Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Art of the Icon

The Art of the Icon by Nigel Cawthorne

This is not a thick book, just 96 pages. It is mainly a collection of photographs of Orthodox church icons, with explanations on the history and techniques of painting. The printing is of very high quality. Its original price is 14.99 British Pounds. But because of the subject matter, it is rarely read. I found it in a corner of the Book Fair selling at HK$20. Strangely, the cover photo is flipped. I do not know if it was a mistake or was intentional so that Mary looked to the East.

Icons are mainly found in Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe. I found their architecture and the paintings inside fascinating as they reflected the creativity and ability of men. Icons are paintings of traditional religious figures dating back to the earliest days of formalized Christianity. Being more than symbols of faith and objects of worship, they are an art form in European civilization.

According to Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai and brought back the Ten Commandments. The second commandment was "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Thus in Judaism, and also in Islam, worship of idol in any form, including god and holy figures, was forbidden. This tradition remains the same today.

The early Christians adopted many practices of worship from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans where the worship of idols was widespread. Thus Christian icons appeared in the early years of the religion. The Christian version of the Ten Commandments merged the text on forbidding idol worship in Exodus into the first commandment. In the early centuries AD, icons were said to have magical power of winning wars, healing diseases and many other miraculous properties. Those were the days of iconodules: the icon worshippers. However, believers in the older tradition of an invisible god condemned this as idolatry. They became the iconoclasts: the breakers of icons.

In the sixth century, Emperor Leo III of the Byzantine Empire ordered that all icons be removed from churches. His son Constantine V stepped up the crusade against the iconodules and banned the manufacture, possession and worship of icons. The war between iconodules and iconoclasts lasted until the ninth century when Theodora resumed the worship of icons. During this period, most of the icons were destroyed, except a few kept secretly at the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, which was known as the sanctuary of icons,

(Monastery of St Catherine)

The golden age of Byzantine icon making started when Emperor Constantine established the East Roman Empire and made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the fourth century. However, owing to the destruction by the iconoclasts from the sixth to the ninth century, very little is known about the early work except a few salvaged.

(Madonna and child with St George and St Theodore, first Byzantine golden age)

After Theodora's effort in re-establishing the icon as an object of veneration in the ninth century, there came the second golden age of the Byzantine art, also known as the Macedonian Renaissance.

(The ladder to heaven, eleventh century, monks attempting to climb the ladder, all failing except the abbot Climacus)

Before the twelfth century, the production of the finest icons was in Constantinople. By the time the empire fell in the fifteenth century, the art had spread west to Greece, the Balkan and Italy. Many locations in eastern Europe developed the art form with their own unique cultural influence.

(Serbian icon of St Demetrius, early eighteenth century)

Prince Vladimir of Kiev, ruler of Russia, lived as a pagan in his early years. In the late tenth century, he sent scouts to find a religion. He was first drawn to Islam but did not convert because Islam banned alcohol. He also rejected the church of Rome because he feared subjugation by the pope. In 988 AD, Vladimir was baptized into the Orthodox faith. He then enforced baptism of all his subjects in the Dnieper River. Thus started an era of icon worship brought from Constantinople to Russia. By the twelfth century, Russian schools were developing their own style of icon painting with clear and bright colouring.

(The entombment of Christ, Novgorod, Russia, thirteenth century)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Resource management cum human resource management

Many District Offices are now recruiting non-civil service contract Executive Assistants to do managerial work which is normally done by Executive Officers, owing to an increase of workload as a result of the 2006 review of the role of the district councils. Such job openings vary in pay and duration. The lack of a consistant approach has created some confusion in the job market.

District administration and a representative government have long been the driving force of the development of the Executive Officer Grade. More than 20 years ago, the Grade benefited a lot from the expansion of district administration and many Executive Officer posts were created to support district councils, district management, district liaison work and district activities. The recent devolution of power to districts could be the second wave.

The issue reflects to a large extent the policy, or the lack of it, in resource management cum human resource management of the government, both at the infrastructure level and the implementation level.

At the infrastructure level, some years ago, the central government exerted more control in financial management and allocated time-limited resources for time-limited projects. It was different from previous practices that resources were allocated per se and reviews were conducted from time to time to cut redundant resources, which in reality rarely occurred. Time-limited resources forced departments to plan human resources accordingly. For projects of considerable duration, surplus manpower afterwards could be absorbed by natural wastage. For short term projects, civil servants were appointed on civil service agreement terms with a view to non-renewal if necessary.

