AzureSql as Json Serializer : Blazing fast microservice

The startup site I was working, dubbed the educational network, lists courses from partners. To amplify engagement with users, we needed an elegant but simple commenting system.  Users when logged in can comment on a course they have taken and providers can reply to it – akin to airbnb or expedia site.
Before we shape this requirement into a microservice, lets see what Martin Fowler’s take on this: to quote him: One reasonable argument we’ve heard is that you shouldn’t start with a microservices architecture. Instead begin with a monolith, keep it modular, and split it into microservices once the monolith becomes a problem. (Although this advice isn’t ideal, since a good in-process interface is usually not a good service interface.) So we write this with cautious optimism. So far, we’ve seen enough about the microservice style to feel that it can be a worthwhile road to tread. We can’t say for sure where we’ll end up, but one of the challenges of software development is that you can only make decisions based on the imperfect information that you currently have to hand.)

As most startups’ backend architecture starts as a monolith API with an eye for future scalability, our startup site treads the same path but with two stern demands.

  1. design for exit, so that a future standalone microservice from monolith is a easier transition
  2. extract the max out of the given cloud resources and make this API as scalable now and then.

We’ll explore how we accomplished the above two tenets using AzureSql and ASP.NET Core tweaking ‘design & infra’ choices. We utilized a 5 eDTU 2GB Sql Server Db (costing $5/month, cheapest hosted db in azure) and a spare windows VM that can host this microservice. Backend was EF Core with hierarchical LINQ & Newtonsoft as Json Serializer. Performance was dismal and this necessitated a redesign to use AzureSql’s native JSON capability to hierarchical-ize and serialize results. proved nifty in load testing the API and triage the problem areas and achieve our goals.

Conclusion: Core 1.1 with Dapper can achieve 300+ API calls in a minute with a total throughput of 4MB data returned with median response time of 101 ms using merely one 5 eDTU SQL Server database (the very basic entry level db in azure)  hosting ~3 million comments and a million users.

This blog article can can also be used as a walk through to recreate the whole experience yourself – essentially you need a Azure Subscription and local SQL Server! It covers the use case – Disqus like Comment/Reply System, design methodology, query design, issues encountered and SQL db Json Serialization technique, API testing tool and all important load test results. The code is hosted @ github

What the business wanted? – “Comment & Reply” Requirements:

  1. Logged in users be able to comment on each course/service
  2. Course/Service Provider can reply to those comments
  3. Ability to have hierarchical comments but for now restricted to 1 level
  4. Multiple comments on a course/service by users allowed (no hierarchical – comment on comment)
  5. Provider can reply to a comment and alter it (no reply on reply)
  6. While browsing a course, able to see comments by users and replies to them by their providers if any

Entity Design

Table Utility
Users Users registered in the system
Courses Services provided by Users (registered as service providers)
Comments Comment for a course/service: Rating, Title, Remarks, CreatedOn – for which CourseId
CommentSnapshots First and Last Comment for User/Service combo

The above ERD depicts a run down version of the actual entities involved in the design, all attributes avoided for confidentiality. These attributes suffice for a base design of the problem we are discussing.

The idea to snapshot first and last comment is to provide a quick way to retrieve a comment by a user with intermediate comments are retrieved on demand – this is useful when comments per user is viewed either by an Admin or by user.  Also it’ll be useful to limit the search whether a user has really made at least a comment for a given service rather than searching the entire comment history in comments table to ascertain that. Again there could be even a better design but we started off with this which fulfills all the requirements outlined above.

We avoided having foreign keys as the system is destined to be compartmentalized and modular microservices is the final implementation where in each entity will be in its own domain and have their own services.

Infra Choice

Being a Azure shop, we decided to use a Azure SQL Server with the very basic offering: a 5 e-DTU 2GB db at USD5 per month.

App Backend
Windows 2016 VM with 2GB RAM and SSD with ASP.NET Core Web API and IIS, We started with core 1.1 and also tested the solution using Core 2.0, the latest release to compare performance.

Data Prep

To test this system realistically, we’re looking at 1 million customers, 30k services/courses with ~2.5 to 3M comments. To create the customers, restore BigTestData.bak into a local SQL database from BigTestData.rar (refer to my GitHub dataspring/Retail and look for Getting started – Environment: Windows 7 and above with SQL Server Express 2012 and above – Steps to Generate Data)

  1. Create Comments database –> run 01-DataPrep-CreateDb.sql
  2. Create Functions and Indexes –> run 02-DataPrep-CreateFnsAndIndexes.sql
  3. Create ~1M Users –> 03-DataPrep-CopyUsers.sql
  4. Create ~2M Comments & ~1M Replies –> 04-DataPrep-FillData.sql (takes a while…..)

The gist of data generation:

  1. Pick Users with user id (<50000) to be providers (aka assumed -registered as providers)
  2. Create 40000 courses with providers iterated from a specific id of users
  3. Use a random user ID (between 500K to 1M) to create 15 comments for each of the 40K course
  4. Capture 1st and last comment in to CommentsSnapShot
  5. Create Reply for each of the comment
  6. Also randomly vary the content in the Title and Remark to be realistic
  7. Ensure all 15 comments have sufficient and proper chronological order
 ASP.NET Core & EF.Core – Some Thoughts

ASP.NET Core benchmarks are astounding given there was a blog before that I read and not sure it’s ‘use case’ is relevant but the load test we’re planning to do due course (as explained below) is a practical test with pragmatic data though.  Always micro ORM like Dapper keeps beating EF Core to the core as in this blog and I wanted to try Dapper as well in the load test.

Coding the API

Fire up your VS 2017 community and look for ASP.NET Core 1.1 Web API template and create your Web API project – Core1dot1Service and save the resulting solution as CoreBenchMarks. You can copy to entire code @ github and follow along as well.

I was contemplating on the final requirement (point 6.) and started off with the EF core and LINQ but there wasn’t lot of examples to do hierarchical queries in EF as clearly and succinctly on the web.
So I headed to do on my own and created a http get method with this LINQ query:

public async Task<List<CommentBlock>> GetFromLinq(string ratingType, int courseId, int? userId = null, int skip = 0, int size = 10, int skipThread = 0, int sizeThread = 10 )
	return await 
		.Where(r => r.CourseId == courseId && r.UserId == (userId ?? r.UserId) && r.CommentType == ratingType)
		 r => r.UserId,
		 u => u.UserId,
		 (r, u) => new CommentBlock
			 UserDisplayName = u.DisplayName,
			 UserRating = r.LastRating,
			 Comment = r.LastRemarks,
			 UserLastUpdate = r.LastUpdate,
			 Comments = _dbContext.Comments.Where(c => c.CourseId == r.CourseId && c.UserId == r.UserId && c.CommentType == ratingType)
									 .Select(cm => new Comment
										 CommentId = cm.CommentId,
										 Rating = cm.Rating,
										 Remarks = cm.Remarks,
										 CreatedDate = cm.CreatedDate,
										 Reply = _dbContext.Comments.Where(rp => rp.ParentId == cm.CommentId && rp.CommentType == (ratingType + "Reply"))
												 .Select(ply => new Reply
													 Remarks = ply.Remarks,
													 CreatedDate = ply.CreatedDate
									   .OrderByDescending(o => o.CreatedDate)
		 .OrderByDescending(o => o.UserLastUpdate)

Hierarchical Design:
For a given Course ID/Service ID and Rating Type (‘Course’) :

  • extract Last Comment from ‘CommentSnapShots’ table (if a user ID is provided, filter by it)
    • and then all Comments reverse chronologically from ‘Comments’ table
      • and replies for every comment if any from service providers

and return whole set as hierarchical json object. As proved and expected LINQ queries are notoriously inefficient and so happened that during the load tests, no data were returned, as we in the next section which covers load testing.

Load Testing : Abandon VS Load Testing Tool & Embrace Artillery

Since I had VS 2013 Ultimate, wanted to give a try to see how good the load testing can be. It’s intuitive to record if you have an GUI for your APIs or you have to manually do your GET requests and record it in IE to be captured. With Windows 10, you have Edge but VS Load Testing recording still depends on IE and hence you got to install additional stuff. There was no great way to do POST API calls easily and randomizing data inputs, reading data from text files and integrating into the test was a pain that I had to abandon the whole exercise and move to best alternative – open source – Artillery.IO fits the bill fantastically and I was able to learn the whole thing within few hours. It was such a pleasant thing to do load testing on APIs with a simple and easy to understand yaml file and NodeJS.

Ensure you have latest Node and just follow getting started with Create a solution folder under Solution called and ‘Artillery.LoadTests’ . Now there are 2 steps, generate random data to use and create load test script:

Just generate the data and copy it to folder where artillery yaml file is located

Select Top 5000	
,[Skip] = [dbo].[Random_Range](0,3)
,Size = [dbo].[Random_Range](2,10)  
,SkipThread = [dbo].[Random_Range_With_Default](0,1,0,8)
,SizeThread = [dbo].[Random_Range](2,10)
from [dbo].[CommentSnapShots]

If you’re hosting the .NET Core wherever, accordingly change the target.

        target: ""
        target: ""
        target: "http://localhost:43182"  
  #target: ""
      - duration: 30
        arrivalCount: 10
        name: "Warm up phase"
      - duration: 60
        arrivalRate: 1
        name: "High load phase"
  processor: "./proc-functions.js"           
      path: "./testData.csv"
          - "SnapShotId"
          - "CommentType"
          - "CourseId"
          - "UserId"      
          - "Skip"
          - "Size"
          - "SkipThread"
          - "SizeThread"
      #order: "sequence"          
# scenario definitions      
  - name: "Stress Test JsonFromLinq API - where JSON is returned from LINQ"
    - get:
          #----------- just for a given course ID -----------------------------
          url: "/api/comments/method/jsonfromlinq?ratingType={{CommentType}}&courseId={{CourseId}}&skip={{Skip}}&size={{Size}}&skipThread={{SkipThread}}&sizeThread={{SizeThread}}"
          afterResponse: "logResponse"
          #think: 5
    - log: "jsonfromLinq api call : ratingType={{CommentType}}, courseId={{CourseId}}, skip={{Skip}}, size={{Size}}, skipThread={{SkipThread}}, sizeThread={{SizeThread}}"     

We’re using a simple loading pattern to start with:

  • A phase which generates a fixed count of new arrivals over a period of time : 10 users in 30 seconds
  • A phase with a duration and a constant arrival rate of a number of new virtual users per second : 1 user / second for 60 seconds
  • In total : 70 requests in 1.5 minute or 90 seconds

As you can see the below performance snapshot, EF Core LINQ is very performant on the Laptop (perhaps spec is good) but when ported to Azure VM with 5 DTU Auzre SQL, simply doesn’t work!
To mitigate this performance issue, we have to redesign the whole data access and perhaps relinquish the abstraction which LINQ provides and need to go bare metal – to database level and unravel how far we can stress the system to be performant. Options available to accomplish this are both from code and infra:

  1. Scale Azure SQL to 30 or more DTUs
  2. Use a 3rd party Json Serilaizer with existing LINQ query
  3. Partition LINQ query into individual queries in option 2
  4. Abandon LINQ and go bare metal on SQL : Stored Proc and Json Serializatioin in SQL Server

We embarked on option 4 which provides cost effective solution and can be quick win if we need to scale within budget.

