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What I Worked On (paulgraham.com)
986 points by tosh 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 398 comments

This is a good essay.

It's interesting to contrast it with some of the psychological/self-help literature around being your "true self", where the true self is fluid and amorphous and avoids being rigidly defined. Or with Drew Houston's commmencement address [1] - "That little voice in my head was telling me where to go, and the whole time I was telling it to shut up so I could get back to work. Sometimes that little voice knows best." Or Steve Jobs [2] - "Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

Don't ignore your emotions, particularly the niggling feelings that make you do things that seem to have no purpose in your grand plans but nevertheless draw you along. Don't ignore reality either - that'd be putting art galleries online - but oftentimes our subconscious has a better grip on reality than we give it credit for.

[1] https://news.mit.edu/2013/drew-houstons-commencement-address

[2] https://singjupost.com/full-transcript-steve-jobs-stay-hungr...

> So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Equally plausible is that we only write quotations from the people whose dots serendipitously connected.

I mean, they have for all of us at some point.

No, not for great wealth perhaps, but using myself as an example - the fact that I'm in my own apartment across the country from where I grew up, with an engineering job, that pays well enough for me to afford an expensive pocket computer cum telephone to write this on - anyone of those things alone would have blown the mind of 18 year old me - all three of them as one combined train is astonishing in hindsight. If I look at all the just that I've done in the last 20 years, I'm ought to be astonished, I've been stupendously lucky.

Now for a moment, look at all the dots connected to get where we are technologically over the last, 20, 40, 80, 120 years. For example just in communications, In 120 years we went from messages for the average person taking months to span the globe, to a situation where the average person in any country, can phone another average person in most any other country at anytime day or night without difficulty - that alone is astonishing to me. Never mind all the other improvements we've watched blink into existence.

The dots connect for everyone, some folks just get more of them.

Now you're talking about technological change and about how we're all living potentially richer and more interesting lives because of it. But that's a separate point to the one being discussed: Jobs was referring to personal life choices and how they work out if you connect the dots looking back.

Point being that there's plenty of people for whom personal life choices didn't see their dots connect looking back, and that we only get quotations from the people who do like Jobs, i.e. his point perhaps isn't universal, but rather only particular to (the lucky) few.

Another poster just commented: meheleventyone 3 hours ago - Yeah we had a very emotional essay this week from Chris Crawford whose life work failed to materialise.

He looked back and found that his dots never connected for the past decades and that 'he blew it'. The fact he now has an iPhone and can make cheap calls to a person in India doesn't change that story.

My personal dots did connect, largely, thats my point. I took a highly unconventional path to where I am in life, and feel lucky for making it.

You said "they have for all of us at some point" and "The dots connect for everyone, some folks just get more of them", in response to someone saying we only really hear about success stories, which is very different to the point you now say you were making. For a lot of people, the dots just don't connect.

Here's a good argument why the dots will connect eventually as long as you keep doing interesting things. One of my favorite books: https://davidepstein.com/the-range/

> the dots will connect eventually ...

To paraphrase Keynes, eventually we're all dead.

Yeah we had a very emotional essay this week from Chris Crawford whose life work failed to materialise.

Interesting. I interpreted that as one of his favorite projects failing to thrive. If you look at his blog, or remember much of his career, he did a lot of stuff.

Right but his focus since the dragon speech has failed to materialise. He’s done a lot of things in that time but towards the goal articulated there. So understandably he regrets the way his dots connected.

I'm having trouble finding this. Any title or other info that you remember? I don't see it on his web page.

Connecting the dots is not entirely random. You can choose to do stuff that connects them. And maybe only connect some. In PGs case for example there's quite a lot of connection with lisp, startups and writing, though the painting never really seems to have been terribly useful.

I'd say highly probable. But it's always a good story.

A bit of both surely. There's going to be a lot of selection bias, but you should always be asking yourself "is this the kind of thing that might connect with other things in the future?".

tl;dr When in doubt, study maths.

I agree, this is a good one. It's a bit rare to get retrospectives like this. Typically they tend to fall into one of three categories: the 'great-man' biography, which are more history lessons than anything else. The very poor and/or very unlucky people, those born into genetic diseases, addicted families, or some bad misfortune. And the middling and very unread section of otherwise perfectly normal people without much to say.

PG here bridges the gap between the 'great-man' and the middling-man. With a fair bit of luck, he manages to become wealthy, but not wanna-be-space-cadet wealthy. It's an under read area and full of very good lessons in that bridge of worlds. I'm not in that bridge, so my take-aways weren't as much. But perhaps with some luck, I'll be able to revisit this in the future for more savoring.

> With a fair bit of luck, he manages to become wealthy, but not wanna-be-space-cadet wealthy.

You might be underestimating the value of the YC portfolio and PG's stake in it.

It's 'only' ~$50M or so [0], per what I could find with a quick googling. Other resources would be appreciated though!

[0] https://www.wealthypersons.com/paul-graham-net-worth-2020-20...

This article suggests that he and JL were half of a self-funded YC that took 6% of each company they funded. The YC portfolio is estimated at $300 billion from a random article I just Googled.

3% of that would be nine billion, assuming all four YC founders had equal shares and disregarding dilution as the portfolio companies took on more investors.

Likely off by an order of magnitude in one direction or the other but still fair bit higher than 50 million.

Welp, yeah, nevermind then, he's in wanna-be-space-cadet tax brackets.

The world is non linear, with discrete inflection points. Some of those points are outside of your control, but some are points where you made an important decision that correctly anticipated a non linear outcome. All positive non linear outcomes take time to compound, however, hence why you can’t connect the positive dots until enough time has passed to look back.

What do you mean by non linear there?

not this, but something like this:

    |                                   | 
    |                                  /  
    |                                  |  
    |                                 /   
    |                                /    
    |                                |    
    |                               /     
    |                      -              
    |                     /   \           
    |                   -/     |          
    |                  /       \          
    |                           |         
    |         ---                         
    |    ----/     -\                     
    | --/            -                    

You meet someone who takes your life in a different direction.

The distant past has a disproportionate effect on the future.

Well put

there are many paths to Yes.

> during the first year of grad school I realized that AI, as practiced at the time, was a hoax.

I had a similar realization during grad school about a lot of the popular topics at the time (early 2000s). I even used to call them "the hoaxes of computer science". Things like grid computing or formal methods of software engineering had a lot of resources behind them, but nobody was able to use the results. Instead, very different formats of these ideas are what took root: cloud computing and advanced type systems.

> the low end eats the high end: that it's good to be the "entry level" option, even though that will be less prestigious, because if you're not, someone else will be, and will squash you against the ceiling.

I wish every grad student had been forced to memorize this statement. Build something useable, not clever.

Rather than an outright hoax, I like the term "fad". There are fads in technology, some of which are directly inspired by what has become possible and some of which are mutations of of other ideas. Some fads have more worth or more longevity than others -- in the world of clothing, denim jeans are now a foundation on which to build; I might consider object-oriented language features to be similar.

Like stocks, you can buy ideas “low” and sell them “high.” Some ideas are cyclical too, AI, mainframes/cloud, etc... And this extends beyond tech for instance “equity” is currently hot but that may be short lived which is unfortunate.

> Things like grid computing or formal methods of software engineering had a lot of resources behind them, but nobody was able to use the results. Instead, very different formats of these ideas are what took root: cloud computing and advanced type systems.

The clearest example of this dynamic is probably the "Fifth Generation Computing Systems" initiative, which was described as a "hoax" for a long time but managed to characterize quite closely the way computing would ultimately be done in the 2010s and will probably be done in the 2020s.

Though that particular initiative had some deeply weird focus on using Prolog-derived query languages for everything, which ultimely failed because that whole paradigm lacked compositionality and was not feasibly extensible to concurrent/parallel compute (which was obviously a big focus of FGCS). Functional programming has proven a lot more influential overall.

And target to play go ... well at least that objective is done.

paging Mt Scott Locklin for the inevitable eruption

I don't agree about grid computing. Many scientists got work done with it on aggregations of clusters. LIGO used pyGlobus to transfer large amounts of scientific data.

Absolutely. Things that were commercial failures were often huge successes in the scientific community. If you don't see why something is popular it's probably not because it's useless, it's probably because you aren't the intended user. Which is fine but a very different conclusion.

And the early beowulf cluster stuff was definitely breaking new ground, and is the direct ancestor of the most powerful supercomputers in the world right now.

There were many cool things about grid computing and I think they got some of the abstractions right.

However, there was a larger gap in what was actually possible and what people claimed was possible. You'll see this gap in other software. However, if you compare the difference to what AWS says it can do to what it actually does, that's a pretty big difference.

The quality of the systems developed by a large company with of resources is going to be much better than a collaboration of different scientists and software engineering groups at different national labs and universities.

> the low end eats the high end: that it's good to be the "entry level" option, even though that will be less prestigious, because if you're not, someone else will be, and will squash you against the ceiling.

This happens with jobs too.. especially software jobs. Nobody wants to do software QA, want to know how to get a software engineering job when the market is tight or otherwise inaccessible... software QA.

Incidentally, I think being in QA and being a good engineer is a recipe for a very good career. A surprising number of QA software developers are... just not very good developers. Working with a good developer that just happens to specialize in QA is an amazing experience.

Would that good-engineer QA specialist have a good career in terms of appreciation and remuneration, or merely a good career in terms of being the least likely to get laid off, and providing a lot of value to the company?

