My book of this week is Night, written by Elie Wiesel and translated by his wife Marion Wiesel. Elie wrote about his experience of being deported from his home town Sighet in northern Transylvania  to concentration camps  towards the end of the WWII in 1944, at age fifteen. Elie’s mother and sisters were separated from Elie and his father after arriving at Birkenau, the first stop after deportation.

In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.

“Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and space where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand….My hand tightened my its grip on my father. All I could think of was not to lose him. Not to remain alone.


Elie and his father went through Auschwitz and Buchenwald together. Elie’s father was beaten by the Schutzstaffel officer and bullied by the other inmates.

The victim this time was my father. “You old loafer!” he started yelling. “Is this what you call working?” And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp has made of me…

The health and spirit of Elie’s father both declined considerably and Elie became his caregiver. After a lengthy period of suffering, Elie’s father gave up fighting and lost his hope of survival.

I could have screamed in anger. To have lived and endured so much; was I going to let my father die now?…He had become childlike: weak, frightened, vulnerable…This discussion continued for some time. I knew I was no longer arguing with him but with Death itself, with Death that he had already chosen.


Elie’s father became very ill soon afterwards. Sleeping on the bunk above his father, Elie woke up one morning and found his father was no longer there and his place was occupied by someone else. It came to Elie that he must have been moved to the crematorium overnight, burned maybe still breathing.

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…

Reading this book, I experienced an overwhelming amount of mixed feelings: loving, frustrating, sorrowful, abhorrent, disgusting, longing, inconceivable and others. The original book that Elie wrote was over 800 pages. Elie’s writing went through rounds of editing and many difficulties of its publication. As a comparison, the version I have in hand, also the most commonly known and read one has just over 100 pages. Elie called this book his deposition. Is this an eyewitness account, a memoir, fictionalised-autobiography, non-fictional novel or fiction? I cannot help thinking what was cut and lost in revision and translation from its original Yiddish writing, what was washed away by the flow of the time river from the occurrence of the events to being written down in words, what could not be communicated via any language that we are not able to read and indeed the gap between our comprehension and the writing itself. I read it as a faithful depiction of Elie’s experience in the concentration camps during WWII. Throughout the book, we can see the loss of faith, innocence, love, decency, and other emotional and physical beings.

As a young boy, Elie was a devoted believer. However, in multiple sections, Elie wrote about the slow death of faith throughout his time in the concentration camps.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

Why, but why would I bless Him (God)? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine Altar?

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Reading this book brought back the memory of my visit with my dear friend Laurent Risser to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin years ago, not long after its completion. The memorial has over 2700 concrete slabs of varying size, organized in a grid pattern, located in a very large site. It was a beautifully sunny summer afternoon. We walked around it silently for some time. I felt the weight of history and humanity crushing on me like those thousands of concrete slabs. How could humans do this to other humans? The sun cast many shadows, shifting slowly, until the shadows prolonged and covered all. It was a place in which we are reminded that we should never forget how unjustly those killings and tortures were, not for the purpose of revenge but for our own survival as humans; never think that other people’s sufferings are not your own business; never let our consciousness escape us.

Below in italic are some more passages from the book that I found myself reading again and again, slowly being etched to me like those numbered tattoos on Elie’s arm.

As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the exception. He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.

Every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.

Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks him. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand his replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.

And why do you pray, Moishe? I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.

There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mythical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.

“You don’t understand,” he (Moishe) said in despair. “You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me…”

People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers……Most people thought that they would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.

The shadows around me roused themselves as if from a deep sleep and left silently in every direction.

The women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks. The children were wandering about aimlessly, not knowing what to do with themselves to stay out of the way of the grown-ups. Our backyard looked like a marketplace. Valuable objects, precious rugs, silver candlesticks, Bibles and other ritual objects were strewn over the dusty grounds – pitiful relics that seemed never to have had a home. All this under a magnificent blue sky.

There was joy, yes, joy. People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun. Anything seemed preferable to that. They began to walk without another glance of the abandoned streets, the dead, empty houses, the gardens, the tombstones … on everyone’s back, there was a sack. In everyone’s eyes, tears and distress. Slowly, heavily, the procession advanced toward the gate of the ghetto.

The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter. Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb.

We were ready. I went out first. I did not want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears. We remained sitting in the middle of the street, like the others two days earlier. The same hellish sun. The same thirst. Only there was no one left to bring us water.

“Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!” The Hungarian police were screaming. That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death.

The few days we spent here (ghetto) went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate – still unknown.

We mustn’t give up hope, even now as the sword hangs over our heads. So taught our sages.

Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) So that was where we were going. A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps … Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…


Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


The absent no longer entered our thoughts. One spoke of them – who knows what happened to them? – but their fate was not on our minds. We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.

“Remember,” he (an SS officer) went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium – the choice is yours.”

Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever… And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be a camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive….These were the first human words.

The stomach alone was measuring time.

The bell. It was already time to part, to go to bed. The bell regulated everything. It gave me orders and I executed them blindly. I hated that bell. Whenever I happened to dream of a better world, I imagined a universe without a bell.

We were the masters of nature. The masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth.

Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked all around him, taking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled. I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.

Yet at the same time a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself … Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.

Let us not forget history. In Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and entrepreneurship, while striving for success according to personal and societal measures, we should also read some history and not forget that technology alone could not create us a better world.


Reading Like A Writer

Prose introduces her book as “the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Reading Like A Writer talks about close reading, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraphing, plots, creating characters and so on, through many examples from the masterpieces. However, to me, this book itself is a great place to start practising close reading. Prior to reading this book, I find myself drawn to languages: at first Chinese (my mother-tongue, unfortunately I do not converse, read or write in Chinese nowadays but no doubt that I could re-gain that capability if so wish), and later particularly English which although not my first language it is the one that I think, dream, read, speak and write most comfortably. The English language delights me in many ways. It is hard to clearly depict which portion of my fondness for English is owed to the English culture and which to the language itself. Most people probably would agree that culture and its language are inseparable. I love the English language for the freedom to explore, its non-judgemental attitude, the beauty of its words and compositions, the subtleties, and its lyrical and descriptive power. Reading Like a Writer shows me how to read closely and learn from the masterpieces. Prose’s own analysis and writings about the cited works are great to read slowly word to word. The precision of the choice of words, how she structures her sentences and conveys her opinions are all wonderful to note. It opens my mind and allows me to view the works in English more in-depth with detailed dissection, which brings more joy than would otherwise have been available, for example by reading for the storyline alone.

The book itself contains eleven chapters, including close reading, words, sentences, paragraphs, narrations, characters, dialogues, details, gestures, learning from Chekhov, and finally reading for courage. It is such a brilliant book that I run the risk of citing most of it if I attempt to cover the full book here. For brevity, here I only share with you three topics from the book, close reading, characters and the last one reading for courage.

Close Reading

For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.

Like most – maybe all – writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.

Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.


This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

Writing about the school assignment she was given to study the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear: Long before the blinding of Oedipus or Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see and deny what was right in front of one’s eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent – all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.

Each word of these novels was a yellow brick in the road to Oz. There were chapters I read and reread so as to repeat the dependable, out-of-body sensation of being somewhere else. I read addictively, constantly.

Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.

Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you want to write one.

I’ve also heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies. The only remedy to this I have found is to read a writer whose work is entirely different from another, though not necessarily more like your own – a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

Close reading helped me figure out, as I hoped it did for my students, a way to approach a difficult aspect of writing, which is nearly always difficult….They are the teachers to whom I go, the authorities I consult, the models that still help to inspire me with the energy and courage it takes to sit down at a desk each day and resume the process of learning, anew, to write.


Chapter six discusses about how to portray characters, using the exemplar characters from The Marquise of O by Heinrich von Kleist, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.

Here is the first sentence from Kleist’s The Marquise of O: “In M—, a large town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children, published the following notice in the newspapers: that, without her knowing how, she was in the family way; that she would like the father of the child she was going to bear to report himself; and that her mind was made up, out of consideration for her people, to marry him.”

An excerpt from Prose’s analysis about Kleist’s writing: Among the unusual things about the way that Kleist creates his characters is that he does so entirely without physical description. There is no information, not a single detail, about the Marquise’s appearance. We never hear how a room looks, or what the latest fashion might be, or what people are eating and drinking. We assume that the Marquise is beautiful, perhaps because her presence exerts such an immediate and violent effect on the Russian soldier that he loses all control and turns from an angel into devil. But we can only surmise that.

