Saturday, April 21, 2018

Joint Virtual Class Presentation across the Pacific

Our PolyU - Maryland joint virtual classroom was having our final project presentation for the term this morning.  We divided the students into 6 teams, each comprising of a sub-team of 2-3 students from PolyU, and another sub-team of 2-3 students from U Maryland.  Each team was asked to design a project for the community learning centre - made from a converted, used cargo container - that we are going to build for the village in Kampong Speu in Cambodia, in June.  

Some teams designed a mural for the outside wall of the centre.  Some designed a facility for the playground outside there centre.  Some designed furniture inside.  Today, each team presented their design.  For each team, the sub-team from each university took turns to present the part that it is responsible for.  On this day, it just happened that the video stream on the Maryland side didn’t work for us; fortunately, their voices came over clearly.  On the other hand, Maryland complained that our voices were breaking up but they could see us.  So we were even, in a way. 

This technical glitch illustrated vividly some of the difficulties in working together, remotely, across the Pacific.  In the debriefing afterwards, the students share some of the other pros and cons, and what they learned.  One common sentiment was that the Americans tend to voice their thoughts directly and immediately, while the Asians tend to seek some form of consensus among themselves before voting an opinion.  The other was that there are free riders among the Americans, just like in Asia; except that the Americans seem even more blatant - not showing up at all, while the Asians would still be there, even though they are doing nothing.  

One thing our students learned from the exercise is that playgrounds are rare over there.  Play is not given a very high priority in Hong Kong, given the cut-throat examination-crazy culture; yet playgrounds are abundant.  Why does that say about the quality of education over there?  What lessons are we supposed to draw from that observation, for our students’ education?

Our students learned that they have to take the initiate to drive the project, because they have to go over to Cambodia in June to actually implement it, while some of the Americans participate only in the design phrase.  While finding the cooperation with the Americans over the ocean troublesome, some of our students appreciate the opportunity to learn how to work with other people.  

We found that this group of students have grown more confident, asking more questions, expressing more opinions, and are generally more positive in handling challenges over the 13 weeks of the semester.  It bodes well for the continuation into the second semester and the test of the actual implementation in Cambodia.  

This is just one of the 3 groups in our subject.  A second group is going to build solar panel electrical systems in Cambodia.  A third group is going to build solar panel electrical systems in Rwanda.  Then we have 3 teams going to community engagement internships in U Maryland, Brown U, and UCLA.  And we have to attend a conference in New Orleans on service-learning research. …  We look forward to another exciting summer.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Morning in Tsim Sha Tsui

Prompted by my daughter A, I have been running in the mornings before going to work, most of the time along the waterfront in Tsim She Tsui East.  I have been averaging 40 kilometres a week, typically 20 km on Sunday, 10 km on Wednesday and then another 10 km on Friday, for a month now.  I am not sure how long I can keep it up.  If it does help me control my blood sugar, I might.    

In any case, it has enabled me to see TST in a different light.  The news stand at the pier does not carry many newspapers anymore.  People are just not buying paper newspapers anymore.   There are still a lot of things to sell.  Just not newspapers.  

In the mean time, the free newspapers are abundant.  But do people actually read them?  I know a lot of them go directly to the recycling shops.  Yet you still have to pay quite a bit to advertise in them.  Except for certain newspapers published for political purposes.  Come to think of it, perhaps most of them are.  That is why they do not care whether they are making money, or even whether people are reading them.  Their mission is simply to be able to claim that a large number are distributed.  

The trees along Haiphong Road outside of Kowloon Park are majestic.  But most people are hurrying to work, and not paying them attention.  

Canton Road is empty.  But window cleaners are already busy at work.  

So are the sweepers on the sidewalks on Nathan Road.  

So are the sidewalk cleaners and the pigeons near the bus station.  

Nathan Road is equally empty.  I was tempted to run on it, just like the days of the Standard Chartered Marathon.  

So much cardboard had been collected. 

As well as foam boxes.  I heard that they are just as hard as plastic to decompose.  Why was that lady picking her way around them?

Along the Hong Hum waterfront, several people were swimming.  

I couldn’t help thinking back several years ago, on a Saturday morning, when I saw one of them drown at that same spot.  I hope it does not happen again. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

First They Killed My Father

Today two of the three teams in our service-learning class watched the movie “First They Killed My Father”.  These two teams are going to do their projects in Cambodia in June. Hence they are watching the movie as part of their preparation.  For those who are not familiar with the movie, it is a biographical and historical story of the Cambodian Genocide from 1975 to 1979, from the perspective of Loung Ung, directed by Angelina Jolie, which came out in 2017.  

