Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate

Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate

I put this book on my reading list after listening to the first season of the Slow Burn podcast. As a side note that’s too important to be a footnote: Slow Burn’s first season tells stories about Watergate, and is possibly my all-time favorite podcast, mostly because Leon Neyfakh is the best audio story-teller I’ve ever heard. I binged the whole thing in one day, and re-listen to it often. The second season about Clinton/Lewinsky was also very good.

The book is about senator Sam Ervin, who was popular in his day but is probably not a name recognized by many today. Ervin gets mentioned on the podcast for his role as the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee. What caught my attention was that Ervin was a hero for liberals for going after Nixon, but was, as Neyfakh puts it, an “unrepentant segregationist”. The podcast doesn’t go into how or why he was pro-segregation, but as I listened to that in 2019, it blew my mind that a senator could hold that view and still find favor in the eyes of the left. Also Ervin told good jokes and I like good jokes.

Ervin’s capacity for indignation over the mangling of the law by the courts was strongly revealed in the murder case against John Bridges. The prosecutor did his job well in presenting the evidence, but the judge flubbed it by forgetting to tell the jury it had the option of acquitting Bridges. “The state’s testimony tends to show that the prisoner coveted his neighbor’s wife and slew his neighbor with rare atrocity that his physical enjoyment of the wife’s person might be exclusive,” Ervin said. “The very sordidness of the evidence strongly tempts us to say that justice and law are not always synonymous, and to vote for affirmance of the judgment of death on the theory that justice has triumphed, however much law may have suffered.”

Ervin said the ultimate fate of John Bridges was of minor importance in the scheme of things because “his role on life’s stage, like ours, soon ends. But what happens to the law in this case is of the gravest moment. The preservation unimpaired of our basic rules of criminal procedure is an end far more desirable than that of hurrying a single sinner to what may be his merited doom.” (Page 154)

Sam Ervin really cared about the constitution. It feels so cheesy so write that, maybe because as far as I can tell very few people in progressive and/or left circles truly respect the US constitution or why its sanctity that makes it so hard to change is a big deal.1 Progressives want to change and improve things and the constitution’s natural state is stasis. Other than its natural inexplicit state, it explicitly enshrines some ideas that the US left-wing2 wants to change (see: the Second Amendment). The frustration that comes out of the failure to change that through existing amendment procedures pushes many to despise the setup of the entire document.

I don’t know enough about Sam Ervin to know what was in his heart when it comes to race and desegregation. His explicit view was that he saw all races as equal and had friendly relations with everyone, and that what put him in a seemingly anti desegregation position is that he objected to how laws were being passed to enforce it. The book advocates that explanation too.

Ervin’s voting history supports the “it’s complicated” angle on his beliefs. He voted against expansions of immigration quotas and tried to attach an exemption from drafting women to the Equal Rights Amendment Act, but he also opposed prayer in public schools and voted against data collection practices and “no knock” searches. He’s impossible to pigeonhole into an ideological camp.

During the next year, Ervin wrote an epic speech on the First Amendment and delivered it dozens of times:

“The First Amendment grants its freedoms to all persons within the boundaries of our country without regard to whether they are wise or foolish, learned or ignorant, profound or shallow, brave or timid, or devout or ungodly, and without regard to whether they love or hate our country and its institutions. Consequently, the amendment protects the expression of all kinds of ideas, no matter how antiquated, novel, or queer they may be. “In the final analysis, the First Amendment is based upon an abiding faith that our country has nothing to fear from the exercise of its freedoms as long as it leaves truth free to combat error. I share that faith. “To be sure, the exercise of First Amendment rights by others may annoy us and subject us at times to tirades of intellectual and political rubbish. This is a small price to pay however, for the benefits which the exercise of these rights bestows on our country.”

I wonder what he would think about the free speech issues we’ve been dealing with in the last few years.

The debate is about what private companies allow or prohibit, which means that almost none of the debate is actually about the First Amendment. That’s fine, but unless the majority of the country believes in the spirit behind it, the constitution is just a piece of paper, and so it’s the spirit I’m concerned with. Even if wanting private companies to take increasingly active roles in policing speech has nothing to do with the First Amendment, it has everything to do with lower-case free speech. How tolerant are we of wrong or offensive speech? Do we still understand what was protected when we made such a big deal out of free speech in the first place?

Ervin always found the very best poetry to illustrate his convictions, whether it was contained in the Bible, in literature, or in the words of great statesmen of the ages.

William Pitt the Elder had said all that needed to be said on this subject before the American Revolution. Ervin recited it word-for-word:

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, but the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.” (Page 273)

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, it’s just a really good quote.

Look, should you read this book? I don’t know. It was a bit of a slog; more of an exploration of what made Sam Ervin a complicated politician than it was a deep dive into his role in Watergate (which is fair, the book’s about him, not Watergate).

