Planck – Driven by Vision, Broken by War

  J. C. ignited my (very healthy) obsession in quantum computing about half a year ago. In the past few months, I have read some technical materials, but have been craving for more and more about the origin and the development of quantum physics, and the giants behind it.  

Sadly Richard Feynman’s books are still in one of many unlabelled boxes of books. I have not had the right frame of mind to open and sort them. My profound dislike of shopping means that I still do not have proper bookshelves after giving away my old shelves during our last move. Indeed I am terribly lazy in some parts of life and I am not ashamed of that.

In the blissful absence of the books I own, I went further back to Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger who originated and contributed substantially to quantum theory. This Memorial Day weekend blessed me with Max Planck’s wonderful company through Brandon R. Brown’s book: Planck – Driven by Vision, Broken by War.

I have long had a very warm impression of Max Planck thanks to the fact that a few wonderful friends of mine did their doctoral studies in Max Planck Institutes in Germany and spoke highly of their time there. Besides that and Planck’s fame as a very influential theoretical physicist, I did not know much about him at all before reading this book.

It goes without saying that the book discusses Planck’s achievements in the theoretical physics world, recognising and mentoring the very gifted (such as Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner) who might otherwise have been neglected by the masses. Meitner remained a lifelong friend of Planck and his family. Although Planck admitted Meitner to his lectures when women were typically barred from Prussian universities at that time and later tirelessly advocated for her over decades, Planck’s views on academic women were rather following the mainstream at the time: in general it can not be emphasized strongly enough that Nature itself has designated for woman her vocation as mother and housewife, and that under no circumstances can natural laws be ignored without grave damage.

Most of the correspondences quoted in the book probably are translated to English from German. If so, the English translations are of the finest quality, in my opinion. In his late years, Planck recollected his childhood to a cousin: days and weeks that not only stay in our thoughts but grow in glory… as we become conscious of the incredible good luck that surrounded us, and how deeply greatly we must be for what we took for granted then.

When being told that physics was nearing its natural conclusion and there was nothing left to do (thanks to the success of Isaac Newton’s mechanics, James Clerk Maxwell’s electricity and magnetism, and the new and nearly complete field of thermodynamics), by Professor Philipp von Jolly, Planck said that he did not mind if his life’s work would be largely an end in itself, for further and deep edification.

Albert Einstein wrote this preface for a book of Planck’s essays around 1929 or 1930:

Many kinds of men devote themselves to Science, and not all for the sake of Science herself. There are some who come into her temple because it offers them the opportunity to display their particular talents. To this class of men science is a kind of sport in the practice of which they exult, just as an athlete exults in the exercise of his muscular prowess. There is another class of men who come into the temple to make an offering of their brain pulp in the hope of securing a profitable return. There men are scientists only by the chance of some circumstance which offered itself when making a choice of career. If the attending circumstance had been different they might have become politicians or captains of business. Should an angel of God descend and drive from the Temple of Science all those who belong to the categories I have mentioned, I fear the temple would be nearly emptied. But a few worshippers would still remain – some from former times and some from ours. To these latter belongs our Planck. And that is why we love him.

After Planck passed away, Einstein wrote to his widow Marga:

….His gaze was fixed on the eternal things, and yet he took an active part in all that was human and he lived in the temporal sphere. How different and better the human world would be if there were more such unique people among the leaders….

Planck lived through Second Schleswig War, the First and Second World Wars, lost beloved family members to illness, war, and to execution, and lost his home to allied bombing. His optimism as reflected through his writings persisted. In fact, his lifelong motto was “one must be an optimist”. A great amount of content in this book shows me the catastrophic impact of the WWII on the prominent scientists in Germany. I cannot help wondering what if Planck’s notes and journals were not destroyed by the war, how much more we would know of the man.

The book contains multiple letters written by Lise Meitner to Planck and others. It also noted that Lise Meitner collaborated with Otto Hahn for decades, but was left out in his Nobel Prize in Chemistry award for nuclear fission in 1944. How unjust! (That is my view.)