Kleist tells you what sort of people his characters are – often impetuous, wrongheaded, overly emotional, but essentially good at heart – and then lets them run around the narrative at the speed of windup toys. He has no time for their motives, nor do they, as they struggle, like the reader, to keep up with the pace at which one surprise follows another.

Through the dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen showed us. Using dialogue to establish the character, to delineate the personalities of the speakers, and to acquaint us with the people whom they are speaking about.

The portraying of characters of Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch is very different from the very minimalistic way that the Marquise and the Count were portrayed, more accurately, inferred by the readers in The Marquise of O. George Eliot wrote so well that after reading Middlemarch years ago, the mentioning of the two characters still arouse some anger and frustration for me. Reading the book as a young girl, I felt furious by Dorothea’s blindness of her own value and willingness to be manipulated by Casaubon who is purely self-centered and completely lack of any sense of love or passion towards other human beings. Perhaps that opinion of mine was only valid for that period of being very young and having black-and-white views of the world, and most likely I will see new perspectives if I were to read Middlemarch again.

Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is discussed in depth in this chapter too, particularly the protagonist Frederic. I have not read this book. Two short pieces quoted from the book below delight me enough for it to be added to my reading list.

Frederic Moreau: “The happiness which his nobility of soul deserved was slow in coming”.

In describing Frederic’s thoughts while observing Mrs Arnoux: “He had never seen anything to compare with her splendid dark skin, her ravishing figure, or her delicate, translucent fingers. He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were something out of the ordinary. What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; and even the desire for physical possession gave way to a profounder yearning, a poignant curiosity which knew no bounds.

Reading for Courage

Most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and humiliations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know – those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.

Literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.

Writers have often found it a little too easy to make the reader sympathize with characters who are beautiful and true and good, a little too simple to make us care about the innocent and the charitable. How much more of a challenge it is to attempt what Dostoyevsky accomplished in Crime and Punishment. We might not automatically expect to empathize with Raskolnikov, a student who brutally kills two old women. So what an achievement it represents not only to make us care about him but also to find ourselves hoping, just as he does, that he can be redeemed.

Discussing the pressure on writers to create likeable characters rather than realistic ones, Prose quoted the following passages from Gogol’s Dead Souls on the different fates of writers who create angels and those we describe human beings:

“Happy is the writer who omits there dull and repulsive characters that disturb one by being so painfully real… The delicious mist of the incense he burns dims human eyes; the miracle of his flattery masks all the sorrows of life and depicts only the goodness of man … He is called a great universal poet, soaring high above all other geniuses of the world even as an eagle soars above other high flying creatures. The mere sound of his name sounds a thrill through ardent young hearts; all eyes greet him with radiance and responsive tears…

But a different lot and another fate awaits the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one’s eyes…the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms…Not for him will be the applause, no grateful tears will he see … not to him will a girl of sixteen come flying, her head all awhirl with heroic fervour. Not for him will be that sweet enchantment when a poet hears nothing but the harmonies he has engendered himself; and finally, he will not escape the judgement of his time, the judgement of hypocritical and unfeeling contemporaries who will accuse the creatures his mind has bred of being base and worthless, will allow a contemptible nook for him in the gallery of those authors who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the morals of his own characters, and will deny him everything, heart, soul, and the divine flame of talent.”

There is no doubt how great amount of courage it takes to write truthfully and realistically instead of pleasingly. Further from Prose, reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form. It can even persuade you that it might not be necessary to give your novel or story a happy ending….Nor, you may discover, is it necessary to have an ending in which every loose thread is neatly tied up, every problem solved, and the characters tracked into the future as far as the mind’s eyes can see. To quote Chekhov one more time, here is the ending of the Lady with the Dog, an ending which, I have always thought, could serve as the final few lines of every work of modern fiction. As the story concludes, the aging adulterous lovers are contemplating their future.

“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.”

Talking about bad writing days, Prose quoted William Burroughs: the temptation to tear up your work in little pieces and throw it in someone else’s wastepaper basket. She carries on: reading a masterpiece may be even less of a consolation when you first figure out, or are reminded for the thousandth time, of how much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terror pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place.

My own experience of writing are mostly confined to technical topics, such as theses, technical papers and books. My creative writing is very limited. Reflecting on my experience of reading, Prose’s words above resonate in me. The solitude of reading in general, the stubbornness of chewing some passages dozens of times to think of and beyond the original intention, the strange yet mighty inner calling to wake up in the small hours and read during weekends. All these lead to a very abnormal life to others. Perhaps the big consolation for me is that, although my aim is high, I do not worry whether my reading and writing are indeed perceived as good by anyone, at least not yet. It is a lot of labor but full of great pleasure for me. A piece of writing from Isaac Babel quoted in the book talks about the hard labor of revision:

“I work like a pack mule, but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it…I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without. You have to keep your eye on the job because words are very sly, the rubbishy ones go into hiding and you have to dig them out – repetition, synonyms, things that simply don’t mean anything … I go over every image, metaphor, comparison, to see if they are fresh and accurate. If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. Let the noun stand by itself. A comparison must be as accurate as a slide rule, and as natural as the smell of fennel … I take out all the participles and adverbs I can … Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless … A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun … Line is as important in prose as in an engraving. It has to be clear and hard … But the most important thing of all … is not to kill the story by working on it. Or else all your labor has been in vain. It’s like walking a tight-rope. Well, there it is … We ought all to take an oath not to mess up our job.”

At the end of the book, Prose lists the books to be read immediately for us. This list is available at the book’s wikipedia page. However, I did not verify the correctness of all titles on this page. Overall speaking, this book broadened my horizon of literature, reading and writing practices. Prose has done her part excellently of teaching us read like a writer in this book. It is up to us who have read the book to practice the art.

Weddings and Funerals

I do not like weddings.

Weddings make me cry.

The moment the bride and bride’s father walk into the ceremony room in the town hall or church, the music in the background, the view of the two people. One is excited with some fear of the future. Uncertain how life will pan out but overjoyed about the marriage itself;  a claim of true independence and grown-up status as a Mrs. The other, holding the hand of his dearest girl, thinking of how much he wishes her to have the happiest marriage and life ahead, despite knowing that there are turmoils in every family. He wants, his darling girl, to know her dad loves her no matter where her new life leads to. She is always his darling little angel. He is both sad and happy on her wedding day. Their facial expressions, their gestures, the way their eyes sparkle, the music, the atmosphere, maybe some factors that have not come to my realisation; I cry, helplessly, among the English in England, where we as a nation are supposed to have stiff upper lips. I usually blame the music to others for my eccentrically emotional behavior. However, I doubt either they or me really believe that is the only reason.

Then come the readings, exchanging of vows, blessings and so on. The traditional wedding vow of the bride contains the phrase “obey you”. Nowadays, we often eliminate that and keep the better part of the sentence for a non-religious wedding: I promise to love, honour and cherish you for all the days of my life. For a Church of England wedding, here is a detailed writing on the wedding vows, blessings and others. One reading of a wedding in London some years ago that I found very beautifully touching and befitting our modern world:

Marriage requires devotion, the ability to listen, the wisdom to know when you are wrong and the humility to be able to put things right. It means making a commitment for life. It calls for trust, understanding and encouragement, a willingness to accept each other for who you are, and the courage to grow, and change together, through the years to come. Above all, it requires unquestioning love. Our wish for you is that you always treat each other as unique individuals, and respect each other’s ideas, suggestions and traditions. To remind yourselves often, of what brought you here, together, today and that these celebrations are just the start of a lifetime of precious memories.

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a family member. Unfortunately, this family member passed away before he and I could spend much time together. That acute feeling of loss of him compounded with the bottomless emptiness of losing all the chances of knowing more about him directly rather than through others’ memories kicked me badly. I cried. More so than anyone else; probably far too much beyond what was socially appropriate. The music was again blamed. It was the Jerusalem hymn based on William Blake’s poem. From then on, I always thought if any actor has difficulty of shedding tears genuinely in a scene, he could try to sing this hymn silently to himself. Tears are guaranteed to be abundant. This hymn could perhaps also be prescribed to anyone who suffer from dry eye symptoms.


And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold!

Bring me my Arrows of desire!

Bring me my Spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,

‘till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.


Vows and epitaphs are the roses of the English language. I love them and hate them with equal intensity.

