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Monday, April 15, 2013

Re-read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainteneance

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school, and reading it then was an amazing discovery. I remember not being able to stop reading it, going on until well past midnight, barely able to stop when it was time to sleep, and finishing it the next day. When I saw that the Kindle edition was down to $2.99, I didn't hesitate and bought it and read it again.

Books are different beasts when you read them a second time. The first time I loved the description of the scientific method and it's application to debugging computer programs (in addition to the problems you find when you need to repair a motorcycle):
When you’ve hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works, and you know that this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say, “Okay, Nature, that’s the end of the nice guy,” and you crank up the formal scientific method. For this you keep a lab notebook. Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going and where you want to get. In scientific work and electronics technology this is necessary because otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don’t know and have to give up. (Loc 1603)
This time around, I found another part of the story, the story about a father and son, re-united after a horrifying personal disaster, and the realization that it as his son that brought him out of the psychiatric ward:
We’re related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all. He was always the real reason for coming out of the hospital. To have let him grow up alone would have been really wrong. In the dream too he was the one who was always trying to open the door. I haven’t been carrying him at all. He’s been carrying me! (Loc 6249)
What's great about the book is that all this is interspersed with a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. It's full of little tips about cycle touring that indicate that Pirsig did do quite a bit of motorcycle touring, though he does spend way too much time on a freeway in California instead of riding down the coast. (And much like most tourists, he makes the mistake of visiting the California coast during the summer, when it's mostly fogged in) There are also little interesting observations about people on the road:
While we wait for chocolate malteds I notice a high-schooler sitting at the counter exchanging looks with the girl next to him. She’s gorgeous, and I’m not the only other one who notices it. The girl behind the counter waiting on them is also watching with an anger she thinks no one else sees. Some kind of triangle. We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people’s lives. (Loc 4385)
Ultimately, the book's a philosophical novel, with lots of explanation of the authors' ideas about the nature of Quality, the split between the arts and the sciences, and his attempts to unify the two by keeping Quality undefined as, "You know it when you see it." For a rhetoric class at the places Pirsig has taught, I think this approach might work. For those of us working in technology, however, I'm not sure that non-definition is useful. There's a certain sense that those who care passionately enough about their work enough to have strong opinions and defend them are better engineers than those for whom engineering is "just work." On the other hand, you could argue that in many ways, the constant arguments over the quality of say, the choice of programming language is well over-blown, and people would mostly be better of getting work done than engaging in the low-Quality flame wars that you find on the internet.

Regardless of how you feel, however, the novel is thought-provoking, interesting, and never dull, despite being mostly about ideas, rather than being about characters or plot. It's a great book and well worth reading and re-reading. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Big Skinny World Bifold Wallet

I answer a lot of questions on Quora, but the one time I asked a question, I never got a satisfactory answer. I travel enough internationally that I find domestic wallets to be useless, since they can't handle cash that's too wide or tall, which many international currencies are. I was using a wallet I picked up in Switzerland a few years ago. That wallet was nice, especially since it had multiple pockets for cash and coins, letting you sort say, Euros and dollars, or Euros and CHF. However, it's leather, doesn't have sufficient pockets for the large number of cards I carry, and is slowly being worn out.

I found a coupon for a Big Skinny World Bifold, and ordered one. It's made out of Nylon rather than leather , so it's much lighter than my old wallet, which is nice. It's also wide enough and tall enough for non-US currency. It has an outside zipper for coins and keys, and sufficient card slots for 16 cards as well as two inner pockets for business cards and other sundries. It ended up being quite a bit slimmer than my old Swiss wallet.


Review: Your Child's Growing Mind

Mike Samuel recommended Your Child's Growing Mind to me, and while it was a good read, it's written in a verbose fashion, full of useless anecdotes that don't reflect research findings, with the interesting research findings almost deliberately obfuscated.

For instance, in the section on enriched environment, she notes that lab rat studies showed that a cage with lots of toys, etc would build a rat with a bigger brain, a free roaming rat that played outside the cage would have a bigger brain than even the enriched rat's brain. This demonstrates that free play and spending time outside with freedom to explore is far more important than how many toys you can buy your child, but strangely this passage received no emphasis.

The book is strangely light on early childhood development, but once it get to elementary school, starts providing tips on reading, writing, and math. Each section is full of tips on how to teach your kids the relevant skills, including sections on what play activities are great for letting the entire family participate. The tips are split by age group, and there's good explanation on what works. There's a big emphasis on trouble-shooting learning problems with adequate prescription.

Like all such books written by Americans, it has zero information about bilingual or multi-lingual households, and there's apparently been no academic research on how best to optimal the environment for multi-language learning in such households. I wonder if European books are better in this regard.

I would recommend referring to this book over the years (especially if your child has a learning disability), but you should still read John Medina's Brain Rules for Baby first.