何毓琦的个人博客分享 http://blog.sciencenet.cn/u/何毓琦 哈佛(1961-2001) 清华(2001-date)


Reflections on Life and Work

已有 3690 次阅读 2021-4-7 21:53 |个人分类:生活点滴|系统分类:海外观察

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I wrote the following during the period from 1984 to 2001. They were:

1.          Thoughts realized during a lifetime of living and working, 

2.          Ideas gleamed from reading literature and exploring the web,

3.          Worthwhile quotes

I re-discover this collection recently and present them here to share with readers.

                                                                   Reflections on Life and Work



Y. C. Ho





•         In discussing the pecking order of theory over practice and pure over applied, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between celibacy and impotence


•         In science and technology, you can learn almost any new subject in six months time.  One field is often not any more difficult or easier than another. If you have done well in one, then you find your views in another are more often correct than not even though you may have only just begun to learn about it.


•         The simplest explanation is often the correct one. In fact, one should not be satisfied until one can explain anything to the readers of Scientific American.


•         One well conceived example used repeatedly to explain different facets of a theory is invaluable. Not only you save on "setting up time" for each separate example than if they were different, but also understanding is reinforced if the same example is used repeatedly. This is an obvious fact often ignored by most writers.


•         Great mind does not exclude pettiness. Scientists are no exceptions. While the scientific milieu discourages dishonesty, it seems to breed an excess of arrogance.


•         All serious learning requires "struggle of some kind". A beautiful lecture if not reinforced will be completely forgotten in a month. There is no easy learning pill (see Dewey quote)


•         The serendipitous application of the pure and the discovery of new knowledge by the applied.


•         On Scientific Predictions : The Arthur C. Clarke Law - when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.  Examples - Sir Rutherford (Nobel 1908) said in 1933 that atomic energy cannot be controlled to yield any commercial value, it only took 23 years to prove him wrong. Sir MacFarlene Burnet (Nobel 1960 in physiology) said in 1971 that chance of doing gene therapy is infinetesimally small to the last syllables of recorded time. He was proven to be wrong in 1990    -N.Y.Time book review p.33  Oct. 19, 1997

            Howard Aiken, the father of modern digital computers,  predicted in a Time Magazine cover story in 1948 that the World will need about ten computers.





•             what constitute a good academic research problem area.There is real world demand, e.g. communication network, manufacturing automation; but , H∞ and robotics is somewhat questionable, relatively speaking. You always need a good base of support.


•             It is a new subject matter. You don't have to overcome tradition or climb a high vertical structure before you can contribute. In this sense, communication network is better than manufacturing engineering


•             It is a well known problem, e.g., the U.S. manufacturing scene or a long standing problem such as legged motion in robotics. Glamor and fashion do help.


•             The problem should be easily explainable to an average educated person. If not, then either there is something wrong with the problem or you have not thoroughly understood the problem.


•             By and large, academia values depth over breadth, technique over vision. It is the reverse in industry. You have to decide which side is you bread buttered on, your personal inclination, and tradeoff accordingly.




•             Get to know the program monitor at each agency. Call him up and visit him.


•             Find out what kind of work he is interested and supporting and why. Don't be anxious to tell him what a great idea you have. You can learned a lot by listening.


•             If the spirit moves you, send the contract monitor a few pages of what your vision and interest are. This should be specially written for him. Don't inundate him with papers. Nobody has time to read papers unless it is in the very area of his specialty.


•             Never underestimate the importance of missionary work. The world only needed one Jesus but has continuing need for great missionaries. You do not have to be Jesus to contribute to Society and be successful.


•             In academia there is often a great fuss being made about giving credits and sharing glory. Human nature being what it is, some of these controversies are to be expected. However, I have observed that over the long term it is far better to take a more relax attitude about giving credits, i.e. offering more than you think the other party deserves. Tactically, this lead to less arguments and bad feelings particularly if the other party really did not quite deserve the glory. Your offer will make him grateful which may prompt him to do you a good turn someday. Secondly, what have you lost? In the long run, if you have staying power, then you will write far more papers on the subject than the other guy. You will be recognized for your contribution. Finally, what may appear to you at the time as the greatest idea, most often will not seem so great with the passage of time. Truly great idea come once in a generation.





•             cite very old classics only to show how learned you are and to put yourself in the same class

•             only cite recent work within the last five year to show how up-to-date you are

•             A noted scholar who shall remain un-named never does the latter which is tatamount to saying his is a pioneering idea and he has said it all. In his talk he cites only names like Gauss, Einstein, and Nobel Laureates to name his peer group.





