Monday, April 30, 2007

The True Ivory Tower

Why is academia called the Ivory Tower? I stumbled on a more plausible explanation in “God Created the Integers”, a book about mathematics edited and commented by Stephen Hawking. On page 1124, while discussing Alan Turing, there is this interesting story.

On the campus of Princeton University, there is a clock tower of the graduate college which overlooked a grand dining hall called the Procter Hall. It was named after William Procter, a founder of Procter and Gamble, makers of the Ivory soap. So some graduate students jokingly named the clock tower the Ivory Tower. Believe it or not!

Right next to Procter Hall, indeed there is a Cleveland Tower. Is this the original Ivory Tower? Can someone confirm or refute it?

Pigs before roasting

For a change, a lighter topic: What do you see in this picture?

1. Succulent roasted pork (燒肉、燒腩、叉燒) before roasting?

2. 2. Slaughtered pigs delivered to a roasted meat shop (燒臘店) from the slaughter house, a common sight around Hong Kong early in the morning.

3. Animals in undignified postures?

4. Cute pigs cruelly murdered?

5. It cannot be avoided but it is still better not to see it?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Students Growing Up

These very young students playing field hockey on a Sunday morning got me thinking. This is a playground in a public housing estate in Shatin. The kids are probably not the most privileged nor the most deprived. They all look healthy, energetic, and smart. In fact, kids at this age do not vary too much in terms of intelligence, temperament, and knowledge. Surely there are subtle differences, but it is not too pronounced yet.

Another image came to mind immediately. A college student was interviewed on TV last week. At 2 AM, he was wandering with his friends on the streets in Mongkok, because the game parlor that they were in just closed. No problem. Because soon afterwards, the 4 of them were each holding a game machine, playing each other in a 24-hour fast food restaurant. At day break, he finally return home exhausted. Later he was found strolling towards the classroom. He was late, since he could not get up in time. But he did not care, he was used to it already.

Will some of the field hockey-playing kids be like him in 15 years time? His is obviously not the best scenario but certainly also not the worst. Some of the kids will grow up to score As in the public examinations and enter university. Many more, however, will fail in every single subject. Some lives will be totally wasted. Why? What can we do to prevent it? Many of them fail not because of inherent poor intelligence and attitude.

As parents, we have responsibilities over a few of them. As teachers, we can influence many more. What is the impact then of high ranking officials deciding far-ranging policies? For example, having studied English for 13+ years, why is it even many of our university students cannot write in decent Chinese or English?

Many people aspire to that policy-making power. If given that power, however, I will probably endure many sleepless nights wandering what went wrong, and what can be done to provide our kids with the opportunities, the environment, the support, the incentives, the motivations, to strive to succeed. But the flippant attitude of some of the officials are scary.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Rounded Buildings

There are many buildings with interesting curved or rounded corners in Hong Kong.
Here is a sample of them. Some of them are culturally or historically interesting. For example, 雷生春, 美都餐室, etc. Have you been there?

It also seems there are more of them in the past. And old buildings in Hong Kong have a habit of disappearing. You may wish to visit them before it is too late.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Test Controversy

In an open-book mid-term test before the Easter holidays, in a certain subject in a certain department (not mine!) in our university, one of the three questions was the same as one of the questions used previously as an exercise, and some of the students were in possession of a sample solution to the question distributed previously. Some of those who did not have the sample solution were upset, understandably.

After the test, the lecturer agreed that the situation was not ideal, and proposed to discount the question in question. Some students supported it, but some others were opposed. So the lecturer decided to delay the decision until after the Easter holidays, upon further consultations. At this point a student posted a big-character-poster on the Democracy Wall on campus, roughly one week before the Easter holidays.

The day before the Easter break I caught up with the author of the poster to understand the situation. At this point a few students have added comments to the original poster, some were in support, and others not. But it wasn’t attracting a lot of attention. The author told me I was the first and only academic staff to contact him up to that point.

After the Easter break, the case was reported in a popular newspaper, and suddenly there was an avalanche of actions, posters, comments and signatures, overflowing the Democracy Wall and attracting big crowds. More details came to light. Allegedly the sample solution was also posted on WebCT before the test, hence available to all students, but not all students were aware of it. The department head went with the lecturer to meet with the class to sort out the situation. At this moment it is not clear whether this case is all finished.

I do not intend to take a particular position on this matter. But two things struck me: Firstly, that there seems to be a large number of students sympathetic to the lecturer. The feeling seems to be that: yes, he probably could have been more careful in making the arrangements for the test, but he wasn’t being unfair; he tried hard to resolve the matter once it was discovered, and above all, he was a good teacher. Secondly, many students think the case is an internal matter which should be handled within the university; getting the newspaper involved was a mistake, damaging to the university and everyone involved.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Negative Income Tax

Milton Friedman also proposed in his book, Capitalism and Freedom published in 1962, a negative income tax system. To summarize: If a person’s taxable income is larger than the amount of exemptions and deductions, he pays a tax – the normal practice. But if his taxable income is smaller than the amount of exemptions and deductions, he pays a negative tax – receives a subsidy.

