Saturday, December 9, 2006

Surrounded by informers - 360 degree performance feedback

360 is the buzz word of the day. We heard so much about Ngong Ping 360 these days, from trapped passengers in the air, cracks in the structure, cable cars clashing being too close, suspended service owing to the wind. Problems surrounded the cable car service in 360 degree. But Ngong Ping 360 is actually about viewing the surrounding in 360 degree, from the airport to the Buddha. It is a bit amusing to note a research paper written by a colleague discussing officers being surrounded by informers in 360 degree, and being appraised in the process.

Performance appraisal is an inexact science because it is a human action. Although academics all try to build a scientific method, a person appraising another person is a very complex matter, far too complex to be scientifically analyzed. The simple reason is that all human weaknesses are reflected in the process, including bias, arrogance, fear, envy, interest, etc. Truth is not the dominating factor. Also, many academics think that performance appraisal is just a step in performance management, and the appraisal should just reflect the true performance. However, in the mind of the supervisors, the appraisal is an important management tool by itself. It is both a carrot and a stick, but not for its eventual usage for administrative decisions or for administrative purposes. The subtle presentation of the "truth" in many skillful ways could mean a large variety in rating or ranking between the lines. Narratives can be interpreted both ways. HR managers who worked in promotion exercises would know better, that how the board sieved through the appraisal forms searching for the words which suited the recommendation.

The existing performance appraisal system has the merit of being prepared by the immediate supervisor, who is supposed to have first hand information on the performance. The added countersigning officer, being the supervisor's supervisor, provides the checks and balances. This is the basic; this is the core. No one else is in a better position. However, there is a conspiracy theory that this two-level appraisal is not sufficiently fair. Thus we have the departmental secretary comment, and then the head of grade comment. The Public Service Commission also recommends that there should be an assessment board to ensure consistency in appraisal. In a department I worked, an assessment board chaired by the deputy director examined all appraisals. The board actually interviewed appraising officers on "unsatisfactory" appraisals (not unsatisfactory performance) and demanded revision. As a result, the deputy director dictated the performance appraisal of all members of the professional grade. Such fairness.

I suggested in another forum that a better approach is to go back to basic. We must trust the supervisors and countersigning officers lest the appraisals would drift further away from the truth. It is true that there could be errors and undue influence of human weaknesses. However, the solution is to provide training on appraisal and to nurture a culture of frankness. It is easier to confine the problem to the core and find a cure, instead of putting ever more additional layers of supervision.

The research paper presents the modern approach of 360 degree performance feedback by including the officer himself, his peers and subordinates as additional appraisers. The research is a respectable effort to find out the acceptability of grade members to the up-to-date method. It is clever to call it performance feedback instead of performance appraisal. It sounds less authoritative but the body is still the same. The Mega Trends of recent years are decentralization, communication, consultation, democratization. They all boil down to a trend of change from hierarchical management to matrix management. However, the basic assumption on performance appraisal is still the same, that the supervisors and the countersigning officers are not to be trusted, that we need additional information in order to get to the truth. Instead of seeking higher authorities, which is something un-trendy, why not seek more informers in 360 degree? There seems to be two arguments. First, other angles such as self, peers, and subordinates could provide information which the supervisor does not have. Second, multiple channels of information may give the illusion that the appraisal is fairer. I do not see from the literature review that there is proof on these two points. It is taken for granted that other parties could assess some competencies better than the supervisor, but this is only true in the case of an incompetent supervisor. Also, multiple appraisal would easily lead to more conflicting assessments. This is resolved by a more senior officer or an independent party. Sadly, both of them are less informed of the truth. At the end of the day, 360 appraisals may just be filed together. It is then up to the promotion board to dig out the "undesirable" comments to suit its recommendation.

One finding that surprises me is the level of trust on the Career Development Managers CDM. I always thought that the CDM system is the best among all grades, that officers are well looked after by dedicated HR professionals. When I worked as HR manager in departments, many professional grade officers came to me seeking help on personnel matters as well as problems with supervisors and subordinates. CDM, or HR manager, should be highly respected as a sensible person able to comment fairly on the character, aptitude and integrity of the appraisee. However, a majority of officers surveyed in the research considered that CDM should not be allowed to be one of the appraising officers in the 360 degree model. Come to think of it, CDM have always been writing on the appraisal form and putting down a final performance rating. We may need to re-think the modi operandi of the CDM system.

Monday, November 27, 2006

IT security

You may think that the IPCC incident is the biggest joke in IT security, and that Hong Kong, in particular the government, is inadequate in IT management and IT security training. Not necessarily so. There are many ways to breach the most sophisticated IT security protection. Getting a system protected by the leading edge firewall and intrusion detection system and other advanced technology is only half the solution. The human factor is the most vulnerable, including evil-minded criminals, and ignorant and careless users and staff.

I read an article from Reuters yesterday reporting that banks are getting increasingly concerned about the physical theft of confidential client data by insiders or impostors. You can read the full article at this link. Here are some main points.

"Banks are pouring money into building formidable defenses against computer hackers, but are only just waking up to what may be a bigger threat -- the physical theft of client information by people in the office. 'You can have a fortress-like security system, but if you are not terribly discriminating with consultants and temporary employees, there is a terrible vulnerability,' 'If people can get physical access, the game is over.' said Oveissi Field, managing director of Daylight Forensic & Advisory, a security consultancy."

"Banks, especially in Europe and the United States, are investing vast sums to make computer systems impregnable and have been warning customers of the dangers of being duped into giving away confidential information about their accounts. 'Identity theft can happen through hacking into a bank system or internally with someone walking out of the door, and that worries me more than phishing.' said a security officer at a major European bank.

"Widespread outsourcing of data management and other services has exposed some weaknesses and made it harder to prevent identity theft by insiders. 'There are lots of weak links.' said Oveissi Field. 'Back-up tapes are being sent to offsite storage sites or being mailed and getting into the wrong hands or are lost through carelessness.'"

"What banks worry about is that they may have a combination of weaknesses such as staff vetting and physical security, which when put together can let a sophisticated attacker get at their real crown jewels. Banks are starting to respond to the threat by combining teams working on physical and information technology security, which traditionally have been separate functions"

I think the article is a bit unfair on outsourcing as a source of data leakage. Outsourcing is the order of the day. Very few companies can afford a high skill level IT team without resorting to expert help in the market. The loop hole is actually a neglect of IT management and lack of proper IT security guidelines.

The point about staff vetting and physical security is quite valid. For that matter, I note that this point is valid for any type of security, not just IT security. For staff vetting, it can be extended to all staff, including those from outsourcing contractors if necessary. However, there is very little that staff vetting can do. First, it reveals inaccurate security information at only a certain point in time; and second, people may turn bad any time thereafter. The suggestion on combining physical and IT security is good. A single team led by someone with the overall security in mind can help plug more loop holes.

Reflecting on the IPCC case, it was not technical incompetence nor a skilled hacker that caused the data leakage. It was the insiders, or those who were entrusted with the data, that negligently or carelessly let loose the data into the internet sea. Such leakage could also be caused by malicious intent of dissatisfied employees. A sophisticated IT security system can only do half the job. In fact, the easiest way to get access to a secured system is through unaware clients and staff. A secured system starts with a proper level of alertness on user names and passwords.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Make it Mozart 純呈莫扎特

現在是2006年11月,仍然是莫扎特出生250年,所以慶祝莫扎特250歲生辰仍未算遲。較早前看到香港城市室樂團 City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong 將主辦一場全部演出莫扎特作品的音樂會,曲目非常吸引,就匆匆買票。昨晚(11月20日)到港大聽其演奏。

節目很理想,有莫扎特的D大調第十一嬉遊曲 Divertimento No.11 in D Major、降E大調第九鋼琴協奏曲 Piano Concerto No.9 in Eb Major、女高音和鋼琴音樂會詠嘆調 Concert Aria for Soprano and Piano 及G小調第四十交響曲 Symphony No.40 in G Minor。

客席音樂家來頭不少。有著名以色列指揮沈伯道 Lior Shambadal,他現為柏林交響樂團總指揮及萊比錫孟德爾遜樂團音樂總監。鋼琴獨奏是奧地利鋼琴家斯圖哈勒 Gerda Struhal ,而女高音是加拿大女高音韋健絲 Amelia Watkins。臨場嘉賓有這三個國家的註港領事,我還發覺有疑是以色列特工出現於會場。

各首樂曲都已很熟識,但令我有深刻印象是 Struhal 演繹的第九鋼琴協奏曲。她的演出穩重而流暢,充分表現出莫札特音樂的神韻。我承認在此我可能有點偏見,因為我特別熟識這首樂曲,其中幾個樂章的數個主題我都十分喜愛,所以聽到出色的演繹就特別感動。


Friday, November 3, 2006

Centre Pompidou 龐比度中心


這一個展覽收費四十元,但物超所值,單看兩幅 Modigliani 就已值回票價。香港大眾藝術不值錢,一般人的概念是各種藝術都是要政府出錢。不過如果藝術家要靠政府養活,那還有真正藝術創作自由嗎?我剛在柏林參觀 Pergamon Museum,入場費是四十歐羅,即四百港元,是十倍價錢。真是要多謝香港政府。


我找來幾張展出的畫,給尚未去參觀的朋友看看。這些都是我喜愛的畫家;尚有我欣賞的 Miro,可惜只有他的一幅 installation 而沒有畫。

Paul Klee - The Blacksmith

Pablo Picasso - Harlequin

Amedeo Modigliani - Gaston Modot

Rene Magritte - La Modele Rouge

看現代畫之餘,不要錯過在四樓的齊白石畫展。這個展覽規模很大,資料很詳盡。除了齊白石各時期的畫作之外 (當然有他最著名的水族系列) ,還有他各個畫風期的轉變和和因由,以及他週遊中國的遊蹤。齊白石曾於上一世紀早期到訪香港;展覽根據他在香港時的日記,介紹他參觀的地點的古老風貌,值得一看。

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

IPCC incident 4

I hope the IPCC saga would come to an end after the Privacy Commissioner issued his investigation report. However, the report is quite disappointing. It may be said that the Commissioner focused his attention to data privacy issue instead of IT security issue. But in this particular case, IT security issue was at stake. The report did not show that sufficient effort was spent during the investigation in this respect.

