Still Me

 

The first book I read of Jojo Moyes’ novels is her Me Before You, around the Spring of 2013. Perhaps I read it in my conservatory at the time of jasmine blossom. Later on the beautiful scent of jasmine comes to my mind when I recall Me Before You. I read a couple more of Moyes’ books afterwards. They make fun and lightweight reading materials. To me, books such as Me Before You, After Me, and Still Me are like gazpacho after wandering around the old towns in Europe in a hot summer day. Comfort food. Healthy too.

Not having the prior knowledge of Still Me being about Louisa Clark starting a new life in New York, I picked it to accompany me on my way to New York recently. I was in need of some “comfort food” after traveling among multiple continents for a while. This book served that purpose well. As a book for the heart, it takes no brain power to read compared with others such as Erwin Schrödinger’s ‘Nature and the Greeks’ and ‘Science and Humanism’. Here lies my reason for having not written about the latter book, despite having read it on my trip to Switzerland in June. I simply need another journey to re-read it. Like Tara Westover says in her Educated, it is about having “the patience to read things I could not yet understand”.

Back to Louisa Clark, she is a very uplifting character, figuring out her self and staying true to that, being bold in exploring the new world. What I like most about Jojo Moyes’ trilogy is that Moyes tells the stories of a female protagonist. Reading that Louisa Clark, an extremely ordinary young woman, step by step, is doing something extraordinary with her life through exploration and small acts, is truly liberating.

By the end of this book, Louisa Clark entered into an inspiring league of women for me, following Borgen’s leading character Birgitte Nyborg, Brünnhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen and others.

One key message similar to Educated is to permit oneself and have the courage to re-invent oneself.

Here are some excerpts for you to see what I mean:

I had a choice. I was Louisa Clark from New York or Louisa Clark from Stortfold. Or there might be a whole other Louisa I hadn’t yet met. The key was making sure that anyone you allowed to walk beside you didn’t get to decide which you were, and pin you down like a butterfly in a case. The key was to know that you could always somehow find a way to reinvent yourself again.

I thought about how you’re shaped so much by the people who surround you, and how careful you have to be in choosing them for this exact reason, and then I thought, despite all that, in the end maybe you have to lose them all in order to truly find yourself.

Who was Louisa Clark, anyway? I was a daughter, a sister, a kind of surrogate mother for a time. I was a woman who cared for others but who seemed to have little idea how to care for herself. As the glittering wheel spun in front of me, I tried to think about what I really wanted, rather than what everyone else seemed to want for me. I thought about what Will had really been telling me- not to live some vicarious idea of a full life but to live my own dream. The problem was, I don’t think I’d ever really worked out what that dream was.

Know first who you are and then adore yourself accordingly.

All this nonsense about women having it all. We never could and we never shall. Women always have to make the difficult choices. But there is a great consolation in simply doing something you love.

You always have one foot in two places. You can never be truly happy because, from the moment you leave, you are two selves, and wherever you are one half of you is always calling to the other.

You gotta have places where people can meet and talk and exchange ideas and it not just be about money, you know? Books are what teach you about life. Books teach you empathy. But you can’t buy books if you barely got enough to make rent. So that library is a vital resource! You shut a library, Louisa, you don’t just shut down a building, you shut down hope.

You’re going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone.

Like too many girls, life had chipped away at her until, instead of finding what truly suited her, she camouflaged herself, hid the bits that made her different. For a while she let the world bruise her until she decided it was safer not to be herself at all. There are so many versions of ourselves we can choose to be.

Educated: A Memoir

   

Traveling between China and California, I read Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir during my two long haul flights.

In this book, Tara tells the story of her life, born to survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho, grown up in a household that distrust public education and medical establishment. She was an invaluable assistant to her mum, a midwife and healer, worked in her father’s junkyard since young age. There were occasionally sweet and inspiring moments: the time with one older brother, observing her mum’s transform (from yielding to her father completely to having her own flourishing business with yet still very limited independent and free views), limited interactions with people (grandparents and boyfriend) connecting the two worlds before finally leaving home in her late teen. There was also violence upon her and female characters by one other older brother. Throughout the book, this constant struggle of what is truth and what one lets oneself to believe persists.

Tara’s quest for knowledge and determination of self-invention triumphed, with the cost of severing many family ties. She shares with us an incredible journey of hers, beautifully balancing the storytelling, her inner struggle and epiphanies. In her own words:  Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.

