Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Accidental Couple

They come from different countries, speak different languages, have different jobs, and believe in different religions. They probably don’t even know each other. By chance, they are waiting for the same bus at the same station at the same time. They will probably never meet each other again. By chance, they adopt similar postures.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bringing Up Children

As the train doors open at the Mongkok station, a young woman who looked like she may be from Indonesia came in from my left and was going to sit down one seat away to my right. From the right a young boy about 3 years old came in, followed by a woman who may be his grandmother. The boy was also eyeing the same seat but was a bit late. He screamed at the young Indonesian un-intelligible words but it was obvious he was not happy that “his” target was about to be taken. Startled, the young Indonesian retreated, still smiling; and started to talk to another young woman wearing a head scarf.

The child’s grandmother scolded the child, also with a smile on her face. She said the child was a bully, and he should not have taken the seat from the young woman. But she did nothing to stop the child from taking the seat, nor did she try to get the child to return the seat.

It reminded me of another incident on a bus the day before. A young couple took the seats behind me. Their young boy, about 2, started to scream, kicked the seat, and was making himself a nuisance. The young couple told him he should not disturb other people. But just like this grandmother, made no serious effort to stop the child.

Then I recalled another boy I know, about 10. He does not like to study, finds all kinds of excuses not to do homework, does not read, plays no sports, spends all his time on computer games, and goes to bed early in the morning. In short, your normal Hong Kong child. Then I discovered by chance that his parents take turns to play computer games until 3 o’clock in the morning. No wonder.

And we complain that young people nowadays have no self-discipline, no respect for other people, go to bed too late, and get up too late? Do we need to look beyond ourselves for the reason?

Harbour Eyesores

The view at the Canteen (a fastfood restaurant) at the IFC Mall is a large part of what you pay for. However, there are three things that bother me in this view from the Canteen. The first is the smog. The other two are the two giant billboards that block part of the view of the harbour.

There really should be some law which says “Your money does not give you the right to spoil other people’ view of the harbour”, or something like that. Don’t you think?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Amazing Grace

We have been studying the teachings of Jesus in our weekly Bible Study group at the university, and we just covered Matthew chapter 5, verses 13 – 16, in which Jesus said His disciples should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.

My wife and I went to see the movie “Amazing Grace” this afternoon and it was a great illustration of what determined Christians can do to exert positive influence in this world. The movie was about William Wilberforce, the English politician who felt God asked him to push to abolish the slave trade. He became the head of the parliamentary movement against the British slave trade. He was helped by many people, including John Newton, a former slave ship captain who repented to become a clergyman, and wrote the song “Amazing Grace”, which became a favourite of Blacks and evangelical Christians.

Looking back, it seems it should not be too difficult to persuade reasonable people that such an inhumane act as the slave trade, which resulted in so much unspeakable suffering, should not be allowed to continue. But ignorance, greed, prejudice, inertia and politics created tremendous obstacles. “The African people do not oppose the slave trade.” “Many slaves own land, living better than our own people.” Ïf we give up the slaves, our businesses will collapse and the empire cannot retain its power.” “The French is not going to stop having slaves even if we stop. So we cannot stop.” “The people demand it (abolition of the slave trade)? Are you on the side of the mob, or are you on the side of the King?” “The Americans support it? They are revolutionaries. You must be revolutionaries too. We cannot allow revolutions in this country.” …

Eventually it took many years of tremendous effort to finally persuade parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Today Wilberforce remains a greatly respected figure.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Jay-Walking Encounter

On last Saturday morning, at the junction of Wuhu Street and Poloi Street, 4 traffic police officers parked their motor cycles at the south-west corner and got off. It looked as if they were going to block off some of the streets, like what they did the last time some “state leaders” came to Hong Kong and stayed at the nearby hotel. But I couldn’t see any of the plastic tapes that they usually use to block off streets.

Two of them stationed themselves at the 2 south side corners, and the other two stationed themselves at the 2 traffic islands in the middle of Wuhu Street. I was then in a crowd at the north-east corner, waiting to cross over to the south-east corner. Before the traffic lights turned green, however, 3 women tried to cross Wuhu Street from the north-west corner to the south-west corner, and were intercepted by the police officer stationed at the island in the middle of the street.

At the south-east corner, I walked behind the officer stationed there and quickly snapped this picture. Just as I turned to walk away, someone tapped on my shoulder and my heart nearly jumped out of my mouth. It turned out to be one of my friends. The 3 women were still being spoken to by the police officer when I walked away. Somehow, it just seemed like much ado about very little.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Turtle Dove (斑鳩)

What is this?

It is a turtle dove jumping on to a ledge at the TsimShaTsui East Promenade. It is quite common in Hong Kong.

It also features in the song “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Remember “Four calling birds, Three french hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree…”?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Chang’e (嫦娥) and corruption

China will launch Chang’e, its first lunar satellite this afternoon. It is, of course, a great achievement.

