Friday, March 28, 2008


今晚(3月27日)聽香港小交響樂團音樂會,名為最愛小提琴,因壓軸有柴可夫斯基的小提琴協奏曲。其他曲目還有霍諾威的第四牧歌 Fourth Idyll by Robin Holloway 和柯普蘭的阿帕拉契亞之春組曲 Appalachian Spring Suite by Copland。

先說上半場,兩首樂曲都描述田園風味。Fourth Idyll 是亞洲首演,是新音樂作品。我覺得音樂雖然新穎,旋律與和聲都有現代感,但卻並不前衛,反而有新古典派的感覺;但音樂起伏平淡,這可能是作曲家刻意所為,想營造詩意的效果。這和 Appalachian Spring 一比就相差甚遠。Copland 的音樂戲劇性很強,原作的芭蕾舞劇描寫美國早期拓荒的情景,有優美的原野景色,又有以民謠為主題的舞曲,聽來就像看一幅幅的風景畫和風情畫。將這兩首樂曲作比較有點不公平,因為 Appalachian Spring 自上世紀40年代以來就已經是深受歡迎的世界名曲。

下半場只聽柴氏小提琴協奏曲,由薩萊 Antai Szalai 擔任獨奏。節目表介紹 Szalai 來頭不少;他現年只是27歲,但11歲已開始和樂團合作演出協奏曲。評論說他曾以很快的速度演奏這首協奏曲,但我一聽卻不是那一回事。他演奏第一樂章速度比較慢,樂句很清晰。這一個樂章技術要求甚高,快速的琶音和裝飾音是獨奏者的表演時間。但 Szalai 將這一個樂章稍為放緩,使很短的音符都一一聽得清楚,音樂的透明度大為提高。這個演繹和我以前聽過的不同,尤其是和我去年聽李傳韻的版本有 很大的分別;遺憾是因節奏轉慢了,而這個樂章的激情感覺亦減低了。第二個樂章的處理手法亦是這樣,但這個樂章是抒情的慢板,較慢的節奏使優美的旋律更加感人。第三樂章是全晚最精彩的時間,Szalai 的速度就是指這一個樂章;音樂很緊湊,狂野的俄羅斯舞曲主題是這個樂章的特色。Szalai 在此加快了速度,以冷靜、準確和流暢的演奏將樂曲帶到高潮。


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Evolution of Cooperation

The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

The Evolution of Cooperation was the title of a 1981 article co-authored by the political science professor Robert Axelrod and the late evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton. Robert Axelrod expanded it into a book in 1984. It is interesting to note this book which was written more than 20 years ago is still fresh in ideas.

Some philosophers said human are born benign, but some said otherwise. The most famous answer was given over three hundred years ago by Thomas Hobbes. He was pessimistic and argued that before government existed, the state of nature was dominated by the problem of selfish individuals who competed on ruthless terms and life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. He thought cooperation could not develop without a central authority.

You may have heard, or played, the Prisoners' Dilemma. The setting was that two criminals together committed a serious crime were caught. The detective kept them in separate cells and asked each of them to confess the crime. Circumstantial evidence was weak and so if both of them cooperated and kept silence, they would only be convicted of a minor offense. The detective told each of them that if he confessed and turned into a prosecution witness against the other, he would be acquitted while the other would get the maximum sentence. If both of them confessed, they could beg leniency for a lighter sentence. The game theorists proved that the best strategy for the game was to confess and to defect against the other. This may partly prove that Thomas Hobbes was right.

The crux of the game was that the prisoners did not know the intention of the other party. They could only guess the scenarios and calculate the probability of returns. Axelrod developed a variation of the game, involving repeated game interactions between two players with the results of each interactions known to them. He gave scores to each game played: 3 points each for mutual cooperation, 1 points each for punishment of mutual defection, 5 points for defection leading to conviction of the other, and 0 point for keeping silence while being defected against. When previous performance of the other side was known, the player could take it into account and develop a strategy to take advantage of cooperation and also timely defection to gain points. There is afterall merit in cooperation sometimes.