Later on in the book, during Tara’s time in Brigham Young University and Cambridge University, a few great teachers and friends played instrumental roles in her continued transformation and self-creation. The stark contrast between the influence of these people with others in her life can not escape any reader’s attention.

Many favourite passages of mine from the book:

To write my essay I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration. Because Burke had defended the British monarchy, Dad would have said he was an agent of tyranny. He wouldn’t have wanted the book in the house. There was a thrill in trusting myself to read the words. I felt a similar thrill in reading Madison, Hamilton and Jay, especially on those occasions when I discarded their conclusions in favour of Burke’s, or when it seemed to me that their ideas were not really different in substance, only in form. There were wonderful suppositions embedded in this method of reading: that books are not tricks, and that I was not feeble.

I carried the books to my room and read through the night. I loved the fiery pages of Mary Wollstonecraft, but there was a single line written by John Stuart Mill that, when I read it, moved the world: “It is a subject on which nothing final can be known.” The subject Mill had in mind was the nature of women. Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.

Blood rushed to my brain; I felt an animating surge of adrenaline, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are woman.

I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. —Virginia Woolf

A witness. An impartial account. The fever of self doubt had broken long ago. That’s not to say I trusted my memory absolutely, but I trusted it as much as I trusted anybody else’s, and more than some people’s.

I couldn’t articulate how the name made me feel. Shawn had meant it to humiliate me, to lock me in time, into an old idea of myself. But far from fixing me in place, that word transported me. Every time he said it—“Hey Nigger, raise the boom” or “Fetch me a level, Nigger”—I returned to the university, to that auditorium, where I had watched human history unfold and wondered at my place in it. The stories of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were called to my mind every time Shawn shouted, “Nigger, move to the next row.” I saw their faces superimposed on every purlin Shawn welded into place that summer, so that by the end of it, I had finally begun to grasp something that should have been immediately apparent: that someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested. …. I did not think of my brother as that person; I doubt I will ever think of him that way. But something had shifted nonetheless. I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.

From my father I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. Books that were of God…were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself. I had been taught to read the words of men like Madison as a cast into which I ought to pour the plaster of my own mind, to be reshaped according to the contours of their faultless model. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself.

He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.

Curiosity is a luxury for the financially secure.

Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

The past was a ghost, insubstantial, unaffecting. Only the future had weight.

You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.

The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.

My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.

Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.

It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.

By the end of it, I had finally begun to grasp something that should have been immediately apparent: that someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested.

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.

The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.  You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.

Who am I?

Who am I? Where am I going? To a certain approximation, I know the answers. But then, do I really know?

It seems that I have been traveling on and off for the past two months, domestic and international. One trip followed by another. There is a different self, depending on where I am.

Now I am en route from Beijing to California, this flight will conclude my trip to the region I would call the first home in my life.

The time zone differences among the continents never cure my illness of rising up very early in the mornings. It is a sad and unfortunate habit on the surface. A blessing in reality. It is during those hours that I am a most authentic version of some variant of myself, no matter which self I possess at the time. I can do whatever I want with my hours. Reading and writing in California. Wandering around in European cities. Running in Regent’s Park in London. Cooking an elaborated breakfast for my family when visiting my parents. Life is so much enjoyable during those few hours before the world wakes up.  

In California, there is a different Dong Ping. She might be cooking some simple food and keeping promising herself that she would never cook again for at least a season. In short, she could not stand the loss of time on triviality. In California, cooking simply infuriates her unless it is for a dinner with friends and loved ones. At her parents’ place, Dong Ping never fails to transform to a completely different person. Ask instead what household work that she does not do. Lifting up a big tank of water to refill the water dispenser is probably the only one but only because she could not manage the weight of the water tank.

Mopping the floors again and again, beautiful white ceramic tiles, polished so clearly that I can see my own image in them. An image that I do not really recognise but somehow become accustomed to because I take up this self at this location. One day, I cleaned the floor three times. Madness. But in my mind, with each push and pull of the mop, each rinse and change of the cleaning cloth, I felt that I was doing something physically useful, finally, for parents to whom I am eternally grateful, rather than just an international phone call asking how they are. Wiping the floor is more real and meaningful than words.

I grabbed all packages of garlic off the shelf except one (leave some to the next customer, my consciousness told me) in the supermarket. Peeling the garlics. Many of them. They would last a few months for my parents.  The tips of my fingers were feeling the burning sensations. Let them hurt and carry on. A couple more packages to go. It was a small act but felt like great comfort that it would save mum a little time and effort, should she need garlic in her cooking. I am possessed by this ritual of peeling lots of garlic for them before my visit ends for as long as I have lived abroad. I visited regularly. The word “often” would be more accurate in some years. I still peel garlic. Sometimes, I wonder what I would do if there is a garlic crisis in China. In case you are wondering, my family consume a normal amount of garlic and they do not live on garlic. It is more a ritual for me than for them probably. At least mum stopped trying to persuade me to stop peeling so many over a decade ago.

