It Changed My Life – Book Two

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance three times.

The first time I read it, I thought it was the best book ever and it got me reading Plato and interested in eastern religions and philosophy. I also had a flurry of interest in zen-influenced physics books (Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics).

The first time through, Zen and the Art took my breath away.

I went back and re-read it about 10 years later and appreciated its depth even more now that I understood physics and Zen and Taoism and Plato. The second read was profound and filled me with wonder. It also instilled in me a distrust of Aristotle that has lasted a lifetime.

I also went back and re-read Dancing Wu Li Masters and The Tao of Physics and found them to be juvenile nonsense. I was embarrassed to have recommended them to other people.

On my third reading, I decided that Zen and the Art was juvenile nonsense too but it still has a special place in my memory. If it weren’t for this book, I would never have fallen in love with physics and philosophy – a love that endured.

Of the eastern mysticism stuff, the only thing that stuck was the Tao Te Ching. I read it often.

It Changed my Life – Book One

I hate internet memes too, but I like this one. List 10(ish) books that had a big influence on your life. Here are Will Wilkinson’s and Conor Friedersdorf’s and Ross Douthat’s.

Sinclair Basic

At the end of the third year at Chis and Sid, I won a prize for the most improved student. After coming dead last in my class in the autumn and winter terms, I came first in class at the end of the year and won a book voucher (I did the same thing in each of the subsequent years too but, by then, they were on to me – no more prizes for me).

On my way home from school, I stopped in the bookshop and picked up a book called Programming in BASIC (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

My mum’s company had recently bought a mini-computer and mum took me to work one day to show it off. It was the first computer that I ever saw and she left me on my own with it for a couple of hours. I found the games!

It had a really primitive version of 20 Questions that I played over and over, fascinated that this chunk of metal could figure out what I was thinking. The highlight was when it didn’t guess my animal and it asked me for a question that would distinguish apes from moneys.

The lowlight came soon after when I introduced my first bug into a computer program. All future players, after answering “no” to “Does it have a tail?” would be asked

Is it a chim?


The full page dot-matrix ASCII of Snoopy made an impression too.


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               XXXXXXXXXXXXX *   *       X     X
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A couple of years later, when I won that prize, there was no question but that I would buy myself a book on programming. I didn’t have a computer though, so I wrote my programs on paper and imagined them running.

Sinclair ZX81Another year went by before Sir Clive Sinclair – who inherited the title Greatest Living Englishman when Winston Churchill died – released the first home computer for under a £100. I saved up and bought myself one.

As soon as that fuzzy little K cursor started blinking in the corner of my TV screen I was hooked and there was no holding me back.

I drew my own ascii art. I played chess in 1kB. I painstakingly copied the machine code for a draughts program byte by byte from a book. I wrote a Monopoly program. I wrote a program to do Fourier Analysis. I learned Z80 assembly language which I hand-assembled using look-up tables because I didn’t have an assembler.

Non-programmers often don’t understand what a creative activity programming is. They think it’s about following mundane instructions. I can’t think of a more creative activity.

It’s truly liberating to discover that you can make something out of nothing but the thoughts in your head. Maybe people who are gifted at painting or music get a hint of this but to suddenly find that you can imagine something and then go build it! It makes you feel superhuman.

Sinclair C5Sinclair also invented the first commercial electric car which turned out not to be so commercial after all and Uncle Clive lost both his fame and his fortune. A fickle nation turned its love to Alan Sugar and his wondrous Amstrads but I’ll always be grateful to Sir Clive for the gift he gave me.

Dustbin of History

My old reading list…

Reading List

I count five books that are old enough to be in the public domain (and hence free on iBooks). Off to the library with you!

I bet this decade (decades start with xxx1 !) has the record for Most Technologies Consigned to the Dustbin of History.

I no longer have a need for:

  • Books
  • Cable/Satellite TV
  • CDs
  • Mouse
  • CRT Monitors
  • Photo Albums
  • Landline
  • Printing Press
  • Calendar
  • Ethernet cables
  • Camera
  • Film

Too Young to Fear

New music, fashion, start-up companies – they come disproportionately from younger people. There is a theory – I first heard it from Paul Graham – that innovation comes from younger people because they haven’t yet learned what they are not supposed to be able to do.

Adora Svitak reminds us why old people suck.

I remember my first life crisis when I turned 26 because I had already passed the age where Newton and Einstein did their most famous work.

Regrettably, we did little to address the problem

Looks like me and Greenspan both learned the wrong lessons from previous housing crashes.

The former Fed chairman also acknowledged that the central bank failed to grasp the magnitude of the housing bubble but argued, as he has before, that its policy of low interest rates was not to blame. He stood by his conviction that little could be done to identify a bubble before it burst, much less to pop it.

“We had been lulled into a sense of complacency by the only modestly negative economic aftermaths of the stock market crash of 1987 and the dot-com boom,” Mr. Greenspan wrote. “Given history, we believed that any declines in home prices would be gradual.

I learned a different lesson though.

The housing crash in the UK at the start of the 90s was terrifying.It came after a long, sustained boom where house prices just went up and up.

I know a bunch of people with 120% mortgages that lost over half the value of their houses. Many lost everything. We bought our apartment at half the price that the previous owners had paid three years earlier. We felt very smug timing the market like that. We still lost money because the prices kept falling and falling.

There was a boom in Silicon Valley when we arrived. But I had learned my lesson from the boom/bust in the UK – house prices can’t go up indefinitely! Eventually they are going to come down with a crash. When friends of mine bought a house for about $400k, I thought they were crazy. When they sold it for about a million several years later, I decided that I was the crazy one.

I concluded that my lesson was wrong. Housing prices can go up indefinitely. I bought a house.

But my lesson wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t right yet.

Thanks Mr Greenspan.

Go on then – kill me!

This is awesome in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

From The Times via Secular Right.

When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.

Party on, dudes!

Bruce Bartlett (advisor on tax issues to Reagan) on liberals.

Back when I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh there was one thing in particular he used to say that I agreed with. Over and over he said that liberals defined themselves largely by the worthiness of their objectives and the sincerity of their motives. The actual results of their policies didn’t matter at all. Thus liberals support the minimum wage because they care about the well being of workers at the bottom of the wage scale. That many of these workers lose their jobs or fail to find jobs because the minimum wage priced them out of the labor market was a matter of no concern to liberals. All that mattered is that they cared.

Bruce Bartlett (Treasury official under Bush I) on conservatives.

One of the reasons I became a conservative way back when is because conservatives lived in a world where one’s actions are defined by their consequences, not one’s motives. Conservatives also prided themselves on being reality-based and fact-based in their analyses, while liberals often seemed to live in a dream world disconnected from history, institutions and ideology, among other things.

Bruce Bartlett (drafter of the bill which became Reagan’s signature tax cutting bill) on the Tea Partiers.

Today, however, conservatives have largely adopted the liberal operating assumption and now also define themselves by the righteousness of their motives. This fact became very obvious to me this week when I examined the knowledge that tea party demonstrators on Capitol Hill had on the subject of taxation. As I recount in my column below, most of those in the crowd grossly overestimated the level and burden of federal taxes, thinking that they are many times higher than they actually are.

Bruce Bartlett (one of the founders of ) supply-side economics on the Tea-Partiers answers to a survey prepared by David Frum (economic speechwriter for Bush II).

Tuesday’s tea party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times higher than they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median was 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.

Bruce Bartlett on taxes under Obama.

According to the JCT, last year’s $787 billion stimulus bill, enacted with no Republican support, reduced federal taxes by almost $100 billion in 2009 and another $222 billion this year. The Tax Policy Center, a private research group, estimates that close to 90% of all taxpayers got a tax cut last year and almost 100% of those in the $50,000 income range. [snip] No taxpayer anywhere in the country had his or her taxes increased as a consequence of Obama’s policies.

Bruce Bartlett on the gap between perception and reality.

Perhaps these people haven’t calculated their tax returns for 2009 yet and simply don’t know what they owe. Or perhaps they just assume that because a Democrat is president that taxes must have gone up, because that’s what Republicans say that Democrats always do. In fact, there hasn’t been a federal tax increase of any significance in this country since 1993.

Bruce Bartlett’s recommendation to Tea-Partiers.

Whatever the future of the tea party movement in American politics, it’s a bad idea for so many participants to operate on the basis of false notions about the burden of federal taxation. It only takes a little bit of time to look at one’s tax return to see what one is actually paying the Treasury, calculate the percentage of one’s income that goes to taxes, and compare it to what was paid last year and the year before. People may then discover that their anger is misplaced and channel it into areas where it is more likely to bring about positive change.

Remember when you were happy?

Daniel Kahneman describes two selves.

Your experiencing self lives in the present. It cares about what is happening right now. Experiencing self is honest, forthright and direct. Ask your experiencing self if you are happy and it’ll give you an honest answer. Go on! Try it! Ask yourself whether you are happy RIGHT NOW.

Your remembering self lives in the past. It cares about what happened before. Your remembering self is a self-deluding, story-telling liar. Ask your remembering self whether you are happy and it will probably just make something up.

Kahneman describes a study where two groups of people were given colonoscopies.

The first group had a short, fairly pleasant experience (as colonoscopies go) but it ended abruptly. Probably, the doctor just wanted to get it over with quickly.

The second group had a long painful experience (as reported by their experiencing selves) where the pain just kind of tailed off at the end.

But – here’s the thing – the second group reported a much happier colonoscopy. Their remembering selves ignored the whole ordeal and focussed on the very last bit.

If you want to be happy, who should you please? Your remembering self or your experiencing self?

His examples are intriguing.

Experiencing self does not care much about the weather but remembering self thinks it is pretty important – bear this in mind if you are deciding which state to live in.

You can make remembering self – the one who reports on the experience – enjoy a colonoscopy much more by making it last longer (as long as the last little bit is not too unpleasant).

Having more money doesn’t really impress your experiencing self very much – as long as you have enough to live on.

I especially liked the questions at the end: public policy is mostly driven by our remembering selves. How would be things be different if out experiencing selves had a say?