Saturday, September 24, 2005


The September issue of National Geographic is devoted to Africa. It is nice to have a theme for an entire issue, covering many topics concerning Africa, including a series of aerial photographs, description of Nairobi, oil production in Africa, AIDS problem, conservation of tropical forest, situation in Zambia, and of course wildlife. It gives a focus to the magazine and provides better breadth and depth to its content.

Here is a aerial photograph of a village in northern Kenya, called gobs, built by nomadic Rendille herders, where livestock is protected in circular pens in the middle surrounded by houses.

There is an interesting column in the magazine on human history and the effect of the geography of Africa. It is today's view of the scientific community. You know how science changes daily with new discoveries and theories.

Human history in Africa -
Scientists said that the evolutionary lines of apes and protohumans diverged about seven million years ago in Africa. Such protohumans lived only in Africa for five million years. Around two million years ago, Homo erectus expanded out of Africa into Europe and Asia. During the next 1.5 million years, population in the three continents evolved separately into different species: in Europe, the Neanderthals, in Asia, remaining to be Homo erectus, while in Africa, evolved into Homo sapiens. Between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens in Africa underwent further profound change. It could be the development of complex speech, or some changes in the brain, or they were given the consciousness by someone supernatural or alien. No matter what, it transformed early Homo sapiens into "behaviourally modern" Homo sapiens. They expanded again into Europe and Asia, and exterminated, replaced or interbred with Neanderthals and Asia's hominids and became the dominant human species throughout the world.

Geography of Africa -
While Africa is the cradle of human, it lagged behind in the development of civilization. Human civilizations started about 10,000 years ago with the coming of agriculture. The domestication of crops and livestock allowed people to settle in permanent villages, to increase populations, to feed specialists such as inventors, soldiers and kings, and to develop metal tools, writing and state societies. However, early agriculture occurred only in limited places with a few types of domesticated crops, mainly in southwestern Asia. Agriculture eventually spread east and west along latitude of similar climate into Europe and Asia, and also the Nile delta. However, the north south orientation of Africa and the difference in climate created a barrier for the domesticated crops to move southwards. It was only after many thousand years that agriculture flourished in southern Africa, but with mostly northern temperate crops brought by European colonists.

In any case, Africa is catching up with its huge resources, in particular its rich oil reserve off the west coast.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Human resource management

Human resource management is a specialized subject in management. It is difficult to manage a large group of people each have a mind of their own. Management of managers is even more difficult. I have some experience in working with a large civil service grade of over 2,000 employees. It is a complicated task in managing such large pool of resources, while looking after the career development of each employee.

In this respect, I have written two papers on the management of this civil service grade. They are now at my website. Those who are interested in management studies please take a look.

Comments are welcomed.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Medium of Instruction

MOI is a big issue in Hong Kong, and also in some multi-lingual countries such as Singapore. But it is not an issue in other places, where there is only one daily language, not necessary English. I read a scientific paper on language and the process of consciousness. It said language is the key to human consciousness. The development of complex language distinguishes modern human being from the ancestral humanoid. The theory is that babies develop their consciousness through communicating with parents. The language ability in the early years determines the mind. It is the hardware that has been hardwired. Some experts said after the child has developed reasoning power, anything he thinks will base on such language. If he then learns a second language, it will be developed on top of the first, with a fast translation going on all the time.

This is the scientific foundation of MOI. When a Chinese student learns science in English, he will automatically translate the English words to Chinese before reasoning. When there is no Chinese word equivalent, the mind will stuck for a while. I always have this problem working in different languages. The mind slows down when I come across a proper noun, or when I am doing mathematics. On fast reading, I am still confused sometimes with the meaning of 100,000 or 100 million in Chinese. I changed to English MOI in secondary school. I recall that I could not understand very simple arithmetic questions set in English. It took me one to two years of dreaming before I caught up, but still in the process of studying in English and thinking in Chinese. If I was taught in Chinese, I could be much better and could become DGG before I retire. It is a miracle that I am now thinking in Chinese and writing in English, still slow after so many years of hard practice.

When I was in EMB, I came across discussions on MOI. It seems nobody considered the scientific factor seriously. The whole thing was turned upside down for political reasons. First, English is important as the world uses it. I wonder how true this statement is. But with USA dominating the world and the British colonial background of Hong Kong, no one asks why the Chinese study in Chinese, French study in French and Spanish study in Spanish, etc. It is true that a lot of people study English as the official and commercial language in Hong Kong. But it is like looking at the sky from the bottom of a well. Chinese has no problem in UN, but English has problem in South America. Another factor comes from parents who need their children to be taught in English, probably not for the good of the children but for the parents. Schools conform to market force. Legislators cry out on the wrong education policies, whatever they are. The bottom line: not enough teachers to teach English. When there are, they failed the Language Proficiency Assessment. I think we need to teach and test mind-crunching subjects in mother tongue, while concentrating on teaching English as a second language.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. Adventures of a curious character
by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton, Edward Hutchings

Richard Feynman is a theoretical physicist, Nobel prize recipient on Physics, professor of Caltech, a serious academic. However, he is also a curious character and a man of many talent. This book about him is not an autobiography but are little stories on him throughout his life. There is very little about physics. Rather, it demonstrates Feynman's attitude towards everything around him.

(Picture of a young Feynman opening a safe)

When he was in Princeton graduate college, he was invited to a tea party at the Dean's house. The Dean's wife served him tea and asked "Would you like cream or lemon in your tea?" He said "I'll have both, thank you.", quite absent-mindedly. The response was "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman.", the title of this book.

Feynman is curious, and this may well be an important attribute for learning. The book has detailed description of how he learned to crack safes when he was in Los Alamos participating in the Manhattan project. He learned painting for a while and had his own painting exhibition. When he was in Brazil lecturing, he learned to play frigideira in a samba band and joined the Carnival parade. He also played all-drum music for a ballet performance. With all these talent, he admitted that he did not know painting, and did not know how to read music score.

This demonstrates now one should treat work and other activities as one. There is no such thing as work-life balance for him. He did anything that interested him wholeheartedly, leading to wonderful achievement in both study, work, hobbies and entertainment. It really reminds us that playing out so-called life activities half-heartedly is a waste of time.

There are so many humourous passages in the book and I can only quote a few.

Judging Books by Their Covers.
When he served on an advisory committee on textbooks for the government, a book publisher submitted a volume of three books for evaluation. The last one was incomplete and only the covers with some blank pages were included. To his surprise, Feynman found out that committee members gave good rating to the books, which exposed that they didn't even bother to read them before rating them.

Is Electricity Fire?
He was asked by a group of young rabbis "Is electricity fire?" He was glad that the theology academics were interested in physics and went on to explain the phenomenon. However, it turned out that the rabbis were trying to abide by the doctrine that they should not use fire on Sundays and thus wanted to know if this should include all electrical appliances. Quite a disappointment for him to find out that the rabbis were not modernizing but just trying to follow ancient doctrines to the letter.

A Touch of Brazil.
When he did some lectures in Brazil, he was amazed that the students were well prepared for the lectures. They could answer questions on the reading materials right away. However, they could not answer similar but simple questions put in another way. Feynman finally found out that the students memorized all the papers distributed, as well as all the notes of the lectures. They learned without thinking, read without understanding. There is a familiar situation in Hong Kong where students did the same. We also seldom have questions asked, topic discussed, or even intellectual arguments.

Cargo Cult Science.
On scientific studies, Feynman quoted an example. Islanders of a South Pacific Island saw what the army did there in the war: cargo planes landing bringing all sort of good things. A few decades later, they were found constructing long and flat mud strip with torches on both sides mimicking a runway. The leader would sit in a wooden shed, with wooden plates covering his ears like a headphone. They kept doing this but still wondered why the cargo planes never landed. They used accurate scientific observation and imitated the original way to near likeness. But such superficial scientific method without reasoning could not yield any results.

Stories in the book are so diverse and I could only quote 1% of them in the review. You are recommended to take a look.