Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hiking, Gansu style

On the last day, a Saturday morning, we took the kids hiking. It turned out that it was the kids that gave us a lesson on climbing, and courage.

We have been walking leisurely towards a mountain for some time. Suddenly I heard some people shouting, raised my head, and saw some of the kids climbing the mountain. At first, I couldn’t quite understand why people were shouting. Then I realized that I was standing at the rim of a deep gorge.

Apparently some kids flew down the gorge carved out by a river (from the left side of the photo), crossed the muddy river, and ran up the opposite side (right side of the photo) in no time. Most of us were stuck on this side, trying to decide whether to take the suicidal plunge.

Despite my vertigo, I did screw up enough courage (actually foolhardiness) to slide down the gorge gingerly. Unfortunately (or fortunately), one of us was not feeling well and decided to climb back up. So, in an act of chivalry (as well as self-preservation), I climbed back up in company.

Many of us were even more conservative than I was and simply stayed on the rim.

The kids were really fantastic.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Interactive remote e-teaching

We have built up a strong relationship with the school since our first visit in January 2008. The school is isolated in a remote place, and finds it difficult to recruit teachers. One way to overcome this problem is to build up a system to support interactive online teaching between Hong Kong and the school.

We have already organized and tested several video conferences during our visits. We tried a variety of software, cameras, lighting situations, and other settings. The results are quite encouraging.

We are now setting up a weekly class throughout summer, after we return to Hong Kong. Initially we will target English and IT classes, with PolyU students and professors taking up the first classes. We plan to bring in other collaborating primary and secondary schools in the future. To be effective, the system has to be inexpensive, easy to set up, and support effective teaching. If the arrangements are satisfactory, it can be a good model for other schools with similar problems.

Looking back, we have achieved a lot over the week, and we are proud of our students who worked so hard.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What about H1N1?

We were under some pressure to cancel the trip to Gansu because of the swine flu. We studied the guidelines from WHO, the government, and the university. We consulted other departments, our students, and the Jubilee School. Our students were all eager to go, the Jubilee School had been expecting us for a long time, and several other trips similar to ours organized by other departments were going or had already gone. Eventually we decided that we should take all reasonable precautions, but go ahead with the trip.

We wore masks in the airport and on the plane, took the temperature of the students every morning, gave them vitamin C, and gave them alcohol gel for cleansing. We left Hong Kong on Sunday, 21st June and returned to Hong Kong on 1st July. Thank God nothing happened and no one caught the swine flu.

Soccer in Gansu

It was not all just work at Jubilee. There were lots of fun too.

When I saw my students playing with the kids there, I felt I had to join them. Initially I felt like a big bully, playing against kids a third, or even a fourth of my age, and a foot shorter. But they were fearless. They enjoyed it so much that they were begging me to play with them every time they saw me afterwards. I felt like 19 years old again.

RFID Library System

We have successfully developed and installed a library management system based on RFID. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, a kind of smart card like the Octopus in Hong Kong. A code that identifies the book is written into a small chip embedded in a plastic card, which is them attached to the book. This makes it very easy to perform check in, check out, taking stock, etc. We have been doing some work with RFIDs in the eToy Lab. So when Jubilee made the request, we decided to write a program using RFID to help them manage the 1,000+ books at the school.

Inevitably, it turned out to be more complicated than was initially specified. We have to write the programs, enter the information about all the books into the database, check and correct hte many mistakes, code the RFID tags, attach the RFID tags to the books, and test everything. Requests for additional functions were made, and more time and efforts were needed. But our team of students, particularly Gi and L, persevered, and deployed the system successfully. It is very gratifying to see a development project completed.

Some may considered an RFID-based system to be an overkill. For example, a bar code-based system may suffice. However, we are familiar with the technology, it is an good opportunity for our students to work on a practical system with state of the art technology, and a good showcase for use of information technology for Jubilee. So it is a good project to undertake.

It was also a good opportunity for our students to learn how to work together with other people. Inevitably, there are differences in opinion, judgement, working styles and attitudes. There were arguments and conflicts. Ultimately, they found ways to work together. Differences were side-stepped, if not resolved. It also allow us teachers to get to know the abilities, temperaments, strengths, and weaknesses of our students.

We have always emphasized that this is service learning, in which both the service and the learning are important. We are going to review the performance of each of the students with them, and give each a report card. Hopefully, they will find them useful for self understanding and improvement. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to set up the projects, manage the projects and the students, and to guide the students. The efforts are not always appreciated by the students nor the university. But on the balance, it is still worth it - because of our faith and convictions. And I have to say I am privileged to be able to work with my collaborator G, the prime mover of most of these projects.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teaching Programming in Gansu

We are helping the school build up a competitive advantage in information technology. When we set up the computer laboratory for them last year, we installed a number of interesting applications, hoping that they would find them useful. Therefore, it was very gratifying to come back this year to find that one of the young teachers there had taught the kids to use Google Earth. Most of the kids have never touched a computer before we set up the computer laboratory last year. It is quite amazing to see them looking for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan using Google Earth, and then sending the information to their teacher. She is an amazingly creative teacher - particularly in consideration that she did not attend a teacher's college.

We have also tried out a number of ideas for the curriculum, including teaching LEGO Mindstorms robotics and Scratch programming. The kids are very receptive and pick up on the concepts quite quickly. There are also three young teacher who can potentially co-teach this subject. So we are going to develop a curriculum for the coming school year for primary 5, together with the teachers. The school is quite excited by the prospects and so are we.

A boy and a girl, both quite eager and sharp, were working together on a Scratch animation. The girl used the mouse to drag and drop an icon to create a new action in the animation; the boy typed some text for a character in the animation to “speak”; the girl pressed the enter key; the girl use the mouse to generate another action; ... Amazing cooperative learning, without explicit coaching from us. They simply worked it out among themselves so that both can get in the action without denying the other. If only we can coach that systematically.

It clear that indeed we can teach those kids programming. Both Mindstorm robotics and Scratch worked well. Robotics is more tangible and provides more physical interactions. Unfortunately, there is not enough equipment to provide each student with a set, and it can easily lead to conflicts. Hence we are inclined to focus on Scratch. Now we are working our the year-long curriculum with the teachers.

Overall, it is very gratifying to see that our work has generated some promising results. The orphan school is on its way to become a pioneering school in information technology in the area.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Teaching in Gansu

One of the major tasks this year is to assist the teachers here in using IT to enhance teaching. In previous years we have already given them workshops on various things such as searching on the Internet, downloading useful reference material, incorporating them in powerpoint presentations, etc.

This year we selected 6 lessons in various subjects, ask our students to make lessons plans and prepare the material for those lessons, and actually go into the class rooms to teach the lessons for the teachers. The idea is to show the teachers how to use IT to prepare actual lesson plans, search for teaching material, produce the material, and in general make the classes more interactive, lively, and interesting. When it is appropriate, we will use a computer to go online, use multimedia, etc., and project the images for the students.

Afterwards we will review the experience with the teachers, observe how the teachers teach, and try to help them in their preparations and teaching as needed. The process will last 3 days and we have just finished the first day.

Through this, and other tasks, we hope to make a more long-lasting impact on the school. We are building up a long term collaborating relationship with them, and are committed to helping the school improve its teaching and caring for the students. More on other complementary tasks later, some of which will take place throughout the week, and some afterwards throughout the coming year.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Orphans in Gansu

We are back at the Jubilee School for orphans in Gansu. We will be here for a week, improving the computer network, setup some donated machines, help the teachers to make use of IT and interactive methods to teach, teach a robotics programming workshop, install a RFID-based library system, play, eat with and encourage the kids, ...

Less than 2 hours after we arrived here, one of the students here, L, told us one of his brothers died last year while we were visiting. A bit of backgound: L is crippled. He was adopted by someone be called "grandpa", who also adopted numerous children. 2 of which are also at the Jubilee School. The one who died last year was 10 years old, deranged, and lived with grandpa.

It rarely rains in Gansu. Two days before we left Jubille to return home last August, however, it rained heavily. So the day stuck in everybody's minds. On that fateful day, L's deranged "brother" ran out of the house, felled into a river, and died.

Every kid here has a story like this one.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Making of a Mind

According to many neuroscientists, a person’s brain can still be changed later in life. But it is most maleable before late adolescence, about 17 to 19 years old. By then a person’s mind, or character, is practically set and much harder to change.

This is borne out partially by observations on university students. Some are curious (while others are not); some are methodical; some always wait until the last minute; some are patient; some are imaginative; some are hard working; some focus only on the present and sensual; ... One can guide them according to their character; but one can hardly change them. They can certainly change themselves if they work hard on it (and some indeed have); but it is not easy.

What does that tell us about education? At least this: that kindergarten-primary-secondary schools have more impact on a student’s education than university. That a person really interested in education should be a K-12 teachers rather than a professor. That we should invest more in K-12 rather than universities.

He is not a student. But he looks rather thoughtful, doesn't he?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hope in the face of tragedy

Just came back from a prayer meeting at church feeling sick and heavy. We were praying for some missionaries. But some of us also shared their burdens.

An’s mother has seven brothers and sisters. Last year there was a nasty fight and now they are not speaking to each other. A is trying to hard to repair the relationships, to no avail. Every time she came back from visiting her family, she was so exhausted she felt lethargic for 2 weeks.

Ra has been an astronaut (Hong Kong style) for 20 years - he worked in Hong Kong while his family lived in Toronto. Recently he retired and joined his family in Toronto, hoping to rebuild his family life. Almost right away, he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. His spinal cord was so weakened that it broke - now he is bed ridden. He is not expected to live another month.

Ri’s classmate at seminary recently fell ill and died, all within one day.

Why do these things happened? What can we say to comfort the victims and their families? I really cannot think of anything. Except to weep with them who weep. Live is full of tragedies, large and small.

Often we don’t know why bad things happen, particularly to good people. But we always have hope. If not in this world, then in the next. In fact, our hopes in this world do not amount to much. Even if the patients were healed, the family reconciled, and the dead raised, they will soon all be dead (again). It is only the hope in the afterlife that is long-lasting. Faith is the basis of that hope. Is faith blind? Not all of them. Herein lies our salvation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What was I doing?

Why was I made to look like a hybrid Hannibal Lecter - Darth Vader? Actually I was recruited to be a guinea pig for a research project on the effect of calligraphy on people. I can’t tell you too much about it. But it was kind of fun and I am curious to know what, if any, effect is there.

Please excuse the quality of some of the photographs here, because some were taken with my old iPhone with a terrible lens.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another day, another accident

A motorcycle ran into the rear end of another vehicle at the Hung Hom entrance to the cross-harbour tunnel this morning, blocking up traffic for a while. It was at least the 6th accident I saw at this spot in the past year. And the second one that involved a motorcycle. Fortunately, it appeared to be a minor one.

Because of the traffic, vehicles are always forced to move slowly and serious accidents are relatively rare here. The police are efficient too. Almost immediately after the accident, the police had directed the traffic to flow around the offending vehicles. When I stepped into my office a couple of minutes later, I heard on the radio that the accident had been cleared away. However, I could see the vehicles and the police were still at the scene. It reminded me again, as if I needed it, that the news are not always completely accurate.

Within a few minutes, the offending vehicles were indeed gone, the traffic resumed, as if nothing had happened. Just another reminder that I should not allow my girls to ride motorcycles.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Endangered animals in Mongkok?

You can find much more than Gold Fish in Gold Fish Street (actually Tung Choi Street) in Mongkok.

You can actually find all kinds of coral fish, arowana (silver/gold/blood red dragons), jelly-fish, crabs, shrimps, lobsters, sea horses, geckos, spiders, beetles, snakes, chameleons, frogs, ..., and all kinds of turtles.

