The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Theory of Everything

As a reward for completing my one-book-a-week project in 2017, my family gifted me a beautiful book as Christmas present: The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Having not been exposed to many picture books as a child, I first saw and read this at my friend Dr. Mary Marshall’s office in Oxford a few years ago. It was fascinating. The book is also made into an animated film below.

It is surreal to hold my present and read it, as if I have wound back the clock and returned to my childhood. I want to be that caterpillar! Perhaps I have been one after all, merely hungry for a different kind of food: knowledge. Naturally, this little book reminded me how little commitment reading could be, compared with all my other books during 2017.

What kind of butterfly do I want to transform into? How? What are the steps to take?

During the holiday break, I read Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything. Reading this book was excruciatingly agonising. If not for the awesome Christmas dinner my friends Marilena and Kostas cooked for our big group of Greek friends, and the wonderful Yorkshire Bettys tea and Christmas cake supplied, along with plates, teacups, classical music and a comfy sofa, by dear friends Angela and John, and many miles of hiking, running and biking, I might have lost sanity a little bit. This book stirred up so many questions in me about black holes, the universe, God(s?), our existence and so on. You could almost insert a why question after every single sentence in this book. That is how I pleasantly suffered through reading it.

Can there really be a unified theory of everything? Or are we just chasing a mirage? There seem to be three possibilities:

  • There really is a complete unified theory, which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.
  • There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately.
  • There is no theory of the universe. Events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.

I am most inclined to argue for the second and third possibilities. Perhaps this has something to do with my own resignation that if the first possibility is true, there may be no meaning of my own work and existence if not towards that ultimate quest of finding that unified theory and I am neither a physicist nor an mathematician. I had to repeatedly seek comfort in hiking in the woods to think and to reconcile what I could do with my minuscule amount of knowledge and time on the earth (relatively speaking, totally negligible at the grand scheme of the universe).

This is how 2017 ended and 2018 started: with a very long hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the thoughts provoked by two great books The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Theory of Everything, and the question what challenges to set for myself next.

The English and Their History

 

As I have kept up with my 2017 resolution of reading and writing about one book a week, choosing a book for the last week of the year has been painfully challenging. There are a large number of books about many fascinating topics that I would love to read and so few I possibly can. I spent this Christmas and New Year holidays torn by further reminders through reading how miniscule I am and how little I know. 

Knowing the book The English and Their History is a giant volume, I have been reading it throughout the year and listening to its audio format occasionally. My intention is to have that as my last book of the year, as it was a precious Christmas gift  to me in 2016. It would make a very nice ending for 2017. So I spent a good amount of time during the holiday season on re-reading this book. The trouble is that I am not particularly good at remembering historic details. In fact I do not make an effort to do that. Robert Tombs writes extraordinarily well with lots of details. How much can I recall? Not much specifics. Was it useful to even bother to read it then? Yes, it is, for the joy of reading while I was in the middle of it, for the epiphany such as “oh, I see, how the English language has been developed over the centuries” or “I see the history of social welfare benefit system and how some come to exploit it”, for the links I make out of disjointed dots that were vague in my history knowledge before and so on.

England is the home that I will return to one day. I wish my ash to be scattered in Hyde Park when the time comes. Robert Tombs’ book The English and Their History helped me to know more about the long history of my second motherland and the long way she has travelled to come to her current form. No doubt great challenges ahead.

As I said, this is a vast volume. I can only share very few snippets here, that my attention is presently drawn to.

Why is it that an Irishman’s, or Frenchman’s hatred of England does not excite in me an answering hatred? I imagine that my national pride prevents it. England is so great that an Englishman cares little what others think of her, or, how they talk of her.  – Thomas Babington Macaulay, diary, 1849.

Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward. – George Orwell

Ingratitude still gets to me, the unfairness and waste of survival; a nation with so many memorials but no memory. – Geoffrey Hill

Nations resemble each other like a street of houses: of different sizes, with different occupants, and different furnishings, but sharing many basic characteristics. England is a rambling old property with ancient foundations, a large Victorian extension, a 1960s garage, and some annoying leaks and draughts balancing its period charm. Some historians believe England to be the prototype of the nation-state: “The birth of the English nation was not the birth of a nation; it was the birth of the nations.” Some English institutions are unusual not because nothing similar existed elsewhere – for example trial by jury, parliament, monarchy – but because they survived here while disappearing elsewhere.

English hegemony sowed the seeds of its own downfall: internally, by provoking nationalist resistance from Ireland to India, and externally, by provoking challenges from rivals – France, Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States. The two world wars were in part wars against the British Empire. The most dangerous of these challenges, from an alliance of German, Japanese and Italian fascists, threatened to create a new and deadly form of imperialism across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The role of England, Britain and the empire in defeating this danger was certainly one of their most important historic actions.

Yet empire had, as General de Gaulle observed, left England with a level of global connectedness which distinguished it from Continental nations. Its people had more intimate family and cultural connections with North America, Australasia or the Indian subcontinent than with Belgium, Luxembourg or Bavaria.

Few things have been as important in our history as a few miles of sea.

