Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Uncommon faith

Our good friends S and L took my wife and me to an unusual worship service last evening. There were about 100 people in a small church in To Kwa Wan. Most of them are former drug addicts, released prisoners or otherwise people of the “rivers and lakes” (江湖). The pastor himself was one of them.

There were a lot of energetic singing, shaking of hands, clapping, and praying. A man with late stage cancer of the stomach and several other people were called to the front and specifically prayed for. A lady preacher preached from Jesus’ encounter with the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus - how the family welcomed Jesus into their home. And particularly, how Mary chose the better by listening to Jesus.

Theirs is a more emotional type of faith, focusing on relationships and the grace from God. Rather than logic, facts, and rational arguments. Christ and the Holy Spirit rather than the historical Jesus. It reminds me that there are two sides to our faith: the rational, intellectual side, and the emotional, relational side - both of which are important.

Later on, we learned about an unusual healing method. Scientifically, it seems possible but improbable. It also looks dangerous. Based on what we have learned so far, it does seem to work miraculously well. It is a mystery to us so far.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Spreading Wealth Gap

I read in the newspapers the following statistics.

In 1997, there are 68,000 families (= 3.5% of all families) in Hong Kong with monthly family income above HK$80,000. In 2008, the number has increased by 63%, to 111,000 (= 5.7% of all families). It may not be a bad statistics by itself.

However, in the same period, the number of families with monthly income below HK$8,000 has also increased from 265,000 (= 13.8% of all families) to 442,000 (= 19.4% of all families), an increase of 67% in numbers.

Clearly, the gap between the poor and the rich in Hong Kong is getting bigger and bigger. It cannot be good for Hong Kong. It is not something to be proud of. It is a source of discontent in society. It is a warning sign that we ignore to our own peril.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Way - The Truth (道)

The first two sentences of Dao De Jing (道德經) says: “道,可道,非常道;名,可名,非常名。無名,天地之始;有名,萬物之母。”

Loosely translated: The Truth (the Way of the Universe) that can be described in words is not the ever-lasting truth; the name (the definition) that can be given to the Truth is not the universal name. That can not be described in human language is the origin of the universe, which started out without name or form. Matters in the universe can be distinguished only when they are given forms and names.


In the first chapter of Genesis (of the Bible), we read: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light ...”

聖經創 世 紀:起初, 神創造天地。 地是空虛混沌.淵面黑暗.神的靈運行在水面上。 神說、要有光、就有了光。

Friday, September 25, 2009


大約在公元前五百年,老子在道德經說:聖人後其身而身先,外其身而身存。 意思是說有智慧的人不特意擡舉自己,地位反而提高;不特意鞏固自己,自身反而得以保存。

大約在老子之後五百年, 八千公里以外的巴勒斯坦,耶穌說: 凡想要保全生命的、必喪掉生命.凡喪掉生命的、必救活生命。

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Saving our lives

This is a saying from Dao De Jing (道德經), supposedly written by Laozi (老子), around 500 BC, in China. It means, loosely, “A saint is put forward when he does not push himself forward; he preserves himself when he does not take himself seriously.”

About 500 year later, 8,000 kilometers away in Palestine, Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” That is recorded in the Goepel according to Luke, chapter 17, verse 33.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Intelligent Clothing - teaching kids design and programming

This article in a local newspaper is self-explanatory.

The technology in use is actually a research output from our eToy Laboratory. It was first reported at the ACM CHI (Computer Human Interface) conference at Boston earlier this year (April 2009). Something we are quite proud of.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hong Kong Students in (Overseas) Universities?

Only 18% (14,500) of Hong Kong students at an age when they should enter university (18 years old) can actually enter a local university. Most of these students earn their places in a local university on academic merit. When the government claims a 60% participation rate in post-secondary education, most of these students are studying in associate degrees, higher diplomas, etc. Despite popular belief, only a small fraction of them actually can enter a full-time degree program in a local university subsequently.

It is said that many students study in overseas universities. Mainly those whose parents are wealthy or are civil servants. But how many actually does? It turns out to be a hard question to answer.

The Hong Kong Government does not seem to have accurate statistics. And the data from from different sources vary greatly. The best data I can find is the following.

According to the British Council, quoting data from the Higher education Statistics Agency, ~3,600 Hong Kong students started first year undergraduate studies in the UK in 2007-08.

According to a paper presented in the Australian International Education Conference in 2007, quoting data from the Australian government, ~2,500 Hong Kong students obtained visas for Australia for higher education in 2006-07.

According to the Institute of International Education, there are about 8,200 Hong Kong students in higher education in the USA in 2007-08. About 70% of these are in undergraduate programs. Since the USA undergraduate programs are 4 years, there are probably ~1,500 Hong Kong students starting first year undergraduate programs in the USA.

According to Immigration Canada, there are ~5,000 Hong Kong students in Canada in 2004. The number that starts first year graduate is probably ~1,000.

The UK, Australia, USA and Canada are the most popular destinations for Hong Kong students. Together, they probably offer ~8,600 first year undergraduate places for Hong Kong students, about 60% of first year undergraduate places in Hong Kong.

The overall picture: 18% of Hong Kong 18 year olds enter local universities, another 11% probably enter overseas universities, raising the total participation rate to 29%. Still quite far from the OCED average of 53%.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tree View

A nice view, isn’t it? That was what I saw this morning, lying on my back after my run. It was a good feeling, sweating all over after the exercise, surrounded by trees and drenched by sunshine.

I was actually lying on the edge of a flower bed, right next to an elevated highway in Hung Hom. But the trees helped me to pretend I was indeed enveloped by nature. Thoughts occurred. I tried not to dwell on them, and simply let them pass, enjoying the moment. It was so relaxing I lost track of time.

In the afternoon, I have to go back to the office. To finish what I couldn't manage during the hectic week, and prepare for the coming one. But the quiet Saturday morning by myself is a good rest, something I treasure very much.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dr. K

K was studying at a school in Shatin. It is quite reputable, although not really among the elite schools in Hong Kong. She worked particularly hard on her English.

K entered one of the universities in Hong Kong. Again, a reputable one, although not the most prestigious. She was active in class, inquisitive, liked to ask questions, and engaged some of her professors in long discussions on topics outside her studies. She impressed her teachers with her efforts to improve herself and to broaden her horizon. When there was a chance to go to the United Kingdom for a year as an overseas placement student, she jumped at the chance. While some of her classmates were reluctant to leave Hong Kong for various reasons: family, the expenses, fear of the unfamiliar environment and languages, ...

K learned a lot during that year in the UK. She also met this cute guy from Germany, who was there as an intern.

K then returned to HK to finished her final year, and received her bachelor’s degree. She promptly went to Germany, and spent one year learning German. Then she applied to graduate school. Later she married her German boyfriend.

On September 11, she passed her doctoral disputation. I am so proud of Dr. K.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Giving Blood in a Typhoon

Yes, that was my blood flowing out of my body, into that plastic bag. They took 450 cc, the normal amount for blood donation, about one tenth of the volume of blood in a person. It will be quickly replenished, with no apparent side effects. I have given about 45 times, over 30 years, in 3 different countries, and I have run 4 full marathons in between. It should be OK.

Every 3 months, the Red Cross comes to our campus. Over 5 days, they get 80 to 100+ donors each day. Today, unfortunately, there is a typhoon coming, and they got only about 50 donors. I was actually one of the last to give blood today.

It was surreal, lying there, watching my blood flowing out of my body, while their staff were dismantling the equipment, packing things away, and distributing the unused Chinese herbal soup (originally intended for the blood donors, I believe) among the staff. The staff was kind and courteous. But I cannot help feeling that everyone was eagerly waiting for me to finish.

Still, it is a good feeling giving blood. Join us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

GPS: What is success?

We have recently started a little study group for our university students, borrowing the name GPS, which, for us, stands for Goal Positioning System.

Yesterday we discussed four (sets of) people in our field - information technology.

Steve Jobs, who founded Apple Computer, created the Macintosh, founded NEXT Computer, created Pixar, rescued Apple, then brought out iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, ... He has been extremely creative and successful. Yet also had some difficulties in his personal life and relationships.

Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft, which grew to become the behemoth that it is today. He has become one of the richest man on earth; and has donated huge amounts of money to charities and research organizations. He has been hated because of Microsoft, and admired for his charity work.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who quitted graduate studies at Stanford to found Google. Which has become just as successful as, if not more so than, Microsoft. It has also been surprising and consistently creative, and almost universally admired. It has developed a business model through which it has been able to provide hugely popular free service, while being hugely profitable through advertising.

Nicholas Negroponte, founded of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. And also the founder of the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) Association. He took a big risk in trying to create an inexpensive personal computer for the children of under-developed communities. Many consider the OLPC to be a failure because it is not as inexpensive as expected, and not a very large number was made. Yet it is a noble cause and the OLPC did stimulate computer manufacturers to come up with much cheaper personal computers.

We felt success means not only achievements in technology, knowledge, creativity, wealth, power and influence. But also in making life better for other human beings. In the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 8, verse 36, it says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Indeed.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

“Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell

The essay “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell has long been considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and “devastating in its use of cold logic”, in its attacks on religion, and specifically, Christianity. Hence I was quite surprised that it is so outdated, biased, naive, and self-righteous.

He attacked the “First-cause Argument” by saying “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God”, which is fair enough because many people have made the same argument. But it went on to say “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all.” This point, of course, has been weakened tremendously by the wide acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, which postulates that the universe began with a big explosion. Since everything that “begins” to exist most likely has a cause, there is quite likely to be a cause of the universe, and not really “due to the poverty of our imagination.”

He went on to say that “a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions ... atoms ... much less subject to law than people thought ... just statistical averages ...” Yes, scientists have discovered that atoms, and other related matter, are less predictable than was previously thought. But that is not the same as saying that their behaviour is not rational; it simply means the natural “laws” are more complicated than previously thought. There are still natural laws and the question where they came from remains.

He claimed that “this world, ..., with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. ... I really cannot believe it.” Conveniently ignoring that may be the universe is a work in progress, but not the final product. He was using an underhanded tactic: accuse the opposition of making a faulty statement, and then attack that faulty statement. Such a tactic is not worthy of a philosopher of such caliber.

Later on, he said “What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it.” It is certainly not true for me, and a lot of people. That statement is very condescending. What if I were to say of him, “What really moves Russell to hate Christianity is not any intellectual argument at all. He hates Christianity because he had been taught by his atheist father from infancy to do it.”?

He continued:“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all.” Nowadays most people do not seem to doubt Christ’s existence, although many doubt whether He was really like what the Gospels say about Him.

He also wrote, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is He believed in hell, ...”because Russell himself does not believe in hell. Now this is really preposterous. He is saying that anyone who does not believe the same things that he believes in is not just wrong, but actually a bad person.

I am rather disappointed in the quality of Russell’s arguments. It is really not befitting a philosopher of his reputation.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

University Education in Hong Kong - by the numbers

It is said that 70% of secondary school students in Hong Kong enroll in one of those tutoring schools or hire private tutors. Some say the actually numbers are even higher. Why do they feel their normal schooling and hard working are not enough?

It must have something to do with the difficulties in getting into university. There are about 80,000 students who complete form 5 and sit for the HKCEE - not counting repeaters - each year. Among them, only about 36,000, or 45% get into form 6. Among the 36,000, only about 18,000, or 50%, score high enough in the A Level Examinations to meet the minimum requirements for university. However, there are only about 14,000 first year places in the degree programs in local universities. So, in the end, only about 18% of the 80,000 who complete secondary school each year can enter local universities. In addition, a few thousand (the number is very hard to determine) who are fortunate enough to have rich parents, civil servant parents, or both, get to attend universities overseas.

