Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A History of Knowledge

A History of Knowledge - Past, Present and Future by Charles Van Doren

I just finished reading this book. It is a book explaining pivotal events, people and achievements of world history. The history of the world, or the human world, or the civilized human world covers a relatively short period of time compared with the history of earth. It is closely related to religion, arts and literature, philosophy, governance and particularly war. Modern culture and science and technology as we know them occurred only in the last two hundred years.

The book starts off with the wisdom of the ancients, including those in Egypt, India, China, Mesopotamia, Aztec and Inca. It also traces the origin of religion from human sacrifice to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

The chapters that follow give a good account of the development of knowledge over eons, organized into the following sessions:

- The Greek explosion of knowledge
- The Roman civilization
- Light in the Dark Ages
- The Middle Ages
- Knowledge born in the Renaissance
- Europe reaching out to the world
- The invention of the scientific method
- An age of revolutions
- The nineteenth century as a prelude to modernity
- The world in 1914: the great wars
- The triumph of democracy
- The twentieth century science and technology
- Modern arts and the media
- The next hundred years

I think many of us studied these subjects in our academic life. There is no new knowledge coming out of this concise history book of knowledge. Furthermore, I note that the author mainly focuses on the development of western civilization. It is a narrow view as far as the knowledge of the world is concerned. Although it may be said that the western civilization has dominated the world in the last few centuries, mainly on modern government and science, there are much valuable knowledge in the East which should be worth mentioning. Notwithstanding that, the author does cleverly summarize all the major events and personalities in western history; and along the way, he also gives some insight to the contribution of the knowledge to civilization along many centuries. I find reading the book satisfying. It is like a revision of the development of human civilization over 5000 years. It is also like a bowl of instant noodle which can fill your stomach in three minutes without much effort, because the essence is condensed to an easily manageable proportion. Besides that, the book is a useful reference material which comes in handy when I want to refer to some particularly important incidents in western history.

Not much more can be said about history of knowledge better than that expressed by the author, and I do not intend to copy and paste his passages. However, besides things of the past, one interesting part of the book is the development of knowledge in the next hundred years. No one can predict the future. Thus the commentaries on the advancement of knowledge in the next hundred years are pure speculation, sometimes bordering on sci-fi fantasies, but fantasies based on known facts at present. The book was written in 1991, some seventeen years ago. At that time, there were still ten more years before the commencement of the 21th century. Looking back today, there are hints on which parts of the predictions are turning into reality.

Predictions on future world governance hinge on modern war equipment of nuclear weapons. When the cold war ended in the last decade of the 20th century, the fear of a nuclear war did not go away. More nations have now developed their own nuclear weapons, which are also available to some non-nuclear weapon countries and terrorists. The author predicts that the checks and balances for world peace on the total destruction force of nuclear weapons may lead to a world government. Development in the last seventeen years has not been optimistic. Rather than moving towards a world government, perhaps in the form of an United States of Earth, there have been developments towards regional powers. Among the chaotic world of powers, there emerge several attractors leading to cartels in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. When vying for limited natural resources, there are conflicting interests among the cartels. We may need a catastrophic event before the human race may eventually unite to deal with a common problem.

The development of computer technology was already quite advanced in 1991. There have been predictions that computers would evolve into thinking machines communicating through worldwide networks. There are also consensus views in the science community that the computer would attain singularity (self-consciousness) within 30 years. We now see the Internet growing at an exponential rate and it now possesses almost all the knowledge of the world. Computer networks occupy most of the space of our daily life. They are still short of a self-conscious mind, but all the evidents are pointing to such an event in the not too distant future. The author predicts that it will happen within the next hundred years while many scientists say it would be much sooner.

Eugenics has been a philosophical subject for many thousands of years, all the way back to Plato who theorized that slaves were inferior by nature and the aristocrats were better persons. Humans have been enthusiastic in improving species by breeding, both for animals and plants as well as among humans. There are many examples of attempts to improve the quality of mankind by scientists, sociologists and politicians. Adolf Hitler comes to mind, and also many governments which advocate marriage between nobles as well as university graduates. We know quite well today that such attempts are immoral as all men are created equal and have the same rights. However, the rapid development of genetic engineering and computer-assisted implant organs have given a new meaning to eugenics. Such technologies were still at their infancy in 1991, but there have been bold and sensible predictions that such technological improvements will really improve the quality of human being, that some humans will be superior in mind power, physical power and longevity. Sadly these intricate and expensive improvements will only be available to the privileged few of the riches and learned groups of the society, with such better traits of human qualities passed on to their descendants. Thus born an elite race, or sub-species, of human being.