George Orwell’s view was typically trenchant: “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” The connection, he said, was that “it is your civilisation, it is you… the suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.” England’s history, thought Orwell, to some extent determined how things developed: “certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.” Striking metaphors are impermeable to analysis, but we would probably agree with the general point. As long as its present civilisation lasts, England will not have a violent revolution, or a military coup, or a religious civil war. We often assume that other nations will behave in the same way as we do, and are sometimes surprised when they do not, or cannot. In both cases, history makes it so.

Over the generations, a whole range of different and even contradictory characteristics have been recognised and caricatured as “typical English”: both conformity and eccentricity, bluntness and reticence, deference and assertiveness, honesty and hypocrisy, community spirit and privacy, and so on. If we agree with Hume’s view about liberty creating individuality, perhaps these different characteristics are indeed all “typical English”.

Englishness therefore was not based on notions of ethnic purity or cultural uniqueness, which meant that nationhood was shaped not by “exclusion and opposition” but by “inclusion and expansion”.

We owe respect to the past, as we do to other societies today, not for the sake of our predecessors, who are beyond caring, but for our own sake. Treating the past as grotesque and inferior is the attitude of the tourist who can see nothing “abroad” but dirt and bad plumbing. Recognising the qualities of past societies with resources a fraction of ours may at least deflate our own complacency, and remind us that we have little excuse for our present social and political failings. Some people debate whether we should feel pride or shame in England’s history. Logically, one is impossible without the other. Neither makes much sense unless we feel that something of our predecessors’ culture is still alive in us, whether to be cherished or eradicated. Better than either pride or shame, it seems to me, would be to accept responsibility: both for repairing and compensating for the failings of past generations, and for preserving and handing on their achievements. No country and people have had their history more thoroughly explored, debated and retold both by themselves and by others. This is one of the principal ways in which a culture perpetuates and renews itself. It forms our ideas of who and what we once were, now are, and wish some day to become. I hope that a knowledge of history can help us to respect the past, understand the present, and be sensitive to the future.

Re-read the last paragraph again. How sobering. Writing this on New Year Eve, as 2017 is drawing its curtain, what lessons do each of us learn from this new addition to history?  

How To Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method

My book of this week is How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method by eminent mathematician George Polya. Polya was one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century. O’Connor and E F Robertson wrote a short biography of Polya, giving us a glimpse of this extraordinary scientist and teacher.

In the book Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews, there is a quote from Polya: “I came very late to mathematics. … as I came to mathematics and learned something of it, I thought: Well it is so, I see, the proof seems to be conclusive, but how can people find such results? My difficulty in understanding mathematics: How was it discovered?” This might be one motivation behind Polya’s writing of a book like How to Solve It. I like this short review of the book:

How to Solve It will show anyone in any field how to think straight. In lucid and appealing prose, Polya reveals how the mathematical method of demonstrating a proof or finding an unknown can be of help in attacking any problem that can be “reasoned” out – from building a bridge to winning a game of anagrams. Generations of readers have relished Polya’s deft – indeed, brilliant – instructions on stripping away irrelevancies and going straight to the heart of the problem.

How to Solve It was first published in 1945. While reading this book, I could not help questioning myself: how did I not come across and read it in my early teens? Damn me for the hefty loss of not having done so! It would have enlightened and saved me from many struggles of searching for ways to solve problems not only in maths, but also other subjects. As I had not read it back then, I cannot tell what a young student would think of this book. I am indeed curious to know your thoughts, if you had. As a trained computer scientist with a lot of passion for mathematics, many articles in this book brought me moments of epiphany. Polya’s words brought me the realisation of what we have learned to do through our scientific education and research, with the shortcoming that we have done so with less reflection and less articulation of what that set of thought processes are.  

How did I come across How to Solve It eventually? I owe this discovery to two gentlemen: Nuwan Jayasena and Charles Simonyi. Many thanks to Nuwan that I attended a Stanford Engineering Hero Lecture, given by Charles Simonyi in 2015. In this lecture, Charles noted how much he valued the book How to Solve It and recommended everyone to read it. How fascinating that it took one Stanford PhD (Nuwan) to invite me to a talk given by another Stanford PhD (Charles), in which I was connected with a book by a Stanford Professor (George Polya)! I am very grateful.  

You might start to wonder: woman, are you ever going to tell me what this book is about?

There are four parts: In the Classroom; How to Solve It: A Dialogue; Short Dictionary of Heuristics; Problems, Hints and Solutions. Here I focus on the “How to Solve It” list and some of the heuristics discussed in the book.

In the “How to Solve It” list, Polya distilled the problem solving processes to the following four steps. These suggestions and questions are quoted directly from the book.