LINQ query was redesigned as stored proc with TSQL’s powerful JSON capability to hierarchical-ize and serialize the result and return json text.

Proc Design – Version 1

	SELECT u.displayName
		SELECT t.commentId
				SELECT r.commentId
					,(Select top 1 displayName from Users usr where usr.UserId = r.UserId) as displayName 
				FROM Comments AS r
				WHERE r.CourseId = t.CourseId
					--AND r.UserId = t.UserId
					AND r.CommentType = t.CommentType + 'Reply'
					AND r.ParentId = t.CommentId
				) AS reply
		FROM Comments AS t
		WHERE t.CourseId = c.CourseId
			AND t.UserId = c.UserId
			AND t.CommentType = c.CommentType
			--AND t.ParentId = 0
		ORDER BY t.CreatedDate DESC
		OFFSET @SkipThread ROWS
		) AS thread
	FROM CommentSnapShots AS c
	INNER JOIN Users AS u ON c.UserId = u.UserId
	WHERE Isnull(c.CourseId, '') = Isnull(COALESCE(@CourseId, c.CourseId), '')	
		AND c.UserId = COALESCE(@UserId, c.UserId)
		AND c.CommentType = @RatingType
	ORDER BY c.LastUpdate DESC 

SqlServer as Json Serializer is achieved using the FOR JSON construct and iterating the design through its options makes the result nearly similar to what you get from LINQ based hierarchial results serialized by Newtonsoft serializer.

Issues in Version 1 and Mitigation:

  1. TSQL has a nice feature called COALESCE function which comes handy if any of the filter fields are null or not provided, we can easily manage the WHERE clause but it hurts performance hugely and either you have to use a dynamic SQL or altogether remove COALESCE function in the WHERE clause.
  2. Key Lookup is a costly affair in the SQL execution which is evident from peeking into the execution plan, hence you need to have a corresponding non-clustered index fields matching the query WHERE clause fields and Include columns matching the selected fields…great example here.
  3. Yet another aspect is to accept dirty reads – which I’ve not tried here but worth if a slight marginal error is acceptable. You can use NOLOCK which his functionally equivalent to an isolation level of READ UNCOMMITTED. If you plan to use NOLOCK on all tables in a complex query, then using SET TRANSACTION ISOLATION LEVEL READ UNCOMMITTED is easier, because you don’t have to apply the hint to every table.

Version 2 removed coalesce and created a handful of non-clustered indexes with INCLUDE columns to remove all key lookups and literally leap-frog query performance including selected columns in the indexes themselves. Final stored proc code is here and the corresponding Web API is using json string pass-through to send teh results back from db without attempting any .NET Core level serialization.Check out the code below.

public async Task<ContentResult> GetFromDapper(string ratingType, int? courseId, int? userId = null, int skip = 0, int size = 10, int skipThread = 0, int sizeThread = 10)

	using (var connection = new SqlConnection(ConnectionConfig.DefaultConnection))

		DynamicParameters dp = new DynamicParameters();

		dp.Add("@RatingType", ratingType ?? (object)DBNull.Value, DbType.String);
		dp.Add("@CourseId", courseId ?? (object)DBNull.Value, DbType.Int32);
		dp.Add("@UserId", userId ?? (object)DBNull.Value, DbType.Int32);
		dp.Add("@Skip", skip, DbType.Int32);
		dp.Add("@Size", size > 20 ? 20 : size, DbType.Int32);
		dp.Add("@SkipThread", skipThread, DbType.Int32);
		dp.Add("@SizeThread", sizeThread > 20 ? 20 : sizeThread, DbType.Int32); ;

		var results = await connection.QueryAsync<string>("GetComments", dp, commandType: CommandType.StoredProcedure);

		List<string> jsonResults = new List<string>();

		return Content(string.Join("", results.ToArray()), new MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/json"));


Load Test Results
Armed with the optimized stored proc that also does JSON serialization, next is to really test this to ascertain how much the minimum infra can withstand when goes live. It seems the App VM wasn’t the bottleneck but the DB in the end. A simple yet comprehensive load testing regime was used here to compare and contrast and conclude.

Following were the versions tried:

  1. API as such with LINQ query – with ASP.NET Core 1.1 & EF Core 1.1
  2. API with optimized Stored Proc (that hierachial and serilizaes results within) – with ASP.NET Core 1.1 & EF Core 1.1
  3. API with optimized Stored Proc (that hierarchical-izes and serializes results within) – with ASP.NET Core 1.1 & Dapper (the best ORM out there)
  4. Point 2 & 3 – with ASP.NET Core 2.0 and EF Core 2.0

Load Pattern: Ramp-up with 10 users/calls in 30 sec and add 1 user/call every sec for next 60 seconds

Results are here:

Pattern with Random Data: Ramp-up with 10 users/calls in 30 sec and add 5 user/call every sec for next 60 seconds and the results, as you can see data throughput more or less same :

The conclusion is clear, winner is Core 1.1 with Dapper and can achieve 300+ API calls in a minute with a total throughput of 4MB data returned with median response time of 101 ms using merely 5 eDTU SQL Server database hosting ~3 million comments and a million users.

Test results are available @ Github for console outputs and json results during artillery load testing.



Pareto, Elites & Unequal Distribution

A fantastic book that repudiates classical and neo-classical models of economy which has led to countless busts and never was able to predict those busts and still clamors to be the best out there. These are the economyhths which are decimated in the book and a new order and model is what is required to counter the unknowns is enunciated but still this is not foolproof as we can never predict the next earthquake but lest be prepared. Some pages were fascinating and one such excerpt is the one below that I connect with is worth giving here to induce interest in this book Economyths by David Orrell. Happy reading!

It’s not that many young people do not have aspirations. It is that they are blocked Such elitism is unjust socially And it can no longer mark economically. Alan Blilburn MP (2009).

Economists are taught that, in principle at least, a well-run market economy is fundamentally fair, so while luck and random effects may be involved, our actual chance of success depends only on merit. The whole point of a competitive market, after all, is that everyone has an equal shot. This belief in an underlying equality influences everything from taxation policy to the pay packages of CEOs. Yet in recent decades, the income distribution has become increasingly skewed, with most of the benefits of increased productivity accruing to the top few per cent of the population. Ibe reason, as this chapter shows, is that markets are not fair and balanced, and the rich really do get richer.

Economic models in general have continued to shy away from distinguishing economic agents based on power, influence, access to information, connections, gender, race, class, or any other characteristic. As Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas note in their book Economists and the Powerful, such imbalances are ‘defined away by standard assumptions of most mainstream economic models’. Milton Friedman even argued that properly functioning free markets would automatically render them irrelevant: ‘there is an economic incentive in a free market to separate economic efficiency from other characteristics of an individual. A businessman or an entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a disadvantage compared to other individuals who do not. Such an individual is in effect imposing higher costs upon himself than are other individuals who do not have such preferences. Hence, in a free market they will tend to drive him out.’ According to theory, sexism, racism or any other form of discrimination is inefficient, so in a pure (i.e. symmetrical) market it wouldn’t exist. Economic transactions are more or less the same, regardless of who is involved or when they take place. It is amusing to compare this picture with the highly ritualized, Vatican-like hiring practice standard in economics departments, which according to one sociological study is characterized by elitism, hierarchy, networking, and male-bias.) Of course, no economist would claim that the real economy is perfectly fair or stable, or that each participant has access to exactly the same information.

As seen with the subprime crisis, though, these assumptions soon begin to look ridiculous when you compare them with the real world. Markets aren’t just slightly asymmetric, they’re totally out of whack. Is it really OK to assume that Goldman Sachs and subprime mortgage holders are competing on a level playing field and have access to the same information? Is Wal-Mart versus the local corner store really a fair fight? And does it really make no difference where you are born, who your parents are, what schools you went to, who your friends are, or what your history is?

Circulation of the Elites
The French statesman Georges Clemenceau is attributed with the saying that ‘Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.’ Following a similar kind of trajectory, perhaps, neoclassical economics started off in an idealistic vein. aim of people like Jevons, Walras and Pareto was to put economics on a rational basis, and thus improve the living standards of the general population. Jevons was brought up in a Unitarian tradition concerned with social conditions, and spent much of his free time walking the streets of the cities he lived in — Sydney, Manchester, London — observing the conditions of the poor and contemplating the connections between poverty and economics. Walras inherited his socialist ideals from his father, and spent a number of years working in the cooperative movement before taking up his professorship at Lausanne.

As a young man, Vilfredo Pareto was a dedicated democrat, and took pleasure in- attacking the Italian government for corruption and corporatism. After the May 1898 riots in Milan, which were organized by the Italian Socialist Party and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, Pareto offered his home in Switzerland to socialist exiles and leftist radicals. Even by 1891, though, when Pareto was 43, it appeared that his head was pulling in another direction. He wrote to Walras. ‘I give up the combat in defense of liberal economic theories in Italy. My friends and I get nowhere and lose our time; this time is much more fruitfully devoted to scientific study.’  He began to believe that his youthful passion for leftist ideals had been based on emotion rather than logic, and that all human societies were inherently corrupt and irrational.
Pareto’s cynicism about human motivations was no doubt fuelled in 1901 when he returned home from a trip to find that his wife had run off with the cook and 30 cases of possessions. Under Italian law, Pareto couldn’t get a divorce. He had inherited a large sum of money from an uncle in 1898, enough to make him financially independent. In 1907 he resigned his university position and retired to his villa near Lake Geneva, where he lived with a woman 30 years his junior called Jeanne Régis, a large stock of the finest wines and liqueurs, and eighteen Angora cats (the house was called Villa Angora).

Pareto continued to blast off incendiary books, articles and letters, but his aim switched from trying to change society, to analyzing it from his detached vantage point — rather as an entomologist might analyze the social goings-on of an anthill, but with more spite and irony. In his million-word tome Treatise on General Sociology, he argued that human behavior is driven by irrational desires, which are then justified by particular ideologies. To understand society, one therefore had to focus on the underlying irrational desires, which he classified into six types. The most important were innovation (Class I) and conservation (Class Il). Everyone was motivated by a mix of these classes, but one could nevertheless speak of ‘Class I’ types, who are clever and calculating, and ‘Class Il’ types, who are slower, more bureaucratic, and dependent on force.

Pareto had earlier discovered the power-law distribution of wealth (the 80-20 rule) in Italy and other countries, and wrote that it ‘can be compared in some respects to Kepler’s law in astronomy; we still lack a theory that may make this law of distribution rational in the way in which the theory of universal gravitation has made Kepler’s law rational’. Today, we would describe it as an emergent property of the economy. In his retirement, Pareto came to see this highly-skewed power law as a kind of snapshot that revealed the underlying dynamics of any society.