Well, both, but they are fairly decoupled, just like for 'regular' software developers. Pay is based on willingness to move (and get that sweet, sweet signing bonus), and willingness to negotiate.

Essentially: If you are an amazing engineer, you will likely do well everywhere. If you are a 'good' engineer, and you want to stand out, go into QA engineering where you will be relatively better than a lot of people.

If developer numbers go down the need for QA reduces. QA jobs are a proxy for developer roles.

> the hoaxes of computer science

Without the benefit of hindsight we can't tell which of these building blocks will become the next paradigm. I think your expectation that progress should be a direct line where every step gets you closer is mistaken. It's often guided by a very subjective feeling of interesting-ness which cannot be formalized.

Sounds a lot like evolution.

Lots of random trying things out in various places and times until one of them sticks.

Yes, it's exactly what I was getting at. It's memetic evolution, it is extreme openendedness at work. Planning is only good when you get close to the solution and you can see the path ahead.

An alternative that seems to work is chasing grants, or defense contracts.

But then the choice becomes "build something usable, or only work for someone who hired a 'grant writer' that is making 125-250% of your salary"

I don't have the skill to be a grant writer, so I don't begrudge their pay. Grant writer isn't a job you get through nepotism.

I knew someone who worked at a defense research group. Their head grant writer was pulling in 3x of the senior developers because he tried to quit and they had to make an offer he couldn't pass up.

Usually you don't counter-offer at all, and you don't throw money at someone like that unless there's a damned good reason.

Funny because I do have the same feeling these days: that ML is a hoax. Even funnier: I do have a master's degree in ML.

Have you used speech recognition (or speech synthesis) lately? It's incredible, leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a decade ago.

Not everything in ML is as rosy as the papers make it out to be, but to call it a "hoax" is going way too far.

I think the "hoax" is conflating ML with a general artificial intelligence

There are a lot of things that look incredible, but don’t constitute much progress scientifically.

For example, a rocket landing on moon looks incredible. But I don’t think physicists would consider moon landing notable progress.

So, with data and compute you could do applications.

This feels like a very sterile view of science and it's actual history and practice. I was recently remembering how Marconi's puzzling success in sending a transatlantic wireless signal stimulated the discovery of the ionosphere.

Do you have any idea how many areas of science were opened up by our attempt to get to the Moon?

The range is literally from discovering that unit tests are good in software to discovering the Van Allen belts to learning about the geology and history of the Moon from the rocks that we brought back.

Could we have learned more science by doing something else with the money? Of course. But it is a dramatic overstatement to say that the Apollo program didn't "constitute any progress scientifically."

Yes, and I tell you very few if any.

If you don’t believe an anonymous person here, see what prominent physicists say clearly on this topic, e.g., Steven Weinberg.

This is not to dismiss experimental research which is quite important, but to distinguish (experimental or theoretical) science from product development.

Why don't we see what he says?

In https://www.thespacereview.com/article/1037/1 you'll find that he is very critical of manned spaceflight in general, but about Apollo he says, "No, at the time of Apollo, the astronauts did do some useful things. They brought back Lunar samples. They placed a laser reflector on the Moon that has been used ever since to monitor the motion of the Moon with incredible accuracy."

Earlier in the same interview he criticized NASA for canceling Apollo 18 and 19 because he wanted the science that would have been done, to be done.

I guess he didn't say what you thought he said.

That said, his criticism of NASA's efforts with manned flight isn't because he doesn't think that it is useless to go to the moon. It is because it takes a lot of work to get humans there, and robots can do the job much more safely and cheaper. Which also explains why he thought Apollo was useful. At the time the technology of robotics was much worse so humans were the only way to do the job.

By the way, Edward Teller shared the same view.

If I recall correctly, an interviewer asks him about the scientific impact of landing on moon. He says, “it was there, but it not that great“ and “I think it was money spent on public amusement, and from all money spent on public amusement this money was best spent”

I am not pushing this view; just a relevant comment.

— update, exact statement

I think this was not money spent on science. It was money spent on an extremely important aspect of technology, and it was money spent on public amusement. And from all money spent on public amusement this chunk of money was best spent. [The scientific value], it was there but it was not very great.

He is critical of manned space flight and says plainly in a number of his talks, recalling from the top of my head, “man spaceflight has costed such and such billions of dollars and has produced nothing of scientific value” or “this was sold to public as a scientific project but it’s nothing of the sort”, and that “it’s all done on earth.”

He mentions one area, but then says, “but actually that could have been done much cheaper using unmanned robots”

I agree costs are issue here; money that could have been better spent.

Here is the unmanned rockets quote that you refer to.

Those were useful things that could have been done by unmanned rockets, but in those days, the state of the art in computers and robotics was not what it is now.

The whole "the state of the art" bit I understand as saying that with modern computers and robotics, unmanned vehicles could have done the job. But they didn't have advanced enough computers and robotics at the time.

You can't have a master's in ML and seriously argue this.

It doesn't even make sense, it's like saying marijuana is a hoax because my uncle smokes pot and still got cancer.

Here are some alternative statements that make more sense (and contain more truth):

* There is a lot of snake oil and outright fraud being sold to unwitting managers.

* There is a lot of empty hype being fed to general public through the pop sci media and mainstream news.

* Deep learning specifically has not borne fruit in all (edit: or even most) problem domains.

* Lack of good quality data (and qualified people to analyze it) is a bigger problem than lack of advanced models and computing power.

> Lack of good quality data (and qualified people to analyze it) is a bigger problem than lack of advanced models and computing power.'

There's plenty of data and compute power, but what's often lacking in the ML field is precisely models that reflect reasonable priors for one's given use case. Good feature engineering (often relying on domain experts) is similarly underrated. You see this again and again when looking at how robust SOTA results are achieved. In a way, this means that good (non-"hoax") ML is ultimately a lot more similar to traditional statistics than most practitioners are willing to acknowledge.

While I wholeheartedly agree with your point, he said good quality data. I am currently working with real estate data. There is no way of knowing whether an entry in the database is a house or a house's floor. I had a project at a death insurance company (they pay your funeral). They had customers dying and coming back to life. You would say those are core business issues that should be dealt with.

Very good point and well-said.

Something can be both legitimately revolutionary/interesting, but also significantly over-hyped and misrepresented, often with strong for-profit incentives. Some recent good examples of this include progress in cryptocurrencies, decentralization, and ML/AI.

Sure, but many people disagree that ML itself is revolutionary. The basics of it were known (referred to, quite appropriately, as 'data mining') as early as the 1990s and perhaps earlier. We've added a smattering of new techniques since then, and compute power has been expanded via GPGPU, but there was no "revolutionary" shift in the field. Even multi-layer ("deep") neural networks are very old tech.

The smattering of new techniques seem to have made the difference between success on toy problems vs. being able to match or exceed human performance on many difficult tasks. So while naysayers are correct that "the math hasn't changed since the 90s!", enough has changed to make calling DL a paradigm shift accurate.

For reference, I can now get an intern to images for a few hours, then train a black box algorithm to automate their efforts in another few hours. This algorithm is sensitive, brittle, and may have perfomance issues, but it's still already orders of magnitudes better than what took days or months of effort prior. That to me is a revolution, regardless of the math.

> then train a black box algorithm

This is part of the problem. Finding a the value of a few hyperparameters is hardly something I consider interesting science.

In the recent success stories on images, audio, and text, it's not "a few hyperparameters" by any stretch of the imagination.

That's like saying "finding the sequence of assembly instructions / nucleotides / ... is hardly something I consider interesting science"

Come on, really?

Electric motors and lithium batteries aren't new either. So much for the EV revolution, nothing to see here.

I assume you're being sarcastic, but there actually isn't anything to see. Plug-in hybrids blow any EV out of the water and will do so the foreseeable future. They're cheaper, lighter, just as efficient on short trips, and much more practical on long trips.

Hybrid vehicles are the practical option today. Pure gasoline vehicles are outmoded and EVs are all hype.

And I'll assume you've never driven an EV, because almost everyone who has purchased an EV will never go back to an ICE vehicle. An EV purchase is a ratchet. Hybrids make a lot of sense for some people today, but battery electric vehicles are the inevitable future.

Perceptrons are indeed old tech. But try training models for even something as simple as handwriting recognition using techniques from the 90s and modern techniques but with the same training set and compute resources. You'll get much better results with the modern stuff.

As evidenced by gpt3 we still don’t know the best way to use deep learning. More data improved the outcome dramatically. What else might surprise us?

It isn't a hoax, but the OP is exactly right: if it were more usable, people would see it for what it is, and not for what the silly media narrative makes it sounds like.

As long as your technology is only usable by a high priesthood, you can make it look like magic.

Why do people feel entitled to "usable" ML at all?

In the last 5 years, we have made incomprehensibly huge improvements in power and usability. It's an active field, and improvements are still coming at a steady pace.

We have already revolutionized search, natural language processing & machine translation, image/audio/video processing, robotics, game AI, and advertising (for better or worse).

And on top of all this, we have significantly reduced the "time to first useful model", and we have significantly lowered the math and programming requirements for building and implementing models. And now we have transfer learning, which lets any old Joe Schmo benefit from massive computing power and datasets to build small on-device models that blow away SOTA accuracy from even a few years ago.

Oh, and the ML tooling ecosystem has become a substantial source of innovation in programming language design, "developer UX", and "data ops".

What the fuck more do you want? The people who seem the most upset that ML isn't magic seem to be the most confused about what ML even is and does.

