Getting to Yes

Getting to Yes – Negotiating an Agreement without Giving in is written by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton.

This is another book that I borrowed from John Steinhart. It is one of John’s many recommended books on leadership and conflict management. I enjoyed reading the paperback tremendously, but had a lesser experience listening to the audiobook. Perhaps the subject matter is more suitable to be consumed in print than in sound waves. As a comparison, the audiobook The Selfish Gene, read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward, was addictive to listen to.

In the authors’ own words: This book is about the method of principled negotiation. The first chapter describes problems that arise in using the standard strategies of positional bargaining. The next four chapters lay out the four principles of the method. The last three chapters answer the questions most commonly asked about the method: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they will not play along? And what if they use dirty tricks?

What is negotiation? It is easier to think what it is not. In my view, it is not a contest of will, for example, whether I am more stubborn than you or vice versa. It is not threatening. By threatening with statement such as “if you do not meet my request, I would do X just to spite you”, you only show how fragile and insensible you are. At the receiving end, no one should give in to threats like that, unless the concession to be made is of no consequence to others and we do not want to waste any more breath with the other party. I also think it is wrong to have a specific and fixed goal prior to the negotiation. With an unshakable target in mind, you might turn deaf to the other party’s reasoning and stop seeking other potentially better options. Negotiation is a dialogue. The more challenging the underlying conflict, the better to have this dialogue in person, side by side. Ask questions and listen to others’ perspectives, seek understanding of what matters most to them. Finally, before heading into a conflict and negotiation, there is always the question whether it is worth it.

In the authors’ words: Negotiation is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed (as well as some that may simply be different).

This book is centered at principled negotiation and I list four methods to achieve that below. As usual, texts in italic are quoted from the book, the rest is my thought based on reading the book.

  • Separate the people from the problem

Every negotiator has two kinds of interest: in the substance and in the relationship…The relationship tends to become entangled with the problem…Positional bargaining puts relationship and substance in conflict…Dealing with a substantive problem and maintaining a good working relationship need not be conflicting goals if the parties are committed and psychologically prepared to treat each separately on its own legitimate merits. Base the relationship on mutually understood perceptions, clear two-way communication, expressing emotions without blame, and a forward-looking, purposive outlook. Deal with people problems by changing how you treat people; don’t try to solve them with substantive concessions.

  • Focus on interests, not positions.  

The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears….Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones….How do you identify interests? One basic technique is to put yourself in their shoes. Examine each position they take, and ask yourself “Why?”… Ask “Why not?” Think about their choice. One of the most useful ways to uncover interests is first to identify the basic decision that those on the other side probably see you asking them for, and then to ask  yourself why they have not made that decision. What interests of theirs stand in the way? If you are trying to change their minds, the starting point is to figure out where their minds are now.

  • Invent options for mutual gains

This method calls for being creative in coming up with potential solutions. Neither of the two negotiating parties has to lock into certain positions. By examining both conflicting and shared interests, being open-minded without forming premature judgement helps to search for new options that might satisfy the interests of both parties. Do not think that solving their problem is their problem. In a negotiation, the problem is affecting both parties. It pays to invent ways to make the counterparty’s decision making process easier.

  • Insist on using objective criteria

Principled negotiation produces wise agreements amicably and efficiently. The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair. The more you and the other side refer to precedent and community practice, the greater your chance of benefiting from past experience. And an agreement consistent with precedent is less vulnerable to attack…Three basic points to remember: frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria; reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied; never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The vast majority of workplace conflicts are small-scale and are usually caused by misunderstanding, particularly when the communication skills, culture and personal backgrounds vary drastically. We should refrain from sending emails or messages when the recipients are reachable in person. In the absence of face-to-face discussions, video calls are better than phone calls, which in turn are better than emails for dealing with conflicts. An extension, but not far-fetching: life is much better without being the slave of e-communication. Finally, I also think it is important to know that not all negotiation will result in win-win solutions. It is perfectly fine to agree that we disagree with each other with mutual respect intact.

I end this article with a few more interesting points of view from the book:

A great need for negotiation based on a joint search for mutual gains and legitimate standards.

Conflict remains, as we have noted, a growth industry. Indeed, the advent of the negotiation revolution has brought more conflict, not less. Hierarchies tend to bottle up conflict, which comes out into the open as hierarchies give way to networks. Democracies surface rather suppress conflicts, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian societies.

The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable – and useful – part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. Few injustices are addressed without serious conflict. In the form of business competition, conflict helps create prosperity. And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict, not less.

The challenge is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. It is to change the way we deal with our differences – from destructive, adversarial battling to hard-headed, side-by-side problem solving.