At the top is a small elite consisting of a mix of Class I and Class Il people who are engaged in a Machiavellian struggle for power. There is always a degree of social mobility, so the composition of the elite changes as people enter or leave. The balance between the two classes therefore varies with time, in a process Pareto called the circulation of the elite. If too many innovative and intelligent Class I people (Machiavelli’s foxes) get in power, then the conservative Class IIS will plot a takeover. If the elite is dominated by Class IIS (Machiavelli’s lions), then it will become overly bureaucratic and reactive and the Class Is will make their move. This process can be smooth and gradual; but, if the circulation becomes blocked, so that ‘simultaneously the upper strata are full of decadent elements and the lower strata are full of elite elements’, then the social state ‘becomes highly unstable and a violent revolution is imminent’.
Pareto demonstrated his argument with numerous case studies. Perhaps the best illustration, though, was the coming to power in Italy of Mussolini’s Fascist government. Mussolini liked the idea of powerful lions taking over from foxes grown corrupt and ineffectual, and appointed Pareto Senator of the Kingdom of Italy. In 1923, Pareto finally managed to obtain a divorce and marry Jeanne Régis, before dying the same year.

How to get Rich
While Pareto’s sociological arguments have dated a bit in the last hundred years, his observation that wealth is distributed according to a power law has remained accurate — except that the elite has grown relatively smaller and more powerful. figure below is a summary of how the world’s wealth was distributed among the total 3.7 billion adults in the year 2000, according to a United Nations report. Adults required a relatively modest net worth of 2,138 to count themselves in the wealthiest 50 per cent To be in the top 10 per cent (370 million adults) they needed S61 This group owned over 80 per cent of the total wealth Anyone with $510,000 was in the top I per cent (that’s 37 million adults)- Together, this small sliver of the world population controlled 40 per of the world’s financial assets. Contrast that with the bottom half, who collectively controlled about 1 per cent of the wealth. Someone born into the world at random would stand a 50 per cent chance of ending up in that group of 1.85 billion adults. (As discussed in the update on page 216, wealth distribution in many countries has become considerably more skewed in recent years.)
Rather impressively, the power-law distribution of wealth extends all the way up to the world’s richest billionaires. In 2009 the world’s richest person was Bill Gates, with a net worth of $40 billion. To put that in perspective, suppose that you made a plot of the wealth of everyone on the planet, in order from richest to poorest. If you continued the plot up to the 99th percentile, then the vertical scale of the graph would have to be around half a million dollars (this will have changed slightly since 2000). But if you wanted to contain Bill Gates, or his friend Warren Buffett, then the vertical scale would need to expand by a factor of about 80,000.

Bar graph the wealth distribution in Yr 2000. The top decile (10 per cent) controls 80 percent of the total wealth. Deciles 6 through 10, which represent the bottom 50 percent of the population, control about 1 per cent in total

Wealth is also of course not distributed evenly in geographical terms. In 2000 the USA and Canada together had 34 per cent of the wealth, Europe had 30 per cent, rich Asian-Pacific countries had 24 per cent, and the rest of the world including Latin America and Africa held 12 per cent. This mix is changing as countries like China, India and Brazil continue to experience explosive growth and claim a larger share of the world’s economic pie. From these data alone, one can therefore conclude that the world economy is highly asymmetric. A small number of people enjoy a huge proportion of the world’s wealth, while billions live in poverty. same kind of pattern is seen repeating itself fractally over different scales. Every city has its own local elite, as does every country or region. Tie sprawling metropolis of greater Säo Paulo, Brazil, for example, now has some 500 helicopters, more than any other city in the world. The rich find them a good way to avoid traffic jams that can extend for over a hundred miles.ll Also they’re hard to steal.

Apart from his discovery of the power-law wealth distribution, another aspect of Pareto’s work to have passed the test of time was his insistence that humans act primarily on the basis of psychological, motivations, and justify those actions on the basis of ideology. Ellie ruling elite always has a very good argument as to why it should be in charge and have most of the wealth and be flying the helicopter. Today, that argument goes by names such as the invisible hand, the efficient market, or mainstream economics.

Broken Symmetry
Adam Smith’s concept of the invisible hand is usually taken to refer to the price mechanism. However, his first use of the expression, in his 1759 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is on the subject of wealth distribution: ‘The rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal pro- portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ The invisible hand refers here not to the magic of the market, but to an early version of trickle-down economics.
Since the economy has patently failed to align itself with this happy picture, at the level of individual countries or the entire globe, one might ask what forces have created such a skewed distribution. According to Smith’s later work The Wealth of Nations (1776), free markets tend to drive prices towards ‘The natural price, or the price of free competition’. That applies to the price of labor, so it follows that an individual’s earnings should reflect the person’s inherent value to society. Efficient market theory similarly argues that markets allocate resources efficiently, and that includes wages. If Quetelet’s picture of the ‘average man’ is correct, and our abilities are randomly distributed according to a normal distribution, then one might expect wealth to be symmetrically distributed in the same way — most people would be in the middle, and there would be only a few who are very poor or very rich. The reality in most countries is obviously very different, so either our financial elites are incredibly talented, or something else is going on. One prevailing economyth is that the economy is inherently stable and at equilibrium i.e., it is symmetrical in time and so history doesn’t matter. However, there is the old saying that ‘the rich get richer’, and it certainly seems that to make a lot of money, it helps to have some in the first place.

Imagine as a thought experiment that a city-sized group of people are given a windfall of $100 each, under the condition that they must keep it invested in a rather volatile and unproductive stock market. Each person makes their own investments, with an average real return of 0 per cent and a standard deviation of 5 per cent. After one year, most people’s nest eggs will be in the range $90 to $110, and will be distributed according to the bell curve with a peak at 100 and a standard deviation of 5. As time goes on, though, the distribution becomes increasingly skewed. If we follow the worth of the investments as they are passed down through generations for 150 years (about the age of economics), then the resulting wealth distribution looks like a figure, which is quite similar to the actual wealth distribution in above figure. Obviously this is not a serious model of how wealth changes with time. It only tracks the value of imaginary investment port- folios, and ignores other kinds of economic transactions (more realistic agent-based models can be constructed, if desired). However, it does demonstrate the simple fact that, left to their own devices, investments will tend to concentrate themselves in fewer and fewer hands. To use the physics term, it is an example of symmetry breakings At the start of the simulation, everything is perfectly symmetrical. Each person has exactly the same initial amount of money. also have identical chances of success with their investments -— no one is assumed to be more talented at picking stocks, But over a period of time, some start to pull ahead of the pack reason is that there is a positive feedback effect at work A person whose sum has grown already from the initial $100 to $1,000 can hope to make another $I00 in the coming year. They might instead lose that much, but at least they have the opportunity, Someone whose savings fund has shrunk to SIO can only hope to make another dollar.
As the simulation is run for more years, the wealth becomes increasingly concentrated, until eventually only a few people are left gambling with the entire wealth of the community. If a person were born at random into such a population, their chance of being in the elite would be negligibly small. So even though the laws that govern this toy economy are symmetrical and non-discriminatory, the system tends to evolve towards an increasingly skewed state. Time matters.

Britishisms and Americanisms

English English EE, American English AE, Some excerpts from “That’s not English” by Erin Moore. Hope with this, you may enjoy buying and reading this book.

EE: quite means “rather” or “fairly”, and is subtle way of damning with faint praise. An English author receives an editorial letter from her American editor who “quite” likes her new book (Insult!) AE: quite simply means “very” and amps the adjective. No subtlety there. An American student finds it impossible to get a job in UK based on glowing recommendation letters submitted by her professors, whose highest praise is “quite intelligent and hard-working” (Shock!). An English houseguest confesses to being “quite hungry” and is served a steak of punishing size by an oblivious American friend (Horror!)

An adjective describing the quality of certain foods that make one want to keep eating them.English snaffle.Typical English snack sizes are smaller than Americans. Peanut butter are of size that can fit into a shoe whereas Americans are bucket sizes. American snacks may be labelled “family-size” but conveniently, the size of the family is not specified. American potato chips come with health claims: low-fat, gluten-free, no trans fats, calcium-enriched whereas in England its not so but sometimes came with small packet of slat to be added or with a claim “ready salted”

MUFTI – An Indian English word which means plainclothes, irrespective English love uniforms whereas Americans nope.English children wear uniforms from age 4 and there’s broad agreement, crossing political lines and class lines, that uniforms are a good idea improving discipline and focus and leaving class distinctions. Fewer than quarter of American schools have uniform policies. Americans are less comfortable with the idea of uniforms than the English, and when objecting to them, they often invoke the ideal of defending individual freedom and rights to expression. English always wonder given this line of thought why Americans always wear same jeans and T-shirts? Americans are in their “fanny packs” (fanny is slang for vagina in EE) whereas in AE slang fanny is vajay-jay. in EE, it’s called “bum bags”. England’s fashion to some extent is foppish and retro compared to American in certain items.

GOBSMACKED – figuratively to be flabbergasted, astounded or amazed

TRAINERS – fitness differences
Running shoes in AE is called “sneakers” and in EE is called “trainers”. Americans are joiners and appreciate the social aspects of shared workout experience and love their gyms – and not just because extreme weather and unwalkable suburbs make outside exercise difficult in many places. The English are more often head outside for their exercise. Outdoor activity is a huge part of English children whereas American schools are dropping their PE programs and cancelling recess, English schools are fanatical about games, and getting children outside in all weather. A rhyme often repeated to young children in shorts, as their knees turn blue is:
Whether the weather be fine, Or whether the weather be not
Whether the weather be cold, Or whether the weather be hot
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not

Fit or not, English love their countryside. Within minutes by car or train of any town or city, one can reach-instead of strip malls and big-box stores as far as eyen can see-unbroken stretches of walkable land – a testament to England’s devotion to county walking.

A dozen inflections of the word sorry exists in EE and only one of them really means sorry! Here are just a few of the many moods and meanings these two syllables convey:
”Sorry!” (I steeped on your foot)
”Sorry.” (You stepped on my foot)
”Sorry?” (I didn’t;t catch want you said)
”SOrry.” (You are an idiot)
”SORRy.” (Get out of my way)
”SorRY.” (The nerve of some people)
”I’m sorry but….” (Actually I’m not at all)
”Sorry….” (I can;t help you)

It’s rare that a word like “scunner” crosses nationalities, but we have a winner in “toilet”. It is generally, though by no means universally, unloved on both sides of the moist, moist Atlantic. (another most hated word is moist – due its connotations to body fluids, etc.) Americans use bathroom in homes and restrooms in public. British have their own loo and lavatory.

The English have a reputation for being passive-aggressive because they seem not to be saying what they mean—at least, not with words. In English culture, an anodyne word like sorry takes on shades of meaning that someone from outside will not be able to discern with any degree of sophistication, especially if he is from a culture that is more comfortable with confrontation, or one that condones a wider range of small talk among strangers. The English use sorry to protest, to ask you to repeat yourself, to soothe, and to smooth over social awkwardness as much as – if not more than – they use it to apologize. But most of the time, their object is pointlessness of a particularly English kind, to wit: politeness as refusal.
English courtesy often takes the form of what Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson have called “negative politeness”—which depends on keeping a respectful distance from others and not imposing on them. Its opposite, positive politeness, is inclusive and assumes others’ desire for our approval. Only the Japanese—masters of negative politeness—have anything even approaching the English sorry reflex. No wonder visiting Americans are so often caught off guard.
Although Americans and the English have different drinking customs and habits, cheers has been used as a toast in both countries for nearly a century. It comes from the Old French chiere, meaning face. Cheer later came to mean an expression or mood, and later a good mood, In England by the mid-1970s, cheers had become a colloquial synonym for thanks. Cheers has been used that way by the English ever since, and is a remarkably flexible word, It is, for one thing, a great class leveler:

Practically everyone gays it, and it is appropriate to say to anyone (with the possible exception of the queen, and yet the younger royals surely use it).Where does this leave cheers? Perhaps because of visits to England, or the influence of English novels, television, journalism, Americans have begun to adopt the “thanks/good-bye” meaning of late. As one American said, “I enjoy hearing [cheers] instead of the worn out ‘later’ or ‘see ya later.’ Like it or not,the Yanks and the Brits are cousins, and that’s that. Cheers!” Need less to say, not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

An English banker living in New York groused, “I’m getting sick of my clients saying cheers to me. Americans say cheers like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, with too much enthusiasm. It  must be delivered laconically.” Delivery does counts The English say “Chis” out of the sides of their mouths when they mean thank you or good-bye. Americans do not pickup on this, and say cheers the same—toothily, hitting the r a bit hard and implying an exclamation point—whether they mean it as a toast or a casual good-bye. Some Americans are just as irritated by their compatriots’ appropriation of cheers.

The word bespoke is virtually unknown in America, which is astonishing because you would think that the American advertising industry would love to get its grubby mitts on a classy word like that. But just because the word is seldom heard and the typical American man wears mostly khakis or jeans and sneakers doesn’t mean America lacks the concept. “Having it your way” is considered a birthright by Americans, who bring a curatorial zeal to almost everything they do.

Clothing may not be bespoke in America, but want to know what is? Sandwiches. No one behind the deli counter will raise an eyebrow as you order to your eleven exacting specifications. Then, they will make it, fast, with no eye-rolling. Did I mention this is also cheap? When I went back to America, after a long absence, I was a little miffed when my roast (NOT honey roast) turkey, Swiss cheese, spicy mustard, light mayo, pickles, tomatoes, no lettuce, on whole wheat had gone up to $6.50. However, when it arrived it was not only a work of art, but a truly intimidating size.

The shops in England that offer the most choice today are actually borrowing the word bespoke from Savile Row: bespoke cakes, bespoke sandwiches, bespoke coffees. Everything is spoken for now. The dumbing down of the concept of bespoke in its native country would make Mr. Collins, haberdasher, of the USA, want to stick a needle in his eye. It may sound a bit silly, but it represents a level of choice that is actually new for England.

Americans and the English have very similar attitudes toward time. Both cultures value punctuality and hard work and live by the clock. They share a sense of time as a resource that can be saved, spent, or wasted, though perhaps only an American would express the opinion, in earnest, that “time is money.” They do have subtly different ways of expressing the passage of time, but these are never sources of lasting confusion. The English write their dates starting with the day first, followed by the month and then the year. Americans start with the month. The English use a twenty-four-hour clock, in which 4:30 P.M. is expressed as “16.30” whenever precision is called for, such as scheduling (pronounced sheduling) meetings or talking about train or flight times. With the exception of their military, Americans go by a twelve-hour clock. Americans say “four thirty” or “half past four.” The English do, too, but they also might say “half four.”

The English have a special word, fort- night, that means two weeks. Americans just say two weeks. TWO weeks—one bloody fortnight—is the amount of time the English are appalled to hear that Americans “only” have for holiday (vacation) each year. This is perhaps the one point of true divergence when it comes to English and American attitudes toward time. The English get—and take—at least twenty days of vacation, plus public holidays (called bank holidays), amounting to a full month of paid vacation each year. Twenty days is the minimum allowed under European Union rules, and England is surrounded by countries where people take even more vacation than the English do. The French get about nine weeks, and even the Germans have eight, which does not seem like something Angela Merkel would have signed off on. Paid vacation is therefore seen as a human right, not a privilege, and the English feel fully entitled to take advantage of it.

Americans have an ambivalent relationship with the word smart. Listen to the way they use it, and you might question whether they think being smart is really such a good thing after all:
“I’ve had it with your smart-ass comments.”
“No one likes a smart aleck.”
“Don’t get smart with me! ”
In America, it’s perfectly fine to be a show-off if you are a talented athlete, or musician, or entrepreneur, but it’s not cool to be too intellectual. The brightest kids in school are rarely the most liked or popular, and this can last into adulthood if they don’t figure out where braininess is welcome and where it isn’t. No one wants smart people lording it over them. It’s why people who go to top universities won’t mention them by name in mixed company. “I went to college in Boston” is code for “I went to Harvard, but please like me anyway.” Americans don’t like elitism—and they associate intellectualism with elitism. This has been one of Barack Obama’s recurring challenges as president. His critics look for every opportunity to prove he is, as The New York Times reported, “a Harvard-educated millionaire elitist who is sure that he knows best and thinks that those who disagree just aren’t in their right minds. Never mind that Mr. Obama was raised in less exalted circumstances by a single mother who needed food stamps.

In England, like America, playing up your intelligence is just plain bad manners—not because it’s uncool to be bright, or because it’s considered elitist, but because it’s showing off, and as Sarah Lyell asserts in her book, A Field Guide to the British, “boasting … makes you seem aggressive, ambitious, self-regarding, puffed up—verging on American. The evils of those things are ingrained in them at school, where they are discouraged from saying they are better than anyone else, even when they are.” Even Oscar Wilde, one of the biggest show-offs the British Isles ever produced, knew this. He made valiant attempts at self-deprecation, but never really carried it off, once saying, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

Americans think that all English people sound posh, and they won’t let the English forget it. Those who spend a lot of time in America, especially British expats, aren’t thrilled about the constant compliments they get about their accents, and some find them intrusive. There are more than sixty-six thousand members of a Facebook page called “I hate the way Americans think us English people all speak dead posh.” (Dead can be used in English English to mean “completely,” as it is here.) In England, accent is a strong indicator of one’s place in the class hierarchy. Many people grow up feeling self-conscious of what their accents reveal about them, whether they are posh or not, and compliments can make them feel a bit uncomfortable.

The English are constantly exposed to a variety of American accents and vocabulary through television and movies. Americans’ less-enunciated accents, and tendency to speak louder than the English are used to, make them sound brash, confident, and a little sloppy. American slang contributes to this impression, cutting across socioeconomic and gender lines far more than English slang, which is stratified. For example, to the English middle and upper classes, something they like will be “brilliant,” and if they agree with something you say, they may do so by saying -Quite.” A working-class person from London or Essex, seeking agreement, will use the question tag “innit” at the end of a sentence, in the same way an American might say “amlright?” It is harder to tell Americans’ social class from the words they use, and as a result Americans of all classes can sound similarly unrefined. There is no word that typifies this phenomenon more thoroughly than dude. Dude is a word that—no matter how often they are exposed to it—the English will not adopt. It is one of the most American-sounding words there is. And the story of dude is also the story of how American slang can become universal and classless in a way that is hard to imagine happening in England. Ironically, this aggressively casual word that, in today’s American English, might refer to a person of either sex.

This definition, while not entirely unknown, is not the primary one in America. If an American hears “a proper cup of tea,” he is apt to picture a pinkie-lifting exercise in etiquette— not the strong and hot brew this phrase calls to the English mind. All the most common American uses of the word proper are about conforming to convention, being respectable and appropriate, formal and sedate. When Americans call something proper they are thinking refined, virtuous, boring. Being proper means likely having to pretend to be something one isn’t. Being genuine, or “real,” is far more desirable in American society than being proper. What Americans might not realize is that when the English say proper, genuine and real is precisely what they mean.

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can get you into real trouble. Whether you mean to insult or compliment, you’d better first make sure that the word you choose means what you think it means. For example, if something is cozy and comfortable in England it might be called homely. In America, homely means ugly. In England, a muppet is a foolish or incompetent person. In America, a muppet is a character from the beloved TV show by Jim Henson. Someone (or something) described as scrappy in England is untidy or poorly organized, whereas in America, someone who is scrappy is determined to win or achieve something, often in spite of mitigating circumstances. In America, scrappy is a compliment that carries the connotation of the underdog.

Imagine for a moment you are learning English as a foreign language. What would you make of words and phrases like pull, snog, pick up, make out, and screw? Do these sound like events in the World’s Strongest Man competition? Lesser-known Olympic sports? Things that might happen at a Monster Truck Rally? (SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! BE THERE! BE THERE’. BE THERE!) Courtship slang in English is anything but dignified. Of course, there are words in English for perfectly innocent activities, like retrieving golf balls from practice ranges, that are just as strange. Does ball shagging sound like something it ought to be legal to pay a young boy to do? Pull, snog, and shag are the English synonyms for pick up, make out, and screw. 

How well have we mastered ‘the science of teams’?

Startups and established teams face tremendous pressure to deliver. The breakneck speed of changes in languages and framework ecosystems, delivering code well thought out and written for maintainability and scalability adds another dimension to this pressure.  But the one that stands most out is level of interaction and collaboration within the team and outside. As we manage this chaos with routine practices like recruiting good talent, enticing with good options, equipping with best infrastructure and software tools, training and orienting in best practices, pair programming and team building to enhance group interactions may not be sufficient in short and long term.

Personally, I have been through lots of drab team building activities – paintballs, movie togethers, charity activities, dinner and dances, laugh it throughs, corporate self-help trainings, Da Vinci Code themed hunts on taxi hops, etc.  Take a moment and name those you have attended so far and my question is – has it really improved your outlook of working collaboratively, boosted output and understanding of your peers and sneers?

A stream of questions arises. Does your team have the requisite team dynamics, energy and camaraderie to act in unison to deliver what the company wants out of them – orchestrated by the program/project lead? Is team cohesion and communication superb or subpar? Also, is there a practical, genuine and approachable way to rejuvenate and maintain the team spirit? Has our mastery of ‘the science of teams’ adequate to meet these challenges?

‘The science of teams’ answer needn’t be high octane. Enter the Board Game.


You might think I’m silly and guess what? a board game is a family activity for leisure and fun, full of name calling, commotion, laughs, benign barbs, teasing, strategizing and winning. But it’s more than that.  There’s no sense of loss even when you lose the game – all that matters, is the journey. It’s full of fun, camaraderie, surprise and ample talk and that’s what we need for teams in team building – gentle yet reinforcing. The corporate driven, high octane team building activities isn’t going to help in anyway. Conversely, it benefits only event companies, and drains the ‘must be spent’ budget.