The event that was technologically related was the security of the server holding the data. The report took for granted the explanation of the webmaster of the internet service provider that the data was uploaded to a folder which was accessible to the public. I think even friends using the free web services such as Yahoo would know the distinction between such private/public folders. Anything uploaded to a Yahoo account is protected by user name and password, and remains private unless the user specifies it otherwise. Materials uploaded to a personal website are normally open for public access. The IT professional staff engaged in the case must know this simple administration rule. He should be using such service on a regular basis and know the way to keep the data private. Even test data containing the database structure must be kept confidential. Otherwise, it would be a grave professional negligence. On the other hand, there could be a system flaw on the server leading to private folders being exposed. This line of investigation was not pursued.

Other issues are common sense which are not IT related. First, whether the IT staff is employed by the contractor or is sub-contracted was not an issue. The IT staff represents the contractor in this case, no matter what is their relationship. The contractor has precarious responsibility on the outcome. Second, whether there was a specific clause on data security is also not an issue. Under contract, the contractor would be responsible for any damages arising from his negligence. Third, the fact that confidential data was released by the IPCC staff to the contractor was not the result of lack of IT training. It is common sense that one would not let unauthorized persons see a confidential pink file. On the other hand, contractor of an IT system could be considered being authorized to access data of the system.

Given the high profile of the case, it is no wonder that the Privacy Commissioner considered that there was a breach to the Data Protection Principles. However, the case has a surprising ending that it was the Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo and IPCC Chairman Ronny Wong who put up a final show of crossing swords. I call it a shame seeing the Commissioner and the Chairman defending themselves and denying responsibility in front of the television camera. The press called it the clash of the legal profession, given their previous disagreement on other issues.

It calls up another general issue: what are the role and responsibilities of the un-official members of government boards and committees? As Ronny Wong boldly said, un-official members are doing volunteer work; they should not be held responsible for administrative matters which are handled by civil servants. However, isn't the work of IPCC done by civil servants in the first instance. The secretariat of all boards, committees, councils are part and parcel of the institutions, or I may say so, the body of the institutions. The un-official members can call themselves the soul or otherwise. But it definitely has a responsibility, be it precarious responsibility. Afterall, being an un-official member has all its benefits, first in fame, and then in fortune (in kind may be). At least the title looks good in name cards and CVs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Education voucher system

The Chief Executive announced in his 2006 Policy Address that:
"We will provide fee assistance to parents of children aged three to six in the form of an “education voucher”... Starting from the 2007-08 school year, we will provide, in the form of vouchers to parents, an annual subsidy of up to $13,000 per student, of which at least $10,000 must be used on fee subsidy, with the remaining money spent on teacher training... By the 2011-12 school year, the annual subsidy per student will be $16,000 and will be used entirely for fee subsidy. Any local non-profit-making kindergartens that charge fees not more than $24,000 per student per annum will be eligible to redeem the “education voucher” according to their student intake. To assist parents to choose a kindergarten, all participating kindergartens will be required to provide information on their facilities and achievements, including the academic qualifications of the principals and teachers, the number of teachers and students, special features of their curriculum, and teaching arrangements. To assure teaching quality, they will also be subject to classroom inspection."

There have been much discussions on the proposed education voucher system lately. However, I think most of them are politically motivated and miss the point completely. The LegCo Secretariat has conducted a research on education voucher system in 2002. We can still read the research paper in the LegCo website.

The education voucher system was the brainchild of Milton Friedman, whose goal was the improvement of the quality of education through market forces. He predicted that education vouchers would drive schools to respond to the needs and preferences of students with a view to improving student enrollment. Furthermore, parents would be free to choose among schools which best meet their needs. However, the implementation of this theory was not successful in many countries.

The underlying principle of Friedman's theory is the introduction of market force into education. This is a very fundamental change to education, whose purpose is to educate, rather than the pursue of a business. Education was a lucrative business in the past, and only rich and important families could afford it. The quality demanded from teachers were very high. Nowadays, education is human right protected by Article 28 of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Education is now available to everyone, and as a result, it is a losing business mostly paid for or subsidized by the government, except for a few prestigious education institutions.

In Hong Kong, we have nine years free and compulsory education from primary to junior secondary schools. To achieve a higher level of human rights protection, the society always demands more. Senior secondary schools, post-secondary schools and universities are heavily subsidized with public funds... except nurseries and kindergartens. So it is worthy of applause when the government extends public fund subsidy to early childhood education.

The question is: why education voucher? To cater for nine years free education, the government has adopted the model of government-run or aided schools. Government provides the accommodation and pays all the expenses. For aided schools, the administration of the schools is given to school sponsoring bodies. These bodies are religious institutions, charitable institutions and many non-profit making social service institutions. They operate the school for the sake of education and at the same time for their own specific purposes, all at the expense of tax payers.

It is an interesting question why the government does not choose the age old model of subsidy to schools, but the new education voucher system which are not successful in many countries. The simple fact is that the education voucher system is the dream of the resource and system managers, not the educators. It occurs when one looks at education from the resource angle and wonders how best to use the money. The aided school system is notorious for the uncontrollable school sponsoring bodies who want to run the schools in their own way. Very often, this is contradictory to what the government wants, which are controlled curriculum, filled-up classes, a top-down education policy. The situation is aggravated by the decrease in student population in recent years, leading to unfilled places in primary as well as secondary schools. There are also sub-standard schools which the government can do very little to correct. All these schools are still receiving the same subsidy according to the staff establishment and the number of classes. This is not acceptable to education administrators, many of them are not educators. To make the money worth, there should a better way of resource allocation. An alternative to the present system of school aid is to change the method of allocation from school-based to student-based. Instead of subsidizing a school according to its infrastructure and staff establishment, the subsidy could vary with the size of output, i.e. number of students taught.

The education voucher system is such a system. Subsidy is allocated according to student enrollment, thus the illusion that the money goes to the students or parents. In fact it is not. Government only pays the nurseries and kindergartens. The subsidy is very flexible, not to the parents or kindergartens, but to the government. Irrespective of the actual school fees, government only pays up to the maximum amount. Under the proposed formula, government pays $13,000 to $16,000 a year against school fee of $24,000. It is not free education, yet. Furthermore, schools under the subsidy scheme are well controlled. There is a long list of items for compliance including non-profitable status, annual school fee not more than $24,000, providing information on their facilities, academic qualifications of the principals and teachers, the number of teachers and students, special features of their curriculum, and teaching arrangements. Most of all, they will be subject to classroom inspection. The freedom of nurseries and kindergartens will be gone. The power of the education administrators is enhanced.

The introduction of the education voucher system to early childhood education can be viewed as a pilot project of reform of education resource allocation. There have been attempts on such reform in primary and secondary schools. In the past, the government supplemented student places of free education by buying some places from private schools. The subsidy to these private schools is calculated by the number of student places accepted by the government as allocation to free education. In the last few years, the government has been promoting the direct subsidy scheme to schools. Aided schools joining the direct subsidy scheme will be allocated subsidy according to the actual number of students enrolled, instead of the fixed sum tied to staff and classes. It is clear to see that schools which could not fill all the student places would not receive the maximum subsidy. To provide the incentive for aided schools to change to direct subsidy scheme schools, government allows them to charge school fees (this is against the policy of free education), employ any number of teachers to suit their need and freely set the salaries, and freely design their own school curriculum. It is like trading government control for less subsidy. Money is everything, under the name of allowing the schools to excel and giving more choices to parents. This is a contradicting education policy where school curriculum is tightly controlled for some, but greatly relaxed for others. Parents may send their children to aided schools to enjoy free education while studying under a much criticized rigid curriculum, or pay for the education in private schools or direct subsidy scheme schools with a much better curriculum which inspires students more.

The education voucher system, Hong Kong style, could be a much better system. If it can be successfully implemented in nurseries and kindergartens, then it will be very tempting to introduce the system to primary and secondary education. This will bring the education expenditure under better control, create a market among primary and secondary schools, bring in competition thus improvement in quality, while at the same time maintain government control on education by imposing criteria for entry of schools into the system. It will be difficult as many school sponsoring bodies have vested interest in the present aiding system. At present, the most useful tactic of the government is the closure of schools which have insufficient primary one or secondary one student intake against changing over to direct subsidy scheme. The education voucher system, or at least a partial introduction, may speed up the reform. We just need powerful and determined education administrators at the top.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Meeting the demand for improved public services

An article I received from McKinsey: Meeting the demand for improved public services. It is an interesting topic quite relevant to those involved in public administration. An extract of the article is appended below.

Our government has been struggling with active non-intervention lately, and is defending herself using the small government approach. The models in the article provide a mix of strategies on the provision of public services. Small is not necessarily always better. It is the right choice of mode of service delivery that commands effectiveness. LegCo members are hard to please. They are screaming for command and control approach whenever a problem arises, while at the same time reluctant to agree to additional resources. A quasi-market approach is often accused as collaboration between government and business sector. For the third model, government is often to take the blame of insufficient supervision wherever there is a crisis.

I agree that a right choice of an appropriate model for particular services is a way to reform the public service effectively. In any case, the government cannot provide all services by herself. In many occasions, business-like operation is often more efficient, effective and economical. However, the choice of the right model will require great wisdom.

Meeting the demand for improved public services, by Michael Barber, October 2006

The UK government's public-service reforms have been at the center of media controversy in recent months... In every developed country, the central issue is the same: people want higher standards and better customer service, but they do not want to pay higher taxes. Governments therefore face a productivity imperative, and three models for meeting this challenge have emerged.

The first model is command and control: primary school education and health care waiting times are illustrations. This approach is often essential for a service that needs to improve from awful to adequate. For a government, this is a big achievement, but the public wants services to go from good to great. While you can mandate adequate performance, you cannot mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed. This is why other models of reform are required.

The second model is to create quasi-markets, by devolving responsibility to schools, general practitioners, and foundation hospitals; giving more choice to parents and patients; and introducing alternative providers of schools and health services. The aim is to recognize that while these services are different from a business in that they are universal and equitable, they involve similar management challenges, which governments do not always meet with similar success.

The third model, which combines devolution with transparency, applies in circumstances where neither command and control nor quasi-markets would be appropriate. Under this model, the government contracts with (or delegates responsibility to) service providers and holds them accountable.

Many public-sector reforms around the world combine elements of the three models. This makes sense when a service varies widely in performance: a struggling hospital with a large deficit needs command and control, whereas a successful, well-led foundation hospital is best left to the disciplines of the quasi-market.