The book won’t satisfy you if you’re looking for the equivalent of The Years of Lyndon Johnson but about Ervin. It’s not that. It’s a relatively short and uncritical biography. Read it if you’re curious about how a true constitutional legal mind wrestles with the conflict between the law and delayed justice, and nostalgia for the days when you didn’t get cancelled so easily.

Note: The title on the cover page of the book reads “Just a Country Lawyer: Sam Ervin and the Unraveling of Watergate”. I can’t find a book with that title, or the ISBN printed on the back (9781097619795) on Worldcat. What I can find, is a book with almost the same exact cover titled “Just a country lawyer: a biography of Senator Sam Ervin”. That latter title makes more sense; the book is a biography, and Watergate is a very small part of it. I don’t know what happened with the title change.

  1. I’ve always wanted to write about the US constitution from the perspective of an immigrant who used to live in oppressive countries, but the enormity of doing that job well held me back. One day. ↩︎

  2. eh for lack of a better term ↩︎


The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die

Cover of “The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die” by Paul A. Craig.

Be very careful when temperatures are rising from below freezing overnight. It is a good idea to walk to the end of the wing and gently rock the wing up and down. This might help move water to the lowest point in the tank and fuel system, where it will come out in the drain. (Location 2999)

My biggest project for 2020 was starting my pilot training. In the United States, the most common pilot license is the private pilot license, which allows you to fly yourself and others for fun but not for pay. If, like me, you were unfamiliar with general aviation, thinking of becoming a pilot brings images of these flight decks to mind:

Airbus flight deck
Airbus flight deck

But flying general aviation puts you behind one of these:

Cessna 162 Skycatcher cockpit
Cessna 162 Skytcatcher cockpit

The systems and controls are wildly different. An even more important difference is safety. It’s common knowledge that aviation has become so safe that you’re more likely to die driving a car. There were “no fatal passenger jet crashes” in 2017.

General aviation is a separate matter. Not only is GA’s fatality rate significantly worse than the airlines, it’s also worse than driving.

The only way to eliminate the risk is to not fly.1 If you’re gonna fly, you – at least I – can find some reassurance in knowing that most fatalities are entirely or partially attributable to pilot error. Either pilots do something reckless and/or stupid, manufacturing a lethal situation out of nothing, or they’re unprepared to deal with an unusual event or emergency that could’ve been survivable with better training and instincts.2

Guess what, I control the pilot, and reading The Killing Zone is part of my plan to reduce my contribution to the risk of flying to its absolute minimum.

I like the first quote about rocking the plane’s wings to make water in the fuel tanks settle because it’s a brief, clear demonstration of the simple mechanics of small planes. Small planes are simpler than you think. Since most small planes were made decades ago, they’re even simpler than most present-day cars.

Simple systems fail for simple reasons, but that doesn’t make the failure less catastrophic. The fuel tank can be left uncovered for a few hours, or the tank cap can have a degraded seal, and moisture gets in. Moisture condenses into water, water contaminates the fuel which goes to the engine, and if you have enough water the engine will die.

Which is exactly what happened in the accident that prompted the quote. A small plane lost engine power when water in the fuel tanks got to the engine. Water is heavier than aviation fuel and it will sink to the bottom if it gets in the tank. When you learn how to do a pre-flight inspection, you learn to sump fuel from the tanks for this exact reason, to detect water. The accident pilot did sump the fuel and found the samples clean, so what happened? The investigation concluded that the samples were clean because the water was frozen when the pilot sampled the fuel in the early morning hours, which is why the engine lost power 45 minutes into the flight after the temperature got warmer and melted the ice in the tanks.

The consensus is that becoming a safer pilot can either happen from experience or education. Experience is measured in hours, and the number of flight hours is a critical metric in aviation: it impacts your eligibility for examinations, certificates, jobs, and ability to carry passengers.

The killing zone is not a geographical one, it’s a zone defined by a range of flight hours. The author’s main argument is that a spike of fatalities for pilots with 50 to 350-400 flight hours is evidence of a dangerous zone of experience right after pilots get their certificates and stop receiving instruction but right before they’re proficient enough to fly well.

There are criticisms of the author’s use of statistics, and I won’t litigate that here because I don’t care, and I think worrying about the validity of the zone distracts from a better conclusion: you should always assume you’re in a dangerous zone.

If I had to name the biggest killer of pilots, it’s complacency. I think you’re likely to become complacent if you think you’ll magically be less likely to die after you’ve logged 400+ hours than if you forget about these hours and nurture a sense or paranoia at all times.

So regardless of the statistics, if you’re learning to fly you should read this book as an exercise in the second path to becoming a safer pilot: education. The book’s value lies in the taxonomy of accidents (e.g., takeoffs, landings, runway incursions, midair collisions, etc.) and the accident reports it includes for each category.