A computer programming tournament of the iterated game was organized. Programmers engaged various strategies, ranging from algorithmic complexity, initial hostility, occasional defection, being nice or forgiving to induce cooperation, etc. The winner of the game was the program Tic-for-tac. Its strategy was to be nice and cooperative on the first move, then consistently repaying cooperation or defection according to the last move of the opponent. Analysis showed that the success of Tic-for-tac was based on four factors: being nice and never defect first, being provocable as it would retaliate by defecting whenever defected upon, being forgiving as it only retaliated once; being clear in intention as its strategy was quickly known by its opponents. Axelrod concluded that these basic characteristics were conducive to developing cooperation. Being nice and forgiving were essential attributes while making them known was also important. Being provocable was a good defense from being bullied of being nice and could raise the chance of survival.

A further conclusion by Axelrod was that Tic-for-tac was robust even in a hostile environment. In such an environment where there was no cooperation, participants would gain a few points through mutual defection and a single Tic-for-tac would die out. However, if there were a small number of Tic-for-tac in such environment, interactions of cooperation between them would bring more points. If they were a close group, then such in-group interactions, however small in number, would be better off than the always-defect majority. As a result, this Tic-for-tac group would grow in the population and cooperation would eventually evolve to be the dominating strategy. This phenomenon has been observed in the development of many civilizations.

The book also found that cooperation did not necessarily occur between friendly parties. It described the case of the trench warfare in World War I. Known as Live and Let Live, troops on both sides of the trench warfare spontaneously developed a strategy of cooperation whereby they shelled the other side according to a fixed schedule only known to the soldiers and allowing either side to minimize casualties. The generals were satisfied that the war was going on with the shelling but the combat line was neither advanced nor breached. The soldiers followed a similar strategy as Tic-for-tac that they never directly shelled bunkers nor supplies first, always retaliated with more accurate shelling when directly hit, always returned to pretentious shelling afterwards, and making sure that such behaviour was known to the enemy. This cooperative phenomenon which went on for a long time during the war saved many lives.

From the perspective of a reformer, Axelrod proposed the strategy on how to promote cooperation. 1. Enlarging the shadow of the future - Mutual cooperation can be stable if the future is sufficiently important relative to the present because the players can each use an implicit threat of retaliation against the other's defection. 2. Change the payoffs - This is usually adopted by government in raising the payoffs in terms of taxes, harsh punishment for crime and obligations to honour contracts; that is: to raise the payoffs for cooperation and vice versa for defection. 3. Teach people to care about each other - Through education, adults shape the values of children so that the preference of the new citizens will incorporate their own welfare with the welfare of others. 4. Teach reciprocity - Always reciprocating defection may not be the standard of morality for some religions, for example the teaching of always cooperative by turning the other cheek. However, reciprocity is a robust strategy in upholding cooperation and avoiding exploitation. The self-policing feature of the strategy gives an incentive to cooperation. Teaching reciprocity to those with whom one will interact will help build a mutually rewarding relationship. 5. Improve recognition abilities - The ability to recognize the other players from past interactions and to remember the relevant features of those interactions is necessary to sustain cooperation.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The God Gamble

This is one of the stories in the book The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten. It is particularly interesting as it is about logical thinking on the usually illogical religious belief.

God was having a conversation with the philosopher who thought that the fact of no evidence on the non-existence of god was not an evidence on the existence of god.
God said to the philosopher, I give you a reason to believe: a gamble based on self-interest.
There are two possibilities: I exist or I do not exist.
If you believe in me and I exist, you get eternal happiness in heaven.
If you believe in me but I do not exist, you get a normal short mortal life.
If you do not believe in me and I do not exist, you still get a mortal life.
If you do not believe in me and I exist, you will suffer from the eternal fire.
It is easy to see that if you gamble that I do not exist, the best you can get is mortal life, but the worst scenario is eternal damnation.
If you gamble that I exist, the worst you can get is the mortal life, but the best outcome is eternal happiness.
So any person with a logical mind should believe that god exists; he could win a chance to heaven and not losing anything he already has, but could certainly avoid the worst of hell.

This theory was proposed by Blaise Pascal in 1660 with a view to defending Christian faith by reason.