I have a profound dislike towards shopping in general. Grocery shopping is no exception. But stepping into the grocery right at the moment of its opening hour and loading a shopping cart with groceries for mum and dad magically suppresses all my negative repulsions towards shopping. These actions have a different purpose than doing for oneself. It is for gratitude, for relieving myself from the guilt that I could never live nearby to look after my aging, and in my father’s case disabled, parents. It is not the responsibility that I run away from. I do not know how to develop my life to its fullest by living in my birth region anymore. This dilemma would never cease. What does one do when the responsibility for family is in conflict with that for the society and for oneself? My parents in recent years have never expressed strong opinions on my return to China to be geographically close to them. I suppose they figured out that I am a lost cause on that one. Maybe they simply fear that I would break their hearts by saying no to that resolutely. I might. Until then, I try to compensate for my absence with visits. Some years when the going was particularly tough, I would be around very often. Traveling a long distance often seems to be a very trivial price to pay for the exploration I want, except for that guilt that nags me. I sometimes wonder whether this is among the many reasons contributing towards my preference for not having children myself.

Warm nuts, salad, sea bass with vegetables, vanilla ice-cream with almond flakes, chocolate cake. The flight attendant very gracefully delivered each piece and removed each. Some are consumed. Some are left untouched. I am sitting here with my laptop, typing. Who give me this privilege? Many many people. I have done some on my part. But nearly every day I question whether I have done enough and what more I could do to deserve the greatness from people around me. I took an early morning stroll near Tiananmen Square, watching the guards in their early 20s, standing still, resolute, focused on their duties. I could not help thinking that this young man might be able to do a lot more only if he is presented the opportunities that I was fortunate to have. Might he make major scientific discoveries or design a high performing and energy efficient Exascale computer architecture or implement a better semantic search engine? Am I doing my fair part for society in exchange for the education I received and the opportunities granted, sitting in a business class on an international flight, with the background picture of the guards providing me and other tourists security in the heart of Beijing in hot summer days, the steward who brings me hot drinks and food etc? I have never found the answers to this type of questions, nor have I stopped questioning. I want to and try to do more. The more privilege I receive, the more responsibility I have.

The washing machine is on the verge of a total breakdown. When it spins, it shakes and screams so violently as if a demon is trying to escape its cage. Two attempts to repair it have failed. It is 12 years old. I gifted my parents that washing machine 12 years ago. Mum reminded me of that. I had forgotten that it was 2006. It must be the savings from my postgraduate scholarship. One day during this visit, I went to a shop in the town to find a replacement. One shop assistant very warmly greeted me and introduced various models. Like many shopping assistants in China, she asked what I do and where I live. I said I stay home and take care of my parents in the family home nearby. In my mind, that is the complete truth without any doubt. For the time I spent there, that is my identify. Being a young and ambitious professional is irrelevant in that context. She was not satisfied. I smiled, quickly completed the transaction and thanked her, because there remain a lot more to be done. I obsessively washed everything that is remotely needed to be cleaned once the machine was installed. It was my way of doing little things for them. I only wish I could do more. At my parents’ place, I am a doer, not a talker.

By the time I arrive at Silicon Valley, I will be a different person. One who does everything to simplify life to make space and time for intellectual work and various hobbies. One who follows her dreams. In fact, the moment I boarded this plane the change already happened. I carried on reading Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir once I settled into my seat. Owing to my parents and many people who bestowed me the opportunities, I am here reading, thinking and writing.

I miss the Yellow River, the land and its people. I also miss California and England, both are home to me as well. Many other countries that I have stayed and would be happy to return and spend part of my life there. Each visit to each place leaves a mark in me. Who am I? Where am I going? No idea. But I will always be back for the happiness of my loved ones and that of my own. If nothing more important is achieved, at the very least, I continue my effort to prove that a woman is capable of shouldering a great deal of responsibilities and taking good care of those around her, while pursuing her dreams. The purpose of life lies in giving, not taking.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

     

San Francisco Opera offered a new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen this summer. I went to the full cycle constituting four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried,  and Götterdämmerung. As my first cycle, the whole experience was very intense and overwhelming. Compared with clips from other productions I saw in my pre-theatre research, this production is very modern, completely beyond what I had imagined. It is a combination of visual feast with music indulgence. It is truly the ultimate form of art. By the end of the cycle, It feels like that I have aged a few centuries. Wise or not, a lot to contemplate.

The director of the opera Francesca Zambello wrote a poignant Director’s Note. Talking about the end of the story: “The gods are gone, but the mortals, especially the women, who are left represent the beginning of a new order. Is it a feminist approach? No, but it suggests the power of female leaders to heal the scars of destruction.” She points out that the inspiration behind this production is partly #MeToo and partly environmental. This message is conveyed throughout the cycle. My favorite characters is Brünnhilde. San Francisco Opera introduces her as:  

Compassionate, selfless yet incredibly fierce, Brünnhilde is the protagonist of the story and is considered Wagner’s most noble character. Brünnhilde is the daughter of Wotan and Erda, the earth goddess. She, along with her sisters, are Valkyries—warrior maidens who speed through the sky to bring bodies of fallen heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla. There these heroes are revived and protect the gods against their enemies.

Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite daughter and their bond of affection is very close. Yet unlike her father, she believes love is the most important value to uphold and it is this belief that ultimately severs their relationship. When Wotan, bound by his duties, orders Brünnhilde not to protect his son Siegmund in his battle with Hunding, Brünnhilde goes against her father’s wishes and tries to save Siegmund, whom she knows Wotan loves dearly. Despite having incurred Wotan’s anger, Brünnhilde continues to defend love, protecting Siegmund’s cherished wife Sieglinde from his wrath.

Brünnhilde’s courage and self-sacrifice restore the universe to its natural order. Choosing to join her beloved husband Siegfried in death, Brünnhilde immolates herself to free the world from the ring’s curse, banishing wealth and greed and proving that the real power in life is the redeeming force of love.

Peter Bassett wrote a great article What Price Love. In his words, The Ring is “an extended love story…love is the thread that binds the whole story together—not love confined to a single pair of individuals but love as the alternative to hatred and revenge, power and property, greed and envy. The story begins with love’s renunciation and ends with its triumph as the one irreplaceable, transforming ingredient in a new world order.” It is: “the power of love versus the love of power”.

I cannot do Der Ring des Nibelungen justice by describing it in my own words yet. Short of seeing it again in theater, reading synopsis and listening to the recording is of some comfort. I am also curious how artists in future productions might transform Der Ring des Nibelungen and integrate their own interpretations to its performance. My hope is to return to future productions.

Here are the descriptions from SF Opera for your reference.

DAS RHEINGOLD

In the cycle’s prelude, greed and vengeance trigger a chain of events fraught with corruption and struggle.

SCENE 1

The three Rhinemaidens, guardians of the river’s golden treasure, laugh and play, scarcely noticing the Nibelung Alberich, who tries with no avail to catch the sexy girls as they taunt him. They explain that this gold is all-powerful: if fashioned into a ring, its wearer would rule the world. But they are content that the gold is safe, since whoever would steal the treasure must renounce love. Hearing this secret, Alberich renounces love and escapes with the Rhinegold.

SCENE 2

Fricka reproaches her husband Wotan for having promised her sister Freia to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as payment for constructing Valhalla; Wotan replies that he never meant to keep his word. When Fafner and Fasolt arrive to claim Freia, Wotan informs them that they must settle for another form of payment. Fafner, aware that the gods would lose their eternal youth and power without Freia’s golden apples, decides to take her hostage. The fire god Loge suggests that the giants might find Alberich’s gold an acceptable substitute for Freia and proposes that Wotan steal the gold, a portion of which Alberich has forged into a ring. The giants take Freia home until evening, when they will return to claim the Nibelung’s gold as ransom. Wotan asks Loge to accompany him to seek Alberich’s treasure.

SCENE 3

In the underground caverns of Nibelheim, Alberich tries on the tarnhelm—a magical chain mail helmet his brother Mime has forged that transforms the wearer into any size or shape—and torments Mime. Wotan and Loge arrive and Alberich suspiciously questions them, warning of his plan to overthrow the gods and rule the world. Loge tricks Alberich into using the Tarnhelm to transform into a toad, and Wotan and Loge seize him and drag him to the surface of the earth.

SCENE 4

Back on the mountaintop, Loge and Wotan tell Alberich that they will free him only if he yields all his gold, the tarnhelm and the ring. After the ring is torn from his finger, the Nibelung leaves and places a curse upon it: until it returns to him, trouble, envy, and death will befall all who possess it. The giants return with their hostage Freia and demand the Nibelung gold, the tarnhelm and the ring in exchange for her. Erda, the earth goddess, appears and warns Wotan to yield the ring, spelling doom for the gods. Wotan then surrenders the ring, and Fafner kills Fasolt to claim the ring, the tarnhelm and the hoard for himself. Fricka urges Wotan to turn his thoughts to Valhalla, and Froh summons a rainbow bridge to take them there.

DIE WALKÜRE

A father’s blinding ambition and a daughter’s profound defiance drive the story forward in the cycle’s dramatic second installment.

ACT I

An exhausted fugitive seeks refuge in a dismal home built around a mighty tree. Sieglinde tends to her unexpected visitor. When her husband Hunding arrives home, the stranger relates his sad tale: attempting to protect a young woman from an unwanted arranged marriage, he killed her brothers and was forced to escape her avenging kinsmen. Hunding reveals that he was part of the hunting party searching for the stranger. He offers Siegmund shelter for the night, but advises him to prepare for a fight the next day. Sieglinde drugs Hunding’s drink so that the stranger can flee to safety. She, too, had been an unwilling bride and remembers that at her wedding, an unknown old man had thrust a sword deep into a tree trunk, but no man has had the strength to pull it out. The stranger realizes that this must be the sword his father had promised him and rejoices in reborn hope and newfound love for Sieglinde. Sieglinde recognizes him now as her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund. In great excitement, Siegmund triumphantly pulls the sword from the tree, and the lovers run off into the night.

ACT II

Wotan exhorts his daughter Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie, to protect his mortal son Siegmund in his coming duel with Hunding. But Fricka, Wotan’s wife and the protector of marriage, is outraged at the adulterous and incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde and forces Wotan to let Hunding triumph. Wotan tells Brünnhilde that she must let Siegmund die in combat. In vain, Wotan had been grooming Siegmund to be a “free hero”: a free-willed mortal unaided by the gods, unbound by Wotan’s treaties, and consequently the only one capable of regaining the cursed ring that Wotan was earlier forced to yield. Siegmund and Sieglinde rest during their flight. While Sieglinde sleeps, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund, instructing him to follow her to Valhalla after his death. But deeply moved by Siegmund’s devotion to Sieglinde, Brünnhilde decides to disobey Wotan’s orders and save Siegmund’s life. After Hunding arrives and begins his battle with Siegmund, the furious Wotan appears and shatters Siegmund’s sword. Allowing Hunding to easily kill Siegmund, Wotan then strikes Hunding down as well. Having defied her father, Brünnhilde gathers up the broken sword pieces and leads Sieglinde to safety.

ACT III

Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, the Valkyries, are on their way to Valhalla to report on the fallen heroes they have gathered. When Brünnhilde arrives with Sieglinde, the Valkyries refuse to harbor them for fear of Wotan’s wrath. Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the broken sword pieces and sends her to seek refuge in the forest where the dragon Fafner hides, for Wotan will not follow her there. Sieglinde takes some comfort in the knowledge that she will bear Siegmund’s son, whom Brünnhilde predicts will be the greatest of all heroes. When Wotan arrives, he condemns Brünnhilde for her betrayal and sentences her to be stripped of her divinity and left asleep on the mountaintop, to be claimed by the first mortal man to awaken her. Brünnhilde begs Wotan to surround her with a ring of magic fire so that only the bravest of men would attempt to awaken her. Wotan agrees, regretfully leaving his daughter to her long sleep, surrounded by terrifying flames.

SIEGFRIED

A fearless young hero battles otherworldly challenges on a journey to discover his destiny.

ACT I

Mime has set up a metal forge in a deserted area near the spot where a transformed Fafner guards the treasure. Siegfried demands a sword from Mime, but every weapon the Nibelung forges is easily shattered by Siegfried. Commanding Mime to reforge the fragments of a sword purportedly left to Siegfried by his deceased mother, the young man learns more from Mime about his heritage. Wotan, who now wanders the world incognito, approaches Mime and challenges him to a battle of wits, proposing that they each pose three questions to the other. When Mime is unable to answer the final question, Wotan reveals that only a fearless person can reforge Siegfried’s sword, and that person will kill Mime. After Wotan departs, the terrified Mime resolves to teach Siegfried fear in order to save himself. But Mime faces a dilemma: if Siegfried learns fear, who will forge the sword that can kill Fafner and regain the golden hoard? When Siegfried returns to claim his sword, Mime is eager to teach the young man to fear. Siegfried, still immune to fear, successfully reforges Siegmund’s sword and goes off with Mime to reclaim the golden hoard from Fafner. Mime has brewed a poisoned drink to give Siegfried after he triumphs over Fafner.

ACT II

Alberich, eager to regain the golden hoard, keeps watch near the place where Fafner guards it. Meanwhile Fafner has used the tarnhelm to transform himself into an invincible form. Wotan arrives and warns Alberich of Mime’s designs on the ring and then rouses Fafner so that Alberich may demand the ring from him in exchange for warning him of Siegfried’s approach. Fafner refuses, and Wotan leaves. Siegfried arrives with Mime, who tries to make him fear Fafner. But Siegfried instead resolves to approach Fafner and sends Mime away. Siegfried listens to the birds and fashions a makeshift pipe to imitate them. When the pipe fails to communicate with the birds, Siegfried tries his horn. Fafner emerges and Siegfried kills him. The dying Fafner warns Siegfried against Mime’s treachery, and his lifeblood renders Siegfried instantly able to understand the birds. When Siegfried enters Fafner’s abode, Mime approaches Alberich and the two brothers fight over the golden hoard. Siegfried emerges with the tarnhelm and the ring, and Mime and Alberich hide. A Woodbird warns Siegfried to beware of Mime, who emerges and offers Siegfried the poisoned drink. Now able to understand the true meaning of Mime’s words, Siegfried refuses it and kills Mime. The Woodbird counsels Siegfried to penetrate the wall of fire surrounding Brünnhilde, his destined bride, and offers to lead him to her.

ACT III

Wotan visits Erda in a last-ditch effort to avert a disastrous future. When she advises him to seek guidance from Brünnhilde, he tells her of their daughter’s disobedience and punishment, and the dismayed Erda becomes unwilling to reveal more. Wotan releases Erda, informing her that he will bequeath the world to Siegfried. Siegfried arrives and Wotan questions him about his sword. Siegfried becomes irritated and tells the old man to leave. Wotan bars Siegfried’s way with his spear, which Siegfried shatters, accusing Wotan of having killed his father. Wotan collects the fragments of the spear as we see him for the last time. Siegfried plunges through the fire and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. Though Brünnhilde realizes that she is now a mortal woman and must obey Siegfried, she welcomes him and submits to her fate.

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

The cycle reaches its transcendent climax with a suspenseful tale of bravery and sacrifice, treachery and betrayal, destruction and renewal.

PROLOGUE

The three Norns, daughters of the earth goddess Erda, are busy weaving the rope of fate. Predicting Valhalla’s imminent fall, they notice that the rope of destiny is starting to fray and unravel. As the sisters try to make it taut, it snaps and they descend in terror to Erda. At dawn, Siegfried and Brünnhilde awaken from their night together. Though fearful that she may lose him, Brünnhilde encourages Siegfried to travel in search of heroic challenges. He gives her the ring as a pledge of his love.

ACT I

In their home on the Rhine, Gunther, leader of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune plot how to secure the Ring. Their half brother Hagen, son of Alberich, advises Gunther to marry Brünnhilde. By means of a magic potion, Siegfried could be induced to forget his vows and win her for Gunther in return for Gutrune’s hand. Siegfried’s horn call announces his approach. Gunther welcomes him, and Gutrune seals his fate by offering him the potion. He drinks and instantly forgets all about Brünnhilde and agrees to bring her to Gunther. On Brünnhilde’s rock, Waltraute visits her sister and tells her that she must yield the Ring to the Rhinemaidens or all is doomed. When she refuses, Waltraute departs in despair. Dusk falls as Siegfried appears, disguised as Gunther by means of the Tarnhelm. He wrests the ring from the terrified Brünnhilde and claims her as Gunther’s bride.

ACT II

Alberich appears to Hagen and urges his sleeping son to win back the Ring from Siegfried. As dawn breaks, Siegfried returns and announces he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther. Hagen calls everyone to witness the joining of the two couples: Brünnhilde and Gunther, Siegfried and Gutrune. As they enter, Brünnhilde notices her ring on Siegfried’s finger. She deplores the trickery through which she was won and proclaims Siegfried to be her true husband. The hero, still under the potion’s spell, vows that he has never wronged the woman, and Brünnhilde angrily swears that he is lying. Bent on revenge, she reveals to Hagen the hero’s one vulnerable spot: a blade in his back will kill him. Taunted by Brünnhilde and lured by Hagen’s description of the Ring’s power, Gunther joins in the murder plot.