Like it or not, you are a negotiator. Negotiation is a fact of life.

People find themselves in a dilemma. They see two ways to negotiate: soft or hard. The soft negotiator wants to avoid personal conflict and so makes concessions readily to reach agreement. He or she wants an amicable resolution; yet often ends up exploited and feeling bitter. The hard negotiator sees any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme positions and holds out longer fares better. He or she wants to win; yet often ends up producing an equally hard response that exhausts the negotiator and his or her resources and harms the relationship with the other side. Other standard negotiating strategies fall between hard and soft, but each involves an attempted trade-off between getting what you want and getting along with people.

The (principled negotiation) method applies whether the other side is more experienced or less, a hard bargainer or a friendly one. Principled negotiation is an all-purpose strategy. Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better.

The Five Dysfunctions of A Team


This week, I read The Five Dysfunctions of A Team by Patrick Lencioni. It is a fascinating read. After this week’s Leadership and Conflict Management class with John Steinhart concluded, I stood by the desk where John laid out a collection of recommended books, picked this book up, started reading and became completely hooked by it. As time went by, everyone else left the lecture theatre. There I was, still holding this book. John graciously offered to let me take this book home to continue the reading. Borrowed books are always more interesting to read than the ones we own, especially if you borrow from a friend rather than a library.

To whet your appetite, I include this short passage from the cover: After her first two weeks observing the problems at DecisionTech, Kathryn Petersen, its new CEO, had more than a few moments when she wondered if she should have taken the job. But Kathryn knew there was little chance she would have turned it down. After all, retirement had made her antsy, and nothing excited her more than a challenge. What she could not have known when she accepted the job, however, was just how dysfunctional her team was, and how team members would challenge her in ways that no one ever had before.

The best feature of this book lies in its storytelling. The pseudo company DecisionTech is failing despite its initial success under the founder and CEO Jeff. The board brought in Kathryn Petersen aged 57 out of retirement to fix the company up and turn it into a success. Kathryn has no prior experience working in high tech companies. She was a “blue-collarish executive’ in an automobile manufacturing plant. Kathryn spent first two weeks attending meetings and simply observing without actions, which frightened the board and the company as to how much value she would add, if any. Then she decided to have a series of off-sites with all executives, while the company was in dire need of bringing in customers and generating revenue. The very first conflict arrived from this, followed by other conflicts and at the core the five dysfunctions revealed and Kathryn’s actions in addressing them. At each turn of the page, I was eager to find out how yet another new mess is to be sorted out.

Unlike most books about leadership and management written with analysis and case studies, this book is a leadership fable with the style of a fiction. With one set of characters in a fictitious startup, many stories are progressively told to reveal the five dysfunctions of a team that are very common at most workplaces and show the steps taken to overcome these issues to build a highly effective team. Thanks to Patrick’s excellent portraying of the characters through dialogues and thought processes, while reading this book I was able to map myself to the key characters, see their perspectives and learn what behaviors are constructive or destructive for building a great team.

What are the five dysfunctions of a team? I share the descriptions from the book below with one warning. Simply looking through the list here without seeing its manifestation would discount its value significantly, particularly for readers without leadership experience.

  • The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.
  • This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
  • A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
  • Because of this lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability. Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.
  • Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team.

This figure cited from the Table Group gives a pictorial overview of the five dysfunctions and example methods to combat them.

A few more passages from the book are worthy mentioning:

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.

Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.

Kathryn’s lack of in-depth software experience did not concern her. In fact, she felt certain that it provided her with an advantage. Most of her staff seemed almost paralyzed by their own knowledge of technology, as though they themselves would have to do the programming and product design to make the company fly. Kathryn knew that Jack Welch didn’t have to be an expert on toaster manufacturing to make General Electric a success and that Herb Kelleher didn’t have to spend a lifetime flying airplanes to build Southwest Airlines.

As harsh as that may sound, Ken (Kathryn’s husband) always says that his job (as a coach) is to create the best team possible, not to shepherd the careers of individual athletes. And that’s how I look at my job (CEO).

Find someone who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decision, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team, not their own ego.  

Now, what dysfunctions have been affecting your team? Would you like to exit from it or to fix the dysfunctions? How would you like to address them? You might find this book a useful one to read.

Speaking Up Without Freaking Out


Speaking Up Without Freaking Out by Matt Abrahams is the required reading for the Public Speaking course here at Stanford. We are fortunate to have the author as the instructor for this very interactive course.


