Wednesday, December 28, 2011

HTML5, truce or war

The HTML Hypertext Markup Language is the basis of Internet today.  When it was first standardized in 1990, it mainly defined how the text, hypertext and image should be shown in a webpage by the browsers.  Different kinds of browsers in the markets were able to do more or less the same thing and webpages could be correctly viewed on different platforms as they were compatible with each other.  As multi-media became more and more popular, sound and video were being incorporated in webpages.  The pace of such advancement was so rapid that browser companies were unable to cope.  There were many third party companies coming into the market offering various types of software which could be added, or plugged-in, to a browser to enable it to play audio and video.  The Internet world was then in chaos with companies offering different technologies and file formats.  Browser companies and the Internet users found it very confusing and inconvenient where webpages were not correctly displayed all the time and media often not correctly played. 

You may have experienced the various types of music files and many different types of video files which required different devices or programs to run.  Same as the video tape format war many years ago, many companies are also at war promoting their own formats.  Music format war started early and the battles were on resolution, clarity, compactness with fans supporting different products.  Audiophiles like no compression or lossless compression files, while others like highly compressed file with very small size but acceptable sound quality.  For video, the battles were very intense.  You may have heard that Adobe Flash is trying to dominate the market while Steve Jobs refused to support it in Apple devices.

The latest version of HTML version 5 is meant to solve this problem.  The syntax of HTML5 has been rewritten to make the language more simple and streamlined.  Most importantly, it added the universal Audio and Video tags in the language so that all browsers could interpret them in the same way.  The most obvious benefit is that a truce is called among all browser companies.  They can all go and enhance their browsers to support HTML5 and the standard will be universal.  There will be better compatibility among browsers on all multi-media webpages.  On the other hand, you can guess that the third-party plug-in software companies will go out of business if they do not diversify, as audio and video plug-ins are no linger required.

The reaction in the content providers field is enthusiastic.  Steve Jobs commented that HTML5 is the best way forward for a multi-media Internet over Flash.  Adobe announced that it would no longer develop Flash for mobile devices.  Almost all major content providers are now upgrading to HTML5.  YouTube has already released a test version of HTML5 video playing.  In a few years time, users will migrate en masse to browsers that support HTML5.

However, the world is not as peaceful as we like it to be. While HTML5 defines the language standard of audio and video tags, it does not define which file formats should be used.  It is left to individual browser companies to decide which file formats are to be supported.  Judging from the experience of image file format, browsers would support all popular image file formats in use, as the program required to code and decode (codec) the popular file formats are readily available. But of course there are still some advanced image file formats not supported by any browser and cannot be displayed in webpages.

Sound and video files are more difficult as these dynamic and streaming data require more complicated codec.  Browser companies do not want to include many copies of different codec in their program.  They can only choose the most popular ones.   This choice triggered another file format war.

A very popular format today is the MPEG.  Its popular audio file is MP3 and video file is MP4.  You may think that most browsers would support these formats.  However, there is a hitch.  MPEG file formats are copyrighted.  The rights are owned by a consortium of which the stake holders include Microsoft and Apple.  Surely these companies will push for MPEG as the de facto standard.  But many companies which use open source codes are unwilling to pay the MPEG copyright fees.  They are the giants Google and Mozilla who adopted copyright-free audio and video file format of OGG.  The war at present comes to a stalemate where different browsers support their own file formats of choice.  It is really like the video tape war where there were different video tape players supporting VHS and Betamax.

The victims of this war are the content providers and the Internet users.  Much valuable contents are using different file formats and we cannot give up either one.  The solution is troublesome.  Notwithstanding the war and the different file formats used by different browsers, content provider companies encode several copies of an audio or video file in all popular formats.  The webpages are written in a way that any browser could detect the file format supported and choose the correct file to play.  This is for the benefit of users who do not have to worry about file formats.  The problem is that the media file libraries of the content providers are several times larger than needed.

Monday, December 26, 2011


有一位老人家,每天早上都會到酒樓飲茶,和大家都混得很熟。他可以自由出入,隨意搭檯,自己取用茶水點心,吃飽就自行結賬,十年如一日。 但酒樓要結束了,屋邨要增值,改善服務,換上一個較有規模,管理較好的經營者。今後座位安排有秩序,要按號碼安排入座,不能搭檯,茶水有侍應安排,結賬亦有部長親自打理,務求令客人滿意。但老人家很不高興,覺得服務不佳。他向我投訴,認為是民主自由大倒退。





Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Online human resource management

There is a saying that human can only organize and manage human resource up to a certain limit.  The limit is about one hundred thousand owing to the enormous effort required to handle such amount of data.  For some very large projects in history, such as building the Pyramid, the Hoover Dam, putting a man on the Moon and even a war, the human resource involved might not exceed 100000.  But we have all kinds of wonderful achievements from human collaboration at this scale.

The scenario changed now that we have the Internet which means the ability to manage large human resource of hundreds of millions of online Internet users.  Just think what we could achieve with such manpower potential.  You may think that the Internet is in chaos and it will be impossible to make millions of users do one thing in common for free.  But here come some clever thinking and some projects have been launched to do just that.  I saw this interesting TED presentation below which introduced how these are done.  Please take a look.  This is inspirational for the human resource managers, resource and system managers and the IT managers.

Two particular projects are mentioned.  One is the digitization of old books.  We all know the limitation of optical character recognition.  This is particular difficult for old books with strange fonts.  Not surprisingly, what the computer cannot do human brains can.  We can read an old book and recognize what the strange characters are.  Digitization by a human with actual typing work is expensive and time consuming.  To engage the human brains of millions of Internet users, a project makes use of the security control of some websites where you are asked to input some strange characters shown on the screen upon logging in.  Such characters are not recognizable by computer.  The trick is to use two such words.  While the first is the security code, the second is an image of a word from an old book which the project needs you, secretly, to recognize.  Millions of people type the security code everyday and an old book of many characters is digitized in parallel this way.  Now we know this, we may ask the bank to give us a discount every time we log in.

Another interesting project is the translation of websites into different languages.  Professional translators are expensive and computer translation is rubbish.  The project asks Internet users to translate one sentence of a webpage at a time.  But how can you make sure the translation is correct and make human do it for free?  First, the sentence is translated many times and the computer chooses the best translation which most users did.  Second, it uses the project as an education medium where people can learn another language by participating.  Instead of paying for translation tuition, Internet users pay with their time doing simple translation and have it corrected by many other users doing the same translation.

There is already an app in Facebook called Translations.  You can translate some selected sentences from English to Chinese, or vote on the best among several translated versions.  Facebook will then use it in the Chinese version of the website.  I think Facebook is doing this on several different languages.  It will then have muilti-lingual websites for free.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pension in danger

The pension in UK is akin to our Mandatory Provident Fund and the Civil Service Provident Fund where employers and employees contribute to the fund for benefits after retirement. We have heard that there are much shortcomings in the management of these funds in Hong Kong. But the situation in UK is worse. You may wish to see the news in the Guardian below where there was an outcry on the high fees of management of the fund leading to retirement benefits being eroded.

We saw the proposal presentation of the MPF and the CSPF where an inflation factor was included assuming there would be annual earning on the fund investment. It was a healthy and delightful 5%, making the MPF and CSPF a fortune at retirement. We now know the truth. Market turmoil and high management fees have decreased the asset value. If you retire now, you would probably get less than the contribution. There would be serious social problems if retirees could not make ends meet. The contribution of the UK government towards pension also exerts pressure on her public finance. The UK solution is the delay of retirement and the increase in employee contribution. You can imagine the resistance from the citizens. The adjustment to management fees and making the managers more responsible are only small steps.

There are optimists who say that market turmoil is a natural phenomenon. What goes up must come down, and vice versa. In the long run, the market is in a slow but steady upward trend. They also say this for blue chip stocks. This may be true, but there are much peaks and troughs in between. If you are not lucky and have to realize your investment at the inopportune time, like the mandatory retirement at the statutory age, or you just die when the market crashed, then you are trapped in the trough. Pension locked in an investment fund which you have no control will have the same risk. So, there are people who wish to manage their own retirement savings actively, or some people just wish to keep their savings under the pillow. The former is very tiring and requires you to take your own risk; the latter is easy but is vulnerable to fire.

Does anyone have any foolproof method to safeguard pension?

Revealed: how City fees are eating into our pensions
Traders' hidden charges leaving pensioners and savers worse off, Treasury warned

Daniel Boffey, policy editor, Saturday 17 December 2011 21.30 GMT

Highly paid City traders are depriving pensioners and savers of thousands of pounds through high management fees that are often hidden, according to leaked advice provided by consultants to the Treasury. The charges are spreading and are so steep that savers may find they get less back in retirement than they invested in savings accounts and pensions over their lifetimes.

If the size of the charges were to become widely known, the UK's "fragile savings culture may be permanently damaged", according to the warning presented to the Treasury last month.

The damning findings come at a time of growing anxiety that millions of Britons will not have enough money for their old age. They will also raise new questions about the prime minister's decision to veto a new EU treaty over his demands for greater protection for the City.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A responsible church

The newspapers in UK remarked that this was a landmark case.  The High Court ruled in November that the Roman Catholic Church could be held liable for the wrongdoing of its priests.  The case under trial was the one committed by Father Baldwin who sexually assaulted a child under his care.  The legal principle under consideration was that the Church would be vicariously liable for the priest's wrongdoing.  You may wish to read the complete BBC news report.

If you attended the management training on basic legal knowledge, you might have come across vicarious liability in the law of tort.  It has very common usage in human resource management as it concerns the relationship between employers and employees.  In particular, the employer is vicariously liable for the conduct of his employees even without direct connection to such conduct, the principle being that the employer has the responsibility and the duty of care towards his employees.

But this was not the case for the Roman Catholic Church.   The numerous cases of wrongdoing of priests damaged the image of the Church very much.  The well respected holiness was eroded and the faith of followers fading.  The reaction of the Church was that it wanted to distance itself from the priests and did not intend to take responsibility of their wrongdoing.  Thus the Church claimed it could not be held vicariously responsible because there was no formal employment relationship with the priests.

Lawyers for the claimant asked the court to rule on whether the relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship.  Children's organizations claimed that all organisations that work with children have a clear responsibility to ensure their safety.  Religious organisations are no different.  The argument is that the Church has the responsibility to ensure that they select and monitor priests carefully and have robust procedures in place to take steps to protect children when there are concerns.

Mr Justice Macduff decided the professional relationship between a priest and his bishop was sufficiently close so as to impose responsibility.

The result of this judgment is that the Church will finally become a responsible church and be held vicariously liable for the wrongdoing of the priests.  The implication is that there will be court cases seeking damages and remedy from the Roman Catholic Church from the victims of sexual assaults.  This will also apply to other Christian churches.

Following the court ruling, The Catholic Church in England and Wales issued a statement.  You may wish to read the complete text.  Besides the standard words of defense and reassurance, it stated that the costs and damages would be paid by the insurers, and the funds of the Church would not be at risk.  I think this is cold blooded.  At least it should be sorry for the priests' crime and take the responsibility.  We haven't heard anything of that sort yet.  Even B16 was accused of covering up the cases.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Evolution of the eye

I have heard on more than one occasion someone used the complexity of natural beings as the proof that everything is created directly by god, instead of evolving from simpler beings.  Examples quoted are the complexity of flower, the brain and especially the eye.  For the later, it is an extract of a quote from Charles Darwin where he admired the complexity of the eye and remarked that it would be absurd to think the eye evolved from natural selection. Although in subsequent passages he firmly believed the eye did evolve even without evidence of intermediate forms at that time, he was very often misquoted as having made a statement supporting supernatural creation.

A lot of researches have been done on the evolution of the eye. Scientific American has an article in its July issue on this particular subject detailing the conclusion.  You may wish to take a look.

Light is an essential element of the environment.  It gives us warmth and is a supply of food and energy through photosynthesis.  It is natural that the primitive living things would seek out light in order to survive.  It began with light sensitive molecules in a cell.  The earliest beings evolved with light sensitive cells which could tell the light cycle of day and night and the direction of this energy source.   This group of cells evolved to a more complex form and a primitive eye.

During the Cambrian Period, the evolution of the eye split into two branches, one is the compound eye mainly found in insects, and the camera eye in other animals.  Compound eye is an array of many small and simple imaging units with individual lenses which could give the animal wide-angle vision with moderate resolution.  For larger animal requiring better vision, the camera eye gradually evolved to a single complex structure of lens, retina and neural system, and subsequently to the eye we have today.

Fossil records of the eye are hard to find because soft tissues are not well preserved.  However, there are three major developments which successfully illustrate the history of the evolution of the eye.  First, the eye evolved in various stages among various animal species.  There are still many primitive forms of animal with less evolved eyes.  The line of change in the evolution of the eye in progressive intermediate forms are now found in many animal species.  The evolution of the eye follows natural selection.  There are even examples of animals evolved with degenerated eye, i.e. a well evolved eye subsequently degenerated into less useful form owing to a change of environment with deprivation of light.

We can also follow the evolution of the eye in the embryonic development of present day animals.  The process of development of the eye of the embryo represents the events that occurred during the evolution lineage.

The structure of the human eye is not prefect.  There are many defects which are actually scars of evolution: features incorrectly developed and would hinder image quality.  The retina is designed inside out, forcing light to pass through cell bodies and nerve fibres before reaching the photoreceptors.  Blood vessels sprawl across the inner surface and create undesirable shadows onto the retina.  Nerve fibres gather to push through a single opening to become the optic nerve, creating a blind spot in the retina.  These are evidence of the errors of evolution which the eye has gone through before reaching the present day form.  If the eye is designed outright, it would not be intelligent design but poor design.  All these results of researches put the nail in the coffin of the ID theory.

