Monday, February 23, 2009

Heavenly harp

Last Friday (20 Feb) I went to Teresa Suen's harp recital. The harp is generally regarded as the musical instrument in heaven. The image of an angel playing harp in the clouds has been for many hundred years the representation of heavenly scene. The characteristic of the sound of harp, with fast scale and arpeggio straddling several octaves, also creates a mystical heavenly effect. Heaven could be like that. But when I was at the recital watching actual harp playing, I fell from heaven back to earth. Playing harp is by no means a easy task. It is an instrument quite difficult to handle, with both hands playing many strings in multi-part harmony and counterpoint. Key shifting is done by several foot pedals. Besides plucking strings, it is also necessary to silence strings. The player is very busy doing all these at the same time. Producing good harp music requires much hard work. One cannot go to heaven to do hard work such as playing harp.

On heavenly reward, I saw a film last year on the jihad. It was about these Muslim suicide bombers who gave their life for religion, for a reward in heaven. The reward was said to be forty virgins to be enjoyed in heaven after the jihad died. The Muslim religious faithful, or some of them who were deceived, had strong faith on such reward. Those who do not believe in religion, or those who believe in other religions, would plainly point out that this is a delusion. Let's not forget that other religions have other rewards in heaven.

It is simple logic that there are no forty virgins in heaven to be enjoyed. The simplest question to ask is why are these virgins in heaven to be enjoyed? Have they done something good, or bad, to deserve this? Come to think of it, there is nothing to be enjoyed in heaven. All the earthly pleasure we know of are provided by someone. We need a cook to provide good food, or a musician to provide good music, or a specialist to provide any specialized enjoyment. These providers should not be providing if they are in heaven. There is therefore no earthly pleasure in heaven. Anything we know of and wish for are for life on earth and will be too lowly to be found in paradise. Although no one ever comes back from heaven and tells the tale, we can safely assume that there is nothing in heaven but eternal happiness.

A few years ago, I led a delegation of overseas VIP on a visit to a methadone clinic to see the drug treatment programme, and had a chat with the doctor in charge. He said that he worked on drug addicts everyday and knew everything about the drug and the addicts. He was conversant with the medical effect, treatment effect, physical and psychological conditions of the addicts, and the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of the methadone programme. He confessed to me that the one thing he did not know was how high the addicts were when they were on drug. He said the description was a heavenly feeling.

A heavenly feeling is good, and is something everyone is wishing for. But drugs are bad for other reasons. It is harmful to health. It is hard to get as it is illegal. Addicts want it so much that they are willing to commit crime to get it. It is so expensive that criminals are running and selling drugs despite the severe penalty, sometimes death. Large amount of resources are wasted to prevent such crime, treat addicts and educate the population. But what if the scientists could improve such drugs and make them not harmful, healthy like orange juice, cheap as water, and commonly available in the market. Then everyone can be in heaven any time we like. I told the doctor that he must be having a good dream.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Public Records Office

My memory of the Public Records Office was a lonely old building in Cotton Tree Drive, behind the old Murray House, at the site of the present Bank of China. It moved to the Murray Road Carpark in the 70's. I visited it there once on research work and was guided to a secret room to view some microfilmed records. After the handover, I attended a training course and visited its archive of historic artifacts which was put in a large room like a warehouse. We were shown a cabinet of microfilms which was said to contain all government documents concerning the handover. The Hong Kong colonial government transferred all such records to the UK government. The HKSAR Government had to buy a set of records on microfilm back from London.

My impression of the Public Records Office is like a library and a museum. It keeps old government records for the purpose of history preservation, academic and journalistic research. The office provided much help to me when I was researching the history of some government departments. I was curious to note that such records were kept by the Public Records Office under the Government Secretariat instead of a library or museum by LCSD. It so happens that government archive in many countries are kept by government institutions instead of libraries and museums which are mostly civilian organizations.

Government records are evidence of history. It goes without saying that they must be preserved for posterity. In fact, many such records are statutory and must be maintained by the respective government departments, like land records, property records, etc. Many non-statutory records are kept by the Public Records Office. But there are so many of them that records are only kept selectively. We know that destruction of unwanted records is a difficult task because all of them must be inspected by the Public Records Office. I never know why some are kept while some are not. They are at the mercy of the Public Records Office which always delays the destruction process. I can only say that the professionalism of archiving is very sophisticated.

Later on, the record management function of the government expanded and the post of Government Records Service Director was created. It incorporated the Public Records Office and record management services under one roof. To me, it was a marriage of an odd couple, linked only by the word record. The traditional function of the Public Records Office is archiving, leading to preservation of history. Archives are documents and materials of historical interest, while records in a broad sense include living information which are constantly changing. Record management in the modern world is a science vital to the on-going operation of an organization.

All managers face the problem of record management, or in a simple word, filing. I worked in many offices and witnessed the ingenuity of officers in devising clever systems to cater for their particular needs. Besides some common topics of departmental administration, categorization of information in all departments are different. Some systems are better than others, but it all depends on the quality of the clerical staff. A section of the Government Records Services now provides training and advisory services to departments on this aspect. It is a good move in providing more emphasis on this important function. One thing I heard from staff after training was that they were reluctant to change their file index to standardize with those used in other departments. They thought the file index of a department was unique, and that there was no useful purpose in using the same file abbreviations and numbers as others. Another good move was the setting up of the Records Centre Service. Many departments were happy to have their obsolete records stored there to save office space.

Records are evolving in the modern IT age. The proportion of electronic records is on the rise. Although the big elephant government still needs much more time to get rid of paper, many important government records are now in electronic form. In the future, there will be less physical artifacts; and history will be read in databases, electronic images and sound recordings. The Government Records Services responded by setting up a record systems development office in meeting the demand of electronic records management. It is not a very difficult task given the whole world is moving in the same direction. Many new IT products in this area are emerging and best practices are easily found. I note there was a realignment of existing resources to meet this new demand. This could mean replacing archivists by professional resource and system managers.

On another aspect on the importance of record management, I attended a seminar by the Public Records Office on disaster planning. It highlighted the possible damage caused by a minor disaster which could destroy important records in an instance, leading to the collapse of a company. Thus backing up essential records is very important. This is easily said than done in the past. It is very resource consuming to back up paper records. The situation is changed in the electronic age. Almost all information systems now have backup facilities. I discussed this with some friends in the IT field. They said backup at the same site would not be safe from fire or natural disaster. Many companies now engaged the service of commercial firms by mirroring their information databases real time to another server on the Internet. Commercial backup service may not meet the security concern of government. However, OCGIO is also providing a data centre service which could help backing up electronic information offsite from departments.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lifting of Excommunication

You may have heard the latest news that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was demanding the Pope to reject the denial of the Holocaust. This has become the leading world news recently. The root of such argument on a historical tragic event happened during World War II is the action by the Pope to lift the excommunication of four bishops. Excommunication is a serious punishment, especially to a bishop. Recently, when one of those bishops was interviewed on the television, he said the historical evidence was hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler, and he believed there were no gas chambers.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II excommunicated these bishops on schism. His decision was now reversed by Pope Benedict XVI. If you are interested in more details, you may read the news article in CNN. Denial of the Holocaust is a crime in Germany. As such, to add oil to fire, a German district attorney has just launched a criminal investigation into the remarks made by the bishop.

The excommunicated bishops belong to the Society of Saint Pius X. It is a conservative society which rebelled against the Vatican's reform in the 1960's. The present action by the Pope was a political one hoping to normalize relations with the conservative group. The latest development was that Vatican admitted the case was mishandled. See the latest news report in BBC.

The Holocaust is a very tragic event to the Jews as well as to the world. When I travelled to Jerusalem two years ago, I visited the Holocaust Memorial which left me a deep impression. It is actually a museum called Yad Vashem which means everyone has a name and everyone has to be remembered. The Hebrew words come from Isaiah 56:5 "I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off."

Yad Vashem is a modern architecture built on a hillside. The triangular shape building is the main exhibition gallery, with many modern sculptures in the yard, created by artists around the world presenting the theme of the Holocaust in their own way, all are very sad.

The main gallery is an avant garde structure. The main corridor in the middle is plain concrete without any decoration. Exhibition halls are on either side of the triangle.

One of the tasks of Yad Vashem is to collect the names of the Holocaust victims and put them in a central database in the library for all to remember. Out of the estimated 6 million victims, only about 3.3 million names have been identified and stored.

The role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust is very controversial. There has been a saying that Pope Pius XII negotiated a concordat with the Nazis, maintained Vatican neutrality during the war and took no initiatives to save Jews. The defense of the Roman Catholic Church was that the Pope did his best at the time given the constraints and circumstances, and had actually saved thousands of Jews. In Yad Vashem, there is a special exhibition gallery on the deed of the Roman Catholic Church with exhibition of copies of newspapers, official letters and documents, so that the audience can judge by themselves.