The critics agreed that believing in god would be a good bet if there were only two such possibilities. However, there are much more than just choosing to believe in god, which god in particular. If there were such an envious and unforgiving god, believing in the wrong one would have serious consequences. Christians in particular consider that people not accepting Jesus as the messiah would surely go to hell, that would include many good Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and many other faithful religious people. Some would believe in a benevolent and all-loving god that eternal salvation would be granted if you just committed a mistake in believing the wrong god but would remain moral (which is a vaguely defined term in different times, cultures and religions). However, for such a good god, he would similarly grant eternal happiness to the non-believers who would be equally if not more moral.

As far as gambling based on self-interest is concerned, the bet should be placed on the belief of one vengeful and punishing god who commands absolute belief in him, or the belief that there is no god or god is forgiving in whatever you believe as long as you are moral. Even if you bet on a nasty god, there are too many to choose from. Betting is not a rewarding game afterall.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Zingaro 的 巴圖塔

2008藝術節,適逢奧運年,由北京主辦奧運,香港負責奧運馬術比賽;在這些因素配合之下,藝術節今年請來法國馬術奇藝坊 Zingaro 演出著名節目巴圖塔 Battuta;當然是和香港賽馬會合作主辦。演出期跨越整個藝術節直至3月23日。如要欣賞,尚有機會。


表演場地在紅磡海旁,進場前有一個巨大的帳篷作為等候大廳;這個帳篷可以容納所有觀眾,還有圖片展覽,紀念品售賣和小食部,規模真不小。進場時有點麻煩,因為所有觀眾要集中一起等侯,然後一齊在短時間之內進場。坐下來就明白了,原來環繞表演帳篷之外的通道就是馬匹的後台,它們在場內場外奔跑,使進場通道變 得十分危險;所以這個表演沒有遲到的觀眾,只有缺席的觀眾。

舞台設計有著名的水柱瀑布,馬匹們都很喜歡它。燈光服飾道具設計和劇情發展都很有特色,有興趣可以看看 在 Youtube的預告片。我 對演出最深刻的印象是一個字:快快快 (是三個字)。在演出全程,所有馬匹都是在高速奔走,所有演出包括高難度動作、劇情發展、過場等等都是在奔走的馬匹上面發生,難度可想而知,而 整個演出就此非常緊湊。我觀看的演出就發生意外,最後一個表演是野鵝在馬匹前飛,但高速的馬忽然撞到圍欄,騎士墮馬,需要由工作人員協助,幸好並無大礙。


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The HD format war

The recent hot news on consumer electronics is the victory of the Sony Blu-ray format over the Toshiba HD DVD format in high-definition DVD. Now that Sony Blu-ray has dominated the market, what should be its business strategy? Harvard Business is hosting a discussion on the topic and the leading article is Winning the DVD Battle but Losing the Innovation War. If you are interested, please take a look at the article and the ensuing discussion.

Sony's victory is a textbook example of good marketing strategy. Gained from the painful experience of the failure of its Betamax videotape format, which was a better technology but not supported by marketing effort in the video rental business, Sony worked hard this time to align with major movie studios and also packaged its PlayStation 3 video game console with Blu-ray technology at a higher cost. Its effort finally paid off.

However, there was criticism that Sony wasted too much resources on Blu-ray while it should not lose sight of the emerging high-definition video sources from the Internet. This kicks off the debate on the competitive environment of the high-definition video industry. Some experts brought out the Michael Porter Competitive Forces model for analysis.

The lead article points out that innovation is a multi-front contest. Focusing on the mainstream and the high end is insufficient. Winning the innovation war requires mastering the ability to counter threats emerging in the low-end of existing markets and to seize opportunities in new markets. In this respect, the discussion targets on the development of the Internet-based content delivery services. Although there is consumer demand on the very best quality DVD technology, the proliferation of Internet-delivered video shows that there are many consumers who are willing to trade off picture quality for convenience and low prices.

People are debating whether the competitors from the Internet are new entrants to the market and substitute products. Some argue that the present ability of the Internet in terms of bandwidth is insufficient to deliver high-definition video as a substitute to Blu-ray. Also, there is still no convenient storage devices which could compare to the 50 GB DVD. As such, these service providers will not enter the high-definition video discs market as a competitive force.