If this is the right approach, why the controversy? Partly because performance started from a low base and was slow to shift. People's expectations have been raised... But there is more to the current challenges than that. The health and education reforms are at a critical stage of transition away from command and control, and this requires sophisticated strategic leadership. A common error is to believe that moving to a quasi-market from command and control involves "letting go." In fact, as Ted Gaebler and David Osborne put it, governments must learn to "steer rather than row," so the role of officials has to change.

Furthermore, even as power and responsibility are delegated, it is clear that the public will hold the government to account when things go wrong. This places governments in a huge dilemma. When they are under pressure, command and control always looks attractive, but if this approach is adopted as a reflex, achieving good or great services will not be possible. For this reason, leaders need excellent risk and performance management systems.

Whichever model of reform prevails, public-service professionals must have the mind-set and ability not just to lead radical change but also to manage the transformed services... Reform in the UK public sector is heading in the right direction, but unless government departments and public services have the necessary leadership and capabilities, the results will be disappointing... Reform is all in the execution.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tales from Russia 俄羅斯的故事

因為旅遊,今個樂季開始的音樂會都錯過了。港樂的兩場音樂 會,一場是太鼓協奏曲,另一場是Repin的貝多芬小提琴協奏曲都聽不到;門票都要送給別人。今晚(10月13日)是今季第一次聽港樂,是由 Atherton指揮的俄羅斯音樂會。

今晚的音樂會命名為俄羅斯的故事,全是俄羅斯作曲家的作品,有鮑羅丁的伊果王子韃靼舞曲 Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor,浦羅歌菲夫的彼德與狼 Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf 和柴可夫斯基的胡桃夾子第二幕 Tchaikovsky's the Nutcracker: Act II。

這個音樂會是港樂的美樂自悠行系列,目的是以較容易欣賞的樂曲來推廣。音樂廳內有不少小孩子走來走去,工作人員都忙得不可開交,不停叮囑孩子們要安靜。第 一首韃靼舞曲,是鮑羅丁著名作品。鮑羅丁多才多藝,是化學界名人,又是作曲界俄羅斯五傑之一。但他作品不多,有很多作品都未完成,伊果王子歌劇是其中之一;但其中一段已完成的韃靼舞曲卻十分受歡迎。這樂曲由數段不同的舞曲組成,每一段都有其魅 力,其中一段更被改編為 Stranger in Paradise。

全場最受孩子歡迎的應該是彼德與狼了。這是浦羅歌菲夫輕巧的作品,和他其他艱深的作品有很大的分別。彼德與狼是一個很簡單的兒童故事,劇情實在簡單到只有小孩子,甚至是幼稚園孩子才感興趣。但孩子很難從音 樂中讀取故事內容,所以這首作品充斥著故事旁述。我想原作是以俄文寫旁述,但在香港演出就要使用廣東話和英語譯本。我自己一向不喜歡音樂中有旁述;但今晚有可愛的林家琦旁述改編過廣東話的兒童俗語版本,我都無可投訴。這首兒童小品可以表現浦羅歌菲夫的天才。他使用的音樂素材和配器,以輕鬆有趣的手法加上巧妙的樂器和音樂主題的運用,使這首兒童音樂極有欣賞價值。

胡桃夾子芭蕾舞劇的音樂是柴可夫斯基最受歡迎的作品之一;其中第二幕的組曲經常在音樂會演奏,因為劇中最出色的舞曲都在這裡,這些舞曲有趣又易明,所以時常被當作兒童音樂。它比彼德與狼這首小品篇幅較大,故事亦複雜得多,成人聽眾很容易受落。值得一提的是港樂演繹今晚的幾首樂曲 都清爽明快,聽來甚為舒暢。我看早前的樂評,說港樂早一兩場音樂會有點遜色。希望樂季開始後港樂的狀態會再提升。

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Global Capitalism

Global Capitalism, edited by Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens

Hutton and Giddens are the editors of this book. They are not the authors. This book is a collection of 12 essays. Only the first and the last are co-authored by Hutton and Giddens. Most of the essays are academic in nature and are difficult to read. Authors are economists or sociologists with international reputation.

Given the diversity in the expertise of the authors, it is no wonder that the essays, though wearing the hat of global capitalism, are quite unique in their theme and focus on this subject. Each essay takes on a particular social or financial aspect of capitalism's globalization. Nevertheless, the book does convey a message that capitalism has become the dominant world economic system and that indigenous local cultures have been largely Americanized.

Because the essays are so different in nature, it is impossible to write coherent notes about the book. I therefore attempt to write individually on some essays which are of interest to me. This is the first one.

Who's afraid of global culture by Polly Toynbee

Toynbee views the cultural globalization as a tidal wave of the Western culture creeping across the globe. She has a vision of Americanization as a giant strawberry milkshake oozing over the planet, making everything pink along the way. To many, globalization is Americanization.

With globalization, culture everywhere is under attack, creating a culture panic. We have a feeling that there is a culture contamination of Americanism everywhere: denizen in the Sahara wearing Texaco baseball cap, Soda bottles in the Himalayas, washing liquid bottle in the Arctic ice,. One of the travellers reported that during trekking to a remote corner of Cambodia, he was offered the viewing of Basic Instinct video in the evening instead of the rural dance by indigenous girls. When we consider globalization of culture, most of us bring to the subject a jumble of deep-seated alarms, both moral, intellectual, political, spiritual, artistic and nationalistic, all melting into a great pot of globalization panic.

The author then asks a basic question on the ethnocentric disingenuousness (I looked up the dictionary on this two difficult words and I do not like the definition) about our concern for the preservation of traditional cultures and our disgust at the way Western culture invades the arts of other people. Western tourists to remote places are just visiting for a quick look before retreating to their own cities; but we want other people to stay just as they are, while having the modern things for ourselves.

Our selfish thought is: we worry that, by the very fact of visiting it, we will spoil the thing we love. For our own belief in our elemental selves we need there to be an idea of Eskimos, nomads and Red Indians, living as close to their ancient, natural ways as possible. Those who fear globalization seem to want those traditional culture to stay as they are forever, a permanent primitive resource for us, though they may or may not choose to live as they do, depending on what other realistic choices they have. As for the dangers of cultural contamination, actually cultural cross-fertilization is the essence of art, i.e. old things should not be left as they are.

The author accuses us of double standard. Cultural globalization to the developing countries may be an opportunity for them to have a better life-style. We are selective in our feelings about globalization of culture. We may regret the Coca-Cola bottles in alien places, but we will strive with missionary fervour to spread our own values.

I do not know what the environmentalists and the world heritage people would think about this viewpoint. From my view, I think the tourists should not be accused of being hypocritic. Everywhere when there is tourism, there is development. This does not mean we need to destroy the culture in order to do so. Archaeological sites and artifacts are preserved so that we can appreciate history, not to deter modernization.

The author then goes on with her main theme. In going global, we are spreading Western liberal democracy, which she thinks is the only system yet devised that maximizes freedom for the many. She considers that it is not possible to promote these new freedoms while preserving what is best in alien cultures. There are people who fear cultural homogenization. But to spread culture widely, even in ways not always to the taste of connoisseurs, is always a good thing. In the end there is more to be gained than lost in the great global exchange. We think so because we believe Western political and ideological culture will finally permeate the world to the advantage of all. Such culture rests on human rights and from that principle all the rest flows Once all individuals have the right to live as they choose, free from political, religious, patriarchal or social tyrannies, their culture will inevitably change for the better. The West in its many manifestations is a human right crusader. Those who take human rights as the essential first principle of all decent society should be wary of those who think globalising those values is cultural imperialism.

I think these notions of the superiority of Western culture is just that: cultural imperialism. The author brushes aside all other cultures and ideologies by considering them inferior, undemocratic and infringing on human rights. This is a one-way view of globalization of culture. American culture exists only for a very short while in history. Globalization of culture started long long time ago, since homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Asia, then to Europe and America. Many civilizations tried to rule the world by cultural globalization, including the Roman, Persian, Greek, Turk and Chinese, some by war and some by trade. The result is an integration of cultures instead of domination of a single ideology.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

NCSC staff

There is a very basic paradox with Non-Civil Service Contract staff. Are they civil servants? They are performing the same duties as other civil servants, providing services to the public, running the government, being blamed when the government policies go bad, subject to disciplinary actions and bound by the Official Secrets Ordinance. For members of the public, an officer sitting behind the counter, inspecting their shops, and doing all sorts of thing the government does are all their servants. If we are talking about the civil service, civil servants and NCSC staff are included.

So what is the meaning of a non-civil service contract to someone in the civil service? I think it means just that: a non-civil service contract. In the contract, there are things that are non-civil service (some say they are non-civil). They are the pay and fringe benefits package, and the duration of the contract. We can easily understand the difference in the pay and fringe benefits package; they are lower than what are normally received by civil servants. It is not that NCSC staff should be rewarded less. It is just that the community considers civil servants are rewarded too much, and any new comers should comply with the "norm", while those with vested interest are tolerated. The other non-civil, uhh.. non-civil service, arrangement is the duration of the employment. Contract is not a strange thing. There are many civil servants on contract, but not like the NCSC. NCS contract says it is short term. Although it does not rule out renewal, the job is for short term requirement or on project basis.

But one should think twice and admire the wisdom of the NCSC arrangement. There was a time not long ago when there was a worldwide trend of flexible workforce: flexible in the eyes of the employers in the free hand of deploying, and hiring and firing of employees, but covered under the disguise of flexibility for the employees, who may then freely seek better employment globally, work from home, seek work life balance, be engaged in short term contract rather than life long employment. At the same time, there was the public sector reform, of which one of its major objectives was the civil service reform. We needed small government, and so small civil service. The final blow was the budget deficit, which put the civil service emolument in the spot light. At a time of economic downturn, this was easily a target for all. The government responded by cutting back civil service fringe benefits, and conducted pay level survey with a view to reducing civil service pay. All these aimed only at new recruits, serving civil servants were not affected, so the effect of these measures has yet to be felt.

The other more difficult thing to handle was the efficiency savings leading to downsizing. The intention was good. Departments should trim fat by the 3R, re-organizing, re-prioritizing and re-engineering, i.e. the unnecessary, wasteful and redundant work procedures and staff were to be eliminated. But departments were reluctant to comply with the across the board cut percentage. Cuts were made for expediency only. Some sections remained fat while some came near to collapsing. The NCSC arrangement came as a rescue. We shouldn't be reading the circular for reason as it was only about procedures. On reflection, it was an ingenious move which filled the gap of staff shortage under the recruitment freeze.