> Why do people feel entitled to "usable" ML at all?

Yeah, people are annoying, with their demands to use software themselves. It would be much easier for everyone if computers were controlled by an elite group of engineers who could hide the complexity from the rest of us. Perhaps they could wear labcoats.

> What the fuck more do you want?

If I knew the answer to that, life would be a lot simpler.

> Yeah, people are annoying, with their demands to use software themselves. It would be much easier for everyone if computers were controlled by an elite group of engineers who could hide the complexity from the rest of us. Perhaps they could wear labcoats.

That's clearly not what nerdponx meant. Can you please stick to the site guidelines? "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith." https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

> If I knew the answer to that, life would be a lot simpler.

That was a nice de-escalation.

> That's clearly not what nerdponx meant.

I disagree. I made a straightforward interpretation of what was written. Given what came after the part I quoted, you really have to stretch to interpret it differently.

The OP underscored the same point using profanity.

I made a response that was clearly sardonic, attempting to be funny.

Yeah, people are annoying, with their demands to use software themselves. It would be much easier for everyone if computers were controlled by an elite group of engineers who could hide the complexity from the rest of us. Perhaps they could wear labcoats.

What are you even talking about?

It sounds like you're upset that cutting-edge technology still requires training & expertise to use and deploy effectively in industry.

Hey, can you please not take HN threads further into flamewar? We're trying to avoid that sort of thing here. If a comment contains a swipe, please don't escalate. Also, it's good to check if there's something in your earlier comment that might have been provocative in its own right (which there was: "What the fuck more do you want?" is a hop flameward).


Thank you for keeping an eye on things.

You can say, with your voice, “who won the Super Bowl last year?” to a device that fits in your pocket and it responds with its own voice with the correct answer. That’s pretty accessible.

Most of these systems are so far behind any real understanding of your words, though. They behave like Text-to-Speech followed by a Google Search, whether that's how they're implemented or not.

And Google Search is, of course, merely a natural phenomenon that is mined somewhere in Siberia and exploited without anybody truly knowing what's going on.

Sure, Google search is technological progress, but to the best of my knowledge they aren't doing any fancy natural language understanding every time you enter a search. It's a big, supersized information retrieval system that hashes all your n-grams with a few hundred thousand special cases tacked on.

There are many many practical example of modern ML (especially DL). Would be interesting to hear why you think those examples are not indicative of a field which is useful/not a hoax.

Word on the street is the level of superficially attractive papers with no merit is very high in ML literature.

That is absolutely correct, but is sadly the case in a lot of fields. It doesn't mean that the practical results we see (AlphaFold, Imagenet Performance, NLP performance, Robotic control with RL) isn't amazing progress.

Luckily due to so many people using ML these days, what's useful vs. fluff gets sorted out over time.

Is AlphaFold a practical result? Winning a competition isn't the same as production use. It would be interesting to read about how it's being used.

This is a good list of promising work, but showing practicality would need more explanation.

It's a fair question. Is DeepMind famous for its amazingly smart toys because it's useful similarly-smart stuff is secret? Or public but boring? Or doesn't exist?

(similar for Boston Dynamics, and IBM Watson)

In theory it should be practical. The first generation has been adapted by other teams into excellent prediction servers that can be used now. The second gen is way more hush hush and has yet to be vetted, so we’ll have to see. I am watching for news of it eagerly!

I think it depends on what you call it. Instead of calling it AI or even ML you could call it pattern recognition or automatic model parameter estimation, but it doesn't sound as cool.

so we just discard all the amazing results we had in the last decade?

alpha go, alphafold2, gpt-3, image recognition benchmarks etc?

i work in ML as well* and while its certainly overhyped and often sold prematurelt, a lot of the stuff is real and works very very well.

* i build stuff for cities to more efficiently monitor their citizens (no tracking or personal identification, just aggregate numbers)

Someone else on HN used the phrase "cognitive automation".

I like this as a descriptive phrase. ML won't be "intelligence" per se, but it can do repetitive tasks that otherwise required thought.

This is what I was doing in 1980.

With emerging digital tools at the time which made it possible to store & retrieve datasets that I was already interpreting in detail anyway.

Since it was programmable too, ended up using the memory to store the key points from many permutations of well-characterized raw training data, then running that against new datasets to give me advice on how to save time on the greatly reduced manual work remaining.

This comment really resonated with me, I found myself in this exact situation at 25, in a "very prestigious and selective place" for AI nonetheless. It took me a couple years to realize the smart people are just playing the game, the unsuspecting losers are "playing it straight" and getting endlessly frustrated. I found my balance by, frankly, taking advantage of a system that is FUBAR. Incidentally, I also took some art classes and because they were not for credit, I just flowed and drew ( https://lingxiaolingdotus.firebaseapp.com/art ). Tbh I felt more alive placing some hasty marks on paper than I ever did doing "research" in a lab.

"I'm only up to age 25 and already there are such conspicuous patterns. Here I was, yet again about to attend some august institution in the hopes of learning about some prestigious subject, and yet again about to be disappointed. The students and faculty in the painting department at the Accademia were the nicest people you could imagine, but they had long since arrived at an arrangement whereby the students wouldn't require the faculty to teach anything, and in return the faculty wouldn't require the students to learn anything."

I fear I'm one of these unsuspecting losers...except I guess that comment makes me suspecting.

IDK, I don't want to play the game but it only gets worse in the corporate world. I wish there was a good solution, where someone could play it straight and get rewarded justly.

Your art work is beautiful by the way.

Thank you! I want the same, but sadly consumer culture drives so much of the U.S. (assuming you're in the U.S). And because consumer preference is so arbitrary, there's an irreducible amount of arbitrariness that flows through the system regardless of how well the internal org incentive is set up or managed. Basically I'm saying if the value of your product is imaginary, then the people who can sell imaginary value gets the top pickings.

The most pure people I find are in quant finance, engaging the market at the abstract "number" level purifies everything, even if money corrupts at the individual level.

Nah, that feeling is just corporate life. It’s not you.

Or put another way, it would be a bit strange to say that everyone who works at a corporation is an unsuspecting loser.

From what I’ve seen, academia is both worse and better. So don’t feel like you’re missing out on something.

Just do what makes you happy.

Since we're commenting on a pg essay, IIRC startups are said to be the place where you CAN play it straight and get rewarded justly. The core idea being you can't fake or politic your way into making something users want.

I wish I could find the link to the essay that directly states this but I'm having trouble finding it now (and my Google-fu doesn't seem to be strong enough to locate it).

I really don't think this is the case anymore unfortunately, at least in my experience.

My anecdote: I worked at a startup for 4 months and I was basically playing it straight, ie, a loser. My CEO constantly kept pushing the idea of releasing a shitty product which just barely worked. His justification was that there were giant foreign competitors that raised millions of $ with admittedly very shitty products. Like I'm talking about forms that barely worked in their shitty React Native mobile apps. Anyway, our product was shitty and our users did not use the damn thing (poor retention). However, there was an easy/cheap way to grow quite quickly due to the nature of the service. It was all too much for me and I quit.

Anyway, it really dawned on me during the last few months that my boss didn't actually care about the product - he was playing the game of growing at all costs, put the nice numbers on a chart, and raise the next round of funds from VCs (a lot of them showed interest from the outside). And to be really frank, if he was honest with me that this was the actual game, that he wanted to get acquired or do an IPO purely based on growth metrics, it would be easier for me to understand. Instead, he kept talking about revolutionizing education with technology and that left a lot of us absolutely baffled.

what happened? Did he eventually realize you can't just pour in top of the funnel, and any reasonable person would look at 1mo 3mo or 6mo retention

I remember that essay too. I think at the time, he was probably correct but now (at least as an outsider, from a distance) it has become as much a game as the corporate world. The idea of being a founder eventually became as much a trope as being a company man, so I'm not so sure its a viable solution anymore.

Then again, I've never been in a startup or a founder so what do I know?

I have seen former employees of mine join companies started in YC, and the ethos I've seen around YC in that way reminds me of how my great grandmother talked about working at General Electric. It's a decentralized Empire in vibe, with all the games and politics. It was really difficult to deprogram people once caught by the allure. People think in terms of their programs, like cookie cutters.

Structuring SAFEs, doing mentoring and creating batches, and creating a kind of orthodoxy based on unorthodoxy done better, definitely hit a stale point. I think it's even to the point the founders could return and do it again based on what they learned, with more "stay hungry, stay foolish" again, albeit with veteran wisdom now, and it would be revolutionary all over again, upending its own past.

The Lesson to Unlearn http://www.paulgraham.com/lesson.html (I think)

I'm pretty sure that's the one! Takes a bit to get to the punchline but the idea that you want to look for tests that are unhackable is the big idea (and making a good product to get lots of users is the exemplar for an unhackable test).

Thanks for finding that!

Yeah i recall that essay. But getting a startup financed as a founder is a different story altogether. When you're asking people to invest on faith ( regardless of your MRR or what have you ), politics if back in the picture.

>It took me a couple years to realize the smart people are just playing the game, the unsuspecting losers are "playing it straight" and getting endlessly frustrated.

This essay gets linked to a lot on here, but you might be interested in Rao's "Sociopaths/clueless/losers" taxonomy: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-...

Yeah I discovered the essay around that time and found it to be true in a deeply unsettling level.

As someone who came out of the same "prestigious and selective place as you", this take hits hard. I will say, part of what you learn doing research is if you even enjoy doing research.