Democracy is built on human rights and the premises that all men are equal. However, all democratic governments nowadays are still not entirely satisfactory. Voters are misled and many ruling parties do not wholeheartedly serve the interest of the majority. As a form of government, democracy has seldom proved popular among the most powerful citizens. The most serious threat to democracy comes not from the totalitarianism of left and right, but from oligarchy which is the rule of the few who claim to be the best over the many. With the development of a more superior breed of human being, it is predicted that such danger will increasingly become real in the next hundred years. However, since the book was written, we still have not seen such drastic development. It is partly the result of the ban of some governments on genetic engineering and stem cell research for the time being.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Web 2.0

Mckinsey Quarterly sent me an article on the result of a recent global survey on how businesses are using Web 2.0. This is an interesting question as Web 2.0 is quite new, in particular to the business sector. It is useful to know how the business sector is taking up the new technologies and the new trends. Experience shows us that new IT uses are quickly adopted by private companies. As resource and system managers, it is important to have broad common knowledge on the latest IT development. This article is a good example of timely education on leading edge IT development which has a real impact on the business sector. The survey reported that three-quarters of the companies responded say that their companies plan to maintain or increase investments in Web 2.0 technologies in coming years.

Nine Web 2.0 trends were included in the Mckinsey survey. They are:

1. Blogs: Online journals or diaries hosted on a Web site and often distributed to other sites or readers using RSS.

2. Collective intelligence: this refers to any system that attempts to tap the expertise of a group rather than an individual to make decisions. Technologies that contribute to collective intelligence include collaborative publishing and common databases for sharing knowledge.

3. Mash-ups: Aggregations of content from different online sources to create a new service. An example would be a GIS program that pulls apartment listings from one site and displays them on a digital map to show where the apartments are located.

4. Peer-to-peer networking (P2P): A technique for efficiently sharing files either over the Internet or within a closed set of users. Unlike the traditional method of storing a file on one machine, which can become a bottleneck if many people try to access it at once, P2P distributes files across many machines, often those of the users themselves. Some systems retrieve files by gathering and assembling pieces of them from many machines.

5. Podcasts: Audio or video recordings, a multimedia form of a blog or other content. They are often distributed through an aggregator, such as iTunes.

6. RSS (Really Simple Syndication): It allows people to subscribe to online distributions of news, blogs, podcasts, or other information.

7. Social networking: This refers to systems that allow members of a specific site to learn about other members’ skills, talents, knowledge, or preferences. Commercial examples include Facebook and LinkedIn. Some companies use these systems internally to help identify experts.

8. Web services: They are software systems that make it easier for different systems to communicate with one another automatically in order to pass information or conduct transactions. For example, a retailer and supplier might use Web services to communicate over the Internet and automatically update each other’s inventory systems.

9. Wikis, such as Wikipedia: They are systems for collaborative publishing. They allow many authors to contribute to an online document or discussion.

Internet surfers would recognise these applications as many of them are now actively used among journalists, hobbyists, and online communities. Their widespread use has drawn the attention of the business sector for Web 2.0 to be recognised as an effective platform of business transactions, internal communication and customer relations. Companies say they are using Web 2.0 technologies to communicate with customers and business partners and to encourage collaboration inside the company, resulting in better communication and tighter integration with suppliers. Most companies are using web services, peer-to-peer networking, collective intelligence, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and social networking. They are using the technologies to help manage knowledge internally and are interested in technologies for automation and collaboration.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Great Mass 大彌撒曲

三月九日看萊比錫芭蕾舞團的大彌撒曲 The Great Mass by the Leipzig Ballet,是今年藝術節的重頭戲。這個表演的票價比莫斯科交響樂團要貴一倍,但演出的陣營規模很大,除芭蕾舞團之外,還有萊比錫布業大廳樂團 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra、萊比錫歌劇院合唱團和獨唱家 Leipzig Opera Choir and soloists,差不多有二百人同場演出;如果以每一個藝術家的價值來比較,這場表演的票價就不算貴了。