Some of them are so weird-looking, it seems they must be protected species, if not endangered.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Death and Life

I was enjoying my newspaper and a simple breakfast at the cooked-food stalls in the upper floors of a wet market on a leisurely Saturday morning.

5 women in the next table were engaged in a conversation excitedly.

“We were running around the cemetery, we all had our own opinions and there were lots of arguments. But my husband was very decisive that day. He said: don’t argue, I will decide and that’s it.”
“The permanent cemetery in Aberdeen was very expensive.
Only rich people can afford to bury their dead there.”
“I don’t want to be buried in a spot where somebody was buried before!” “What do you expect? There are just no new permanent spots. You can only be buried for 7 years and then your bones must be dug up.”

“I had to step over people’s graves, so I kept muttering ‘excuse me’ like a mad woman. Even though they are dead, but the place is their home, so we should show respect.”

“I went to pay my respects to my uncle at the columbarium (where the ashes of cremated people are stored). But I simply could not locate the niche storing the cinerary urns.
Everywhere I turned, hundreds of faces were staring at me (from photos of the dead placed on the niche). I got unnerved, so I prayed to my uncle: I tried but I couldn’t find you, so I am leaving. I turned to go, and suddenly, he was right there in front of me.” ......

A couple and their young girl sat down at my table. Soon the father started talking on his mobile phone, and so did the mother. Apparently they have an elder daughter studying overseas. The elder daughter was calling on the phone complaining about being bullied by some student over there; but she would not complain because she was afraid the offending boy was associated with gangs. They all took turns to speak to the elder daughter (whom they were all very fond of, apparently), with the phone ending in the hands of the mother. The father then started making other phone calls. The little one ended up staring into space after finishing her breakfast.

“The Feng shui master suggested a number of names for the baby, all in the form of 魏褔X. And he said the character 添 should never be used.”
“My accountant lives in South Horizons. It looks out to the ocean, with good 風水. That place in Saiwanho is junk. You would have to sell it right away even if you buy it.”

These conversations, conducted rather openly in the food hall, reminded me of how much time and effort we Chinese spend on the birth (and raising) of the young, and the handling of the dead. We often concentrate so much in these matters, that it appears the purpose of life is to perpetuate life, in keeping the dead happy (so that they protect us in this life), and (to live on) by ensuring numerous prosperous off-springs.

Is that what life is all about? What is the real purpose of our own lives?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Flying a 747

I flew a 747 today. Specifically, I manually controlled a Boeing 747-400 during take-off and landing at the Hong Kong International Airport. It all happened inside a flight simulator, of course.

We have been collaborating with Cathay Pacific on some airport operation projects. Today, they arranged for us to visit their Flight Training Centre, and we got to play with one of their 11 flight simulators. These are not games run on a computer. But multi-million dollar systems with 6-axis hydrostatic motion. We got to use the pedals to control the plane’s motion on the ground and feel the plane turn. We got to pull and feel the plane take off and climb, push to feel the plane dive and land. One of us (not me) actually managed to crash the plane in landing. The jolt was realistic enough to make me worry about damaging the simulator; but I don’t think we did.

The flight simulators are the second most expensive assets of the company, after the actual planes, of course.

They are fantastic toys.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Losing Our Minds

In her book, id, Susan Greenfield postulated that the mind is the personalized connectivity of the brain. In the first 2 years of life, the connections among the brain cells grow rapidly, matching the development of different functions of the brain. A second phase of brain development lasts until early adolescence, and is characterised by a greater number of easy forming connections, which is exquisitely sensitive to the environment - the brain is at its most plastic stage. At the end of this stage the brain is maximally connected. The final phase of late adolescence involves heavy pruning, as much as 50%. Unused connections are lost. The connections become localized and modular. Thus is the mind of each of us formed.

With diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the connections of parts of the brain die, the brain shrinks. In some cases you lose your memory for facts, things no longer make sense, people treat you differently, you will behave like a different person. In some cases, you lose the time and space precision of memories, memories become like vivid dreams. You are losing your mind, and identity.

Psychoses such as schizophrenia entail a departure from reality. They share some common characteristics with children. They cannot rationalize their fears or other emotions by recourse to the normal adult mind; they exhibit eccentric thought characterized by lose, tangential associations; they cannot interpret metaphors; they are easily distracted by sensations of the outside world; they do not appreciate that different brains think differently. The children have not yet developed the ability - their minds are not fully developed yet. The schizophrenics, sadly, have lost their minds.

All drugs affect brain function by interfering with the operations of chemical messengers, transmitters at the synapses, connections between brain cells. Amphetamine prolong the availability of dopamine and therefor its action, while cocaine slows down their removal. Ecstasy triggers the explosive release of serotonin. Tranquillizers block the handshake between a transmitter and its receptor. Heroin can act as an impostor and trick the brain into believing that a natural transmitter has been released.

As a result, cannabis impairs driving ability as well as motor skills for up to five days after taking the drug. It modify synapses between brain cells and hence neuronal plasticity and hence the mind. It could demotivate you, disrupt your memory and shorten your attention span. A user may not realize natural intellectual potential and may arguably be a different person. If the receptor becomes less sensitive due to being over stimulated by the persistent drug, more will be needed for normal function - addiction.

There are other types of dysfunctions. The obese individual living in the moment for the taste of food, and the reckless computer gamer high on the excitement of scoring, are placing a premium on the sensation of the experience of the moment rather than considering the consequences - the same pattern of behaviour seen in children and schizophrenics.

Some people lose their minds because of disease or psychoses. Others, sadly, lose their minds voluntarily. They are essentially throwing their minds away.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


I have a dream that one day we will have true liberty in China.

I am glad that my family and so many of my friends (like Ann and G and J and F and ...) were there at the Candlelight vigil. But we cannot truly be happy until the dream really comes true.

The road is long and hard, like our hiking path this morning.

And sometimes it feels that progress is as slow as the snail that we encountered this morning. But I believe that one day the dream will be realized.

Friday, June 05, 2009

June 4th Candlelight Vigil, 20th edition

It is the evening of June 4th. Where else can I be but the Candlelight Vigil at Victoria Park? I arrived on time, and would normally sit comfortably in the middle of one of the 6 soccer fields, nursing my candle, and singing my heart out whenever I have a chance to. But this is an unusual year. The crowd trying to enter the park was much thicker than usual. I was late.

In fact, my wife and I (and an old secondary school classmate) could barely got into the park. We followed the crowd, squeezed, wiggled, and finally wormed ourselves to the edge of the last soccer field, where we could at least see some of the people seated there, and listen to the proceedings.

The sight of all the candles was impressive. But it should have been even more striking. Because there were far more people than the number of candles available. I felt bad for not having listened to my wife, who wanted us to take with us some of the old half-burnt candles that we saved from previous years - I was in too much of a hurry to get out of the apartment. So we had no bulletin, no candle, and for a long time, could not hear what was going on. I could not sing along with the crowd because I could not remember the words for the songs although I knew the tune - until I found a trodden-many-times bulletin on the ground.

Tonight we can be proud to be HongKongers. Where else in China, and in the whole wide world, can you find so many people gathering to remember what happened 20 years ago. The organizers said there were 150,000 people. The police, as usual, said the number was less than half of that, 62,800. It is amazing that the police can come up with a number that appears to be so accurate - down to the hundreds, when the crowd spilled from the soccer fields to the basketball courts to the grass fields to the walkways to the streets outside. The truth is probably somewhere in between. But the actual number does not matter.

What is important is that there were lots and lots of people, overflowing not just the soccer fields but the whole Victoria Park. My wife was there with me. My daughter was there somewhere with her friends. Many of my best friends were there. Some of my colleagues and students were there. All of us stood up to be counted, for what we believe in. And there were a lot of young people among us.

I shall sleep well tonight, having done something that means a lot to me.