If it were not for the fact that this book is a required reading, I might not have picked any books addressing anxieties associated with public speaking. With the full knowledge that there is lots of room for me to improve my public speaking skills, I do not think anxiety is one of those hurdles. I feel excited rather than anxious prior to a talk, formally or informally, in front of a group of people, whether familiar to me or strangers. There are far worse sufferings on this planet than public speaking. I do not wish this for anyone, but imagine the following. If I suffer from an illness with excruciating pain for the rest of my life, would I feel anxious about public speaking? If I know that I might lose my loved ones at a splitting second to any random accident, would I feel anxious to speak in front of people? If I am homeless and struggling with getting enough bread, let alone butter, would I care whether others think I am a good public speaker or not? I think not. Drop the anxiety, free yourself from the burden of imaging how you might be judged by others, stop thinking of impressing others how knowledgeable you are. Have you read an eulogy that talks about how anxious or calm someone is as a public speaker? I have not, but then I have not read many eulogies. The point is that there is really no need to be anxious. All we need to do is to be prepared and do our best if no time given for any preparation. Keep calm, drink tea and work on it.

Now you ask, is there any value to read this book at all if anxiety is not an issue? I have asked Matt a very similar question: is it valuable to attend a public speaking course if you are not anxious about public speaking? I like his answer. There are a lot techniques I can learn and practice to be a better public speaker, body language, variation in tones etc. Did I like reading Matt’s book? Yes. Much of his advice is not only applicable for addressing anxiety issues, but can also help you to practice to be a better speaker. I list a couple that are pertinent to my own shortcomings:

  1. Practice A.D.D. method of answering questions: Answer the questions (one clear, declarative sentence); Detail a specific, concrete example that supports your answer; Describe the benefits that explain why your answer is relevant to the asker.
  2. Begin your presentation speaking slightly more slowly. Practice delivering your opening lines at a slower rate than usual.
  3. Use Powerpoint wisely. Author your content in an outline format before you create slides. Next, determine if and what slides are needed. Then, create slides. Remember, slides are not the presentation. Your content and delivery are the presentation. Far too often, speakers think they are writing a speech when they are only drafting slides. These two acts are different.

A great mentor of mine, Jay Owen, encouraged me to present without any visual aid during group meetings. That was a great piece of advice. Thanks to the opportunities I had, the more I practiced that, the more confidence I gained for speaking spontaneously and the more observant I became of the listeners’ feedback during the presentation. These feedbacks led me to be more acutely aware of the two major flaws in my own behavior that need correction: the rush to speak my mind when asked for an opinion or answering a question, and speaking too fast about a topic that may be distant to others. In communication, the recipient of the information being delivered is the center, not the presenter. I would like to work more on the delivery techniques rather than get myself off the hook quickly and leave the recipients confused. Hope this course will help me to improve.  


Read the book, if you are interested. It is a small volume with crisp advice on how to become a confident, compelling and connected speaker.

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement

I have been reading Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton and Rose D. Friedman on and off last a couple weeks. To read this book, we need to know first that this book was published in 1980. The global environment was very different then. That said, much of the content I find convincing and I am inclined to agree with the authors. However, some of it I am more inclined to disagree, especially about social welfare. Friedman argues for a laissez-faire economic model without government intervention, such as tariffs, regulations, subsidies and so on. Plenty of examples from history are provided to support this thesis: Britain’s glorious economic growth for a century before WWI, east and west Germany, Hong Kong as a rising star in the 1980s, Japan from 1867 to 1897 vs India after WWII as a comparison. Freedom from governmental intervention is credited for the rapid growth in both economic and political freedom. The comparison of Japan vs Indian exemplifies this argument.

Japan (from 1867 to 1897) relied primarily on voluntary cooperation and free markets – on the model of the Britain of its time. India (1947 to 1980s) relied on central economic planning – on the model of the Britain of its time. The Meiji government did intervene in many ways and played a key role in the process of development. It sent many Japanese abroad for technical training. It imported foreign experts. It established pilot plants in many industries and gave numerous subsidies to others. But at no time did it try to control the total amount or direction of investment or the structure of output….India is following a very different policy. Its leaders regard capitalism as synonymous with imperialism, to be avoided at all costs. They embarked on a series of Russian-style five-year plans that outlines detailed programs of investment. Some areas of production are reserved to government; in others private firms are permitted to operate, but only in conformity with The Plan. Tariffs and quotas control imports, subsidies control exports. Self-sufficiency is the ideal. Needless to say, these measures produce shortages of foreign exchange. These are met by detailed and extensive foreign exchange control – a major source both of inefficiency and of special privilege. Wages and prices are controlled. A government permit is required to build a factory or to make any other investment….Reliance on the market in Japan released hidden and unsuspected resources of energy and ingenuity. It prevented vested interests from blocking change. It forced development to conform to the harsh test of efficiency. Reliance on government controls in India frustrates initiative or diverts it into wasteful channels.

