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Articles, Ideas, Books and/or Concepts that have changed your life
32 points by adammichaelc on Mar 21, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments
I'm really curious to see what has influenced you all to become the people you are. What ideas? A quotation from an obscure philosopher? What books? What articles?

One for me is this article on the "Design Document" by Rex Parker of StreetSmartinc.com


When I was a kid, the documentary series Connections. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone follow vectors through history instead of recounting it one period at a time, like most books and classes do.

Discovering Lisp was a big one. This was in 1983, when the default programming language was Pascal. Lisp seemed (and in retrospect was) startlingly better. There was no one single book or quotation, but I remember how excited I was to get my hands on a photocopy of the InterLisp manual.

Kenneth Clark's documentary series Civilisation (and the accompanying book) impressed me a lot. In fact, it was clearly the model for Connections. I've never read anything else better about art. His ideas are extremely subversive, but few get it because he usually speaks in code. And he had access to stuff like no one else ever will again.

I also learned a lot from his book The Nude.

One of the biggest influences on my ideas about startups was an essay by TJ Rogers, the CEO of Cypress Semiconductor. I don't remember the title, but it cut through the usual corporate bullshit like a knife. For me the important thing was not just what he said, but that one could even be that candid.

Of all the books I've read in the last 5 years or so, Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology is probably the one that stuck most in my head.

For those interested, A Mathematician's Apology is available online here:


YouTube links to the first episode of the series "Connections 1" (from 1978):

1/5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTbCNycm0nQ

2/5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlKykc6ipY4

3/5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIVnaq0spdE

4/5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNPL92tvqhY

5/5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnRZ18GpOhg

The rest are on YouTube also, as well as bittorent:


Depending on whether or not you think paying ~$500 for them would serve "to promote the progress of science and useful arts", you might be legally obliged to buy them on Amazon.

I just read A Mathematician's Apology. Really interesting, it really puts Hesse's Glass Bead Game in context.

A Mathematician's Apology is a beautiful read, by definitions both plain and, to some degree, those elaborated in the essay itself.

One interesting thing about the relevancy of the essay is the potential change in the aesthetics of mathematics in wake of the proof of the Four Color Theorem. Personally, I have to believe that some day someone will find a proof that has all the elegance mathematicians are looking for.

"We do not want many ‘variations’ in the proof of a mathematical theorem: ‘enumeration of cases’, indeed, is one of the duller forms of mathematical argument. A mathematical proof should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation, not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way."

If you consider his constant foil in Chess, it's fun to think that perhaps he'd see some degree of beauty in computer algorithms that solve the many enumerations of chess in far more "general" and "surprising" ways.

maybe "Let Our Options Go!" or "The American Semiconductor Industry: Winner or Whiners?" or "An Entrepreneur's View of American Competitiveness"

You might be able to find it by searching for "tobacco" because one point I remember was that the US government spent money on both subsidies for tobacco growers and anti-smoking campaigns.

That's it! Thanks, Nick. I haven't seen this for 15 years.

Some books:

"The Fountainhead" - gave me the gift of self-confidence

"The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution" - helps me understand where I come from and where I fit in the Biosphere

"The Use of Knowledge in Society" - This, along with other pieces on economics and capitalist anarchism, gave me an appreciation for distributed non-hierarchical systems. (http://www.econlib.org/Library/Essays/hykKnw1.html)

Paul Graham's stuff - Got me to the point where I'm quitting my job in two weeks.

I read a ton of fantasy, sci fi, and historical fiction growing up. I'm sure that has something to do with my grand imagination, distaste for authority, and idealism.

Read The Djinn's Wife (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0704/thedjinnswife.shtml).

If you lack motivation to work on advanced software, this should put you right back on track. It is... Asimovesquely inspiring.

"It's not important to get it right; it's important to get it going."

I believe this encapsulates the dangers of perfectionism, the importance of iterating, and the reason we should risk failure. And I find the concept difficult to apply in some aspects of my life. I believe as you progress down a particular route in life your mind's pattern recognition will find meaning in particular quotes, books because you are trying to. And by extension, you will meet like-minded people the more committed you are. Like buying a new car and suddenly seeing it everywhere. Until we have immersive VR, I believe that some experiences must be learned first-hand - and emotionally.

