters - I think the organizers may still be looking for speakers, although the schedule looks pretty packed at this point. And, no, I'm not getting any kickback for this invite, although I am thinking about volunteering at the conference itself. Yeah.

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

Extreme Democracy at Future Salon
I went to the Future Salon on Extreme Democracy last week. Some really interesting stuff was discussed. The Future Salon weblog has a full description with links, so I'll just add my couple thoughts.

I really really like what Zack Rosen is doing over at CivicSpace. By making it easier for grass roots groups to hook up and exchange information, he's building the infrastructure tools necessary for a new kind of bottom-up democracy that lets the best ideas bubble to the top. While I like the idea of representative democracy, it becomes hard to deliver when the representation is so coarse; in a discussion over at livejournal in response to one of my posts, doing the math made me realize that a House representative represents close to 600,000 people. That seems like far too big of a group to represent. Yet 435 Representatives in the House is already too many to have a substantive discussion. Over in that discussion, we posited the existence of something like "fractal democracy" where you have representatives of relatively small groups get together and hash things out, and then have a representative of that group go up to the next level, where it's the same self-similar structure all the way up. And tools like CivicSpace are the way to enable such a thing. Very neat stuff.

I was also surprised by how much I liked the talk by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute. Words like co-intelligence set off triggers in my brain of hippie new-age sentimentality, but Atlee concentrated on one key point, which is that discussions among different people often lead to better decisions. Just the very act of bringing people together who disagree can generate new and surprising solutions to old problems, as he outlines in this article. What struck me about his talk, which he outlines here, was that such deliberations allow for a new and better democracy. I lamented about democracy recently, partially based on the tendency that "When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one." Given that such questions from pollsters are always framed multiple choice questions, it can lead to some pretty dumb choices. By giving citizens a forum in which they can discuss what they are actually looking for, rather than forcing them to choose among several ill-suited options, we could improve the feedback loop to government, which will hopefully lead to better decisions. It's a way out of the bi-modal thinking that is so cognitively dangerous and limiting. A pollster asking "Are you for or against tax relief?" shuts down all other options. But in a dialogue, I could expand on my answer and say "Sure, I want lower taxes, but I also want better schools and transportation. I'm fine with the level of my taxes, but I'd like my taxes to be better spent, less on ridiculous boondoggle pork barrel defense contracts, and more on my local community." It will be really interesting to see how Atlee's focus on dialogue and mediation will cross-pollinate with the technology community represented by Zack Rosen at CivicSpace and Ross Mayfield at Socialtext.

It makes me want to get involved somehow. Need to start building up those tools, learning Perl, setting up a web server, etc. One step at a time.

posted at: 07:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sun, 12 Sep 2004

Political training with Democracy for America
Democracy for America is the political action committee started by supporters of Howard Dean to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party". I happened to hear of a training course they were doing on political campaigns in conjunction with 21st Century Democrats. Given my recent interest in politics, I was curious, so I signed up.

It was pretty interesting. I'm not an activist, and I've never worked on a campaign, which may have put me in a minority of one in the room of 150 or so people. But hearing from these people that have worked on numerous campaigns and were laying it all out for us was impressive. They get it. All of those complaints I had from the outside - they understand them. Kelly Young, the founder of 21st Century Democrats, started things off with a great presentation which pointed out that the point of a campaign is to win an election. That's it. It's not to spread the word about your views, it's not to win people over, it's to win an election. You may do those other things in the service of the campaign, but keep your eye on the goal.

She also ran some scary numbers if you believe in democracy as an idea (not that I do). Take a typical district of 75,000. That's an overwhelming number of people you have to convince to win an election. But, of those, maybe 50% are registered voters. That's 37,500. And, of those registered voters, maybe 40% actually show up to vote. That's 15,000. And of those, you only have to get 50% plus one. That's 7,501 voters you have to convince. That's significantly more tractable and gets more so, when you break it down even further, which they covered later. So the importance of a field campaign (which is Kelly's specialty) is paramount in convincing swing voters and getting out the vote.

When you step back and look at that, 10% of the people in a district will enforce their will on everybody else. And that frightens me a little bit. That doesn't seem very democratic. It's how you win an election right now, but I'd idealistically like to think there's some way to change the system to make it more representative. We had some interesting comments over on LiveJournal about possible fractal government structures, where self-similar structures coalesce all the way up. I'd like to develop that further at some point (and think about how to design the social interface), but back to the training for now.