Semantics aside, we really shouldn't have two breeds of civil servants with so much disparities working on the same job. But lies still have to be complete. So NCSC will remain as it is, fulfill its historic role, and perform its functions both proclaimed and hidden, until the government is ready to clean up the mess. My guess is two years from now, there will be open recruitment for civil servants on new pay scales, new fringe benefits package and new terms of appointment. Some NCSC staff will be appointed; some will just go away. This new breed of civil servants will replace all old staff in thirty years.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is RFID tracking you?

We used to hear about the RFID issue in IT journals on the technological applications, and also in the political agenda of some activists raising privacy concern. Yesterday, I read from CNN an article on RFID tracking. As RFID becomes an everyday reality, the issue is now news instead of just technological or political discussions. You may wish to browse this article for details.

The article reports on the increasing use of RFID. It is replacing bar code tags and may eventually completely phase out the older technology and standard. This picture of a bunch of bananas with a bar code tag is a strange reminder that even green grocery can be tagged with RFID. I don't know where is the tag placed, as bunch of bananas is often torn apart by supermarket customers. So a tag could be inserted under the skin of each banana, if the cost per tag is very low and the labour is automated. There is a possible scenario that the big brother links up the credit card or Octopus information and obtains information of the purchase. With a powerful remote RFID sensor, other people will know when and where do you eat your banana.

Another striking picture from CNN is this pretty sales lady holding a pair of jeans. The caption says that the garment is tagged with RFID chip. When the pair of jeans is placed near the RFID sensor console, the monitor shows the details of the merchandise, and also other sizes and colours available. The catch is, if you buy it, you will carry the tag with you and the tag can lead to the customer information in the billing database. When you wear the pair of jeans and walk in the street, you may be flashing your identity around. There are promises that the tags will be disabled or its sensitivity reduced. But the advance of technology will also promise the development of more powerful sensor which can detect RFID data from a long distance, and perhaps location information via GPS.

But the present development of the issue is more comforting. The RFID industry is addressing the privacy concern by composing a best-practices manifesto. Participating companies include Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Visa U.S.A. and Proctor & Gamble. The manifesto is meant to assuage consumer fears about how data could be collected, shared and stored. Key parts of the document include an agreement to notify consumers about RFID data collection and give them a choice when it comes to gathering personal information. But the manifesto does not suggest any penalties for not complying. You may recall the handling of the issue on employee surveillance by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner. The concern is also addressed by a set of guidelines for employers without any obligation on compliance.

Nevertheless, RFID should not be viewed as something evil. See this CNN photo which shows the German Chancellor Angela Merkel participating in a demonstration on how a shopping cart full of grocery tagged with RFID could facilitate automated supermarket checkout. This is technology tomorrow today. The CNN article also reports on the level of risk on personal data security. On the issue of data leakage, the range of RFID data reception is short. Personal data are now freely available through cell phones and wi-fi connections which pose a greater data security risk than RFID chips. Supporters also say that goods and services transactions using RFID technology would be no more or less secure than they are today. For example, if you pay for goods and services today with a credit card, that information is stored in a database. If RFID is used to record sales, data will also go in the database. Similarly, data read from bar code will also be on the same database. If the government wants access to the the database containing goods and billing information and personal data, the process is essentially the same no matter how the information is collected, by RFID data or the bar code data.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Writing assignment

I don't know if this is the right thing to do. But the advertisement said it so nicely that it seems to be legitimate business. And it is global. I read about this service of writing assignment last week. You may wish to browse the website for details.

They write your paper for you. The service includes:
Custom write your essay assignment (term papers, essays, case studies, book reports, application essays) according to your requirements; at a fee of HK$75 per page, each page is 225 words. They will follow your required format and references are free and included. Papers are sent to you by email. Located around the world, they probably write your paper in a backroom somewhere in Sydney or New York.

I've always thought writing your paper is part of the learning and asking someone else write it for you is cheating. But these guys called themselves your writing assistant. You can attend lectures, read books, think on a topic, make an outline, and these guys will do the research for you, make up a database, do the data mining and statistics, write your paper from beginning to end with a conclusion you may or may not think of. Most importantly, they guarantee you can at least get a pass.

This service is not cheap, HK$75 for a short page of 225 words. I guess a short dissertation will probably cost HK$10000.

We need to re-think the moral standard as well as the learning mode. Students in the past were asked to do calculation by hand. Now calculators are permitted. There are now many statistical tools around that researchers do not have to burn the midnight oil to do the mathematics. We build our knowledge based on others so we do not have to learn how to make wheels anymore. All kinds of tools are available to make learning easier. But is writing your paper a step that can be eliminated as well? In any case, a market is being formed.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Pathetique Symphony 悲愴交響曲

港樂的2005-06樂季到此完結,最後的音樂會當然要是最好的,就是柴可夫斯基 Tchaikovsky 最著名的兩首樂曲:他的降B小調第一鋼琴協奏曲 Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor 和第六交響曲-悲愴 Symphony No. 6 Pathetique。還請來謝敏替 Gianluigi Gelmetti 客席指揮,和狄里柏斯基 Simon Trpceski 為鋼琴獨奏。港樂將今晚(7月7日)的音樂會定名為柴可夫斯基鋼琴協奏曲,可能是因為它較好聽,和 Trpceski 的名氣。不過我較為欣賞悲愴,所以我用它作標題。

Trpceski 近年人氣急昇,是炙手可熱的新進鋼琴家。今晚演奏的柴氏第一鋼琴協奏曲,大家都非常熟悉,所以聽眾要求都會提高。我覺得他今晚開場時熱身不足,第一樂章並無驚喜,但第二和第三樂章就明顯地出色很多。尤其是第三樂章,可以表現出如火的熱情。




悲愴交響曲的悲愴在於第四樂章。柴可夫斯基一反傳統,將一個慢版樂章放在最後,並命名為悲傷的慢版 Adagio Lamentoso。這個樂章回應第一樂章第一主題的悲壯情懷,但悲愴的心情盡顯,可以說是由頭到尾都是慘痛。弦樂奏出煩亂的心情,而低音大提琴做出一個一個的頓音,像是沉重的腳步。可以想像一幅圖畫,有一個人在荒野中遊蕩,腦子裡都是悲慘遭遇的回憶,然後仰天長嘯,像是對神的控訴,最後音樂歸於沉寂,這個人漸漸消失於失望和永恆的空虛之中。相傳柴可夫斯基創作這曲之時亦有這情緒;他於這首交響曲首演後不到一個月就去世,而且死因不是所說的故意染上霍亂,而是中山埃毒。

寫柴可夫斯基第六寫得較長,因為我曾在考音樂理論時作答此題目;多年前以英文作答,現在靠記憶再寫一個中文版。今晚聽此曲覺得十分滿意。Gelmetti 是現任羅馬歌劇院的總指揮,他的功力甚高,把港樂發揮得非常好。我很喜歡他處理第一樂章第一主題的手法,他把這感情澎湃的主題的速度放慢了一點,使它的感染力大大加強。第三樂章進行曲的銅管部份比較不太強,這使它與弦樂部分融合得較好。總括來說,這是一個很高水準的演繹。

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

RFID hacking

It seems inevitable that we are now entering the RFID era. Many major corporations are already putting in their hands on a RFID environment for goods, services and employees. The good news is that the security aspect and privacy aspect of the technology are being recognised in the course of development.

First the good news. A recent article from Wired News reported that IBM is introducing a retail-safe RFID chip to meet the privacy concern. The chip is used in logistic management of goods and can be read at a distance of 30 feet, facilitating the tracking of movement of goods, security in the shop and automatic billing. The so-called Clipped Tag has a notched antenna that consumers can tear off, much like the end of a ketchup packet. Removing this panel drastically reduces the readable range of the device, from about 30 feet to less than 2 inches. This function in effect changes the RFID chip from a long-range device to a proximity device. Consumers then do not need to worry about the identity of the goods being monitored on the street.

The Clipped Tag is meant to mitigate privacy risks by reducing the range of the device without disabling it completely. This leaves the tag intact for returns and other purposes, while ruling out the possibility of security attacks from a distance. IBM argues that the Clipped Tag may be a better option for both retailers and consumers than an industry proposal to permanently disable tags which destroys their marketing and inventory-tracking value.

Now the bad news. In another article also from Wired News, the real face of RFID hacking is revealed. A senior officer of a software firm arranged a robbery for a hacker to challenge the RFID-based security lock system. The hacker used a home-made wallet-sized device he called a cloner which was equipped with a coil of antenna fit in his palm. He walked past the officer unnoticed on a busy street and came close to a few inches from the back-pocket wallet which contained the smartcard. The antenna picked up the signal of the RFID chip on the card and enabled the cloner to record it. The data was then downloaded to a laptop using a USB cable for processing. The cloner was then switched from Record mode to Emit mode. The antenna was now ready to open doors, same as the authentic smartcard, in the secured office of the software firm. See this sketch from Wired News of the robbery in action. I think for security reason, the hacker did not wish to be photographed. He was more security-conscious than the security company.

The sea that contains unlimited number of RFID fishes for easy picking is very tempting for criminals and hackers. The article reported that RFID chips are everywhere: "companies and labs use them as access keys, Prius owners use them to start their cars, and retail giants like Wal-Mart have deployed them as inventory tracking devices. Drug manufacturers like Pfizer rely on chips to track pharmaceuticals. The tags are also about to get a lot more personal: Next-generation US passports and credit cards will contain RFID, and the medical industry is exploring the use of implantable chips to manage patients. According to the RFID market analysis firm IDTechEx, the push for digital inventory tracking and personal ID systems will expand the current annual market for RFID from $2.7 billion to as much as $26 billion by 2016."

"For protection, RFID signals can be encrypted. But most commercial RFID tags don't include security, which is expensive: A typical passive RFID chip costs about a quarter, whereas one with encryption capabilities runs about $5. It's just not cost-effective for your average office building to invest in secure chips. This leaves most RFID vulnerable to cloning or - if the chip has a writable memory area, as many do - data tampering."

The article commented that the world of RFID is like the Internet in its early stages, that nobody thought about building security features into the Internet in advance, and now we are paying for it in viruses and other attacks. We are likely to see the same situation with RFID. For the moment, I am not thinking of protecting my Octopus card, or the chip implanted in dogs, or even the tag in my shirt. However, as things develop, more personal and important information will be stored in RFID chips we carry.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Wang Jian plays Tchaikovsky 王健演繹柴可夫斯基

王健是現今華裔著名大提琴家。我第一次看到他是在紀錄片樂韻繽紛,是 Issac Stern 多年前在中國表演和訪問的紀錄。王健當時只有八歲,人比大提琴還要矮。他個子很小,坐在椅子上,雙腳不到地,琴柄比他的頭高,但他拉起琴來感情十足。最有印象是影片結束打出字幕時是用他拉琴的片段作背景,一個很小的孩子,專注地拉一段很慢很悲哀的調子。樂韻繽紛中有很多個出現過的小童現在已是世界知名的音樂家了。我第二次聽王建已是差不多二十年後他在香港舉行的獨奏音樂會,技巧已充分成熟。今晚(6月30日)他和港樂合作演奏柴可夫斯基的洛可可變奏曲 Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo theme。

今晚又全是柴可夫斯基的作品,有里米尼的弗蘭切斯卡 Francesca da Rimini 和第四交響曲 Symphony No. 4,又請來伊恩馬連 Ion Marin 作客席指揮。還是先要說說 Rococo。這是柴可夫斯基最出色的大提琴作品,曲式比較特別,以一段段的變奏來發展一個很美麗的主題。其中包含大提琴燦爛的表演和與樂團緊密合作的段落。主題以 Rococo 風格寫成,輕巧高貴,有對古典樂派大師致敬之意。王健的演出極有深度,他拉出來的主題旋律好像唱歌一樣,他在控制落弓力度和句法方面都別有一手;演奏時專注的表情,和幾十年前影片中的表情一樣。

Marin 指揮的柴可夫斯基第四交響曲亦有很好的表現。柴可夫斯基後期的幾首交響曲是他巔峰時期的作品,它們各有特色,第四和第五交響曲各有一貫穿全曲的動機 motif,是當時有些作曲家,如 Berlioz ,愛用的手法。第四交響曲的諧謔曲是弦樂撥弦演奏的經典,其知名度僅次於 Strauss 的 Pizzicato Polka。第四交響曲的終章和第五交響曲的都是同樣雄偉。我是較喜歡第五的,覺得它較直接。但今晚 Marin 指揮的第四演繹卻極佳,高潮層層疊疊,很有壓迫感,是近年來少聽到的佳品;港樂又進步了。

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Li Chuan Yun plays Tchaikovsky 李傳韻演奏柴可夫斯基

香港管弦樂團的2005-06樂季已接近尾聲;莫札特誕生 250年的慶祝音樂會系列亦已完結;但港樂仍有精彩的節目,接著來一連三個星期都是演奏全場柴可夫斯基的作品。今晚(6月23日)的曲目有柴可夫斯基 Tchaikovsky 的選自尤金奧涅金的波蘭舞曲 Eugene Onegin: Polonaise、小提琴協奏曲 Violin Concerto 和第五交響曲 Symphony No. 5。

小提琴獨奏是年青小提琴家李傳韻。他被全世界公認為神童,是現今世上最出色的小提琴家之一。他現在已二十多歲,不再是神童,但仍在美國進修。各界對他的評價全都是好好好。小提琴大師 Ricci 說:中國已經出了一位偉大的小提琴家;New York Times 評論他的演出,說只聽他的一曲,已經不枉這個晚上。



李傳韻encore演奏 Paganini 的 Caprice No. 24。這又是所有小提琴家必修的艱深樂曲,中間有一整段變奏都是以泛音拉出。在我聽過此曲的現場演出中,起碼有兩三成在此不合格。李傳韻的技巧高超,當然不是問題。他演奏的改編版本,比原作要求更高,但加入了少許現代爵士樂的風味,聽來減輕了原作小提琴經典習作的嚴肅感覺,音樂感因而較重。


Thursday, June 22, 2006

The World is Flat 2

This is part 2 of the notes on The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

Some of the ten flatteners noted by Friedman have been around for many years. However, Globalization 3.0 as Friedman proposed did not occur until 2000, the reason being that the flatteners have to collaborate with each other and synergize before their effect can be felt. Friedman noticed that the flatteners converged in around 2000. There is actually a triple convergence at that time.

The Triple Convergence

Convergence No. 1 - The ten flatteners emerged in the 1990s. For them to work together in a complementary, mutually enhancing fashion, they needed time to converge. The tipping point arrived around 2000. The net result was the creation of a global, web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration in the sharing of knowledge and work in real time, without regard to geography and distance.

Convergence No. 2 - The convergence of the ten flatteners is not enough to make the world flat. The business world has to adapt itself to the new tools. It has to be comfortable with, and develop the sorts of horizontal collaboration and value-creation processes and habits that could take advantage of this new and flatter playing field. The convergence of the flatteners begot the convergence of a set of business practices and skills that would get the most out of the flat world. And then the two began to reinforce each other.

Convergence No. 3 - The third convergence is the new players entering the new playing field. While western countries were the first to adapt to the new game, three billion players from the developing countries suddenly found themselves being able to compete in the flattened world. The access of so many people to the tools of collaboration and the unlimited pages of information gave rise to a global community that is able to participate in all sorts of discovery and innovation.

The flattened world poses many challenges to individuals, companies and countries. The viewpoints of Friedman are mainly IT-based, a world connected by networks of information, networks of communication, networks connecting production and services, and also a network of global transportation and logistics. The main point is: anything that can be done in the next room can be done anywhere else in the world. With call centres connected by high speed fiber optics between continents, many services, including customer hotlines, help desks, promotional calls, tax returns, diagnosis of X-ray images, remote surgery, data entry, can be done in other parts of the world for you in real time. The worldwide production and movement of goods have also developed to an extent that even many local industries with deep ethnic roots are facing worldwide competition.

How can companies cope?

While the individuals could make use of the new tools to explore the flat world, it is the companies which are really facing critical competition. Friedman highlighted some rules and strategies for companies to compete in the flattened world.

Rule No. 1 - When the world goes flat, and you are feeling flattened, reach for a shovel and dig inside yourself. Don't try to build walls.

Rule No. 2 - And the small shall act big... One way small companies flourish in the flat world is by learning to act big. And the key to being small and acting big is being quick to take advantage of all the new tools for collaboration in reaching farther, faster, wider and deeper.

Rule No. 3 - And the big shall act small... One way that big companies learn to flourish in the flat world is by learning how to act really small by enabling their customers to act really big.

Rule No. 4 - The best companies are the best collaborators. In the flat world, more and more business will be done through collaborations within and between companies, for a very simple reason: The next layer of value creation, whether in technology, marketing, biomedicine, or manufacturing, are becoming so complex that no single firm or department is going to be able to master them alone.

Rule No. 5 - In a flat world, the best companies stay healthy by getting regular chest X-rays and then selling the results to their clients.

Rule No. 6 - The best companies outsource to win, not to shrink. They outsource to innovate faster and more cheaply in order to grow larger, gain market share, and hire more and different specialists, not to save money by firing more people.

Rule No. 7 - Outsourcing isn't just for large companies. It is also for idealists and the social entrepreneurs.

Reform wholesale and reform retail

For countries facing the challenge of the flat world, Friedman noted that many developing countries were trying to copy the model of success of others but some were unable to get it right. He examined the process of development and defined the reform needed.

Reform wholesale comes from the centre, and was commonplace during the era of broad macroeconomic reform in many developing countries like China, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and India. These group of reformers often relied on the leverage of authoritarian political system to unleash the market forces. They pushed their countries into more export-oriented and free market strategies based on:
- privatization of state companies,
- deregulation of financial markets,
- currency adjustment,
- foreign direct investment,
- shrinking subsidies.
- lowering of protectionist tariff barriers, and
- introduction of more flexible labour laws.

These leaders knew that more open and competitive markets are the only sustainable vehicle for growing a nation out of poverty, because they are the only guarantee that new ideas, technologies, and best practices are easily flowing into the countries and that private enterprises, and even government, have the competitive incentive and flexibility to adopt those new ideas and turn them into jobs and products.

However, the problem for any globalizing countries lies in thinking they can stop with reform wholesale. In a flattened world, reform wholesale is no longer sufficient to keep countries on a sustainable growth path. Reform retail is necessary. Following reform wholesale, a country has to look at four key aspects of the society:
- infrastructure,
- regulatory institutions,
- education and
- culture.

The idea of reform retail is to enable the greatest number of people to have the best legal and institutional framework within which to innovate, start companies, and become attractive partners for those who want to collaborate with them from elsewhere in the world.

Friedman also attempted to delve into the present world conflict by expressing how the Muslim world and terrorism were creating barriers to unflatten the world. I find part of arguments very biased on the American angle. Surely terrorism is something that everyone should condemn. But terrorists are also taking advantage of the flat world to advance their cause. It may not be a desirable outcome, but is an unavoidable by-product of globalization. In the Muslim world, there is a different set of belief and value. Although their development is at present not in step with the western world, time will tell what role they will play in globalization.

The book contains a lot of examples and arguments which are all quite interesting. I can only capture those which struck me most. I recommend you to read this book which is a joy to read just for the language.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The World is Flat

The World Is Flat - A brief history of the globalized world in the 21st century by Thomas Friedman

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain to India, taking a westerly route across the Atlantic, thinking it would be easier to go round the back of the world to reach India instead of going pass the dangerous Cape of Good Hope. He only reached West Indies but proved that the world is round. In 2005, Thomas Friedman took a plane from America and headed east to India, trying to figure out that the world is flat, globalized and without barriers.

There was a time when the world was round and far away places beyond the horizon could not be seen, and then it was globalized and flattened. It was a long process relative to modernization. Thomas Friedman perceived three versions of globalization starting from the exploration of Christopher Columbus. From 1492 to about 1800, it was Globalization 1.0. It was about countries and muscles, and about countries exploring the new world. Countries were forcing their way to trade with the new world and colonization. The primary question was about how did a country fit into the global competition and opportunities. Globalization 1.0 shrank the world from a size large to a size medium.

The second era, Globalization 2.0, lasted from 1800 to 2000. It shrank the world from medium size to small. The key agent of change, and the dynamic force driving global integration was multinational companies, driven by first the falling transportation costs, and then by the falling telecommunication costs. It was the birth and then the maturation of global economy with sufficient movement of goods and information between continents, thus creating a global market.