  1. Understanding the problem
    • You have to understand the problem.
    • What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition?
    • Is it possible to satisfy the condition? Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
    • Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation.
    • Separate the various parts of the condition. Can you write them down?
  2. Devising a plan
    • Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution.
    • Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem? Do you know a theorem that could be useful? Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.
    • Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you use its result? Could you use its method? Should you introduce some auxiliary element in order to make its use possible?
    • Could you re-state the problem? Could you restate it still differently? Go back to definitions.
    • If you cannot solve the proposed problem try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem? A more general problem? A more special problem? An analogous problem? Could you solve a part of the problem? 
    • Keep only a part of the condition, drop the other part; how far is the unknown then determined, how can it vary?
    • Could you derive something useful from the data? Could you think of other data appropriate to determine the unknown?
    • Could you change the unknown or the data, or both if necessary, so that the new unknown and the new data are nearer to each other?
    • Did you use all the data? Did you use the whole condition? Have you taken into account all essential notions involved in the problem?
  3. Carrying out the plan
    • Carrying out your plan to get to the  solution: check each step.
    • Can you see clearly that the step is correct? Can you prove that it is correct?
  4. Looking back
    • Examine the solution obtained.
    • Can you check the result? Can you check the argument? Can you derive the result differently? Can you see it at a glance?
    • Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

Are you excited and motivated enough to read the book yourself by these questions now? I love reading this book, if not for anything else other than the questions. Polya’s writing style of this book reassured me that I am not too crazy of asking many questions. But then, I never care at all whether others think less of my intellectual capability, because I would admit I am an idiot forthright. I am an idiot who is trying very hard to shed off each layer of stupidity every day through learning and working. Is it not wonderful to imagine that you are losing weight that way metaphorically, without sacrificing your awesome appetite for a giant neapolitan pizza?

A final point: although many examples in this book are maths related, the book is much more fundamental than prescribing recipes for solving maths problems. To me, many suggestions for investigation, thought processes, heuristics, planning and evaluation are very applicable for any domain, such as litigation, economics, social science and civil engineering.

Far from the Madding Crowd

 

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, I had not realised it is viewed by many as a book of love stories till recently. How blind was I. Fortunately that blindness fooled me with the desire of re-reading it. Strictly speaking, listening to its audio format. Had I classified it into the category of “girly” books earlier, I might not have picked it up again.

Reading Far From the Madding Crowd some years ago for the first time, I was only drawn to this young lady Bathsheba, admiring her charm, independence and fearless pursuit of establishing herself as a very capable Mistress of the farm inherited from her uncle, in a very male-dominated society. I fear I must apologize to farmer Gabriel Oak and William Boldwood for neglecting them previously. As for Sergeant Francis Troy, I loathe him profoundly, hence it was great that I had not given him much attention in my prior reading of this book. A reminder of the century-old wisdom passed on generation by generation: good characters are far more important than dashing appearances.  

Thomas Hardy was a poet. Naturally his writings are beautifully poetic. His words are so juicy and tasty. At the tip of his pen there were no ordinary affairs in farm matters or in the ups and downs of human relations. Every little movement, feeling and scene are depicted with the most beautiful lush sentences, as graceful and fresh as the English green. Indeed, the picturesque English countryside filled my imagination while listening to this audiobook. That very same green as in the poem And did those feet in ancient time written by William Blake and later to become the hymn Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

‘Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green & pleasant Land.

 

I leave you to enjoy a few pieces by Thomas Hardy from this book.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, feared at tea-parties, hated in shops, and loved at crises.

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.

What a way Oak had, she thought, of enduring things. Boldwood, who seemed so much deeper and higher and stronger in feeling than Gabriel, had not yet learnt, any more than she herself, the simple lesson which Oak showed a mastery of by every turn and look he gave—that among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes. Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst. That was how she would wish to be.

But what between the poor men I won’t have, and the rich men who won’t have me, I stand as a pelican in the wilderness!

What’s right weekdays is right Sundays!

We learn that it is not the rays which bodies absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the colours they are known by; and in the same way people are specialized by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.

Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don’t any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I’m a woman I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good.

I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.

Who Moved My Cheese?

 

One Sunday afternoon recently, I decided to unpack the book boxes. Many of them. One by one. It has been a very daunting project. Right now tons of books are scattered on the floor, each of them anxiously waiting for the sentence I hand down: shelving, return to a labelled box, or donation. How mighty the power I am holding over these books. How frightful it is to determine their fate and heartbreaking for me to part with them. Some have migrated across oceans, some travelled together with me, some accompanied me through the darkest times in my life. Who Moved My Cheese and Far From the Madding Crowd are among them. I could not help re-reading them.

My second-hand volume of Who Moved My Cheese has shown its endurance of plenty readings in the past. It is yellow, old, and rough looking. The wisdom in it ages beautifully together with its physical form.  

This little book is written by Spencer Johnson. It tells a parable of four characters: Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, searching for cheese in a maze. The author summarises it very well here:

sometimes we may act like Sniff who sniffs out change early, or Scurry who scurries into action, or Hem who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse, or Haw who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better! Whatever parts of us we choose to use, we all share something in common: a need to find our way in the Maze and succeed in changing times.

To me, the author passes his insights to us via the notes that Ham wrote on the walls of the Maze. Many of them were for Hem, with the hope that Hem might one day would have the courage to get out of his comfort zone and start searching for a new cheese station.

The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it.

If you do not change, you can become extinct.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Smell the cheese often, so you know when it is getting old.

Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese.

When you stop being afraid, you feel good!

Imagining yourself enjoying your new cheese leads you to it.

The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.

It is safer to search in the maze, than remain in a cheeseless station.

Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.

When you see that you can find and enjoy new cheese, you change course.