"What does not break you, makes you stronger".

Helps to get through times when things are completely sour.

I only read non-fiction that's counterintuitive. I figure, hey, I'm pretty smart, so if it's intuitive then I can probably figure it out on my own. A list of stuff I cite most often:

No Contest & Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

PG's essays & ITConversations interviews

The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil

This graph: http://alexkrupp.com/picture_library/plot.jpg

Dee Hock's essay on leadership

A handful of blog posts by Mark Cuban

All Marketers are Liars & Free Prize Inside by Seth Godin. All of the books that Seth recommends are also worth reading.

Bruce Schneier's interview on ITConversations

Magic Ink, an essay by Bret Victor

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

The Cluetrain Manifesto (the book)

I'm sure there's a lot more, but that's what comes to mind right now.

I'm not sure if "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" changed my life, but it reassured me I was on the right track in starting a business. It reads very well today and I'd recommend it to any professional.

I was particularly struck by this quote:

"I really don't know what I was looking for when I got back from the war, but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in grey flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness -- they were pursuing a routine. For a long while I thought I was on the side lines watching the parade, and it was quite a shock to glance down and see that I too was wearing a grey flannel suit."

This is a really outstanding quote. I had read William Whyte's "The Organization Man" which deconstructs the same situation from a sociological perspective, but I had overlooked this novel: sometimes there is more truth in fiction.

Hackers and Painters, especially How to Make Wealth. I grew up overseas, and really didn't have a decent grasp of how the whole money thing worked until I started reading up on economics and money. How to Make Wealth really crystalized a lot for me.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

But not for the standard reasons of food safety or socialism

To get a real taste of how regular people lived and struggled back then. That was the life my great-grandparents and grandparents escaped so that I could have a real life.

So whenever I "think" things are tough, I just slow down and imagine that it's Packingtown, Chicago in 1906. Things suddenly seem a whole lot brighter now.

Here and now is a special time and place. Let's not any one of us squandor it.

Free 10-day Buddhist meditation retreats, incl. room & board, at one of the many Vipassana Meditation Centers world-wide (http://www.dhamma.org). Very old-school; the real deal.

The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0884270610). Most real-world systems have a single constraint that limit the system's ability to achieve goal units. The best way to improve the system is to (0) define the system's owners and their goal for the system, (1) identify the constraint (2) improve the situation at the constraint in a way that does not require significant investment; (3) if the improvement resulting from the previous is not sufficient, decide how to improve the constraint in a way that does require significant investment; (4) subordinate everything else in the system to the decision arrived at in the previous step; (5) start over at step 1.

The Game, by Neil Strauss (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060554738)

dhamma.org is also interesting from business model point of view.. the system will not accept pay from newbies; you can only pay after you pay your dues (sit down and shut up for 10 days straight).. you might think b) people would game the system for free room/board or a) this can't scale.. but the facts prove otherwise:

from a little center started in lates 60's, in india, now there are hundreds of centers around the world.. when i got to mexico in late 2005, there was one center, now there are three.. the system is growing.. people tend to pay after they get the goods, because it feels good and right..

Thanks a bunch for that dhamma.org link. I was just bitching the other day about how charging $200 for weekend retreats keeps Buddhism on the fringes here.

dhamma.org looks great. Just got to find the time to do one of these 10-day courses. They look intense from what I've been reading, but I think I'd really benefit. Did you do one of them?

They intense and worthwhile. I did my first one back in high school.


A worn out, moth eaten copy of Lord Byron's complete works. It took me almost a decade to outgrow the influence. Especially the poem Manfred, and the soliloquay at the beginning!

The Sanyasin - Satprem. I walked the streets of Chennai not knowing what the hell was happening, while reading this. Magical, mystic..anyone who has ever held any spiritual notions should read this...

Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantikakis, what can I say..every word has drilled through me!

Ka by Roberto Calasso, this made me confront my own culture and religion like no other.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

Godel, Escher & Bach - Douglas Hofstadter. Barely made it to 4th chapter but that alone has shattered opinions I held about my style of thinking.

And Sri Aurobindo...almost everything that he has written touches me like no other. It was like coming home after being in exile. Not that I understand anything but...

And of course Don Box's talk on DDJ about the origins of .NET!

Without a doubt, Heidegger's explanation of readiness-to-hand in Being and Time has done more for my usability and process inefficiency evaluating skills than even Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things or any HCI book I've ever read. While Norman's book comes in a strong second, the benefit of the first few chapters of Being and Time is the incredibly low-level cognitive access it gives you to the work your brain does when engaged in a task. (If you're interested and don't mind slogging through some tough writing, pick up the hardcover version and Dreyfus' Being-in-the-World and read them together. Reading a Wikipedia article or some other summary fails to deliver the same degree of low-level access.)

I'll also mention Ayn Rand as someone who wrote inspiringly about the entrepreneur as a (potentially) heroic figure, but hasten to add that her sociology of looters and movers is way too simplistic to ground some of her views on ethics.

John Stuart Mill's "Utilitarianism" was my first assigned reading in a political philosophy class, and remains my favorite.

Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals prompted me to question whether the values I had always held were really all that valuable.

Eleanor Rosch's work on basic categories and prototype theory (without which Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things--not to mention Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous--would likely not have been written) is fantastic, debunking empirically the Aristotelian theory of categories as being defined by necessary and sufficient conditions (they can be, where we intentionally define them to be from a top-down point of view, as in geometry, but bottom-up the construction of categories is much looser and based on family resemblances with one or several prototypes serving as the central point of comparison: hence, when I say "bird" you're more likely to think of a bluebird-type bird than a penguin or an ostrich). Knowing this does a lot to help loosen up your understanding of things, which can become rigidified by traditional mathematical, scientific, and analytic philosophical education.

Several others worth mentioning, but I've got to get back to work!

The half dozen or so books about Richard Feynman life and approach to problems.

(somewhat cliched but) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing: http://philip.greenspun.com/panda and other Greenspun writings. Yes the technical stuff in that book is dated, but what I really liked was the approach to building websites (and companies) from "first principles," rather than just trying to copy what other people were doing.

Also since I was trying to write a Ph.D. thesis, it was just a revelation to see that MIT accepted something interesting and readable for his thesis.

in no particular order:

Myers-Brigs Model for Personality

"Four Steps to the Epiphany" by Steve Blank

John Boyd's OODA Loop as a model for competitive decision making

Decision Analysis techniques: in particular decision trees, expected value of perfect information, and good decision bad outcome

BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) concept for negotiation planning

"Secrets of Consulting" by Gerald M. Weinberg

"Bionomics" by Michael Rothschild

SimCity computer game

Analysis of Competing Hypotheses methodology

wiki (social process) model for small team collaborative document development

community of practice model for knowledge management

"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein (in particular TANSTAAFL)

activation energy, catalyst, and phase change concepts from physics/chemistry

Amplify Positive Deviance model from Jerry Sternin (Save the Children)

"The Empowered Manager" by Peter Block, in particular his trust vs. agreement matrix

"Crossing the Chasm" & "Inside the Tornado" by Geoffrey Moore

"Maneuver Warfare Handbook" by William Lind

"Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" by Daniel Amen

"Micromotives and Macrobehavior" by Thomas Schelling

Appreciative Inquiry Techniques

http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/uploads/whatisai.pdf A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry

I started reading this and was amazed. It's written for organizations but it rings true when read as applying to an individual as well.

The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals - Robert M. Pirsig

The Open Society and its Enemies - Karl. R. Popper

The Player of Games - Iain M. Banks

Pale Blue Dot - Carl Sagan

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." from "The Road not Taken" by Robert Frost

My grandpa giving me "How to win friends and Influence people" in 7th grade.

My Mom teaching me to code in 6th grade.