I made an earlier decision not to write about China, but there is one interesting passage about China in this book worthy quoting:

We recently came across a fascinating example of how an economic system can affect the qualities of people. Chinese refugees who streamed into Hong Kong after communists gained power sparked its remarkable economic development and gained a deserved reputation for initiative, enterprise, thrift, and hard work. The recent liberalization of emigration from Red China has produced a new stream of immigrants – from the same racial stock, with the same fundamental cultural traditions, but raised and formed by thirty years of communist rule. We hear from several firms that hired some of these refugees that they are very different from the earlier Chinese entrants into Hong Kong. The new immigrants show little initiative and want to be told precisely what to do. They are indolent and uncooperative. No doubt a few years in Hong Kong’s free market will change all that.

Economic and social progress do not depend on the attributes or behavior of the masses. In every country a tiny minority sets the pace, determined the course of events. In the countries that have developed most rapidly and successfully, a minority of enterprising and risk-taking individuals have forged ahead, created opportunities for imitators to follow, have enabled the majority to increase their productivity.

In this book, Friedman argues that the story of the United States is the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle that was made possible by the translation into practice of two sets of ideas – both, by a curious coincidence, formulated in documents published in the same year, 1776.

One set is embodied in The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, no coercion, no violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals all of whom can benefit. That is why, as Adam Smith put it, an individual who “intends only his own gain” is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”


The second set is from the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

There are many fascinating pieces from this book. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Writing about equality: A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy byproduct, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Though a byproduct of freedom, greater equality is not an accident. A free society releases the energies and abilities of people to pursue their own objectives. It prevents some people from arbitrarily suppressing others. It does not prevent some people from achieving positions of privilege, but so long as freedom is maintained, it prevents those positions of privilege from becoming institutionalised, they are subject to continued attack by other able, ambitious people. Freedom means diversity but also mobility. It preserves the opportunity for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged and, in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.

Talking about unions: A successful union reduces the number of jobs available of the kind it controls. As a result, some people who would like to get such jobs at the union wage cannot do so. They are forced to look elsewhere. A greater supply of workers for other jobs drives down the wages paid for those jobs. Universal unionization would not alter the situation. It could mean higher wages for the persons who get jobs, along with more unemployment for others. More likely, it would mean strong unions and weak unions, with members of the strong unions getting higher wages, as they do now, at the expense of members of weak unions.

About conformity vs unanimity: The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity. That is why it is desirable to use the ballot box, so far as possible, only for those decisions where conformity is essential.

On inflation: Five simple truths embody most of what we know about inflation: 1. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon arising from a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output (though, of course, the reasons for the increase in money may be various). 2. In today’s world government determines – or can determine – the quantity of money. 3. There is only one cure for inflation: a slower rate of increase in the quantity of money. 4. It takes time – measured in years, not months – for inflation to develop; it takes time for inflation to be cured. 5. Unpleasant side effects of the cure are unavoidable.


Morrie: in His Own Words


Many people know about Morrie Schwartz from the book Tuesdays with Morrie, written by his student Mitch Albom based on fourteen visits on Tuesdays. I was one of these people; I read Tuesdays with Morrie a few times over the decade. Tuesdays with Morrie is a small volume with a quiet power to clear the mind and clarify priorities for me.

This weekend, I read Morrie: in His Own Words by Morrie Schwartz. I visited Grover Beach in the winter of 2013. As part of the ritual of exploring a new area I searched for bookshops and found Nan’s Pre-owned Books. It was a delightful second hand bookshop with many volumes. There I came across Morrie: in His Own Words on the shelf among with a few others that the now faded receipt used as a bookmark informs me. This is the only title on the list that, shamefully, I have not read before. I should not criticize myself too harshly on this score though. With so many boxes of books, it is not easy to keep track of them. At least this book is being shelved after randomly opening a couple of boxes among many. The happiest faces I saw this year were the two movers’ when they heard me saying that they could leave the boxes of books in the garage in the absence of anywhere better to put them.

I am glad that I finally read it in September 2017 instead of the winter of 2013. Much personal experience in recent years has helped me to appreciate this book a lot more than I could have done a few years earlier. For example, I often wonder about what my father (severely disabled caused by traumatic brain injuries) feels and thinks, how my actions and words might impact him, and so on. In some way, Morrie’s words help me to picture what my father might have been going through internally without the capability of articulation. Like many, I am thankful to Morrie for writing this book despite suffering from his grave illness.

