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.

The English and Their History

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far from the Madding Crowd

 

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

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

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

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

‘Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green & pleasant Land.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s right weekdays is right Sundays!

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

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

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

Who Moved My Cheese?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you do not change, you can become extinct.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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

Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese.

When you stop being afraid, you feel good!

Imagining yourself enjoying your new cheese leads you to it.

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

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

Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.

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

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

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

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

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

Site Reliability Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Practices

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

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

Management

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Never Split The Difference

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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