Upon the economic downturn several years ago, there was an initiative to curb the size of the civil service. Time-limited resources were then allocated without the accompanying civil service establishment. Departments were encouraged to engage non-civil servants to meet the additional manpower demand. Thus born a class of government employees on non-civil service contract terms.

The policy on the infrastructure of resource management cum human resource management is still not clear today. The Civil Service Bureau insists that non-civil service contract staff are not civil servants, and that they are only engaged temporarily on short term or project basis. In reality, most of the additional manpower requirements in the government in recent years were met by such staff. In certain new types of government services, the entire workforce comprises non-civil service contract staff. It could be a change of policy that non-core government services would be done by such staff. However, the policy is not made open at present and Civil Service Bureau is unable to admit such a change.

Take the district office as example, the increase in workload owing to additional power and responsibilities given to district councils is a long term measure. It is well justified that additional managerial manpower is required in the form of additional Executive Officer posts. Under the present arrangement, district offices could only made use of the district council funds and employ non-civil service contract staff without central control.

Using contract staff to meet changing manpower needs is a modern management approach. It could bring both the resources as well as manpower to the best utilization. However, on the implementation level, much confusion is created owing to inconsistent standards. In the name of devolution of authority and flexibility, Civil Service Bureau washes her hands and let things get chaotic. The first gap is the difference in pay and benefits between civil servants and non-civil service contract staff doing the same job. Pensionable or permanent civil servants (long term employees) and civil servants on agreement terms (short term employees) enjoy the same pay and benefits; while those on non-civil service contract lag far behind. We have done so many pay level surveys and pay trend surveys to ensure that government employees would receive no less pay and benefits than their private sector counterpart. How come non-civil service contract government employees are treated differently?

The other confusion in implementation is the disparity in pay for the same job done by non-civil service contract staff in different government departments, or even two district offices. Job seekers reading the job advertisements would wonder how the standard was set. I still do not understand why a non-civil service contract Executive Assistant is paid $14,000, while a new Executive Officer II with no experience is paid $21,000. Executive Officer starting pay is set after extensive surveys, duly compared with the private sector, and approved by Executive Council and Legislative Council. It must be fair and accurate. We have to believe that or else the entire civil service pay philosophy will collapse. But who set the pay for Executive Assistants, and on what basis? I have only one explanation: it is dictated by funds available and is exploitation of those desperately seeking job.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The competitive environment of EO grade

When I wrote the paper on the management of the Executive Officer Grade back in 2004, one of the models used in the analysis was Michael Porter's five forces of competition. After reading the recent article of Michael Porter repeating his theory, I took another look at my old paper and corrected some grammatical errors. The revised paper was again uploaded to my website.

Section 3 of the paper was about the competitive environment of the Executive Officer Grade. In 2004, the government was already employing non-civil service contract staff. There were then such contract executive assistants doing the work of executive officers, either recruited by the General Grades Office or by the departments themselves under a variety of titles. At that time, the issue was not wide spread, but I already pointed out that contract executive assistants could be the substitute for government executive officers. It would be a competitive force to be reckoned with.

Michael Porter advocates that the five forces of competition should be viewed as a whole. The five forces model represents the competitive environment of an organization. All elements could have their effects on one or more forces. Given the experience on the use of contract executive assistants in the last few years, their effects on the competitive forces are now more strongly felt.

Substitute. During the recruitment freeze, executive assistants were the substitute of executive officers. All new jobs for executive officers, and shortfall in executive officer manpower were met by executive assistants. Not only executive assistants were engaged in junior executive officer work, there were also senior executive assistants or experienced contract officers in other names engaged in more complex executive officer duties. At that time, the Grade failed completely when facing this competitive force. This should not be viewed lightly because once the model proved to be successful, there is a long term threat to the existence of the Grade. Notwithstanding that the recruitment of Executive Officer II resumed in 2007, there is no guarantee that contract executive assistants would not be used in a large scale in the future.

Suppliers. I did not look at the effect of contract executive assistants on the bargaining power of suppliers in 2004. In fact, there was no supply to the grade until 2007. When recruitment resumed, the Grade faced a different supplier market. In the past, the Grade recruited openly in the manpower market every year, and executive officer openings were the prime target for fresh graduates. In 2007, the market was full of graduates with a few years of working experience. Furthermore, there was a large pool of contract executive assistants who had ample experience in the work of executive officers as well as being tested on the job for some time. To look at candidates with contract executive assistant background was like choosing officers who had already gone through a probation period. In a way, contract executive assistants provided a good opportunity for the Grade to pick the best from the suppliers.