The book has two parts: understanding where you are now and getting to where you want to be. The first part talks about living with physical limitations, handling frustrations, grieving for your losses, reaching acceptance, and reviewing the past. In the second part, Morrie gives us advice on maintaining an active involvement in life, relating to others, being kind to yourself, dealing with your mind and emotions, developing a spiritual connection, and finally considering death. There is a lot wisdom in this small volume. You may think it is too gloomy a topic to read in a weekend day. I beg to differ on that. I believe through learning to deal with illness and to face death, we see the world in a much clearer way and live a much better life than it otherwise would be. I select a few passages from the book to share with you below and hope you find guidance from Morrie’s words.

When we have an injury to the body, we tend to think it’s an injury to the self. But it was very important for me to make clear to myself that my body is only part of who I am. We are much greater than the sum of our physical parts. The way we look at the world is fashioned by our values and our thoughts about good and evil, things that go into making us who we are. We have emotions, insights, and intuitions. My contention is that as long as you have other faculties – the emotional, psychological, intuitive faculties – you haven’t lost yourself or even diminished yourself. Don’t be ashamed when you’re physically limited or dysfunctional; don’t think that you’re any less because of your condition. In fact, I feel I am even more myself than I was before I got this illness because I have been able to transcend many of the psychological and emotional limitations I had before I developed ALS.

Grieve and mourn for yourself, not only or twice, but again and again. Grieving is a great catharsis and comfort and a way of keeping yourself composed….I see mourning as a way of paying respect to life.

Come to terms with the fact that you will never again be fully physically comfortable. Enjoy the times you are comfortable enough. Acceptance is not passive – you have to work at it by continually trying to face reality rather than thinking reality is something other than what it is.

Recognize the difference between what you want and need. Your need to feel connected to other people is as vital to human survival as food, water, and shelter.

If you are ill, you can experience more freedom to be who you really are and want to be because you now have nothing to lose.

Accept your doubts about your ability to achieve any change in your emotional state. But keep trying. You might be surprised.

Learn how to live, you’ll know how to die; learn how to die, and you’ll know how to live.

The best preparation for living fully and well is to be prepared to die at any time, because impending death inspires clarity of purpose, a homing in on what really matters to you.

Finally, the book ends with this short story that invites us to reflect:

There’s this little wave, a he-wave who’s bobbing up and down in the ocean off the shore, having a great time. All of a sudden, he realizes he’s going to crash into the shore. In this big wide ocean, he’s now moving toward the shore, and he’ll be annihilated. “My God, what’s going to happen to me?” he says, a sour and despairing look on this face. Along comes a female wave, bobbing up and down, having a great time. And the female wave says to the male wae, “Why are you so depressed?” The male says, “You don’t understand. You’re going to crash into that shore, and you’ll be nothing.” She says, “You don’t understand. You’re not a wave; you’re part of the ocean.”

Introduction to Information Retrieval

Introduction to Information Retrieval is my book of the week. It is co-authored by Christopher D. Manning, Prabhakar Raghavan and Hinrich Schütze. The authors generously make the e-version of the book freely available to the public. I benefited from this generosity and read the pdf version. It is very convenient to follow the links in pdf, although the lack of reverse-link in pdf makes it hard to navigate back to the source of the link.

This book is very comprehensive and probably the best textbook available if you wish to know about information retrieval. There are both fundamental and advanced topics covered. Moreover, each chapter includes a References and Further Reading section, providing more resources for readers who would like to dive further into specific topics. The other notable attribute of this book is its clarity in explaining the concepts without introducing unnecessarily complicated formula. The texts accompanying the algorithms express the logic clearly. If you are still unsure about how certain algorithm works after reading the text part, thinking through one of the several exercises typically included in each chapter helps a great deal.

The version online is from April, 2009. There are a great amount of recent advances in the information retrieval field that are not covered here. However, grasping the content in the book would no doubt help to better understand more recent works. There are more recent lecture notes based on this book available online that I have not explored yet, partially because I have one fairly recently published book, Information Retrieval: Implementing and Evaluating Search Engines, on my to-read list for the near future. Should you become positively obsessed with this topic, like me, you might appreciate that the authors also very helpfully offer a comprehensive list of information retrieval resources.

In the preface, the authors talk about the organisation of this book in depth. Here is my feeble attempt to show you what this book covers at a very high level. If you are interested in learning how search engines work or how to build one, Chapter 1 to 8 cover the basics, such as an inverted index, index construction, compression, vector space model, relevance score calculation, evaluation and so on. Chapter 9 on relevance feedback and query expansion is of great guidance for real-world projects, as I was handling such a challenge in my work while reading this book. In the authors’ words: it discusses methods by which retrieval can be enhanced through the use of techniques like relevance feedback and query expansion, which aim at increasing the likelihood of retrieving relevant documents. Chapters 9 to 18 cover more advanced topics, for example: probabilistic language model, text classification, clustering and latent semantic analysis. Chapters 19 to 21 dive into web search basics and more in depth on crawling, indexing and finally link analysis. Forgive me for my lack of diligence here, since there could be no better overview than the one written by the authors in the preface.