Kelly also made great points about the importance of organization. Make a campaign plan - "If it isn't written down, it doesn't exist". Make a timeline so you know when things will happen. Keep track of your voter lists, so you know who to help go vote on election day. Develop your story - why should people vote for your candidate? Then she got into details of each of these things. I thought the parallels to project management are obvious: Gant charts (timelines), Product Concept Documents (the story), Product Specification Documents (the detailed campaign plan), etc. That probably only amused me, though.

The rest of the day had some great talks as well. Dan Chavez and Steve Ybarra from Latinos for America had some good advice about how to be effective in the field. "Drive the county" and "Visit Walmart" were notable quotes. When Steve asked the crowd how many of us had shopped at Walmart, it cracked me up when nobody raised their hand - Steve said "That's average America - that's who you have to talk to!".

Bob Mulholland, a strategist for the California Democratic Party, chatted about campaign strategy and reality - I think my favorite piece of advice was to keep it simple. Don't get into explaining stuff. His example was make your message "Stop Bush!" If you leave it at that, the person that sees it applies their own context and interprets in terms of their own personal woes. If you keep on going and say "Stop Bush because he's against gay marriage", then maybe that person goes "Well, I don't know how I feel about gay marriage, so maybe I don't agree with this campaigner." Use the voters' ability to supply context to your advantage. He also said it's all about attack, attack, attack. When questioned by the audience why Kerry wasn't following that strategy, he said he wasn't on the campaign, but he'd guess that it wouldn't play well with the appropriate voters of the swing states. I thought that was an interesting observation - we all assume that other people are like us, and they'll be convinced by similar things. So because we rabid progressives want to see Kerry destroy Bush, we assume other people do as well. Maybe we're wrong (despite my rants to the contrary).

Dan came back with some thoughts about targeting voters in an election campaign. Remember those 7501 voters you needed for that theoretical district of 75,000? How do you find the right 7501? You use the National Committee for an Effective Congress to get the numbers breakdown on your district to find out if it's even possible, and to find out who has voted in which elections recently. Then you go out and ask people their positions. Doing that, you can start throwing people out right away. Anybody that doesn't vote, punt. Anybody that consistently votes Republican, punt. People that regularly vote, and consistently vote Democratic, punt (this one brought protests from the audience, but he made the point that you're wasting resources on people that are already on your side). So that leaves two main groups that you have to address. Undecided voters who always vote - these are your top priority, because not only will they not vote for you, they will vote for the opposition - you have to convince them. Then there's the voters who consistently vote for the Democrat when they do vote, but don't make it to all the elections - these are voters you have to make sure show up on Election Day. So you've winnowed the district down to a manageable number of key people. Again, that's how the math works to win elections right now. Kind of unromantic, though :)

Ralph Miller followed with a great presentation on dealing with the media. The important points I wrote down were "People don't read!" so make sure that your main point is in the headline, and that your entire story (who, what, where, when, why and how) is in the first paragraph of press releases. Second, press people are normal people (he apparently has been a press guy for years) that respond to kindness, so do your best to make their lives easy. Feed them stuff in a format they want, give them good visuals, make sure you know their deadlines so you can get stuff to them well in advance, thank them afterwards. They will appreciate it, and you'll get more favorable responses from them in the future. It makes a lot of sense,but it doesn't surprise me that people forget about the basics in the stress of a campaign. Ralph was also kind enough to stick around during the "breakout sessions" to talk with a few of us some more about the use of media in politics.

Oh, somewhere in there, Steve emphasize 27-9-3. If you want to get a message across, especially on TV, say it in 27 words and 9 seconds, making 3 points. He had a great example, which I unfortunately can't remember at all. But he guarantees it will work. And it makes sense. However, I don't think I'll ever be able to compress my ideas down that well :)

The day finished with a talk by Jeani Murray, the director of Dean's campaign in Iowa, about developing and controlling your campaign message. It's all about telling a story. I think the most interesting aspect of the presentation was when she illustrated the use of a "Message Box", where you lay out what you're saying about yourself and your opponent, and what your opponent is saying about himself and you. She used the example of Kerry and Bush. And it was absolutely telling that even in this group of devoted progressives, it was hard for us to articulate what Kerry was saying about either himself or Bush. And yet, all of us knew exactly what Bush was saying about himself ("strong leader" "war on terror") and Kerry ("flip flopper" "weak leader"). That's a bad bad sign.