In one of the cemeteries I frequent, I found these beautiful writings. I cannot find words sufficient to describe how deep an impression these words made on me and the imagination of the lives once lived triggered by these epitaphs (whether original or quoted). However few words are inscribed on the tombstone, I am reminded the magnificence of the English language. Standing in the graveyard, a museum of people once lived and who left their marks on many generations to come, I am also reminded of the triviality of myself and the unworthiness of the many earthly pursuits of the human. I recommend anyone who thinks there is more value in shopping on Fifth Avenue than giving the homeless guy a hug to visit a cemetery nearby and read the epitaphs.

Smile, I am still with you

In the faces of my children and grandchildren

In the beauty of my favorite flowers

In the laughters of a joke I would have loved

In the places we visited together

In the everyday memories we made together

Although I no longer live among you

I will forever live within you

— Lori

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,

we must believe that one of two things will happen.

There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.  

– Patrick Overton

How many items in an art or history museum can you identify that are not related to love, hatred, mortality or life that are also the key threads of weddings and funerals? Just to leave you with this question. I initially titled this short article, Museums, Weddings and Funerals. By now, it is wise to write about Museums as a separate topic later. If you know I walked straight from my bedroom to my home office very early morning, have been writing this and another article untill now, you would want to drag me out of my cave to have a little fresh air and welcome a new weekend day although it is the afternoon already. A cup of tea would be very lovely.

Text Data Management and Analysis – Information Retrieval and Text Mining – Part II

The third and fourth sections of this book cover text data analysis and unified text data management analysis system.

Since some topics covered in the latter half of this book are new to me, two attributes of this book were particularly helpful and eased the learning curve: the pictorial illustrations and comprehensive references accompanying the text. The drawings used to illustrate concepts played an important role for me to grasp the gist fast. Due to the very broad coverage of topics by this book, it is impossible for the authors to elaborate on all the details in depth, particularly the areas are actively being researched. The many references included in these chapters direct me to the resources to follow up on, should I wish to dive further into a specific topic. I also like the discussion of evaluations included in nearly all chapters. We cannot improve what we cannot measure. For any system being implemented, designing appropriate evaluation methods guides the development of the rest of the system.

In the general framework of data mining, we humans can be viewed as subjective sensors, since the process of perceiving real-world events and describing or expressing thoughts about them in text data as a human being is very similar to how sensors like video cameras select and record some aspects of these same events. The data collected through these sensors, subjective or objective, can be in a text or non-text format. For the former, we can apply text mining; for the latter, more general data mining (e.g. image/video mining). Data mining software can be built as a combination of both or either. By applying data mining, a user hopes to derive actionable knowledge from the multi-modal and multi-source data. Through taking actions, the users in turn change the real world events and lead to newly updated data being collected. This process iterates as shown in this figure, cited from the course Text Mining and Analytics.

Section III Text data analysis starts with an entry-level introduction to text data analysis by discussing the potential applications, text vs non-text data and the landscape of text mining tasks. In the landscape of text mining tasks, the authors distinguish four types of task to infer knowledge from the data:

  • mining knowledge about the natural languages used to describe our observations, opinions, and so on.
  • mining the content of text data to gain knowledge about the observed world.
  • mining knowledge about the observers who produced the text data.
  • inferring other real-world properties and performing predictive analysis.

This section covers the following technical topics in details, and for each topic I provide a very brief description here. For further details, please refer to the book itself and the related research papers.

Word Association Mining

This entails discovering the two types of word relations: paradigmatic and syntagmatic. Words A and B have a paradigmatic relationship if we could substitute A for B or B for A without affecting the general understanding of the sentence where the word A or B occurs. This implies that A and B could be semantically or syntactically similar to each other, in other words, the two share a similar context. If words A and B have a syntagmatic relationship, they typically appear together in a context to express a coherent meaning.

The methods used for discovering these relations include examining the context of each word and compute certain similarity metrics of these contexts. To discover the correlated cooccurrences, we can use information based approaches, such as computing the conditional entropy of the occurrence of one word given the context of another word, or, computing the mutual information.

To evaluate the outcome, NDCG and average NDCG could be used to examine the ranked lists of relevance scores. Intrusion detection, using human judgement, can also check whether there is a word distinctively incoherent with the rest of the words in this word association group .

Text Clustering

Clustering allows us to discover the hidden structures in the data. The clustering techniques discussed in this chapter can be applied at both word and document level. Two categories of clustering technique are presented: similarity-based and model-based. Commonly, these clustering methods are unsupervised.

In a similarity based approach, defining one or a set of similarity metrics is a prerequisite. With a specified metric, clustering could be performed either top-down (i.e., divisive clustering) or bottom-up (i.e., agglomerative clustering). Typically in this scenario, the assignment of a word or document to a particular cluster is a hard binary one. A probabilistic model based approach typically allows soft assignment, meaning one data item could belong to multiple clusters, where each membership has a certain probability, and where all probabilities for this item sum up to one.

Text Categorization

Text Categorization goes one step further beyond clustering, as the goal here is to find the right category for text objects given a set of predefined categories. For example, we could design a program to automatically categorize each of my blog postings to the right topic category based on its content, computer science, business, history, fiction etc. What features would be useful to derive from the text for its categorisation? Recent studies show that combining the low-level lexical features with high-level syntactic features provide better performance in classification task than using either feature type alone. The book discusses three classification algorithms: k-nearest neighbors, naive Bayes, and linear classifiers.


Text summarization builds on top of previous chapters and go one step higher up. The goal is to distill a large amount of text data into a concise summary. The key challenge here is to discover what are the important points conveyed in the full text. Two categories of methods are discussed in this chapter: extractive (selection-based) or abstractive summarization (generation-based).

The extractive approach typically splits the original document to sections, and selects relevant but not redundant sentences (or sub-sentences) from each section to form a summary without writing any new sentences. To achieve that, it applies discourse analysis and maximal marginal relevance.

The generation-based approach uses a language model to potentially write new sentences for the summary. The book gives an N-gram language model as an example, with n typically chosen to be about three to five. This approach may generate incomprehensible sentences due to its short-range nature. More advanced methods use other NLP techniques, such as named entity recognition and dependency parsers to extract the key entities and the relations among these entities from the text first. The authors refer them as actors and roles. The summary sentences are then generated by selecting from these identified entities and relationships in combination with a language model.

Topic Mining and Analysis

This chapter talks about using probabilistic topic models to discover latent topics in text data. The input to topic mining task is a set of documents and the number of topics k. The expected outputs are the k topics and, for each document, the probability that each topic is covered in the document, with the condition that the sum of the probabilities of all topic coverages for each document is one.

One approach is to use a mixture language model of two components: a background language model to account for the commonly occurring words in all documents and a topic specific model to represent the topic that we would like to discover. To discover more than one topic, this approach is generalised to a method called probabilistic latent semantic analysis (PLSA). The expectation-maximisation algorithm is used to estimate the PLSA.

Opinion Mining and Sentiment Analysis

As mentioned earlier, we human beings can be seen as subjective sensors of the real-world. The authors give the definition of “opinion” as cited from the course Text Mining and Analytics in the figure below.

To mine the users’ opinions and discover their sentiment, the book starts with three basic opinion representations: holder, target and content of the opinion; furthermore, it covers two enriched representation: opinion context and opinion sentiment.

The sentiment classification problem can be formulated as estimating a rating in the scale of 1 to n, given a document as input. One caveat is that these ratings are not independent. On the contrary, they reflect sentiment on some scale. As a result, we cannot treat it as a categorisation task of finding the most appropriate category for the document from a set of independent categories. We can adapt the binary logistic regression to multi-level for this task. However, a better approach with fewer parameters based on a similar idea is ordinal logistic regression. Furthermore, given reviews and their overall ratings as input, the latent aspect rating analysis discussed in the chapter can generate the major aspects covered in the reviews, the ratings on each aspect, and the relative weight placed on each aspect by each reviewer.

Joint Analysis of Text and Structured Data

This chapter discusses techniques for joint analysis of unstructured text data and structured data. One example is to use the non-text data as context to facilitate topic analysis of the text data. This is more formally known as contextual text mining. Three topics covered in this chapter are of great interest: contextual probabilistic latent semantic analysis, topic analysis with social networks as context and topic analysis with time series context.

The final section of the book talks about the text analysis operators, system architecture of a unified text analysis system, and the MeTA C++ data science toolkit provided by the research group of the authors.


