Women & Power: A Manifesto

 

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

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

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

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

The passages I find most thought-provoking and quintessential:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Prince

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effective Executive

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

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

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

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

I like Drucker’s definition of an executive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

The Chronicles of Barsetshire

Throughout this year, a few books have been my comfort food for my soul, assuming that I have one. These are books for which I do not have any objectives in mind prior to reading. It is an indulgence. Anthony Trollope’s the Chronicles of Barsetshire is among them. Whether it is pure pleasure or purposeful reading, the six novels from the Chronicles of Barsetshire are certainly not just enjoyable to read, but also very telling of the human values and the social fabric that are no less important now than in the late 19th century when they were first published.

There are six novels in this series: The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). A few characters are my favorites, Mrs. Eleanor Bold, Mr. Septimus Harding and Dr Thomas Thorne; equally a few other I loathe miserably: Mrs. Proudie, Mr. Obadiah Slope, Mr. Adolphus Crosbie, Lady Arabella, Lady de Courcy and so on. Some others, I have very mixed views, for example, both sympathetic and angry: Miss Lily Dale for her obsolete and backward view of human relations, although forgivable in the 19th century; Johnny Eames for his devotion and playfulness of equal strength. Nevertheless, they are all very entertaining characters.

The novels set at the fictitious English county Barsetshire and its town Barchester. All stories evolve around the clergymen and the upper class people linked to Barsetshire. Numerous passages from the novels fascinate me. Here are just a few short ones to whet your appetite. Enjoy! Try these books out if you are in the mood for seeking sheer pleasure of reading.

Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.

There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.

Her virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description.

We English gentlemen hate the name of a lie, but how often do we find public men who believe each other’s words?

She had no startling brilliancy of beauty, no pearly whiteness, no radiant carnation. She had not the majestic contour that rivets attention, demands instant wonder, and then disappoints by the coldness of its charms. You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.

No one ever on seeing Mr Crawley took him to be a happy man, or a weak man, or an ignorant man, or a wise man.

Buying and selling is good and necessary; it is very necessary, and may, possibly, be very good; but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

He took such high ground that there was no getting on to it.

The greatest mistake any man ever made is to suppose that the good things of the world are not worth the winning.

Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so. It is hardly too much to say that we all of us occasionally speak of our dearest friends in a manner in which those dearest friends would very little like to hear themselves mentioned, and that we nevertheless expect that our dearest friends shall invariably speak of us as though they were blind to all our faults, but keenly alive to every shade of our virtues.

He felt horror at the thought of being made the subject of common gossip and public criticism.

If an action is the right one, personal feelings must not be allowed to interfere. Of course I greatly like Mr Harding, but that is no reason for failing in my duty to those old men.

Sell yourself for money! why, if I were a man I would not sell one jot of liberty for mountains of gold. What! tie myself in the heyday of my youth to a person I could never love, for a price! perjure myself, destroy myself—and not only myself, but her also, in order that I might live idly! Oh, heavens! Mr Gresham! can it be that the words of such a woman as your aunt have sunk so deeply in your heart; have blackened you so foully as to make you think of such vile folly as this? Have you forgotten your soul, your spirit, your man’s energy, the treasure of your heart? And you, so young! For shame, Mr Gresham! for shame—for shame.

A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era, an era in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at everything that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.

When last days are coming, they should be allowed to come and to glide away without special notice or mention. And as for last moments, there should be none such. Let them ever be ended, even before their presence has been acknowledged.

It would be wrong to say that love produces quarrels; but love does produce those intimate relations of which quarrelling is too often one of the consequences, – one of the consequences which frequently seem to be so natural, and sometimes seem to be unavoidable. One brother rebukes the other, – and what brothers ever lived together between whom there was no such rebuking? – then some warm word is misunderstood and hotter words follow and there is a quarrel. The husband tyrannizes, knowing that it is his duty to direct, and the wife disobeys, or “only partially obeys, thinking that a little independence will become her,” – and so there is a quarrel. The father, anxious only for his son’s good, looks into that son’s future with other eyes than those of his son himself, – and so there is a quarrel. They come very easily, these quarrels, but the quittance from them is sometimes terribly difficult. Much of thought is necessary before the angry man can remember that he too in part may have been wrong; and any attempt at such thinking is almost beyond the power of him who is carefully nursing his wrath, lest it cool! But the nursing of such quarrelling kills all happiness. The very man who is nursing his wrath lest it cool, – his wrath against one whom he loves perhaps the best of all whom it has been given him to love, – is himself wretched as long as it lasts. His anger poisons every pleasure of his life. He is sullen at his meals, and cannot understand his book as he turns its pages. His work, let it be what it may, is ill done. He is full of his quarrel, – nursing it. He is telling himself how much he has loved that wicked one, how many have been his sacrifices for that wicked one, and that now that wicked one is repaying him simply with wickedness! And yet the wicked one is at that very moment dearer to him than ever. If that wicked one could only be forgiven how sweet would the world be again! And yet he nurses his wrath.

One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.