No specific book or article, but for me it's been what I've read about Memetics and Evolutionary Psychology. It's not only enabled me to understand human behavior, including my own, but has influence the way I think about everything from career to diet.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Anything by Heinlein - "Starship Troopers" especially Ayn Rand - "Atlas Shrugged"

More than any books or articles, I've been influenced directly by the people in my life, especially friends, mentors, family, and girls I wanted to impress.

PG & Joel Spolsky, the Alchemist, the Little Prince.

when i was a kid:KOEI historical games - got me into using hex editors to change the stats :D

the games exposed me to sun tzu art of war

local book about python and unix - i used python around 2004 and beat the courses assignments ('beating the avg' reminds me of those days) ... later pg's great hacker on slashdot and then lisp - settled with newlisp now

iBookG4 exposed me to unix, designs, hardwares and most importantly, woz and jobs ... later my ibook was broken. I am very happy with OpenBSD now

chemistry (and later internet recipes): now i bath using soda ash and citric acid at very low conc - eliminate the need to restore soap and shampoo (great time and $ saving for me) ... i also make my own fertilizer for aquarium use

among other things: open source, MIT+BSD license statistics, design of experiments, bayes, simulation wikipedia and generic drugs low calorie for longevity vegetarian dog, vegan, glycemic index no television vim, jquery pg essays esp how to make wealth and the other road ahead Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives "The less confident you are, the more serious you have to act."

perhaps these things teach me that having great control at raw level (source code, chemical, generic drug etc) gives me power to go vertically (own hardware, os, language) as well as horizontally (own tweaks, foss libraries) without much dependencies

Going off the Apple point - I remember getting my first Macintosh, booting it up and being completely blown away by the richness of the interface. Despite the analogy being a bit confusing for some, I was particularly intrigued by how you could drag an icon of disk to the trash and the disk would actually eject in the real world. That link between something as conceptually driven as software and as physical as a floppy disk all happening in a box on my desk really resonated with me. Apple as a company also always impressed me as an example of entrepreneurship.

Ideas/books/concepts of George Lakoff and his colleagues. In the same way, Jeff Hawkins. Their approach to cognition as a problem that is comprehensible is incredibly far-reaching.

In a similar vein, the writing and blog of Scott Adams:


The vast majority of it is humor, and the inspiring pieces are subtle, but they're like a honey bunch of oats in your cereal (except more rare (and with better metaphors than this)).

:the_dip => 'by Seth Godin', :essays => 'by Paul Graham', :art_of_the_start => 'by Guy Kawasaki', :the_innovators_solution => 'by Clayton Christensen & Michael Raynor', :rich_dad_poor_dad => 'by Robert Kiyosaki', :seven_habits_of_highly_effective_people => 'by Stephen Covey', :stanford_technology_ventures_program => 'by Reid Hoffman (i.e., the session he did for STVP)'

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Star Trek, the original series

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. The first science fiction story I read, which lead to all the others.

The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner. That's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, with wonderful annotations by Martin Gardner.

Ulysses by James Joyce Code Complete by Steve McConnell Walden by Henry David Thoreau Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan Murphy by Samuel Beckett Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

"The Kingdom of God is Within You" - Leo Tolstoy "Atlas Shrugged" - Ayn Rand

Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I saw it when I was a kid, and didn't realize how big an effect it had had on me until I watched it again a couple of years ago.

_Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, Ayn Rand

The "Organon" books by Aristotle

_Introduction to Logic_, H. W. B. Joseph

_An Invitation to Formal Reasoning_, Fred Sommers & George Englebretsen

A quote for me:

"It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ Yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ Of what is found there." - William Carlos Williams

Tao te ching, Shakespeare, and the pharse "Your will only have 2 friends: your dad and a dollar in your pocket"

How is that phrase inspiring? It sounds very demotivating to me. (Other variation on the theme: "Want a friend? Get a dog").

Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

Here Come the Warm Jets; Brian Eno

Godel, Escher, Back, book; Douglas R. Hofstadter


Lucifer Principle -- Howard Bloom.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

For me, it's mainly been people and their lives. The ideas and such flow from that.

This is an undergrad teacher who has had the most influence on me: http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/author/john-mark-reynolds/

Star Trek, Plays by George Bernard Shaw, Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, Firefly

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