I've rambled on too long, as usual. Some really interesting stuff. I ended up skipping the second day of training out of exhaustion and lack of interest - it was covering the details of fieldwork (volunteer recruitment, voter contact, unions, organizing canvasses and phone banks, and getting out the vote), which interest me less than the big picture of the campaign. I have a huge book of notes that they gave out on each of the aspects of the campaign, which I'll probably look at more later. Overall, I was very impressed by the people running the training. They were focused, efficient, experienced, and ruthless about trying to get the greatest return on their investment of time and money. I wasn't sure such people existed in the Democratic organization (although the fact that most of these people were in Dean's campaign says something to me). I was less impressed with some of the audience, who displayed many of the same self-righteous pleading tendencies that make me less inclined to be associated with liberals. But I think the training sessions are a great idea - we need more people out there who are willing to play hardball with the conservatives. The conservatives have developed a tremendous base of political experts in their think tanks. These training sessions and things like Lakoff's Rockridge Institute are the start of fighting back.

posted at: 22:36 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Mon, 30 Aug 2004

Staying in shape
So I've been playing in this ultimate frisbee league this month. And that first week was great for my confidence. The second week I slipped a little, didn't play quite as well. The third week I missed entirely due to that trip to Toronto. So I got to the fourth week after not having done any sort of exercise for two weeks. And it showed. I was out of breath after a single point. My legs weren't working well. Either night.

The interesting thing to me, though, was that it affected aspects of my game that I would think would be unrelated. Things like catching the disc. You'd think a simple pancake catch (catching the disc with one hand horizontally above, and one horizontally below) would be trivial. But on that Monday night back, I dropped the first four throws sent my way. Even when they were right to me, I had both hands on it, and just dropped it. And I'm convinced that it was due to my bad conditioning from having taken a couple weeks off. I was tired enough from running around that my concentration wasn't there even to make an easy catch.

So that was frustrating. But I played both Monday and Tuesday evening last week and that helped. And I went for a two hour bike ride on Saturday up to Skyline Blvd, which is basically an hour straight of climbing from my place. And, sure enough, tonight, all aspects of my game were much better. My cuts were cleaner. And I was catching everything in reach. Even ones where I was jumping over people, reaching with one hand. The score was tied 9-9 when the 10 minute horn blew. We ended up scoring the next three points, with a hard zone D forcing some turnovers. And when I say we, I mean me - I caught all three scores, one on a breakdown in coverage, one where I had to bull through to catch the disc after my defender accidentally tripped me, and finished it off by skying over their best jumper to ice the game after the final horn blew. Overall, I think I caught half of our 12 points. So that felt pretty good. And I really think it's all conditioning.

Of course, before I get too cocky, I should point out that I also managed to throw the disc away every single time I caught the disc not in the end zone. I threw it long and over people's heads. I threw it short into the ground. I threw it straight at defenders. I even missed the dump once where I only had to throw it five feet to my teammate. Come to think of it, I did connect on one score, but even that one was an adventure - my teammate was wide open in the end zone, but I threw it over his head, and he had to run to the deep corner and lay out to catch it. Oops. Anyway.

It's all conditioning. Now that this league is ending, I'll have to find other ways to exercise during the week. It's especially important for me, I think, because the other thing that happens when I'm tired, besides me losing concentration and dropping easy throws, is that I get injured. The time I sprained my ankle this spring was during a really long point. I was completely winded, and tried to make one more sharp cut, and the ankle just buckled. And I'm convinced it's poor conditioning. I have a theory which says that in normal operation, the muscles take up the stresses associated with sharp cuts and changes in direction. But when you're tired, the muscles don't take any of that stress and it's all transmitted straight to the joint connective tissue and that's where you get sprains and strains. And since I'm a big guy, this is a particular danger for me, because changing the direction of a 210 pound mass travelling at high speeds places a lot of stress on those joints and muscles. And it's just not as easy as it once was to stay in shape. Durn this getting old thing. Alas.

posted at: 23:16 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal