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.

Crucial Conversations

My book of this week is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. It is coauthored by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. I first browsed this book some years ago, either in the Waterstones branch I frequented or the Imperial College London Central Library. My memory fails me on the exact occasion and why I did not pick it up at the time. This autumn, its appearance on the recommended reading list for Conflict Management finally triggered me to read it. Now having read it properly, it is fair for me to state that any reader regardless of the amount life and work experience you have would find values in it and benefit from applying the techniques during dialogues when they turn crucial.

Over the years, it puzzles me that some people are naturally much better at having delicate and good conversations, while others tend to blow up any critical conversations such that they need help to unwind from the unnecessary mess before moving the dialogue forward. It is trivial for any of us to come up with such examples based on our experience. The wonderful news is that we can all learn to be good at having delicate and critical conversations. We can train ourselves to do so, guided by books like this one.

As a side note, I think that investing in green space in campus helps to improve the quality of collaboration, increase the productivity, prevent and resolve conflicts. When a conversation reaches a deadlock, pause before it causes too much damage, take a break, and walk in nature first. Having reachable natural areas makes this easier.

This book presents the seven principles for crucial conversations and the skills we can develop corresponding to each principle. To make it less abstract and more applicable, the book consists of numerous cases and example sentences to use. It also lists various crucial questions to ask ourselves when we are trying to apply a principle. Here are the set of tools to use, quoting from the book.

  • Start with heart
    • Focus on what you really want: What am I acting like I really want? What do I really want for me, for other, for the relationship? How would I behave if I really did want this?
    • Refuse the Sucker’s Choice: What do I not want? How should I go about getting what I really want and avoiding what I don’t want?
  • Learn to look
    • Look for when the conversation becomes crucial: Am I going to silence or violence? Are others?
    • Look for safety problems.
    • Look for your own style under stress.
  • Make it safe
    • Ask: why is safety at risk? Have I established Mutual purpose? Am I maintaining Mutual Respect? What will I do to rebuild safety?
    • Apologize when appropriate.  
    • Contrast to fix misunderstanding. For example, start with what you do not intend or mean, followed by explaining what you do intend or mean.
    • CRIB to get to mutual purpose. The acronym CRIB summarises the four steps to reach mutual purpose: Commit to seek a mutual purpose, Recognise the purpose or motivation behind the strategy, Invent a purpose that is shared with all participants, Brainstorm new strategies that are mutually shared.
  • Master your stories
    • Retrace your Path to Action: “what is my story?”
    • Separate fact from story.
    • Watch for Three Clever Stories: victim (it is not my fault), villain (it is all your fault), helpless stories (there is nothing I can do).
    • Tell the rest of the story: What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem? Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this? What should I do right now to move towards what I really want?
  • STATE your path
    • Ask: Am I really open to others’ views? Am I talking about the real issue? Am I confidently expressing my own views?
    • STATE: Share your facts; Tell your stories; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing.
  • Explore others’ paths
    • Ask: Am I actively exploring others’ views? Am I avoiding unnecessary disagreement?
    • AMPP: Ask; Mirror; Paraphrase; Prime.
    • ABC skill: Agree (find areas that you agree with each other); Build (try “yes, and”, build upon the mutually shared view and extend from there); Compare (discuss about the difference of views rather than labeling differing views as being wrong).
  • Move to action
    • Ask: How will we make decisions? Who will do what by when? How will we follow up?
    • Decide how you’ll decide. There are four approaches of decision making: command, consult, vote and consensus. When choosing which method to use, ask the questions: Who cares? Who knows or has the relevant expertise to make a high quality decision? Who must agree, in other words, whose support must we have to implement the decision? How many people must be involved?
    • Document decisions and follow up. For example, who does what by when?

The summary above might seem dry. The book itself is not, thanks to the great examples and suggested approaches. For this reason, there is extra value to read this book as a non-native English speaker, not only for the purpose of better handling crucial conversations, but also for gaining language skills and cultural perspectives.

The Art of Scalability

 

The second edition of the Art of Scalability is my book this week. It is coauthored by Martin Abbott and Michael Fisher. As its subtitle suggests, the book is about building scalable web architecture, processes and organisations for the modern enterprise.

In this book, the authors argue that the three key components of that are people, process and technology. In the introduction video, the author talked about how they thought initially that technology was the key, only to realise that people and process are no less important based on their consulting experience. These three components are covered in the first three parts of the book. More details on that to follow.

Before getting into the details, I share with you what I like and do not like about this book. Its content is vast, fascinatingly relevant, and not dry at all. It is engaging enough that I have had no trouble enjoying many chapters from around 3am to dawn nearly all days this week. Just to abandon this book and pick up another one is a very trivial action on my part. But I did not. The discussions, technical or not, are very plainly written. It opens up my view on how to scale. The quantitative approaches towards project management and scalability topics are straightforward. The main negative attribute of this book is repetition. It could be shortened significantly. That said, repeating concepts covered in previous chapters certainly helps to refresh the reader’s memory and improve the understanding of the topic currently under discussion. It could, therefore, be the intention of the authors.

Do I recommend it? Yes. If you do not have a large chunk of time to pursue such a big book, browsing the conclusion and key points sections of each chapter on safari books online can give you a quick overview of each chapter. The figures, tables, equations etc. are all beautifully presented online too.

 

Staffing a scalable organisation

In this part, the book discusses the necessary roles and their corresponding responsibilities in a scalable technology organisation. The lack of clearly defined roles or those with overlapping responsibilities can cause confusion and conflict.

The book then progresses to talk about the two key attributes of organisations: size and structure. Both can affect the communication, efficiency, quality and scalability of the organisation. The two traditional structures are functional and matrix. The third one, agile, is gaining traction for its increased innovation, measured by shorter time to market, quality of features and availability of services. There are pros and cons for both large or small teams. It is important to be aware of the specific pitfalls of each, know where your team is, take necessary steps to mitigate the negative effects of the team size.

Further, the book presents us Leadership 101 and Management 101. I like the guidance on goal setting for leaders. The goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (but aggressive), Realistic and Timely (or containing a component of time). One piece of advice stands out for me in the Management 101: “spend only 5% of your project management time creating detailed project plans and 95% of your time developing the contingencies to those plans. Focus on achieving results in an appropriate time frame, rather than laboring to fit activities to the initial plan.” When it comes people management, the analogy of gardening is interesting: seeding (as of hiring), feeding (as of developing people), weeding (as of elimination of underperforming people within an organisation).

   

Building Processes for Scale

The second part of the book covers processes. The general idea is to create the right set of processes to standardize the steps taken to perform certain tasks, eliminate confusion and unnecessary decision making, and hence free up the employees to focus on important work. The authors use the following figure to illustrate the different levels of process complexity.

In this part, the authors discusses processes answering these questions:

  • How to properly control and identify change in a production environment?
  • What to do when things go wrong or when a crisis occurs?
  • How to design scalability into your products from the beginning?
  • How to understand and manage risk?
  • When to build and when to buy?
  • How to determine the amount of scale in your systems?
  • When to go forward with a release and when to wait?
  • When to roll back and how to prepare for that eventuality?

One chapter talks about headroom calculation. The authors advise to use 50% as the amount of maximum capacity whose use should be planned. Naturally we all know a discount factor should be used in estimating headroom, but the value to use for discounting is mostly informed from experience. This shows one great benefit of reading this book: informing me of what the authors summarised from their combined decades of experience of helping to scale businesses.

 

Architecting Scalable Solutions

The third part of this book discusses about the differences of implementation and architecture, how to create fault-isolative architectures, the AKF scale cube, caching and asynchronous design for scale. The AKF scale cube method suggests scaling along three dimensions: cloning the entities or data and distributing unbiased work across workers, separation of work biased by activity or data, separation of work biased by the requestor for whom the work is being performed. For illustration purpose, I cite the AKF scale figure from the book below.

The first two dimensions of the AKF scale cube approach are very similar to our scalability studies for Exascale Computing: providing more compute nodes and duplicating data and code on each of them to perform a chunk of work (that can equally be performed on other node), partitioning and assigning a specific piece of work to its most suitable compute node in a heterogeneous environment or partitioning the data among a set of nodes and sending the corresponding compute to each node. The third dimension is to direct the service requests to different subset of nodes, based on the info available about the requests or requesters. The authors point out often these are nested together.

The last part of the book covers the issue of having too much data, grid and cloud computing, monitoring applications and planning data centers. Not to miss the appendices, the examples given there are very illustrative on availability, capacity planning, load and performance calculation.

There is a set of slides from Lorenzo Alberton available on slideshare, talking about the key concepts from this book.

Overall, I enjoyed learning about scalability and how to build scalable architecture through reading this book. It is thanks to reading books like this that the darkness of winter days is slightly more bearable than it would be.

The Art of Possibility

A great lecturer and mentor of mine, John Steinhart, recently recommended the book The Art of Possibility. John specifically mentioned its audio recording. Although I have a reasonably lengthy list of books to read already, a recommendation from John no doubt sets me into motion to check both the audiobook and paperback out. The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, is my book of this week. The audiobook is also read by both authors. It is fascinating that the audiobook includes many pieces of music that were intimately relevant to the context. I am very fond of classical music, even more so when the music is intertwined with the stories and discussions in this book. I am grateful to John for suggesting this book.

It takes certain mindset to settle into this book. The shift from last week’s Information Retrieval to this was not a comfortable one. My very analytical mind initially responded quite badly to the vagueness of its writing and its light-weight philosophical discussions. I was constantly battling with my inner voice: Why is this the case? How did we derive this point? Is this a single instance? Do we have a sufficiently large data set to draw this kind of insights/conclusions? How do we know that we have attributed to the right causes for the effect observed? Then suddenly one sentence opened the door for me to enter this book: “do not take yourself so goddamn seriously.” Did not Oscar Wilde have a similar line: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”? It reminded me also of a piece of advice that my friend Jay Owen gifted me last year: “do not take yourself too seriously”. That sentence was very powerful. In this particular circumstance, I told my inner self off immediately, “Just shut up! Be open-minded and see what the authors have to say!” I subsequently experienced the wonder of this practice. I was curious enough and wanting to learn all the rest of the practices covered in the book such that I started again from the beginning.

This book is about possibility. The message resonates with what I learned some time ago that I am only limited by my own thinking. As the authors put it: much, much more is possible than people ordinarily think. The authors wrote this book with the objective to provide us the means to lift off from the world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.

“Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view. Find the right framework and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience. Each chapter of this book presents a different facet of this approach and describes a new practice for bringing possibility to life.”

Here is a short summary of a selectively few out of the 12 practices included in the book. I include the steps to get there from the book too. Some are direct quotes. Some are paraphrased by me. Purely for readability purpose, I do not use italic font to mark the quoted phrases or passages, but I happily acknowledge that all messages below are read or learned from the book.

  • It’s All Invented. Ask these questions: what assumptions am I making, that I am not aware I’m making, that gives me what I see? And ask: what might I now invent, that I haven’t yet invented, that would give me other choices?
  • Stepping into a Universe of Possibility. How are my thoughts and actions, in this moment, reflections of the measurement world? You look for thoughts and actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety. Recognising that your measurement mind is at work, you ask again: How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world? And how now?
  • Being a Contribution. Life is a place to contribute and we as contributors. Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. How will I contribute today? Declare yourself to be a contribution. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why.
  • Lighting a Spark. Ben told a story that his father said “Certain things in life are better done in person”, when Ben asked him why not making a phone call instead of making a train journey. That answer bewildered Ben in a wonderful way. Many years later, Ben made a day trip by air to persuade the world’s greatest cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to play in a concert. Rostropovich agreed to play. To light a spark, the authors suggest to practice enrollment: imagine that people are an invitation for enrollment, stand ready to participate, willing to be moved and inspired, offer that which lights you up, have no doubt that others are eager to catch the spark. It is similar to the “yes, and” practice in improv.

I would like to highlight a few passages that relate the practices in this book to a much broad world.

When one person peels away layers of opinion, entitlement, pride, and inflated self-description, others instantly feel the connection. As one person has the grace to practice the secret of Rule Number 6 (do not take yourself seriously), others often follow.

I am the framework for everything that happens in my life….If I cannot be present without resistance to the way things are and act effectively, if I feel myself to be wronged, a loser, or a victim, I will tell myself that some assumption I have made is the source of my difficulty.

The foremost challenge for leaders today, we suggest, is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge.

The term mission statement is often used interchangeably with the word vision in business and political arenas but, by and large, mission statements are expressions of competition and scarcity…A vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns, and allows us to see the long clear line. A vision becomes a framework for possibility when it meets certain criteria that distinguish it from the objectives of the downward spiral.

 

The book has a list of criteria as what is a vision in the universe of possibility, which I do not list here for the sake of brevity. That said, I do think they are very relevant to any organisation.

After reading this book, I understand why John recommended this book. The views and methods advocated here can be very powerful in searching for good solutions to resolve conflicts and even better in transforming the conflicts to profoundly rewarding experiences.