Globalized 3.0 took off around 2000 and shrank the world from small to tiny, and flattening the playing field at the same time. With the movement of information improved so drastically that it empowered the individuals to participate in the globalization. While the dynamic force in Globalization 1.0 was countries competing, and that in Globalization 2.0 was companies competing, we find in Globalization 3.0 the power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally. Thomas Friedman saw ten forces that flattened the world and led to Globalization 3.0.

Flattener No. 1 - The 9th November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. This event was not just about the wall, but the collapse of the Soviet Union. The result was the end of the cold war and the opening up of the entire Soviet Bloc. In a sense, the world view was expanded and the two worlds became one.

Flattener No. 2 - 9th August 1995, when Netscape went public. Netscape was a symbol for web browsers, among many competitors. The success of Netscape in 1995 marked an important phase in computing that the PC-based computing platform was changed to an Internet-based platform. Millions of computers then integrated on the Internet and were working under global networks.

Flattener No. 3 - Work Flow software. With the Internet connecting people to people, and people to their own applications, there came the proliferation of work flow software which directly connected applications to applications. Such software enables applications in different locations of the world to work together as one.

Flattener No. 4 - Open-sourcing, the self-organizing collaborative communities. They are more than Linux, Apache and OpenOffice, but include many freeware and user-based projects. It is an important flattener because it makes available many free tools, from software to encyclopedias, to millions of people around the world. The open-source approach challenges hierarchical structure with a horizontal model of innovation.

Flattener No. 5 - Outsourcing, starting from Y2K. The chain of events leading to the present state of outsourcing to India is interesting. It started in 1951 when India under Nahru established seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) for educating elites in sciences, engineering and medicine. IIT were very successful in producing large number of talents. However, India did not have sufficient jobs for them. Came Y2K, there was a crisis on software maintenance and USA was much in need of knowledgeable hands for the job. Many talented Indian engineers were recruited by American consulting firms to handle the work. When the Y2K crisis was over, many Indian engineers returned home, but contacts had been established. In parallel, the IT boom created a large demand in telecommunication and many companies invested heavily in laying cross-continent optical fiber connections. The IT bubble then burst, and the costs of using the now over-supplied high speed connections fell drastically, making broadband connection between India and USA exceptionally cheap. When IT demand picked up again, Indian engineers, many worked in USA on Y2K work, were again in demand. With convenient telecommunication and work flow software, they found it easy to work remotely in India serving American firms, earning a good salary which was very cheap at the American level, while living at home Indian style. Thus began the vast out-sourcing centres in India, and also in many other developing countries.

Flattener No. 6 - Offshoring. On 11th December 2001, China formally joined WTO. It meant China was agreeing in principle to make its own competitive playing field as level as the rest of the world. Offshoring of manufacturing to China, Russia and some developing countries became commonplace. Friedman quoted an African proverb on the competition: a gazelle must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed; a lion must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death; it doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, you'd better start running. The movement of goods around the globe is so convenient and without barrier that it makes offshoring a flattening tool. There was a group of American CEO discussing the production of their companies. All but one had already set up production plants in China. Everyone agreed that this lone company would be the first to go bankrupt.

Flattener No. 7 - Supply-chaining. Large companies are now able to commandeer their suppliers around the world for just-in-time supplies to stock store shelves and to meet production needs. Walmart has a worldwide system connecting its suppliers and a hub in Arkansas to receive supplies and despatch goods to its outlets. Friedman also quoted an example based on his experience of ordering a notebook computer. His telephone order was taken by a call centre in India and was relaid to a production plant in Malaysia. The parts for building the computer were automatically ordered from more than 30 suppliers in many different countries which automatically adjusted their stocks and delivered the required parts to the plant at the exact time. A Malaysian technician assembled the computer, tested it, and despatched it through UPS across the Pacific to Friedman's home. These were all done within a few days.

Flattener No. 8 - Insourcing. You may think that the flattened world allows a company to outsource some of its backroom functions, offshore its production, and better collaborate with its suppliers, but the bottom line is that the company still has to maintain a shop front and client relations. Come insourcing, and this may have changed. Friedman quoted the example of UPS which has transformed itself from delivery service to a client network for other companies. With teams of UPS staff regularly contacting citizens physically on a daily basis, UPS expanded its services to cover the delivery of goods for companies to their clients, and at the same time handled the billing and collection of payment of cash or credit cards. A company can focus on its core business and leave all the peripheral functions to other contractors around the world.

Flattener No. 9 - Informing. Think Google, Yahoo, MSN. In a flat world, information is just a few keystrokes away. Besides knowledge you would like to seek, there are many other information about almost everything and everyone if you care to search. In the age of superpower search, everyone is a celebrity. There is no class boundaries or education boundaries.

Flattener No. 10 - The steroids. The steroids that empower the individuals to take advantage of the availability of information and immediate communication in the flat world are the modern age equipment which is digital, mobile, personal and virtual. These include mobile phone, notebook computer and PDA. The up-to-date models of these digital equipment are wireless and can communicate with the world instantaneously. Their personal and mobile nature enables individuals to collaborate and compete in the flat world with their virtual presence anywhere anytime.

I find the above observations of Thomas Friedman quite narrow for the topic of globalization. It is heavily IT-based and American-based. The book mentions some modern factors concerning globalization which affect the American way, but leaves out the grave impact of the global finance and politics. However, the ten flatteners only occupy one-third of the book and are merely an introduction. I shall record his other views in the next round of notes.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The last three symphonies 終極莫札特



第四十號交響曲第一樂章的第一主題非常為人熟悉,相信不少朋友都聽過;就算沒有聽過這首交響曲,都可能聽過 Hook on Classic 這首流行曲古典音樂版本,或者在地下鐵聽過這個旋律的電話鈴聲。這首交響曲非常優雅,用不上定音鼓。另一首第四十一號交響曲就完全不同,別名雷神,莫札特在此用了大量的定音鼓伴奏,此曲氣勢雄壯,但又不失莫札特的風格,非常難得。我認為這三首交響曲的神韻在於它們的第二樂章,都是慢版。第三十九號交響曲的慢版非常有味道,以成熟的手法,迷人的旋律,創造感人的氣氛。第四十號交響曲的慢版是我三首之中最喜愛的,舒緩的旋律,慢慢發展至一個一個的高潮,越聽越覺得好聽。第四十一號交響曲有如歌的感覺,充分表現莫札特在聲樂方面的創作天才,反映在管弦樂上。不過慢版的音樂需要時間去咀嚼,不似激情音樂那麼搶耳。

今晚 Edo de Waart 將樂團位置重新編排,將第二小提琴和大提琴低音大提琴的位置互換。原本小提琴和大提琴各佔一方,高低音區明顯分開,身歷聲效果會較好,但大大的音樂廳不是每一個座位都是皇帝位。我曾經試過坐在很偏左的位置,低音幾乎完全沒有了。今晚的安排音響較為統一,不過如果如果座位非常不好,音響就不可能十分理想,惟一補救就是回家坐私家皇帝位用 Hi-fi 再聽一次;所以我下一樂季都是要早早訂購一級的門票。

Friday, June 9, 2006

Da Vinci Code 達文西密碼


我上星期在數碼港看這片,觀眾不算多。這片在攝影和導演方面都有水準,但演員和編劇卻並不出色。我沒有看過原著,但我太太說很多引人入勝的情節都忽略了,例如 Silas 由孤兒變成殺手的經歷,和 Sophie Neveu 一家車禍的真相。我卻認為此片電影感不足,在兩小時內很匆忙地講一個複雜的故事,但最重要的情節卻只是由 Sir Leigh Teabing 口述。它的成功是原著的餘威和電影公司和反對者宣傳的效果。是否有朋友又看原著又看電影可以分享一點感想?

被一些教徒反對的情節其實一點都不新穎,有些說法流傳已久,我認為這次事件處理得不好。這使我想起1973年的 Jesus Christ Superstar。此片由著名舞台劇改編,我非常喜歡電影版本,有羅馬士兵手持自動步槍,戰鬥機作為天使,還有強勁的搖滾樂。開始時基督教團體都強烈反對,正如達文西密碼一樣,說它褻聖,曲解聖經,教壞教徒。但後來有高人發覺這非常受年青人歡迎的電影是不能禁,而它所講述的聖經故事正是傳道人想找人聽的。教會即時大變身,由基督教團體和教會學校組織教徒和學生去看這電影,一面看耶穌的故事一面學英文。

我看了 Jesus Christ Superstar 不知多少次:電影,舞台劇,VCD全都有;尤其喜歡其配樂,各首主題曲,和演 King Herod 的肥佬。影片的情節和我在學校接觸的聖經故事一樣,但演繹的手法極佳,發人深省。其中有三點我在1973年已注意到。第一點是猶大,他是該片主角,不是耶穌;該片主要是說猶大的心路,他被引導去出賣耶穌,而由始至終都預知結果,是耶穌最知心的門徒,事發後有戰鬥機天使多謝他;我們剛看到猶大福音被發現又被證實為真本的新聞,但這觀點很久之前大家已知道。第二點是 Mary Magdalene 在片中被描述為耶穌的情人,這和達文西密碼中的聖杯傳說是一樣,Jesus Christ Superstar 一片對此著墨很多,Mary Magdalene 緊隨耶穌進入耶路撒冷,在半夜深談,又在耶穌被釘十字架時陪伴在旁,在片中她並不是被耶穌救贖的壞女人 Magdalene,亦不是聖母瑪利亞,而是耶穌的伴侶。第三點是耶穌到達麻瘋病人的山洞,熱心為他們治病,病人越來越多,不斷包圍他,耶穌努力接觸每一個人,但終於被淹沒,然後大叫 heal yourselves.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Paradise Now 立見天國

有否看過立見天國 Paradise Now?此片現在百老匯電影中心放映,好評如潮。我上星期日(6月4日)看了,但似乎快要落畫,要看就要快快。巴勒斯坦的影片,講述人肉炸彈自殺式襲擊者的故事。它是金球獎最佳外語片,得獎無數,又獲提名奧斯卡最佳外語片,因為題材敏感,在美國引起爭論。




Monday, June 5, 2006

Implanting RFID tags in human

I just read from LiveScience about a proposal to implant RFID tags in immigrants. This proposal was made by VeriChip, a company which supplies such equipment. The reason for such move was that USA would need to know who were in the country and why they were there. The CEO of the company proposed using VeriChip RFID implants to register workers at the border, and then verify their identities in the workplace.

You may have heard about RFID, sometimes from me, and its increasing use and its danger on privacy. You may think that such equipment would be under tight control, especially in USA who claims to be the defender of human right. The biggest push we heard so far was from Walmart which demanded most of its suppliers to adopt RFID technology on their logistics systems. We also know that federal approval has been given to implant RFID tags in cattle and pets.

Think twice. RFID tags are actually being used in human at present. FDA approval was given to Applied Digital Solutions to sell VeriChip RFID tags for implantation into patients in hospitals. The intent is to provide immediate positive identification of patients both in hospitals and in emergencies. This is a breakthrough in the use of RFID tags in human. Just think about that all hospitals and ambulances will have RFID readers ready and scan patients to see if medical information can be found in their arms. If this saves lives in emergencies, and quickly allows doctors to give accurate diagnosis, then sooner or later the use of RFID tags on medical grounds will be widespread. Medical insurance companies may even mandate it.

There are also reports that parents implant their kids with RFID tags for their safety. Kids of course are not happy with their whereabout known to their parents anytime. I think the present state of the case is that the consent of the persons, or their parents if they are minors, is required before a RFID tag can be implanted. But there are already over 1,000 people willingly have RFID tags implanted on them.

You may think that the proposal of VeriChip may be just wishful thinking. Tagging immigrants may be viewed as a blatant discrimination, which will not be accepted by the Americans, nor by the home countries of the immigrants. Think again. Politics work in unpredictable way. In another report, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe allegedly remarked to visiting USA senators that he would consider having Colombian workers have microchips implanted in their bodies before they are permitted to enter the US for seasonal work. Arlen Specter, Senator of Pennsylvania, told Congress on April 25 of this proposal.

With people's mind changing, and weighing the benefits of RFID against its infringement on privacy, the business sector, political sector, welfare sector may eventually converge on the adoption of such technology. In a practical and a globalized world, we may need to give up some of our privacy and freedom in order to integrate as a small screw in this big machine.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Symphonic Dances 熱舞交響曲

今晚港樂的音樂會名為熱舞交響曲,當知不是舞曲這麼簡單,應該有舞蹈助慶。其曲目是柴可夫斯基的天鵝湖組曲 Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite,愛德華斯的雙簧管協奏曲 Ross Edwards' Oboe Concerto,伯恩斯坦的夢斷城西交響舞曲 Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,和拉威爾的波萊羅舞曲 Ravel's Bolero。

你可能認為天鵝湖有芭蕾舞表演,或者夢斷城西適合現代舞,但出乎意料跳舞的是雙簧管獨奏家戴安娜黛熙蒂 Diana Doherty。此曲是 Edwards 為她而作,充分顯示雙簧管的技巧,不過新派音樂的旋律充滿神秘感,聽來有點吃力。雙簧管獨奏時配合舞蹈動作,遊走於樂團之間,其在樂團之中的發聲位置亦不停改變。這使我想起有人認為環迴立體聲不切實際,因為樂器不會經常轉換位置;不過今晚聽 Diana Doherty 演奏,效果正是如此。此曲應用環迴立體聲錄音,才可表達作曲家的心意。

另一首有舞蹈配合的居然是 Bolero。雖然此曲起源自芭蕾舞劇,但我從未看過。Bolero 的節奏單調,全曲重複一個節奏。另外它只有兩個旋律,不斷重複演奏,不作任何發展。它的音樂在於每一段使用不同的配器,由輕聲漸漸發展到整個樂團的巨大聲響,差不多各種樂器的組合都出現過,所以它是學習配器法經典之作。今晚的舞蹈請來梅卓燕編舞,她是港產國際級舞蹈家,而由演藝學院舞蹈系演出。編舞很別出心裁,因為在一個已被樂團佔去大部分地方的舞台上,舞者要使用座位之間很少的空間,用不太大的動作來做出戲劇性的效果,果然令我耳目一新。

Friday, June 2, 2006

IPCC incident 3

EGRIN IT Focus Group is holding an IT security seminar next week. I hope everyone has enrolled. One recent example of this important topic is the IPCC incident. Members interested may wish to take a look at this LegCo webpage on the meeting of the LegCo Panel on Security held last month. It contains the IPCC report on the incident, plus papers from the Administration on information security guidelines and information security update.

The IPCC report is a plain report. It does not have any element of investigation, nor judgment. It is about what we read in the newspaper, plus some empty promises that they will be more careful next time. There are also some basic human reactions like locking up the data disc and the computers, and any access to the data to be authorized. Come to think of that, isn't almost everyone in IPCC has to access the data on a daily basis as their daily job?

From the facts of the report, the problem boiled down to two elements. One was the IPCC officer giving out the data, and the second was the contractor putting the data to the Internet. Both sides were arguing that the other side was at fault. I think both of them are.

The personal data in the complaint file are sensitive data. This is a well known fact. No matter what the contractor asked, it is obvious that the data should not be left in the hand of a third party, for testing or live run. This basic security consciousness does not have anything to do with IT knowledge. Similarly, we would not let an insecure third party take our confidential files away. The argument was on whether the contractor asked for test data or real data, but I think this is not the issue. We could not blame the contractor on this point. Even the contractor did not specifically ask for dummy data, IPCC should not let the sensitive data leave its door. I browsed the IT security guidelines and they do not specify this clearly. It may leave an impression that if we correctly engaged a contractor, with confidentiality clauses or not, then we could entrust them with the data of the system no matter what. We paid them for the job, didn't we? The main point is that the contractor is only responsible for the system development and maintenance. The IT manager is responsible for the data integrity and the satisfactory acceptance of system performance.

What the contractor did in this case was a breach of professional competence. It was like a whiz kid making use the Internet for his convenience. The contractor argued that the data were not put to the Internet as alleged, because the website which linked to the data was not intended for IPCC test data. This is a misrepresentation which could fool the ignorant LegCo members. If the data were not on the Internet, how could they be accessed on the Internet. The fact was that the contractor used the service of China2easy, a public Internet service provider, and relied only on the password protection mechanism, which I think was used to control the activities of paid customers. The data were not encrypted nor were they protected from authorized and unauthorized access. We all know that the Internet is a jungle. The contractor, who is a professional technologist, should know best. Even if he thought the data were dummy, they should not be stored that way because test data still contained the database structure of the IPCC system.

But please do not misunderstand me on the faith on security. Actually OCGIO have created much rules and guidelines on IT security. We hate them because of their bureaucracy nature which created much barriers, but they are there for our protection, something which OCGIO does not do for us itself. The issue is how to get people to know and follow the guidelines. The seminar on IT security should give the guidelines some publicity. IT managers should all know them by heart.

Please also do not misunderstand me on the faith on the Internet. Properly used, it is actually a very secured place. Although we heard some horror stories now and then, we should consider that we now have eBanking, eGovernment and almost every kind of everyday activities on the Internet. All we need to do is to take reasonable precautions. For secured data like IPCC database, there are many methods of protection, ranging from data encryption, virtual private network and proper authentication, which you will hear about at the seminar.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

25 worst tech products

PCWorld published their chosen 25 worst tech products of all time which were reviewed by the magazine in the last 25 years. It makes funny reading and is revealing for IT managers who could reflect on these failure examples. You may wish to read the article to see why they are so bad.

The Complete List of Losers

1. America Online (1989-2006) - Awful software, inaccessible dial-up, rapacious marketing, in-your-face advertising, questionable billing practices.

2. RealNetworks RealPlayer (1999) - Lots of advertisement; tracking user habits without telling them. I still use it to watch rm files, but disable all other functions.

3. Syncronys SoftRAM (1995) - False and misleading claim on adding RAM by software.

4. Microsoft Windows Millennium (2000) - Buggy OS, incompatible with many hardware and software.

5. Sony BMG Music CDs (2005) - Its copy protection software was a spyware in itself.

6. Disney The Lion King CD-ROM (1994) - Its graphic interface was incompatible with many computers, and caused them to crash, when children were playing the game during Christmas.

7. Microsoft Bob (1995) - A Windows desktop interface that no one used.

8. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 (2001) - Very vulnerable to be hacked, dangerous to use. I gave it up and opted for Firefox.

9. Pressplay and Musicnet (2002) - Primitive online music service which no one wanted.

10. dBASE IV (1988) - A buggy product that turned the good reputation of dBase II and III upside down. I was a faithful user of dBase, but changed to FoxPro upon the introduction of dBase IV.

11. Priceline Groceries and Gas (2000) - Priceline is right for air tickets and hotels, but not for groceries and gas.

12. PointCast (1996) - This news distribution service with push technology used up bandwidth and crashed systems.

13. IBM PCjr. (1984) - Small computer but too small to type on and too weak to run large programs.

14. Gateway 2000 10th Anniversary PC (1995) - Poorly configured and poorly performed made it a failed product.

15. Iomega Zip Drive (1998) - Having much problem in destroying all data on it, quickly replaced by CD. Isn't it a standard issue of many government desktop systems but no one use it.

16. Comet Cursor (1997) - This program which changed your cursor into funny icon was actually a spyware. I once downloaded this program, but quickly deleted it; not interested in the cartoon icons anyway.

17. Apple Macintosh Portable (1989) - This portable was 4-inch-thick and weighted 16-pound.

18. IBM Deskstar 75GXP (2000) - Fast, big, and highly unreliable, this 75GB hard drive was quickly dubbed the "Deathstar" for its habit of suddenly failing and taking all of your data with it.

19. OQO Model 1 (2004) - The 14-ounce OQO Model 1 was the "world's smallest Windows XP computer" which was hard to read and to type on. It is better to use a PDA.

20. CueCat (2000) - it was a cat-shaped bar-code scanners. Readers scanned the barcodes inside the ads in magazines and newspaper and be directed to advertisers' websites. Bad idea.

21. Eyetop Wearable DVD Player (2004) - Imagine wearing the screen on your eyeglasses and walked as you watched DVD and got motion sickness.

22. Apple Pippin @World (1996) - An Apple game console which was slow and with little games to play.

23. Free PCs (1999) - Free PC with contract with ISP. The free PC were low end models no one wanted.

24. DigiScents iSmell (2001) - Emitting appropriate scents as you browsed websites suitably encoded. Another bad idea.

25. Sharp RD3D Notebook (2004) - The 3D effect slowed things down, and it was visible only at a narrow angle.

Some of them are familiar products which we actually used. We may not have used AOL which is widespread in USA owing to its enormous advertising campaign. But I have tried Realplayer, IE6, dBase IV, and Iomega Zip Drive. All have their own problems. It is a good lesson that new is not better. We must not blindly follow advertisement but have to exercise judgement, which is something managers are good at.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mozart and Haydn 莫扎特與海頓

香港管弦樂團沒有團長已經有一段時間,在這期間,團長工作有時由副團長兼任,有時又請來客席團長,客串一兩場音樂會。今晚(5月26日)的音樂會,由夏定忠 John Harding 指揮。John Harding 是小提琴家,他亦曾被邀請作為港樂的客席團長;今天看到消息,他將於9月,即下一樂季,正式出任港樂團長。這是一個好消息。

今晚的鋼琴獨奏由唐偉 David Tong 擔任。唐偉是澳門人,早年移民澳洲,很小時已露鋒芒,現時仍在 Juilliard 進修,但已屢次與著名樂團演出和灌錄唱片。看見華裔年青音樂才俊達到世界級水平,我總覺得高興。

莫扎特停不了。這個音樂會略述莫扎特的一生,有他的降E大調第一交響曲 Symphony No.1 in E-flat K.16,降B大調第27鋼琴協奏曲 Piano Concerto in B-flat K.595 和A小調迴旋曲 Rondo in A minor, K.511,還有海頓的降B大調第98交響曲 Haydn's Symphony No.98 in B-flat。


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Italian night 意大利之夜

今晚(5月12日)是港樂意大利之夜,演奏的樂曲有羅西尼的威廉泰爾序曲 Rossini's William Tell overture,陳怡的敲擊樂協奏曲 Chen Yi's Percussion Concerto,舒伯特的意大利風格序曲 Schubert's Overture in the Italian Style,和孟德爾遜的第四交響曲-意大利 Mendelssohn's Symphony No.4 Italian。




Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cheating by cell phone

I have been watching the news these few days on the saga of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) and wondering what went wrong. HKEAA, in devising examination questions for English Language exam of HKCE, included the address of the website from which one of the question originated. It was alleged that some students took advantage of this information and used their cell phone to browse the website and, again alleged, got the answer to the question.

It appears to be a case arising from the advance of information technology, or a case of information technology not properly managed. On the outset, the culprit of the case was the display of the website address in the examination paper. Why did some silly persons do something like that? The excuse of HKEAA was that the origin of the material had to be displayed for the reason of copyright. I think this is a stupid excuse, normally taken by an inflexible bureaucracy. The rigid rule was to acknowledge authors in order to get away with copyright law. First, on the practical side, acknowledgment was for the benefit of the readers to know the true origin of the material, and to give credit to the original author. However, for an examination paper which is only seen by students for a short while, putting down the original website address does not serve such purpose. Second, to address copyright, the permission of the author should be sought instead. It is not like that the material was casually mentioned or reviewed. The material was used for a purpose, and actually the examination paper setter could be making a profit out of it.

HKEAA has been skillful and the media were led down another track. Taking advantage of the complaints of the students that someone might have got the answer using a cell phone, the bomb was moved underneath the table of someone else, that cheating by the use of cell phone should be condemned. A witch hunt is now going on with HKEAA going to the police and seeking witnesses who were in the examination halls on the examination day.

Bringing a cell phone into the examination hall is always prohibited, the main reason being its disturbance to others. Even if HKEAA could get away with the first sin of putting the website address in the examination paper, it should be blamed for not doing its job right in allowing cell phones in the examination hall. HKEAA again shifted the weight and put the blame back to the students by calling cheating. Now the whole community is talking about student integrity, while there is still no proof that any student actually browsed the website within a couple of valuable minutes of examination time and remembered the content and came back to write a good answer. But HKEAA is temporarily off the hook.

Now the power of information technology. It is generally agreed that almost all the knowledge of the world is within reached by almost everybody. The reason is that knowledge is now being digitized and distributed around the world in websites, to be fetched with simple devices in an instance. Knowledge is gathered under websites, and website addresses are the keys. It is not like quoting an author or the name of a book. It is like saying the knowledge is put in which page of a book in which library in which street in which city. Just that in a flat world one can get to that page instantaneously. Quoting a website is like putting a book by the examination table. It is just a matter of how to flip that book.

If HKEAA is not to be blamed, can we blame the cell phone? It is this device of information technology that allegedly gave instant access to the knowledge. Personal devices are so powerful these days that many people travel the world and get connected to any person and any knowledge through them. However, to be practical again, I wonder how widespread is such technology to secondary students. I know only a few people who regularly use their high-tech cell phone to browse the Internet. Also, only a handful of websites can be browsed easily through the small cell phone screen. Even the best cell phones, or PDA phones, cannot let you browse wide and long text with ease. Just imagine a wiz kid hiding in the toilet for ten minutes browsing a website through a small cell phone screen and came back memorized a model answer. This wiz kid does not have to take public exam. Any chancellor will gladly welcome him directly to the university.

Political sentiment and group behaviour are hard to predict, in particular when education officials came out to take the arrows for HKEAA. The whole thing could just be a red herring dreamed up by some students when they curiously saw the website address in an examination paper.

I have sympathy to the students who devised creative ways of cheating. I heard stories about students copying gists of books, mathematical equations, scientific formula in secret locations in small prints. I cannot help wondering that if they spent so much effort in copying all these valuable materials carefully, they should have already know these materials. This is what revision is all about.

In my time, we were forbidden to take a calculator into the examination hall. All calculations had to be done by heart and by hand. Time changes. Calculators are now allowed. The human race evolves and we go up another level in getting knowledge. Cell phone browsing website during examination may now be a fantasy. But more advanced devices are on the way. Devices such as tiny size computers, wear-on computers, computers fit on your glasses, or implanted somewhere on your body will make them unnoticed in the examination halls. However, devices are not knowledge. Knowledge kept by you is not necessarily yours. One needs to internalize knowledge before ideas can be expressed in the examination papers. Many universities have open book examinations where students can freely refer to the materials. In those examinations, there are open ended questions for which one cannot copy an answer from somewhere. Learning has taken a step higher. For now, we still dwell on the question of who went into the toilet and used the cell phone to browse the website provided by HKEAA.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Why be moral

There is still one more topic from the book Philosopher at the end of the universe which I wish to make some notes before putting it back on the bookshelf. The sci-fi movie mentioned in the book is Hollow Man, starring Kevin Becon as a scientist who worked on the technology of invisibility. He tested on himself and became invisible. When he was invisible, he did many things he would not normally do, like taking advantage on Elizabeth Shue, killing the boss of the research institute, and eventually trying to kill all his co-workers in the laboratory. When he could get away with murder, no one know what he would do.

Hollow Man is an updated version of the Invisible Man series of movies of the 50s and 60s. In fact, such story was first told by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (柏拉圖 427-347BC) in his book The Republic. The story is known as The Ring of Gyges. In the story, Gyges the shepherd accidentally found a ring on an ancient skeleton in a hidden cave. He took the ring and went back to his fellow shepherds. He then found out when he turned the ring inward, he became invisible, and heard what the other shepherds said about him, thinking he was not there. Gyges then headed off to the capital, where he took over the queen, murdered the king, overturned the country, and established a new dynasty. The moral of the story, considered by Plato, was whether Gyges had done good or bad. He raised the fundamental question of why be moral, if you have the ring of Gyges?

Humans can have at least two sorts of reasons for doing something. One reason is what we want. This can be called prudential reasons. We have prudential reasons because we have interests, and because we have desires. Our prudential reasons are a function of what we want. There can also be a second reason that we sometimes do something because we believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is the right thing to do, or a moral reason. In many situations, moral reasons and prudential reasons conflict with each other and some people choose to do things morally. The question then becomes: why act from moral reasons rather than prudential reasons? Why allow the moral reasons to outweigh the prudential reasons.

If one believes in god, then god is always watching us. Such appeal to god transforms moral reasons into prudential reasons. It is in the long-term interests to act morally so as not to be sent to hell. However, the increasing secularization of society gives rise to a problem. If there is no belief in a moral god, then one cannot collapse moral reasons into prudential ones. So what reason do we have for acting morally?

Another theory to answer this question involves replacing god with society. Thomas Hobbes (霍布斯 1588-1679) considers that human beings are all egoists. We will do whatever we can to get whatever we want. However, in a society where everyone is doing what they can, there are bound to be conflicts and consequences. It makes sense to form a sort of contract with other people, a contract which places certain restrictions on our freedom in return for certain restrictions on others. This is the social contract theory of morality. For the contract to work, there are two conditions to be fulfilled. First, others are a threat and they provide a risk to the satisfying of our interests; second, others are a help and they are useful in the furthering of our interests. However, there are many human beings who fall outside the scope of social contract morality, such as infants, children, senile, mentally disadvantaged, physically disadvantaged. As such the theory fails to provide justification for acting on moral reasons all the time.

David Hume (休謨 1711-1776) looks at the question in a simple way. He proposes that human beings are born nice people. We like each others and thus act morally towards other human beings. Stories like Hollow Man and Ring of Gyges are just hypothetical. Deep down we have a benign personality. Critics consider this not a justification at all, but only a casual explanation of the behaviour of some people. At times when people can get away with murder, they may not act morally because of the absence of consequences to the actions.

The strategy of both the religious-based and social contract answers to the question lies in trying to reduce moral reasons to prudential reasons. Immanuel Kant (康德 1724-1804) looks for the answer in a different way. His theory is consistency. If you are immoral then you are inconsistent. Immorality reduces to inconsistency. According to Kant, a morally right action is always one that is done with a good will, good motive or good intention. A good motive or intention is one that turns on fulfilling one's duty. Our fundamental duty is what he called the categorical imperative: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become an universal law." Morality is the universal law that everyone practises. To not act morally is inconsistent.

To address Kant's theory, the author looks at the interpretation of the question in two different ways: first, why should I be moral? and second, why should people in general be moral? We can understand why people in general should follow the universal law, or else there will not be an universal law. However, one person acting immorally is not a self-undermining or inconsistent policy for oneself.

In the end, the author admits that both moral reasons, prudential reasons and logical reasons cannot satisfactorily provide an rational answer to the question of why be moral. Questions without a rational answer are not irrational. They are just arational. The choice to let one's life be guided by moral reasons or self-interest is an arational choice. It is ultimately one of self-definition., guided by your image of the sort of person you want to be.