Loung was 7 at the time, one of 7 children of a government official.  They had to flee from Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over.  They ended up in a labour camp in the country side, doing hard labour with very little to eat.  At one point her father was taken away, ostensibly to help to build a bridge.  But everyone knew that he would be dead soon.  Hence the title of the movie, which was made from a book of the same name.  One of the children died in the camp.  The mother and another child disappeared.  The children were separated, more than once.  Some of the children were re-united at the end.  

In the past, we used to watch “The Killing Fields”.  In comparison, the images of “First They Killed My Father” are less stark, the colour brighter and warmer, and the violence less in-your-face.  Over all, however, the scenes, the voices, and the stories seem realistic.  I think it helps our students to understand what happened in the Genocide.  They still have to figure out why it happened, and why it still matters today, 40 years after it happened.  

Both movies are highly recommended for anyone who wishes to understand Cambodia.  If one has to choose, the newer movie is easier to watch, emotionally.  

For this year, one of the teams will be building a community learning centre out of a used cargo container, together with another team from the University of Maryland.  The other team will be building solar electrical systems, this time in the form of a micro-grid, led by a professor from Electrical Engineering.  

In 2010, we stumbled into Cambodia.  By now, we have been there so many times, done so many projects, made so many good friends - many of whom are Christians and missionaries, seen so many of our students changed so much by the experience, witnessed so much of God’s work down there, that it has become part of our lives. I do not regret it for a moment.  

Monday, April 09, 2018

Ching Ming (清明) and education

It was Ching Ming Festival last Thursday.  As usual, I went grave sweeping with my relatives, all 15 of us, even though many could not come for various reasons.  As usual, I took the opportunity to also pay my respects at Tsai Yuan Pei’s (蔡元培) grave.  He was of course, the president of Peking University (北京大學校長) during the May 4 Movement (五四運動) and was well known for protecting the protesting students.  He was a true educator and well remembered even a century later.  

While I was there, I recalled something that Mohammad Yunus said in his talk a week earlier. He relayed what he heard from a French professor: that students who went through business school become more selfish than before.  Subsequently I looked up some related research.  There has indeed been quite a bit of research on this.  It appears that students who take only business and economics subjects and associate only with business and economics students are the worse.  If they take a broader set of subjects and associate more with other students the effect is not as bad.  

I suspect it may have something to do with the fundamental assumption of mainstream economics theory: that human beings are rational, in the sense that they look out for their own interest - that people are selfish.  People cannot help to be affected when they immerse themselves in such ideas all the time - it applies to both the professors and students.   There might also be some self-selection: students with similar inclinations are attracted to such disciplines.  

Come to think of it, the assumption that people look out for their interests prevails not only in business and economics departments.  There are numerous professors who are more interested in advancing themselves than in actually teaching the students.  What kind of examples are we setting for our students?  If this is the education that we are providing to our students, we deserve to be condemned.  

From this point of view, service-learning is one way to turn it around.  We wish to show the students and the professors that we can learn, work, live and realise our aspirations, while caring for others.  It can be more fulfilling when we look out for the interests of others as well as our own.  We want our students to be less selfish than before when they graduate, and continue to be so.  It may be a dream but we have to believe in such dreams.  I don’t want to be part of a world where there is nothing but selfishness.  

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sun Halo

On Ching Ming Festival last Thursday, while I was at the Aberdeen Cemetery, we were treated to a rare solar phenomenon.  

At first, we thought it was a rainbow.  But it was obviously not the usual rainbow.  First of all, it was upside down.  The usual rainbow is an arc arching just above the land, which you see when you see with the sun at your back.  But we saw this one while facing the sun.  In fact, it is an arc centred on the sun.  I found out later it is a sun halo. It occurs when there is a very thin, high cloud composed of small crystals of the same shape and oriented in the same way.  When the sun light was refracted twice (once entering and another when exiting) when it passes through the crystals in a certain way it got separated into its component colours. The sun halo is also called a 22 degree halo because the halo is 22 degrees from the sun - because the sunlight is bent 22 degrees by the refraction.  

The phenomenon is similar to that which forms the rainbow.  But the rainbow is formed by clouds of raindrops closer to the ground.  And the sunlight goes through an internal reflection, together with a refraction entering the raindrop and another exiting.  Combined, they bend the sunlight 318 degrees.  Hence the sunlight is turned back towards the sun, and you have to see it with your back to the sun.  

Then I realised that there is another halo with a much larger diameter outside the first one.  The second halo was much fainter, just barely visible.  

A moment later, the second halo became darker. 

While the primary one turned fainter.

Another moment later, both were gone. 

The whole episode lasted no more than a few minutes.  But it was fun while it lasted.  And I learned a bit of physics because of it (much of it I learned from Googling the Internet afterwards).  

I am glad I went grave sweeping on Ching Ming Festival.  