Text Data Management and Analysis – Information Retrieval and Text Mining – Part I

This week, I return to my profession as a computer scientist and read the book titled “Text Data Management and Analysis – A Practical Introduction to Information Retrieval and Text mining” by ChengXiang Zhai and Sean Massung from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In Part I of the two-part blog post about this topic, I walk you through some key points of the first two sections of the book: Overview and Background, and Text Data Access. I leave the third section, Text Data Analysis, and the fourth section on a unified framework for text management and analysis to next blog post.

Overall, this book is very easy to follow. This might not be a very accurate projection from me who has worked on data-related topics in multiple areas of computer science over a decade. As far as computer science books are concerned, this statement stays true though. I would classify it as a textbook on information retrieval and text mining for 2nd or 3rd year undergraduates studying computer science, or, an entry-level book that opens the door to this field for people with a science background but specialised in other domains. If you prefer technical books of terse writing style, you may find yourself unsatisfied. It might seem to you that the authors did not make a great deal of effort to make the book concise. However, on the positive side, this means that there are very detailed explanations of concepts and how the algorithms and their associated maths formula are derived step-by-step. If you have not come across those before, you would appreciate this book’s thoroughness. There is a companion toolkit named the META toolkit available freely. It provides implementations of many techniques discussed in the book. Based on the material covered by this book, ChengXiang Zhai offers two courses on Coursera: Text Mining and Analytics and Text Retrieval and Search Engine.

Anyone who is reading this article would know that the amount of data produced per day has been increasingly dramatically over time. The characteristics of big data were summarized as 3-V: Volume (the quantity of data produced, collected, processed), Variety (incompatible data formats, non-aligned data structures, and inconsistent data semantics) and Velocity (the speed of data generation and subsequently speed requirement on analysis), by Doug Laney in his writing titled 3D Data Management. Later, the 3-V concept was expanded to 4-V (adding Veracity referring to the uncertainty of data) and 5-V (adding Value, referring to the ability to add value to business through insights derived from data analytics). Text data plays a significant role in this big data world. To process and exploit the ever-growing large amount of text data, there are two main types of services: text retrieval and text mining. The former is concerned with developing intelligent systems to help us to navigate the ocean of text data and access the most needed and relevant information efficiently and accurately. The latter focuses on discovering the purpose or intention of the text communication, deriving the semantic meaning, the underlying opinions and preferences of the users through the texts used, and by doing so assisting the users with decision making or other tasks. I am wary of using the word “knowledge” here, although it is standard practice in the writings of this field to see that extracted value from text as knowledge.

In this book, text information systems is described as offering three distinct and related functionalities: information access, text organisation and knowledge acquisition (text analysis). There are two typical ways of providing the access to relevant information to users: search engine and recommendation system. A search engine provides the users with relevant data, upon receiving certain queries from the users. Alternatively, it allows the users to browse the data through some hierarchical trees or other organisations, for example the browsing pane on Amazon site. This is typically referred to as pull model. It could be either personalised or not. A recommendation system takes a more active approach by pushing relevant information to a user as new information comes in with or without the updated user profile data. Hence it is referred to as push model. Text organisation is essential to make the information access and analytics effective. Although it is mostly hidden from a user’s perspective, it is this core part that glues the other parts of information system together. I include a drawing of a conceptual framework of text information systems from this book here for illustration purpose.

The prerequisite background knowledge for this domain include: probability and statistics, information theory and machine learning. Fear not though. Chapter 2 of the book discusses some of the basics. The appendix gives more detailed treatment on Bayesian statistics, expectation-maximisation, KL-divergence and Dirichlet prior smoothing.

The discussions on a few topics were interesting for me: statistical language models, the vector space and probabilistic retrieval models, all key components of search engine implementation (e.g., tokenizer, indexer, scorer/ranker, feedback schemes etc.), web indexing, link analysis, content-based recommendation and collaborative filtering. However, on the topics of link analysis and recommendation systems, I prefer Mining of Massive Datasets by Jure Leskovec, Anand Rajaraman and Jeff Ullman.

Happy reading!


Rubicon – the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

My book of this week is Rubicon – the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. Rubicon tells the stories of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, from the time when Lucius Tarquinius Superbus’ reign of Rome was demolished in a palace coup in 509 BC, the subsequent establishment of the Roman Republic, to the death of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, in 14 AD.    

I was first introduced to Rubicon by Robert Harris, the author of a trilogy on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero. Over a month ago, while staying in London, I commented to one of my best friends that how marvellous it would be to meet and hear Robert Harris talk about the Roman history and its people. Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity of meeting him in person and firing up my numerous questions and fascinations to him about Cicero and the Roman Republic. However, BBC Radio 4 featured a book club event with Robert Harris shortly afterwards. Obviously I tuned in and listened to that episode a number of times. Robert Harris talked about why he chose to write about Cicero in this program. He credited that to the fact of reading an early manuscript of Tom Holland’s Rubicon. Before long, I found myself equipped with Rubicon’s ebook as primary reading format as it’s convenient to carry around, hardcopy for flipping through and cross referencing, and finally audiobook for listening while running or driving. There are a noticeable amount of words and sentences that are different in the audiobook than those in the ebook, although not affecting the readability much nor leading to gross misunderstanding.

Rubicon is the most challenging book for me so far this year. Although, as a child, I read Chinese history and literature extensively, and later various genres of books in English (mostly literature, biographies, science, engineering and history books), fundamentally I am a computer scientist. Rubicon is the first time that I read a full volume of the history of the Roman Republic. Unsurprisingly, the writing of this book is very different from the trilogy on Cicero I read and wrote about earlier this year, as it not only has a captivating storytelling part, but also probably half of it contains discussions and analysis of the political and social struggles of the people in Rome, its provinces and far beyond. That said, a number of the metaphors that we use nowadays can be traced back to the Roman time over two thousand years ago, for example, the term “Cross the Rubicon” with the meaning that once we pass a certain point there would be no return, similarly the phrase “the die is cast”, might have both originated from the event that Julius Caesar led his army crossing the Rubicon River in 49 BC as an act of insurrection and treason. Discoveries like these add extra pleasure to my experience of reading history books like Rubicon.

In this book, to me, the paradoxical features of the Roman Republic are most distinctive. This is reflected in multiple facets of Roman society, for example, the wide division of two classes and their mutually shared devotion to the community. In the Roman Republic there is nothing resembling a middle class. Everybody is either plebeian or patrician. “The central paradox of Roman society – that savage divisions of class could coexist with an almost religious sense of community – had evolved through the course of its history. A revolution against the extractions of authority had, of course, inspired the Republic’s very foundation. Even so, following the expulsion of Tarquin and the monarchy, the plebeians had found themselves just as tyrannized by the ancient aristocracy of Rome, the patricians, as they had ever been by the kings……Indeed, in the early years of the Republic’s history, Roman society had come perilously close to ossifying altogether. The plebeians, however, refusing to accept that they belong to an inferior caste, had fought back in the only way they could – by going on strike……Here they would periodically threaten to fulfil Remus’s original ambitions by founding an entirely new city. The patricians, left to stew in their own hauteur across the valley, would gracelessly grant a few concessions. Gradually, over the years, the class system had become ever more permeable. The old rigid polarization between patrician and plebeian had begun to crack.” This should sound very familiar to most people who read world history and follow a little social and political movements of the modern world.

More on the paradox of Roman society: “The privileges of birth, then guaranteed nothing in Rome. The fact that the descendents of a goddess might find themselves living in a red-light district ensured that it was not only the very poor who dreaded the consequences of failure. At every social level the life of a citizen was a grueling struggle to emulate – and, if possible, surpass – the achievements of his ancestors. In practice as well as principle the Republic was savagely meritocratic. Indeed, this, to the Romans, was what liberty meant. It appeared self-evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, toward a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. The proof of the superiority of this model of society lay in its trouncing of every conceivable alternative. The Romans knew that had they remained the slaves of a monarch, or of a self-perpetuating clique of aristocrats, they would never have succeeded in conquering the world. “It is almost beyond belief how great the Republic’s achievements were once the people had gained their liberty, such was the longing for glory which it lit in every man’s heart.”……For all the ruthlessness of competition in the Republic, it was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work. As well as talent and application, this required contacts, money and free time. The consequence was yet further paradox: meritocracy, real and relentless as it was, nevertheless served to perpetuate a society in which only the rich could afford to devote themselves to a political career. Individuals might rise to greatness, ancient families might decline, yet through it all the faith in hierarchy endured unchanging.”