•             Proimising young star

•             Scholoarly thoroughness

•             new ideas

•             Late life




•               The success secret of America consists of

                  (i) tax enough from the able to support the less able so that there won't be a revolution

                  (ii) don't tax so much as to destroy the incentive of the able.


•               At any one time there are always 16% of the population (IQ < 80) who cannot survive in society and must be helped by the more able. This is a statistical truth (Gaussian distribution) that must be acknowledged by any state.


•               There are many pathway to success and satisfaction in life in the U.S. Losing a powerful position can be compensated by having the opportunity to make more money. Thus, power transition is a far less painful experience than in a totalitarian state.


•               In America there is opportunities everywhere and at all times, but you have to spend the effort to look for and to develop it. Success is almost always possible.


•               The dynamics of a meeting of a panel of distinguished people (e.g. a meeting of the board of directors) is very interesting. Panel members are usually asked to serve because of their reputation, expertise, and past accomplishments, and to lent legitimacy. However, these people are usually very very busy and seldom have time to study the issues carefully before the meeting. During the meeting nobody wishes to look foolish yet everyone feels it is important to appear he is contributing to the meeting. As a result, proposals brought before the panel often live or die on very incidental reasons such as who spoke first. A skillful chairman or staff and a well prepared presentor can often determine the outcome. In this sense, panels serves a useful purpose to reward well prepared (in substance or in behind the scene groundwork) proposals. However, by the same token, panels often reach disaster conclusions despite the expertise and best of intentions on the part of the panel members (cf. Parkinson's third law).


•               Most tasks with which one is not familiar appears daunting. However, I am firmly convinced that with dedication most people are capable of doing most jobs well. Once you get into it, there is not much mystery to most discipline or task that a reasonably smart common man cannot compete with a professional.


•               The world is full of smart people, what distinguishes success and also-ran lie in some little "extras": a little more drive, a little quicker on recognizing an opportunity,  . . . . .


•               When one is young, family and school provide a lot of feedback as to "how is one doing?" in the form of rewards and examinations. However, as one gets older and become accepted as an adult member of the society, the feedback becomes less frequent and subtle. One partial solution to remedy this situation is to provide self-generated feedback information. I believe this is why we create lists of "things to do today ", "New year resolutions" and "goals to achieve within five years". For these to achieve their purpose, we need to set realistic goals so that both positive and negative signals can be obtained.


•               Many of the "success" or inspirational seminars or lectures do in fact contain a great deal of truth. Cliches, such as, "you can be whatever you want to be" coupled with reasonable intelligence, a firm commitment or desire can lead to success. The Chinese culture instills too much respect for authority and are inhibiting and risk averse.


•               Many of the contacts and relationships one makes when young come to fruition many years later. This is often the reason parents wants to sent children to Harvard and Yale. Young persons starting out want to work for well known organizations. One never know what will become of one's friends.


•               The power of the “establishment”  should not be under-estimated. The ESTABLISHMENT rewards its members and punishes its critics. If you are a member of the establishment, it is even more difficult for you to criticize it since your well being and future rewards in life often are dependent on remaining to be a member of good standing. Thus, it is in the self interest of the members of a group to close ranks and defend its member against criticism even at the cost of bending the truth. Thus, power corrupts . . .


•               no pain,no blame, and no gain - USA currently (Ho-1995)




•             When a problem or dispute arises, it is human instinct to seek resolution immediately. Often times, it is far better to let nature takes it course and have a chance of resolving the issue by themselves. Don't be compulsive to put everything in order. You'll waste less effort in the long run. However, this does not mean totally ignoring unpleasant tasks. It is a fine line one must distinguish between measured response and procrastination.


•             For a person with above average intelligence, most of the things you figure out yourself are most probably correct.


•             Bill Cosby was quoted in TIME magazine (Sept.1987 cover?) as saying " . . . When you are younger, you want to be sure that by the time you are 80 years old you can sit on the bench and look back and say, “Man, I did it all. I didn't miss a thing.” What you never meant to do was to hurt anyone, but then you see the look on the face of the person you didn't mean to hurt, and then you realize that what you stand to lose is worth much more . . ." In a similar vein, the famous mathematician Fritz John was once asked what does he live for. He replied " for the grudging admiration of a few of my colleagues." While these are certainly very valid sentiments, namely, in the end, human relations are worth more than anything else, it also illustrates the truism that "getting there is half the fun". We are always striving for something. If Cosby were not that famous, perhaps at the time of the TIME interview, he may still put fame above family (in fact the paragraph of the article immedeiately before is evidence of that). After fame and fortune, one then strives for the intangibles. Confucius said this thousands of years ago: ' after you are clothed and fed, then you can talk about moral values'


•             The period 50-65 seems to me is really the "golden years" of a person, provided you have managed the earlier part of your life well. Children have grown and left, you are financially secure, well connected, and are what society calls 'part of the establishment'. They are the years you began to reaped rewards, influence the future, and above all, to have time to enjoy your work and life. For example, you are old enough to treasure the gift of time from your grown children but not so old as to demand it.


•             So many human interactions are carried out via some unwritten mutual understanding that one acquires through wisdom and experience. If we insist on having everything spelled out, then one is asking for frustration. However, allowing things to be vague, of course, could lead to serious misunderstandings. The successful person eventually masters how to walk this fine line.


•             "Wisdom cannot be told". It must be experienced. Each generation as it grows old experiences those flashes of understanding that their forefathers knew earlier. But merely reading the historical writing does not in general makes one wiser. The truism about “the college graduate on returning home after 4 years was surprise to find how much his old man have learned” is so appropriate. Same goes for the saying that Sociology is reinvented every 30 years.


•             One of the most memorable scene is cinematic history occurs at the end of the movie, Doctor Zhivago. The great British actor, Alec Guiness, playing the role of Zhivago's half brother has just found the long lost young daughter of Zhivago. Although himself an ardent communist, he nevertheless was fond of his brother and was now trying to tell this young girl the bitter sweet and tragic life of her father and mother, Zhivago and Lara. But looking at the youth he realized in a moment of sadness that he can never succeed to imbue the feelings and the emotions of his generation to the next. Each generation must learn to experience such feelings on their own and in their own way. Occasionally and rarely, understandings and communications are established across the generation gap. When this happens, it is the greatest joy.


•             Happiness is acquired along the way, not at the end of the road. Happiness is the continuing improvement towards a never reaching goal.


•             Like “beauty” and “atheletic ability”, “intelligence” is often a curse to a young person. Things come to you too easily and give you an un-realistic view of the world. Intelligence breeds arrogance, impatience, and insensitivity. I believe, this is why leaderships are often not the smartest person. True intelligence is to be able to recognize these deficiencies and do something about them.


•             Reflections at the annual IEEE award ceremonies

                1.America is a society of awards. This starts at kindergarten and continues onto adulthood. It is not a bad idea: awards cost little and makes everyone feel good. On the average, we probably overdid it with the result many awards are cheapened

                2.However, as Kevin Costner said at his academy award acceptance speech what he says and whom he thanks may be meaningless to the general audience, they matter to his family and his friends.

                3.It is interesting to see how the awardees sum up their life in two minutes (acceptance response) and one page (auto-biographical write up). Most of them do it with grace , style, and often times oneupsmanship.

                4.IEEE gives 10 medals and 20 field awards which are the highest awards of the world’s largest engineering society. They really put on a good show for the awardee and their families: Solemn ceremony, black tie, invitations to past award winners and all VIPs to insure good attendance, Lavish supper which the general members probably would complain if they knew about it, it is purely the establishment congratulating themselves and having a good time. Not fair but very effective payoff for all the volunteer services rendered


•             Happiness is in the derivatives (with apology to Mises Van de Roche)- 10/96

                The trick in retirement is to take the derivatives in a new direction -12/96



                ON LIVING WELL


·                     "I know so much has been given to me in my life, to each of us, for which we've never paid. All we can do is pass it on to someone else. As we climb, lift somebody with us" Prudential Ad. TIME magazine p.1 1/29/96


·                     We interpret "living well" as having each other, interested in and at peace with the world, and enjoying life with family and old friends  — 1996 Chinese New Year Greetings from Sophia and Larry



            — "I like to know" 





•             “If I cannot be an artist, then I will choose to be a mother”      - Francis Bacon


•             "There is a strong temptation to assume that presenting subject matter in its perfected form provides a royal road to learning. what is more natural than to suppose that the immature can be saved from time and energy, and be protected from needless errors, by commencing where competent inquiry have left off?  -—

—Dewey, Democracy and Education  1916


•             "  . . . Not that the medieval scholars lacked originality. Indeed they displayed an acute subtlety which has never been surpassed, but they most often neglected to take account of observations, prefer to exercise their mind in a pure field . . . "

—from Rene Dugas, a history of mechanics, 1935


•             "We are not born in heaven but in the world, where our being is to be preserved with food, drink, clothing and other accessories that are not born with us, but must be got and kept with forecast, care and labor, and therefore we cannot be all devotion, all praises and hallelujahs, and perpetually in the vision of things above"  from OCED report 1987?