I think the author picked a good set of accident reports; the reports cover the most common root causes but have enough variety that they introduce new failure modes that I hadn’t considered before. I live on the West Coast, so we don’t have frigid winters, but temperatures do drop below freezing, and I never considered that this could hide water in the tanks.

One more note about why I don’t care about the zone: Safety is treating low likelihood events as quasi-certainties and being prepared to act when, not if, they happen.

Frankly, I think the way to be safe is to assume that catastrophe is always just around the corner, and be prepared for it. I’m not sure if the author is arguing that by the end of the 400 hours you do have that paranoia entrenched, I don’t see how, if anything I think the longer you go without an emergency the less likely you’ll think it’s going to happen to you.

A few more highlights from the book:

A pilot planning an early morning flight should know that the temperature usually rises as the sun gets higher in the sky. A 4-degree spread [between temperature and dew point ] at 7:00 a.m. means that fog is less likely to form because the temperature is getting hotter and therefore the spread is getting wider. The fog is said to “burn off.” But a 4-degree spread at 7:00 p.m. is trouble. As the sun disappears there will be no more direct heating from the sun and the temperature will drop. The spread is already only 4 and will probably narrow. The weather-wise pilot knows that fog formation is just an hour or so away. (Location 1350)

Density altitude is simply a measurement of the “quality” of the air. When airplanes fly through dense air three things happen: 1. The wings produce more lift because there are more air molecules to produce lift with. 2. The propeller produces more thrust because there are more air molecules to cut through and push back. 3. The engine produces more power because more air molecules are compressed and then expanded on the power stroke. Low altitude, low temperature, and low humidity produce dense, wonderful air for airplanes to operate in. But the converse is true. High altitude, high temperature, and high humidity make wings sluggish, props dull, and engines weak. (Location 1709)

Who needs a greater wind correction angle to overcome an en route crosswind, a Lear Jet or a Cessna 150? Even a light wind can blow a slow-moving airplane off the centerline when the airplane is in ground effect. If the airplane starts to be pushed off the runway, the trees that line the runway will be much closer than the trees at the end of the runway. A premature liftoff during crosswind conditions means the pilot cannot climb, cannot accelerate, and cannot prevent the wind from blowing the airplane into obstructions downwind. A pilot in that position becomes a passenger who can do nothing more than ride it out. No pilot wants to be reduced to having the same control as a passenger, so plan ahead, read the charts, take your time, and be ready to say no. (Location 1898)

The next one is about a terrible accident caused by engine power loss due to fuel starvation. Context: fuel tanks are in the wings, and some planes have a fuel selector that can be set to the right or left wing tank, but not both, which can lead to the engine being starved of fuel if the selected tank runs out.3 This was one of those planes.

The pilot could not find the fuel selector valve and requested help from the Air Route Traffic Control Center. Before they could help him, the engine lost power. There happened to be a pilot at the ARTCC, who was familiar with the PA-28. By the time he was found and the information was passed to the pilot, the aircraft had nearly descended to the ground. As the pilot was reaching for the fuel selector, the aircraft hit trees and crashed. (Location 3079)

On the chemical process behind night vision:

It takes some time for this photochemical to coat the rods. But the moment the rods are exposed to bright light, the Rhodopsin degenerates and night vision is lost. This is why aircraft flight decks use red light, because red light does not destroy night vision. If you are flying at night and must use a white light, close one eye to preserve night vision in one eye. On dark nights, progressively turn down the illumination of cockpit lights so that the eyes can adapt further and outside vision will improve. But be careful when flying at night near thunderstorms. A flash of lightning will instantly steal your night vision. This is another good reason to stay away from thunderstorms. (Location 3623)

Unfortunately the author succumbed to the temptation of psychological generalizations. He is not the first and will not be the last.

Eric Farmer, writing for the International Journal of Aviation Safety, says that a number of studies have supported the notion that a distinct pilot personality profile exists and can be identified in successful pilots. These studies have identified traits of the pilot personality. The research concludes that pilots are independent achievers who demonstrate competence and enjoy mastering complex tasks. The motivation to fly involves a need for prestige and for control. Those who love to fly desire excitement, power, speed, independence, thrills, and competition. (Location 4497)

  1. Almost zero. It’s rare, but people have died on the ground from small planes crashing into their houses. ↩︎

  2. Nature vs. nurture note: the instinct I refer to here is learned, not one you’re born with. Another way to describe this kind of instinct is: automatic response. If something happens, what’s your reaction prior to your conscious mind processing the information and making a decision? If you’re trying to land and you bounce off of the runway, you have a second or two to go full throttle and execute a go-around before the plane comes back down for its second of multiple increasingly dangerous bounces (see: porpoising). An instinct to go full throttle after the first bounce could be what stands between you and wrecking the plane, or worse. ↩︎

  3. The left-or-right-not-both selector may seem like a certifiably stupid design decision. But, as with most things that appear inexplicably stupid at first glance, they are almost always actually explicable↩︎

Identity, change, and promises made to no one

What is this website about? Is it just about scripts and programming projects and my favorite vim plugins? What if I want to write about other things? What if the one thing this used to be about is not something I want to write about anymore? What if an idea I want to write about doesn’t fit with what I’ve been writing about recently?1

In my About page I say that I write about a mix of technical and non-technical topics. And yet, I reject writing ideas on a daily basis because they wouldn’t “fit” what this website’s been about. Is this good?