ACT III

On the banks of the destroyed Rhine, the three Rhinemaidens bewail their lost treasure. Siegfried approaches and the maidens plead for the ring, but he ignores them. When Siegfried’s hunting party arrives, he describes his boyhood with Mime, the killing of Fafner, and finally—after Hagen gives him a potion to restore his memory—his wooing of Brünnhilde. Pretending indignation, Hagen plunges a spear into Siegfried’s back and the hero dies. At the Gibichung hall, Gutrune nervously awaits Siegfried’s return. Hagen tells her that Siegfried has been slain by a wild boar, but the woman accuses Gunther of murder and Hagen admits the crime. Quarreling over the ring, Hagen kills Gunther but recoils in fear from the prize when the dead hero raises his arm. Brünnhilde appears and orders a funeral pyre built for Siegfried. Musing on the gods’ responsibility for his death, she returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens and walks into the pyre’s flames. As the world is consumed by fire, the Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens, dragging Hagen to a watery grave, regain their treasure. Brünnhilde’s death frees the ring of its curse.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

 

This book was written by Carlo Rovelli for people who know little of modern science, as noted by the author. But I found it to be a great read. Throughout this book, much of its content reminds us how little we know of physics and the universe in general, and in some sense even less of ourselves.

The first six lessons are about the revolutions in physics during the 20th and 21st centuries, both the discoveries and more so the unknowns, including: Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity (the most beautiful of theories), quantum mechanics, the architecture of the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum gravity, and the sixth lesson on probability, time and the heat of black holes.

In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not “wasting” time – something, unfortunately, that the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget.

We are so terribly overloaded with interruptions in the form of emails, tweets, messages, meetings and so on. Without a great chunk of time wondering in the misty forest of our deep thoughts, it is impossible to be creative either in science, engineering, literature or art. I came to the realisation some years ago that to stop responding to trivialities is merely negligent of trivialities, but to not protect one’s solitude and high quality thinking time is irresponsible to oneself and the universe that brings us to our existence.

In contrasting general relativity and quantum mechanics, the author wrote beautifully:

Both theories teach us that the fine structure of nature is more subtle than it appears. But general relativity is a compact gem: conceived by a single mind, that of Albert Einstein, it’s a simple and coherent vision of gravity, space and time. Quantum mechanics, or “quantum theory”, on the other hand, has gained unequaled experimental success and led to applications that have transformed our everyday lives, but more than a century after its birth it remains shrouded in mystery and incomprehensibility.

The books piled up on my desk could not agree with the author more on this. These books, to be revealed in upcoming articles, are all related to quantum physics and its pioneers.

In the third lesson about the cosmos, the author drew a few pictures to show how the cosmos has been conceptualised and how that has evolved, in other word, the journey between visions. I like this particular passage:

Before experiments, measurements, mathematics, and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to “see” things differently than they have previously been seen.

The fourth lesson on elementary particles, the components of everything that sways in the space around us (as the author puts it): electrons, quarks, photons, and gluons. To share some of the author’s poetic writing:

The nature of these particles, and the way they move, is described by quantum mechanics…They disappear and reappear according to the strange law of quantum mechanics, where everything that exists is never stable and is nothing but a jump from one interaction to another. Even if we observe a small, empty region of space in which there are no atoms, we still detect a minute swarming of these particles. There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles having brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements. This is the world described by quantum mechanics and particle theory. We have arrived very far from the mechanical world of Newton, where minute, cold stones eternally wandered on long, precise trajectories in geometrically immutable spaces. Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities. A set of vibrations, as in the switched-on hippie world of the 1960s. A world of happenings, not of things.

One note about the Standard Model is worth bearing in mind for future reference, and is probably widely applicable:

Perhaps on closer inspection it is not the model that lacks elegance. Perhaps it is we who have not yet learned to look at it from just the right point of view, one that would reveal its hidden simplicity.

In lesson on quantum gravity, the author concluded the chapter with:

Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astonish us. We realise that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate. Earth is not flat; it is not stationary. The world continues to change before our eyes as we gradually see it more extensively and more clearly. If we try to put together what we have learned in the twentieth century about the physical world, the clues point toward something profoundly different from our instinctive understanding of matter, space and time. Loop quantum gravity is an attempt to decipher these clues and to look a little farther into the distance.

The last lesson is about ourselves, how it is possible to think about our existence in the light of the strange world described by physics. This is my favorite chapter of the book, for its most thought provoking nature. It seems to me that the chapter on ourselves conveys more of the author’s own thinking and view than any other chapters. We perceive and interact with the world around us. We have emotions, thoughts, characteristics and physical actions. But what is our role in this world depicted by the physics?