It does not eliminate the incentives of those helped to help themselves – an extra dollar earned always means more money available for expenditure. The system fits directly into the current income tax system. It substitutes for the present rag bag of measures directed at the same end – the total administration burden would surely be reduced.

The system is simple, and directly helps those that help is intended for – the poor. More control will be shifted to the citizens from the government bureaucracy – a smaller government. Guess where the opposition will be coming from?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Milton Friedman’s School Voucher System

Milton Friedman proposed in his book, Capitalism and Freedom published in 1962, a school voucher system. To summarize: it is desirable for a society to (2) impose a minimum required level of schooling, and (2) finance this schooling by the state. It can be achieved by giving parents vouchers redeemable at any approved schools. The role of the government is limited to ensuring that the schools meet certain minimum requirements. There is no need to combine the administration of schools with their financing.

It may well mean smaller governmental expenditures on schooling, yet higher total expenditures – because parents can spend more on education if they so wish. The equivalent in Hong Kong at the moment is to send our children to direct-subsidy schools which charge a fee.

He also observed that in government-administered schools, salary schedules tend to be uniform and determined for more by seniority, degrees received, and teaching certificates acquired than merit. The alternative would resolve these problems and permit competition to be effective in rewarding merit and attracting ability to teaching.

Despite the obvious advantages, such a system is naturally going to be opposed strongly by the government bureaucracy. Not only will much of the control over education be passed from the government to private citizens, the government machinery will also be greatly reduced in size. Just witness the pseudo-voucher system being proposed for kindergartens in Hong Kong. It is used to strengthen government administration and control of schools, rather than the other way around. In the meant time, more people will have to be hired to administer the system, increasing the size of the bureaucracy.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tsai Yuan-Pei (蔡元培)

On Thursday (清明節), I went to Tsai Yuan-Pei’s grave again. Actually I went with my extended family to 香港仔華人永遠墳場 to visit my grandparents’ columbarium (靈灰位), and 蔡元培’s grave (墓地) happened to be nearly. He was one of the most revered figures in the early days of the republic, and presided over the University of Beijing for 10 years. During the May 4 movement, he came to the rescue of the students arrested by the government. He moved to Hong Kong in 1938 for treatment on his ailment, died in Hong Kong in 1940 and was buried in 香港仔華人永遠墳場「資」字號地段.

Just as in the past, there were some flowers in one of the pots this year (the picture was actually taken in 2006). But one of the flower pots had fallen down so I put it back upright – I am glad there is a little bit that I can do to show my respect. This year I have taken my whole family there, except my eldest daughter, who was away in a camp. My second daughter courageously tried to read through all the inscriptions.

I am hoping that 蔡元培 continues to be remembered and be a role model for us. Education is much more than administration or even the passing of knowledge. It is not very often these days to have people in prominent positions in education who command high respect with their courage and moral certitude.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The trouble with the EMB

The current problems between the IEd (Institute of Education) and the EMB (Education and Manpower Bureau) has captivated a lot of us. Officially it is a fight between certain individuals on one side against individuals on the other. In reality it arises from a deep-seated problem in the system. And the problem is not just limited to the case with the IEd. It has much wider impacts.

The EMB sets the policies on education in Hong Kong, monitors the quality standards, and controls the funding. This is a slightly simplistic view, but largely valid. In the hands of an all-knowing, wise, and benevolent dictator it can be the most efficient. Unfortunately it is regular human beings who work at the EMB and they are bound to make mistakes, whether intentionally or un-intentionally. The consequence is that the schools, the students, the parents, and eventually everybody suffer.

One way to reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest, mistakes, and abuses is to separate the three powers, and vest them in agencies relatively independent from each other.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Old KaiTak Airport Today

This is the runway of the Old KaiTak Airport at the end of 2006. It doesn't look anything like a runway now, and should look different again in a few years’ time. But I won’t hold my breath.

Hong Kong is supposed to be short in space. Yet the old airport has been idle since 1998, Not completely idle, I suppose. It has been used as a golf course, parking lot, storage for sand (in the middle of this picture), cement factory (at the right of this picture), among other creative uses.

People steel metal from it. A men I found picking up metal bars told me he can make up to a hundred dollars a day. Other people came armed with trucks, cranes and blow torches. Note the missing metal grates, they are too heavy to be carried by hand. Yet the only ones remaining are those under the huge cement blocks.

Some people ride bicycles there. Others fly model airplanes. South Asian kids sneaked in to play cricket. How did I take these pictures? I sneaked in after them the same way, of course. Unfortunately, most of the holes in the fences have been patched up recently. I was still able to sneak in with my daughter last week, but it was much harder.

One can still see the markings directing airplanes to park in front of the gates.

And vehicles should give way to airplanes.

Only helicopters fly over the airport now.