Friday, December 2, 2011







Wednesday, November 9, 2011







Thursday, November 3, 2011


近期管理概念轉狠,從以往的無限期諮詢談判妥協再妥協轉為進取式狠心的賭博。上星期有澳航全面停飛,大家都認為這是行政總裁喬伊斯Alan Joyce的一次賭博,以應付工會長期野貓式罷工;第一回合他勝出,法庭下令暫停罷工,不過澳航損失慘重。兩個月來,整個美國職業籃球賽事因工潮全面停頓,大家都說這是球員工會總裁亨打Billy Hunter的一次賭博,結果是四大俱傷:球員沒收入,球會沒收入,球迷沒有誤樂,美國經濟都受影響;情況仍在僵持,但已有球員不滿亨打。最新和影響最大的事件是希臘總理帕潘德里歐Papandreou要對歐盟債務救助方案進行公投;這一個狠心的賭博即時使到全球金融市場大混亂。



原來在七十年前,海耶克 Friedrich Hayek 對這個現象已有描述。他看到很多民主體制都讓不同的持份者有發表意見的權利;在決策過程中,辯論致不肯相讓的情況會不斷發生,使決策需要用很多時間才能落實或根本不能妥協。很多決定最後是以少數服從多數的方法推行,但少數並不是當然地每事都會真心服從,所以政策決定和推動都可能在混亂情況下進行。但有一些關鍵性和影響重大的決策是極需要清晰的定調。這時決策者就會被迫推行一些進取的策略;如果成功就可有效地爭取到民意高地。他認為這是民主體制自然的演化,在混亂之中總會有人脫穎而出。他可能是有超凡能力,或只是運氣好而贏了一場賭博。下一步的誘惑就是強人得到民主制度的支持,賦予權力使他可以為國家謀福利,自此走上輝煌的不歸路。


希臘「公決」救助案 各方疑慮

【大公網訊】希臘總理帕潘德里歐宣布將「全民公決」希臘債務危機的救助新方案之后,各方投資者對希臘債務危機前景再生疑慮。歐洲三大股市 11月1 日震蕩走低,法、德兩國股指一天之內的降幅都達到了5%。

希臘總理帕潘德里歐的決定引起各方高度關注。歐洲理事會主席范龍佩和歐盟委員會主席巴羅佐11月1日聯合發表聲明,表示相信希臘會履行對歐元區及國際社會做出的相關承諾。范龍佩與巴羅佐透露,他們電話聯系了希臘總理帕潘德里歐。在即將舉行的戛納二十國集團峰會上,歐元區成員國領導人將就此問題進行深入討論。范龍佩與巴羅佐認為,歐元區領導人峰會10月27日凌晨達成的救助新方案對于希臘來說是最好的結果。丹麥、芬蘭、瑞典等北歐五 國首腦對希臘「全民公決」方案表示擔憂。法國總統薩科齊1日與德國總理默克爾通電話,就希臘「全民公投」的決定交換意見。

10月27日凌晨,歐元區領導人在比利時首都布魯塞爾達成希臘債務危機救助新方案,要求銀行在2012年6月底前將資本金比率提高到 9%;私人投資者承擔希臘國債損失比例自愿到達50%;EFSF范圍將擴大至1萬億歐元。



Saturday, October 29, 2011











Friday, October 28, 2011

Civil service pension reform in UK

At time of hardship, civil service pension is always seen as the fat of the potbelly ready to be trimmed. This is particular felt as people now live longer and pensioners receive pension for a longer period, costing the government more. The pension calculation based on final salary is also a point of contention. The UK government is now proposing a reform of the civil service pension. Please see the BBC news below. The main change is not to link pension to final salary but to average salary throughout the career. In order to sell to staff, the total amount of pension in general must be comparable to the present scheme, but the retirement age will be delayed to 67. The new schemes would be applicable to the serving officers on current pension schemes.

We experienced reform of civil service pension in Hong Kong before. The New Pension Scheme of 1987 lured many colleagues into joining because of the 100% increase of the commuted pension. The cost is the increase of pension factor so that one would need to work longer to get the same pension. Also, statutory retirement age was delayed to 60. Then came the 2000 reform where pension was abolished for new recruits. All new comers have to join the Civil Service Provident Fund Scheme which was said to provide a larger sum at the time of retirement. However, part of the amount was based on investment return which was not guaranteed. In fact, performance of the investment of the scheme proved to be worse than expected in the last few years.

As the demographic leans towards the aged worldwide, the burden of the aged is being looked at more seriously. Almost everywhere there is proposal on the delaying of retirement and a critical look on pension payment. If the UK government is successful in the reform, the Hong Kong Government may take it as a good guide. There are still many serving officers who are entitled to pension. Possible actions could be the adjustment of the statutory retirement age, and possibly the pension calculation. There could also be temptation to modify the pension adjustment mechanism as the UK Government did. Let's hope the Basic Law can protect us from these changes.

Career average pensions for the public sector
Money Talk by John Wright
Head of public sector pensions, Hymans Robertson
BBC 27 October 2011 Last updated at 23:04 GMT

The design of huge, new, pension schemes for more than five million staff in the public sector is starting to emerge. Following the recommendations earlier this year of Lord Hutton's independent report into the future of public sector pensions, the government is negotiating with public service trade unions. One of Lord Hutton's big ideas was that all staff in the public sector should be moved out of their current pension schemes. That would apply to staff in the NHS, local government, civil service, schools, and the various "uniformed" services: the armed forces, fire brigades and Police.

They will be offered instead membership of so-called career average schemes, from 2015. Until now, it has not been clear exactly how the government intended to design these new pension arrangements. They can vary in detail very considerably, and the detail can make a big difference to how much they cost to fund, and how generous or meagre they are for employees.

The BBC has learned all the main details, which means we can now assess how these schemes might compare to those currently in place. The main features are these:

The higher pension contributions now being asked of public sector staff in their mainly final-salary pensions - averaging an extra 3.2% of their salaries over the next three years - will carry over to the new schemes. Contributions will be less for lower earners. The standard 'accrual rate' will be 1/65th. On a salary of £20,000 this gives a pension of £308 a year for each year worked. This is less than the 1/60th accrual rate in place for most final-salary schemes currently, which gives a pension of £333 for each year worked. However, working longer could mean a bigger pension at retirement. The revaluation of pension entitlement each year during accrual will be in line with a measure of average earnings, to protect pensions from inflation as they are being built up. That will mean better pensions for many workers, particularly women, and means the perception that all staff will necessarily receive smaller pensions is wrong.

The normal pension age will rise in line with the state pension age (SPA), which will increase from 65 to 66 by 2020, and to 67 by 2027 as life expectancy increases. Pensions in payment will be inflation-proofed, rising in line with the consumer prices index (CPI). Benefits under the current schemes were previously linked to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) but with effect from April 2011 they changed to using CPI. This change is currently being challenged in the courts by trade unions.

From the government's point of view, the proposals are designed to address the rising cost of pensioners living much longer and the perceived unfairness of the current final-salary pension system. Some staff will be better off in a career average scheme, argues John Wright. The government wants to maintain the amount that workers receive in retirement (especially for lower earners) but preserve guaranteed, salary-linked benefits that are increasingly rare in the private sector. The reforms will affect only future pension entitlements for existing scheme members from 2015......

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pastor faces execution

Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani will be hanged, as ordered by an Iranian court. His crime was his action to challenge the regime of requiring schools to teach Islam. This is similar to many countries which require schools to teach Christianity. Luckily we do not have to be hanged even if we object to education being improperly used for religious purposes. But not in Iran. Preaching Christianity and opposing Islamic teaching there will lead to death sentence. We now call it uncivilized, against humanity and religious freedom. However, this is exactly what Christians have been doing for two thousand years. See how the reverse is true when you are sitting on whichever side of the fence. This simple fact reveals the religion delusion.

The to-be-hanged pastor case comes with a twist. The court offers him a choice, renounce his Christian faith to escape the death sentence. I wonder how come Islam is so generous and forgiving, just like Christianity's repent and be saved. It turns out that the pastor is of Islamic ancestry, and that he had been a practicing Muslim before 15. I guess it could simply mean that he was born in a Muslim family. This is another religion delusion: you automatically believe what you are born with. Infants do not have a choice and do not have religious freedom. They are not taught Christianity as a new born baby but are born with the Christian gene. Similarly, pastor Nadarkhani would have been born with Islamic gene. But he defected at 15. So there is human rights and freedom of the mind after all. You can have a choice of not being a Muslim, and similarly not being a Christian. To coerce anyone to change his belief with life threatening punishment, or with whatever delusion, is a crime.

Pastor faces execution in Tehran for apostasy
By Martin Fletcher and Ruth Gledhill - Timeonline
Thursday, 29 September 2011 at 12:02 PM

The Foreign Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened last night to try to save a Christian pastor in Iran who has refused to renounce his faith to escape a death sentence.

An Iranian court gave Youcef Nadarkhani, 34, a third and final chance to avoid hanging, but he replied: “I am resolute in my faith and Christianity and have no wish to recant.” The panel of five judges will decide within a week whether to confirm his execution for apostasy, Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, his lawyer, told The Times. William Hague said he “deplored” Pastor Nadarkhani’s plight, and a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat telephoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires in London to protest. “This demonstrates the Iranian regime’s continued unwillingness to abide by its constitutional and international obligations to respect religious freedom,” Mr Hague said. “I pay tribute to the courage shown by Pastor Nadarkhani, who has no case to answer, and call on the Iranian authorities to overturn his sentence.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, broke his silence to express “deep concern” at the sentence faced by Pastor Nadarkhani, and at the persecution of religious minorities in Iran generally. Sources said that Christian clerics and advisers had been working hard behind the scenes to save the pastor’s life, but had sought to avoid “megaphone diplomacy” in case it did more harm than good. The US Department of State has also condemned the Iranian judiciary for demanding that Pastor Nadarkhani renounce his faith or face execution. “While Iran’s leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing,” it said.

Pastor Nadarkhani, a member of the Protestant evangelical Church of Iran and the father of two young boys, held services in underground “home churches” in Rasht, a provincial town about 150 miles northwest of Tehran. In 2009, he challenged the regime’s insistence that all schools should teach Islam. He was arrested in October that year and has been imprisoned in Rasht ever since. He was sentenced to death for apostasy by a court in Rasht last year.

The Supreme Court of Iran upheld the sentence last month, but with two provisos — it asked the court in Rasht to check that he had been a practising Muslim at 15, the age of maturity, and to give him three chances to recant. Pastor Nadarkhani denied ever having been a Muslim, but the prosecution argued successfully that he was of “Islamic ancestry”. However, he refused to renounce his faith at three hearings this week.

At yesterday’s closed session, Mr Dadkhah argued that the Iranian constitution permitted freedom of worship, that the penal code did not identify apostasy as a crime and that Iran had signed international conventions banning religious persecution. Mr Nadarkhani’s conviction appeared to be based on fatwas issued by Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, Iran’s past and present supreme leaders, but other senior Ayatollahs have challenged the ruling.

Mr Dadkhah said he was “95 per cent” confident that “reason will prevail” and his client would escape execution, but acknowledged that the five judges — two of them clerics — warned that they would have to take “specific actions” if Pastor Nadarkhani did not renounce his faith. The pastor supporters in the West are far less confident that he will avoid the fate of the Reverend Hossein Soodmand, the last Christian to be hanged for abandoning Islam, 21 years ago. Andrew Johnston, advocacy director at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: “[We call] on international actors to take up Pastor Nadarkhani’s case with the Iranian authorities without delay. His life is in the balance.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Great Mysteries Re-examined
by Charles Cazeau and Stuart Scott Jr.


When I first saw this book, I thought it was about the ancient mysteries and it would be again another interesting book on stories with secrets and excitement. However, the reverse is true. It is meant to be a myth breaker and it tries to expose the superstition and the incorrect perception on hearsay or deliberate lies.

The topics covered are very wide, including ancient relics like the pyramids and other megalithic structures, and also aliens, unidentified flying objects, Easter Island, Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, monster sightings, Loss Ness and Noah's Ark. The technique used by the authors is the scientific method of fact gathering and verification, validity of assumptions and logical thinking. The book uses an entire chapter to explain the method and the general fallacies found in pseudo-science. On facts, it is important to examine whether there are factual errors, contradiction, distortion or exaggerations. Assumptions may be wrong and must be tested. When too much assumptions confuse a topic, the Occam's Razor principle is always useful. On logical deduction, the process may fall wayside owing to hasty generalization, argumentum ad hominem, or appeal to pity, authority or faith. Each topic is unique but all can be analyzed under such principles. I note two topics which are easier to understand.

The Bermuda Triangle

The popular belief of the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle powered by the press mainly converges on six points. 1. There is an abnormally high rate of disappearances there. 2. All disappearances take place in or very close to the Triangle. 3. In all instances the weather was good. 4. Very few of the ships and planes disappearing gave any hint of trouble. 5. Despite intensive search, not a trace was found. 6. There are abnormal magnetic force there; compasses point to true north instead of magnetic north.

A detailed research by the authors based on records and statistics reveals the following:

- The average number of incidents connected to the Triangle region is about 2.5 per year. According to the records of the US Coast Guard, on 1975 alone, the number of sunk or capsized boats was 5600, 1300 were on fire, and another 1000 lost direction. Accidents as they were regrettable, were nowhere near abnormally high.

- The area of the Triangle is wide, but the Atlantic ocean is much wider. Of the cases examined by the authors, only 63% were actually in the Triangle, and 37% were not.

- Of the cases examined in detail, only 26% reported good weather. 52% recorded prevailing bad weather and 22% didn't show the weather condition.