I think a similar dynamic happens in our personal lives. At some point we become “about” something. You’re a coder, a beauty vlogger, a photographer, a philosopher, a cyclist. You got interested in something and you went deep, did it consistently, got better, and enjoyed cultivating and projecting your interest in it. As your interest and engagement grew, it’s not just you that knows that you’re into this thing, people around you know it too, and they start to ask about your progress and enjoyment.

Over months and maybe years that thing becomes a consistent line drawn along other big and small things that change: where you live, what you do, the relationships you’ve been in. It’s part of your identity.

So it’s understandable that you would react negatively when you start to drift away from that thing. It happens slowly and you fight it. You start being interested in other things and you don’t spend as much time on the “thing” anymore. It’s not just you though, those around you also react with concern. “How come you’re not going out to ride your bike as much?”, “are you still talking to your philosophy friends?’, “how come you’re not posting your makeup videos as often as you used to?” Questions that presume that the current status is sad, forcing you to come up with explanations rather than reasons.

This is not straightforward to navigate because it runs into principles like “consistency”, “commitment”, and “stick-to-itiveness”, which we generally think are good.2 What does it say about your character that you lost interest in this thing after you made a big deal about it and others came to know you for it? Is it weakness on your part? Will you keep switching it up, becoming someone who’s difficult to nail down in your life and the lives of those around you? Who are you if not the photographer or the blogger or the beauty vlogger?

Years ago I wrote about changing our minds:

Overcoming your own internal barriers to changing your beliefs and principles is difficult enough without people from the outside giving you a hard time about it. Instead of this horrible tradition described above, people should be curious when others they know change their minds about things, ask them why, and criticize the reasons given or learn from them

Just like accusations of hypocrisy and flip-flopping make it harder than it already is for us to change our minds, this feeling that we promised something with our actions and history makes us feel guilty about change. The weird thing is, in a different partition of our minds, we believe change is good. In debates about whether people can really change, no matter which side you’re on when it comes to the possibility of people changing, you agree that it would be better if they could.

Yet when it’s time to change, even if you were to overcome the difficulty of it, now there’s this guilt-induced drag pulling you back, making you worry about breaking the image you have or the expectations that you and others have of you.

Let me walk this back just a little.

There is such a thing as not having stick-to-itiveness and dropping things at the first sign of difficulty.

What this post is about is the unreasonable feeling of not being able to change your primary interests out of a sense of obligation or shame. If you’re all in on photography this month, and all in on woodworking the next, and all in on painting the month after, maybe you do have a problem to deal with.

How do you know whether you’re trying to stick with something out of persistence and grit as opposed to obligation and shame? Only you can know; if you’re looking for easy answers, you’re reading the wrong blog.3 I’m only writing to tell you and myself that interests and identities can change, and promises about them should be made to no one.

  1. Here’s a meta thought: this post about what this site is about goes against my idea of what this site is about. It’s navel-gazey in a way that violates my writing principles. ↩︎

  2. Relax, I’m not here to be the “forget everything you know about everything we thought was good!” guy. Those are generally good. ↩︎

  3. And there isn’t a right blog for easy answers. ↩︎


Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Photo of the book cover of 'Start with Why'

Don’t read this book. It’s not good, and it’s likely not for you to begin with.

I don’t remember where I got the recommendation to read this book, but at some point I added it to my library hold queue, and one day the Libby app told me it was ready for me to read, so I started reading it. The book came due before I could finish it, and that’s probably for the best.

It took me a while to realize that this book is not about philosophy or leadership, it’s about sales. Just sales.

Below I include some quotes from the book with comments or discussion. This list is not exhaustive, I’m just cherry-picking from a long list of highlights.

At some point the author writes:

This is not opinion, this is biology.

In the parlance of our times, this line triggered me. It is as faulty as saying “the data speaks for itself”. Whoever says this is not interested in explaining how science works to their readers, if they themselves understand it at all, which they probably don’t.

Here’s another catchy quote:

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.

Ugh. My initial reaction to this was a “oh yeah? so when I pay $1800 for a computer I’m buying the why of Apple instead of the aluminum and the silicon that the hardware engineers made and the OS that software engineers wrote?”

But I realized my mistake in interpreting the line. He’s saying they buy the image you’re creating and selling to them, which is said in service of the argument that you should try to sell them an image other than or in addition to the thing itself. Again, it’s about sales. Or marketing I guess.