You play to win the game.

Love the artwork!

ha! I remember seeing you around the building. To be fair I really enjoyed the subject, it's just art is soulful in a way that other subject can never be for me. I imagine it's the same for music for a lot of people. I still code now and would never do art as a job.

FYI, I really like your art - most specifically the beetle. Do Want.

Would love to see some landscapes, along the lines of japanese / chinese landscapes - as that the feeling I get from your style.

More insects though. :)

Thanks! And yeah I took Chinese painting when I was 7-8 so it stuck with me. And yeah the beetle was a request from friend, it's still on the shelf at her house :)

The hardest part is realizing there's an opportunity cost to every decision you make, and it can be anything from another fubar direction or something more meaningful. I've come to think that attempting to find deep meaning in work is a gamble that some get lucky in.

Whether or not it's meaningful, solve some problems and enjoy it. Joy is not the same as meaning and it's less of a gamble to land on it

Your art is beautiful, thanks for sharing.

Thank you!

> "How should I choose what to do? Well, how had I chosen what to work on in the past? I wrote an essay for myself to answer that question, and I was surprised how long and messy the answer turned out to be. If this surprised me, who'd lived it, then I thought perhaps it would be interesting to other people, and encouraging to those with similarly messy lives. So I wrote a more detailed version for others to read, and this is the last sentence of it."

I loved the ending. The essay was primarily for him. It seems that some of the best writing, similarly to the best products, is when you yourself are the recipient.

I also find this a lovely way to write. It's much easier to write to yourself than to someone else.

The end was a very golden braided beginning.

Nobody knows what pg will do next, even himself.

But more options are open than ever before, and his life's work continues . . .

> One of the most conspicuous patterns I've noticed in my life is how well it's worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren't prestigious.

You might be able to reinterpret this through the lens of the old saying about how, during a gold rush, the people who "made shovels" made most of the money while a few miners got all the press.

We don't usually hear about the folks making provisions or shovels. If you dig into Seattle history, you may learn about how early Seattle was financed in part by providing raw materials after San Francisco's fires (apparently parts of downtown Seattle are fill dirt used as ballast for empty lumber barges traveling back from SF), but things got really interesting after the Seattle Fire. The reconstruction was financed in part from being a jumping off point for the Yukon Goldrush. Most colorfully, by a particularly successful Madame (as in brothel). If you're not a local, you'd never hear and probably never care about such things.

The supply of people who want to go on an adventure is far more reliable than the supply of profitable outcomes for those adventures. Most salesmanship is already about selling a story, not a product, and there are few stories sexier than an adventure you haven't taken yet.

The checks clear whether the customer is batshit insane or on to something great (in which case, you played a small part in that and might benefit from having done so).

> If you're not a local, you'd never hear and probably never care about such things.

Regardless of whether or not you're a local, the Underground Seattle tour is definitely a must-do if you ever find yourself there.

The tour is not entirely scripted. Each guide seems to have their own favorite anecdotes that they will offer. You could probably take that tour every few years and learn something every time.

Whoa, I’m in Seattle. I’ll look it up! Kinda cold at the moment, but we’ll be moving by May, so.

I've heard the "sell shovels" advice a million times but I've never heard of anyone getting rich selling shovels.

A tongue-in-cheek observation: Over the past 2 years, NVDA is up 290% but BTC is up 1160%.

How about:

AWS -> cloud platform shovel

Google -> web advertising shovel

Maybe these are bad examples? To a certain degree these created/heavily-defined the market they serve, whereas the "shovel" concept might require selling a solution to an existing market.

Man, brings back Yukon Trail on PC memories

I’ve enjoyed many of pg’s essays, but this is my favourite of all time.

I often feel burned out and uninspired these days, even after past successes. It’s wonderful to take a look back at a time when overly ambitious ideas would be naively pursued, unrelated hobbies would prove fruitful in unexpected ways, and to remember that inspiration can be found again many times through the course of life.

Thank you pg.

What really impresses me is the calm he displays throughout all of this. He never seemed to have self-doubts about not being able to make enough money, not being able to find the right partner to start a family...

He seems to have been guided by a deep trust into himself and his abilities.

same. thanks pg

>It’s wonderful to take a look back at a time when overly ambitious ideas would be naively pursued, unrelated hobbies would prove fruitful in unexpected ways, and to remember that inspiration can be found again many times through the course of life.

It's a good feeling that after "retirement" this all still lies ahead of you if you still want it.

> Working on Bel was hard but satisfying. I worked on it so intensively that at any given time I had a decent chunk of the code in my head and could write more there.

I'll have to say reading this makes me feel a bit sad for pg. It seems that he worked on Bel extensively for four years, and the end result was something which appeared on the front page of Hacker News for one day and then disappeared. I haven't seen it mentioned in any community which are actively working on programming language design (e.g. Rust, Zig, TypeScript). Maybe he's happy with the result regardless of how useful people have found it, but surely it must be somewhat disappointing to see it go unnoticed by?

> I'll have to say reading this makes me feel a bit sad for pg. It seems that he worked on Bel extensively for four years, and the end result was something which appeared on the front page of Hacker News for one day and then disappeared.

This is not unlike a doctoral dissertation. Invest years of your life and effort, produce nice results, have people cheer for you after you successfully defend it and then nobody cares for the results anymore.


Well a more forceful version of your counter-argument would be that Claude Shannon laid the foundations for the information age in his thesis, rather than linking to some obscure Lisp work. But really, that wasn't their point -- most theses go nowhere, the few that do are obvious exceptions to that rule.

Haha. Are you going from comment thread to comment thread putting down Bel while plugging other work?


At least a dissertation is a school project where you learn a skill to use in future.

If writing Bel did not make pg better at Lisp and programming generally I will be very much surprised. Producing something that anyone cares about for any length of time is more than almost any school project achieves.

PG doesn't need skills, he needs to be fulfilled.

The Bel part felt deeply in tune with the rest of Paul's life - it's something he did because it was interesting to him and he wanted to.

If anything, Viaweb is the odd thing out, since it was pursued with the explicit intent of making money (though I expect the whole affair was fascinating from the inside anyway).

Not everything has to be evaluated in terms of its popularity, "success" or "impact".

He probably made it for himself, not to change the world. Or at least you get that sense when studying it intensively.

I’m not sure anyone else has studied it intensively, but perhaps there are one or two.

It changed the way I code, at least. I also snagged a few of the library functions for my own lisp.

Another PG (Phil Greenspun) had this comment on Bel:

If you weren’t persuaded by the existing 100+ dialects of Lisp that have been created over the years, Bel from Paul Graham should change your mind and lure you aware from the dark and tedious arts of C and Java.

After you’ve saved bigly in development time on your next project, you can thank me!

Bel is an uncompromising excursion into the beauty of programming. His work is a consistent source of inspiration and encouragement for me.

As a Lisper, I had not been able to understand what Bel was when it was released, and still do not understand it after reading the shorter explanation in this post.

Does anyone else feel the same ? Perhaps this project just needs to be "sold" a bit better.

As somebody who liked reading about Bel but gave up after the first paragraph of the source code, something to note is that (a) most new ideas are failures, (b) I’m happy for Mr pg for trying new things, I like when people try to do something new, without regard for success, (c) great ideas take time to be appreciated in full - it may very well be tha t Bel will be a great success, but once understood by people far smarter than me and (d) (importantly for me), I appreciate the reminder that the path least travelled can be the most rewarding and it reminds me not to lose heart in my own crazy projects. I really liked the quote that the intentions on why we do things is important - the going will get rough, but we will persevere if we do it for the right intentions (our own happiness).

Bel will most likely not gain traction; but the fact that Mr pg spent four years and enjoyed his time developing it, makes it to me a highly successful outcome for himself:) outward Success is not a requirement for a successful project, the only thing matters is whether we achieved our internal goals on it.

Exactly. I think that's well captured if you extend the quote above:

> Working on Bel was hard but satisfying. I worked on it so intensively that at any given time I had a decent chunk of the code in my head and could write more there. I remember taking the boys to the coast on a sunny day in 2015 and figuring out how to deal with some problem involving continuations while I watched them play in the tide pools. It felt like I was doing life right. I remember that because I was slightly dismayed at how novel it felt. The good news is that I had more moments like this over the next few years.

That certainly sounds like a successful endeavor to me.

Bel is painting in code.

Like all good paintings it goes unnoticed in its time.

It might become a classic in the future, it might be forgotten.

Give that pg is someone who can walk away from running YCombinator to work on other stuff for fun, he probably doesn't care about maximizing utility or impact at this point.

There's no onomatopoeia in the English language for the kind of laughter that I'm currently emitting. There have been plenty of technical examinations of Bel [0]; it's just not novel.

[0] https://lobste.rs/s/jec21l/thought_leaders_chicken_sexers

There's no techincal examination of Bel in that essay. It's a dismissive aside at the end, based on threads the author perceives in Graham's intellectual history.

There's a couple good comments in the discussion thread. In particular, there's a comment halfway down the page which points out that Bel's original introduction [0] has only a few specific characteristics (metacircularity, long contemplative period before implementation, formal methods) and that those have been core concepts in the Lisp community for decades.