- 12% of the ships and planes complained of trouble. 61% did not complain. Another 27% were unable to communicate; they could be in deep trouble with radio failure.

- There are definite records of debris, wreckage, oil slick found in 10 cases. In the vast Atlantic Ocean and being battered by severe storm, wreckage was difficult to be found.

 - True north and magnetic north are fixed locations. If one can draw a line connecting these two locations and extend it southward, it will pass through the Triangle. All locations along this line will have compasses pointing to true north.

The verdict: All we hear from the press are exaggerations aiming to boost sales.

Noah's Ark

All historians agree that this biblical legend may have some truth in it. Although there is no geographic evidence of a world wide flood less than 5000 years ago, there are records of floods in every ancient civilization. Flooding is a common natural disaster. The ancestors of the Israelis were living near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers a few thousand years ago, and there were frequent floods in the river plain. There could be survivors from an unusually severe flood, having built a good boat for his household and livestock. The legend might be derived out of respect of the lucky ones. However, biblical teachings and the ongoing myth present a distorted picture. The authors examined the stated facts and argued on the unreasonableness.

- The bible told the exact magnitude of the flood: Water covering the entire world, even the highest mountain with 22 feet of water to spare. (Genesis 7:20). This would amount to more than a billion cubic miles of water. There is simply not enough additional water in the entire earth for such disaster 5000 years ago. Even if it did, where would such large amount of water go. It would not be possible for such amount of water to drain or evaporate in a matter of months.

- The bible supposedly recorded the exact dimension of the ark (Genesis 6:15), about 450 x 75 x 45 feet, with a volume of 1.5 million cubic feet. This is an enormous boat by today's standard. Just think of the amount of wood and labour required. This is an impossible task for the 8 members of Noah's family.

- Even if there was such a large boat, it could not accommodate a pair of all animal species. Calculations based on very cramped condition revealed that a few thousand pairs of small animals might be squeezed in. Even if all of them survived, it would not be possible for them, in a span of 5000 years, to evolve into millions of different animal species we now have.

- The water came down for 150 days, and it receded in another three months. (Genesis 8:3) This meant the ark was isolated for more than 250 days. It is assumed that there were food and water to last for the period. 250 days is a very long time. The amount of supplies for the large number of animals should have occupied considerable space. There was also the task for the caring of a few thousand animals, including feeding and clearing of waste; all done by eight people. Another impossible task.

- All people on earth died except Noah's family. That means all people on earth today are descendants of Noah. In a span of 5000 years, it is not possible that human beings evolved from Noah's gene into many different races with different skin colour, built and outlook.

It may not be fair for such logical reasoning to be applied to a religious myth. A religious myth is supposed to be illogical just supported by faith. To believe it no matter what is called a virtue. It seems to me that the authors just saw the similarities of these subjects with other mysteries. They are all in their own way exaggerations, distortions and misrepresentations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Democracy and Economic Growth

This is an inspiring TED presentation on democracy and economic growth.  The presenter is professor Huang Yasheng 黃亞生.  He is now the professor of political economy and international management at Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The topic as it looks appears to be controversial.  He is staging the political structure of China and the resultant economic growth.  We all know the success in economic growth in China.  But is it a result of her political system or otherwise?

The strong government scenario in the Shanghai model has been cited as an example.  The government-led expansion of infrastructures was very efficient, at the expense of livelihood of many citizens.  It could be thought that balancing the importance of infrastructures with economic growth facilitated by a strong government would be an advantage.  Nevertheless, statistics on many countries show otherwise.

Another more direct question is whether democracy is bad for economic growth.  There are many examples that democracy led to prolonged arguments thus hindered the efficiency of decision making, and led to compromised watered-down policies.  However, there are also statistics showing the long term growth of democratic countries having an advantage over authoritarian governments.

The success of China, over India in particular, is her human capital.  You may refer to the video for more figures and arguments.  The basic concept, against the general impression that the literacy level in China is low, which is not correct, is that the quality of human capital in China is better.  You may argue that there are a lot of India scholars all over the world with good achievements.  The truth with India is that she focused on tertiary education but the basic education is severely insufficient.  You may have heard from the news that Hong Kong people are keen on helping the education of poor children in rural China.  However, as a whole, the literacy rate in China in 1990 is already 78%.

With regard to the effect of the political system, professor Huang proposed that we have to focus on the dynamic of political systems rather than a static ideology.  Economic growth is about change, and it has to be compared with changes ongoing.  Coupled with the fast economic growth in the last several decades, China was undergoing changes in her political system from an authoritarian government to a relatively less authoritarian government.   Reforms were carried out to provide some economic autonomy to provinces as well as rural areas.  However, the challenge ahead for China is whether the direction of reform can be maintained.  For the pace of economic growth to sustain, the people must continue to be able to share the benefits of growth permitted by a more open political system.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Inside Drucker's Brain

Inside Drucker's Brain
by Jeffrey Krammes

Peter Drucker is said to have created modern management science. This is a heavy statement given many academics before him were working on management. His achievement was his ability to built on the theories of others like Adam Smith, Frederick Taylor and he turned management studies into a coherent science. This book, unlikely other biographies, does not give a detailed account of Drucker's life. The materials in the book are the record of an interview with Drucker when he was over 90. It is a recapitulation of the theories and thoughts of Drucker and is an useful overview and reference.

Managers know very well the concepts put forward by Drucker. Management by objectives, vision and mission, partnership and leadership are all in the present management text books in use. While it is a good revision of these management topics, there are a few more points in the book which have caught my mind.

The first is a brief account of the evolution of corporations. Companies started small and were managed by royalties, aristocrats, and rich families. Before the 20th centuries, there were usually only two layers in a company: the top management of family members and then a large group of skilled and unskilled labour. Middle management was non-existent. At the beginning of the 20th century, Du Pont grew so big that some middle managers were required. Numbers were limited because the demand was small and the supply of talents was short.

The coming of age of the middle management exploded after the second world war when the economy took up pace. In particular, the cause could be attributed to the GI Bill of Rights passed in 1944. The US Government would pay for college and offer business loans to all returning servicemen. An enormous number of people who would never have thought of going to college went to college. By the time the bill ended in 1956, 7.8 million World War II veterans had attained college education. This enormous amount of knowledge workers created the scene of ample supply of talents which fueled the rapid deployment of middle management in all corporations.

The other point is the interest of Drucker on non-profit organizations. This is a problematic area where management is generally poor. Drucker worked extensively with many non-profit organizations like hospitals, churches, etc. I think this is a warning to their administrators, especially the volunteers. He pointed out many did not realize that the competitive environment of non-profit organizations was more severe than the competition for goods. Non-profit organizations usually have impractical and non-actionable mission statement. They are not measured by profit as a good indicator, and thus they do not have a bottom line. The wrong perception is that as long as they can get charitable donation then business can go on. Many do not have good strategy and continue to engage resources to areas where there is no good results.

