Friday, February 27, 2009

Theory of Reading Habits in Hong Kong

Theorem 1: The number of books that a Hong Kong student reads is inversely proportional to the student’s grade and age.


1. Students in primary schools, particularly in the lower grades, read a fair amount.

2. Parents of students in lower grades are more likely to take them to libraries to read and to borrow books, and to buy books for them.

3. At book fairs, there are usually more shops and books targeting younger readers. There are also more younger children.

4. Parents tend to spend less time with their children as the children grow older.

5. Parents give their children more money as they spend less time with their children.

6. The distance between parents and children grow larger as the children grow older.

7. Parents give their children more money as the distance between them grow larger.

8. Children are more likely to ask for computer games than books.

9. Given a choice, students are more likely to spend their money on computer games and comics rather than real books.

10. Students spend more time playing computer games as they grow older.

11. A common refrain among parents: my son/daughter USED TO like reading.

12. Students read fewer books as they grow older.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Killed by Books (2)

I read the book (活在書堆下) in one go last evening. As a result I slept late and went through today like a zombie. The book is a collection of articles about Law (羅志華) and the bookshop (青文書屋). Everybody was saying essentially the same thing. Very repetitive. But I want to get a feeling of what people think of him and what he did.

The bookshop nurtured many writers and readers. It was an important part of the literary scene for a while but had been in decline for many years before it was forced to close. He was not a shrewd businessman. He was not even a writer himself. He sold books, helped readers find books, and helped writers publish books. Everyone appreciated his dedication to books. But ... he was fighting for a lost cause. Few people in Hong Kong read. And even fewer read literature, history and philosophy. He had fewer and fewer customers.

I wonder what he is thinking now. Is it enough that he persevered in doing what he believed in? Even though few people seemed to care?

In principle we should care only whether we are doing the right thing, and not how people think of us. But we are social animals, and we crave recognition, acceptance, and respect.

Killed by Books (活在書堆下 - 羅志華 - 青文書屋)

A year ago, Law Chi-wah (羅志華) was killed when stacks of books fell on him in his warehouse. A year later, his friends published this book in memory of him.

As far as I know, he is the only person ever killed by falling books. Some people, apparently without malice, consider that it is actually an apt - even though extremely sad - way for him to die. For he was the long-term proprietor of 青文書屋 (1981 - 2006), one of the original “Second floor bookshops” (二樓書店 ) in Hong Kong. These bookshops specialize in literature, history and philosophy. They were popular among certain readers for a while, and actually helped to nurture some of the few writers in Hong Kong. I had been to 青文, but cannot remember whether I had actually met Law in person.

“Popular” is, of course, a relative term. Second floor bookshops did not choose to open on the upper floors, where they are hard to find, visibility and traffic are low, ... Not many people actually read books in Hong Kong to start with. Hence bookshops that specialize in unpopular topics such as literature, history and philosophy really cater to the minority among the minority. Hence they have to move to the upper floors because of the lower rent.

And with the appearance of large chain bookstores in recent years, second floor bookshops are essentially doomed, and many have already closed. 青文書屋 itself was forced to close in 2006. Since then, Law had been storing his books in a warehouse, and trying to find a place to re-open his bookshop. Before he died, he had actually rented a place at the Shek Kip Mei Creative Arts Center (石硤尾創意藝術中心). Now, it seems, his friends may be able to revive his dream. Being a dreamer myself, I do hope that they succeed.

In any case, it is not a flattering portrait of Hong Kong.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Little Human Drama on the Street

A little boy was crying on the busy sidewalk. He was probably lost. People stopped to look.

A young man wearing flowery pants and flip-flops stopped to inquire. He asked the boy for his mother’s telephone number.

The young man called the boy’s mother using his own mobile phone.

A couple of minutes later, the mother appeared to re-claim the boy.

I applaud this young man in flowery pants.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Evolution and Intelligent Design (2)

I like Anonymous’s comments on my original post so much I am reproducing them here for better access.


1) There cannot be scientific proof of the existence of a god. There can neither be scientific proof of the non-existence of a god.

2) In a nutshell, nothing --> simple elements --> inorganic compounds --> organic matter --> simple life forms --> complex fife forms --> humans is evolution. About 10 years after Pasteur's refutation of spontaneous generation, Darwin mentioned the idea of abiogenesis, "some warm little pond" in a letter. This is the area of chemical evolution, though of course he didn't use the term.

3) There is microevolution, and macroevolution. No one argues with microevolution. Microevolution is slight, short-term evolutionary changes within species. Macroevolution is the origin and diversification of species. ID questions whether Darwinian evolution (abiogenesis, common ancestor, descent with modification, natural selection, random genetic mutation) can account for the many macroevolutionary changes and the origin of biological complexity.

4) Have there been detailed mechanisms or models of intermediates in the development of complex biological structures? There are alternative explanations for homologous structures and universally shared biochemical processes etc. (The scientific method cannot be used to argue for evolution here. So is evolution really science? Evolutionists' arguments are: it must have happened in this way. But give me the evidence please.)

5) Scientists should be allowed to follow evidences to the conclusions, even though they may feel uncomfortable with the conclusions. a priori commitment to only naturalistic explanations is a 'religious faith' in science itself.

6) The naturalistic worldview has dominated academia for the past 150 years. It is naive to think there is no persecution for dissidents. Just check out what happened to Prof. Reiss (himself an evolutionist) of the Royal Society in Sept 2008. Even suggestions for debating evolution are not allowed.

7) Scientists are people too. We have our likes and dislikes and prejudices. Science done by people cannot be totally neutral.

Evolutionists believe the universe has no design, no purpose. The inevitable outlook is: humans are one big (or maybe just a small) accident. They don't know where they are going. To me, this is sad. But maybe since there's no evolutionary advantage of being sad, natural selection will select for pitiless indifference.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Naturalistic Dogma

I would like to thank Malcolm and Anonymous to make such detailed and thoughtful comments on my thoughts on “Evolution and Intelligent Design”. I agree with some of the points raised by Malcolm but not all of them. And I agree completely with Anonymous. Her original comments are highly recommended.

To continue with the discussion:--

Hundreds of years ago, some scientists were oppressed by people in power because what the scientists theorized were thought to be incompatible with the then dominant view of what the world was like.

Gradually the naturalistic worldview has achieved ascendancy, even dominance in the scientific world.

It is so ironic that once in power, people who hold naturalistic world views turn around to exclude everyone who want to even consider dissenting views.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Evolution and Intelligent Design

There is currently a fierce but lop-sided debate in Hong Kong regarding the teaching of alternate theories to evolution and natural selection, and more specifically, Intelligent Design.

The dominant position, as seen from the media, is that evolution is the only acceptable scientific theory. By evolution, it is meant (with gross simplification): nothing -> simple elements -> inorganic compounds -> organic matter -> simple life forms -> complex life forms -> animals -> humans. According to this view, theories such as Intelligent Design are simply religious dogma and must be banned from any discussions of science, even in a university.

As far I can understand, Intelligent Design argues that certain features of the universe and living things are so complex that it is unlikely to be produced by undirected processes such as natural selection, but more likely to be produced by an intelligent cause. To me, this argument is worthy of being investigated in science. It may be wrong, but let us see the arguments and the evidences before we decide. That is the spirit of science.

Researchers in Intelligent Design should submit their arguments and evidences to reputable conferences and journals just like other scientific researchers. Let their peers review and debate the merit of their work.

Whether Intelligent Design is science is not the decision of reporters, talk show hosts, government officials, and even university administrators. It should be the domain of fellow scientists.

Banning the discussion of such theories from scientific studies is dogmatic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Object-oriented Brain

The so called Object-oriented Method in Computer Science was developed to program large and complex systems. It is based on the concept of modularization - the breakdown of a complex system into smaller modules. Each of the modules should be cohesive - the elements within the module are closely tied to each other, i.e., objects within each module communicate with each other frequently. The modules, however, should only be loosely coupled to each other - the communication among modules should be few and infrequent. These modules are then called objects. There is, of course, more to the object-oriented method but cohesion (within modules and objects) and loose coupling (among modules and objects) are the fundamental principles of the method.

Now the brain. The brain is essentially composed of about 100 billion neurons, which communicate with each other through electrical signals along fibers called axons. Each neuron can be considered to be a very simply computer. Upon closer inspection, the neurons are not distributed evenly. They are lumped together in clumps. Within each clump, the neurons are close to each other and tightly connected through the axons. Among the clumps. the connections are longer, but fewer. So the neuron clumps are cohesive internally, but loosely coupled externally.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The brain is object-oriented! That shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. Computer scientists have discovered that modularization is an efficient way to organize programs and information systems. And the brain is obviously an efficient computational organism. Scientists have simply discovered something that God and nature have known for a long time.

It is an amazing world, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blood Donation on campus

The Red Cross has come to our campus again to run the biannual blood donation week. This is the 40+ time that I have donated blood. But I was still a bit nervous the moment the nurse stuck the needle into my arm. Once the needle was inserted, however, I settled down and almost dozed off.

Each day, on average, 100+ people would donate 450 cc of blood on campus during the week. At the end of the week, 200+ litres of blood would be collected. It sounds a lot. However, considering that there are 10,000+ fullt-time students and staff in the university, less than 5 percent of us would donate. I am sure we can do better.