The women written about in this book are fascinating characters to me: the Sibyl and her prophecies, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, the notoriously unfaithful and manipulative Clodia whose social standing was destroyed mercilessly by Cicero during the trial of Caelius and who subsequently vanished from the public eye, Fulvia whose political involvement was not to be underestimated although largely hidden behind the men she supported, and a few others. Cleopatra was written about in great depth in this book for her close association with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. I am not a historian on any of these female characters. Nevertheless, I wonder whether what we now know of them are twisted facts mixed with some fanciful and maybe even false projections from what could be found in the broken historic records. Those records were written in an era during which societal judgement on a woman was archaic and misogynistic. Here is a passage from the book on Clodia: “For any woman, even one of Clodia’s rank, dabbling in politics was a high-wire act. Roman morality did not look kindly on female forwardness. Frigidity was the ultimate marital ideal. It was taken for granted, for instance, that a matron has no need of lascivious squirmings – anything more than a rigid, dignified immobility was regarded as the mark of a prostitute. Likewise, a woman whose conversation was witty and free laid herself open to an identical charge. If she then compounded her offences by engaging in political intrigue, she could hardly be regarded as anything other than a monster of depravity.” There is also a short piece about Aurelia Cotta, Julius Caesar’s mother, widely praised and respected by Roman people for breastfeeding her children. One wonders why it is even anybody else’s business to have an opinion on whether a mother decides to breastfeed or not.

From reading the trilogy of Cicero, I learned that Cicero admired Cato greatly for his unyielding character. In Rubicon, Tom Holland went into more depth of portraying Cato. An example passage is included here. Throughout this book, Cato stood out as the character with more integrity and principle than any others. “Marcus Porcius Cato had a voice that boomed out across the Senate House floor. Rough and unadorned, it appeared to sound directly from the rugged, virtuous days of the earlier Republic. As an officier, Cate had ‘shared in everything he ordered his man to do. He wore what they wore, ate what they ate, marched as they marched.’ As a civilian, he made a fashion out of despising fashion, wearing black because the party set all sported purple, walking everywhere, whether in blazing sunshine or icy rain, despising every form of luxury, sometimes not even bothering to put on his shoes. If there was more than a hint of affectation about this, then it was also the expression of a profoundly held moral purpose, an incorruptibility and inner strength that the Romans still longed to identify with themselves, but had rather assumed were confined to the history books. To Cato, however, the inheritance of the past was something infinitely sacred. Duty and service to his fellow citizens were all. Only after he had fully studied the responsibilities of the quaestorship had he been prepared to put himself up for election. Once in office, such as his probity and diligence that it was said he ‘made the quaestorship as worthy of honor as a consulship’. Plagued by a sense of its own corruption as it was, the Senate was not yet so degenerate that it could fail to be impressed by such a man.”

Many other significant characters are covered in the book along the historic river flowing through the formation of the Roman Republic, its expansion and conquering of many territories, many tortuous turns of its fortune, and finally its fall. A few more examples of very luminous characters are Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, Pompey the Great, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Marcus Antonius, Julius Caesar and Augustus. I hope to come back to write an addition on these characters, especially Augustus, in the near future.

Reading Rubicon and writing a summary about it is the toughest test since I started my one-book-a-week project this year. Outside work, I lost my opinions on nearly all basic daily activities, for example, what to eat or drink. Who would care about these trivialities, if you are immersed in this glorious, heart-wrenching, treacherous Roman history? If not for the fact of hosting an alumni event later this Sunday, I should be living in the Roman Republic, walking around the Palatine and Aventine hills for a little bit longer before the end of this weekend.

My Life in Advertising

My book of the week is an autobiography by Claude C. Hopkins, My Life in Advertising, written in 1927.

Walter Weir once praised this book: There are few pages in My Life in Advertising which do not repay careful study – and which do not merit rereading. Before your eyes, a successful advertising life is lived – with all that went to make it successful. The lessons taught are taught exactly as they were learned. They are dished up dripping with life. It is not a book, it is an experience – and experience has always been the great teacher.

When I was reading some books about entrepreneurship, a recurring message seems to be that many startup founders are excellent at exercising their visions and building great products, but are not good at selling these products. I pondered about this for a while. Multiple questions came to my mind:

  • Why is this the case?
  • What can be done about it?
  • What skills are required for salesmanship?
  • Could we learn it if we do not have that natural talent?
  • If so, how to learn and practice?

This led me to search for a book on salesmanship and I came across this book by Claude C. Hopkins. Among many titles, I chose this one for two reasons. First, I hoped a retrospective reflection of one’s life time work on advertising would be more interesting and have greater depth than books that focus on teaching methods rather than principles and likely filled with buzzwords. Second, I was curious about how advertising was done in the beginning of 20th century with very different media channels from those of today and whether the practices and principles learned back then would still be valuable for us.

This book certainly did not disappoint me. It not only served well in terms of answering my questions and opening up my mind to advertising, but also offered me a rich experience of going through many advertising missions together with the author such that the principles and insights presented in the book come naturally to me. Furthermore, through those real-world examples, I, as a reader, am free to draw my own conclusion and form thoughts other than those the author presented. I share with you here a few thoughts derived from the book that resonate with me most.

In my view, Hopkins credited much of his success in advertising to poverty. Poverty led Claude to live among the common people, to know them, to understand their wants and impulses, their struggles and economies, their simplicity. His early years were full of hardship. Subsequently the very down-to-earth style that he developed offered him a window into ordinary people’s lives and to stay connected with them. Here in Claude’s own words: I am sure I would fail if I tried to advertise the Rolls-Royce, Tiffany&Co, or Steinway pianos. I do not know the reactions of the rich. But I do know the common people. I love to talk to laboring-men, to study housewives who must count their pennies, to gain the confidence and learn the ambitions of the poor boys and girls. Give me something which they want and I will strike the responsive chord. My words will be simple, my sentences short. Scholars may ridicule my style. The rich and vain may laugh at the factors which I feature. But in millions of humble homes the common people will read and buy. They will feel that the writer knows them. And they, in advertising, form 95 percent of our customers.

Hardworking is an attribute shared among people who are successful in their endeavors. But, how many could match Claude’s level of industry? “I have supported myself since the age of nine. Other boys, when they went to school as I did, counted their school work a day. It was an incident to me. Before school, I opened two school houses, built the fires, and dusted the seats. After school I swept those school houses. Then I distributed the Detroit Evening News to sixty-five homes before supper. On Saturdays I scrubbed the two school houses and distributed bills. On Sundays I was a church janitor, which kept me occupied from early morning until ten at night. In vacations I went to the farm, where the working time was sixteen hours a day. When the doctor pronounced me too sickly for school, I went to the cedar swamp. There work started at 4:30 in the morning….Yet it never occurred to me that I was working hard. In after years I did the same in business. I had no working hours. When I ceased before midnight, that was a holiday for me. I often left my office at two in the morning. Sundays were my best working days, because there were no interruptions. For sixteen years after entering business I rarely had an evening or a Sunday not occupied by work….The man who works twice as long as his fellows is bound to go twice as far, especially in advertising…There is some difference in brains, of course, but it is not so important as the difference in industry. The man who does two or three times the work of another learns two or three times as much. He makes more mistakes and more successes, and he learns from both. If I have gone higher than others in advertising, or done more, the fact is not due to exceptional ability, but to exceptional hours….Frugality and caution kept me from disaster, but industry taught me advertising and made me what I am.”

Industry alone is not sufficient for great success, if one does not love his work while ploughing the field of his choice. “What others call work I call play, and vice versa. We do best what we like best.

On distributing credit and being fair, there are a few stories told in this book and a few lessons that we could draw from that. One key message that echoes what the lecturer of my Stanford leadership class repeated: I for responsibility, we for credit. One example passage from the book: About the only disagreements I had with Mr. Lasker referred to his desire to overpay me. That attitude I consider a vital factor in success. An absolutely fair division. One on the crest of the wave may over-play his hand for a little time, but not for long. Business is money-making, and associates will find a way to eliminate anyone who claims too large a share.

One great lesson about advertising is to start small, test and gather data, learn from the data, improve and iterate. This book was written in 1920s about salesmanship, but the concept presented here is the same as lean startup and agile development. This reaffirms my view that reading or getting to know the fields other than the one we mostly practice in can tremendously broaden our view and improve how we practice in our own field. On the importance of experimenting, Hopkins wrote “but we find that some methods which succeed in one line cannot be applied to another. We find that some methods which are profitable are not one-fourth so effective as others. So, regardless of principles, we must always experiment.