I enjoyed reading this book no less than the Cicero trilogy (Imperium, Conspirata and Dictator) and made many notes for future re-visits.


Venture Deals

My book this week is Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. The most valuable lessons from this book to me are demystifying the funding process, sharing the “secrets” about the venture capital industry in a plain and clear way, and providing many very concrete recommendations on what matters more and what does not deserve much energy dwelling on. The return on the investment of purchasing this book and reading it would be immense, if creating a startup is one’s plan.

Brad and Jason have decades of combined experience in the venture industry. I also infer from the writing that they have different strengths. This book is a great piece of collaboration between them, with the entrepreneur’s perspective contributed by Matt Blumberg. Matt’s perspectives are insightful and direct in conveying what the content covered in each section would mean to an entrepreneur or one to be. I appreciate that the authors share with us many real examples and great advice on handling numerous scenarios. It is impressively informative. During the last few days we experienced an extreme heat wave around Sand Hill, broadly the whole bay and peninsula area. It would have been much more miserable, if not for the pleasure of reading this book.

The book explains the language of the venture industry. This serves as a great reference book to novice entrepreneurs and to those who want to be. It is centered on the economy and on control. First, covering the process of raising fund, how to, who to target, and what to expect as a typical process. Second, dedicating a great amount of writing to the term sheet, perhaps the most critical component if seeking venture funding. Third, explaining the capitalisation table, the pros and cons of using convertible debt. It also has a chapter talking about the recent phenomenon of crowdfunding. The chapter on How Venture Capital Funds Work helps the entrepreneurs to get the perspective from the other side of the table and know how to cooperate or leverage on that knowledge. The chapter on Letters of Intent informatively explains the potential acquisition stage.

Many insights from this book are applicable not only when you try to raise fund for your business endeavor, but also in many other professional and personal scenarios, especially the chapter on negotiation tactics. This book shows that being a good entrepreneur requires a varied set of skills. Although one can aim to develop as much as one possibly can, having partners to work together as a team through the journey potentially would stand much more chance to succeed, barring the numerous cases where the team has severe frictions and falls apart.

Below I select a couple of instances of specific advice among the many from the book.

On negotiation:

There are only three things that matter when negotiating a financing: achieving a good and fair result, not killing your personal relationship getting there, and understanding the deal that you are striking….Pick a few things that really matter – the valuation, stock option pool, liquidation preferences, board and voting controls – and be done with it….When you are going to negotiate your financing, have a plan. Have key things that you want, understand which terms you are willing to concede, and know when you are willing to walk away. If you try to determine this during the negotiation, your emotions are likely to get the best of you and you’ll make mistakes. Always have a plan.

Having an open and collaborative approach with your VC in the context of an acquisition…Being clear with your investors about what is important to you and your team early in the negotiation can help set a tone where you and your investors are working together to reach the right deal structure, especially when the acquirer is trying to drive a wedge between you and those investors. A negotiation in a state of plenty is much easier than a negotiation in a state of scarcity.

On raising money the right way:

Don’t be a machine. Be Human. Be yourself, let us get to know you, and become inspired by you. As the average length of relationship between a VC and entrepreneur lasts longer than the average U.S. marriage, this is a long-term commitment.

The authors’ advice on patents is very pertinent to me, as I had worked on filing a bunch and perhaps overemphasized the value of patents.

When you are working on software, realize that patents are, at best, defensive weapons for others coming after you. Creating a successful software business is about having a great idea and executing well, not about patents, in our opinion.

The authors recommend “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Law” by Constance Bagley and Craig Dauchy as the best book ever written on legal issues for entrepreneurs. I shall append it to my list of books to read for 2018.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins mentioned his concern about people’s misjudgement of the book because of its title. Unfortunately, I was one such plonker. This book sat on my bookshelf for many years. I did not want to touch it because I shallowly inferred from the title that the book is about finding justification in biology for selfishness and moral degradation (if I may, as a far-fetched extension). Reading it might shatter my strongly held view that we human should promote altruism and not be selfish. I opened it one day recently, not remembering when and why exactly. It has proved to be a fascinating read and has demonstrated my pre-assumption to be completely wrong. Dawkins mentioned in the book that, retrospectively speaking, he should have named the book The Immortal Gene instead. I would have benefited from this book many years earlier if that were the title. The fault is all mine though. I learned the lesson to not make the verdict based on the title alone.