One farmer in Xichang (西昌) in Sichuan (四川) province, where the satellite will be launched from, was quoted as saying “If we have the ability to send a satellite to the moon, why is it so difficult to send all corrupt officials to prison?” (South China Morning Post, Wednesday, October 24, 2007)

Indeed, why?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

User Constructs in e-Learning

The reason I was in Beijing in the first place was to present a paper at the Computers and Advanced Technology in Education Conference, CATE 2007. The paper was titled “The Impact of User Constructs on e-Learning Effectiveness Using the Repertory Grid”, reporting on an experiment that one of my students did. It was to study the frame of mind of users of e-Learning systems, i.e., how do users perceive the different functions provided by such systems? Why do they like or dislike certain functions?

We showed the users various items in combinations of 3 at a time, and ask them which 2 among the 3 are most alike and which one is most different from the other two. Using this method we tried to understand the criteria/dimension (construct) that the user employs in the evaluation of the items. For example, a user may find car and train to be alike because they are machines, while horse is an animal. Another user may find horse and car to be alike in terms of carrying capacity, while train carries much more. By showing the functions provided by e-Learning systems in triples to the users, and studying their responses, we hoped to understand the “constructs” that the users use to interpret/evaluate the functions provided. Each construct represents a possible “dimension” in which a function can be evaluated.

In our experiment we found 11 such constructs, and we further consolidated such constructs into 2 major dimensions. One of which is “more focused and consolidating knowledge” vs “not stimulated, motivated, and boring, useless”. Another is “help to explain problems and through interacting” vs “have to take initiative to solve problems, not helping as there is no interaction/stimulation”.

Finally the common functions provided by e-Learning systems such as WebCT are evaluated by placing them in a Cartesian coordinate system formed by these two dimensions. According to our study, the best function is the bulletin board/discussion forum. The scale of this project is too small to draw much conclusions from. But it does demonstrate one way to study systematically the “usability” of e-Learning systems, and in fact, information systems in general.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

WaterGate in Suzhou

This is the real WaterGate in Suzhou – the Pan Gate (盤門) – the waterway entrance into the old Suzhou City. Most of Suzhou’s city walls have been torn down. But a few sections have been preserved, including this one at the south-west corner of the city. Suzhou is truly a beautiful city. The rectangular old city is still surrounded by moats, and criss-crossed by many waterways.

Near the Pan Gate, this man was making beautiful calligraphy on the ground, in water. Appreciate the poise, the control, the stamina. It is an uniquely Chinese art form. Within minutes, the water dried, and he overwrote on it. The art is both ephemeral and eternal.

The ponds were teaming with golden carp. They look well-fed. Yet they could not resist fighting for the scraps, with their big mouths wide open. We humans find them amusing. Yet we hunger in the same manner after fame, fortune and other fancies. I wonder if God finds us similarly amusing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Making of a bowl of noodles (拉麵)

From Beijing I flew down to Suzhou for 2 full days’ of teaching over the weekend. Our university have been jointly offering a MSc in Information System program in China, together with the Xian Jiaotung University. So we often have to come to Suzhou or Xian on weekends to teach.

On Sunday evening, after finishing all my classes, I went out to have dinner. I was watching the man “pull” a lump of dough into fine noodles, when the two men in the next shop came over to check me out. It turned out they were concerned that I might have come from the municipal government, to check up on their shops. When they found out I was just a visitor trying to take some pictures, they smiled and said “please keep taking pictures”, while they walked back across the street.

When I went in to order a bowl of the noodles, this man took over. He separated a fist-sized lump from the big lump, kneaded it for a couple of minutes, and started pulling, waving, and pounding it into a bunch of fine noodles. While he was still pulling it, he suddenly walked out the door, and dumped the noodles into the big pot.

You cannot get noodles any fresher than that! And it costs only five Reminbi. OK, there could have been more beef in the soup, and the soup probably had a bit too much MSG, but the noodles were really delicious. And just the show itself was worth more than the five Reminbi, which is equal to about five Hong Kong dollars.

I bet as China becomes more prosperous, either or both of two things are going to happen. Firstly, hand-made noodles will be replaced by cheaper-to-produce, machine-made noodles. Secondly, “pulling” noodles will become more up-scale, moving into expensive shops where the same bowl of noodles will cost fifty Reminbi.

By the way, their faces, clothes, and conversion give me the impression that they are Chinese Muslims.

Seminar at TsingHua University

I did not go to Beijing for leisure. Actually I went there to present a paper at an international conference, and to pay visits to Dr. Zhang Li and Dr. Shi Yuanchun at TsingHua University. The pictures posted here were taken after work.