There are many great principles that Hopkins summarised from his decades of experience in advertising. I can not enumerate all here, but include a few that were most refreshing for me when I read them the first time.

  • Brilliant writing has no place in advertising. A unique style takes attention from the subject. Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance. Persuasive ability arouses the fear of over-influence.
  • Never try to show off. You are selling your product, not yourself. Do nothing to cloud your objective. Use the shortest words possible. Let every phrase ring with sincerity.
  • Aim to get action.
  • Ads should tell the full story. People do not read ads in series. The advertiser who today attracts them may not again get attention for months. So, when you get a reading, present all your arguments. In an advertising campaign, we find facts which appeal, and we retain them. We find facts which don’t appeal, and we drop them. We find these things out by featuring our various claims in headlines. We find that one lead brings a great deal of interest, while another brings little or none. So we gauge our appeals accordingly.
  • When we say such things as, “The best product in existence,” “The supreme creation of its kind,” we may arouse only a smile at our frailties. No resentment may be engendered. But whatever else we say is discounted…..On the other hand, when you state actual figures, definite facts, they accept them at par.
  • All experience in advertising proves that people will do little to prevent troubles. They do not cross bridges in advance. They will do anything to cure troubles which exist, but legitimate advertising has little scope there. All are seeking advantages, improvements, new ways to satisfy desires.

I applied what I learned by reading this book on two occasions this week. One was to make a maiden “sales pitch” about the roses I grow and my floral arrangements. The other was a discussion about acquiring a large customer base for a product currently under development. Based on the feedback received, both have gone well, with lots of space for further improvement on my part, which I always expect to be the case.

My practice of improv and the book Improv Wisdom

I procrastinated from Friday night until the very early morning of Sunday before I committed myself to write about my book of the week, Improv Wisdom – Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson.

Writing this summary has not escaped my mind, whether I was deadheading roses, or making flower arrangements, or planning for a strictly gluten-free dinner for friends with celiac disease. After hosting the dinner party Saturday night, naturally I should be very tired but I had a number of dreams about improv practices and writing this summary. I only recall fragments of them now. These are not atypical, both the dream part and not remembering much part. Before an important discussion that I will chair or a presentation I will deliver, I dream about the process of doing it for a couple nights leading to the actual activity after investing a lot effort on it. These dreams and their fragmented recollection help me feel grounded. They often also help me organise my thoughts of the underlying topics better.

I am an extreme believer of being prepared with work and somewhat less so with life. Colleagues of mine who I have worked closely with could vouch for me. It was not incidental that I know the core subjects and the topics remotely-related to those that we would cover in a meeting. It is also definitely not magic that I appeared to know the basics of domains that seem to be so far away from what my own work requires. For technical meetings, how much value you can derive from the conversations for all parties depends on how well prepared you are. If I were going to spend all the time asking you, what terminology X means and what do you mean by that acronym. By the end of the scheduled meeting, we would only be able to establish a shared vocabulary and scratch the surface. That said, I strongly recommend people not to overuse acronyms and convey thoughts in a precise manner during a discussion. This is the baseline version of me.

Patricia’s book Improv Wisdom is the “textbook” for the improv course that I am taking this term. Recall that I just established the baseline version of me in previous paragraph, am I crazy to do an improv course? No! Very much the contrary! It is true that I had no clue what to expect in an improv class prior to attending one. But I knew this is something that would stretch me out of my comfort zone, worse, scare me terribly and I might find that I dread it miserably. The more challenging it is, the more effective it would be for me. The classes have turned out to be indeed very different. We are on our feet all the time. Most of us have not taken down any notes during the lectures. I tried to mentally reconstruct the activities of each class on my way driving home. Now you ask: what is it about? I do not know about the future sessions yet, but so far there were gales of laughters. It is about being present without being intensive or stressed, performing on your feet and acting without deep thinking involved, sharing controls with others instead of hogging it, being very attentive to what surrounds you. It also help us to drop the barriers that each of us builds around ourselves over the years, forget about that we might be judged by others and what that judgement would be. It may sound a cliche, but there is a lot of emphasis on bringing out the natural talent of yourself, what is distinctively your own. These are my reflections from the games we played rather than what the lectures focus on discussing about. Only through doing group activities rather than theoretical discussions, we break the molds that govern our thoughts and actions, become more spontaneous and more creative in the process.  

Does practising improv contradict my baseline of being prepared? No. In my opinion, they enhance the benefit of each other. Have you ever prepared thoroughly for a discussion and only find you were tongue-tied during the actual session such that did not air your thoughts and contribute to the conversation much at all? Have you wished you would be more brave and participatory in events that happened in the past when you replay them in your mind? Have you felt lost and anxious while meeting a group of new people in a social networking event, even though you have looked up a few attendees ahead of time? (No, I have not. Being thrown into a new social environment actually excites me. But I know plenty of friends who feel this way though.) I think Rumi’s poem (cited in Patricia’s book) on two kinds of intelligence quoted below expressing this very well. Each of us has two kinds of intelligence: one related to preparation, one to improv. It would be utterly wasteful if we only exercise one kind living through our life.

Two Kinds of Intelligence

(From the translations of Rumi by Coleman Barks)
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

To quote Patricia, improv is about discovering and exercising your second kind of intelligence. Patricia summarises her decades of experience of teaching improv into thirteen maxims. She also recommends many activities to practice them. To say that I completed reading her book this week is truthful, but also meaningless if I were not to practice them in the days to come. I hope Patricia does not mind me sharing her thirteen maxims with you here. Acquiring improv skills is a little similar to getting CPR training. The more people practising it, the better we as a collective group. We can influence and teach each other through doing it, although I wish everyone great health and no CPR ever needed.

Thirteen Maxims:

  1. Say Yes
    Just say yes.
    Become a “can-do” person.
    Look for the positive spin, for what is right.
    Agree with those around you.
    Cultivate yes phrases: “You bet”; “You are right”; “I’m with you”; “Good idea”; “Of course”; “Sure”; etc.
    Substitute “Yes and” for “Yes but.” Add something to build the conversation.
    Exercise the yes muscle. This builds optimism and hope.
  2. Don’t prepare
    Give up planning. Drop the habit of thinking ahead.
    Attend carefully to what is happening right now.
    Allow yourself to be surprised.
    Stockpiling ideas for future use is unnecessary.
    Trust your imagination. There is always something in the box.
    Welcome whatever floats into your mind.
    Fear is a matter of misplaced attention. Focus on redirecting it.
  3. Just show up
    Walk, run, bike, skip to the places that you need to be.
    Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up.
    Start your day with what is important.
    Use rituals to get things going.
    Showing up to help others is already service.
    Change your vantage point and refresh your mind.
    Location, location, location – in real estate and in life.
    Be on time for the sake of others.
    Show up on time for yourself. Lost time is never found.
  4. Start anyway
    All starting points are equally valid.
    Begin with what seems obvious.
    Once it is under way any task seems smaller.
    When speaking in public don’t use a script. Write down questions and answer them.
    Talk to your audience. Don’t give a lecture.
    Trust your mind.
    Edit and develop ideas as you speak.
  5. Be average
    Close enough is perfect.
    Dare to be dull.
    Think “inside” the box.
    Celebrate the obvious.
    What is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others.
    Remember “classics” or “favorites” can be fresh ideas, too.
    Don’t make jokes. Make sense.
  6. Pay attention
    If I have made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent. – Sir Isaac Newton.
    Life is attention.
    Notice everything, particularly the details.
    Become a detective.
    Shift your attention from yourself to others.
    Make an effort to remember names and faces.
    Keep on waking up.
    This moment happens only once. Treasure it.
    Avoid multitasking. Attend to one thing at a time.
  7. Face the facts
    Don’t fight reality.
    Accept other people as they are.
    Work with what you have been given.
    What are the facts? You are probably not noticing all of them.
    Embrace the wobble.
    Insecurity is normal. Count on it.
  8. Stay on course
    Every improvisation has a point.
    Don’t let feelings alone run your show.
    There is meaning in everything we do, even small tasks.
    Keep an eye on where you are going.
    If you miss the target, adjust your aim.
    Ask often: “what is my purpose?”
    What would not get done if you were not here?
  9. Wake up to the gifts
    Notice that the glass is half full.
    Treasure the details.
    Who or what is helping you right now?
    Make a point of thanking those with thankless jobs.
    What are you doing to give back?
    Keep the gift moving forward.
    Our smallest actions count. Everything we do has the potential to help others.
    Make “thank you” your mantra.
  10. Make mistakes, please
    If you are not making mistakes, you are not improvising.
    Be like a turtle: stick out your neck to make progress.
    When you screw up, say “Ta-dah!” and take a bow.
    Mistakes? Focus on what comes next.
    Let go of outcomes. Cultivate a flexible mind.
    Mistakes may actually be blessings.
    Become a confident mistake-maker. Lighten up.
    Try bricolage – use what is there artfully.
    Admitting a mistake shows character.
  11. Act now
    The essence of improvising is action.
    Act in order to discover what comes next.
    You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.
    Schedule a difficult task and stick to your timetable.
    Invite a buddy to join you in doing what you need to do.
    Do the hard thing first.
    To find a new perspective, try doing something a different way.
    Sometimes not doing is what is needed.
    If you can’t get out of it, get into it.
  12. Take care of each other
    Be someone’s guardian angel. Make your partner look good.
    Rescue or join someone struggling.
    Share control; don’t hog it.
    Kindness is essential during chaos or a crisis.
    Try giving yourself away.
    Always put positive thoughts into words and action.
    Do “random acts of kindness.”
    Put other people’s convenience ahead of your own.
    Listen as if your life depended on it.
    Deliver more than you promise.
  13. Enjoy the ride
    Find joy in whatever you are doing, including ordinary tasks.
    Look for ways to play. Play is essential to human growth.
    Learning is enhanced when we lighten up.
    Laughter is good medicine.
    If something is not to your liking, change your liking.
    Give away smiles every day.
    Do something just for the fun of it.