When I joined this gaming enterprise’s data team that had a close-knit group of developers, artists and learning designers, I was skeptical of what playing a ‘Board Game’ can bring to the team which is already developing 3D games (using Unity) for their bread and butter. I was wrong, it did wonders. We have ‘Board Game’ time every fortnight sandwiched between the last hours of work time and the evening. We start our sessions around 5pm and end around 7pm, so the team members are not disrupted of their routine commute. There’s a choice of drinks for every other person – beer, wine, coffee and sodas. Of course, depending on the budget – some healthy finger foods and pizza. Obviously, the game master is the one who has supposedly gone through the rule book and is expected to be familiar with the game by either playing it her/himself, or watching it explained from YouTube videos by the game provider. We take turns to be the game master to save time and guide rest of the team to be effective, extracting maximum fun out of the play. Ideally the board should support at least 4 or 6 players. If the team size is 8, then others can join to form groups within. Those who are really not interested in participating can be spectator supporter for a player still. Those who were reluctant initially became active players subsequently.

What I noticed and witnessed for myself during game play: people talk freely (over their choice of drink and food), discuss their strategy, question, cheer and tease other players. Every dice throw is fun in anticipation of their desired number to catapult their position in the game. With constant conversation around rules, booties won and lost, twists and turns the game – takes you through a journey of fun, anticipation and interaction – hence camaraderie & respect develops. This breaks the ice, and starts conversation that flows beyond play time into work time. The fun is amplified, when the winner decides who the future game master is and new game to play next time from the repertoire of board games in stock, sometimes even proposing a new board game to buy. Every year our budget is to acquire 6 new games in the $100 to $150 price range with older ones given away to employees. On a side note, the game master has to really understand the rules of the game well, read through the cryptic rule book and decipher the nuances to instill the gaming spirit.  Be the gate keeper on errant players, gently nudge them to participate, benevolently whip the procrastinators into action and take leadership in steering the gameplay.

No wonder, as we’re 3D gaming company ourselves, being emboldened in our physical board game play, we wanted to create our own board game. It was in the true spirit of startup and experimentation, we recently released our own on Kickstarter, called Avertigos. I humbly encourage you to take a look at it and see whether you can turn your team building activity into something genuinely fun, indoor, refreshingly new and authentic; not only with Avertigos, but with any board game of your choice. Be mindful of the game genre, and give it a try. It can do wonders. It did for us.

This could be one simple step in mastering the science of teams and certainly helped on aspects discussed in this ‘the science of teams’ article for us.

Debate Tips from The Intelligent Conversationalist

This English language Cheat Sheet gives you some strategies to come out champion of any conversation. We first focus on an A to Z of impressive words to throw into your chat now and again. then follow these up with a few one-liner get-outs and steer-aways to ensure you can dig yourself out of any holes you may find yourself in.

Disarming Words: Meaning I’ll leave it to you find out:

Avarice, Borborygmus, Connive, Disestablishmentarionism, Erudite, Fractious, Gluttony, Hauteur, Inverterate, Jabberwack, Kismet, Lackadaisical, Malapropism, Nadir, Obtuse, Panacea, Qoph, Repudiate, Sycophant, Truculent, Umbrage, Vex, Wanton, Yack, Zenith

The next sets of phrases are there to get you out of a tight spot, for sometimes we all find ourselves a little out of our depth. Every single television personality has a tell, a filler word or phrase they employ while they try to figure out what to say on air without looking like a muppet. One of the most successful cable news hosts I’ve ever worked with uses exactly. My get-out-of-jail card is to say “on some levels, yes.” It buys enough time for me to figure out, under the X-ray that is the TV camera, how I’m going to steer the conversation to an area I want to talk about. And this is worth repeating: Never use the words like or you know. You are not an ignorant fool; you are an intelligent member of society. To buy time while you figure out how to respond: • Repeat the question. Use pauses and remark “good question” or “interesting point.” Direct the question to someone else.

Be vague if you’re unsure:

  • “Recently”—could mean at any point in the past few years.
  • “In my opinion.”


  • “You’re being defensive.”
  • “Surely it’s no coincidence that the word listen is an anagram
    of the word silent.”
  • “I don’t have an attitude problem. You have a perception
  • “Frankness is usually a euphemism for rudeness.”

To win a debate with a conservative:

  • “A conservative is a politician who wants to keep what the
    liberals fought for a generation ago.”

To win a debate with a liberal:

  • “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone
    with no heart. show me’ an old Liberal and I’ll show you
    someone with no brains.” —Winston Churchill
  • “The principal feature of American liberalism is sanctimoniousness
    ” —P. J. O’Rourke

When you’ve won a debate:

  • “Sarcasm is just one more service we offer.”
  • Shortest complete sentence in the English language is
    ‘Go.’ Shall we go to the bar?”

When you’re sinking:

  • “Don’t take life too seriously, you won’t get out alive.”
  • “Being right is highly overrated. Even a stopped clock is right
    twice a day.”

To end the debate and come out with some of your reputation intact:

  • “Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand.”
  • “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

On the very rare occasions you initially appear to have lost:

  • “You can’t learn anything while you’re talking.
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should
    be. Be one.” —Marcus Aurelius


I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree
with me, that’s not their job.
—Margaret Thatcher


“After all is said and done, more is said than done.”
The above phrase will shut everyone up, but avail yourself of it
sparingly. You don’t want a reputation as a killjoy, you want to be
known for your sparkling chitchat.

Crisp Fact:
The word xenon may save you at Scrabble one day.
Always important to commit a few good Scrabble words to memory; not using your phone to cheat will always be admired, if not


“I think we should all just follow Marcus Aurelius: ‘Waste no
more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.’ ”
Take the high road—this is cocktail conversation, not a GOP primary.

Zen Stories that caught my Attention

As I was reading “Zen masters of China”, it started off with Bodhidharma and traced most of the lineages that taught Zen Buddhism with little but piercing stories full of wisdom. Two stories that caught my attention, copied here:

During his time with Dongshan, Caoshan received the “Five Ranks,”and these became the basis of his own teaching. The work he did in passing on this tradition eventually resulted in the establishment of the largest of contemporary Zen traditions, the Caodong school. Its name is taken from the “mountain” names of these two masters. In Japanese, where the teachers’ names are Sozan Honjaku [Caoshanl and Tozan Ryokai [Dongshan], the school is known as Soto. Caoshan composed the following commentary on the five ranks: “The absolute is not necessarily void. The relative is not necessarily actual. There is neither turning towards nor turning away. When mental activity dies down and both the material world and emptiness are forgotten, there is no concealment. The whole is revealed. This is the relative within the absolute. Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. No names; nothing can be compared. This is the absolute within the relative. Clean and naked, bare and free, the face in full majesty. Throughout heaven and earth, the only honored one. This is coming from the absolute. The ear does not enter sound. Sound does not block the ear. The moment you go within, there have never been any fixed names in the world. This is arriving in the middle. No mind, no objects; no phenomena, no principle. It has always been beyond name or description, beyond absolute and relative, beyond essence and appearance. This is unity attained.”

The governor of Jiangzhou Province once visited another disciple of Mazu, Guizong Zhichang, in order to discuss a passage he had found in one of the Buddhist sutras regarding Mount Kunlun (Mount Sumeru, the mythical peak at the center of the world). “It’s said in the sutra,” the governor said, “that there’s a poppy seed within Mount Kunlun, and that within that poppy seed is Mount Kunlun. Now I can understand how there could be a poppy seed within the mountain, but it’s nonsense to suggest a poppy seed could contain a mountain!” Guizong said, “Governor, I’m told that you’re a well-read man.” “I believe I am,” the governor admitted. “I’ve been told you’ve read as many as ten thousand books.” “That’s very likely true.” “But your head is no bigger than a coconut, how could it possibly contain the contents of ten thousand books?” The governor had no reply.

Practical Meditation Aid

The Dzogchen Instructions of Aro Yeshe Jungne – The Nature of Mind

These instructions are similar to great Koans and also of Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharishi and Bodhi Dharma, essence is to enquire “Who am I” which is elucidated in a clear and lucid manner.


MASTER PAT RUL RINPOCHE says here that lesser capability practitioners may not understand the meaning of vipashyana at all, They might not have faith and trust in vipashyana. In some way, they might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the teaching. At the same time, their stability in shamatha practice is not strong. Even when they are sitting in good posture, their minds are easily scattered with conceptions and become dull, weak, and confused. In other words, for lesser capability practitioners, meditation—whether vipashyana or shamatha—does not come easily. Whenever this happens to you, ignite the skillful means or “appearance” practices, such as loving-kindness and compassion, joy, and appreciation. In other words, cultivate something positive and substantial that can be held in mind. Invoke these thoughts vigorously, and then sit down on your meditation cushion. Even if you are already sitting, renew the clarity of your body, speech, and mind. You can do this by reviewing and reapplying the seven postures of the Buddha Vairochana. These are as follows:

1. Sit cross-legged in the “vajra posture,” or if you prefer, sit on a
Sit up straight, with your neck bent slightly forward, so your entire
spine is aligned.
3. Place your hands in the equanimity mudra, or place them palms-
down on your knees.
4. Let the tip of your tongue gently touch the upper palate.
5. Keep your arms relaxed, with the elbows off the ribs.
6. Open your eyes and gaze toward the tip of your nose, or if you
prefer, close your eyes.
7. Breathe naturally.

In this posture spend a minute or two clearing your mind—try to Jet of your conceptions simmer down. Then do the breath purification excercise we do every morning. This exercise cleanses the three impure winds associated with attachment, anger, and ignorance, After that, relax. Abide in the nature of mind without conceptions for a minute two. Then in the sky in front of you—or if you prefer, above your head—- feel the presence of your teacher in the form of Guru Guru Padmasambhava is the embodiment of all buddhas and teachers of •the three times and ten directions. Feel strong devotion to him and recite the seven-line prayer as well as the prayers to the lineage masters and toot teacher. Tnen, after praying, visualize that blessing lights come from Guru Padmasambhava, cleansing and purifying all your negativities, obscurations, and habitual patterns. Doubt, hesitation, dullness, weakness in meditation—these and all other hindrances to your realization are completely removed. Feel this very vividly. Then Guru Padmasambhava dissolves into light. This light enters your crown chakra, moves down your central channel, and enters your heart center where it merges with your awareness. At that moment let your mind look at your mind. What happens ? The watcher and the watched merge, and there is no longer any subject and object, Now release your muscles and nervous system. Let everything go, Abide in the inexpressible nature of the mind, beyond categories and characteristics.

As you are relaxing in this state, suddenly thoughts will come up, As we said before, in the Dzogchen teachings thoughts are known as the display of the mind; they are the expressive energy of awareness. Do not regard thoughts as being bad. Do not prevent them, and also do not follow them, Let them come, be, and go. With regard to meditation experience, do not get excited over what might seem to be achievement, and do not despair over what might seem to be poor progress. These are just more thoughts. Instead of adding more thoughts, relax in the natural state, Do not expect good meditation; do not fear bad meditation. If dullness comes, reconnect to the energy of your awareness—re-invoke the clarity aspect of your mind. Let that power and its qualities arise anew, supported and checked by mindfulness. Employ any of these techniques as needed, with joy and devotion.