Monday, April 02, 2018

Maclehose Trail Stage 6

Tomorrow we return to the office.  I am not saying I am returning to work tomorrow since I have not actually stopped working over Easter.  In fact, I wrote almost 1,000 words in Chinese in two hour this morning before going out.  But today, our daughter A led us on a hike through Maclehose Trail Stage 6.  

We set off from Tai Po Road at Shek Kowloon Reservoir (九龍水塘).  We were pleasantly surprised to see few monkeys and few people.  It was a good start.  Perhaps we were early?  Perhaps many people have left town because of the long weekend?  

Later on, we actually found a monkey shaking up a tree. Perhaps it was looking for berries?  At least, it seemed to be doing what monkeys are supposed to do, foraging for food in the forest, instead of begging for food from humans.  

The trail was easy and the views good.  We could see Kwai Chung and Tsuen Wan in the distance.  There are still some old style public housing scattered around.  I think I wen through some of them a few days ago.  My wife and our daughter even thought they saw the Ting Kau Bridge (汀九橋) in the distance.  I am afraid I couldn’t.  

But we did find some defensive works made by the British army in the defence of Hong Kong from the attack of the Japanese army at the beginning of the Second World War.  Mainly redoubts (bunkers? forts?) and tunnels.  Evidently those weren’t enough, because Hong Kong fell to the Japanese quite quickly.  

So did most of East Asia at the time.  Fortunately, the Japanese could not hold onto Hong Kong and most of the areas that they took.  

A perfect sphere of mud bigger than a soccer ball laid beneath a tree.  Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be an ants’ nest built on a slender branch that had fallen off the tree.  It must have fallen not too long ago, because a whole colony of ants were scrambling to move around eggs and stuff.  My wife was marvelling at the perfect roundness of the ball.  I was wondering, however, about this: if the ants were so good in building such a huge, perfectly spherical nest, why did they built in on such a slender branch, only half an inch in diameter? Shouldn’t they have realised that the nest would be too heavy? Evidently their engineering education wasn’t perfect. 

Come to think of it, that’s what happen to most of us.  We can be very smart, and very silly at the same time.  

Again, we encountered quite a bit of Bauhinia variegata (宮粉羊蹄甲).  From our daughter A, I know these are not Bauhinia x blakenea (洋紫荊).  Because they are more pink than purple, and Bauhinia x blakenea is actually very rare in the wild.  

There are all kinds of fragrant flowers, and singing birds.  I cannot recognise most of the flowers and most of the bird songs - except 杜鵑 (Rhododendron) the flower, and 杜鵑 (cuckoo) the bird.  It is a little weird, come to think of it.   But they made the hike very pleasant.  

Sing Mun Reservoir looks pretty from the distance.  Not so much when we actually got there.  Why do so many things look good only if you see them from a distance, but turn out to be not so perfect when you get to know them better?

We could also see the toll booths at the entrance (exit?) of the Shing Mun Tunnel.  

It was a easy hike.  But we still rewarded ourselves with a good meal, and fried durian.  It was really good.  

It was a good day. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Thoughts on Easter

Today, the Saturday in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, my wife and I attended worship service at our church.  We heard the choir sing that Jesus Christ died for me.  We sang that Jesus suffered for our sins.  Our pastor asked how much have we done to bring the good news of Christ’s salvation to other people.  

These thoughts brought me back to my encounter with Mohammad Yunus two days ago.  Our discussions entered around the enormous challenges of extreme poverty around the world, the assumption of selfishness of the prevailing economic system, the unwillingness of those in power to help, the glimmer of hope that some of us struggle to provide, the sense that we seem to be hoping against hope, …  

I am convinced that Christianity provides the most accurate depiction of the predicament that the world is in.   I have studied many of the major religions.  Buddhism from India seems to teach that enlightenment will release us from the ignorance and misunderstanding that cause the problems.  Daoism from China seems to say that understanding and following the way of nature (such as the nature of water) will lead us to the truth (and release from the world) that is Dao.  Islam from Arabia seems to say complete submission to Allah is the way to heaven.   

To me, Christianity seems to be the only religion that accords the evil of sin the seriousness that it deserves.   The selfishness, hatred, violence, depravity and other evils that is so prevalent and deep-seated that death seems to provide the only, well-deserved, ending.  And nothing that humans can do ourselves is weighty enough to save us from the certain death that we all face.  God seems to be the only one who can pay that price to save us all.  

Hence, to me, Christianity seems to be the only reasonable faith.  It is, of course, only my own feeling, and I mean no disrespect to people who believe otherwise.  But I shall do my best to share what I believe, because it is of utmost importance. 

These are the thoughts that come to me between Good Friday, when Jesus died for our sins, and Easter Sunday, when Christ is risen to being us hope.