             ""Too many MIT graduates are working for too many Harvard graduates"

                Ann Friedlander , Dean of MIT  School of Humanities, quoted in Science 6/19/87


•             "So damn few things in this world that are static" C. Stark Draper as reported in 1987 MIT Film Thinking about the Future .


             "You have got a life to live. It is short, at best. It is a wonderful privilege and a terrific opportunity - and you've been equipped for it. Use your equipment. Give it all you've got. Love your neighbor - he is having just as much trouble as you are. Be nice to him; be kind to him. Trust God. And work hard."  Dr. Norman Vincent Peale as quote in Parade Magazine 1987


             "In manufacturing, the process is the product" R. White, 1987 President's address, BRIDGE 17, #4, 1987 National Academy of Engineering


•             Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes in a day. Rich people can't buy more hours; smart scientists can't invent new minutes. And you can't save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you have wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow. Success depends upon using it wisely - by planning and setting priorities. the fact is time is worth more than money. By killing time, we are killing our own chance of success.   Denis Waitly, "The Joy of Working"


•             There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of its success then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things   N. Machiavelli ,  Prince , 1513


•             It is not the teacher's task to teach interesting things, but to make interesting the things that must be taught - C. S. Sclichter


•             A bias must be recognized before it can be challenged [Engel as quoted by Gould] . . . .Academic science, in particular, has been constrained by an ideal of 'pure research', which in former days barred a scientist from extensive experimentation and empirical testing. Ancient Greek science labored under the restriction that patrician thinkers could not perform the manual work of plebian artisans . . . Even today, 'pure' researchers tends to disparage the practical, and terms such as 'aggie school' and 'cow college' are heard with distressing frequency in academic circles. If we took Engels' message to heart and recognized our belief for what it is — namely social prejudice— then we might forge among scientists the union between theory and practice that a world teetering dangerously near the brink so desperately needs [pp 212-213 Ever Since Darwin, W.W. Norton 1977 Stephen Jay Gould]


•             Work like hell, tell everyone everything you know, close a deal with a handshake, and have fun  - Harold Edgerton (MIT Professor who invented strobe light and founded EG&G) on his 87th birthday , two days before he died of a heart attack, as quoted in Boston Globe's name and faces column 1/3/90


•             We live in a spoiled moral environment. We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another. We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other, to worry only about ourselves. The concept of love, friendship, mercy, humility or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension, and for many of us they represent only some sort of psychological curiosity or they appear as long-lost wanderers from a far away time  - Valclav Havel, the new President of Czechoslavakia, in his 1990 newyear's day message on the cost of the Stalinist rule


•             When I think about any of these discoveries, I feel a tinge of exhiliration. .....Nearly every scientist has experienced, in a moment of discovery or sudden understanding, something akin to reverence and awe. Science is a deeply emotional matter for those who practice it.... Carl Sagan 6/2/91 Parade Magazine


•             “accept the new as unthinkingly as they once opposed it” — Cyril Stanley Smith


•             “A life of the mind is about those few seconds of intellectual ecstasy” 

—Myron Fiering (Harvard Colleague) 1992

•             “Invest instead of spending time wisely does something for you. Over a period of time it brings an appreciation, a patina to life; it generates maturity and fullness. . … When you are investing time instead of spending it, you don't get so concerned about running out of it. . . Many people don't know how to invest their time because they never identified their unique purpose in life. They have instead settled for comfort . . .  Americans are known for seeking comfort and convenience. What this amounts to is settling for life as a consumer rather than a producer. A philosophical approach to life says, “ I am a producer, not just a consumer; I must leave behind something extra, some worthwhile evidence that I passed this way”

                                                               —Smith, Fred  Learning to Lead World Books


•             “Instead of standing on each other’s shoulder, we choose to step on each other’s toes”—R. Hamming


•             T.S. Elliot’s “Little Gidding” 4th of the Four Quartets


                We shall not cease from exploration

                And the end of all our exploring

                Will be to arrive where we started

                And know the place for the first time.


•             Stanley Newberg loved his country and wanted to make it better. He did — for about 90 seconds. Newberg came to the US as a small child in 1906, the son of poor Austrian immigrants. He succeeded in school, then in manufacturing and real estate. At the time of his death in 1986, his estate included 5.6 million in cash, which he bequeathed in its entirety to the United States Government in “deep gratitude for the privilege of residing and living in this kind of government not withstanding many of its inequities”

                Earlier this year, after Newberg’s will was finally settled, the money went directly to the US Treasury, where it lasted a minute and half.