At times when you are practicing in this way, the surface of your mind may seem calm enough, but just below the surface, barely noticeable, are undercurrents of thought. Patrul Rinpoche here uses the metaphor U Underneath the hay there is running water.” If the water is left unattended, eventually it will soak all the hay, at which point the hay will be useless. “This is a metaphor for what can happen with the subtle, undercurrent thoughts. At first they might seem harmless, but if we do not attend to then) they will grow stronger and disrupt—and possibly even ruin—our meditation. therefore, when you notice undercurrent thoughts, you must increase your mindfulness. Meditation, from the top to the bottom, should bc beautiful, clear, and calm. Bring up the clarity aspect of your mind and recognize the undercurrent thoughts. The moment you recognize them they arc liberated. Once again, do not analyze or follow these thoughts. Just let them go.

There are times when you are meditating nicely, and suddenly your mind becomes busy and unstable. Your mind was peaceful and now it is wild. You might get upset with yourself and think, “Oh, I cannot meditate.” When this occurs do not be discouraged. When you notice your thoughts increase and intensify, this is generally a sign of progress. The Dzogchen teachings say that there are five different experiences in meditation that signal development, and this is the first one. Your mind is like a stream running down a mountain. When a stream runs down a mountain, it moves swiftly. But even though your mind seems to be running very fast, actually below the surface it is slowing down. Your mind is actually calmer than it was before you started meditating, even if for the moment it may not seem so. How is this? Your mind has to become calmer to notice what it is doing. In the past, your mind moved all the time and you never even noticed; now you do notice. This is why you should not see this experience as failure but rather as something positive. You are more aware of your mind than before; this means you are improving.

Continue to apply the skillful means techniques of joy, devotion, and bodhichitta without boredom or fatigue, and with courage and commitment continue to meditate on the true nature. If you maintain your practice in this way with perseverance, you will reach the second stage of meditation experience: alternating stable and unstable experiences. Great masters compare this second stage of meditation experience to a water bird. This creature dives into the water and then after a few moments resurfaces to rest on a rock or a log. Then it dives back into the water and comes up again. It does this continuously.

At this time the training remains the same. Continue with the skillful means practices and meditate on the true nature. In time your mind will become more stable. It will occasionally move, but mostly when you meditate, the mind will stay in its own natural state. Patrul Rinpoche uses the analogy of an old man. An old man stays seated most of the time. Once in a while he gets up for a cup of coffee or tea, or maybe even to play golf, but otherwise he sits comfortably. There is not too much activity. By now your mind is like an old man. It does not move much, nor does it need to. is the third stage of meditation experience.

Keep practicing as before. By now the surface of your mind is very smooth. Perhaps underneath the mind’s surface there is slight movement, but otherwise you have attained good stability. Patrul Rinpoche uses the analogy of an underground river: the river still flows, but it is hardly noticeable. So what do you do now? You should invoke more mindfulness and energy. Why? By this time your mind has become very tame. It does what you want it to do; you have control and are not scattered at all. In the beginning, you had trouble with your restless mind—it was running wildly in every direction. It would not stay still for even a few seconds. But now you can rest. Yet there is still the possibility of mind’s becoming weak and dull. You can prevent this by invoking mindfulness and clarity. Apply the skillful means techniques and continue to meditate. Soon your mind will become very bright and stable, and you will maintain this state day and night with- out getting bored or tired. At this time, there is no particular desire for meditation, and no desire for belongings such as clothes. In the Dzogchen teachings this state is likened to a mountain. Your mind is unshakable—it cannot be moved by conceptions or perceptions. This is the fourth stage of meditation experience.

When you reach this stage you must continue to apply the skillful means practices and cultivate virtuous thoughts. Even though your mind has become very stable, do not ignore the power of loving-kindness and com- passion, as well as joy, devotion, and appreciation. If you do not reactivate these skillful means practices at this time, you can get carried away by a blank, vague, dull state of mind that has no energy whatsoever. Also, there is still some subtle grasping and clinging that can erupt and create massive disturbances. You must continue to practice skillful means, and keep invoking the energy of mindfulness and clarity. Mind is not only empty—it is filled with many wonderful qualities. Unite this with emptiness meditation. Bringing this practice to the final state of complete fulfillment is the fifth stage of meditation experience. These five different meditation experiences accurately describe the progress of most practitioners. People have varying abilities; they also have differences in the ways their channels are configured and how they perceive phenomena. This means that not everyone proceeds in exactly the same way. But most people will experience these stages pretty much in the way and order they have been explained.

Great Books of China

A list of books from China and I think every reader should strive to read and know what this 3000 year old civilization can offer for minds and bodies. It starts from “Oracle Bones” (1600 – 1046 BCE)  to Dao de Jing by Lao Tzu to Plum in Golden Vase to Travels of Lao Can and on, but I’ve restricted it until early 20th century. Time elapsed provides majesty and grandeur to a work of literature which contemporary works can’t garner and hence celebrated as classic. Again a book also need to deserve one and that’s why not all make it. This list comes from ‘The Great Books of China – From Ancient Times to Present’ by Frances Wood. I want to prepare one for India too. Both nations of great civilization since time immemorial.


Book Author PUBLISHED or Author’s Year
Book of Songs
She jing
Unknown 1000–600 BCE
Book of Changes
Yi jing
Unknown 1st millenium BCE
Classic of the Way and of Virtue
Dao de jing
Lao Tzu 6 to 4 century BCE
Zhuangzi Zhuangzi 4 century BCE
Lun yu
Confucius 6 to 3 century BCE
Mencius Mengzi 4 century BCE
Master Sun’s Art of War
Sunzi bingfa
Sun Wu 544 – 496 BCE
Proper Ritual
Yi li
Unknown 206 BCE – 9 CE
The Grand Scribe’s Records
Shi ji
Sima Qian 150 – 86 BCE
Nineteen Old Poems
Gu shi shiju shou
Unknown 25 – 220 CE
Records of Buddhist Kingdoms
Foguo ji
Fa Xian 337 – 422 CE
Lotus Sutra
Sad dharma pundarika Sutra
Unknown 3 to 5 century
Diamond Sutra
Vajra cchedika prajna paramita Sutra
Unknown 5 century
Poems Li Bai, Du Fu, Li Shangyin, Li Qingzhao 8 – 9 century
The Story of Yingying
Yingying zhuan
Yuan Zhen 779 – 831
Master Dong’s Western Chamber Romance
Xi xiang ji
Wang Shifu 1189 – 1208
The Orphans of Zhao
Zhao shi guer
Attributed to Ji Juanxiang 13 century
Three Character Classic
Sanzi jing
Attributed to Wang Yinglin 1223 – 1296
Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety
Ershi xiao
Attributed to Guo Jujing 1279 – 1368
The Water Margin
Shuibu zhuan
Attributed to Shi Naian or Luo Guanzhong 1396-1371 or
The Story of Three Kingdoms
Sanguo zhi
Attributed to Luo Guanzhong 1330 – 1400
The Story of Lute
Pip ji
Gao Ming 1305-1370
The Classic of Lu Ban
Lu Ban jing
Unknown 15 century
Journey to West
Xiyou ji
Attributed to Wu Cheng’En 1500 – 1582
Plum in Golden Vase
Jing ping mei
Unknown 1582 – 96
The carnal Prayer Mat
Rou puttuan
Attributed to Li Yu 1657 or 1610 – 1680
Travels of Xu Xiake
Xu Xiyake youji
Xu Xiake 1587 – 1641
Tracks of a Wild Goose in the Snow
Hong xuan yinyuan tuji
Lin Qing 1847 – 50
The Craft of Gardens
Yuan ye
Ji Cheng 1582 – 1643
Exploitation of the Works of Nature
Tiangong kaiwu
Song Ying Xing 1637
Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting
Jieziyuan huazhuan
Unknown, Preface bu Li Yu 1610 – 1680
The Peach Blossom Fan
Taohua shan
Kong Shangren 1699
Unofficial History of the Grove of Literati
Rulin waishi
Wu Jingzi 1750
Three Hundred Tang Poems
Tang shi sanbai shou
Sun Zhu 1763
Strange Stories from the Liao Studio
Lioazhai zhiyi
Pu Song Ling 1766
Dream of the Red Chamber
Cao Xue Qin 1715 – 1763
Six Records of a Floating Life
Fusheng liu ji
Shen Fu 1763 – after 1807
The Travels of Lao Can
Lao Can Yu ji
Liu E 1903

Wolfgang von Goethe

I had the opportunity to be with Goethe through his creative and turbulent times from the translation by David Dollenmayer of Rudiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as Work of Art. A great read about the literary genius of Germany and to know how he was inspired and lived life to its fullest. From his anointed beginnings with rich imaginative story telling in his childhood, his mother’s unconditional love till her end, his flair of artistic and creative genius which we were inborn and spontaneous portraits the life of a great poet, scientist, administrator and story-teller.

His maiden flight to fame happened by capitalizing his depression which he warded off by intensively writing the famous novel – Wilhelm Meister. It became as best seller of his yester years.  Being  a drop out of Leipzig and unconsummated love affair with Gretchen didn’t deter the young Goethe and he moved on to Strasbourg where he made it for his Lawyer degree and returned to Frankfurt but to pursue his literary passion. by chance of providence moved to Weimar at the invitation of young duchy Carl August to be his companion, court poet and administrator. He wrote numerous poems, novella, elegies, essays and a scientific treatise on colors of light – which describes color’s affect on eyes and how it perceives it – a more physiological investigation rather a scientific postulation. His big inspiration and breaking of Weimar boredom and inner clash got sorted when he rushed to Italy on artistic sight seeing trip on a long leave from his official duties. A man of prodigious literary output culminated in the celebrated classic Faust – an epic battle between good and evil. One should not miss his autobiography – Poetry and Truth and writings on Italian Journeys. Goethe had an active court, family and literary life during which following interacted – Anna Amelia (Carl August’s Mother), Katharina Elisabeth (his mother), Christiane Vulupius (his wife), August (his son), Otillie (his daughter in law), Schiller, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Charlotte von Stein (his distant lover and mail-mate), Zelter (final year friend), etc.