Our bodies would make up for the lost blood quickly. Other than a little discomfort when the needle is inserted, there is little or no cost to the donor. The blood, however, can be invaluable to those who need it.

Not all of us can give a lot of money to help others. Blood, however, is something most of us who are reasonably healthy can afford to give. Please join in.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tun Mun Sunset

We were in Tun Mun for a wedding banquet and I took the chance to watch the sunset. It is one of the few pleasures in Tun Mun - watching the sunset over the ocean. In this case, because it is Hong Kong, the sun was actually setting over a bunch of cargo ships. Nevertheless, it was beautiful in its own way.

The wedding itself was quite remarkable. K and S have been dating for several years, when my wife and I met Karen through Sunday School at church. S is a Christian and wants to marry a Christian. Unfortunately, S was not and was rather strong in his un-belief. So it was a stalemate. We wanted to get to know them better, so we invited them to our Christmas party in 2007. We did get to talk with S about faith a bit but there was no obvious change in S’s position.

Shortly afterwards, we were in a prayer meeting at church, and I found myself in a small group with S and C, a non-believer. I braced myself for a discussion on faith with two non-believers.
Amazingly, I heard S trying to convince C that God does answer prayers. It turned out that he had decided to commit himself to God! Naturally, K was overjoyed and so were we. The rest, of course, is history. Today, we attended their touching wedding ceremony in the 80 year old Union Church in Yau Ma Tei and the beautiful banquet in a marquee in Tun Mun.

All we can say is that God works in mysterious ways, and we are thankful.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What to do on Valentine’s Day?

I am not opposed to telling your loved one you love her on Valentine’s Day. But I am opposed to spending a lot of money buying overpriced chocolates, flowers, expensive gifts and the like for Valentine’s Day. There must be better ways to say “I love you.”

So what did I do? I wrote my wife a letter. Actually a special entry in a journal that I have been writing for her for years - although I have to admit I have not been writing very frequently lately. As to the contents of the journal? That is between me and her.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Value Proxy

Read Montague described a simple but revealing experiment on monkeys conducted by Wolfram Schultz in his fascinating book “How We Make Decisions.” In the experiment, lights precede the arrival of juice squirts a short time later. When the light is initially presented, there is no change in the dopamine activity in the monkey’s brain, that is, the light is initially considered “things are just as expected.” However, the arrival of the juice a short time later causes a burst of activity in the dopamine neurons; that is, “things are better than expected.”

If the light-juice sequence is repeatedly delivered to the monkey, two remarkable things happen. The juice no longer triggers a burst of activity. Instead, the light triggers a burst of activity. That is, the monkey’s brain responds to the light in the same fashion that it reacted initially to the juice. The light has become a “value proxy” for the future juice delivery.

The light has become a form of money - which stands for future value in the world of human beings. Money enables us to buy the things that give us satisfaction: food, entertainment, leisure, enjoyment, ...

This phenomenon is a part of neural reinforcement learning. It gives the system (brain) more time to prepare its actions, hence more time to avoid costly, energy-wasting decisions. It makes us more efficient.

Unfortunately, we human beings often mistake the value proxy for the real value. We laugh at the monkey that jumps at the light but ignores the juice. But we ourselves think money is value, and we hoard money. Why don’t we laugh at ourselves?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Marathon and frailty

Looking at the crowd running the full marathon, it is fair to say that I am older than most of the runners, by a large margin. And - although there is absolutely no chance for me to win, I believe I am fitter than most of the people at my age.

It is, of course, exhilarating to run in the marathon, to be able to complete the 42+ kilometers, to block out the excruciating pain in the thighs, the calfs, and the heels, and to run through the last kilometer in the crowded streets of Causeway Bay. Yet even deep in the euphoria that follows the finish, I could not shake the nagging sense of frailty.

My veins have become more prominent, my skin has become thinner, my muscles have lost much of their firmness, my knees have lost much of their strength, ...

More exercises, a healthier diet, less work, less stress, and more rests can help my body last a bit longer. But the inevitable is going to happen soon or later. One day my body simply will not be able to keep going. What is going to happen then?

I am not really scared; because I believe I will live on and be with God afterwards. Yet there is much uncertainty. How is it going to happen? What will it be like? There is much evidence that God is there, Jesus is His Son, and if we believe in Him we will be with Him when we pass from this world. But, still, how can we be sure since so much is not yet known? ... Is that why it is called faith - to believe in God who is not yet seen?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

My last full marathon

I was in excruciating pain for about an hour and a half - the last third of my marathon this morning. My legs were cramping all over, even in places where I did not know I have muscles. My heels were hurting so badly I could barely stand, let alone walk or run. But I did survive, and finished in about 5 hours and 15 minutes.