Noticing small changes early helps you adapt to the bigger changes that are to come.

Below is the final summary written on the wall by Haw.

As Santa Claus is approaching, it is the time of the year to reflect and look ahead. What cheese do you crave for? How does your maze look? To paraphrase the verse from a dear friend of mine: what would you like to do in your wildest dream? And do just that!

Can I have a full English breakfast first? That is my wildest dream now, after getting up before 5am, walking for miles with an audiobook, cycling, reading, writing, etc. Perhaps I deserve a bit of proper bacon and sausage.

Site Reliability Engineering

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is a collection of articles written by dozens of Google engineers and edited by Betsy Beyer, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff and Niall Richard.

This book was not on my list. I had to negotiate (with myself) to remove one book and make space for this one. Why did I choose to read this book?

A week ago, together with a couple of other eBayers, I attended a two-day Service Level Objectives workshop at Google. Google has been offering this workshop to its partner companies, perhaps with some adjustment to align with the partner’s domain of interest. This was our time together.

A couple weeks ahead, one of our hosts sent us a rough plan for the workshop. I fired back, requesting more detailed schedule, breaking down to an hourly basis. My logic is simple: I can walk out (in a polite way) an unproductive meeting at my own workplace easily, but going to another company and checking in etc would be a very high overhead to pay both for me and the host, hence I need to gather enough relevant indicators to evaluate the chance of this workshop being informative and effective to justify the cost. Judging from the detailed description received, I decided this would be very useful to attend. There I went.

After a round of self-introduction, one of our hosts Jian politely asked me why I was there. I gave him the answer, in my typically brutally direct way, with full conviction: I do not let my job title define what I am interested in. I am grateful that Jian received this very well, as in some cultures and places my directness does not go well.

This workshop turned out to be very successful. My hosts were knowledge about the site reliability engineering and beyond. We had numerous discussions in an open and interactive manner. Specially, I appreciate the patience and grace of Robert van Gent, Jian Ma, Gary Luo, and Adrian Hilton in answering my many questions and discussing with me topics about service level objectives, more broadly site reliability engineering and beyond, such as software design reviews and establishing the right processes etc. I highly recommend you to participate if you are interested in this domain and offered the opportunity.

This workshop excited me enough that I decided to read Site Reliability Engineering as my book of this week. The content of the book is vast and way beyond the topic of service level objectives. It contains three main parts, each of which is detailed below.

Principles

Part I talks about the principles, underlying how SRE teams typically work—the patterns, behaviors, and areas of concern that influence the general domain of SRE operations. SRE is not only about risk assessment, management, and using the concept of error budget to quantitatively evaluate the risk tradeoffs and planning. It is also about incorporating reliability during the design phase of a project to watch out for the design flaws that could potentially lead to outage, correcting design issues or building mitigation mechanisms into the design. I love the phase “Hope is not a strategy”.

A few lessons from this part on risk management, error budget and simplicity:

Our goal is to explicitly align the risk taken by a given service with the risk the business is willing to bear. We strive to make a service reliable enough, but no more reliable than it needs to be.  

Extreme reliability comes at a cost: maximizing stability limits how fast new features can be developed and how quickly products can be delivered to users, and dramatically increases their cost, which in turn reduces the numbers of features a team can afford to offer. Further, users typically don’t notice the difference between high reliability and extreme reliability in a service, because the user experience is dominated by less reliable components like the cellular network or the device they are working with.

An error budget aligns incentives and emphasizes joint ownership between SRE and product development. Error budgets make it easier to decide the rate of releases and to effectively defuse discussions about outages with stakeholders, and allows multiple teams to reach the same conclusion about production risk without rancor.

Software simplicity is a prerequisite to reliability. We are not being lazy when we consider how we might simplify each step of a given task. Instead, we are clarifying what it is we actually want to accomplish and how we might most easily do so. Every time we say “no” to a feature, we are not restricting innovation; we are keeping the environment uncluttered of distractions so that focus remains squarely on innovation, and real engineering can proceed.

 

Practices

Part II presents SRE practices at Google. Figures speak volumes. This service reliability hierarchy figure from the book shows the elements that go into making a service available, from the bottom up, from the most basic to the most advanced. Part II covers each level of this hierarchy: practical alerting from time-series data for monitoring; being on-call, effective troubleshooting, emergency response and managing incidents for incident response; a post-mortem culture that supports learning from failure; testing with the attempt to prevent the outage after understanding what tends to go amiss; capacity planning, load balancing to ensure the proper usage of the resource, handling the overload issue and addressing cascading failures; finally development and product launch at the top.

After attending the workshop at which the principles were well covered, I found Part II to be the most significant part of the book. There are vast amount of resources on these topics scattering around online, but this part of the book present them coherently with references. It would save me to search around if I wish to delve deeper into a topic.

Management

Part III covers the management topic on how SRE team works within and with other teams, some best practices for on-call and interrupts, communication and collaboration issues, and finally the evolving SRE engagement model.

 

For people without SRE background in companies like Google but with experience working in other domains, it is worthwhile to read the chapter comparing SRE at Google with lessons from other industries. The discussion here helps to illustrate the similarities and differences in a magnified way.