[0] https://github.com/alephyud/bel

If you mean https://lobste.rs/s/jec21l/thought_leaders_chicken_sexers#c_..., that's not serious criticism. (And like the other article, is obviously motivated by extrinsic animosity. Articles like that get reactions based on how people already feel. Those who share the animosity like the hit, those who don't don't.)

pg's idea for Bel was to express existing programming language constructs in the style of McCarthy's original Lisp, so to complain that it doesn't introduce new ones misses the point. You can't make serious criticism without knowing what the project was trying to achieve. (IIRC, Bel does actually contain a couple of unusual constructs for a Lisp, but not because pg was trying to invent any. They came up as side-effects of making the program clearer and smaller.)

Similarly, it makes no sense to complain that Bel isn't being used as a programming language. That's not its intent. Its intent is to be the minimal executable explanation of what a programming language is, in the way that McCarthy's Lisp explained what computation is. Obviously that would be unusably slow as a real-world platform. The important thing is that it runs at all.

So a weird thing is happening today. When I was a kid, like Paul, I had to beg my parents to get me a computer ie. spend money on it. Once I got it, I couldn't stop using it and hacking and figuring things out.

Kids these days... :) have everything, I made sure my kids have all good equipment, they have good instruction but they are kind of not interested it all.

If they do something, this is more to please me, as they are good kids, but they would spend all day playing Roblox and watching Youtube.

Not sure if you have some insights that can help me be better parent and support them better.

Another commenter already identified the meat of the problem; you were restricted access to computers, whereas your children are not. Here is an article about that exact conundrum, on the concept of "antagonistic learning": https://medium.com/@ThingMaker/educ-103-antagonistic-learnin...

If you DM me, I will be happy to send you a list of similar essays that explore the concept of learning and teaching and why it's done poorly these days. I suggest you start with the essays and writing of John Taylor Gatto; his writings were ludicrously inspirational to me. Here is the first article I ever read that made me realize that I was a deficient learner and had never truly engaged in learning: https://www.cantrip.org/gatto.html

Consider that Roblox and Youtube are essentially slot machines for dopamine. If you want to engage with your children as creative, disciplined learning machines, they must be weaned off of addictive superstimulus-coded platforms, which is damn near impossible given the tech demands of modern school. I don't have any advice for you on that front, except that the more time you can spend with them the better. Perhaps you can start by playing Roblox and watching YouTube videos with them (taking care to only offer them positive and genuinely interested feedback on what they choose to do), and after they've built you into their habits, begin steering them towards more productive activities.

Btw, HN doesn't have DMs and your email address isn't public. (It's on my list to make that explicit on the profile page.) So if you want to be contactable, you need to say how in your About field.

Hey, thanks. I'll do that.

What the hell. That antagonistic learning article is amazing!

Even having a peer hold me accountable like he describes in the article would be amazing, let alone a teacher.

Reading that article made me sad that I've never had someone else challenge me like that. I've always had to do it myself.

Most of the teachers I've had in the past have been fine; the ones I worked the hardest for and still remember to this day were the ones that refused to admit subpar work and rarely meted out praise.

It sounds like you're doing the opposite of what your parents did. They resisted giving you a computer which made you want it more intensely. Whereas you gave it to them freely and are probably subconsciously pressuring them to get interested in it (e.g. your last sentence says "help me be better parent and support them better" but I think what you really meant was "help me figure out how to get them interested in computers") which is making them perceive it as work or something forced on them and are therefore rebelliously opposing it.

I know it's a truism but I think it's worth appreciating how rebellious kids can be. At least that's how I was. Tell me I can't do something, I will be obsessed with doing it. Tell me I have to do something or I should do something, I lose all interest in it.

Or they're simply not interested in computers.

Or you can try inspiring wonder and fascination and fun around computers.

I think it's probably more to do with being interested in things. I was really interested in computers and being online when I was young. I didn't have my own computer, my parents bought my sister one even though she didn't like or use computers, and I was always competing with my dad to use his. Later, I'd be vying with everyone for the phone line, to the point where my parents got an extra phone line, and (by then we had two computers) my brother and I would be always trying to use both phone lines so we could both be online.

Now, as an adult, I have more computers than I could reasonably use (I originally wrote "more than I could want" but that isn't true). I still use computers all the time and I'm pretty much always online. I love it and I expect to continue to going forward and, hopefully, expand my connection to computers and the internet, as technology permits.

My kids are too young to have an opinion on computers, and part of me is kind of concerned they won't have an interest in tinkering with computers or programming as I do. My father is an amateur radio enthusiast and I never really connected to that hobby. Maybe my dad trying to pressure me into studying the books (or maybe the requirement to study books) kept me from getting into it. Maybe I just had different natural proclivities. If my children show an interest in computers I won't restrict their access (except for not allowing them to use Windows). If they're into something else, I'll enable them (provided it's a healthy interest). We'll see.

Same, but I've realized my kids aren't me, and most people aren't me. Most young children I encounter are not innately fascinated by computers and itching to get programming ASAP in the way that I was. But they don't seem to be autistic like I was/am either.

I've tried to introduce them to Squeak, robots, and various such things on offer nowadays as gateways for children to get into tech, but the curiosity isn't there just yet. This is fine. They are into other things that I wasn't into at all.. like dancing, sports, or just being kids! :-)

Prevent your success from spoiling your kids. Your kids probably are not jealous of anything they see because you provide them anything they want. I think a parent should think and figure out how to create a challenging environment for their kids. Not just artificial challenge like games. Real challenge that will shape(and I think improve) their personality.

I'm not a parent so I can't give concrete advise, just sharing my thoughts.

I agree in that constraints can make for creativity, but as a parent, it is very very difficult to create that environment.

Not a parent either, but constraints such as "you can only play videogames that you code yourself" could be an entertaining way to teach: they might want the reward, teach them to enjoy the path as well.

I am not saying they should learn computer science, but it's one of the best ways to use computers, and having some basic skills with it is incredibly useful still.

You can't really do that today. In 1980 Frogger was the state of the art of video games, a kid could code a clone of it over a few weekends so the hurdle was reasonable. However modern games takes years to clone even for professionals, even the indie ones, so you banning them from games they haven't made themselves today essentially means you banned them from ever playing games.

The main problem is that basically everything a kid would want to do with computers is already done in neatly packaged binaries, so the reward for exploring is just the exploration itself. And preventing your kids from using those binaries wont make your kid excited to recreate programs from the 80's, it will make your kid resent you as a conservative parent who wants his kid to relive his own childhood.

Well, there are plenty of game engines out there that empower the user a whole lot. And I bet any kid who codes a simple snake today would still play the hell out of it, and have plenty of ideas on how to improve the game even further.

You are right, however, that some parts are simply impossible to replicate: narratives, for instance, have to be experienced. Gameplay however, is where the fun is when it comes to games and game programming (this might be subjective), and is usually quite simple to replicate.

I had to do the same thing and thought that was funny. I still remember I had been saving my paper route money for a while and my dad took me out on a walk and after some silence him saying "Breck, I've decided to help you buy the computer.". They put in 50% and I paid 50%. Even then had to do a payment plan with the kid in the city who could build computers on the cheap.

Nowadays I let my 2yo play with my some old laptop that is 100,000x more powerful than the first machine I had.

I have the same problem. One thing to try to get them to do is build their own Roblox game with you or maybe build some compute machines inside Minecraft. My kids also want to make their own you tube channel so I look at it as broadcasting experience, story telling, and they also Facetime with their friends while playing so they get socialization as well.

Another idea is to take them on a trip with no electronics and internet. Camping or a cabin. Maybe with another family or friends so the kids can play together. That way they can see life without roblox and youtube and the change in scenery helps with that.

The pandemic has made this a little harder to do though.

The 80s-90s was a small window in time where computers were becoming powerful enough to do cool things without modern UX hiding all the implementation details.

I got into computer programming when I got a Mindstorms Lego set, which built off my love for Legos. My younger brother learned some about C literally because he wanted to write cheats for Counterstrike, or more accurately how to remove the DRM-components of cheats that he didn't want to pay for.

You just gotta find a gate-way drug activity, as well as a gate-way programming language because going straight to Lisp is like going straight to heroin.

You nailed it.

I've found the "drug" for foreign languages , by letting them watch certain cartoons when home goals are met (good behavior etc), with the caveat they can only watch with audio that is a specific foreign language.

The next step is the hardest one. Once they read, I can probably migrate to a 4th language, and leverage RPGs for that purpose. Or I can branch out to programming like you say, but that may be much more difficult.

You need to have a partner that is supportive of this. If you don't present a united front, any (learning) policy will soon be forgotten.

Motivation should be a significant part of teaching. Pedagogy is quite outdated in this regard, as a whole I think.

Not a teacher, but some thoughts.

Direct "telling" of motivation, i.e. a rational explanation, doesn't necessarily achieve intuitive motivation, which is excitement, that knack for learning or doing something great; but I'm certain it's a good step. Talk to them: why should they learn things in the computer? You can make games, you can change the world (it's complicated, but it's true enough to be valid to tell children!), you can understand how nature works (when building models and simulations); you might use (increasing chance) it in most jobs you can get in the future, from a writer to financial analyst to lawyer. And motivation ought to be about taste as well -- show, and tell, how it is awesome what you can build, how it is awesome how everything works, develop their internal (intuitive) motivation and sense of beauty.

Try to get them to do it, however simple: make a tiny simple game using perhaps pygame or scratch, or draw some lines using p5.js. Let them have fun. Teach them about science and philosophy. Things will develop from there I'm sure.

Good luck!

Lots of kids back then weren't begging their parents for computers and lots of kids today are writing code.

Restrictions breed creativity.

I think it's important that PG published this essay this week.