I leave you with this piece of writing from Planck:

For it is just this striving forward that brings us to the fruits which are always falling into our hands and which are the unfailing sign that we are on the right road and that we are ever and ever drawing nearer to our journey’s end. But that journey’s end will never be reached, because it is always the still far thing that glimmers in the distance and is unattainable. It is not the possession of truth, but the success which attends the seeking after it, that enriches the seeker and brings happiness to him.

Do No Harm

 

The first time I read Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm was in early February 2016, waiting outside an Intensive Care Unit of a no-smoking hospital filled with many “chimney people”, the staircases littered with cigarette ends, bathrooms without soap, hand sanitizer dispensers always empty except for the brief period when officials were touring the hospital. It is a misfortune to be critically injured. It is a curse to be there. This book accompanied me during those dreadful days. The following note is after reading this book for the second time during the last a few nights.

2:13am Saturday

It is impossible to not be in awe of medical research if you have been to Gustavianum Museum in Uppsala. The dizzyingly anatomical theatre and the wide collections of specimens nearby were most memorable to me. There I recall seeing brains and fetuses preserved in glass jars. In the course of my academic research, I have seen thousands of brain scans, ranging from healthy to those with mild illnesses to severe cognitive impairment, from fetus to adult to the aged population. The uniqueness of each never stops fascinating me. Together with many other museums I visited there, Uppsala earned herself a special place in my heart and mind.

Fascination, curiosity, empathy and scientific inquiry dominated my feelings while viewing the brain scans and the specimen. An inexpressibly helpless emotion was not felt until the moment I saw my own father’s brain scan, smashed, with blood dispersed everywhere, and a total lack of clarity of the brain tissue structures that you might see in my brain scan if you were to scan me right now. I had not seen any scans of a brain as distorted as his. I felt nausea at first sight. I felt the world was swirling around me and trying to suck me into its darkest and most fearful hell. It was easier for me to deny the severity of his traumatic brain injury until that moment, because from the outside it looked like he had external wound bleeding on his head and many bruises elsewhere in his body, but the skull was in ok shape. I still hoped that he would wake up after a week or a month.

I felt like the gravity was pulling me very hard to the ground. I was lost in this most acute fear. It was so pure that I could not imagine there is other emotion existing right there and then. I reminded myself that I must stand strong and calm, absolutely do not collapse, for the sake of people around me who were no less eager of knowing the details but without the pre-trained skills of reading the computed tomography scans.

Why did I think the way I did? How is it that the fear leads to physical sickness in the stomach? Why did I feel the inclination of collapse as if his trauma had migrated solely to me which I would superbly happily wish to take over? I was irrational. But I was rational too. I held myself together. Had I not written this down now, no one would have suspected how intensely fearful and sick I felt at that moment. Why did the kinds of emotions that I felt strongly afterwards not emerge at the very beginning? There seems to be some ordering of the emotions, depending on the circumstances, or, on my voluntary and self-controlled reactions. Sometimes they are mixed up. Other times, one or two stand out very clearly such that you can see it face to face, shouting “You, demon, I know you are occupying me right now, just you wait, I will get you out of me!”

What neuron activities lead me to write this now? Why do I have these thoughts? Why do I now choose to commit them to words? Why have I stopped shedding tears while recalling my father’s ordeal? What propelled me to walk up and down the aisle in front of the Intensive Care Unit thousands of times over many days while my brain was flooded with all the memories we shared? Why many times did I walk straight up to the smokers who were so very selfishly smoking right outside ICU to go and smoke out of the building? They might not listen to me, but I simply must do it. Why did I seem to have more courage than I thought I might have to face the challenges while the adversity is severe? What is happening in our brain that drives us to do what we do?

Dark outside, the dark skeleton of the soaring redwood tree against the steel-colored sky, the arms of the aspen trees dancing gently with the breeze, every so often some animals happily singing unknown tunes out there. I, wide awake, with many thoughts racing in my head. Why do I wake up naturally when most people of this part of the world are fast asleep? Why does my brain make that decision without ever consulting me, not that I object to the idea of waking in early hours and having deep thoughts in the most beautiful part of the day? How do we get to make the decision we make from a neuroscience perspective? There are so many articles and books about decision making. How do we know they are not merely retrospectively fitting curves to what have been observed rather than explaining the fundamental causes? I was fortunate to be at the talk given by Robert Sapolsky about his latest book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. I like the scientific endeavours Sapolsky is making towards behavioral biology. Much of the content sounded very plausible to me.