However, there are more optimistic people who have confidence that the Internet will very quickly evolve to be an effective carrier of large high-definition video files with sufficient bandwidth for streaming. Many companies such as Apple, Comcast, Netflix, Cisco, Motorola and many others are competing to improve the ability to download movies over the Internet. The winners could be those which could develop new business models that make it simple, easy, and cheap to obtain such content. For storage, Europe SKY is now broadcasting in high-definition and customers can get a satellite tuner that allows recording of movies to their hard disks. Furthermore, there are now portable devices made by Archos, Creative and some hard disk manufacturers which could offer convenient storage of over 100GB. For the limitation of the Internet bandwidth, many technologists have devised high quality file compression programs to help transfer large files.

Sony has done everything right in the Blu-ray battle. But it could face long-term trouble if it allows its Blue-ray strategy distract it from addressing disruptive development in the video delivery market. It must be prepared for any change in its competitive environment.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The roles of religion

In the last chapter of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, he discussed the four main roles of religion in human life: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. The intention of that chapter was to demonstrate that religion was not the sole source in fulfilling such roles. There were many ways of meeting these needs whether there is or is not a god or religion. Dawkins put up strong arguments in a logical manner and I am convinced of his point of not having indispensable religion. However, I took a further step and deduced that there was also no doubt that religion could fulfill these roles effectively to some people, as shown in history.

Explanation. Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In the modern age, this role is being superseded by science in many areas. This is where religion failed most. There are many hard line fundamentalists who still insist on the creationist theory; not just on the mysterious origin of life and universe, but on everyday phenomenon such as flowers and insects. However, notwithstanding the great achievement of science in modern times, there are still many things unexplained. While science is moving forever closer to the truth, there are always more puzzles behind it. In the course, it is convenient to bring in god to fill the gap.

Exhortation. By exhortation, it means the moral instruction on how we ought to behave. Such instructions now come in many forms: legislation, rules, education and also religious dogma. In modern democratic societies, there are legislation and rules established by majority votes for all to comply. In many other societies, theocratic societies in particular, authority from a higher power is more effective. Many sociologists and psychologists have shown that human morality does not come from a divine belief. However, the temptation of heavenly reward or punishment of hell is always a good incentive for some people to be moral.

Consolation. This is the most effective delusion of religion. Some people caught in a disaster or a misfortune could find consolation in religious belief that good would eventually come out of it in time. The biggest consolation is life after death. It would be comforting to think that death is not a misfortune but a gift. Many delusions such as empty promises or lies could only last until they are exposed. But consolation of life after death would last until one dies, and then there is still no way of knowing whether it is true. Bertrand Russell is a famed non-believer. He said it well in a 1925 essay What I Believe:

"I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I shall scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open window of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own".

These atheists do not need consolation of life after death. They do not have the fear of hell nor the hope of heaven. Such no fear no hope attitude provides comfort in enjoying life and accepting its sorrow.

While I accept there is a god filling all the void of human knowledge, but not the religious delusion of such places as heaven and hell, I think religion does provide the consolation it is so proud of. The human mind is fragile and is prone to all kind of mental attacks. Consolation in any form, be it religious belief, drugs and medicine, logical explanations, superstition, or just kind words from family and friends, are all welcome if they can induce calmness and peacefulness. Among all these, religion still ranks very high in effectiveness.

Inspiration. It is arguable whether religion is a source of inspiration. Dawkins used many examples to show that the claim of religion inspiring people of a world view was only a delusion. The scientific view of our perceived model of the world is a legacy from our ancestors. It is a three-dimensional world of medium-sized material objects, moving at medium speeds relative to one another. However, our brains are actually more powerful and are capable of accommodating a much richer world model than the mediocre utilitarian one that our ancestors needed in order to survive. As a result, art and science are runaway manifestations of this ability. In a narrower sense, I think Dawkins has ignored the environment created by religion. In the confined space of religious dogma, the creativity of many people is focused at the niche of worship. In a way, this can be said as a source of forced inspiration because for some people it is the only outlet of their brain power. Although human can be inspired in many different ways, religion is still one of the forces. It is particular so some centuries ago in some places where religion is everyday life. In the last two hundred years, human minds have largely been liberated in all areas. It started from arts and literature where religious subjects were no longer in favour, and flourished with science which broke many religious truth.