And that he included projects that were wildly successful (YC) as well as projects that didn't get the traction he wanted (Bel). To me it shows two things: 1) that some of the most successful people make miscalculations about what the world needs. 2) that a few of them, like PG, are courageous enough to admit that.

Personally, reading PG's essays and then going through YC years later changed the course of my life. That is, the essays are one way to change the world for the better, and they are one he's very good at. I'm glad he's writing them again.

For any one new to tech or startups, they will introduce you to new ways of thinking, and save you from a lot of mistakes.

> as well as projects that didn't get the traction he wanted (Bel)

Was traction his goal? I'm not sure about that. I think the ROI on Bel is extremely high. It only looks small if you compare it to something like YCombinator.

Good point! I'm certainly not denying that the ROI was high. And of course, Bel's story is not over yet.

Says somewhere that traction for Bel would be 20 users. Early traction.

It’s nice to see even pg goes through phases of “I have no idea what to do next.”

By the way, bel is underrated, and I say that not as a pg fan. The ideas in it are novel, because of its simplicity. The scheduler in particular is elegant.

I suppose I should have taken some notes on what surprised me the most. But, basically, the idea of using a stack as the source of truth for all computation was both ... strange, and obvious afterwards.

The main annoyance is that I can’t flippin’ find a working version of it anywhere. I’ve asked him on Twitter to no avail. The code clearly works; it’s correct in every detail, as far as I’ve found. I implemented most of it, but there was a distinct feeling of “there must be a version he never put out.”

But of course, that’s how you’d feel if you’d been yelled at every time you release things, so I understand why he might not want to show something that isn’t perfect.

Would you mind expanding a bit more one one of the ideas you find novel and interesting, for example the stack as the source of truth for all computation?

I had a look at the examples section on the bel post and read a few pages into the bel document, but all I saw is basically scheme with a slightly funky syntax and primitives (like where). So I guess pg must really be burying the lede (which, from what I gather from the above has at least partly to do with a elegant way to model concurrency, which ur-lisp lacked?).


Eyeroll. Try a more substantive comment and we’ll talk.

Clojure in particular has nothing like what bel has. No program does.

I don’t claim it’s novel, I claim it’s a simple solution to a hard problem. Possibly the simplest.

You first. Bel claims to do what Kernel does (metacircularity with everything first-class) but isn't open-source, doesn't have a solid whitepaper detailing its theory and practice, and is clearly just a rich dude spending his unlimited time on fun things.

Aha. You’re jealous of his money and freedom. That makes more sense.

You can achieve what you want out of life too. If you want freedom and fun things, then pursue it! Throwing bitter swipes at someone’s years of work is... well... are you sure you want to spend your life this way?

To your point: a solid whitepaper is a fine thing, but it matters more what you can do with a work than how it’s described. The substance comes first.

Bel isn’t about first-classism. It’s about creating the simplest implementation of a multithreaded metacircular lisp. It’s fully open source, though it doesn’t run.

You just summed it up in a way that sounds more interesting than anything else I read. (I started reading the specification and got bored before getting to anything about multithreading.)

Maybe writing a solid abstract would have helped?

Unlimited time? Do tell! How do I unlock this super power? Even when I have taken several months off there was always more to learn than time allowed. One's time does not scale at the same rate as his money.

Holy low effort comment, batman!

The first sentence offers no proof of how any of these individual languages address what you're trying to communicate. I'm not saying you're incorrect...it's just, like, offer something. The second sentence is unnecessarily snarky and adds 0 value.

The burden of proof is generally on the positive, not the negative. If someone thinks there's something in Bel that's not in those languages, they can say what specifically they think that novel thing is. Otherwise there's no basis on which to have a discussion beyond "Bel is really cool!"

The GP comment was a shallow dismissal, which breaks the HN guidelines: "Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work. A good critical comment teaches us something." https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

The novel thing about Bel is that it attempts to express a full programming language in the same axiomatic way that McCarthy's Lisp expressed computation. I thought pg explained that pretty clearly.

This is a very good essay. It feels that pg is more reflective now than he was a few years ago. In particular, he is calling attention to how the dice fell; how things worked out well.

I'd be interested, as a purely personal matter, in seeing a painting show of pg's work. I came to painting long after I came to programming.

I'm almost 40. This statement:

> If you can choose what to work on, and you choose a project that's not the best one (or at least a good one) for you, then it's getting in the way of another project that is. And at 50 there was some opportunity cost to screwing around.

is a true one, and, frankly, has been more and more impressed on me for the last five years or so.

Agreed. When you start thinking “I have 25 years of work left to do everything I want” the phrase “I do not have time for this s**” becomes part of your everyday vocabulary. Not in a cynical way, rather you realise the time for playing and exploring is over; now is the time to get it done.

For me the theme of this narrative is that PG always relentlessly pursued what he wanted: AI, art school, Florence, Lisp, etc. He would often find out after pursuing those things that he didn't really want them, but that was helpful feedback. I'm usually stuck wanting things but not pursuing them so I don't know if I would really want them. It seems better to take initiative and go for it.

This is why I found this essay very interesting but not very useful. I don't have trouble identifying interests, I have trouble pursuing them with the intensity of a PG. I don't mean this as a criticism at all. I don't think it would be possible to write an essay that would solve this problem.

That's a personal problem, and one that I also have struggled / still struggle with.

What do you think is stopping you?

I simply don't have the personality to work hard. In general, I don't believe people change after adolescence. Therefore I am most focused on contentment with the person I am, while nudging myself gently towards greater discipline. Meeting myself halfway, so to speak.

A understanding/wealthy parent. (Yes—it’s always conveniently left out.)

Many people underestimate the worth of two educated parents looking out for you. I love my parents, but I can only rely on them for emotional support. Somehow I ended up being far more academically gifted than both of them and it made me end up in a very alien environment. I'm starting to become content with mediocrity since I've already climbed a significant rung in the social ladder in my eyes. I think that an understanding parent or close one can really support you in getting out of such a comfort zone. On the other hand, someone who has grown up without any support whatsoever might have build up enough autonomy to get out of such a spot without help.

Great article, especially the ending sentence cracked me up.

pg is such an inspiring person. Walking away from $2M per month at Yahoo. To now most likely being a billionaire from personally funding the YC LLC.

And then spending 6 years just painting, coding, writing and raising a family. Living the dream.

Sure Elon Musk is a “cool billionaire”, but in my book pg is even cooler.

> $2M per month at Yahoo

I had to reread this like 3 times. "per month", "per month"! PG, pay me $100K and I will install some secret video game room somewhere on Yahoo's campus for you to hang out a little longer.

It was all paper money, he made the right call most likely because if he stuck around there’s no saying when he would’ve gotten out and it’s possible he woulda been bitten by the bubble imploding.

Infinitely cooler. Where the hell is Elon Musk's "On Lisp"? :-)

“It wasn't happening in a class, like it was supposed to, but that was ok”

Summary of the college experience even today. You have to go outside the classroom to learn and do the most interesting things. But because those interesting things happen in proximity to a university campus, college is still pretty valuable.

Also relevant: “In other words, like many a grad student, I was working energetically on multiple projects that were not my thesis”

"The most important thing we learn at school is the fact that the most important things can't be learned at school." - Murakami Haruki

Great read!

Reading about PG doing things that don't scale (building storefronts for customers), I am reminded of how Commodore became a dominant player in the early computer industry. When they first made the 6502 processor, Chuck Peddle would tour the country and sit down with customers and design devices for them. Super high-touch manual work that made no economic sense. But in the end resulted in the 6502 becoming the basis for so many early microcomputers, including the Apple II.

I'm sure there are many similar stories that illustrate the wisdom of this, otherwise counterintuitive, approach.

I did a fair amount of hobbyist programming on the Commodore 64 and BBC micros in their respective BASIC dialects and 6502 assembly language, and loved it. Only a bit later did I get to know of higher-level languages like Pascal and then C (though C is a somewhat lower-level than Pascal in some not-necessarily negative ways*).

> a somewhat lower-level than Pascal in some not-necessarily negative ways).

Meant "a somewhat lower-level language than Pascal"

Early on, I read in some book or mag that "C is a version of Pascal that is not afraid to get its hands dirty". Enthused, I immediately started exploring C (although came back to Pascal sometime later via Delphi). Did a good amount of work with it over time, including some successful product development work (that was deployed in multiple client-server projects as database middleware) and some interesting business projects.

>>> What these programs really showed was that there's a subset of natural language that's a formal language.

Don't take this as any fanboy stuff, but pg is still good at putting big thoughts in small sentences. Its a sort of mental zip function.

Also this is why I still type into google things like 'rubik solve how-to' instead of my daughter doing "show me how to solve a rubiks cube"

Yes. He is a gifted writer, very succinct. Funny that his writing pursuits all seem to be incidental, like the Lisp books (per his own account), and the essays, which certainly played a part in his success.

Gifted? Or extremely hard-working?

Writing is like many processes - in the final show, the scaffolding has gone, the drafts are discarded, the tweaks and feedback are hidden, and all you are left with is the final revision of a very long chain and a "wow!".

Every small step made an improvement, great writing is rewriting, and the steps accumulate over a longer period than you can see from the final text.

> My stories were awful. They had hardly any plot, just characters with strong feelings, which I imagined made them deep.

My thought is a bit of an asides from the main essay content but this applies to real people as well as story characters, just because someone has feelings strongly doesn't mean anything other than that. A few of my strongest feelings about various things are rather mundane and at worst destructive. Doesn't make them deeper than a puddle.