A few thoughts occupied my mind while reading this book. There is no answer applicable to us as a group. I think each individual would have one’s own opinion. Also I would like to point out that I am not a biologist at all, merely one who is interested in the subject.

We are the manifestation of our genes to certain extent. I understand gene survival theory as that we maximise the chance of prolonging the existence of any given gene by producing and bringing up offsprings, or helping to increase the chance of survival of that gene as carried by our family members. Last year, when my father was in a coma and in imminent danger for a lengthy period, I, against all my scientific and atheist mind, was praying madly with uttermost sincerity that God would let me give up 30 years of my lifespan in exchange for 30 more years for him, or an even better deal if God is cruel and unjust, 30 years only for 10 years. It was not an attempt to preserve my genes, because it does not propagate back to prior generations at certain ages. It was not altruism either. Did I want him to live because I could not cope with the possibility of losing him? Or, did I want him to live because I truly think he could enjoy many more years of life that would be more relaxing and peaceful than one at working age, despite the prospect of being severely disabled? Looking back, I dismissed the second question fiercely and wanted father to be with us regardless of the medical conditions. I could not cope with the future of living in endless regrets that I have hardly looked after him. Damn me that I have not taken him travel around the world as I wished! Curse me that I have not done X, Y, Z for him! A very long list of unfulfilled wishes. To cope with the fear of not having a chance to give back, I had a belief that he must live. That was a strong and very selfish belief. On one hand, I find this book very convincing. On the other hand, we are so miniscule in the biology evolution, our thoughts and behaviors are greatly influenced by other factors besides the genes. This kind of non-gene-survival related influence appeared to be more dominating than the survival theory in the relatively constrained timeframe.

I am particularly drawn to Dawkins’ meme theory and more keen to find out more about further research on memes. Meme is the name given by Dawkins for a new kind of replicator. “It conveys the idea of a cultural transmission, or, a unit of imitation. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The following paragraph from the book gives us great hope of the legacy we could create in our very trivial and limited lifetime in the long evolution river:

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.

The end of the first edition was very upbeat and positive: We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

It is a book well worth reading. Do not let the title stop you.

Never Give In! – Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches

I grew up in awe of Winston Churchill, for his second to none wartime leadership during WWII, his mastery of writing, oratory and painting, and for his character, including his flaws. It would not be an exaggeration to state that most of us today across many countries owe our sheer existence to Churchill and the victory of WWII.

Some years ago, I went to visit Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace and his family home from 1922 till end of his life Chartwell House. There was a small museum in the Palace dedicated to Winston Churchill then, giving us a glimpse of his early years. Chartwell revealed significantly more of Churchill in my opinion. Chartwell is also more pleasant to visit, to appreciate Churchill’s paintings and literature work, to soak in the history surrounding the Churchill family, as there are much fewer tourists than Blenheim Palace. Churchill’s painting studio with many of his paintings on the walls is also uniquely located in Chartwell. Churchill famously said a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted. I left Chartwell with a few thoughts in mind. First, if we let each individual develop his/her true talent to the fullest and tolerate his/her flaws, we as a group would be much better off than other scenarios, for example, pushing everyone to achieve the highest scores at school and becoming uniform in our pursuits. Second, we are truly only limited by our limited thoughts. If Churchill thought that “I am a good writer and that is enough for me as professional. One cannot possibly be both a great writer and a statesman, or to paint as well”, we either would have very different world history, or, not have his volumes on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, many great speeches and other writings. We are blessed that he did not think that way. Nor should anyone have one’s thoughts jail oneself.

Over two years ago I was listening to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives program, Churchill was reported saying that this is what we fought for after receiving the news that he had lost the 1945 election. Those simple words inspired great admiration from me. To me it says much about Churchill’s vision for his countrymen versus his personal ambition.

Churchill was a great orator. He gave many magnificent speeches during the war time. The National Churchill Museum makes a list of them available online. In the limited space and time, I share excerpts from a few with you, particularly Churchill’s three famous ones around the Battle of France in 1940. May I alert you that I found tears swelling in my eyes every time I read these out loud or hear them quoted on the radios.

Churchill’s first radio broadcast as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940

Having received His Majesty’s commission I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all: to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be.

Excerpt from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, also known as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech:

That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion…

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on 4 June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the Parliament on 18 June 1940, known as the “This was Their Finest Hour” speech:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.