Drucker had a vision on information technology. He foresaw a fourth information revolution where the use of IT would shift from the use of technology to the provision of information. This is particular true for managers whose main concern is not only the use of IT on production and service delivery, but actionable information, especially of the outside, to facilitate strategy formulation. Mangers will request from the IT department and the finance department not just piles of statistical reports, but answers and reasons on strategic questions. The fourth information revolution will not be the advancement of technology, but a change of concept on the use of information.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The HKEx incident reminder

Horror, horror.  HKEx's computer system was hacked.  You may think that such security incidents occur everyday and they may not necessarily affect us.  But this particular case has some far-reaching consequences.  First, trading of some stocks was suspended leading to unspecified loss to some.  Second, the possibility of an infrastructure computer system being hacked is a reminder of our fragile world.  Some analysts said that HKEx was to be blamed for first, unnecessarily suspending trading, and second, being unable to put the security of the systems in order.  But that is besides the point.  Management decisions are frequently wrong, and computer systems cannot be 100% protected.

We now extremely rely on the computer systems and the Internet in particular in our daily life.  I try to count how much I rely on them and find a lot.  I no longer buy newspapers but read news online and on TV.  I have very little cash in the pocket because goods and services are mostly paid by credit cards and the Octopus.  I do not have bank statements which are now in digital form to be downloaded.  I do not have bills because all are paperless and are paid by direct bank transfer.  The best use of cash is to pay taxi fare, but I heard Octopus readers are now installed in some taxis.  I discussed with some friends who have computer-phobia and they said they bought newspapers, held bank books and received bank statements, got their bills by post and sent their cheques also by post.  I told them that they still could not escape the demise of computer failure because all these providers are using computers.  When the systems fail, there will be no newspaper, statements or bills, or for that matter, no service at all.

We can only survive in a city with infrastructure working properly.  A short disruption of the MTR would create chaos, similarly for electricity and water and many trivial but essential services.  The Internet is another vulnerability.  Any disruption, like the earthquake in Taiwan a few years back, will stop the world built on the Internet.  Even a slow down is a very serious matter.  But I am not as pessimistic as many people with paranoid.  I think the very large systems are organic and they normally have the power of healing themselves.  Of course we could not rule out the black swan which might completely wipe out human beings on earth.  But we could only prepare ourselves for incidents which could be prevented or salvaged.

For us, the Internet can only be left on its own, and computer hardware can be replaced.  But our data are invaluable.  If lost, all that left are those we could barely remember.  So my first concern is to preserve the personal data I collected over the years.  In the past, I stored them on floppy disks, which deteriorated in just a few years.  Then I put them on the so-called everlasting CD.  It turns out although the data bits may be everlasting, the disks are not.  They could be scratched, stained and then unreadable.  Then come the memory cards which are convenient.  But they can still be destroyed by static electricity.  The more reliable media are the hard disks.  They can still fail but at least they are more robust.  I back up all my data in two separate hard disks.  In addition, I also store the most essential data in two more smaller hard disks.  The up-to-date trend of storage is in the cloud because security and encryption have improved.  So I also store the most essential data in the cloud, and in two separate locations.   Now comes the problem.  How can I keep all six backup copies up-to-date?  The truth is that I cannot.  Some are just backed up monthly and so they are actually always some weeks out of date.  Luckily one cloud service is automatic and it backs up my data once every night.  However, my experience is still scary.  Last month when I urgently needed to recover the essential data, the cloud server was out-of-service and I had to wait for 24 hours to get it done.

We live in a world of uncertainty.  Praying may only give you consolation.  Just accept it as a way of life.

Disruption of HKExnews Website Services    HKEx News Release   10/08/2011

Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEx) announced today (Wednesday) that HKExnews website services are being interrupted due to technical problems. Contingency measures have been invoked until further notice to provide for the continued dissemination of issuers’ regulatory news.  HKEx’s other systems are not affected and trading in its securities and derivatives markets continues to operate normally.  HKEx is now investigating the problem and the HKExnews website services will resume as soon as the technical problem is resolved.

As a result of the website service disruption, issuer documents submitted to HKEx for publication on the HKExnews website ( and the Growth Enterprise Market website ( may not be published on the HKExnews website. 

HKEx has adopted a half day (i.e. one trading session) suspension policy for issuers which announce price sensitive information during the lunch publication window today.  This trading suspension policy aims to give all investors sufficient time to understand the contingency arrangements and locate issuers’ announcements on their websites.   Trading in an issuer’s shares will also be suspended if price sensitive information announcements are not timely posted on an issuer’s website and/or the headlines and document titles are not timely posted on the Bulletin Board.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Boss and Master

The trendy words these few days are Boss and Master.  This is a very revealing and stimulating remark by the Mainland official making a lot of Hong Kong people jumping out to defend, for various reasons. Although each has his own angle, this remark actually has very deep meaning for civil servants and Executive Officers.

Are we now bosses and masters of Hong Kong after the handover?  Before 1997, Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom, ruled by colonial officials who were mostly civil servants as well.  However, many local policies were made by local senior civil servants.  But they did not consider themselves as bosses and masters with the Queen of England above their heads.  Now Hong Kong is a city of China enjoying special administrative region status.  We still make our own local policies but they are not very effective leading to the criticism that we cannot take care of our own house.  In principle, since the handover, the governance of Hong Kong changed from an autocratic style to a more democratic style.  We can hardly expect the ability of civil servants to disappear immediately upon the switch, but the changed political environment does make policy making more controversial.

Civil servants are certainly not bosses and masters to the society.  The modern sense of the civil service is servants to the general public.  In fact, what civil servants do are services to the public.  Boss and master in a generalized sense is that Hong Kong is not governed by the United Kingdom any more, and that the "Hong Kong people" are now bosses and masters of our own affairs.  If we focus on governance, a better way to say it is that we have the balance of three powers: executive, legislative and judicial.  For that, executive power means the "elected" officials, at least under an elected Chief Executive.

The question of policy formulation and policy implementation has been haunting us for a long time.  Many colleagues are aggrieved by the structure of the management of the government where Administrative Officers and Executive Officers are in separate grades although the basic job requirements are the same.  Executive Officers are deliberately suppressed as the middle management without any opportunity to advance to the top level.  One flimsy reason put forward then was that the two grades perform different functions:  Administrative Officers for policy formulation and Executive Officers for policy implementation.  We have been under this spell for quite some time.  Times are a-changing.  Now senior civil servants and Administrative Officers are relegated to performing policy implementation as well.

I was reading Peter Drucker in the last few weeks.  His theories on management and governance do not segregate policy formulation and implementation.  He advocates partnership and considers execution to be the most important action.  All ideas should come from front-line managers who really know what is going on around.  He thinks the most important leadership quality is putting people as the most important asset.  In his idiom, purposes and objectives are set by those from the outside, and there is a constant interactive relation between goal setting and real action.

