Do No Harm

 

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

2:13am Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Room of One’s Own

 

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some passages I like from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Programmatic Advertising

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins mentioned his concern about people’s misjudgement of the book because of its title. Unfortunately, I was one such plonker. This book sat on my bookshelf for many years. I did not want to touch it because I shallowly inferred from the title that the book is about finding justification in biology for selfishness and moral degradation (if I may, as a far-fetched extension). Reading it might shatter my strongly held view that we human should promote altruism and not be selfish. I opened it one day recently, not remembering when and why exactly. It has proved to be a fascinating read and has demonstrated my pre-assumption to be completely wrong. Dawkins mentioned in the book that, retrospectively speaking, he should have named the book The Immortal Gene instead. I would have benefited from this book many years earlier if that were the title. The fault is all mine though. I learned the lesson to not make the verdict based on the title alone.

A few thoughts occupied my mind while reading this book. There is no answer applicable to us as a group. I think each individual would have one’s own opinion. Also I would like to point out that I am not a biologist at all, merely one who is interested in the subject.

We are the manifestation of our genes to certain extent. I understand gene survival theory as that we maximise the chance of prolonging the existence of any given gene by producing and bringing up offsprings, or helping to increase the chance of survival of that gene as carried by our family members. Last year, when my father was in a coma and in imminent danger for a lengthy period, I, against all my scientific and atheist mind, was praying madly with uttermost sincerity that God would let me give up 30 years of my lifespan in exchange for 30 more years for him, or an even better deal if God is cruel and unjust, 30 years only for 10 years. It was not an attempt to preserve my genes, because it does not propagate back to prior generations at certain ages. It was not altruism either. Did I want him to live because I could not cope with the possibility of losing him? Or, did I want him to live because I truly think he could enjoy many more years of life that would be more relaxing and peaceful than one at working age, despite the prospect of being severely disabled? Looking back, I dismissed the second question fiercely and wanted father to be with us regardless of the medical conditions. I could not cope with the future of living in endless regrets that I have hardly looked after him. Damn me that I have not taken him travel around the world as I wished! Curse me that I have not done X, Y, Z for him! A very long list of unfulfilled wishes. To cope with the fear of not having a chance to give back, I had a belief that he must live. That was a strong and very selfish belief. On one hand, I find this book very convincing. On the other hand, we are so miniscule in the biology evolution, our thoughts and behaviors are greatly influenced by other factors besides the genes. This kind of non-gene-survival related influence appeared to be more dominating than the survival theory in the relatively constrained timeframe.

I am particularly drawn to Dawkins’ meme theory and more keen to find out more about further research on memes. Meme is the name given by Dawkins for a new kind of replicator. “It conveys the idea of a cultural transmission, or, a unit of imitation. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The following paragraph from the book gives us great hope of the legacy we could create in our very trivial and limited lifetime in the long evolution river:

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.

The end of the first edition was very upbeat and positive: We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

It is a book well worth reading. Do not let the title stop you.

Never Give In! – Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches

I grew up in awe of Winston Churchill, for his second to none wartime leadership during WWII, his mastery of writing, oratory and painting, and for his character, including his flaws. It would not be an exaggeration to state that most of us today across many countries owe our sheer existence to Churchill and the victory of WWII.

Some years ago, I went to visit Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace and his family home from 1922 till end of his life Chartwell House. There was a small museum in the Palace dedicated to Winston Churchill then, giving us a glimpse of his early years. Chartwell revealed significantly more of Churchill in my opinion. Chartwell is also more pleasant to visit, to appreciate Churchill’s paintings and literature work, to soak in the history surrounding the Churchill family, as there are much fewer tourists than Blenheim Palace. Churchill’s painting studio with many of his paintings on the walls is also uniquely located in Chartwell. Churchill famously said a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted. I left Chartwell with a few thoughts in mind. First, if we let each individual develop his/her true talent to the fullest and tolerate his/her flaws, we as a group would be much better off than other scenarios, for example, pushing everyone to achieve the highest scores at school and becoming uniform in our pursuits. Second, we are truly only limited by our limited thoughts. If Churchill thought that “I am a good writer and that is enough for me as professional. One cannot possibly be both a great writer and a statesman, or to paint as well”, we either would have very different world history, or, not have his volumes on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, many great speeches and other writings. We are blessed that he did not think that way. Nor should anyone have one’s thoughts jail oneself.