Strength of a thing is a bad proxy for depth, complexity or interest.

"Suffering is not a personality," as the old advice goes.

This was a good read. I wish I could understand the mindset of people who can live spontaneously like this. I always plan so far in the future because I feel like it’s way too easy to ruin my life financially. Is this a generational thing? A class difference?

Definitely a class difference. From the essay

> Computers were expensive in those days and it took me years of nagging before I convinced my father to buy one, a TRS-80, in about 1980."

Based on a quick search, the price was probably about $1200-$2000 inflation adjusted dollars.

I grew up in probably a similar environment, my dad was also a physicist, and I also had access to computers from a young age, and I was encouraged to explore interests in technology, science etc, without pressure to make sure I found a successful career. Over time I've realized that paradoxically, a culture of not valuing money/success is actually a marker of being upper class, because 1. You are quite likely to succeed even without any specific plan if you are well educated 2. The risk of financial ruin is not the same if your friends and family are financially stable enough that if worst comes to worst you would always have a place to sleep.

Because this safety net does not involve any assistance except in the darkest timeline, it's very easy to forget that it exists as an invisible insurance that not everybody has. I wish everyone did.

I think you might be overestimating how much money pg's family had; I'm pretty sure they were squarely middle-class (e.g. the next sentence reads "The gold standard then was the Apple II, but a TRS-80 was good enough," and that took "years of nagging"). Strictly from a class point of view his background would have been risk-averse. But your point about the intellectual environment seems solid.

I think people have different definitions of "upper class". Maybe "Upper-middle class" would have been a better term, since pretty much everyone in the U.S. calls themselves some flavor of middle class. But my point is is that most people are not doing nearly as well financially as a mathematician/manager working at Westinghouse modeling nuclear reactors[1][2]. For example, 70% of americans have less than $1,000 of savings[3].

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/work.html

[2] http://www.paulgraham.com/credentials.html

[3] https://www.fool.com/retirement/2019/12/18/the-percentage-of...

I agree. The question is whether they were above or below the financial threshold where kids know they'll be fine no matter what they do, and so are freer to take risks and pursue their interests. That's a popular argument to make about entrepreneurship being a class privilege, for example showing up in many comments in this thread. I don't know where that line is, but my impression is that people making this argument usually draw it somewhat higher than Westinghouse engineers and middle-managers (except maybe when they want the line to turn out somewhere relative to a particular person they're arguing about).

My sense is still that pg's intellectual background was more significant than this factor, but that's based on my own experience. Even though my upbringing was at the poorer end of the middle class (raised by a single mother who was a nurse), I didn't grow up risk-averse—and I also got the computer (a better one than a TRS-80, and totally not appreciating what my mom must have sacrificed to buy it). What I lacked was intellectual relationships or mentorship of any kind.

What do you think about the idea that it's a generational mindset? What motivates me more than anything else is the fear that I'll never own property, and I'll have to live with roommates or a have a very long commute for the rest of my life. It's hard for me to get over this because it looks like that's just mathematical reality. There's not many careers that provide a decent lifestyle anymore so I don't have the opportunity to fail. I want to be wrong though

My guess is no better than yours, but FWIW I doubt that it's generational. I think people tend to overestimate that factor, plus the current generation also has some advantages over earlier ones, not only disadvantages. I think the causality arrow more likely goes in the other direction: i.e. not that you have this fear because of the generation you were born in, but rather that the fear is influencing you to see things in these terms. I hope that doesn't sound overly psychologizing! It's actually good news if so, because you can't change when you were born, but it's possible to work with fear.

I think it's more a spectrum than a line. In any case, I don't understand why someone would draw such a line above "upper middle class mathematician/researcher/manager job at fortune 500 company", because they would be proven wrong trivially by looking at statistics of entrepreneurs historically. I would also distinguish "entrepreneurship" from what PG did, which was basically switch from interest to interest without an eye on how to monetize his education.

I think what you are calling intellectual background is a part of what is normally called class. Usually these sorts of things are correlated together, although as you point out, it's a trend, not a rule. PG also comments on this himself [1]:

> Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility. I've seen this myself: you don't have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor.

[1] http://paulgraham.com/ineq.html

I see two important thresholds, and I agree with you that they are routinely conflated.

Above the first threshold, when you completely run out of money, your family sets you on your feet. Might move into the basement, might get some grudging bailout money, but you get made whole. Below it, you're homeless.

Above the second threshold, your dad or one of his golf buddies spots you $50k on good terms to launch your first business.

Looks like pg was comfortably above the first threshold, and well below the second.

That third link points to a survey by a bank that had 69% of respondents saying they had less than $1000 "in a savings account" in 2019. That's not the same thing as "in savings". "In savings" would include things like bonds, CDs, high-yield checking accounts, 401(k)s, IRAS, etc, etc, etc. Even if we exclude random equities in a brokerage account.

The proliferation of high-yield checking accounts in particular has significantly reduced the use of savings accounts for a lot of people who have quite a lot of "savings".

I keep seeing people cite scary-looking numbers like this (the other good example being the "half of Americans don't have $400 in cash on hand", which is ... not quite true; see https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2019/apr/19/kamala-har... ), but each time I dig into the actual data it turns out the actual question asked was not what people seem to think it was and the answers don't mean what they seem to mean, in the context of the actual question.

Maybe the specific article I pointed to was not using the correct metric, but the fact still remains that most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

I really don't see how the article you linked disagrees with this basic conclusion. See the graph: https://static.politifact.com/politifact/photos/Kamala_scree...

People would need to go into debt in order to pay it (only 19% said they could pay for it by "selling something", which might be selling equities, but probably includes pawning personal possessions). IRAs or 401ks are not liquid. And neither is home equity, for that matter. So I would say that half of Americans not having the savings to pay a $500 expense is accurate, even though calling it a "complete upheaval" was not.

Even if you include non-liquid assets, the average person isn't doing so great. For example age 35-44, median net worth is $91,300, and the bottom quintile is net worth negative. I think it's easy to imagine how someone growing up in such a household would have a different experience than someone in the top quintile, who will have a net worth of >$300,000.

> But the fact still remains that most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

I am willing to believe that a large fraction are, but it is not 70% by any means and given all the bad numbers I have seen floating around I can't even tell what that number is. I would be shocked if it were below 10% and equally shocked if it were over 40%. If you have a good source of data, I would love to see it

> See the graph:

Just to be clear, that chart is the "other ways" chart. And people can select more than one item. The numbers being shown add up to way over 100%, if you look at the chart you linked, even though it excludes some options (options (a) and (c) from the actual question, which correspond to "I just pay it, what's the issue") that between them were selected by some fraction of people between 29.5% and 59%, depending on how many people selected both of those optons. Hard to tell what's really going on given this survey setup.

So as a simple example someone can check both "With the money currently in my checking/savings account or with cash" and "By borrowing from a friend or family member". Would you categorize them as being able to pay the $400 or not?

> only 19% said they could pay for it by "selling something"

Only 19% said they would sell something as an option to pay it.

I don't know about you, but if I had an unexpected cash flow issue I would probably be far more likely to borrow from friends/family as a tide-over than to "sell something". Depends on amounts, obviously....

> IRAs or 401ks are not liquid

I agree. My main point with those was that "savings" can mean many different things, and people are really bad about differentiating what they mean by it.

The only thing we can conclude from the bank survey is that somewhere around 30% of those surveyed _did_ have > $1k in a savings account. Which says nothing about how they'd pay an unexpected $400 expense, by the way...

> So I would say that half of Americans not having the savings to pay a $500 expense is accurate

I don't see how you can conclude that from the presented survey data. It was about a $400 expense (minor nit), and it's very hard to determine what people _can_ do vs what they _will_ do, and the latter is what the survey asked. And, again, allowed selecting all the things they might end up doing.

In the extreme, I know people who _could_ buy a house for cash but what they _do_ is take out a mortgage, for various reasons, including liquidity considerations, opportunity cost, etc.

> For example age 35-44, median net worth is $91,300


> and the bottom quintile is net worth negative

Also true.

> I think it's easy to imagine how someone growing up in such a household would have a different experience than someone in the top quintile

Here we have an implication that may or may not hold. I know a number of people in their mid-to-late 30s and with negative net worth. All of them are doctors. Their kids are not obviously worse off than the kids of software engineers the same age (who generally have quite positive net worth).

That is to say, net worth numbers do not correlate straightforwardly with standards of living. Nor do income numbers necessarily.

There are things that seem like they should, like disposable income, but even there it's hard to tell apart someone who just has less income to work with and someone who prioritizes nicer house vs disposable income differently.

None of which takes away from the large number of people who really _are_ living paycheck to paycheck, or the children whose parents really _do_ struggle to make ends meet. And there really _are_ a lot of people who both have large student loans and have no idea how they will pay them off. And there are people with large incomes who still manage to live paycheck to paycheck, for various reasons, and obviously plenty of people with low incomes who live paycheck to paycheck. But as I keep repeating, all the data I've managed to find on this has been nearly useless because it equates things that are not equivalent (e.g. negative net worth with a low standard of living, or low income in your early 20s while lumping together students and non-students, etc, etc). This allows people to just read their preexisting biases into the data and come to widely divergent conclusions based on the same exact numbers.

Again, I would welcome any pointers to better data here.