This reminds me of the book Yes Minister which tells accurately, in a comical way, the relationship between cabinet ministers and civil servants in the United kingdom government.  Cabinet ministers are like our directors of bureau who are said to be policy makers.  In fact, the minister's office is very thin.  All support on resources, information and analyses, i.e. the meat of policy making, come from civil servants.  So the minister is steered by the civil servants based on the perceived popularity of a policy, and has to take the blame of failed policy.  Cabinets come and go, but the civil service stays put.  Actually, the civil servants are the policy makers, policy implementers, bosses and masters of the country all in one.

【明報專訊】王光亞昨日於北京與60名赴京參與「大學生外交夏令營」的香港學生對話,對他們提出針對本港貧富懸殊、經濟發展,以及特首選舉的提問 均有問必答。被問及本港當前面對的深層矛盾為何時,王光亞主動提及本港師承英國的公務員制度。王光亞直言香港「成也英國,敗也英國」,指在港英治 下,英國人主導香港事務,培養出的香港公務員水平雖高,但只懂接受及執行指令,「完全培養的是civil servant (公僕),而未能培養對香港未來發展,加以政治上設計和長遠規劃的人才」。

他批評,縱然香港已回歸10多年,大部分公務員的心態卻是「叫我做什麼就做什麼…他們過去是聽Boss(老闆),現在自己當了Boss,都不知道 怎樣當Boss,怎樣當個Master(主人)」。他認為,特區政府應按香港的情况作長遠設計及規劃,各級官員更應「不僅把今天的事做好,而是要 把香港明天、後天,2年、3年、5年、10年以後的事要想好,設定好目標,自己設定政策,包括人才的培養,面向目標向前走」。

前保安局長、現立法會議員葉劉淑儀同意王光亞的言論,認為他「想得很通透」。她稱,香港公務員以效率及辦事能力高聞名,但欠缺當領導的視野及膽 識。葉太相信王光亞不是基於兩三件事件就貿然批評公務員,而是總結香港回歸後14年的經驗「有感而發」。不過,中大政治與行政學系高級導師蔡子強 認為,本港發展問責制,將制訂長遠政策的責任交予司局級官員,才是導致公務員缺乏方向的主因,他批評王光亞的言論「斷錯症,落錯藥」,對公務員有 欠公道。

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Terror attack in Norway

Just got back from a wonderful trip in Italy and heard the sad news in Norway. Norway is a beautiful place, peaceful and natural. But the world is not perfect and there are always disasters happening somewhere everyday. We live in a changing planet and natural disasters have been with the human kind for more than a million years. The sad thing about this one is that it is not a natural disaster but a man-made one. Someone deliberately did harm to other human beings for a special purpose.

Everybody is now blame seeking. First they put the blame to the Al Qaeda, and then to Islamic extremists, and then to right wing extremists. There are many supposed reasons put forward and self-claimed theories on conflicts arising from history, cultural differences and religious differences. But history has been with us for a long long time and we often see different cultures and different religions existed together peacefully. The world is diverse and differences are in our daily life. It is not an excuse for such man-made disaster for any difference in customs and opinions.

The truth is being revealed gradually. The culprit was apprehended and his background exposed. It is a case of human poisoned by religion and he relegated himself back ten centuries to the age of the crusaders. He called himself a member of the knights templar whose mission in life was to get rid of Muslims and everybody else being friendly to them. This kind of christian supremacy is of course a sick mind. Ten centuries ago, Europe was in chaos, suffering from the plague and warfare. The lie created by religion was that the reason for the turmoil being the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims. This lie led to two hundred years of the war of the Crusaders, loss of many lives and great suffering to a lot of people, especially to those in the holy land. The ill effect of this lie still lingers today as illustrated by this sad case. It is very dangerous for man pretending to be god.

Monday, July 11, 2011








** 康文署用了一千七百多萬元為東亞運動會宣傳。宣傳體育活動是康文署日常工作,而支出其實是在該署每年正常開支預算之內,並不需要額外申請開支撥款。

** 康文署收到中央撥款二千四百多萬元用以聘請臨時員工。該筆撥款其實是政府為解決失業問題而設立的臨時就業計劃的一部份,原意並不是為東亞運動會而設。

** 康文署職員和借調的公務員為東亞運動會工作的薪酬為三千一百多萬元。這不是額外支出,各部門已有開支預算支付原有員工的薪酬。

** 建築署為改良體育場地的工程支出為四千二百多萬元。這些改善工程項目是經立法會財務委員會正式批准撥款,而當時她亦知悉改善場地除了為舉行東亞運動會,亦對各項運動未來發展有幫助。

** 建築署用了四百多萬元改裝部份香港壁球場作為辦公室。該筆費用是在建築署的小型工程頂目之內,並無額外撥款。




Saturday, July 9, 2011




我嘗試尋找基督教臻美社會服務機構的底細,但它原有的資訊網頁已全部被刪除,舊有的登記資料是黃乾亨小學校長兩夫婦為主席和幹事,董事局內只有一位牧師。由此看來,基督教臻美社會服務機構是設計出來作為辦學團體,兩者關係二而為一。但它和基督教有什麼關係,是否由基督教指使而設立的機構呢?香港基督教組織的資訊不難找到, 和 jgospel.net都是詳盡的基督教指南。前者說它的工作有小學、幼稚園、青少年活動中心、勞工和青年服務,後者更介紹辦學理念和活動,但都和宗教無關。



時代進步,人們不再盲目相信世間財產其實是屬於上帝而無條件奉獻教會。人們會問捐出的錢去了那裡,是否用得其所,最大的疑問是有多少是行政費用。 世界各地都有組織做這些調查工作,香港亦有社聯和idonate,他們要求各機構提高透明度,公開財務報告,分析機構提供服務的成本和效率。雖然力量仍很少,但已經提高了大家對欺詐和善心被利用的警覺性。

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice
Why More is Less
by Barry Schwartz

This book was published in 2004. At that time, it was a hit. The book summed up the results of some researches on the psychology of decision making, that the abundance of choices in the modern world had made the decision made less satisfying. Books came and went. Last year I found an used one selling at $20 at a charity stall. It was really value for money. Making a decision on buying it was satisfying, there being no other choice at that time. However, the book took me a long time to read. It seems much more information are now available on the Internet which require more time to explore. For this one, at least I tried to finish reading it before books become an endangered species.

In 2004, I thought just before the publishing of this book, Barry Schwartz had an article on a science journal, perhaps for the purpose of drumming up his book. The article was The Tyranny of Choice. I had some reading notes on it in my blog which were in fact materials in the first few chapters of the book.

Tyranny of choice 14 June 2004. Too much choices may give you trouble and less satisfaction. But it depends on your personality that whether you are a maximizer or a satisficer.

Maximization scale 14 June 2004. A self test questionnaire that may help you identify yourself your position on the maximization scale, i.e. whether you are a dedicated maximizer or a balanced consumer.

Advice on choice 18 June 2004. Some useful tips on choice making. The purpose is not to let you make choice easier, but just to relieve the sense of guilt from making a wrong decision or be content with the choice you made.