Only the Paranoid Survive

In this book, Andrew Grove talked to us about strategic inflection points: what they are, how to identify them, how to separate the signals from the noise, how to lead your business through the tough transitions and emerge from them stronger. Finally he offered advice on dealing with a career inflection point. In his own words:

this book is about the impact of changing rules. It’s about finding your way through uncharted territories. Through examples and reflections on my and others’ experiences, I hope to raise your awareness of what it’s like to go through cataclysmic changes and to provide a framework in which to deal with them

Given a curve, an inflection point is where the rate of change of the slope of the curve changes sign. In this book it is the time and place where the second derivative of the curve changes its sign from negative to positive. The figure below cited from the book illustrates this change. However, in reality, it is very challenging to pinpoint when exactly this inflection point takes place, what causes it and how to handle it. In this book, Andrew Grove shared his insights though both his own experience of navigating Intel through multiple challenges and observations of the other players in the computer industry.

Andrew Grove used the change of direction of the company Next as an example to illustrate a strategic inflection point in the computer industry. After leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs started a new company, Next, to create the “Next” generation of superbly engineered hardware, a graphical user interface that was even better than Apple’s Macintosh interface and an operating system that was capable of more advanced tasks than the Mac. Unfortunately he and the team were oblivious to the new development that Microsoft had made in the PC domain, Windows. I like Andy’s way of capturing this: It was as if Steve Jobs and his company had gone into a time capsule when they started Next. They worked hard for years, competing against what they thought was the competition, but by the time they emerged, the competition turned out to be something completely different and much more powerful. This threw Next into a strategic inflection point. Eventually, Jobs pivoted Next to become a software company instead of a vertical hardware company.

Andrew discussed about the six forces affecting a business. The six forces are:

  • power, vigor and competence of existing competitors, complementors, customers, suppliers and potential competitors
  • the possibility that what your business is doing can be done in a different way.

He detailed the potential impact of a 10X force that could arrive from any one of the six forces or their combinations. For example, focusing on  changes from customers: customers drifting away from their former buying habits may provide the most subtle and insidious cause of a strategic inflection point….Businesses fail either because they leave their customers, i.e., they arbitrarily change a strategy that worked for them in the past (the obvious change), or because their customers leave them (the subtle one).

He gave many examples of inflection points to help us identify the 10X forces in industries other than high-tech. For example, the impact of Walmart moving into a small town on small grocery stores, that of sound movies take over the silent movies, and how containerization transformed the shipping industry.

One very detailed discussion in the book is about the transition of the computer industry from a vertical one to a very different horizontal one. This potentially could be extended and applied to other industries too.

Horizontal industries live and die by mass production and mass marketing. They have their own rules. The companies that have done well in the brutally competitive horizontal computer industry have learned these implicit rules. By following them, a company has the opportunity to compete and prosper. By defying them, no matter how good its products are, no matter how well they execute their plans, a company is slogging uphill.

In this book, Grove prescribed three rules for succeeding in a horizontal industry.

  • Do not differentiate without a difference. Do not introduce improvements whose only purpose is to give you an advantage over your competitor without giving your customer a substantial advantage.
  • In this hypercompetitive horizontal world, opportunity knocks when a technology break or other fundamental change comes your way. Grab it. The first mover and only the first mover, the company that acts while the others dither, has a true opportunity to gain time over its competitors – and time advantage, in this business, is the surest way to gain market share.
  • Price for what the market will bear, price for volume, then work like the devil on your costs so that you can make money at that price. This will lead you to achieve economies of scale in which the large investments that are necessary can be effective and productive and will make sense because, by being a large-volume suppliers, you can spread and recoup those costs. By contrast, cost-based pricing will often lead you into a niche position, which in a mass-production-based industry is not very lucrative.

I was particularly drawn to one story told in this book: In the midst of the memory crisis, Andrew Grove asked Gordon Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” Andrew stared at him, numb and then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”

The Route to Survival (advice from the book, roughly in the order of identifying inflection points, differentiating signal from noise, handling the chaos, how to rein in chaos):

The more complex the issues are, the more levels of management should be involved because people from different levels bring completely different points of view and expertise to the table, as well as different genetic makeups. The debate should involve people outside the company, customers and partners who not only have different areas of expertise but also have different interests.

When dealing with emerging trends, you may very well have to go against rational extrapolation of data and rely instead on anecdotal observations and your instincts.

I cannot stress this issue strongly enough. It takes many years of consistent conduct to eliminate fear of punishment as an inhibitor of strategic discussion. It takes only one incident to introduce it. News of this incident will spread through the organisation like wildfire and shut everyone up.

The old order will not give way to the new without a phrase of experimentation and chaos in between. The dilemma is that you cannot suddenly start experimenting when you realise you are in trouble unless you have been experimenting all along. It is too late to do it once things have changed in your core business. Ideally, you should have experimented with new products, technologies, channels, promotions and new customers all along.

How do we know whether a change signals a strategic inflection point? The only way is through the process of clarification that comes from broad and intensive debates.

Resolution comes through experimentation. Only stepping out of the old ruts will bring new insights.

Develop a new industry mental map. This map is composed of an unstated set of rules and relationships, ways and means of doing business, what’s “done” and how it is done and what’s “not done”, who matters and who doesn’t, whose opinion you can count on and whose opinion is usually wrong, and so on….knowing these things has become second nature.

Clarity of direction, which includes describing what we are going after as well as describing what we will not be going after, is exceedingly important at the late stage of a strategic transformation.

To make it through the valley of death succesfully, your first task is to form a mental image of what the company should look like when you get to the other side. This image not only needs to be clear enough for you to visualize but it also has to be crisp enough so you can communicate it simply to your tired, demoralized and confused staff.

Seeing, imagining and sensing the new shape of things is the first step. Be clear in this but be realistic also. Do not compromise and do not kid yourself. If you are describing a purpose that deep down you know you cannot achieve, you are dooming your chances of climbing out of the valley of death.

If you are in a leadership position, how you spend your time has enormous symbolic values. It will communicate what is important or what is not far more powerfully than all the speeches you can give.

Assigning or reassigning resources in order to pursue a strategic goal is an example of what I call strategic action. I’m convinced that corporate strategy is formulated by a series of such actions, far more so than through conventional top-down strategic planning.

Should you pursue a highly focused approached, betting everything on one strategic goal, or should you hedge?…I tend to believe Mark Twain hit it on the head when he said, “Put all of your eggs in one basket and WATCH THAT BASKET.”…It is very hard to lead an organisation out of the valley of death without a clear and simple strategic direction…While you are going through the valley of death, you may think you see the other side, but you cannot be sure whether it is truly the other side or just a mirage. Yet you have to commit yourself to a certain course and a certain pace, otherwise you will run out of water and energy before long. If you are wrong, you will die. But most companies do not die because they are wrong; most die because they do not commit themselves. The fritter away their momentum and their valuable resources while attempting to make a decision. The greatest danger is in standing still.