Emphasis mine:

The ability to attract so many people from across the country, of all colors and races, to join together on the right day, at the right time, took something special. Though others knew what had to change in America to bring about civil rights for all, it was Martin Luther King who was able to inspire a country to change not just for the good of a minority, but for the good of everyone. Martin Luther King started with Why.

That is so reductionist it’s ridiculous.

The Wright brothers, Apple and Dr. King are just three examples. Harley-Davidson, Disney and Southwest Airlines are three more. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan were also able to inspire. No matter from where they hail, they all have something in common. All the inspiring leaders and companies, regardless of size or industry, think, act and communicate exactly alike.

Karl Popper said “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.”1

The author is claiming that starting with why explains the success of:

  • The Wright Brothers and their milestone flight success.
  • Apple Inc. creating successful personal computers.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and leadership.
  • Harley-Davison selling motorcycles.
  • Disney making movies.
  • Southwest Airlines which the author really loves for some reason.
  • John F. Kennedy.
  • Ronald Regan.

How are these remotely comparable?

In episode 42 titled “The Wrong Guy” of his amazing Hypercritical podcast, John Siracusa was criticizing a quote from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and the criticism applies here.

Siracusa, starting by quoting Isaacson:

“Steve Jobs secretly began planning to move Apple off of the Motorola IBM PowerPC chip and to adopt instead Intel’s. This would not be a simple task. It was akin to writing a new operating system.”

Is it?? Is that what it’s like? Is it very similar to writing a new operating system? Moving your platform from one CPU to another? I guess he wanted to show off his technical chops, saying ‘look at me! I know about stuff! This is probably pretty similar’. No, not really that similar. Both are difficult tasks! I will give him that. Is that great writing? You found another thing that’s difficult? “It is akin to pushing a large rock up a hill”, also difficult.

That’s exactly what I think of the author’s comparison. Are those people and companies really all that similar, or did you just lump a bunch of achievers together into one big pile and claimed a commonality that isn’t really there?

Only a specific kind of author can try claiming that Harley-Davidson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are similar in a meaningful way that the author was about to synthesize into a singular philosophy, and that’s an author whose books are not for me.

I left the worst example to the end. Everything I criticized so far I could let go of as being, at worst, bad writing or dodgy argument. But the next one I can’t forgive.

The part of the brain that controls our feelings has no capacity for language. It is this disconnection that makes putting our feelings into words so hard. We have trouble, for example, explaining why we married the person we married. We struggle to put into words. the real reasons why we love them, so we talk around it or rationalize it. “She’s funny, she’s smart,” we start. But there are lots of funny and smart people in the world, but we don’t love them and we don’t want to marry them. There is obviously more to falling in love than just personality and competence. Rationally, we know our explanation isn’t the real reason. It is how our loved ones make us feel, but those feelings are really hard to put into words. So when pushed, we start to talk around it. We may even say things that don’t make any rational sense. “She completes me,” we might say, for example. What does that mean and how do you look for someone who does that so you can marry them? That’s the problem with love; we only know when we’ve found it because it “just feels right.” The same is true for other decisions. When a decision feels right, we have a hard time explaining why we did what we did. Again, the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language, so we rationalize.

Put aside that we don’t even understand brains enough to know for sure how they work at such a high level; “the part that controls our feelings has no capacity for language”?? Brains don’t work like that! There are no Lego-like modules with known functions and known disabilities. Yes there seem to be specialized regions, but they exist within networks and have elasticity and the whole thing is one of the most complicated structures in the world.

As far as I know the occipital lobe doesn’t have any more of a speech center than “the part that controls our feelings” but we can describe with speech what we see with our eyes because knowledge and skills are not siloed.

So the author combines scientism with a false or deeply misunderstood fact to conclude that it is okay, nay, expected that you can’t describe why you love someone, and that we rationalize because the part of the brain that made the decision is not the part of the brain that controls speech.

Like I said, you can pass on this book.

  1. Although I wasn’t able to find a satisfactory source or confirmation for that quote. ↩︎


A simple place

I am predisposed to overfitting. I think most people who like to work with computers, who like to hack, or make, or do things themselves, have a predisposition to overfitting.

Overfitting is a term of art from statistics and machine learning. It’s a fancy word that refers to the idea that when you don’t constrain how complicated or flexible your solution to a problem can get, you will come up with a solution that perfectly fits all your requirements as they exist today, but this perfect fit comes with a tradeoff in which your solution is specific, complicated, and doesn’t generalize to unseen future requirements very well. You didn’t fit, you overfit.

For example, you try to write an essay and the only editor you have is Microsoft Word. You start typing but it just doesn’t feel right. You search for better tools for writing essays and find someone recommending Bear, so you download it, and you write your essay and it works out great. Next week you need to write a long personal email, you start in Bear but it doesn’t feel good for an email. You look around and find people recommending Ommwriter, so you download it and write your email and it works out great.