 

I like one unique point about this book: many chapters start with a set of key questions to ask when approaching a topic. Asking the right questions is of utmost importance. To give you an example, these are the questions for comparing SRE at Google with other high-reliability industries:

  • Are the principles used in Site Reliability Engineering also important outside of Google, or do other industries tackle the requirements of high reliability in markedly different ways?
  • If other industries also adhere to SRE principles, how are the principles manifested?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the implementation of these principles across industries?
  • What factors drive similarities and differences in implementation?
  • What can Google and the tech industry learn from these comparisons?

The appendix presents tools and templates that can be used right out of box. One example is the availability table. Its calculation is straightforward. Availability is derived based on how long a service is unavailable over some period. With the assumption that there is no planned downtime, we calculate how much downtime could be forgiven to achieve a specific availability target. For example, with the availability target 99.5%, the allowed unavailability time window would be 1.83 days per year or 7.20 minutes per day or 18 seconds per hour. This is uptime and downtime-based availability. You can also calculate it as the success request rate. One common theme of this book and the workshop is to figure out what metrics to design and use. Other appendices include best practices for production services, example incident state document, example post-mortem, launch coordination checklist, and example production meeting minutes.

Last but not least, I would like to cover post-mortem analysis. It is vital to have a blameless post-mortem culture, focusing on the underlying issues and not pointing fingers at people. Services and products get so complex that it is rarely one or two persons’ fault that something is broken. In post-mortem analysis, the suggested sample covers these key areas: who are working on addressing the outage, current status of the incident, what has happened, the impact of the incident, what are the root causes, what triggered the incident, how did we detect this, what are the action items that has been taken and will be taken, is the action for prevention purpose or for mitigation, what went well in the light of handling his incident, what went wrong, what were lucky escape, and the detailed timeline from the beginning of the outage to its end. Once again, note the beauty of asking the right questions.

Never Split The Difference

 

I read part of Never Split the Difference during a long-haul flight recently. An overnight long-haul flight serves as a great test of measuring how engaging the reading material is. In this type of settings, the book in hand typically competes for your attention against the in-flight entertainment system, motion sickness, engine noise, people noise, the nausea caused by the smell of reheated airline food and so on. A good book helps to create an artificial world running in parallel to the duration of the flight and eliminate the negative impacts of all these factors. Fortunately, this book brought me that blessing in this flight.

The author of this book, Chris Voss, brought up the book Getting to Yes multiple times. I wrote an earlier post about Getting to Yes. He contrasted the academic born negotiation theories with the insights distilled from his war stories of hostage negotiation in numerous cases. Throughout the book, there are not only successes but also failure cases discussed, and from both what lessons are learned. To me, what attracted me to keep on reading is its storytelling, post-mortem analysis, especially the brutal honesty of the screw-ups. The models and theories presented are experience-driven. Seeing how they were derived helps me to understand how suitable they would be to certain circumstances and how I might want to adapt them.

It is fascinating that Program on Negotiation was setup in 1983 as a university consortium dedicated to the studies of theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution. Chris mentioned in this book the great influence this program and its products have had on how people negotiate, with criticism of some methods.

While reading this book, various personal experiences of mine came to mind. I recalled and analysed a few failures of negotiation or, even worse, failures that occurred even before there was a negotiation. One example is to do with a car salesman some years ago. Before entering the discussion regarding the price of a specific car model that I stated my interest in purchasing, I was subjected to a series of questions that were clearly designed to size me up. After answering a few of these questions, sensing that there were even more to come, I felt sick in my stomach because to me the trust was broken. I was forced to justify my action of walking into the dealer. I had to be assertive and direct that I would not have wasted the time of inquiring, had I not been serious (suggesting that the sizing-me-up questions were unnecessary and intruding my privacy), followed by walking away without a deal. Shortly after that, I had a great experience with another dealer. This gentleman calmly answered my questions clearly without being pushy. It gave me the impression that he respected the fact that purchasing a car is a decision of the buyer, not the seller. Over the course of the conversation, the initial trust at a default level that we typically have with a stranger was enhanced rather than shattered with the previous dealer. I think, a high-level of trust leads to good deals, whether the deals are worse or better in the monetary standards alone.

Chris talks a lot about listening, listening, and listening in this book. He gives a number of great suggestions. Here are some examples. You can never listen enough. Have multiple pairs of ears to catch what might have been missed. Listen again to the recording to see what you have missed at the first time. Listen for the choice of words and the tone. Watch for the alignment of the those with the body language.

My teacher John Steinhart also emphasized greatly on listening in his conflict management and leadership courses. Often we only listen to a small fraction of what others say. Then under the disguise of listening, our brains work hard to think what we are going to say at the very first chance available. Sometimes, even abruptly interrupt others. In some cases, one possible cause is too strong a self-centered desire to impress others. This can be very harmful when it comes to effective listening. However, I have worked with very smart people who habitually interrupt others (not in a condescending or rude way) and I gladly welcome their injections of words. People around these superstars usually are willing to give them that allowance because their impatience benefits the discussion. To me, it is my responsibility to find the right way to work with the diverse styles of others.

Here are some of the key lessons from this book to share with you. As usual, quotes are in italic, my words are not.  