How old is the redwood tree outside my window? Has she seen another soul with similar thinking pattern and decision making process as mine? Is there really soul? No, in my view. Can thinking be classified into patterns? Likely so. How are those patterns developed? You might say habits. Then how is the very first instance of a habit formed?

Why do I always have the strong desire to enter an unknown scientific world? It is a beautiful sensation to feel. Why some people frequently throw the words: “we do not need to know about that”, or worse, “you do not need to know about that”? The latter is absolutely intolerable. Let me judge for myself whether I need or not to learn more about a topic. Why do I get that a lot from people with certain cultural backgrounds rather than others? How much of our thinking and behaviors are molded by the environments and how much is to our own independent will? If my thinking is more independent than yours, what contributed to that? Can we compare the neurons in my head and the connectivities they share, with yours, to explain the difference?  

To explore with the intense fear that I might make a mess is a natural inclination of mine, similar to the one that leads me to wake up at 2:13am on a Saturday to think and to write. It might seem to be self-inflicted suffering to many. It is a sheer pleasure for me.

I love this redwood tree and the aspen trees. They are my dear friends. I love reading and writing in my office through these early hours and hold a new day tightly from its very beginning. Time never abandons us if we appreciate the value of every moment.

A Room of One’s Own

 

Virginia Woolf gave a series of lectures in two women’s colleges of Cambridge University in 1928, and subsequently extended the content to its book form: A Room of One’s Own. It focuses on examining women’s roles as writers of and characters in fiction in a male-dominated literary world.

I first read this small volume together with other Virginia Woolf works during a phase of obsession with her writings in my late teens. It left a very strong impression on me, such that I have been aiming towards my 500 pounds a year and a room of my own to write. Laughably, I could not make my mind up about whether this room should be within walking distance of the British Library or Hyde Park. It remains to be decided when the time comes.

Having had the opportunity to re-read this volume recently, its feminism came through to me more profoundly than previously. I cannot help wondering how financial independence liberated her from other people’s opinions. Would a woman living on the financial support of her husband be able to come to the same realisation Woolf did and write in this way? What did women of her era think of Woolf’s views? Not so long ago, it was Mother’s Day in the USA. I respect and value the women who choose motherhood, but have no interest in that path myself. Even now, occasionally there is an uneasiness and awkwardness that people express towards women who choose to be childless, as if it is a woman’s unshakable responsibility to bear children. Is it? Why is to write or to paint or to innovate not a woman’s fundamental calling?

In my late teens, I was awfully puzzled by Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Why? Why? Why would a woman with such talent, courage to write and speak, financial security and good social standing do that? Perhaps there were a lot of hidden causes that I do not know about. In a recent discussion at work about depression, people concluded that I would never be depressed, because I have too many means and too strong a will to regain my vitality. To recognise and understand other people’s sufferings is an important step towards effective assistance though.

Financial independence is paramount not only to female writers, but also to females who choose other professions. I want to add to that, a woman should never fear speaking her mind or writing in her own voice, even when she does not have that 500 pounds a year and a room of her own. Do it anyway, whatever the circumstance is. We might be ignored and not listened to by the world. But if we do not speak nor write, there is nothing to be heard.

Here are some passages I like from the book:

Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.

Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques–literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.

And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet is it the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.

The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

They lack suggestive power. And when a book lacks suggestive power, however hard it hits the surface of the mind it cannot penetrate within.

Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle.

Be truthful, one would say, and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me – and there are thousands like me – you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. By so doing you will certainly profit the art of fiction. For books have a way of influencing each other. Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy.

Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.

The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art.

One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.

A mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine

The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things….Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.

One cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.

Literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.

At any rate, where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off.

Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer!

“This great book,” “this worthless book,” the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.

Programmatic Advertising

Last winter, I met D.G. at AI Summit in San Francisco. We chatted about programmatic advertising industry. Subsequently, D.G. recommended three great sources for me to learn more about his domain. I share his recommendation with you here.