A large portion of the population seems perfectly happy leading a simple life. You don't need to worry about financial ruin if you work a basic job and have no debt. Nobody finds them not caring about money interesting since that's the rule. Also, many have a hard time believing others have different desires and will only believe those who can "prove it" by foregoing something they have easy access to.

I think class does have a lot to do with it. It's not (just) the obvious reasons, like having access resources to start new ventures or having a backstop in case things don't pan out. For some there is a feeling of responsibility for your family, from the very beginning, that informs every choice you make.

If it were just me, I know I can live cheaply and get by if I have to, and therefore could afford to take on high risk/high upside ventures. However the reality is, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking about whether I can support my parents as they age. Whether I can pay for an occasional vacation for them, or maybe a nicer house. These are things they would NEVER ask for, and I know they can live just as cheaply as me (if not more so). But I can't help feeling like I owe it anyway. And so I take high paying, low variance jobs.

>If it were just me, I know I can live cheaply and get by if I have to, and therefore could afford to take on high risk/high upside ventures.

Me too, and I could see there was no other possible way to save my parent's house than to start my company.

Some people live without fear for their future and explore their world.

Edit: PG wrote something relevant: http://www.paulgraham.com/conformism.html

The mindset is commonly trivialised as a class[1] issue, but that is easily debunked because people from poor, middle-income or rich backgrounds can live like PG has. Different wealth levels lead to different explanations for why someone lives more conservatively. Rich people are often trapped by social ranking or lack of motivation even though they have a financial backstop in theory. It is commonly said that the middle-class are the most trapped, yet plenty of middle class tune out and go beat their own drum. Poor people sometimes have nothing to lose, but perhaps they have to run two jobs just to stand still. The poor generally lack the opportunities (such as access to a PC or University) but sometimes make up for it with motivation and in some first-world countries they can freelance while on the dole (common with artists).

[1] class in the sense used within US English.

It could be either, but with pg I feel as thought it's just a personality thing.

check out “the middle class curse” for a class-based reflection on this

Link? The best Google result I could find given context was:


but there was a full page of different results under that title so I'm not sure it's what you were referring to.

That is essentially it - the upper class has the confidence (and safety net) required to take big swings, and the lower class has nothing to lose. The middle class has been conditioned to live conservatively.

yes, this is what i had intended to point at. thanks!

Frankly, Paul Graham has a lot of money.

I know he does now but I’m talking about the earlier sections of the essay. He mentions taking time off from art school to work because he needed more money. What’s interesting to me is how he just decided to go to art school, study philosophy, or work on projects that had nothing to do with his career when he wasn’t already financially secure. The common narrative around really successful people is that they work really hard in a few focused areas but it seems like he just did whatever he wanted to and somehow it all just worked out.

One can certainly suggest survivorship bias in this sort of situation. Another commonality I've found with very-successful people: they work really hard, but they might not be aware that they're working much harder than others.

Two anecdotes:

1) A pianist in my high school was Eastman or Julliard-bound. One day, I watched her sight-read a new piece. It was beautiful. As someone who struggled mightily sight-reading single-threaded trumpet parts, I asked, "How do you sight-read like that?". The innocent and frank reply: "Oh, I'm just having fun to see what it sounds like."

Sometimes (not always), people can be on another level.

2) The truly outstanding see themselves as normal. I think everyone sees themselves as normal. Freeman Dyson, from [1]: `I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power? Why he was so bright?

Dyson is almost infallibly a modest and self-effacing man, but tonight his eyes were blank with fatigue, and his answer was uncharacteristic.

“That’s not how the question phrases itself,” he said. “The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?” '

I've never thought that Dyson said this with any malice, simply as an honest reflection of his experience.

For me, if I want to get something done, I have to work really, really hard on it.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/12/the-dan...

And some successful people pride themselves on how hard they work. There's a story that Jay Williams tells about Kobe Bryant. Jay is playing Kobe the next day and they both happen to end up in the same gym the day before. When Jay gets to the gym Kobe is already there working out. Jay works hard and sees Kobe is still there. Jay eventually wraps it up, while he sees Kobe still working out that evening.

The next day Kobe has a great game, and after the game Jay asks Kobe something like, "Do you work out that long all the time?" (can't remember the exact question) -- to which Kobe says, "I just wanted to let you know that no matter how hard you work, I'll always outwork you".

For a lot of successful people their joy is their work and they take pride in being great, but still working harder than everyone else.

If I can add to what you’ve written. ‘I have to work really really hard on it’. And that’s the point, isn’t it! 1. Sight-reading is a talent that develops, to one's own astonishment, with intense practice. It really does. The story goes that Liszt sight-read the Grieg Piano concerto but we should not forget that he worked like a dog in his earlier years and then redoubled his efforts at 17 (already with a reputation) when he heard Paganini in Paris for the first time one night after which he took his technique apart and rebuilt it with the result (another level) we know about. 2. Freeman Dyson spent his school holiday from 6am to 10pm, working through 700 problems in Piaggio’s Differential Equations. As with Liszt for music, “I was in love with mathematics and nothing else mattered”. Of course there's such a thing as outstanding talent and genius but amazing things can happen if the focus is on application rather than debating whether one is possessed of these qualities which rarely exist without the former.

Wikipedia shows him as getting a BA from Cornell.

So is 'art school' Cornell?

Also he's 56, which means he still comes from an era where you might be able 'pay as you go' through college. So as to the question of 'was it money, class, or generational?' I think the answer is 'all three'.

No, RISD - which is about as "art school" as art school gets.

The middle section of the essay describes PG's time in art school, which he attended after graduating from Cornell and going to grad school.

maybe, his mindset leads to money, dunno

It's a class thing.

It's not that it's easy or hard to ruin your life financially - if your parents have the attitude of 'go live your dreams, be happy', then there is no financial ruin, because the only ruin in your mind, is not getting to live your dream.

People who have the 'dream' attitude tend to come from families who lucked into financial stability. In some sense, this is a story of a family that's been winning lottery tickets in life for multiple generations without realizing it. Of course Paul's blissful ignorance is what enables him to live as he has and to write and publish this very essay.

I mean, what makes this essay worth reading, other than that it's Paul Graham? It's typical lottery ticket winner hubris to think 'I randomly stumbled into everything good in my life' is worth writing about in the first place. Oh well :)

My kids have one set of grandparents who will not let them fail, even if something happens to us.

There are good, respectable degree programs that will get you a job where you never lay in bed worrying about money. But if you want to be rich? You may have to take a bigger risk on a more prestigious program that not only looks good on the resume but introduces you to a social network of other future (or current) rich people.

If that doesn't work out for you, you've saddled yourself with a huge bill. If your parents can't help you pay that off, you're completely fucked. Especially since they've made sure that you can't discharge those loans via bankruptcy (and that is class warfare).

Bankruptcy discharge and payday loans. So sad to see it waged and no one knows it’s happening.

> Well, how had I chosen what to work on in the past? I wrote an essay for myself to answer that question, and I was surprised how long and messy the answer turned out to be.

As someone that is largely in the same situation, also actively looking for what's next after years and years of programming and dabbling in various arts, this actually seems like a great exercise. I write every morning when I wake up, have piles of journals I've written, but haven't explicitly sat down to write that journal entry. Thanks for the prompt!

To me his story of going into painting in his twenties, while having never been interested in visual arts before, spending on and off time on it for years and eventually abandoning it in his forties sounds like a story of internal vs external motivation. He WANTED to like painting, because "he could create something eternal", "he wouldn't have a boss", he made himself interested in it, but in the the end his natural proclivity for conceptual/abstract (and not visual) thinking won over and computers and writing completely dominated his creative efforts. They must have been just intrinsically rewarding for him, as opposed to being "good on paper" like painting was.

Disagree. I think he just shifted interests.

It's common for people to follow a straight line in their lives: decide a career path, go to school and keep doing it, switching companies and jobs when necessary.

But the reality is, interests can change -- people can change in this respect. As noted elsewhere, there is this very common culture of "finding yourself", "discovering your true inner self", but it's more rare to acknowledge tastes develop (and evolve).

I'm sure pg didn't quit graduate school, spent a year painting in Italy, and came back to america if he didn't thoroughly enjoy painting. Maybe he doesn't like painting anymore, though! Tastes can change.

I've written elsewhere, but much of our tastes (ought to) develop following what we find important -- that is, the intersection of {what helps the world, what we would be good at, what we could become passionate about, what earns us money} (because without direct monetary reward your options can become constricted).

I believe in Japanese culture it is frequent to do this examination, known as Ikigai ("a reason for being"):


(Hopefully I'm not misrepresenting the concept from pop culture)

Because times change, opportunities change, this target can change! Maybe tomorrow you realize this could be becoming a painter, the next day you realize you can write software to change the world, and it's ok to give up being a painter; in fact, you might be barely able to think of painting again presented with such a rich and challenging opportunity.

Another thing I found valuable is to really retain the most valuable experiences. Even if you change tastes, you shouldn't ignore your past experiences, your past knowledge. The most disparate things A vs B can influence eachother; often, being so seemingly disparate the opportunity of influence can be greater if not many people share background in both A and B.

My interpretation is that rather he was somewhat interested in it, saw that it lead to lifestyle he wanted and thus he made himself do the work for several years. There's no doubt that Paul is a conscientious person and also somewhat interested in painting, so it worked out for a while. Also, notice though how often he went into multi-year "distractions" from painting - the computers were calling him all this time. Ultimately, when there were no more distraction and all the time in the world to paint, he quit within 6 months.

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