A good negotiator prepares, going in, to be ready for possible surprises; a great negotiator aims to use her skills to reveal the surprises she is certain to find.

People who view negotiation as a battle of arguments become overwhelmed by the voices in their head. Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.

Don’t commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use the negotiation to test them rigorously.

Be aware of “yes” and welcome “No” as an answer. “No” can bring forth the real underlying issues. Rethink “No” in its alternatives, for example: I am not yet ready to agree; You are making me feel uncomfortable; I do not understand; I need more information etc.

There are three different kinds of “yes”. We need to learn how to recognise which one is used. A counterfeit “yes” is one in which your counterpart plans on saying “no” but either feels “yes” is an easier escape route or just wants to disingenuously keep the conversation going to obtain more information or some other kind of edge. A confirmation “yes” is generally innocent, a reflexive response to a black-or-white question; it’s sometimes used to lay a trap but mostly it’s just simple affirmation with no promise of action. And a commitment “yes” is the real deal; it’s a true agreement that leads to a action, a “yes” at the table that ends with a signature on the contract.

Aim for “that’s right”, beware of “you’re right”. The two are vastly different. The former shows that the counterpart acknowledges that you truly understand his/her thinking and wishes. The latter could mean “get me out of here, or, please shut up”, depending on how it is used.  

Splitting the difference is wearing one black and one brown shoe, so don’t compromise. Meeting halfway often leads to bad deals for both sides.

People will take more risks to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. Make sure your counterpart sees that there is something to lose by inaction.

“Yes” is nothing without “How”. Asking “How”, knowing “How”, and defining “How” are all part of effective negotiator’s arsenal.

This would be the last book on the topics of conflict and negotiation as my one-book-a-week project this year. If I were to pass on only one message about these topics, it would be: embrace conflict and enjoy negotiation. There are gazilions of benefits if approached appropriately.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire

Throughout this year, a few books have been my comfort food for my soul, assuming that I have one. These are books for which I do not have any objectives in mind prior to reading. It is an indulgence. Anthony Trollope’s the Chronicles of Barsetshire is among them. Whether it is pure pleasure or purposeful reading, the six novels from the Chronicles of Barsetshire are certainly not just enjoyable to read, but also very telling of the human values and the social fabric that are no less important now than in the late 19th century when they were first published.

There are six novels in this series: The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). A few characters are my favorites, Mrs. Eleanor Bold, Mr. Septimus Harding and Dr Thomas Thorne; equally a few other I loathe miserably: Mrs. Proudie, Mr. Obadiah Slope, Mr. Adolphus Crosbie, Lady Arabella, Lady de Courcy and so on. Some others, I have very mixed views, for example, both sympathetic and angry: Miss Lily Dale for her obsolete and backward view of human relations, although forgivable in the 19th century; Johnny Eames for his devotion and playfulness of equal strength. Nevertheless, they are all very entertaining characters.

The novels set at the fictitious English county Barsetshire and its town Barchester. All stories evolve around the clergymen and the upper class people linked to Barsetshire. Numerous passages from the novels fascinate me. Here are just a few short ones to whet your appetite. Enjoy! Try these books out if you are in the mood for seeking sheer pleasure of reading.

Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.

There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.

Her virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description.

We English gentlemen hate the name of a lie, but how often do we find public men who believe each other’s words?

She had no startling brilliancy of beauty, no pearly whiteness, no radiant carnation. She had not the majestic contour that rivets attention, demands instant wonder, and then disappoints by the coldness of its charms. You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.

No one ever on seeing Mr Crawley took him to be a happy man, or a weak man, or an ignorant man, or a wise man.

Buying and selling is good and necessary; it is very necessary, and may, possibly, be very good; but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

He took such high ground that there was no getting on to it.

The greatest mistake any man ever made is to suppose that the good things of the world are not worth the winning.

Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so. It is hardly too much to say that we all of us occasionally speak of our dearest friends in a manner in which those dearest friends would very little like to hear themselves mentioned, and that we nevertheless expect that our dearest friends shall invariably speak of us as though they were blind to all our faults, but keenly alive to every shade of our virtues.

He felt horror at the thought of being made the subject of common gossip and public criticism.

If an action is the right one, personal feelings must not be allowed to interfere. Of course I greatly like Mr Harding, but that is no reason for failing in my duty to those old men.

Sell yourself for money! why, if I were a man I would not sell one jot of liberty for mountains of gold. What! tie myself in the heyday of my youth to a person I could never love, for a price! perjure myself, destroy myself—and not only myself, but her also, in order that I might live idly! Oh, heavens! Mr Gresham! can it be that the words of such a woman as your aunt have sunk so deeply in your heart; have blackened you so foully as to make you think of such vile folly as this? Have you forgotten your soul, your spirit, your man’s energy, the treasure of your heart? And you, so young! For shame, Mr Gresham! for shame—for shame.

A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era, an era in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at everything that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.

When last days are coming, they should be allowed to come and to glide away without special notice or mention. And as for last moments, there should be none such. Let them ever be ended, even before their presence has been acknowledged.