A few excerpts that I think others may like from Goethe’s life from the above book:

On Goethe’s aesthetic expression:
Goethe opposes the principle of imitation of nature with the principle of creative expression. But since the principle of imitation applies not just to concrete natural objects but also to the traditional forms of representation that one should emulate as well, the critique of imitation has a double significance: art needs to be liberated both from conventional forms and from dull realism. With his Götz as well as his nature and love poetry, Goethe was attempting exactly that. Whoever ties art to the imitation of nature assumes the goodness and beauty of nature, Goethe claims, and quotes Sulzer, who says of nature that it touches us “through pleasant impressions.” Goethe answers, Are not raging storms, floods, rains of fire, subterranean infernos, and death in all the elements just as true testimonies to its eternal life as glorious sun- rises over ripening vineyards and perfumed orange groves? Goethe denies that beauty in nature only needs to be imitated, and in the fervor of his polemical dismissal adopts the extreme counter- position: beauty must be forcibly wrested from a cruel nature. Far from following the example of nature, art must resist it. He advances an entirely novel thought: art is precisely the counterforce, it arises from the individual’s struggle to maintain himself against the destructive force of the whole. From this vantage point, he ventures a daring look at the culture of the future. Humanity, he writes, is in the act of closing itself off in a cultural palace behind walls of glass. A century later, Dostoevsky would define modernism in exactly the same way.* The young Goethe anticipates him en passant and also suggests Dostoevsky’s conclusion that the glass palace, the artificial world that has been wrested from nature, becomes a site of complacency. The powerful assertion of self against nature morphs into luxurious relaxation. Decadence threatens. Man, Goethe writes, gradually becomes softer and softer. How was such decadence to be avoided? The reviewer can answer even that. Since art and culture owe their existence to the resistance to nature, one should ally oneself with this resistive power and not simply take it for granted. One should pay attention to the difficulties artists have to overcome and the power that allows them to do so. That is how the creative impulse is fortified—nature pays it tribute. Yet the artistic power of anti-nature that is here invoked is, in the final analysis, itself nature, and the young Goethe knows that too. What else could it be? There is a kind of natural impulse to oppose what seems complete and finished in nature. Or, according to the traditional formulation, “natura naturans,” creative nature, opposes natura naturata,” incarnate nature. In another review, Goethe defines this power of natural anti-nature as genius. It is our firm belief that genius does not imitate nature, but rather itself creates, like nature. His early aesthetic is concentrated in this sentence. There is one more review that deserves to be quoted at length. Goethe wrote it after he had already moved to Wetzlar. He used a review of a trivial, conventional love story to describe a pair of lovers who would truly deserve to be depicted:

O Genius of our Fatherland, let a young man flourish soon who, full of youthful strength and high spirits, would be first the best companion for his circle . to whom the of friends, choose the best games, sing the happiest little songs . best dancer would joyfully give her hand … let him find a girl worthy of him! When more sacred feelings lead him from the bustle of society into solitude, let him discover a girl on his pilgrimage whose soul is all goodness and whose form all gracefulness, who has had the good fortune to develop in a quiet family circle of active, domestic love. Who is the favorite, friend, and support of her mother and the second mother of her home, whose always affectionate soul irresistibly wins every heart for her, from whom poets and wise men would willingly learn and take delight in her native virtue, prosperity, and grace.—And if she feels in hours of solitary peace that with all the love she broadcasts she is still missing something, a heart that is as young and warm as she and would yearn with her for more distant, more hidden joys. Firmly yoked to his invigorating company, she would strive toward all the golden prospects, eternal togetherness, lasting union, eternally entwining love. Let the two of them find each other. At the first approach they will sense, darkly and powerfully, what an epitome of bliss each is taking hold of in the other. They will never leave each other…. Truth will be in his songs and living beauty, not colorful soap-bubble ideals like those floating about in hundreds of German songs.

But do such girls exist? Can there be such youths? The reviewer has good reason to think that such a girl and boy really do exist, for he himself is the boy and the girl is Lotte Buff, and what happens between them takes place half in Wetzlar and half in a dream.

His poetic erotica – Roman Elegies:
He was able to connect his lovemaking with his memories of romance in Rome. Having read Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, he realized that he could ennoble the subject by deploying forms and motifs from Roman antiquity. Throughout 1789 his friends received bulletins about erotics or entertainments in the style of the ancients. He continued to work on them until the spring of 1790. On April 3 he wrote to Herder, I believe my elegies are finished; there is almost no trace of this vein in me anymore. And no wonder, since at the time he was in Venice, far from Christiane. The “Roman Elegies” were finished, but Goethe had no intention yet of publishing them. Herder advised against it, as did the duke, who was certainly no prude. He feared there would be talk, and it would be better to avoid trouble. Such things were only for the cognoscenti, not the general public. The “Roman Elegies” were not published until four years later, at the urging of Schiller, who was looking for something engaging for his cultural journal Die Horen. Goethe sent a version that deleted two of the elegies, and they were finally published in 1796. The elegies tell the story of a little love affair with a beautiful widow. They begin with Goethe ironically making fun of his own assiduous appetite for cultural enrichment: Tell me, oh stones, and speak to me, lofty palazzos! / Streets too, utter a word! Genius, not yet astir? /.. . / Certainly you are a world, oh Rome, but unless there be love, / Then were the world not a world, Rome then would not be Rome. Not until his Roman lover joins him in bed does Rome come alive. First, however, her vigilant mother must be propitiated with generous gifts: Mother and daughter enjoy their guest from the northern lands / And the barbarian rules Romans, body and soul. The third elegy is devoted to the theme of the unexpected. It is beautiful when things go quickly—not the lovemaking itself, but the preliminaries: Do not, Beloved, regret that you surrendered so quickly. / Know that I think nothing low, think nothing mean of you. Christiane is discernible behind the portrait of the beloved, especially in the description of her hair: Once she appeared to me, a nut-brown maiden. Her hair / Fell, a cascade rich and dark over her brow and down. / Shorter locks made ringlets round her delicate neck. / Waves of unbraided hair fell from crown to shoulders. And then the famous fifth elegy. Goethe’s contemporaries were surely asking themselves if the subject of the poem was a fictitious Roman lover or the very real Christiane. The question remains unanswered. 

All the night long, however, it’s Amor who keeps me busy.
       If I only learn half, lam doubly amused and
Do I not learn, after all, by tracing the lovely breasts’
      Forms, by running my hand down the beautiful hips?
Only then do I grasp the marble aright, I think and compare,
      See with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.
If my beloved steals a few hours from my day, she
      Gives me hours of the night—compensation enough!
Kissing is not our sole occupation. We talk and reason,
      And if she falls asleep, I lie awake with my thoughts.
Many’s the time I’ve lain in her arms and made poems,
       Counting hexameter’s feet, fingers quietly tapping them
Out on her sleeping back.

Answering Schopenhauer:
Flowing from the pen of the young philosopher: “I know with absolute certainty that I have provided the first true theory of color, the first in the entire history of science. Recall that Goethe thought the Theory of Color was the work with which he had gained superiority over many others, that made him feel like a Napoleon of the intellectual empire. And now an unknown philosopher still in his twenties claims to be the one who first elevates this work to the level of a theory and also—the height of impertinence!— claims that to do so was a minor matter. Goethe had been working on the Theory of Color for half his life and this young philosopher had the gall to write, “Except for a few weeks, I too always treated it as a minor matter, and carry around in my head theories entirely different from that of color.” Goethe’s reply is remarkable in its amiable equanimity and sovereign irony. Alluding to Schopenhauer’s philosophical subjectivism, he writes, Whoever is himself inclined to construct the world out of the subject will not dismiss the observation that the subject, in its appearance, is always only an individual, and therefore needs a certain amount of truth and error to maintain its singularity. There is nothing, however, that divides humans more than the fact that the portions of those two ingredients are mixed according to various proportions. Schopenhauer was unwilling to accept that, with this sentence, Goethe’s judgment of the entire matter had been pronounced and nothing more was to be said. But what did Schopenhauer expect? Did he think Goethe would write him and say, Yes, you have elevated my scattered observations into a genuine theory. It is astonishing, young man, the way you’ve managed to crown my life’s work in just a few weeks. I shall hasten to make your work—which for the first time allows the full sun to shine upon my work—available to the public? Perhaps Schopenhauer really did hope for some such reply. At least’ he hoped that his treatise on colors would receive the blessing Of hi ersatz father. Goethe did not accept the proffered role. But he respect this pupil even though he was too eager to appear as the teacher.

Challenges of Love: Elective Affinities:
How free is love? How much natural compulsion does it involve? These are the challenging questions the novel sets out to answer. Goethe explained his title in the advertisement released by the publisher: It seems that the author’s continued exploration of physical nature caused him to choose this strange title. He would like it noted that in natural history one often makes use of ethical similes in order to bring closer something far removed from the circle of human knowledge; and so, in this story of a moral crisis, he was pleased to restore a chemical simile to its spiritual origin. What does it mean in this case when a chemical simile is restored to its spiritual origin? The chemical elements that form new bonds have no choice in the matter. And yet it looks as if they do. When humans form new bonds, they choose to do so. But does it only look that way in their case too? That would then be the origin of the simile. Both times—in the chemistry of the elements and in the chemistry of human interactions—there is necessity and what at most appears to be freedom, freedom as a simile, not as reality. The novel’s figures themselves discuss this problem. Charlotte protests against absorbing the human world into the natural realm. But after all, man is so many levels above those elements, and if in this case he was somewhat generous with the lovely words “choice” and “elective affinities,” he would do well to look inside himself and reflect on the value of such expressions on this occasion. For Charlotte, to reflect on their value means to reserve the expression “choice” for the human sphere and remove it from the realm of nature. But that is not what Goethe thinks. He says in a letter that he wants to show how traces of murky, passionate necessity are constantly infiltrating the realm of cheerful freedom and rationality and can be completely extinguished only by a higher hand, and in this life perhaps not at all. The novel is set up as an experiment to examine the relative power of freedom and necessity in erotic interaction. It begins with a mature couple, bound together by a gentle love and living a with- drawn and protected life in their manor house and garden, free of all obligations and in a situation that allows—but also constrains—them to find satisfaction in themselves and each other. The story begins at the moment that this previously idyllic, closed world is opened up.

How should a mother be and slip quietly:
Goethe did not immediately inform his mother of his marriage to Christiane or of the birth of his son. She first heard about both events from others. And yet she bore her son no grudges, and when she called Christiane his “bedmate,” she by no means meant it disparagingly. She regularly sent large packages of presents to her grandson and adhered to a principle she once described to Charlotte von Stein: “I like people very much … never get preachy with anyone —always try to find their good side—leave their bad side to Him who created man and knows best how to file down their sharp corners.” She took an active interest in Goethe’s literary works, read and commented on them, and proudly gave them as presents to her Frankfurt friends. She also kept him up to date on the Frankfurters’ opinions of their celebrity son, and since she was out in society and often attended the theater, there was much to tell. In one of her last letters, she calls the first volumes of the Cotta edition of the complete works “heartwarming” and praises in particular the ballads “The Bride of Corinth” and “The God and the Bayadere.” She always liked his erotic works best and was not one to take exception to the “Roman Elegies.” In her last letter, shortly before she died, she put in a good word for August: they shouldn’t “plague” him with demands to write letters to her. Young people had other things on their minds, so please, no “thumbscrews” for her sake! Goethe had the exact circumstances of her death described to him. Katharina Elisabeth had proved to be as plucky and witty at the end as she had been all her life. The coffin maker had appeared at her bedside to take measurements, and she expressed her regret that had already been arranged and he had made the trip for nothing. She slipped away quietly soon thereafter.

Final thoughts – are they repeatable in every epoch?
The unassailable conviction formulated in a letter to Zelter:

Young people are much too easily excited and then swept away in the maelstrom of the times; wealth and speed are what the world admires and every- one strives for; railroads, express letters, steamships, and every possible facility of communication—that’s what matters to the educated world: to outdo and out- learn one another and thereby remain stuck in mediocrity.

As so often in the late letters, this is followed by defiant self-assertion: Let us cling as much as possible to the attitudes with which we grew up; perhaps with a few remaining others, we shall be the last of an epoch that will not soon return. 

