Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Cassius:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

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

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus on persuading Cassius to fight at Philippi:

Under your pardon. You must note beside,

That we have tried the utmost of our friends,

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

The enemy increaseth every day;

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

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

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat;

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To such a sudden flood of mutiny.

They that have done this deed are honourable:

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

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

And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.

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

I am no orator, as Brutus is;

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

That love my friend; and that they know full well

That gave me public leave to speak of him:

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

Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,

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

I tell you that which you yourselves do know;

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

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

And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony

Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue

In every wound of Caesar that should move

The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

 

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

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

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

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

The passages I find most thought-provoking and quintessential:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The day I had Pad Kee Mao twice

Photo credit: The Churchill Arms, London

 

“Just eat first.” She said to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Prince

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effective Executive

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

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

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

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

I like Drucker’s definition of an executive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Traveller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein’s Dreams

Some time ago, I was fortunate to meet Len Shustek. During our conversation about museums, computer science, physics and books etc, Len recommended to me the novel Einstein’s Dreams written by physicist Alan Lightman. I am grateful to Len for introducing me to this book and for the discussion.

Naturally, I was curious about the writer Alan Lightman. How fascinating and inspiring that Alan is a novelist, essayist, physicist and educator. This is yet another strong evidence that we are only limited by our own thinking.

The novel presents 30 fictional dreams by young Albert Einstein while he was working on the theory of relativity in 1905. Each dream describes the experience of time. There are also a prologue, three interludes and an epilogue framing the book. I found these dreams are very thought provoking and Alan’s writing is beautifully artistic. Here are the summary and excerpts of the time world in Einstein’s Dreams from the book.

14 April 1905 Time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely and endlessly; our experience repeats itself endlessly. All things will be repeated in future, all things now happening happened a million times before.

16 April 1905 Time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. People sometimes are transported back in time.

19 April 1905 Time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time.

24 April 1905 There are two times: mechanical and body time. Mechanical time is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along…Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment…Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

26 April 1905 Time flows more slowly the farther from the center of the earth. People move to the mountains and live in houses built on stilts to stay young.

28 April 1905  A second is a second is a second. Time paces forward with exquisite regularity, at precisely the same velocity in every corner of space. Time is an infinite ruler. Time is absolute…A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back.

3 May 1905 Cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined.

4 May 1905 Time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all. If time and events are not the same, then it is only people who barely move. If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.

8 May 1905 The world will end on 26 September 1907. Everyone knows it. Time is captured in its last year, last month, last day, last minute, last seconds. Everyone shares the same fate. A world with one month is a world of equality.

10 May 1905 The texture of time is sticky. Portions of towns become stuck in some moment in history and do not get out. So, too, individual people become stuck in some point of their lives and do not get free. No one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.

11 May 1905 The passage of time brings increasing order. Order is the law of nature, the universal trend, the cosmic direction. If time is an arrow, that arrow points toward order. The future is pattern, organization, union, intensification; the past, randomness, confusion, disintegration, dissipation.

14 May 1905 Time stands still. As a traveller approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminishes, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles – at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.

15 May 1905 There is no time, only images.

20 May 1905 In this world, there is no memory. A world without memory is a world of the present. The past exists only books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life. By reading its pages daily, he can relearn the identity of his parents, whether he was born high or born low, whether he did well or did poorly in school, whether he has accomplished anything in his life. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost.

22 May 1905 This is a world of changed plans, of sudden opportunities, of unexpected visions. For in this world, time flows not evenly but fitfully, and, as a consequence, people receive fitful glimpses of the future.

29 May 1905 Time passes more slowly for people in motion. Thus everyone travels at high velocity, to gain time.

2 June 1905 Time flows backward.

3 June 1905 In this world, people live just one day. A man or woman sees one sunrise, one sunset. No one lives to witness the change of the seasons.

5 June 1905 Time is a sense, like sight or like taste, a sequence of episodes may be quick or may be slow, dim or intense, salty or sweet, causal or without cause, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer.

9 June 1905 People live forever. The population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows. For the Laters, in endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes. The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly.

10 June 1905 Time is not a quantity but a quality. It exists but cannot be measured. There are no clocks, no calendars, no definite appointments. Events are triggered by other events, not by time.

11 June 1905 This is a world without a future. Time is a line that terminates at the present, both in reality and in the mind. In this world, no person can imagine the future.