It would be wrong to say that love produces quarrels; but love does produce those intimate relations of which quarrelling is too often one of the consequences, – one of the consequences which frequently seem to be so natural, and sometimes seem to be unavoidable. One brother rebukes the other, – and what brothers ever lived together between whom there was no such rebuking? – then some warm word is misunderstood and hotter words follow and there is a quarrel. The husband tyrannizes, knowing that it is his duty to direct, and the wife disobeys, or “only partially obeys, thinking that a little independence will become her,” – and so there is a quarrel. The father, anxious only for his son’s good, looks into that son’s future with other eyes than those of his son himself, – and so there is a quarrel. They come very easily, these quarrels, but the quittance from them is sometimes terribly difficult. Much of thought is necessary before the angry man can remember that he too in part may have been wrong; and any attempt at such thinking is almost beyond the power of him who is carefully nursing his wrath, lest it cool! But the nursing of such quarrelling kills all happiness. The very man who is nursing his wrath lest it cool, – his wrath against one whom he loves perhaps the best of all whom it has been given him to love, – is himself wretched as long as it lasts. His anger poisons every pleasure of his life. He is sullen at his meals, and cannot understand his book as he turns its pages. His work, let it be what it may, is ill done. He is full of his quarrel, – nursing it. He is telling himself how much he has loved that wicked one, how many have been his sacrifices for that wicked one, and that now that wicked one is repaying him simply with wickedness! And yet the wicked one is at that very moment dearer to him than ever. If that wicked one could only be forgiven how sweet would the world be again! And yet he nurses his wrath.

One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.

Crucial Conversations

My book of this week is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. It is coauthored by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. I first browsed this book some years ago, either in the Waterstones branch I frequented or the Imperial College London Central Library. My memory fails me on the exact occasion and why I did not pick it up at the time. This autumn, its appearance on the recommended reading list for Conflict Management finally triggered me to read it. Now having read it properly, it is fair for me to state that any reader regardless of the amount life and work experience you have would find values in it and benefit from applying the techniques during dialogues when they turn crucial.

Over the years, it puzzles me that some people are naturally much better at having delicate and good conversations, while others tend to blow up any critical conversations such that they need help to unwind from the unnecessary mess before moving the dialogue forward. It is trivial for any of us to come up with such examples based on our experience. The wonderful news is that we can all learn to be good at having delicate and critical conversations. We can train ourselves to do so, guided by books like this one.

As a side note, I think that investing in green space in campus helps to improve the quality of collaboration, increase the productivity, prevent and resolve conflicts. When a conversation reaches a deadlock, pause before it causes too much damage, take a break, and walk in nature first. Having reachable natural areas makes this easier.

This book presents the seven principles for crucial conversations and the skills we can develop corresponding to each principle. To make it less abstract and more applicable, the book consists of numerous cases and example sentences to use. It also lists various crucial questions to ask ourselves when we are trying to apply a principle. Here are the set of tools to use, quoting from the book.

  • Start with heart
    • Focus on what you really want: What am I acting like I really want? What do I really want for me, for other, for the relationship? How would I behave if I really did want this?
    • Refuse the Sucker’s Choice: What do I not want? How should I go about getting what I really want and avoiding what I don’t want?
  • Learn to look
    • Look for when the conversation becomes crucial: Am I going to silence or violence? Are others?
    • Look for safety problems.
    • Look for your own style under stress.
  • Make it safe
    • Ask: why is safety at risk? Have I established Mutual purpose? Am I maintaining Mutual Respect? What will I do to rebuild safety?
    • Apologize when appropriate.  
    • Contrast to fix misunderstanding. For example, start with what you do not intend or mean, followed by explaining what you do intend or mean.
    • CRIB to get to mutual purpose. The acronym CRIB summarises the four steps to reach mutual purpose: Commit to seek a mutual purpose, Recognise the purpose or motivation behind the strategy, Invent a purpose that is shared with all participants, Brainstorm new strategies that are mutually shared.
  • Master your stories
    • Retrace your Path to Action: “what is my story?”
    • Separate fact from story.
    • Watch for Three Clever Stories: victim (it is not my fault), villain (it is all your fault), helpless stories (there is nothing I can do).
    • Tell the rest of the story: What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem? Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this? What should I do right now to move towards what I really want?
  • STATE your path
    • Ask: Am I really open to others’ views? Am I talking about the real issue? Am I confidently expressing my own views?
    • STATE: Share your facts; Tell your stories; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing.
  • Explore others’ paths
    • Ask: Am I actively exploring others’ views? Am I avoiding unnecessary disagreement?
    • AMPP: Ask; Mirror; Paraphrase; Prime.
    • ABC skill: Agree (find areas that you agree with each other); Build (try “yes, and”, build upon the mutually shared view and extend from there); Compare (discuss about the difference of views rather than labeling differing views as being wrong).
  • Move to action
    • Ask: How will we make decisions? Who will do what by when? How will we follow up?
    • Decide how you’ll decide. There are four approaches of decision making: command, consult, vote and consensus. When choosing which method to use, ask the questions: Who cares? Who knows or has the relevant expertise to make a high quality decision? Who must agree, in other words, whose support must we have to implement the decision? How many people must be involved?
    • Document decisions and follow up. For example, who does what by when?