大彌撒曲的骨幹是莫札特的C小調彌撒曲 Mozart's Mass in C Minor。在製作成芭蕾舞演出時,編舞家蕭爾茨 Uwe Scholz 加入了古老聖詠 Gregorian Chant 和現代音樂家湯馬士揚 Thomas Jahn、庫塔克 Kurtag 和帕特 Arvo Part 的音樂,又有保羅雪朗 Paul Celan 的詩篇。以音樂來說,這是一個很刺激的經驗。聖詠和莫札特的彌撒曲,有很莊重的感覺,有在教堂崇拜的氣氛;但當加插了新派音樂的片段,就產生了光明與黑暗、滿足與失落、莊嚴與混亂、規範與自由之間的矛盾;再配合低吟的詩篇 (是德語,要看字幕),是對彌撒或是信仰的一種質疑;然後是彌撒曲的高潮羔羊經 Agnus Dei,將疑慮一掃而空。

主角是芭蕾舞。萊比錫芭蕾舞團的水準不容置疑;臺型變化多端,極之流暢。舞蹈家功架十足,一個站立的一字馬,可以支持整整一分鐘,中間還要做其他動作;其他肢體動作難度亦甚高;雙人舞和群舞都合作無間。但這些一切都只是基本功,所有職業芭蕾舞團都可以做到。大彌撒曲感人之處在於編舞的創新和完整性,將想表達的意念深刻的呈現出來。很少芭蕾舞作品是以崇拜為主題,其中一個原因是花巧的舞步很難有虔誠的感覺。蕭爾茨使用優雅的步法,配合一身白衣的舞者,隨著彌撒曲起舞,做出得體的場景。然後音樂轉變,佈景變為黑色和有超現實感,舞姿亦大大改變,大膽的表達人的真正面目,是被陰影隱藏的惡念和對生命的懷疑與絕望。最後彌撒曲再度出現,帶來拯救的歡樂氣氛,但詩篇卻細說:"千里迢迢,翻山涉水,這傷感的墓地,兄弟,我來了,來助你完成死亡的最後職責。" 究竟死亡是拯救,還是生命無奈的終結?


Friday, March 9, 2007

Free Wi-Fi in Hong Kong

I travel with my mobile device, and get email with GPRS, the 2.5G mobile phone service. It is cheap and not very fast, but quite suitable for text-based messages. The device also has wi-fi function for Internet browsing, so I can check wi-fi hotspots wherever I go. Wi-fi is quite common nowadays. We use it at home and most telecommunication services now provide extensive wi-fi coverage in Hong Kong at a fee.

When I travelled to Israel last month, I obtained free wi-fi service both at the Hong Kong Airport as well as the Tel Aviv Airport. Many hotels I stayed also offered wi-fi service at a small fee on a hourly or daily basis. Wi-fi is both a business and a public service on citizens' right to information. It is not a surprise to read the following announcement that the Hong Kong Government is going to offer free wi-fi service at government buildings and public places.

(明報) 03月 07日 政府免費無線上網料快可實行

With more and more free wi-fi hotspots at convenient locations, there is tremendous pressure on the business of the internet service providers and other telecommunication service providers. I envisage that free Internet service will become more common with the service providers turning to advertisement revenue instead of subscription fees from clients.

However, free wi-fi service means more data transmitting freely on radio frequency. This poses serious threat to data security: a good subject for managers of information technology. I read from CNet an article on "Your Wi-Fi can tell people a lot about you". If you are interested, please take a look.

Almost all new personal computers in various form factors are now equipped with wi-fi function. The article reveals the fact that as soon as such computers power up, they start looking for wireless networks and network services. Shortly after start-up, computers typically broadcast the previous Internet Protocol address and details on networked drives or devices such as printers that it tries to connect to. Even if the wireless hardware is then shut-off, someone may already have caught interesting data. Much more information can be plucked out of the air if the computer is connected to an access point, in particular an access point without security. For a computer using Windows, it will emit upon startup the list of wireless networks the PC has connected to in the past. The list can be used to determine where a laptop computer has been used.

There are many tools that let anyone listen in on wireless network traffic. These tools can capture information such as username and password for e-mail accounts and instant message tools as well as data entered into unsecured Web sites. At the annual Defcon hacker gathering, a speaker demonstrated the technique to exploit the loophole by capturing log-in credentials of the participants from radio signals of wi-fi network at the venue.

These are bits of friendly information, but in the hands of the wrong person, they could help attack the computer owner or network. Furthermore, the information could be useful to intelligence organizations. If the computer is then connected to a wireless network, particularly the unsecured type at hotels, airports and coffee shops, much more can be gleaned. The advice of the expert is: The best solution is to be aware of the danger, and everyone doesn't need to work from a coffee shop. When I used the free wi-fi service at the airports, I only browsed for news. Online banking and other personal services are done at home.