This time I am really going to quit. I actually trained harder this year. But whatever improvement I gained was probably offset by the deterioration in my body - I am getting that much older each year.

But it was also fun while it lasted. The anticipation, the hope, the what ifs, ..., at the starting line was intoxicating.

And I now have proof that there are 5 sharks among the marathoners; that sharks also go to the bathroom, that there are some beautiful people in those shark skins, that sharks are actually friendly - some of them anyway.

And I get to run on the Tsing Ma Bridge (青馬大橋) again. Running in the marathon is pretty much the only practical way to get to walk on the bridge. That would , reason enough to give it a try. And then there is the Ting Kau Bridge (汀九橋), the Western Cross-Harbour Tunnel, ...

And I crossed the finish line at the same time as one of the members of the Legislative Council that I can respect: Leung Yiu Chung (梁耀忠).

So it was a painful but also fun-filled day. As of now, I can hardly stand on my feet. I hope I get better tomorrow, when I have to give a lecture.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Cart Pushing

On this Saturday morning, I was trying to find a quiet place to read my newspaper when the woman passed by with her heavy cart. This is, in fact, a common sight in Hong Kong. Many people, young and old, make their living this way.

My first thought was that it was heavy, dirty and dangerous work - just look at the cars, taxis, and particularly minibuses and double-deckers zipping around her.

Then I felt a bit guilty. Here I was, trying to enjoy my newspaper in leisure, while the old lady was doing such heavy work for a living. (I was going to go back to my office afterwards, honestly.)

She had probably worked hard all her life. Shouldn’t she have saved enough for a retirement? Even if she hadn’t herself, shouldn’t her family, her children take care of her? Even if they couldn’t, shouldn’t our society provide our old folks with a dignified retirement? Why - Hong Kong is one of the wealthier places, and we do have some of the wealthiest people in the world, who easily spend a million dollars on a family vacation.

Do some people really have to work until they drop dead?

Are we really not our brothers’ keepers?

What do we say to our maker when we meet Him?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Chinese or English

All my life, we have been debating the medium of instruction in Hong Kong. Most people seem to assume that there should just be one language, and the question is simply: which one.

The fact is, many children can master two languages, even two languages as different as Chinese and English - if they (and their parents) are determined enough and are given the appropriate environment.

It is not the government’s role to dictate who should learn in which language. It is arrogant of the government to assume that it knows better than the parents and the students themselves what is good for them. People who really want it, and are willing to work hard for it, should be given the chance to try. The community’s, and the government’s role is to provide the environment for those who want to, to try to learn the language, or languages, of their choice. Most people want to learn both.

The reality is that there are not enough good English teachers, and teachers who can teach well in English. The environment for learning and using English in daily life is also insufficient, and have been in decline since 1997.

Does the community have the will to make the effort and sacrifices, to help its children to succeed and soar like a kite?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Model boat racing in Victoria Park

Decades ago, my father used to take me to Victoria Park to watch people race model motor boats. I loved watching the speed boats chase each other around the circular pool. Looking back, I now realize we were quite poor and most of our entertainment had to be free. But at the time, I did not feel poor at all. Perhaps it was because most the people around us were equally poor. In any case, my parents did a great job shielding us kids from some of the harsh realities of life.

I have moved on since then, and I have forgotten about the pool, until yesterday. I just happened to pass by the pool and couldn’t identify the noise at first. Then the memories came flooding back.

The pool has been re-modelled, essentially pulled into an elongated circle, allowing the boats to run in a straight-line for a little while, building up speed. The boats are much faster now, with much more powerful engines; they literally jump off the water like the real speed boats.

I can afford to pay for some entertainment now. But watching the boats chase each other is still great entertainment for the little kid in me. I should take my father there sometime.

There does not seem to be too many kids there now. Kids these days have many more ways to entertain themselves. But I am not sure whether it is really such a good thing.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Is a kite (麻鷹) free?

I saw a beautiful kite (麻鷹) flying leisurely over the typhoon shelter in Causeway Bay this afternoon, seemingly without a care in the world. In reality, of course, it was just circling again and again, trying to catch a fish like the egret.

So, what was going on in the mind of the kite? Was it enjoying the freedom, being able to fly anywhere it wants, whenever it wants, to see anything from higher above everybody else?

Or was it actually grumbling that it was condemned to fly in circles all day, trying to catch the same old smelly fish again and again?

Is freedom just a matter of the state of the mind? Can we really be free in spite of our surroundings?