The summary above might seem dry. The book itself is not, thanks to the great examples and suggested approaches. For this reason, there is extra value to read this book as a non-native English speaker, not only for the purpose of better handling crucial conversations, but also for gaining language skills and cultural perspectives.

The Art of Scalability

 

The second edition of the Art of Scalability is my book this week. It is coauthored by Martin Abbott and Michael Fisher. As its subtitle suggests, the book is about building scalable web architecture, processes and organisations for the modern enterprise.

In this book, the authors argue that the three key components of that are people, process and technology. In the introduction video, the author talked about how they thought initially that technology was the key, only to realise that people and process are no less important based on their consulting experience. These three components are covered in the first three parts of the book. More details on that to follow.

Before getting into the details, I share with you what I like and do not like about this book. Its content is vast, fascinatingly relevant, and not dry at all. It is engaging enough that I have had no trouble enjoying many chapters from around 3am to dawn nearly all days this week. Just to abandon this book and pick up another one is a very trivial action on my part. But I did not. The discussions, technical or not, are very plainly written. It opens up my view on how to scale. The quantitative approaches towards project management and scalability topics are straightforward. The main negative attribute of this book is repetition. It could be shortened significantly. That said, repeating concepts covered in previous chapters certainly helps to refresh the reader’s memory and improve the understanding of the topic currently under discussion. It could, therefore, be the intention of the authors.

Do I recommend it? Yes. If you do not have a large chunk of time to pursue such a big book, browsing the conclusion and key points sections of each chapter on safari books online can give you a quick overview of each chapter. The figures, tables, equations etc. are all beautifully presented online too.

 

Staffing a scalable organisation

In this part, the book discusses the necessary roles and their corresponding responsibilities in a scalable technology organisation. The lack of clearly defined roles or those with overlapping responsibilities can cause confusion and conflict.

The book then progresses to talk about the two key attributes of organisations: size and structure. Both can affect the communication, efficiency, quality and scalability of the organisation. The two traditional structures are functional and matrix. The third one, agile, is gaining traction for its increased innovation, measured by shorter time to market, quality of features and availability of services. There are pros and cons for both large or small teams. It is important to be aware of the specific pitfalls of each, know where your team is, take necessary steps to mitigate the negative effects of the team size.

Further, the book presents us Leadership 101 and Management 101. I like the guidance on goal setting for leaders. The goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (but aggressive), Realistic and Timely (or containing a component of time). One piece of advice stands out for me in the Management 101: “spend only 5% of your project management time creating detailed project plans and 95% of your time developing the contingencies to those plans. Focus on achieving results in an appropriate time frame, rather than laboring to fit activities to the initial plan.” When it comes people management, the analogy of gardening is interesting: seeding (as of hiring), feeding (as of developing people), weeding (as of elimination of underperforming people within an organisation).

   

Building Processes for Scale

The second part of the book covers processes. The general idea is to create the right set of processes to standardize the steps taken to perform certain tasks, eliminate confusion and unnecessary decision making, and hence free up the employees to focus on important work. The authors use the following figure to illustrate the different levels of process complexity.

In this part, the authors discusses processes answering these questions:

  • How to properly control and identify change in a production environment?
  • What to do when things go wrong or when a crisis occurs?
  • How to design scalability into your products from the beginning?
  • How to understand and manage risk?
  • When to build and when to buy?
  • How to determine the amount of scale in your systems?
  • When to go forward with a release and when to wait?
  • When to roll back and how to prepare for that eventuality?

One chapter talks about headroom calculation. The authors advise to use 50% as the amount of maximum capacity whose use should be planned. Naturally we all know a discount factor should be used in estimating headroom, but the value to use for discounting is mostly informed from experience. This shows one great benefit of reading this book: informing me of what the authors summarised from their combined decades of experience of helping to scale businesses.

 

Architecting Scalable Solutions

The third part of this book discusses about the differences of implementation and architecture, how to create fault-isolative architectures, the AKF scale cube, caching and asynchronous design for scale. The AKF scale cube method suggests scaling along three dimensions: cloning the entities or data and distributing unbiased work across workers, separation of work biased by activity or data, separation of work biased by the requestor for whom the work is being performed. For illustration purpose, I cite the AKF scale figure from the book below.

The first two dimensions of the AKF scale cube approach are very similar to our scalability studies for Exascale Computing: providing more compute nodes and duplicating data and code on each of them to perform a chunk of work (that can equally be performed on other node), partitioning and assigning a specific piece of work to its most suitable compute node in a heterogeneous environment or partitioning the data among a set of nodes and sending the corresponding compute to each node. The third dimension is to direct the service requests to different subset of nodes, based on the info available about the requests or requesters. The authors point out often these are nested together.

The last part of the book covers the issue of having too much data, grid and cloud computing, monitoring applications and planning data centers. Not to miss the appendices, the examples given there are very illustrative on availability, capacity planning, load and performance calculation.

There is a set of slides from Lorenzo Alberton available on slideshare, talking about the key concepts from this book.

Overall, I enjoyed learning about scalability and how to build scalable architecture through reading this book. It is thanks to reading books like this that the darkness of winter days is slightly more bearable than it would be.