While struggling with a 10X force, you cannot change a company without changing its management .

Finally, Andrew Grove draw parallel of the career inflection points to the business strategic ones. Career inflection points caused by a change in the environment do not distinguish between the qualities of the people that they dislodge by their force.

The desire for a different lifestyle, or the fatigue that sets in after many years of doing a stressful job, can cause people to re-evaluate their needs and wants, and can build to a force as powerful as any that comes from the external environment. Put another way, your internal thinking and feeling machinery is as much as part of your environment as an employee as your external situation. Major changes in either can affect your work life.

The chapter on Career Inflection Points teach us a few lessons:

  1. Each person, whether he is an employee or self-employed, is like an individual business. Your career is literally your business, and you are its CEO….It is your responsibility to protect your career from harm and to position yourself to benefit from changes in the operating environment.
  2. initiate your career transition in your own time rather than having it initiated for you by outside circumstances.
  3. Be alert to changes. Go through a mental fire drill in anticipation of the time when you may have a real fire on your hands. Be a little paranoid about your career.
  4. Be aware of the sources that might keep you from recognizing the danger, for example,  the inertia of previous success, the fear of giving that up and the fear of change. Denial will only cost you time and lead you to miss the optimal moment for action.
  5. While experimenting for change, avoid random motion. Look for something that allows you to use your knowledge or skills in a position that is more immune to the wave of changes you have spotted. Better yet, look for a job that takes advantage of the changes in the first place. Go with the flow rather than fight it.
  6. Andrew’s final advice of the book on career transition: looking back may be tempting, but it is terribly counterproductive. Donot bemoan the way things were. They will never be that way again. Pour your energy, every bit of it, into adapting to your new world, into learning the skills you need to prosper in it and into shaping it around you. Whereas the old land presented limited opportunity or none at all, the new land enables you to have a future whose rewards are worth all the risks.

This concludes my summary of the book. I came across this book from two sources: Ben Horowitz’s book that I wrote about in previous blog and the leadership courses that I have been attending at Stanford. To me, if there are multiple significant and credible sources that mention a book or a person or a topic, that qualifies it as a definite “signal” for me to look into. I am glad that I read this book as a result of that. Although it appears that a few concepts conveyed in the book are contradictory to those of other books. For example, here advocating for being a first mover, while as Adam Grant’s Originals and Peter Thiel’s Zero to One recommend to beware the disadvantages of that and that the conventional view might have over-estimated the benefit for first movers. In my opinion, the correct way to read leadership, management and entrepreneurship books is to get different perspectives and to broaden my thinking, to see how the insights were derived from the particular circumstances, and to learn what fundamental attributes of the authors enabled them to navigate through the difficult times and lead their business to success. It is useful having read these books to think about the values of what has been regarded as wrong or bad practices. The goal is absolutely not to memorize the rules, as there could never be a rigid set of prescribed one-size-fit-all advices for the constantly evolving world.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is written by Ben Horowitz. This book is hard for me to summarize. The lessons learned from the book are invaluable, but by not reading the stories themselves, you would only comprehend its gist with a large discount. In fact, most of the advice offered in the book might be covered by Ben’s blogs. As he said at the beginning, this book is his attempt to tell the back stories from where those insights were derived.

In the first a few chapters, Ben shared with us his years of experience with SG, an unsuitable startup, Lotus, Netscape, Loudcloud and Opsware, and finally moved on to found the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz with his long-term business partner Marc Andreessen. I found his explanation on why he has worked well with Marc over many years very fascinating: “Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.

Ben’s honesty and courage of sharing all these behind-the-scene stories is very admirable. A few interesting stories about his early years as a young boy and student shine the lights on how some of his worldview was developed, particularly how not to judge by appearance and to separate facts from perception.

Based on the lessons distilled from his time at Loudcloud and Opsware, Ben offers advice on the many challenges that a startup CEO might face. For example: how to survive the struggle, communicate with the team, hire and train people, and build the company culture,  use different approaches for wartime from those for the peacetime. He also covers how to become elite at giving feedback, suggestions on handling the accountability and creativity paradox, how to evaluate CEOs, deciding whether to sell or not sell your company and so on. I’d recommend all managers or aspiring ones to read the sections about employee training and retention, what features a good vs poor organisation has, what the characteristics of being a good product manager are vs those of being a bad one.

I particularly like the discussion about making yourself a CEO. Do not despair, if you as a CEO feel incompetent doing some of your work and fear that you do not have the talent to handle being a CEO. Take Ben’s advice: “This is the process. This is how you get made.”  “Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chance for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.

Here are a number of practices and lessons covered by Ben in the book that stood out for me. As in all previous posts, the words in italic are quoted from the book.

When it came to the realisation that LoudCloud had to reset its earning guidance to the investors, facing the tough choice of either minimizing the initial damage by taking down the number as little possible (as their immediate quarter number is met, but the whole year forecast is way off) or minimizing the risk of another reset, Dave Conte advised to Ben: “No matter what we say, we’re going to get killed. As soon as we reset guidance, we’ll have no credibility with investors, so we might as well take all the pain now, because nobody will believe any positivity in the forecast anyway. If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.

Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself.

Needs always trump wants in mergers and acquisitions.

Michael Ovitz advised to Ben and his team when they were working on selling part of Loudcloud to potential bidders (IBM and EDS):

Gentlemen, I’ve done many deals in my lifetime and through that process, I’ve developed a methodology, a way of doing things, a philosophy if you will. Within that philosophy, I have certain beliefs. I believe in artificial deadlines. I believe in playing one against the other. I believe in doing everything and anything short of illegal or immoral to get the damned deal done.

What a clear message! Another piece from Michael from the book: Going past the deadline is a better move than not having one.

After the deal of selling part of Loudcloud to EDS was signed, Bill Campbell advised Ben to stay at Loudcloud instead of going to New York to announce the deal: You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job. Retrospectively from Ben, “that small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again.”

I move onward, the only direction. Can’t be scared to fail in search of perfection.

One great characteristic of Ben’s stuck me while reading the book: the extreme simplicity of his communication style. The book provided many examples of his messages to the employees, advisors etc. One example:

“You have now heard everything that I know and think about the opportunity in front of us. Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do. I can understand if you don’t. Since this is a brand-new company and a brand-new challenge, I am issuing everyone new stock grants today. All that I ask is that if you have decided to quit that you quit today. I won’t walk you out of the door – I’ll help you find a job. But, we need to know where we stand. We need to know who is with us and who we can count on. We cannot afford to slowly bleed out. You owe it to your teammates to be honest. Let us know where you stand.”

As painful as it might be, I knew that we had to get into the broader market in order to understand it well enough to build the right product. Paradoxically, the only way to do that was to ship and try to sell the wrong product. We would fall on our faces, but we would learn fast and do what was needed to survive.

Throughout the book, the importance of a great team is crystally clear. There are numerous examples in the book showing that how many brilliant minds were part of Ben’s journeys. For example, Anthony Wright was described by Ben in the book as: self-made, super-determined, and unwilling to fail. Anthony had an uncanny ability to quickly gain deep insight into people’s character and motivations. I was particularly drawn to how Anthony handled Frank regarding Frank’s plan of dropping Opsware software completely and immediately. “Frank, I will do exactly as you say, I’ve heard you loud and clear. This is a terrible moment for you and for us. Allow me to use your phone, and I will call Ben Horowitz and give him your instructions. But before I do, can I ask you one thing? If my company made the commitment to fix these issues, how much time would you give us to do that?” That rhetoric and the subsequent answer probably saved Opsware from a lot trouble.

Whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.

It is a good idea to ask: what am I not doing?

Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.

Sadly, there is no secret (to being a successful CEO), but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It is the moments when you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.

The struggle is where greatness comes from.

CEOs should tell it like it is. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

When hiring executives, one should follow Colin Powell’s instructions and hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.

We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.

Being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.

When you think there are things you can count on in business, you quickly find that the sky is purple. When this happens, it usually does no good to keep arguing that the sky is blue. You just have to get on and deal with the fact that it’s going to look like Barney for a while.

There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck.

As a venture capitalist, I have had the freedom to say what I want and what I really think without worrying what everybody else thinks. As a CEO, there is no such luxury. As CEO, I had to worry about what everybody else thought. In particular, I could not show weakness in public. It would not have been fair to the employees, the executives, or the public company shareholders. Unrelenting confidence was necessary.

Embrace the struggle….Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct.