Friday, July 30, 2010

Codex Sinaiticus

Times Magazine introduced the Codex Sinaiticus project together with some facts about the book.   Codex Sinaiticus is a manuscript containing the Christian Bible in Greek.  It is said to be the first book in human history.  It was handwritten, or transcribed, over 1600 years ago.  Before that, manuscripts were written on sheets of animal skin or papyrus paper, sometimes glued together to form a roll, or scroll.  Codex Sinaiticus is the first one found in bound book form.

The book got its name because it was found in Saint Catherines Monastery in Mount Sinai.  During the nineteenth century, events of war and exploration caused parts of the books to be transferred to other countries.  Today, the book is in four portions kept separately in the British Library, the Library of the University of Leipzig, the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and the Monastery of Saint Catherines.   The Codex Sinaiticus project is a collaboration of these four institutions.  They offered their kept portions to be digitized and made the book complete to be read online.  At its website, we can now see the complete book of Codex Sinaiticus, together with the image of the original pages, a clear transcription, and translation in four languages.

In the first century, Christians were scattered by the Romans around the middle east, down to Egypt and up to Turkey.  Each community had its own gospel claimed to be the words of god.  When Constantine I legalized Christianity and made it a governing tool, all these gospels were gathered and made into one book, the precursor of the Bible.  Codex Sinaiticus was one of such products at the time.  However, the contents of various gospels were not unique and many were contradictory.  As a result, some of the words of god were censored by men and many gospels not adhering to the story were banned.  Some of them have now re-emerged like the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Judas, much to the amazement of the modern Christians who fiercely deny them.  Codex Sinaiticus is the prime evidence of what the Bible was like back then.  It contains many manuscripts which were subsequently censored out.

You may have heard from the preachers that the Bible is the best and correct book because it was edited thoroughly for over 200 years.  Actually the Bible was edited by men as soon as Codex Sinaiticus was composed.  Just imagine men changing the words of god, which is a grudge of the fundamentalists.  The original manuscript shows that there were over 27,000 corrections in Codex Sinaiticus which include much erasures, additions, and substitutions.  The Bible we are reading now is not what was said 2000 year ago.

Another question about the Codex Sinaiticus is why it was written in Greek.  The words of god as spoken to the apostles, if you believe it was the case, were supposedly in Hebrew.  There were no written text at that time and the gospels in their various form were probably passed on as verbal memory.  Several hundred years later, gospel manuscripts appeared in Asia Minor (Turkey) and Egypt (Coptic) where ancient Greek was the dominant language.  Thus manuscripts presented to the court were all in Greek.  It is like we now in the 21st century write books on the history of the beginning of the Qing Dynasty more than 350 years ago.  Some may say that the Codex Sinaiticus is a translation of the words of god.  Translation is not a good word for the Bible because it means something derived from the words of other men.  To make the delusion more believable, we have versions of the Bible instead.  It is like King Jame's staff also heard the words of god, likewise the Chinese version.  I just read from the news that a new Chinese version of the Bible is being published.  The author also claimed a revelation from god.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


我在2010年5月號的 Scientific American讀到一篇文章,名為人類的獨特性與其未來。作者領導亞利桑那州大學一項起源研究計劃,探討人類的獨特性,與為何人類可以跨越很多生物進化的障礙。其答案是人類有特強的學習能力,而人類文化可以總稱是由學習而得來的行為,使到知識和技術得到整合和發展。現代人類以此在物競天擇的環境中脫穎而出。




但作者對人類的未來仍然樂觀,他認為人類不會因此而滅亡或人類文化會式微。他認為人類的世界會有大轉變,而變得沒有現在那麼美好;但以人類的獨特性,我們會以科技去適應轉變的環境。其中一個可能的例子是基因工程,可以改變其他物種和人類在轉變的環境中共同進化。人類的適應能力在最近的考古學中得到證據。剛 出版的 Scientifc American 8月號有一篇報導,找到證據指出地球在約150,000年前因氣侯變化而不適合人類生存。當時人類的總數可能下降至只剩下數百人的群體,他們聚居在非洲南 部一處海岸,發展出新技術覓食而渡過難關。

今天的情況和150,000年前不同。現時地球人口已達70億,減少10%就意味7億人要滅亡,而實際情況可能會更壞。適應轉變需時,發展適合的科技以致普及使用需要很長的時間。我們現時無法準確估計生存環境轉壞的速度,最佳的選擇就是要即時開始準備適應,而且目標要明確。現時流行呼籲各國要減排,雖然大部份政府都擺出姿態支持,但行動卻於事無補。大多數的目標都只是減低排放增長的速度,而不是減低溫室氣體水平。我早前看到一個廣告,Diesel時裝已推出 Global Warming系列;現時要做的正是如此,要積極面對預見的未來。可做的包括重點投資另類能源、廉價海水化淡技術、基因科技加強生產食物能力、土木工程技術保護沿海重要城市。人類未來存在與否與此有關,只希望我們有足夠時間趕上。

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The perfect market

All economists and historians study the market.  It is the fundamental activity of human living in a community.  Exchange of goods and services is the basic force which shapes human civilizations.  There are so many explanations and analysis on market that we believe the goal of human civilization rests on a perfect market, where everyone is happily providing his goods and services for a reasonable reward, and receiving goods and services he needs for a reasonable price he could comfortably afford.  And everyone lives happily ever after.

But this is never the case.  From history and our day-to-day experience, the market is never perfect.  A perfect market is an illusion.  As human, we see the market equilibrium as the utopia.  Human has the ability to imagine and recognize perfection.  We can imagine and recognize that the ultimate state of everything is god: the ultimate happiness, ultimate power, ultimate love, and also the ultimate perfect market equilibrium.

People study the market and come up with a consensus that the market is imperfect owing to three reasons: scarcity, incomplete information and externality.  You may wish to take a look at a book review I wrote in 2007 on these elements.   Imperfect markets are everywhere.  We can always find out one and explain it with one or more of these elements.  Take the properties sale saga at present, the cause is first the scarcity of properties, and then the deliberate act of developers in making information incomplete.  Now we have government intervening.  Though with good intention or a political motive, it is externality.

However, the point I really want to make is that the reality of the real world (to emphasize that it is really real) is that there will never be a perfect market or a market equilibrium.  There is an ideal and we will try to work in that direction.  But it is a moving target which will never be reached. In the process, we live our entire life.  Our successors will do the same. We are like Sisyphus and this will go on forever.  The good news is, we will find pleasure and even the purpose of life while doing it.  So in the mean time, we need the government to tame the properties market; we speculate the movement of the stock market, and even try to strike a fair deal in the heaven market of happiness by doing charity.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Octopus and Google

On the eve of the retirement of the Privacy Commissioner, there are more privacy matters for him to handle, putting him in the spotlight. The two most newsworthy cases are the Octopus and the Google street view.

I am not sure why the Octopus privacy issue suddenly becomes news. It probably arose owing to the complaints of a few customers. The defense of Octopus is that the information disclosure statement is already included in the application form. The problem is, same as many other contracts, the devils are in the fine print. Notwithstanding the Octopus case being seen as a terrible infringement of privacy, the fact of life is that we are constantly giving out our personal information to be used by presumably friendly companies. Just take a look at your wallet. All the plastic cards you have reflect the extent of your personal information being given to others. Add to that, any purchase you made requiring email contact or physical delivery means that your personal information has been passed out.

Some companies look more benign in asking for your consent whether you wish to receive information from their partners. Translation: your personal data will be transferred. However, even without your consent, the company could send to you direct advertising materials, either from them or their subsidiaries, using your personal data in a legitimate way.

The Octopus case can be more serious. Although it is not a location-based device, i.e. it does not show your location in real time, the records it held on the location of purchase could be a history of your whereabout. This does not limit to Octopus cards which are linked to names, bank accounts or credit card accounts. The various locations of your card with timing, plus the numerous records of video images, purchase records, etc, could build a profile pointing out individuals. We have seen it in the movies which are based on existing technologies. It is just a matter whether you are a target of the criminals, or the police, or the government.

The case of Google is similarly interesting, or scary. I don't know if you like Google street view. It is a very convenient tool in finding direction. It makes the world smaller or closer if you like it. In taking street view photographs, it also collects many location-based information such as GPS co-ordinates. It claimed that the collection of wireless data is not intentional. The data just got stored at random together with others. Most of them are encrypted and many are fragmented. I wonder how such news got reported. It came from a press release by Google, but there could be pressure from whistle blowers within the company.

Many companies and families use wi-fi devices nowadays. A wireless router only costs a few hundred dollars and can allow a company or a family share one broadband connection. Wi-fi data include everything we send and receive in the Internet, which could mean most of our lives. The Internet is the information superhighway, and the wi-fi data stream is public traffic. You cannot hide your car in the traffic, but you can still do private matters inside your car, with proper protection.

The morale of these two stories is a revelation, in case you still do not know, that personal privacy is a very fragile thing. In the modern world, it is hard to live without plastic. Octopus is the most useful plastic of all. We also have a lot of credit cards, purchase cards, VIP cards, membership cards, discount cards, etc. All these partners of ours are sharing our personal information. Digital information is more insecure. We heard of hackers, viruses, and trojans everyday. It is very uncertain that at this very moment, the data in your computer could be accessed by others. Wireless data at least give a feeling that they are freely distributed through the atmosphere, and their security is an obvious concern. The basic protection is to password-protect your wireless router.