Buyers. Buyers in the competitive environment of the Grade are mainly senior executive officers in departments. The availability of contract executive assistants increased their bargaining power in many aspects. The main cause of the manpower problem in the last few years was the inability of the General Grades Office in supplying executive officers, while departments were facing staff shortage from wastage as well as new manpower demand in new services. Both the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau and Civil Service Bureau encouraged the engagement of non-civil service contract staff to meet the manpower demand. Buyers were given power. Instead of seeking supply from the grade management, departments were happily sourcing manpower by themselves from the market. The bonuses were, not only could they solve the manpower supply problem, buyers could also do it cheaper, and in a more efficient manner. They also had more power in managing the contract executive assistants than government executive officers in the area of pay and benefits, hiring and firing. Such arrangement enabled departments to deploy the just-in-time management theory of the modern world.

Government. While some academics considered government as a major force in the competitive environment. Michael Porter did not include government as the sixth force. He proposed that the government, or government intervention, or government rules and regulations, should be viewed as an important element which could affect all five forces. Indeed, the attitude and policy of the government towards the use of non-civil service contract staff greatly affect the forces and the competitive environment of the Executive Officer grade. The most important question is: are we going to engage contract executive assistants forever? The government stated openly that non-civil service contract staff would only be used for short duration to meet manpower needs of temporary nature or project based. In fact, everything is temporary before it gets permanent, and all permanent needs are temporary if dissected into projects. I predicted that, despite the continued effort to recruit government executive officers, the use of contract executive assistants will also continue, thus providing substitute of executive officers in all cases of sudden surge of manpower demand.

As long as the non-civil service contract arrangement is still in place, the competitive environment of the Executive Officer Grade will continue to be affected. I would say the major impact would be the bargaining power of buyers. First, departmental users are not required to rely entirely on General Grades Office on the supply. Contract executive assistants could be engaged anytime. General Grades Office will degrade into a promotion machine for government executive officers. Its major function of recruitment is no long the lifeline for departmental management functions. Another major role of the General Grades Office is the maintenance of the coherence of executive officers as a group, but it would not be easy if contract executive assistants are not treated as members of the family.

The other major impact on the buyers would be the reputation of the Executive Officer Grade as the essential back up force in the government. In the past, the General Grades Office was called upon on many occasions to organize and tackle major tasks of ad hoc nature. Her ability to mobilize at short notice a large pool of managers helped trouble-shoot many problems. Recently, there were incidents that departments advertised non-civil service contract openings in order to gather a team quickly from the market. The Grade is losing the leverage of her supplier bargaining power in the competitive environment.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten by Julian Baggini
100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher

As the subtitle suggests, this book contains 100 thought experiments for the armchair philosopher. Who are the armchair philosophers? I guess Baggini was referring to those so-called philosophers who never got up from their armchairs. They just daydreamed all day in their armchairs without wandering into the real world. However, this is the main job for philosophers; they question the existence of reality, among many other things.

Each experiment is a one-page story, describing a scenario which presents a dilemma of choice. It is followed by a short explanation by Baginni on the philosophical point. The 100 stories cover a wide range of philosophical topics, modified from themes proposed by Plato, Descartes, Hume and many others. At first I thought the book would be like Zen stories which try to outwit the readers. However, this book is just meant to provoke thoughts without actually deciding on rights and wrongs.

As expected of a book on philosophy, there are quite a number of stories on religions, or what is wanting of them. The stories are varied. So I just first make a note on the famous pig.

Max was a vegetarian for forty years. He refused to eat meat owing to his principle against cruelty to animal. He just met Priscilla who was a genetically modified breed pig. Priscilla was now intelligent. She knew her fate and took the ultimate end of feeding the human by her flesh as the highest goal in life, i.e. she was too pleased to be eaten; not being eaten would be a great failure. Not only that, her intelligence evolved to the state that she was able to communicate to Max and told him her lifelong wish. There was also a chicken with no name and very little brain, being genetically modified to be unable to feel anything around it, including awareness of self, environment, pain or pleasure. It lived the life of a vegetable. Its life was just growing up and then being plucked like a carrot to be cooked for food. Max was happy that he was able to eat meat again knowing that there would not be anything cruel done to his food before cooking. As Max picked up the knife and fork, there was a strange feeling. What was the difference of this plate of meat from that he refused to eat yesterday? Were they different because they were smarter or dumber?

You may wish to explore the other ninety nine interesting stories yourself.