 
  1. A short book titled Introduction to Programmatic Advertising gives a general overview of online programmatic advertising.
  2. A presentation: the Display Advertising Technology Landscape talks about the roles and interactions of a variety of players in ad tech.
  3. For blogs and news: adexchanger is devoted to the online advertising landscape and read by the practitioners.
 

I read the short book during a weekend some time ago. It is short and plain enough that people who are not working in the advertising domain such as myself can comfortably read it in a weekend purely to satisfy the intellectual curiosity.

Julius Caesar

I saw the new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy: Julius Caesar by the Bridge Theatre London. This new show is not for the faint-hearted, involving a significant amount of on-stage shooting, fighting and battlefield effects.

My favorite characters are Gaius Cassius Longinus played by Michelle Fairley and Marcus Brutus by Ben Whishaw. Michelle Fairley performed marvellously. I was holding my breath many times during the show for both actors, fearing that they might forget a line or stumble. My concern was not necessary at all. As for Mark Antony and the young Octavius also known as Augustus, I have a lot prejudice against both men for their killing of my favorite Roman, Cicero. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the achievements and historic impacts of Augustus. Julius Caesar, based on my readings of history over the years, is a character I admire and loathe with probably equal intensity.

To this day, we use Julius Caesar and Augustus’s names to mark two important months of a year: July and August. We use the phrase crossing the Rubicon to mean passing a point of no return, taken from when Julius Caesar led his army across the river Rubicon and marched towards Rome, a declaration of war on the Roman Senate.

How petty many of our struggles in life seem to be against the backdrop of the history of civilisation? To put things into perspective and to learn from the greatest is one benefit of my love for history, besides the immense joy it brings me.

Spectacles are worn to correct my nearsightedness, history is read to broaden my vision.

The lines from Shakespeare’s writing echo in my ears through the voices of the amazing cast of the show.

Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Cassius:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus on persuading Cassius to fight at Philippi:

Under your pardon. You must note beside,

That we have tried the utmost of our friends,

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:

The enemy increaseth every day;

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat;

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

Brutus speaking to the citizens about the death of Caesar at the Forum:

Be patient till the last. Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:

–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.

Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

Mark Antony speaks to the Roman citizens with Caesar’s corpse presented at the Forum, stirring up the public towards a mutiny. You should read his whole speech. How very insanely cunning in influencing public opinions! Here is the excerpt approaching the end.

Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up

To such a sudden flood of mutiny.

They that have done this deed are honourable:

What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,

That made them do it: they are wise and honourable,

And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.

I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;

But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,

That love my friend; and that they know full well

That gave me public leave to speak of him:

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,

Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,

To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;

I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,

And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,

And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony

Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue

In every wound of Caesar that should move

The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

 

I gifted myself Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto for my birthday. This book was very visually prominent when I was walking around in Copperfield’s Books in Calistoga. The cover itself powerfully attracted my attention. Mary Beard! That name is enough for me to grab the book off the shelf and run to the register. I am a fervent admirer of Mary Beard’s writings, talks and documentaries. No birthday dinner could taste as delicious as reading her books. No birthday party ever is worthy of the time compared with listening to her talking about Roman history.

This book consists of two essays: The Public Voice of Women and Women in Power. They are the written form of the two lectures that Mary Beard gave in 2014 and 2017. I am glad that Mary Beard did not make drastic edits to the texts. Reading these two essays was like having Mary Beard sit with me and talk to me directly about these topics. It is very direct and conversational.

I wrote a much longer version of this blog, but removed three main paragraphs. Ironically, it is about my experience as a woman of struggling to get my voice heard and navigating my way in some male-dominant environments. To be clear without any exaggeration, the negative experience is a fraction of my total experience. Reading this book helps me to see my own struggle in the historical context and somewhat lends me strength to have my own voice. Mary Beard put forward that if the power is exclusive towards women, power should be restructured. Repeating her exact words with my own voice is very liberating: if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?