While at Tsinghua University, I gave a seminar on our own work on Recommender Systems to a group of research students. Recommender systems are used in places like Amazon. When you examine a book at Amazon, it informs you that “customers who bought this item also bought …” That’s an example of a recommender system. Some of them are based on the idea that people who are interested in the same items share some common interest, and you are likely to be interested in the other items that they were interested in. That’s call collaborative filtering. We are doing some work that can make use of the sentiments expressed in textual reviews to make recommendations, and that's what I presented at Tsinghua.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Beijing Salons

I was walking due west on a busy street 鼓樓西大街 in Beijing, when I passed by a shop with full-length glass doors, a red national flag outside, but no obvious name. I was startled to find a young woman in a revealing dress just inside the glass door. Less than 10 meters down the street, a similar shop with glass doors but no name, with another young woman in a revealing dress inside. They looked like salons. But I did not go back to find out, lest I got mistaken as a customer or worse.

I did get across the street to take this picture, in which one of the women is visible on the left. Such salons are common in many cities nowadays, including prominent cities such as Xian 西安, and small cities such as YangXin 陽新 in Hubei. But I was surprised to find them on such a busy street in Beijing.

In the mean time, Beijing is pulling out all stops to look pretty for the Olympics. Just a bit down the same street, two men were putting fresh plaster on old brick walls.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Courtyard Houses (四合院) today

Rectangular courtyard houses are one of the many things Beijing is famous for. Unfortunately many have already been torn down, and many that remain do not look the way they are supposed to. Here is a view looking north from the Drum Tower (鼓樓) over the houses near the Bell Tower (鐘樓).

There are hardly any open courtyards that look like the model – because the courtyards have mostly been filled up by shabby additions.

I peeked into some of the courtyards and these are some of the things that I found.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Family Planning – Beijing Style

A notice on a busy street 地安門外大街 in Beijing, just east of 什剎海. It is self explanatory, if you can read the Chinese. Basically the message is: Having children (e.g., how many, when and how) is not a private matter.

Basketball on the loose

A bunch of students were playing basketball near the school entrance on a busy street 鼓樓西大街 in Beijing, just north of 后海. The ball popped loose and bounced into the street. The whole bunch of boys and girls rushed out but could only watch as a passing car hit the ball, sending it across the street.

On the opposite sidewalk, a young man caught it and tossed it back across the street. I pulled out my camera just in time as a plump boy caught it and ran triumphantly back into the school.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hutongs at Night

The shops at 琉璃廠 were mostly closed already, even though it was only about 7 pm. At the end of the street there was a small but bustling market, so I kept walking, in the direction of 前門.

I made a turn and suddenly the hutong was almost deserted. Three young women were walking ahead, their laughter washing back to me, a man was riding the bicycle, I knew I was very close to 前門, and a woman near the market had confirmed to me the hutong leads to 前門, so I kept going.

Another turn, and I came face to face with the bright lights of 前門. The distance was just a few hundred meters, and the time difference was about 10 minutes, but I seemed to have passed through three different worlds. The hutongs is an amazing world indeed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

DongjiaoMinxiang (Embassy Street, 東交民巷)

Did you ever wonder what happened to 東交民巷, the street famous for the foreign embassies in the late Tsing Dynasty and the early Republic? It is still there in Beijing, just to the east of TienAnMun Square (天安門廣場); in fact, exactly due east of the MaoTseTung Mausoleum. But it is not easy to find from the direction of TienAnMun Square because the entrance has been blocked off but a flight of steps.

It is now a quite street with lots of government departments. Some of the buildings are still there, including 北京市公安局、最高人民法院、最高人民检察院, … When I tried to take a picture of the old French Embassy, which looks governmental now but seemingly without a label, the guard waved me away, politely.

Some of the old buildings are still there. The old Citibank (花旗銀行) is now the Police Museum. The old French Post office is now a rea staurant. The old Saint Michael’s Church (圣米厄尔天主教堂) is, well, still the Saint Michael’s Church – although it is locked up. I did try to take a better picture from a hole in the gate. But there was a police van opposite so I gave it up.

Like many other places in Beijing, there is surreal feeling when one walks in such a place with so much history. I couldn’t help but to imagine what it might have been like 107 years ago, at the height of the Boxers’ Revolution and the subsequent 八国联军入侵北京.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Two Musicians

As I came out of the Beijing Book Building (北京图书大厦 ) near Xidan (西單), a man was playing the saxophone outside the subway station. Perhaps it was the setting sun, or the fact that most people are going home after work, or a bit of both, I was suddenly struck with a feeling of tremendous sadness. Perhaps I am just a sucker for sad, haunting music. Perhaps his story of having no home to go to was just a ploy. Nevertheless I had to give him some money, and judging from the size of the notes in his saxophone case, I gave more than the average.

An hour later, near 大柵欄, and close to 前門, an old man was playing even more haunting erhu (二胡) to an oblivious passing throng. I didn’t know whether it was the difference in the setting, or the instrument, or the crowd, or whatever, nobody stopped to listen, and nobody gave him any money. I could not stand to watch.