Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Marriage Supermarket

I read about it in Tim Harford’s book “The Logic of Life.”

It is a very simple model of marriage. Imagine 20 single guys and 20 single girls in a room. Any man and any woman who present themselves as ‘married’ at the checkout get to collect 100 dollars and leave. Since any couple can collect 100 dollars to split between them, the only question is how to divide the spoils. With equal numbers of men and women, we can expect a 50-50 split.

Imagine an unusual evening in the supermarket, when 20 single women show up but only 19 single men. Would the slight scarcity of men cause the women some inconvenience? Or a major disaster? Would the split of the money be slightly different from 50-50, say 52-48? Or 99.99-0.01?

I will post the answer tomorrow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Green Laser Pointers

These are similar to the red laser pointers, but much brighter. While the red lasers have a wavelength of about 660 nanometers (nm), the greens have a shorter wavelength at 532 nm. Because the human eye is much more sensitive to green light, it appears to be much brighter. This one was made in China and is said to have a maximum output power of 300mW. I doubt that it is really that powerful. But it is powerful enough to be awesome.

In the dark, not just the dot, but even the beam is clearly visible from more than 100 meters away; and the initial burst is much brighter. When used on a slide projected onto the screen in a normal class room setting, the brightness of the dot overpowers the projected words.

Something similar to this one is available on the Internet for about 60 US dollars. On Temple Street in Hong Kong, you can buy one for about 80 Hong Kong dollars.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Desperately Staying Healthy

It is so hard to exercise in Hong Kong. It seems that the whole society is conspiring to discourage people from staying healthy. It has gotten to the point that those few hardy souls that are determined to engage in sports despite the forbidding environment often seem distinctively desperate.

Just watch these people rowing a dragon boat in front of mountains of garbage, near the Chai Wan Typhoon Shelter.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mixed-code Teaching

Most parents in Hong Kong would like their children to be taught in English. However, less than one-third of all students are considered to be capable of learning in English. And we really don’t have enough teachers who are teach effectively in English. The percentage of students and teachers truly capable of learning and teaching in English comfortably is definitely less than one-third. My guess is that it is closer to one-tenth.

The rest should really be taught in the students’ mother tongue. Unfortunately, many parents refuse to accept that their children are better taught in Chinese. And it true that it is a big handicap when these children eventually enter universities in Hong Kong, which are all nominally teaching in English. In addition, it is a disadvantage not being familiar with the English versions of the terminologies, concepts, expressions of your profession if you learn exclusively in Chinese. I come to this conclusion after observing many graduates from Chinese universities.

What is the solution? One way out is to allow so called mixed-code teaching, perhaps in the form of using English textbooks while allowing the teachers and students to converse in Chinese. This is vehemently condemned by the government, from a purity point of view. They insist that each subject must be either taught in English with English texts, or in Chinese with Chinese texts.

Forcing students and teachers weak in English to use English exclusively is ineffective and, worse, actually kills the students’ interest to learn. However, many parents will not accept having their children being taught in Chinese exclusively.

Some highly respected teachers and headmasters feel that so called mixed-code teaching is an acceptable compromise.

Funny that we seldom hear from the students themselves their views on this matter. I understand many of them prefer mixed-code learning. Am I correct?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

UK vs HK (academic standards)

25% of all GCSE A-levels are awarded an A grade.

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. GCSE A-level examinations are taken by 19 years old in the UK, as the de facto entrance examination for universities. The equivalent examination in Hong Kong is the HK A-Level, or Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination.

Less than 4% of HK A-Levels are awarded an A grade.

Are the UK students 6 times better than their HK counterparts? Of course not. An UK study has shown that a C in the HKAL is on a par with an A in the GCSE A-Level.

In the UK, grade inflation is making it difficult for elite universities to choose their students. Cambridge has been said to turn away 5,000 students with straight A’s each year.

In HK, the As are so hard to get that the really good students (with multiple As) are self evident. The problems come at the lower ranges.

And when Hong Kong students try to apply to overseas universities, that’s when they are really disadvantaged. Most admissions officers at overseas universities are unaware of the great discrepancies among the standards of different education systems.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tough and enduring Love

K and S love each other. K had come to believe in God but S was not convinced. K started to attend church regularly, went through a year’s worth of Sunday School, and was baptised.

They wanted to get married. But K knew that there would be lots of problems if she marries someone who does not share her Christian faith, because of the differences in world views and values. So she decided to hold off marrying S until he becomes a Christian.

A stalemate seemed to have developed. S would accompany K to church but would turn sullen whenever the matter of faith came up. K loved S but was determined to wait for him to change his mind about God. This went on for years.

At a Christmas party hosted by their Christian friends, a conversation caused S to say to this God (which he did not believe to exist), “If you are real, then please reveal yourself to me.” And God did.

They have since gotten married, and S has also been baptised. I have heard the story before. But when I heard it again at S’s baptism last Sunday, I couldn’t help but be touched again at how powerful love can be, and how mysteriously God works. I have always tried to be rational and analytical in everything, even in matters of faith. But love and God is just as real, and more powerful.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Territories Burials

The “indigenous inhabitants”of villages in the New Territories seem to have many privileges not enjoyed by the rest of the citizens of Hong Kong. The most prominent and controversial is the right to build and own “small houses” (丁屋). Essentially, each male descendant of those “indigenous inhabitants” is entitled to build and own one of those three-story small houses. Even for those who have emigrated overseas, or who were born overseas! And these small houses are exempted from paying the “rates”, a form of land tax.

Many people in Hong Kong feel it is blatantly unfair. Why it is that other long term residents in Hong Kong, Kowloon and the new Territories are not entitled to similar privileges? Particularly when the lands in Hong Kong are so extremely valuable, largely due to the restrictive (some say manipulative) policies in Hong Kong.

The other privilege, receiving less attention, is the right to bury their dead all over the hills in the New Territories. There are numerous sumptuous graves, pots of bones placed openly, or half buried haphazardly by the roadside. I was told that the right applied only to those buried before a certain time in the past, with certain restrictions. But even limited burial rights is infinitely more than the rest of Hong Kong residents enjoy. And many of the graves and storage pots were rather suspiciously new-looking.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ShaLoTung (沙螺洞)

This place is full of ironies. Had the villagers remained to farm the land around it, it would have remained a quaint little village.

It is more likely, however, that three-storey 丁屋s would have been built, with access roads cutting through the fresh water wetlands so treasured now. Making it just another Hong Kong style concrete village. Valuable purely as a piece of real estate.

Abandoned, it has been taken over by vegetation, dragonflies, butterflies, ants, and what not - transformed into a treasured nature preserve, unintentionally.

I would not bet on it remaining this way for long - given that this is Hong Kong.

Monday, March 16, 2009

九龍坑山. 沙螺洞. 鶴藪

A bunch of us old friends from my secondary school went up Cloudy Hill (九龍坑山) on Saturday. It was a cool, sunny day, perfect weather for hiking. And we were richly rewarded for our efforts. Looking back over the hills that we climbed, towards TaiPo, where we started from, we were impressed by how far we had travelled already. The view was unusually clear at this time of the year, and particularly for this place. This hill is called Cloudy Hill for a reason.

The real Cloudy Hill was actually still ahead, with another steep slope to climb. To the left we can see Fanling. There was a feeling that we could observe Hong Kong from a distance, and be somewhat detached from it. Worldly cares seemed far away; material success did seem not that important, ...

From the top of Cloudy Hill, we could see quite far away: TaiPo, ToLo Harbour, MaOnShan, ..., on one side. On the other, FanLing and beyond.

Coming down Cloudy Hill, we went to ShaLoTung (沙羅洞, 沙螺洞). It is a village abandoned by its inhabitants. Vegetation has already taken over most of the open and not so open places. However, many people are now fighting over it because some developers want to develop it into a golf course or something. While some other people want to somehow preserve the valuable natural environment around it. I have a feeling sooner or later the developers are going to win. In Hong Kong, money speaks the loudest.

We went past a couple of small reservoirs near 鶴藪. They were really beautiful. We knew we were not far from civilization. But for a moment, we could really pretend that we had removed ourselves from it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


草泥馬 - 顽强的神兽 (国骂)
卧草 - 草泥马的主要食物
草泥 - 培植卧草的泥土
马勒戈壁 - 草泥马们的生活环境
河蟹 - 对卧草进行了斩草除根的掠夺


(I cannot be sure that the article on the left was not made-up, although some people vouched for its authenticity.)

Friday, March 13, 2009


This is a brand-new modern fairy tale causing quite a stir in mainland China recently. Some carefree grass-mud-horses were enjoying themselves on the grassland; suddenly evil river-crabs came out of nowhere to destroy the habitat, ... I heard of it for the first time about half a month ago. It has now made it onto the New York Times.

It is actually political satire, and part of the phrase is vulgar in Putonghua. Google it if you haven’t seen it yet. There is a lot more behind the story, which helps us understand the Internet culture in mainland. Just don’t say the phrase aloud in Putonghua. At least not while you are in mainland China.

Have fun.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) 香港中學文憑考試

In 2012, secondary school leavers will take the HKDSE instead of the existing HKCEE and HKALE. Currently most students study 9 subjects from form 4 to form 5. In the new system with the HKDSE, it is expected that the majority of students will study 6 subjects from form 4 to form 6: the 4 compulsory subjects of English, Chinese, Mathematics, and General Education, plus 2 elective subjects.

Some of us educators are rather concerned that, under the new system, the students will turn out to be narrower in scope than those under the current systems. Instead of 9 subjects, most students will study only 6.

