Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What book to read?

Our university is proposing to set up a reading program for all students.  Possibly selecting a common book that all incoming freshmen have to read.  I can immediately think of a whole bunch of books worth reading: 

John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath",
Plato’s "Republic",
Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey",
Nelson Mandela’s "Long Road to Freedom",
Greg Mortenson’s "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools",
Khaled Hosseini’s "Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns",
David Michell’s "Cloud Atlas",
Yann Martel’s "Life of Pi",
Milan Kundera’s "The Unbearable Lightness of Being",
Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment" and "Brothers Karamazov",
Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina",
George Orwell’s "Animal Farm" and "1984",
William Golding’s "Lord of the Flies",
Solzhenitsyn’s "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", "The Gulag Archipelago", ...,
Victor Hugo’s "Les Miserables",
Milton Friedman’s "Capitalism and Freedom",
Friedrich Hayek’s "The Road to Serfdom",

鲁迅之狂人日记阿Q正传, ...,

There is certainly no shortage of books.  Just a shortage of readers.  Not just among the students, but the professors as well. 

Monday, September 27, 2010


When Hong Kong people talk about moon-cakes, they usually mean 雙黃白蓮蓉月餅, or 冰皮月餅.   But my favourite is 金華火腿五仁月餅.  There is no 蓮蓉 and 鹹蛋黃.  But lots of 火腿、杏仁、核桃仁、花生仁、芝麻仁 and 瓜子仁. 

Perhaps it is an acquired taste from childhood memories?  I understand from books such as Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” that our human brain is really quite malleable, or ‘plastic’ - particularly when we are very small.  Tastes and other preferences that we acquire when we are very young can shape our character and tastes, and stay with us for a long time.  Our brains can still be changed as adults.  It is much harder, but possible.   Neuroscientists are beginning to discover how.  And it is quite fascinating. 

As for me, I just know that 金華火腿五仁月餅 is good, very good.  Can I change my brain to like 冰皮月餅?  Probably, but I prefer not to, and I most likely won’t.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mid-Autumn Lights

When my wife and I went out for a stroll after dinner on Mid-Autumn Festival, we could not find too many traditional candle-lit paper lanterns.  But a lot of those fluorescent tubes, made into rings, chains, balls, butterflies, ...    They looked pretty, particularly in the dark on the waterfront.  But we cannot help but feel nostalgic.   When we were small, ...

Even only a few years ago, before our oldest went to the USA for university, we used to go to the parks with those candle-lit paper lanterns.  The last time the five of us did it together was in 2006, on the Hung Hom waterfront, ...   We still have those candles and lanterns.  But will we ever get to do it again?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

(not quite) Liberal Studies

The Liberal Studies subject is one of the most controversial issues in the 334 New Secondary School (NSS) Academic Structure being implemented in Hong Kong.  Teachers find it difficult to teach.  Students find it hard to study.  Universities find (the students’ performance in) it difficult to assess and interpret. 

It has the lofty goals “to ensure that all students develop an understanding of the major issues confronting our society in the 21st century and that they are equipped with the critical thinking skills that they need in order to make informed, critical judgments about these issues.”   So, it is supposed to be about critical thinking, and making judgments.  All laudable goals. 

However, students complain that it is really all about the same old memorization.  Why is that?  It is the combination of two factors.  One is that phrase “informed judgments”.  The other is the very broad scope which includes “science, the humanities and the liberal arts.”

What can the poor teachers do to help the even poorer students to make “informed” judgments over a very broad scope of topics - in a life-determining public examination?   Well, what else but the tried-and-true memorization of facts after facts after facts? 

That’s why I find students being asked to memorize the facts about the people’s communes, The Three Red Banners, Great Leap Forward, Hu Yaobang’s criticism of Hua Guofeng’s ‘Two Whatevers’ (without explaining what are the two Whatevers), household responsibility system, the three rural issues, rural household registration, ...  All in the first 10 pages of a 150 page book on the module on Modern China.  And Modern China is only one of the 6 modules in “Liberal Studies in Life”.   The others are Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationships, Hong Kong Today, Globalization, Public Health, Energy Technology & the Environment. 

These are, of course, pertinent issues an informed citizen of Hong Kong should be familiar with.   But, can you imagine the amount of “facts” the students (our children) are being asked to memorize, to be prepared to make “informed” judgments in the examinations? 

Somehow, Hong Kong has a way of turning any interesting subject into a test of memorization. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Big mouths (2)

Big mouths

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dim Sum

This is not really about dim sum, actually.   In the first photo, a group of people is having dim sum, obviously.  A common scene in Hong Kong. 

In the second photo, two groups of people are sharing one table.  Most of us do not prefer it.  But in crowded restaurants, we may not have a choice.

In the third photo, how many different groups are there?  

How about this fourth one?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why is checking e-mail just like gambling?

Who checks e-mail compulsively?   I do.  

Much of my e-mail is junk.  At best, it is boring work-related stuff which I’d rather not know about.  But once in a while, I get a greeting from a good friend, a report of an encouraging result from a student, ...   So I keep checking my e-mail religiously, in the vain hope of receiving something good.  The signal to noise ratio is really low.   However, since the arrival of reward is unpredictable, I keep coming back for more. 

Isn’t it just like gambling?  Most of the time we lose.   But once in a blue moon we hit the jackpot.  It is this unpredictability that motivates gamblers, even though gamblers know that in the long run (on average), the probability is such that they will lose.  In behavioral psychology, it is given the fancy name “variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement.”

I read about this in Dan Ariely’s interesting book “Predictably Irrational.”  In the book, there are lots of observations on how and when we often make decisions irrationally.  He is a behavioural economist.   Traditional economics assumes that people make rational decisions.  Behavioural economists argue that psychology can cause us to make irrational but predictable decisions.     

There is one big difference between compulsive checking of email, and compulsive gambling, however, which is not mentioned in the book.   I can increase the probability of finding an interesting email in my mailbox when I check it, by checking less often.   But even we gamble less often, we will still end up losing.  So I don’t. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Challenges in the New School Term

The Fall Semester has just started.  The first 2.5 hour lecture was quite exhausting.  After getting back to my office, I sat for an hour without getting up. Besides teaching, there are new programs to be designed for the 2012 transition to 334, papers to write, proposals to write, reports to write, students to guide, old projects to wrap up, new research to be done, consultancies to deliver, a book to finish, ...

Around me, however, some of the students are struggling against even bigger challenges.  A student is having difficulties paying his school fees because of problems at home.  Another is just coming out of a 2 month-long stint in hospital because of a rare and practically incurable disease.  One student with emotional problems has to retake some challenging subjects.  One is barely staying afloat after being threatened with de-registration by his university.  One painfully shy boy and short on confidence is starting a pre-associate program.  ...

I pray that they all overcome their own challenges in this term.  

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Here are some snap shots of the thunder and lightning show in the skies of Hong Kong last evening.   What awesome power!  Isn’t it also beautiful?  One of the reasons it is so wonderful to live in Hong Kong.     

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Friends or foes?

There was an ironic photograph in the newspapers today.  The President of China shaking hands with the richest man in Hong Kong.  The biggest Communist was shaking hands with the biggest Capitalist.  What is going on?

Aren’t the Communists dedicated to overthrowing the Capitalists?  That was still the case when I last read the Communist Manifesto - just a few minutes ago.  Don’t the Capitalists hate the Communists for trying to overthrow the Capitalist system?  Why is the biggest Communist praising the biggest Capitalist instead?  Why is the biggest Capitalist saying he is proud of the achievements of a Communist country? 

Perhaps the biggest Communist is secretly a Capitalist after all?  Perhaps there are no real Communists anymore? 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Hong Kong from the Air

When we were flying back to Hong Kong from Europe, our airplane was flying towards Hong Kong from the West.   But our plane had to land on the runway from the East.  So our plane had to make an almost complete circle around Hong Kong, giving us a spetacular view of much of Hong Kong. 

We passed by Macau, Shek Pik Reservoir on Lantau, CyberPort, Ocean Park in Aberdeen, Repulse Bay, the Victoria Harbour, ShauKiWan Typhoon Shelter, Polytechnic University, old Kaitak Airport, Shing Num River, Shatin, Noah’s Ark Theme Park on Ma Wan, ..., and many other interesting sights.   We are indeed privileged to live in such a beautiful place. 

Here is a little geography test.  Can you identify all of them from the photographs?

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Some random scenes picked up from our trip to Eastern Europe.