Over two years ago I was listening to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives program, Churchill was reported saying that this is what we fought for after receiving the news that he had lost the 1945 election. Those simple words inspired great admiration from me. To me it says much about Churchill’s vision for his countrymen versus his personal ambition.

Churchill was a great orator. He gave many magnificent speeches during the war time. The National Churchill Museum makes a list of them available online. In the limited space and time, I share excerpts from a few with you, particularly Churchill’s three famous ones around the Battle of France in 1940. May I alert you that I found tears swelling in my eyes every time I read these out loud or hear them quoted on the radios.

Churchill’s first radio broadcast as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940

Having received His Majesty’s commission I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all: to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be.

Excerpt from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, also known as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech:

That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion…

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on 4 June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the Parliament on 18 June 1940, known as the “This was Their Finest Hour” speech:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

….

I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

English language is not only marvellously beautiful, but also immensely powerful. Churchill showed us that. I, among many, hold the belief that Churchill’s mastery of oratory lead us to win the war. I conclude this post with one last quote from Churchill. He wrote at the age of 22:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

The Elements of Style

This little book, the Elements of Style, originally by William Strunk and later revised and expanded by Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk taught an English course with the original version of this book as the required textbook at Cornell University in 1919. White was one of the students took that class. Decades later, White was asked to revise and contribute to a new edition of this book, after Professor Strunk passed away.

The version I am holding in hand now is the fourth edition from 1999. Multiple sources have informed me that this book has been broadly adopted as one of the required readings for certain college classes in the USA. In my opinion, anyone who communicates in English would benefit greatly from this book.

It is my general observation that in the business setting we generate and circulate far too many badly written, confusing at best, and often misleading notes and documents. We do so on the grounds that we do not have spare time to improve our writings or the luxury to do so in a fast-paced work environment. Bad writing unfortunately often leads to a great loss of productivity. Unwillingness to improve one’s language skill and laziness to communicate with clarity is evil, as it adds a great burden on the readers. I highly recommend reading this book. I envisage myself revisiting it many times again in future.

The process of reading this book was filled with both delight and anxiety. I have been frightened and ashamed that many errors and bad practices of written English listed here were committed by me previously. I have also discovered many jewels of good practices.

Chapter one covers the elementary rules of use of the English language. I spotted one misuse often made immediately. It is “Charles’s friend”, not “Charles’ friend”. That is the first rule: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. People also often confuse “it’s” the contraction of “it is” with “its”, the possessive. Another mis-use I committed often many years ago and Daniel Rueckert helped me to overcome is: do not join independent clauses with a comma when forming a single compound sentence from multiple clauses that are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction. The correct punctuation is a semicolon.

Chapter two focuses on principles of compositions. The book suggests:

    • Choose a suitable design and hold to it;
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition;
    • Use the active voice;
    • Put statements in positive form;
    • Use definite, specific, concrete language;
    • Omit needless words;
    • Avoid a succession of loose sentences;
    • Express coordinate ideas in similar form;
    • Keep related words together;
    • In summaries, keep to one tense;
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

At the level of composing a sentence in English, I must have violated the last rule here many times before, as I was blindly unaware of this, despite my knowledge and practice of placing the most prominent sentences at the beginning and end of a paragraph. One pair of examples given in the book:

  1. Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  2. Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second option clearly places more emphasis on the “hardly advanced in fortitude” part of the message.

I strongly disagree of shorthand spelling of some English words, for example, writing through as thru. It is bad practice and unforgivable, even on road signs. Laziness of spelling should not be tolerated. If we choose to be lazy with words used to describe our thoughts, we would inevitably end up in a downhill spiral and find ourselves eventually becoming too lazy with clear thinking.

White added a new chapter on An Approach to Style to this little book. White describes:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.

White’s advice on what style is not about:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable.

On how to approach style:

The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Further, White gives us a list of suggestions to help us find our way to the desired style:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs. (Not with adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs. (for example, tiredly, tangledly.)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words. (I observe that technical writings from non-native English speakers often tend to use fancy words, which in turn hurts the readability of the papers. Better to use the simple ones.)
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear. (Clarity is the top priority, regardless of the form of communication, speaking or writing, in my view.)
  • Do not inject opinion. (This is very challenging.)
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Avid foreign languages.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

I am grateful that teachers like Strunk and writers like White pass their knowledge on the usage of English language to us in a meticulously concise and precise writing style conveyed in this book. Without it, I might stay much longer ignorant of the errors I made and would not be able to progress.