One of the objectives of the education reform is to not force the students to specialize too early. By restricting the number of subjects that the students take, ostensibly to reduce the pressure on the students, the system actually forces the students to specialize in a much smaller set of subjects, much earlier than in the current system. It is not a desirable situation. Somehow in Hong Kong, we have a habit of saying one thing, while doing the opposite in reality.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fish Mongering - Cantonese Style

We Cantonese like our fish fresh, preferably alive until we cook it. These in the photograph are mostly grass carp (草鱼, 鲩鱼), except the right on the right, which is a big head carp (大頭魚, 大魚, 黒鰱).

Because the fish is so big, weighting at least several pounds each, most people buy only a piece of it. So the fishmonger cuts up a fish, which is still alive, for display and easy picking by the customer. Often the heart of the fish is still beating even after it is cut into pieces. Fish blood is smudged on it to make it look fresh. So they tend to look red.

Contrast it with the way western style fish mongers display their fish. Typically all blood is washed away, making the fish look white.

Which way do you prefer? Red? or white?

It has been said that we Chinese like our fish to look like a fish as long as possible, even after it is cook, until the moment we put it into our mouths. Westerners, on the other hand, do not like to be reminded that they are eating fish. So they chop off the head, skin the fish, remove the bones, cover up the aroma, to make it look and smell like a piece of bread.

Which way do you prefer? Natural? or processed?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Egret bumping into wall

An egret bumping into a wall?

Actually the egret was flying through the vertical beams protecting the pier, to land on a horizontal beam.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Disorienting orientation

It took me a while to figure out why I felt so disoriented looking at the maps. The map on the right is oriented such that South is UP, while the map (of the same place) on the left is oriented such that West is UP. While standing in front of the maps, the reader is actually facing approximately South-East! It was as if someone was trying to confuse me on purpose.

Both maps are oriented poorly enough by themselves. Maps normally have North as UP; or the direction in which the reader is facing as UP. And when the two maps are placed side by side ... the result is worse. Obviously nobody bothered to consider the actual impact on the poor user.

What an expensive shopping mall (Elements)! But what a terrible design - from the user’s point of view! The designers really should take our subject on User Interface Design!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Traffic Accident

It was an accident just outside the Cross Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hom last Saturday morning. Evidently the motor cycle bumped into the sedan even though I did not actually see it happen. No matter whose fault it was, the sedan was only slightly dented but the driver of the motor cycle had to be sent to the hospital.

Someone characterizes people driving sedans as being encased in metal, while people driving motor cycles are wrapping themselves around chunks of metal. Not hard to see who would have the upper hand in a crash.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Writing Competition - Hong Kong Style

The items in the first photograph appear in a poster.

The poster is promoting a writing competition in a local university.

Ironic, isn't it? A poster for a writing competition that is strewn with errors?

Often the problem is not that a person is not capable of writing better. It is more likely that the person does not make the effort to write better.

Science and Faith

Many people claim that science and faith belong to different realms. Science is all about facts, evidences, reasoning, and definite answers. While faith is about believing in things unseen, without evidence. Hence the two do not, and should not mix.

I do not agree.

Science is about finding best explanations for observations. However, not everything can be validated with experiments. Hence some degree of belief is involved. In particular, on important questions such as the origin of the universe and the origin of life, science cannot provide complete and definite answers, at least not yet. But, for most people, it is important to have at least tentative answers to some of these questions. We cannot wait for science to come up with all the answers, which may never happen. Hence some degree of faith is inevitable, for us to get through life.

On the other hand, it is not true that all faith are blind. There are a lot of facts, observations and reasoning involved, at least in the Christian faith as far as I can tell. So science does have a lot to offer when it comes to answering some of the most important questions in life, such as the purpose of life and where the human race is headed.

Science and faith must talk with each other. Life is too precious to be left to chance alone.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Losing a job

K was a highly successful manager, with hundreds of people working under him. Then he lost his job in the financial tsunami. At first he was confident of finding a comparable job. There were actually some offers. But he rejected them because those were not desirable for various reasons: too low-level, having to work in China, etc. Months went by, and still no success. Financially he was not yet desperate but it was emotionally very disconcerting. Then he broke up with his girl friend. His world was falling apart.

A friend brought him to church. In the past he would not have acquiesced. But this time, he found relief. He cried almost every time he came to church. And soon he decided to put his faith in God. He has made some new friends at church, who seem genuinely interested in him as a person, not because he was successful.

He found himself talking to his former subordinates. In the past, he commanded and scolded them, but never really talked to them. Now they have become friends. He started to spend more time with his sons, who were living with his ex-wife. He was also getting on very well with his ex-wife. He is now reading much more, and praying regularly.

He is still struggling with God. He thinks that he has learned his lesson, and he does not understand why God does not give him back a job comparable to his old one. He has so much experience and was so good at his job, that it would be a terrible waste not to have an opportunity to make use of his professional expertise.

Surely his struggle with God will continue. But all in all, he has become a better person through his ordeal. Sometimes, good things do result from undesirable events. If we can trust in God.

PS: What was that in the photo?