I often draw the analogy that you are using your personal data as walking down the street with your valuables. You cannot stop going out in order to protect your valuables. Just be careful out there. The caution is: anyone who knows your personal data is not necessarily your friend. Make sure you cross-check the identity of those who contact you, at the door, in the mail, on the Internet, or on the phone.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Management is not a profession

Managers are professionals.  At least we say we are professional generalists.  Management science seems to have its own discipline and can be viewed as an unique body of knowledge.  So it is strikingly surprising that the Harvard Business Review in its July issue carries an article entitled Management is not a Profession.  If you are interested, please have a look.  Whether you agree with the article, the arguments are useful food for thought.

Management is commonly seen as a profession.  The status of managers is similar to that of doctors or lawyers, as is their obligation to contribute to the well-being of society. Managers can be formally trained and qualified, usually by earning a MBA or other post-graduate degree.  If management is a profession, the business school is a professional school.  This concept has fueled criticism of business schools during the recent economic crisis. They have come under fire for allegedly failing in their obligation to educate socially responsible business leaders.  Richard Barker argues against these views.  He considers the claim of a professional business education fosters inappropriate analysis and misguided prescriptions.

The author defines a profession as a particular categories of people from whom we seek advice and services because they have knowledge and skills that we do not.  Very often we cannot judge the quality of the advice we receive.   However, the boundary of the discipline of management or a consensus on the requisite body of knowledge does not exist.  No professional body is granted control, no formal entry or certification is required, no ethical standards are enforced, and no mechanism can exclude someone from practice.

The inherent differences between the professions and management have direct implications for the design of education in each. Professional education enables an individual to master the body of knowledge deemed requisite for practice. It comprises three stages: admission, during which potential entrants are screened for intellectual ability and aptitude; a taught program, during which educators impart knowledge of the subject; and formal assessment, which leads to certification. Business education also involves admission, a taught program, and assessment, but the similarity is superficial only.

Professional education is about taking a given individual on the journey from having little or no knowledge or experience to becoming qualified.  But business education is typically post-experience, meaning that participants are not novices. A MBA program offers them an opportunity to share, conceptualize, and better understand workplace experiences; to build on the skill of working with others; and to open up new career opportunities.  A second difference is that although professional education is concerned exclusively with the individual, a quality business education depends in a distinctive way on the peer group. Thus no given candidate can be effectively evaluated independent of all the other candidates.

The program
The London Business School interviewed many corporate leaders on the qualities they desired in the recruitment of managers.  Almost none involved functional or technical knowledge.  Rather, virtually all their requirements could be summed up as follows: the need for more thoughtful, more aware, more sensitive, more flexible, more adaptive managers, capable of being moulded and developed into global executives.  These requirements are attributes rather than skills. They are intrinsically soft and indefinable. They can probably be learned, especially in a business school environment, but it is not obvious that they can be taught, which is what would be expected from a professional school.  Knowledge on functional areas is important.  But we need to broaden our perspective on business education.  The manager must also acquire the core skill of integration and decision making across various functional areas, groups of people, and circumstances.

The skill of integration distinguishes managers and is at the heart of why business education should differ from professional education.  The key here is to recognize that integration is not taught but learned. It takes place in the minds of the students rather than in the content of program modules. The students themselves link the various elements of the program. Thus it is vital that business schools understand themselves primarily as learning environments, where individuals develop attributes, rather than as teaching environments, where students are presented with a body of functional and technical content.

Moreover, business education is explicitly not one-size-fits-all. Most MBA students have prior work experience; each of them is building in a unique way on a unique foundation and will experience the program differently, learn different things, and emerge to pursue a different career. An important implication is that learning needs differ according to the stage of a student’s career.  In other words, business education is best delivered in doses throughout a career, rather than in a single shot at the beginning.

Business education is about more than clearly defined subsets of knowledge; its essence is in softer, indefinable attributes and experiences that have relevance in interpersonal contexts. Thus an academic grading system cannot reliably predict managerial ability.  Grading is important in technical and functional areas, but the distinctiveness and vitality of business education require that a grading culture be downplayed. Students are there to contribute to and benefit from a rich learning environment; they are there to be empowered rather than ranked.

Management educators need to resist the goal of professionalism. Functional and technical knowledge is an important component of business school curricula, but it is not the essence of management or the substance of business leadership.   Business schools do not uniquely certify managers, enabling them to practice. Nor do they regulate the conduct of those managers according to a professional code of practice. What they do is provide learning environments that consolidate, share, and build business experience, that accelerate personal development and growth, and that help equip managers to deal with their diverse working environments. Business schools are not professional schools. They are incubators for business leadership.