I entertained the idea of carrying this book around with me. If I were to be silenced unjustly, I would open up this book and start reading out some passages loudly to myself and my offenders. Reassured by Mary Beard that one is fighting a battle that has been on for thousands of years by generations of women gives one more courage and strength than struggling alone, being labelled as far too ambitious and unfeminine, and occasionally worse, suppressed so much to question one’s own sanity.

The passages I find most thought-provoking and quintessential:

Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.

What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have – and that they want.

When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.

What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness.

Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It is an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people ‘whinge’ over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words, or it ‘re-privatises’ them.

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones), but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history.

For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves.

Those reasons are much more basic: it is flagrantly unjust to keep women out, by whatever unconscious means we do so; and we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care. If that means fewer men get into the legislature, as it must do – social change always has its losers as well as its winners – I am happy to look those men in the eye.

But in every way, the shared metaphors we use of female access to power – ‘knocking on the door’, ‘storming the citadel’, ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, or just giving them a ‘leg up’ – underline female exteriority. Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.

To become a man (or at least an elite man) was to claim the right to speak.

It is not just that it is more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if ever they mess up….If I were starting this book again from scratch, I would find more space to defend women’s right to be wrong, at least occasionally.

I cannot help recalling one male hairdresser’s advice to me a few years ago: if you want to be taken seriously at work, wear trousers not dresses. It was very well intended. I thanked him for it without disagreeing and continue with my own choice to wear dresses.

The day I had Pad Kee Mao twice

Photo credit: The Churchill Arms, London

 

“Just eat first.” She said to me.

I stood in the center of her restaurant, overwhelmed. The trust that she bestowed upon me shook me.

It was before the lunch rush. Having the habit of rising up and exercising very early in the morning often leads to violent complaints by my stomach before noon. My mind was particularly occupied that day. By what? You might ask. That would be an independent and long blog itself. So I shall indulge you with your own curiosity.

I drove to this little unnoticeable Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, parked in its very limited parking area. Got out of the car. Locked the car. Immediately felt my hands were empty. The left pocket of my coat was dragging down heavily with a book. Where is my little green purse? Oh, damn fool, you are! You came out to have lunch but forgot to bring card or cash! All right, all right! Stop criticizing me! Shall I drive back to get my purse? No way that I would come out again. Time is far more valuable than anything else! Hmmm, what shall I do? I do not want to starve either. Ah ha, I have my phone with me, do not I? Let me ask whether the restaurant takes paypal payment. I doubted such a little place would accept e-payment though.

With that doubt in mind, I walked into the empty restaurant. No one was there. I could hear some sound from the kitchen, but no one in my sights. Ok, really, you should leave before making this foolish situation embarrassing. Oh, no, let me check! I said: “Hello!” A young lady came to my view. “Hi, I came here to have lunch but found out that I had forgotten my purse. Would you accept paypal?” “Hmm, no.” She was going to check whether the restaurant accepts Apple Pay. But then turned around and said “just eat first.”

Shocked, overwhelmed, immensely grateful for her trust. I attempted to resume reading a book I brought with me, but could not. She trusted that I would come back and pay for the food, without even explicitly request me to do so. Being trusted by a stranger like this brought me a very powerful sensation. So many thoughts were racing in my head.

Did you just notice that I brought my book with me, but not money for lunch? I already said that I was mentally occupied though.

Her clear demonstration of trust towards me was so powerful, partially because to some extent our world is deprived of trust, both in life and work. In our professional worlds, every day we work hard to earn the respect and trust from people. Many times I would spend dozens of hours in preparation for an hour important meeting, some times might stretch to over one hundred hours if it is so critical. I would think deeply about the possible ways that my thinking might be flawed about some topics. I would invest every resource I have to do well in the subjects of my choice. When being evaluated by others, we often do not have a clear picture of: Do they trust our competence? Do they see the values of our contribution? Do they envision our potentials a quarter as big as our own ambitions and what we picture for ourselves?

Most of us strive to be trusted, to be respected, in all aspects of our lives. We are so hungry for that, far more so than for any food. Her offering of a lunch (Pad Kee Mao) to me fills up not only my stomach, but also some part of the void in my inner being. She trusted and respected me. How amazingly wonderful it made one feel!