15 June 1905 Time is a visible dimension. Just as one may look off in the distance and see houses, trees, mountain peaks that are landmarks in space, so one may look out in another direction and see births, marriages, deaths that are signposts in time, stretching off dimly into the far future. Just as one may choose whether to stay in one place or run to another, so one may choose his motion along the axis of time.

17 June 1905 Time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment.

18 June 1905 There is a Great Clock in the Temple of Time. Each man and woman must journey to the Temple of Time to pay homage to the Great Clock.

20 June 1905 Time is a local phenomenon. Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same rate. But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step.

22 June 1905 Time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined forever.

25 June 1905 Time is like the light between two mirrors. Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number of images, of melodies, of thoughts. It is a world of countless copies.

27 June 1905 This is a world of shifting pasts. The past could be firm or forgotten.

28 June 1905 Time is a nightingale. When a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment now frozen. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

The book ends at six minutes past eight in the morning of 29th June 1905, when Einstein gives his manuscript on the theory of time to the typist.

Q Is For Quantum

Recently I read Q Is For Quantum by Prof. Terry Rudolph and had the very good fortune of meeting Terry in person. The book itself is absolutely hilarious and thought provoking at the same time. If you frown upon classical physics and fear quantum physics, I recommend giving this book a go for the sheer joy of reading. You will be fascinated by Pete box and misty states after reading the first chapter and question your own sanity by the end of the book for not majoring in quantum physics. I did.      

Over the last decade, a couple of occasions induced me to sink into this eternally self-questioning mode because I did not invest my youth in those fields. One was during an academic conference in Germany some years ago. The keynote speaker, a prominent neurosurgeon, presented how neurosurgery had improved the cognitive functions of Alzheimer’s patients. My presentation was after his keynote. In my typically brutal honesty, I confessed right away in front of many audience that I deeply regretted that I was not trained to be a neurosurgeon to help people in that miraculous and direct way; in contrast, being a computer scientist researching biomarkers to help with the early diagnosis and treatment for Alzheimer’s, my contribution to mankind seemed so miniscule. My wonderful PhD advisor Daniel Rueckert was among the audience. He took it very well. Reading Terry’s book and other related materials, meeting a few extraordinarily talented physicists including Terry recently, have opened up a whole new world for me. I want to learn more about quantum physics and quantum computing.

 

I read the book before I met Terry. I could not imagine who on earth would be able to write about Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computing in such a readable form. The writer must be a genius to accomplish this. I read from front to back once first, then revisited many passages that were tagged in the first pass, added new tags iteratively. In my view, you can read the book with varying depths of thought. A 10 year old could understand probably all of the experiments and the discussions in the first two chapters. At the same time, Terry’s writing also intrigued me to ask a lot of “why”, “how”, “what-if” and”what-about” questions (for that reason I have so many tags in the book now). From there, there is no limit to how deep and how far you can explore. The History, Context and Further Reading chapter provides further guidance, most importantly with Terry’s honest and direct opinions.

 

The book has three major parts: Q-Computing, Q-Entanglement and Q-Reality. The way to read this book is to take it slowly and think. If you come across a passage that after some mental wrestling is still not crystally clear to you, give yourself permission to carry on reading and go back to revisit it. To me (with an advanced degree in a science & engineering field), unfortunately thanks to a lot pre-programming, at the beginning of my first read, I was not very comfortable with the games (with characters) initially but read it with much joy nevertheless. A few pages onwards, I was amazed by Terry’s superb storytelling skills in describing the very frontier of quantum computing with such simplicity, clarity and humor. The Q-Reality chapter provoked no less discomfort than The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking. Terry was very kind to assure me that I am not alone and even quantum physicists are struggling with whether, for example, to view the misty state as a real physics property or a state of knowledge. There is no point in reading a book and feeling 100% comfortable with it. Where is the stimulation? Through discomfort, my thinking expands.

 

We know what we know and what we do not know, or at least we hope we do. Q Is for Quantum opened up a new terrain with beautiful experiments and theories that I did not know that I did not know before and helped me to gain some understanding of that previously unknown world. Many questions remain for me. This is why I read. This is why you should read this book too.

 

I am very grateful to Terry for the enlightening conversation. Professors like Terry Rudolph, Daniel Ruckert and Paul Kelly make me really proud to be an Imperial graduate and to encourage prospective students to study in Imperial College London. Not only for their own brilliance as highly accomplished scientists, but for their humility, generosity, patience, encouragement and inspiration. We learn far more than just knowledge from these giants. Terry gave an amazing inaugural lecture in 2014, available below on YouTube.

 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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

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

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

The Theory of Everything

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

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

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

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

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