This is fine if from that point onwards you will only need to write essays and personal emails, and if you will need to write them the same way you wrote them before. But nothing ever stays the same and the future always differs from the past. If you will accept nothing less than a perfect writing experience for each new writing task, you will never stop looking for new tools.

Then you look at your writing toolbox and it’s a mess. Instead of having a couple of tools that work okay for most tasks, you have a hundred tools and they’re all tuned to work for very specific tasks.

Regularization is another term of art, and it refers to intentionally constraining your solution to keep it uncomplicated and general. In the writing tools example, you can regularize by setting a rule that says “I will not have more than four writing apps installed at any given time”, or “each writing app I install has to work very well for at least three different writing tasks”.

These constraints will naturally stop you from installing your 10th writing app, and will encourage you to use tools you already have instead of getting new ones. The cost of the constraints is that you’ll always feel like the tool isn’t a perfect fit for what you’re doing right now.

Regularization changes your behavior when the tool acquisition or solution modification was going to have a higher cost than gain, which usually happens after your solution has already grown quite a bit. A critical point in this framework is that early modifications lead to large gains, and later modifications have diminishing returns. When you only had Microsoft Word and installed Bear, you gained a lot! They do very different things and the universe of tasks you can tackle increased massively. But by the 10th app, your gain, if it exists at all, is tiny.

Regularization can be tuned! Your rules can be restrictive, such as implementing a one in-one out system, e.g., “I won’t use a new tool without getting rid of an old one”. Or, they can be more relaxed: “I won’t use a new tool without trying to do without it for three days, and if I still have an unsolved problem, it’s time to complicate my solution a little bit more”.

Overfitting is a very common problem, both in machine learning and in life. The writing tools example comes from personal experience. I use Neovim as my main editor, which sounds like a nice regularization, until you see that my configuration file for it is 520 lines. And I said it was my primary editor, not my only one.

Another personal example is how frequently I tinker and modify this site’s style and structure. In the past I rarely wrote a post without modifying some feature to look or work better. Every small nit I noticed, I addressed immediately. This took time, and meant things were never consistent. The time I spent tinkering could have been spent getting better at writing.

To regularize is to impose constraints that keep your life simple at the cost of a small amount of constant discomfort. It also helps you focus on what really matters. Does it really matter that the site title doesn’t align perfectly with the post under it? And does it matter more than sweating out an idea I have in my head or a draft that I’ve been struggling with?

The people whose writing and work I find the most valuable have had the same site, the same gear, and the same tools, forever. Maybe regularization comes naturally to them, and they have an ingrained understanding that spending time producing is better than spending time improving tools or tinkering with visuals. Or maybe they had to be intentional about it and fight their own predisposition to overfit. Either way, regularization is one of my yearly themes and it’s already working very well.

See also



Enough was a good read. I write these words in the year 2020, and there is a lot of writing on focus and minimalism right now. If you’re at all familiar with said writing, the book won’t seem like it’s full of new ideas. That said, it’s worth reading the thoughts of someone who’s been thinking about this longer than most.

I knew Patrick Rhone’s work before reading this book. I used to read his minimal mac blog when it was active, and listened to his Enough podcast with Myke Hurley when that was active as well.

I mention this because having a prior with anyone’s work influences how you receive more of their work.

Enough is good in part because it follows its own message by being small, fast, and to the point. But this also means that if you’re not careful you’ll go through it too quickly and it will be over before you’ve had a chance to think about it as well as you should. I think this happened to me to an extent, and I plan on giving it another slower, more rate limited read.

The book is in the same category as Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. Having read that one as well, I think you should choose one and read it, and I think Enough is the better choice.

Nothing against Digital Minimalism, but I honestly don’t remember much from it. It was too long. Enough’s format, a collection of short essays, means it delivers the same ideas in way fewer words. Maybe that’s unfair and I am favoring Enough just because I can remember it better.

Remembering what you read

Coffee plant leaves

$ clipping

The Conquest of Happiness (Bertrand Russell;Daniel C. Dennett)
- Your Highlight on page 6 | Location 79-80 | Added on Wednesday, December 13, 2017 9:26:08 AM

Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact.


After a year and a half of reduced book-reading, I’ve managed to rebuild a reading habit (which is great). Thank you Kindle, thank you Seattle Public Library, thank you Libby.1

With this return of regular book-reading returned a thought that always bothered me: I like reading but I don’t remember the books I read very well.

Most of the books I read are nonfiction. While reading them, it feels like my mind is engaged, and I am keeping up with the narrative, the details, the arguments – it seems impossible that I could forget any of this. But most of the time, in less a week after finishing a book, I can only remember one or two pieces of detail and the rest is gist. Not much more.

Paper vs ebook

A lot of people who read books agonize over this. You’ve probably read the same dilemma recounted by a hundred other readers.

Paper books are romantic objects. They have cultural energy, and they become objects that mean a lot more than just the words you can read within them. Second-hand book shops are magical and intimate. They always feel like sanctuaries staged in a better time. You look at a shelf, or a stack that’s too precarious, pull a book out from the middle, and if you walk out with it, that’s your special book. It’s your special piece from that magical place.

Also. A paper book has a visible cover, and a visible cover lets you show other people on the train what you’re reading. The people want their social signaling. We’re starved for a social connection, and if someone notices the cover of the book I’m reading, and we make a connection because of it, that’s a nice thing.2

The relative benefits of ebooks are apparent: you can carry many books on a device smaller and lighter than a single book, and you get search, highlighting, and typed notes.

Kindle highlights

My reading revival happened on Kindle. I love paper books (see above for an explanation that reads a little bit like a eulogy), but the Kindle is lighter, easier to hold in one hand, lets me borrow books from the library without having to go to the library, and most importantly for this post, saves my highlights locally even after the book is returned to the library.

Kindle highlights are saved to a My Clippings.txt file on the device itself.3 The file’s formatting has remained consistent for years. Here is a sample:

In This Arab Time: The Pursuit of Deliverance (Fouad Ajami)
- Highlight on Page 33 | Loc. 551-52  | Added on Monday, December 15, 2014, 06:00 AM

Tahrir Square had transfixed us all, but as the immensely talented young Egyptian intellectual Samuel Tadros puts it, Tahrir Square was not Cairo and Cairo was not Egypt. 
In This Arab Time: The Pursuit of Deliverance (Fouad Ajami)
- Highlight on Page 36 | Loc. 581-83  | Added on Monday, December 15, 2014, 06:04 AM

The group may have railed against America and the shadow it cast over Egypt, but leading technocrats from the Brotherhood, Morsi among them, rose to professional success and prominence through American degrees, and their years in America took them beyond the cloistered world from which they hailed. 
In This Arab Time: The Pursuit of Deliverance (Fouad Ajami)
- Highlight on Page 37 | Loc. 602-5  | Added on Monday, December 15, 2014, 06:06 AM

The Brotherhood had not reinvented this weary land. Egyptian governments had long perfected the art of playing cat and mouse with the IMF and with foreign donors, mixing dependence and defiance, at once needy but proud and brittle. Like riverboat gamblers, Egypt’s rulers seem to relish the game, secure in the knowledge that a country of 80 million people at the crossroads of so vital a region, so near to the oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, a Sunni balance to Iran, will always be bailed out, that it is too big to fail. 
In This Arab Time: The Pursuit of Deliverance (Fouad Ajami)
- Highlight on Page 38 | Loc. 612-15  | Added on Monday, December 15, 2014, 06:10 AM

The Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood had in mind was anathema to the free spirits in the land. It is perhaps a fragile hope, but this has always been a country of coffeehouses and storytellers, a people given to humor and forgiving of the follies of others. This is not stern Arabia, but a land with a vibrant street and night life, banter between the sexes, an earthiness that looks with suspicion on zealots and the “virtue” they claim to uphold. 
In This Arab Time: The Pursuit of Deliverance (Fouad Ajami)
- Highlight on Page 41 | Loc. 656-57  | Added on Monday, December 15, 2014, 06:19 AM

Dictatorship rests on a measure of consent: an ordinary man obliges, and the crowd projects onto him its need for a redeemer. 

We love consistent formatting! It usually means a file can be parsed without too much work.

Random highlight

I wonder how many people make use of that clippings file. I want to be reminded of the parts of books I’ve read that I thought were worth highlighting, and an easy-to-parse clippings file means I can cut it up into separate highlights and pick a random one to read.

I thought awk would be a good tool to solve this problem. awk is a programming language (and tool?) that lets you select and process text using pretty complicated recipes. I didn’t know any awk before creating this small hack, so it’s possible that the script below is very inefficient, or even buggy. If it is, please let me know.

I put together this awk script. Let’s call it parser.awk:

  clipping = "";
  if ($0 !~ /==========/) {
      clipping = clipping $0 "\n";
  } else {
  clippings[i++] = clipping;
  clipping = "";
  print clippings[int(rand()*i)];

And I created an alias that uses that script to parse my clippings file:

alias clipping='awk -f /path/to/parserk.awk /another/path/to/My\ Clippings.txt'

Which will let you run a clipping command in your terminal and get a random highlight.

Nothing is so perfect

This works nicely, but lacks polish in a few ways:

  • I have to remember to manually copy the clippings file off of the Kindle. Right now, this means connecting the Kindle to my computer, waiting for the Kindle drive to mount, going into the documents folder, and copying My Clippings.txt to its destination. This can be automated to some extent – I can automate the file copying to happen once the Kindle drive is mounted, but I’d still have to remember to connect the device itself.
  • An alias that prints a random clipping is not the best use of this file. I still need to remember to run the command, and it’s rare that what I’m most in the mental headspace for when in terminal is to read a quote from a book. What’s the alternative? I could write a script that sends me an email with a highlight every morning. Or maybe I could use some speech-to-text system and send myself an audio snippet of the quote. I wonder if I can use a text-to-speech system that sounds natural enough. I’ll have to think about it.