                — New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12/4/94—


•             You who are born in America, I wish I can make you understand what it is like not to be an American, not to have been an American all your life, then by the words of a men in flower robes suddenly to be one, from that moment on and forever afterwards. One moment you belong with your father to a million dead yesterdays, the next you belong with America with a million unborn tomorrow

                —George Madgar Mandikian

carved on the American Pasvilion, EPCOT Center

•             The Americans always do the right thing, (pause) after they have exhausted everything else

--Winston Churchill

•             A lie will travel halfway around the world before truth can put his boots on

—Falsely attributed to Mark Twain

•             I see children as kites. You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground. You run with them until you’re both breathless . . . they crash . . . you add a longer tail . . .  Finally they are airborne, but they need more strings so you keep letting it out. With each twist of the ball of twine there is a sadness that goes with the joy, because the kite becomes more distant, and somehow you know it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that bound you together and soar as it was meant to soar - free and alone

— Erma Bombeck as reviewed in “Forever, Erma” NY Time book Review 12/15/96


•             Unfortunately, in a great many places in our society, including academia and most bureaucracies, prestige accures principally to those who study carefully some aspects of a problem, while discussion of the big picture is relegated to cocktail parties. It is of crucial importance that we learn to supplement those specialized studies with what I call a crude look at the big picture 

-Murray Gell-Mann on “The Simple and the Complex” in Complexity, Global Politics, and National Security , National Defense University Press, 1997


Linus Pauling: "I recognize that many physicists are smarter than I am--most of them theoretical physicists. A lot of smart people have gone into theoretical physics, therefore the field is extremely competitive. I console myself with the thought that although they may be smarter and may be deeper thinkers than I am, I have broader interests than they have."  (From "The Meaning of Life.")






•             Ginsberg's Law of Thermodynamics: 1. You can't win, 2. You can't break even, 3. You can't even quit the game

•             THINGS YOU CAN COUNT ON IN A CRISIS: marketing says yes, finance says no, legal have to review it, personnel is concerned, planning is frantic, engineering is above it all, manufacturing wants more floor space, top management wants someone responsible.

•             Scientist as “theory snobs”

                ...that those who prefer the airy realm of theory to the grimy arena of the decisive experiment aren't necessarily doing so by choice: “I always say it's important to distinguish between chastity and impotence” — Sydney Brenner (molecular biologist in SCIENCE 17/7/92 p. 346)


•             Examining issues for its own sake, losing sight of the overall objective, and thereby effectively building bridges over dry land. — Johan de Kleer " A View on Qualitative Physics" AI, 59, 105-114 (1993)


•             The conventional army loses if it does not win; the guerilla wins if it does not lose — Henery Kissinger as reported in TIME 9/16/1996


•             Ours is a lucky generation: one step behind real hardship and one step ahead of real competition  - Eugene Wong at Mitter 65th birthday 12/99




•             The power of conventional wisdom.  Aristotle believed that heavy object falls faster and (2000 years later) in 1589 Galileo proved him wrong and he was jailed.

•             Don’t ever wrestle with a pig. You both will get dirty, but the pig actually enjoys it.

•             XXX is a self-made man. He relieved GOD of an awesome responsibility






1.            my qualifications:


my mother, my wife, my children, and grand children

career and business: two fields of endeavor

financial independence: will retire with 100% salary. I have tried everything

happiness: glad to be alive, glad to be in the US


2.            family:


I am lucky. But you still must work at it. Never take anybody for granted. Don’t say “why me?”


3.            business


It is harder than you think no matter how hard you think it is. Human resources are #1


4.            Financial independence:


Only three rules. Have fun with the rest.


5.            The pursuit of happiness — must be learned


On Office Politics in Managing your Career Column WSJ 3/18/97

•Office politics comes in after Smarts, Hardwork, and Competence. It is a necessary evil.

•Four points for survival: understand the company style for office politics, small company has less office politics, don’t try to please everyone, confront back stabber. you can’t just ignore it.


THE BELEVANT LAW: You cannot do anything without having to do something else first — (The INSTITUTE an IEEE publication Vol.22, #1 Jan 1998  p.16)




•             The secret of PFP is to have a goal and an over plan to achieve it

•             The seven pilars of PFP are: budget, insurance, tax, investment, college education, retirement, estate planning.

•             Anything you read or hear should be interpreted w.r.t. your goal and plan

•             start early and let the power of compound interest to the job. A dollar saved is more than a dollar earned; a dollar saved early is much more than a dollar saved later.

•             lack of time to do something is simply a polite way of saying that this is less important

•             Three key ideas to financial independence: Start early, defer taxes, and let compound interest to the work.

·                     See also my collection of Personal finance facts and opinions



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