It is a competition that starts when a child enters kindergarten. It is often said that if you don’t get into the right kindergarten, your chance of getting into university drops significantly. Ditto with primary and secondary school. No wonder so many students enroll in tutor schools, to get that extra edge. And so many give up completely long before they sit for the HKCEE.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Textbook shopping - Hong Kong style

A fat, long line formed outside a popular book shop which sells new and used textbooks, on Nelson Street in Mongkok. Yesterday afternoon. It is quite a common scene in late summer, even after schools have started.

It is a result of many factors: frequent revisions of syllabi, frequent publications of new versions of the same textbook, the deliberate separation of one textbooks into multiple volumes, the same market, the small number of publishers, ... The end result is that it is rare that you can make one trip to one bookshop to buy all the books you need for the new school year. If you go too early, some of the books would not have been published yet. Going too late, you run the risk that the books might have already been sold out. And it is often difficult to know which bookshops stock the books you need, and have not yet sold out.

By yesterday, most classes had started for one week already, but it was obvious that many students (and their parents) still had not acquired all the books that they need. Such is the (unique?) predicament of the students in Hong Kong.

Later, I was in 田園書屋, a well known, long-time upstairs bookshop specializing in literature, history and philosophy (文史哲) - not textbooks. Everybody knows that. Yet I overheard many parents asking for textbooks. They must be really desperate.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Competition is bad (for some of us)

Siblings compete with each for their parents’ attention and affection. Classmates compete with each other to be ranked first in the class. HKCEE candidates compete to get the largest number of As. Researchers compete to publish the largest number of papers, to induce the largest number of citations, to garner the largest amount of funding. Professors compete to receive the best feedbacks from students. Universities compete to be ranked first. Competition is supposed to be effective in motivating people to do their best, to improve themselves.

But competition also motivate people to jump the gun in sprint races, to take short cuts in marathons, to cheat in examinations, to steal other students books so they cannot study, to steal other students’ homework, to not share information with others, to pretend they are not studying hard so that others would not study so hard, to do only what counts in the competition, for students to study for the grade rather than knowledge, for professors to concentrate on research rather than teaching because research counts more than teaching in a university, ...

Worse, there is only one winner in each competition. Or very few. All others, the vast majority, are losers by definition. The winner can be justifiably proud. But what are the others supposed to think of themselves? If I am the strongest, or at least have a good chance to be the strongest, I would not mind - in fact, I would welcome - competitions, through which I can show off my superiority. But if I have no realistic chance of winning, I would dread competitions, through which I am forced to lay bare my inadequacy.

Often we fail not for the lack of trying. I know this girl who is about 12, studying in grade 4 in an orphanage. Actually nobody knows how old she is because she was picked up from a train station. Even though she is in a class with kids years younger than she is, she cannot follow and would not able to do the assignments if others do not let her copy theirs. What are her prospects of life in a competitive world? Hers is an extreme case, but there are numerous others whose problems differ only in degrees of seriousness.

Competing with myself, against self-imposed constraints or imagined inadequacies, is a healthy way to improve myself. If I prove to myself that I can do something that I did not think I could do, I am a winner and I can be proud of myself. But I am not convinced that competition in general is such a good thing. There must be beter ways to bring out the tremendous potential in each of us.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Why is there a universe?

Some people argue that the universe has always existed. It has no causes and requires no causes.

I have no problems with it if nothing ever existed. But now that we know there is something - the universe that we are in - we have to ask: why? Why does the universe exist at all, instead of there being absolutely nothing?

Add to that the Big Bang Theory - which says there is a beginning to the universe. Now there is more reason to ask: what caused it?

To many of us, the answer is God.