I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

English language is not only marvellously beautiful, but also immensely powerful. Churchill showed us that. I, among many, hold the belief that Churchill’s mastery of oratory lead us to win the war. I conclude this post with one last quote from Churchill. He wrote at the age of 22:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

Capitalism and Freedom

Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was my companion during my trip to Australia recently. This book would challenge your capability to focus, if you read it in public spaces such as airports and planes like I did of some chapters. What impresses me most besides its content is its delivery, the meticulously articulated logic reasoning. Regardless whether you agree with the author’s verdicts, you can touch and feel the logical threads leading to them. I am not an economist nor a politician, but economics always fascinates me. Politics, exactly the opposite. This book broadens my view on the inseparability and strong inter-influence between economic freedom and political freedom. Later Milton Friedman added civil freedom to this dichotomy, in light of Hong Kong’s return to China from British sovereignty in 1997 and its subsequent development. In the book, Friedman also credited this instance for persuading him that: while economic freedom is a necessary condition for civil and political freedom, political freedom, desirable though it may be, is not a necessary condition for economic and civil freedom.

Describing what this book is about, Friedman wrote: its major theme is the role of competitive capitalism – the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market – as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom. Its minor theme is the role that government should play in a society dedicated to freedom and relying primarily on the market to organize economic activity.

Friedman wrote the following on the role of books like this one: First, to provide subject matter for bull sessions….The only person who can truly persuade you is yourself. You must turn the issues over in your mind at leisure, consider the many arguments, let them simmer, and after a long time turn your preferences into convictions. Second,…to keep options open until circumstances make change necessary. There is enormous inertia – a tyranny of the status quo – in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. Both arguments are convincing to me.

To summarize my overall understanding upon reading this book: increasing the economy freedom and decreasing the governmental intervenes in an overly governed state is the direction for further prosperity. Many policies do not deliver the outcome that aligns with our intentions when creating those policies at the first place, for example, minimum wage. A social environment that promotes diversity is far more advantageous than the ones not. Purely my extended understanding of the messages: while in doubt, it is better to rely on the free market mechanism than political interference in the long run.

A few more discussions from the book that I quote here and I think more people would benefit from reading, even if not reading the entire book:

The great advances of civilisation, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government….no one of these opened new frontiers in human knowledge and understanding, in literature, in technical possibilities, or in the relief of human misery in response to governmental directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity.

A common objection to totalitarian societies is that they regard the end as justifying the means. Taken literally, this objection is clearly illogical. If the end does not justify the means, what does? But this easy answer does not dispose of the objection; it simply shows that the objection is not well put. To deny that the end justifies the means is indirectly to assert that the end in question is not the ultimate end, that the ultimate end is itself the use of the proper means. Desirable or not, any end that can be attained only by the use of bad means must give way to the more basic end of the use of acceptable means.

Fundamental differences in basic values can seldom if ever be resolved at the ballot box; ultimately they can only be decided, though not resolved, by conflict…The widespread use of the market reduces the strain on the social fabric by rendering conformity unnecessary with respect to any activities it encompasses. The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement. In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society.

A businessman or an entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a disadvantage compared to other individuals who do not. Such an individual is in effect imposing higher costs on himself than are other individuals who do not have such preference. Hence, in a free market, they will tend to drive him out. This same phenomenon is of much wider scope. It is often taken for granted that the person who discriminate against others because of their race, religion, color, or whatever, incurs no costs by doing so but simply imposes costs on others. This view is on a par with the very similar fallacy that a country does not hurt itself by imposing tariffs on the products of other countries. Both are equally wrong. The man who objects to buying from or working alongside a Negro, for example, thereby limits his range of choice. He will generally have to pay a higher price for what he buys or receive a lower return for his work. Or, put the other way, those of us who regard color of skin or religion as irrelevant can buy some things more cheaply as a result.

The more capitalistic a country is, the smaller the fraction of income paid for the use of what is generally regarded as capital, and the larger the fraction paid for human services…The great achievement of capitalism has not been the accumulation of poverty, it has been the opportunities it has offered to men and women to extend and develop and improve their capacities.

Finally, I uphold my decision of not writing about China. But that is not to say I have no passion for my motherland. To the contrary, I eagerly wish that China progresses towards the right directions in all the economic, civil and political arenas. I part you with a passage in the preface written by Friedman in 2002:  

The introduction of market reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, in effect privatizing agriculture, dramatically increased output and led to the introduction of additional market elements into a communist command society. The limited increase in economic freedom had changed the face of China, strikingly confirming our faith in the power of free markets. China is still very far from being a free society, but there is no doubt that the residents of China are freer and more prosperous than they were under Mao – freer in every dimension except the political. And there are even the first small signs of some increase in political reform, manifested in the election of some officials in a growing number of villages. China has far to go, but it has been moving in the right direction.