If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we? Do we also consist only of quanta and particles? If so, then from where do we get that sense of individual existence and unique selfhood to which we can all testify? And what then are our values, our dreams, our emotions, our individual knowledges? What are we, in this boundless and glowing world?

I hardly knew how to breathe while reading this paragraph. I had to read it again and again to rebalance and restore my mental and physical agility. True that the author noted that he could not imagine attempting to answer these questions either in this book. Ask questions nevertheless!

We, human beings, are first and foremost the subjects who do the observing of this world, the collective makers of the photograph of reality that I have tried to compose. We are nodes in a network of exchanges through which we pass images, tools, information, and knowledge.

The images that we construct of the universe live within us, in the space of our thoughts. Between these images – between what we can reconstruct and understand with our limited means – and the reality of which we are part, there exist countless filters: our ignorance, the limitations of our senses and of our intelligence. The very same conditions that our nature as subjects, and particular subjects, imposes upon experience.

All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about one another.

There is not an “I” and “the neurons in my brain”. They are the same thing. An individual is a process: complex, tightly integrated.

Our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable. – Lucretius

It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow.

The book ends with this image:

Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.

A Moveable Feast

 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway was first published posthumously in 1964. It covers Hemingway’s time spent in Paris from 1921 to 1926 as a struggling journalist and his gradual transition from a journalist to a writer.

I first read this book on my way from Silicon Valley to Sandia National Laboratories some years ago. That business trip turned out to be one of the most memorable events during my years working on Exascale Computing. To a certain extent, that experience still has a penetrating impact on my career decision making. The story or maybe stories sprung from there have been to be told in a separate blog though. Thanks to this book, I travelled to Paris to trace the walks and places that Hemingway wrote in this book this past February. They were very cold and wet days with miles of walks every day, but my time spent there brought Hemingway and his writing much closer to me.

The most important takeaway for me from this book is: it is perfectly normal to struggle miserably to write. It seems to me that the mental and physical struggles help one write more sharply and closer to the truth. This might not be Hemmingway’s intended key message for the book. Chinese philosopher Mengzi wrote: “天降大任于斯人也,必先苦其心志,劳其筋骨,饿其体肤,空乏其身,行指乱其所为,所以动心忍性,曾益其所不能.” Sadly in translation, much of it is lost. We need to learn to read in its original language to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, one translation I found is: “when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.” One would say that Hemingway’s time in Paris fit into Mengzi’s prescription well.

Some of my favorite passages from the book:

It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

“You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,” she said. “It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes and money to buy pictures.” – Gertrude Stein

She (Gertrude Stein) had such a personality that when she wished to win anyone over to her side she could not be resisted, and critics who met her and saw her pictures took writing of hers that they could not understand on trust because of their enthusiasm for her as a person, and their confidence in her judgement. She had also discovered many things about rhythms and the uses of words in repetition that were valid and valuable and she talked well about them.

I would have to work hard tomorrow. Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe it now.

I knew how severe I had been and how bad things had been. The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty is hard on. I thought of bathtubs and showers and toilets that flushed as things that inferior people to us had or that you enjoyed when you made trips, which we often made….She had cried for the horse, I remembered; but not for the money. I had been stupid when she needed a grey lamb jacket and had loved it once she had bought it. I had been stupid about other things too. It was all part of the fight against poverty that you never win except by not spending. Especially if you buy pictures instead of clothes. But then we did not think ever of ourselves as poor. We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich. It had never seemed strange to me later on to wear sweatshirts for underwear to keep warm. It only seemed odd to the rich. We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.  

Standing there I wondered how much of what we had felt on the bridge was just hunger. I asked my wife and she said, “I don’t know, Tatie. There are so many sorts of hunger. In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger.”

Then you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were heightened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought it was possibly only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cezanne was probably hungry in a different way.

They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.

If, in your time, you have ever heard four honest people disagree about what happened at a certain place at a certain time, or you have ever torn up and returned orders that you requested when a situation had reached such a point that it seemed necessary to have something in writing, or testified before an inspector general when allegations had been made, presenting new statements by others that replaced your written orders and your verbal orders, you remembering, certain things and how they were to you and who had fought and where, you prefer to write about any time as fiction.

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.

Planck – Driven by Vision, Broken by War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave you with this piece of writing from Planck:

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

Do No Harm

 

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

2:13am Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Room of One’s Own

 

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some passages I like from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Programmatic Advertising

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

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

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