I went back to pay what I owed her and asked for Pad Kee Mao again, for dinner this time. Pad Kee Mao is also known as No. 16 on the menu of my favorite pub The Churchill Arms in Kensington Church Street. It is the dish of trust to me now.

The Little Prince

 

For years, I have liked the following quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

I have seen similar verses from other sources. Its origin matters little to me. Its essence is inspiring for anyone who wishes to be a leader professionally or personally, in a small or large context. A strong desire for achievement is certainly not enough for great accomplishment, but without that inner drive and vision, very little could be realised even for a very talented person. A couple of months ago, I quoted this to Terry in a discussion. That lead me to dig out Saint-Exupéry’s books and read them. Here comes this blog entry of The Little Prince.

Some would say this is a children book. I think this is true, as children would enjoy reading it. In my opinion, adult readers would find it brutally honest and alarming upon a little self-reflection. Read the little Prince’s thought about the lamplighter here and see what you think:

Now that man, the little prince said to himself as he continued on his journey, that man would be despised by all the others, by the king, by the very vain man, by the drunkard, by the businessman. Yet he’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as ridiculous. Perhaps it’s because he’s thinking of something besides himself.

Ah, for you to appreciate the passage above, I should first introduce you to these characters:

The king is an hilariously ineffective king of a kingdom with no residents other than himself. He takes great pride in being reasonable though.

The very vain man demands admiration from any visitor to his planet. He likes to regard himself as the most handsome, the best-dressed, the richest and the most intelligent man on the planet with one resident, just himself.

The drunkard drinks to forget that he is ashamed of excessive drinking. Very sad indeed, but do not we all know one or two examples in real world who somewhat resemble the drunkard?

The businessman is obsessed about counting stars as a form of wealth, and believes that he is concerned with matters of consequence.

When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before anyone else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.

The lamplighter earns some respect from the prince, as the little prince said to himself:

It’s quite possible that this man is absurd. But he’s less absurd than the king, the very vain man, the businessman, and the drunkard. At least his work has some meaning. When he lights his lamp, it’s as if he’s bringing one more star to life, or one more flower. When he puts out his lamp, that sends the flower or the star to sleep. Which is a fine occupation. And therefore truly useful.

The geographer, who lives on the sixth planet visited by the little prince, does not know whether there are oceans, mountains, cities, rivers or deserts on his planet, because he is not an explorer. As a geographer, he does not go out to describe those. He is far too important to go wandering about. He never leaves his study. He receives the explorers there and questions them and writes down what they remember. Unfortunately, there is not one explorer on his planet. Is this the sadness of specialisation and inflexibility? Are we heading there as a society in general?

The geographer is not totally unhelpful towards the prince though. He indeed recommends the prince to visit the planet Earth. Whenever I write or speak or hear the phrase “the planet Earth”, I hear the voice of David Attenborough. How fascinating! The Earth is the saddest of all. It has one hundred and eleven kings, seven thousand geographers, nine hundred thousand businessman, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million vain men. In total, that is about two billion grow-ups. I got goosebumps when I read this bit of description of the planet Earth. How utterly hopeless we are! My new allergy is the phrase “grow-ups”. Even the mighty Claritin-D cannot help with this allergy.  

Whether scientific or not, Saint-Exupéry shared with us some more wisdom in the chapters about the prince’s visit to the planet Earth, his final stop:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

What I’m looking at is only a shell. What’s most important is invisible.

You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.

No one is ever satisfied where he is. (The railway switchman commented about the travellers.)

What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere.

People where you live grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they do not find what they are looking for…They do not find it. And yet what they are looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water….But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.

Please do not call me a grow-up. I do not wish to be one, absolutely not one as portrayed in The Little Prince.

The Effective Executive

I read a good number of Peter F. Drucker’s works as a postgraduate student. During the last few years, I browsed some passages on and off as the need arose. Last month, I was traveling and had the good fortune to have the company of his The Effective Executive during my Eurostar rides. Coincidentally, I met some extraordinarily smart quantum physicists and recommended Drucker’s writings to them. Deep down, I wish I could summarize all his works, but feel frustrated and powerless that I cannot possibly do Drucker the justice, hence I have to resort to suggesting that people read his writings.

The Effective Executive was first published in 1966. It advises on how to manage oneself for effectiveness. To me, it is one of the very best of his dozens of books. In his own words:

it is both a concise blueprint for effectiveness as an executive within an organization and a practical guide to managing oneself for performance and achievement, whether within an organization or on one’s own. It is equally the best introduction for the nonmanager – whether student or layman – to management and organizations.

Drucker argues that being intelligent or working hard or being knowledgeable is not sufficient for an individual to be reasonably effective, also to be effective does not require any special gifts or training. To be effective is to consistently follow a set of practices. This book prescribes these practices. He states that only effectiveness can convert the essential resources such as intelligence, imagination and knowledge into results. The traditional yardsticks used for manual work are not applicable to knowledge work. A knowledge worker needs a different kind of management and leadership, not to be supervised closely, instead to be helped. As a knowledge worker, one must direct oneself towards performance and contribution.

I like Drucker’s definition of an executive:

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of an organization to perform and to obtain results. This may be the capacity of a business to bring out a new product or to obtain a larger share of a given market. It may be the capacity of a hospital to provide bedside care to its patients, and so on. Such a man must make decisions; he cannot just carry out orders. He must take responsibility for his contribution. And he is supposed, by virtue of his knowledge, to be better equipped to make the right decision than anyone else. He may be overridden; he may be demoted or fired. But so long as he has the job, the goals, the standards, and the contribution are in his keeping.   

Entering the industry, as I started to build and lead a team in a company, I appreciated more of what I learned from Drucker. It is one of the sources that guides me to a firm belief that as a leader, the responsibility is always mine. To be a good leader requires far more than technical expertise and intelligence. In my view, partially thanks to Silicon Valley, the individual contributors are valued more than in the past when the management ladder was the only way for career progress. At the same time, I wonder whether we have neglected leadership development in the tech industry under the disguise of needing more technical experts tackling specific problem sets. Many brilliant engineers are very settled down thinking that, as life is wonderful enough as an individual contributor, why bother taking up the work coordinating and leading efforts of multiple people, let alone sometimes having to deal with tough conversations with difficult employees. I respect people with this view, but disagree profoundly. The Effective Executive broadly addresses any knowledge worker who is responsible for actions and decisions to contribute to the performance capacity of the wide organization. So you may find a sentence or two beneficial to your thinking, regardless of whether you view yourself as an executive or one who never wants to be.

Below I summarize the book with selected passages below to show what Drucker prescribed for learning to be effective.

Effectiveness is not a subject, but a self-discipline. Throughout this book, and implicit in its structure and in the way it treats its subject matter, is always the question: “What makes for effectiveness in an organization and in any of the major areas of an executive’s day and work?” Only rarely is the question asked: “Why should there be effectiveness?” The goal of effectiveness is taken for granted…..Effectiveness reveals itself as crucial to a man’s self-development; to organisation development; and to the fulfillment and viability of modern society.

  1. The first step toward effectiveness is a procedure: recording where the time goes.
  2. The next step in which the executive is asked to focus his vision on contribution advances from the procedural to the conceptual, from mechanics to analysis, and from efficiencies to concern with results. In this step the executive disciplines himself to think through the reason why he is on the payroll and the contribution he ought to make….In focusing himself and his vision on contribution the executive has to think through purpose and ends rather than means alone.
  3. Making strengths productive is fundamentally an attitude expressed in behavior. It is fundamentally respect for the person – one’s own as well as others. It is a value system in action. But it is again “learning through doing” and self-development through practice. In making strengths productive, the executive integrates individual purpose and organization needs, individual capacity and organization results, individual achievement and organization opportunity.
  4. First thing first. It is an antiphon to Know Thy Time at the first step. The procedure here no longer deals with a resource, time, but with the end product, the performance of organisation and executive. What is being recorded and analyzed is no longer what happens to us but what we should try to make happen in the environment around us. And what is being developed here is not information, but character: foresight, self-reliance, courage. What is being developed here, in other words, is leadership – not the leadership of brilliance and genius, to be sure, but the much more modest yet more enduring leadership of dedication, determination, and serious purpose.
  5. The effective decision does not, as so many texts on decision making proclaim, flow from a consensus on the facts. The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives.

As conflict is one of my favorite subjects, I shall indulge myself with a bit more quotes from the book here:

Disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination. In all matters of true uncertainty such as the executive deals with – whether his sphere is political, economic, social, or military – one needs “creative” solutions which create a new situation. And this means that one needs imagination – a new and different way of perceiving and understanding.

Imagination of the first order is, I admit, not in abundant supply. But neither is it as scarce as is commonly believed. Imagination needs to be challenged and stimulated, however, or else it remains latent and unused. Disagreement, especially if forced to be reasoned, thought through, documented, is the most effective stimulus we know.

Disagreement converts the plausible into the right, the right into the good decision.

Effective executive starts out with the commitment to find out why people disagree. Effective executives know, of course, that there are fools around and that there are mischief-makers. But they do not assume that the man who disagrees with what they themselves see as clear and obvious is, therefore, either a fool or a knave. They know that unless proven otherwise, the dissenter has to be assumed to be reasonably intelligent and reasonably fair-minded. Therefore, it has to be assumed that he has reached his so obviously wrong conclusion because he sees a different reality and is concerned with a different problem. The effective executive, therefore, always asks: ”What does this fellow have to see if his position were, after all, tenable, rational, intelligent?” The effective executive is concerned first with understanding. Only then does he even think about who is right and who is wrong.

A Traveller

This is a post-travel rant, not a book summary.

A UK border agent half raised his hand, signaling me to come forward. I walked up and handed over my passport, said hello meanwhile. We exchanged a couple short sentences. The agent is English, mumbling, in his cubicle protected by safety glass. At times, it was hard to hear what he said and impossible to read his lips as they barely moved. I asked him to repeat one question. He was not pleased.

Was I intimidated or angered by him? No, he did not act violently verbally or physically, and I can imagine that he might be a very pleasant English gentleman outside his border agency job. But was I made to feel small in any way? A little. The attitude, the look in his eyes, unpleasantly judgmental and stone cold as if he was questioning me: why on earth are you bothering me with your entry to my country? What the hell are you going to do in my country? A less experienced or more sensitive soul than mine might have cried his/her eyes out and sworn never to leave the home country again. There was this invisible boundary drawn up right there between me and him, or between me and his England. Is it his England? Is it not partially my England too?

This encounter was not atypically bad at all. It is among the common ones entering many countries in my numerous international trips. To me, it would not have left a particular mark on my psyche, if Britain, more specifically England, is not one of the countries that forms my identity.

I am identified as Chinese by non-Chinese, mostly as British or recently maybe American by Chinese. My work style could be identified as very much influenced by the English, German and Dutch. My stomach is mostly Italian and British. My close friends are from all over the world.

Who am I really? I do not know the answer nor do I care. All I care is to better oneself with the good values and practices from people of each race, each culture and each nation, be good to people no matter who they are, cleaners or CEOs, boss or subordinate, homosexual or not. We belittle ourselves if we are not fair and just towards others equally.

If there is one last piece bread left on the earth and it is in my possession, I would share with you, whether you are identified as English, German, Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Sri-Lankan, Indian, Portuguese, or whatever; as Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, atheist or others; as black, white, Asian or all else; for each of you is a wonderful and unique human being. I am grateful to people from all these diverse backgrounds for inspiring me through who they are.

A side note: one occasion in San Francisco Airport, a security staff was repeatedly, very aggressively shouting towards a few travelers who clearly did not understand English. In my view, she mistreated those fellow travelers and I wanted to speak with her after exiting from the security check, but did not find her. Not giving up, I went to another security guy who seemed to be supervising the operation in that area and complained about this behavior. Just imagine, you are traveling in a foreign country that you do not know the language and a security guard is yelling towards you repeatedly. Some guards are even fully armed. Would you know any better what to do when the guard has yelled one more time? Put some clear signs up or have posters in various languages handy to show to people. Your throat will not hurt. Your job will be more enjoyable. I, a traveler, will not interfere, I promise.