Misc notes

  • Use Libby, donate to your local public library.
  • If you use a Kindle, the local storage of highlights makes the utility of books you borrow using Libby even higher.
  • Being able to write scripts that solve niche problems like this is empowering. But it relies on information being available in open, easy-to-read formats like a plain text file. This is what we lose when information storage moves to proprietary formats or inaccessible locations, and that’s where the wind is blowing in some ways. I am a little surprised – pleasantly! – that Kindle still stores these highlights in the same file format it did when I saved my first highlight back in 2012.
  • Easy open formats are not perfect. One downside of the plain text file is that rich formatting like bold and italics is lost. Kindle could decide to put the work in to add Markdown markup to preserve some of that, but that adds complexity and room for what programmers like to call a “big mess”.
  1. Libby lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from your local public library in the US. It’s one of the best made apps I’ve used, and the one that has changed my life the most in the past twelve months. ↩︎

  2. I was on the Seattle light rail reading my copy of Issue 7 of Logic magazine, and I looked up and caught the eyes of someone else with the same issue in their hands. It made my day. ↩︎

  3. That space in the filename bothers me. ↩︎


Somewhere in northern Washington

February was a month with a lot of travel, which I like, and a lot of Big Life Projects, which I don’t like as much.



Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy by Tim Moore.

I read this book while traveling, and I think that was a great context for it. Being into cycling would help you extract 100% of the fun and storytelling in it, but it's worth reading even if you're not. The book's premise is easy to get from the title and a quick search, so I won't go into it here. What you probably don't realize about it until you start reading is how funny this book is. I would frequently start laughing so hard that I'd have to put the book down and have my traveling partner tell me that I'm making a scene.

I think the last thing I read that made me laugh so hard was This World of Ours (PDF) by James Mickens, an associate professor at Harvard who writes about security. Yes, security, and trust me, you owe it to yourself to read it. Here’s the first line from the article, just to give you a taste:

Sometimes, when I check my work email, I'll find a message that says “Talk Announcement: Vertex-based Elliptic Cryptography on N-way Bojangle Spaces.” I'll look at the abstract for the talk, and it will say something like this: “It is well-known that five-way secret sharing has been illegal since the Protestant Reformation [Luther1517]. However, using recent advances in polynomial-time Bojangle projections, we demonstrate how a set of peers who are frenemies can exchange up to five snide remarks that are robust to Bojangle-chosen plaintext attacks.”

and another favorite part:

Web-of-trust cryptosystems also result in the generation of emails with incredibly short bodies (e.g., “R U gonna be at the gym 2nite?!?!?!?”) and multi- kilobyte PGP key attachments, leading to a packet framing overhead of 98.5%. PGP enthusiasts are like your friend with the ethno-literature degree whose multi-paragraph email signature has fourteen Buddhist quotes about wisdom and mankind's relationship to trees. It's like, I GET IT. You care deeply about the things that you care about. Please leave me alone so that I can ponder the inevitability of death.

Anyway, I digress.

Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Shuttle and Her Crew by Michael D. Leinbach, Jonathan H. Ward.

This book is a detailed description of the efforts involved in searching for the crew and shuttle remains after Columbia disintegrated on reentry on Saturday, February 1, 2003. Thousands of people spent months walking every reachable square meter of a debris field that covered three states looking for remains of the crew and every piece of Columbia they could find. My interest in the story of Columbia and its demise is more than superficial. Short of the complete CAIB report on the accident, I've read anything and everything I could find about it. This book is a good read if you have an above average interest in what happened. In the beginning it talks a little bit about the day of the accident, and in the end it talks about the investigation into the root cause of the crash, but the majority of it is dedicated to detailing the logistics of bringing thousands of people together into a methodical sweep of an unknown but huge area of the United States. A spaceship broke up at an altitude of 60km, traveling at close to twenty times the speed of sound, and still the search crews found the remains of all seven crew members, and enough parts of the vehicle to figure out what happened.


The Commander Thinks Aloud from the album Ultimate by The Long Winters

The Commander Thinks Aloud is one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s written from the perspective of the commander of a space shuttle, specifically the shuttle Columbia, and specifically during reentry on the day of the accident. It’s probably obvious why that was a frequent listen for me this month.

It’s a truly beautiful piece of music. It’s one of those songs that makes you think “how the hell did they think this? how did they create it? how did they get so much of it so right?”

John Roderick from The Long Winters was interviewed about the song on episode 28 of the Song Exploder podcast. It’s a fascinating 20 minutes.

ATLiens by OutKast

Strangely titled album, but it’s really good old school rap.