If you’re not a genius, perhaps this is how you should be?
Karl Friedrich Zelter, recipient of this famous and oft-quoted letter and, as we have seen, Goethe’s best friend after Schiller’s death, was a marvel of vitality. He had learned bricklaying from the ground up and led one of the most successful construction companies in Berlin. He was the head of a large family, well-to-do and influential in the city, robust and decisive in his person, and possessed of native Berlin wit and common sense. Intelligent, straightforward to the point of earthiness, a good judge of men, and not easily intimidated, he could also be tender and sensitive. He liked difficult mathematical problems and appreciated emotional subtlety in works of art. He also loved music, which, as was his habit, he learned from the ground up, studying composition with the court composer Karl Friedrich Christian Fasch, Frederick the Great’s music teacher. In the summer, he set off on foot at three in the morning for his lesson with Fasch in Potsdam, so that he could be back at his construction site in Berlin by noon. By the 1790s Zelter was known for his lieder and choral compositions, and it is not surprising that spiteful tongues (the Schlegels for instance) made jokes about the bricklaying composer. But envious jibes from starveling intellectuals slid off Zelter’s broad back. In 1791, he played a Substantial role in founding the Singakademie in Berlin; it soon became the leading bourgeois music organization in Germany and a model for the numerous song circles and men’s choruses then springing up. Zelter did much to help make nineteenth-century Germany a nation of singers. He was ten years younger than Goethe and at first admired the poet from afar. He set several of Goethe’s poems to music, and the poet praised the results: if my poems have given rise to your melodies, then I can certainly say that your melodies have awakened me to many a song. Zelter’s admiration grew into respectful cordiality, and the two became very close, Goethe desiring the intimacy as much as Zelter. They soon corresponded with increasing trust, sharing the joys and sorrows of their daily lives, and in the last twenty years of his life, there was no one in whom Goethe confided so unreservedly. Any trace of patronizing disappeared entirely, and frequently it was Zelter who acted as Goethe’s adviser and helper. Zelter’s varied experience had enriched him; he retained an innate curiosity, had a ready enthusiasm, and was always eager to learn. He was no genius, but did everything with solid workmanship—as the head of his household, as a builder, composer, organizer of musical events, and for a time as a member of city government. Zelter was a man after Goethe’s own heart: multitalented, always active, yet calm and collected. While correspondence with other friends often slowed or stopped altogether, the exchange of letters with Zelter only grew more frequent, and Goethe could not get enough of it.

Zhuangzi, Basic Writings

Daoism’s essence is to understand the way and abiding in unity and the mode is elucidated in a number of Chinese classics and one such is Zhuangzi. Author Zhuang Zhou uses humor, anecdote, parable, non sequitur and nonsense to explain the points of the way by jolting the reader from ordinary logic. It is good read and the translation by Burton Watson is excellent to bring the richness of this age old text. Some excerpts that I feel I want to file for future reference:

The central theme of the Zhuangzi may be summed up in a single word: freedom. Essentially, all the philosophers of ancient China addressed themselves to the same problem: how is man to live in a world dominated by chaos, suffering, and absurdity? Nearly all of them answered with some concrete plan of action designed to reform the individual, to reform society, and eventually to free the world from its ills. The proposals put forward by the Confucians, the Mohists, and the Legalists, to name some of the principal schools of philosophy, are all different, but all are based upon the same kind of common-sense approach to the problem, and all seek for concrete social, political, and ethical re- forms to solve it. Zhuangzi’s answer, however, the answer of one branch of the Daoist school, is radically different from these, and is grounded upon a wholly different type of thinking. It is the answer of a mystic, and in attempting to describe it here in clear and concrete language, I shall undoubtedly be doing violence to its essentially mystic and indescribable nature. Zhuangzi’s answer to the question is: free yourself from the world.  What does he mean by this? he tells the story of a man named Nanrong Zhu who went to visit the Daoist sage Laozi in hopes of finding some solution to his worries. When he appeared, Laozi promptly inquired, “Why did you come with all this crowd of people?” The man whirled around in astonishment to see if there was someone standing behind him. Needless to say, there was not; the “crowd of people” that he came with was the baggage of old ideas, the conventional concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, life and death, that he lugged about with him wherever he went. It is this baggage of conventional values that man must first of all discard before he can be free. Zhuangzi saw the same human sufferings that Confucius, Mozi, and Mencius saw. He saw the man-made ills of war, poverty, and injustice. He saw the natural ills of disease and death. But he believed that they were ills only because man recognized them as such. If man would once forsake his habit of labeling things good or bad, desirable or undesirable, then the man-made ills, which are the product of man’s purposeful and value-ridden actions, would disappear and the natural ills that remain would no longer be seen as ills, but as an inevitable part of the course of life. Thus, in Zhuangzi’s eyes, man is the author of his own suffering and bondage, and all his fears spring from the web of values created by himself alone. Zhuangzi sums up this whole diseased, fear-struck condition of mankind in the macabre metaphor of the leper woman who, “when she gives birth to a child in the deep of the night, rushes to fetch a torch and examine it, trembling with terror lest it look like herself’.

Secret of Caring for Life
Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain! If you do good, stay away from fame. If you do evil, stay away from punishments. Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years.
Do you know what it is that destroys virtue, and where wisdom comes from? Virtue is destroyed by fame, and wisdom comes out of wrangling. Fame is something to beat people down with, and wisdom is a device for wrangling. Both are evil weapons—not the sort of thing to bring you success. Though your virtue may be great and your good faith unassailable, if you do not understand men’s spirits, though your fame may be wide and you do not strive with others, if you do not understand men’s minds, but instead appear before a tyrant and force him to listen to sermons on benevolence and righteousness, measures and standards—this is simply using other men’s bad points to parade your own excellence. You will be called a plaguer of others. He who plagues others will be plagued in turn. You will probably be plagued by this man. “And suppose he is the kind who actually delights in worthy men and hates the unworthy—then why does he need you to try to make him any different? You had best keep your advice to yourself! Kings and dukes always lord it over others and fight to win the argument. You will find your eyes growing dazed, your color changing, your mouth working to invent excuses, your attitude becoming more and more humble, until in your mind you end by supporting him. This is to pile fire on fire, to add water to water, and is called ‘increasing the excessive.

In the world of Men
I want to tell you something else I’ve learned. In all human relations, if two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasing to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. 1%ere both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points; and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right. “When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks.When men meet at some ceremony to drink, they start off in an orderly manner, but usually end up in disorder, and if they go on too long they start indulging in various irregular amusements. It is the same with all things. What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful. What was simple in the beginning acquires monstrous proportions in the end. “Words are like wind and waves; actions are a matter of gain and loss. Wind and waves are easily moved; questions of gain and loss easily lead to danger. Hence anger arises from no other cause than clever words and one-sided speeches. When animals face death, they do not care what cries they make; their breath comes in gasps and a wild fierceness is born in their hearts. [Men, too,] if you press them too hard, are bound to answer you with ill-natured hearts, though they do not know why they do so. If they themselves do not understand why they behave like this, then who knows where it will end?  -Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Do not deviate from your orders: do not press for completion.’ To go beyond the limit is excess; to deviate from orders or press for completion is a dangerous thing. A good completion takes a long time; a bad completion cannot be changed later. Can you afford to be careless? -Just co along things and let your mind move freely. Re- sign yourself to what cannot be avoided and nourish what is within you—this is best. IN hat more do you have to do to fulfill our mission? Nothing is as good as orders (obeying fate—that’s how difficult it is!

The Sign of Virtue Complete
Confucius said, “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat—these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate. Day and night they change place be- fore us and wisdom cannot spy out their source. Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the storehouse of spirit. If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy, if you can do this day and night without break and make it be spring with everything, mingling with all and creating the moment within your own mind—this is what I call being whole in power.” “What do you mean when you say his virtue takes no form?” “Among level things, water at rest is the most perfect, and therefore it can serve as a standard. It guards what is inside and shows no movement outside. Virtue is the establishment of perfect harmony. Though virtue takes no form, things cannot break away from it.”

Autumn Floods
Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the Pu River, the king of Chu sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.” Zhuangzi held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Chu that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral tem- ple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?” “It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials. Zhuangzi said, “Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”

Supreme Happiness
What ordinary people do and what they find happiness in—I don’t know whether such happiness is in the end really happiness or not. I look at what ordinary people find happiness in, what they all make a mad dash for, racing around as though they couldn’t stop—they all say they’re happy with it. I’m not happy with it and I’m not unhappy with it. In the end is there really happiness or isn’t there? I take inaction to be true happiness, but ordinary people think it is a bitter thing. I say: the highest happiness has no happiness’ the highest praise has no praise. The world can’t decide what is right and what is wrong. And yet inaction can decide this. The highest happiness, keeping alive—only inaction gets you close to this! Let me try putting it this way. The inaction of Heaven is its purity, the inaction of earth is its peace. So the two inactions combine and all things are transformed and brought to birth.
Wonderfully, mysteriously, there is no place they come out of. Mysteriously, wonderfully, they have no sign. Each thing minds its business and all grow up out of inaction. So I say, Heaven and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done. Among men, who can get hold of this inaction? Zhuangzi’s wife died, when Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing, “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Huizi “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going coo far, isn’t it?” Zhuangzi  said, “You’re wrong, When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of wonder and mystery a change took place she had a spirit, Another change and she had a body, Another change and she was born. Now there’s been and she’s (lead, Il’s just like the progression of four seasons, spring, summer, fall winter. Now she’s going to lie peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate So I stopped.”

Mastering Life
He who has mastered the true nature of life does not labor over what life cannot do. He who has mastered the true nature of fate does not labor over what knowledge cannot change. He who wants to nourish his body must first of all turn to things. And yet it is possible to have more than enough things and for the body still to go unnourished. He who has life must first of all see to it that it does not leave the body. And yet it is possible for life never to leave the body and still fail to be preserved. The coming of life cannot be fended off, its departure cannot be stopped. How pitiful the men of the world, who think that simply nourishing the body is enough to preserve life! Then why is what the world does worth doing? It may not be worth doing, and yet it cannot be left undone—this is unavoidable. He who wants to avoid doing anything for his body had best abandon the world. By abandoning the world, he can be without entanglements. Being without entanglements, he can be upright and calm. Being upright and calm, he can be born again with others. Being born again, he can come close [to the Way]. But why is abandoning the affairs of the world worthwhile, and why is forgetting life worthwhile? If you abandon the affairs of the world, your body will be without toil. If you forget life, your vitality will be unimpaired. With your body complete and your vitality made whole again, you may become one with Heaven. Heaven and earth are the father and mother of the ten thousand things. They join to become a body; they part to be- come a beginning. When the body and vitality are without flaw, this is called being able to shift. Vitality added to vitality, you re- turn to become the Helper of Heaven.
Woodworker Qing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished, everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits. When the marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, “N%at art is it you have?” Qing replied, “I am only a craftsman—how would I have any art? There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go. This way I am simply matching up ‘Heaven’ with ‘Heaven.’  That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.”