The author gave a detailed account in the book of what affects us in making choice and also what affects us in not making choice. Such dilemma of choosing between two or more comparable products or services, or choosing between many evils, may have a detrimental effect on our mental health. The satisfaction of making a choice is affected by many phenomenon. Some apparent ones identified are the opportunity costs, social comparison, expectation and adaptation. To maintain a balanced mind when making or not making choice, the author offered some useful pointers on what to do about choice.

1. Choose when to choose
To manage the problem of excessive choice, we must first decide which choices in our life really matter and focus our time and energy there, and just let many other opportunities pass us by. By restricting our options, we will be able to choose less and feel better.

2. Be a chooser, not a picker
A picker is forced to pick one thing among several laid on the table. A chooser knows what he really wants to do with something and chooses one that fits the purpose. If there is none that does, a chooser may create better options that do.

3. Satisfice more and maximize less
Be a satisficer and settle for just good enough. This is easy said than done because settling for just good enough could mean losing the better alternatives, if there is any. But to maximize and search for the best is very demanding on time and resources, sometimes to the point that it isn't worth it. However, being a satisficer is a state of mind that either comes with one's personality or requires some mental training.

4. Think about the opportunity costs of opportunity costs
Opportunity costs are high especially where there are a lot of options. You will be losing other, just presumably better, opportunities once a decision is made. Considering opportunity costs is already opportunity cost in itself. To lower the cost which may lead to less satisfaction, one may consider the strategies of limiting options such as: Unless truly dissatisfied, stick with what you always buy; Don't be tempted by the new and improved versions; Don't scratch unless there is an itch; Don't worry that you will miss out on all the new things the world has to offer. 

5. Make your decisions non-reversible
When one is dissatisfied with a choice, there may be a mental process of reversing the decision and choose again. If a decision is not reversible, such as many important decisions we made in our life, we may learn to accept and thus increase the satisfaction.

6. Practice an attitude of gratitude
We could vastly improve our subjective experience by consciously striving to be grateful for what is good about a choice. We normally do the reverse by thinking about how good the alternatives are, but take the present good choice for granted. The attitude of gratitude may need a little practice.

7. Regret less
The pain of regret has impact on choice and sometimes influences us to avoid making decisions at all. To lessen the effect of regret, we may try to adopt the standards of a satisficer more, reduce the number of options to be considered, and practice gratitude on the good side rather than focus on disappointments. 

8. Anticipate adaptation
We always adapt to the satisfaction of a decision, and it becomes less satisfying with time. This is called the "hedonic treadmill" which may lead to regret. We cannot prevent adaptation, but we can anticipate adaptation and develop realistic expectations.

9. Control expectations
Our evaluation of experience is substantially influenced by how it compares with our expectations. A way to increasing satisfaction with the results of decisions is to remove excessive high expectations about them. This can be done by reducing the options, be a satisficer and also allow for serendipity.

10. Curtail social comparison
We evaluate the quality of our experience by comparing ourselves to others. Though social comparison can provide useful information, it often reduces our satisfaction. So by comparing with other less, we will be satisfied more.

11. Learn to love constraints
As the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice becomes a tyranny of choice. One way to deal with the problem is to view limits on the possibilities we face as liberating not constraining. Society has rules, standards and norms for making choices. Individual experience creates habits. By deciding to follow a rule (such as wearing seat belt), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule-following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Well done Greece today, but you are Sisyphus

I read the commentary by a financial analyst on the Greek national debt crisis. His view was pessimistic, although Europe just heralded a success of the Greek parliament in passing a resolution and the laws needed for austerity measures to be taken.

What the Greek parliament did today was just a promise to save more and spend less, thus fulfilling a request by the European Union for lending bailout funds so that the Greek government could avoid default of the national debts due next month. Should Greece default payment of the national debts, many creditors would suffer heavy losses. Many of these creditors are the central banks of European countries, holding from $100 billion to $300 billion Greek debts. The present bailout would enable the Greek national finance to carry on, thus relieving the pressure on the banking systems of many European countries. These countries were not congratulating Greece, they felt lucky that they would be safe for the time being.

The real meaning of the bailout is merely the continuation of treating insolvency as if it were only a liquidity crisis. The Greek government is like Sisyphus who is condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again just before reaching the top. She has only survived one crisis in order to face the next, and will continue to face this Sisyphean task, unless or until someone such as a strong neighbour takes the boulder away or it succumbs to exhaustion and defaults all the debts.

Notwithstanding the promised austerity measures, Greece has to find a way to grow its way out of debt for the solvency issue to be properly tackled. The only durable solutions are default, outside assistance or currency devaluation so that Greece can become internationally competitive and earn enough overseas revenue to service and then pay back its debts.

The present bailout action by the European countries is only following a course of managed default. They are using liquidity measures as a way of trying to delay a default for as long as possible, in the hope that the banking system will be better placed to deal with it later. However, such delay in the form of bailout funds would mean shifting more peripheral debts from the private sector into the hands of European central banks. The outside assistance is now taking the form of lending Greece money at a lower interest rate. It is better for the loans to bear no interest, or for the Euro countries to take the responsibility of paying back a proportion of Greece's debt. It is doubtful that their political leaders could sell such a plan to their voters.

The attempt Greece is now taking is to become internationally competitive by reducing nominal wages very aggressively. But the Greek population is unlikely to comply with this approach. Eventually someone has to consider a far faster way to achieve international competitiveness; that is by currency devaluation. A small part of this may come owing to Euro weakness. However, the scale of devaluation that Greece needs can only come from exiting the Euro.

The problem with exiting the Euro is that the Euro-denominated debts would become even larger in currency conversion, and this would consequently trigger a default. A default would in turn wipe out a large portion of the capital held by the Greek banking system, which would have to be recapitalised, and would also have severe impact to the financial systems of other European countries.

Sisyphus is carrying on for the time being. It now depends on how long he could sustain the repeated tasks. There is no myth today, and Greece is not as strong as Sisyphus after all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More on the $6000 payout exercise

The $6000 payout saga is a fountain of inspiration. It is a controversial subject both in politics and in management. In particular, it affects Executive Officers much because it is an interesting management case and it also involves many Executive Officers in their daily work. With the payout to 6 million settling down, we would wait and see whether the process would create chaos. It can be contained with good planning on operations management.

The next big one is the $6000 payout to non-permanent residents through the Community Care Fund. The innate fatality of the proposal has been well discussed, that the Community Care Fund should not be involved in the first place. But we could focus on the management side and try to figure out how it can be done.

Community Care Fund is a shell. On this particular occasion, it receives money from the government and decides how to pay it out. It is an umbrella to help government shelter the rain. Besides being a talk shop and taking the blame on the decision made, it should do nothing. The mode of operation of the fund is for government departments, mainly Education and Social Welfare, to apply for money to do their duty. When asking the Finance Committee for the fund injection, the government stated that additional staff in these two departments would be required. Home Affairs Bureau also requires additional staff to man the Community Care Fund Secretariat. As you can guess, it is staffed by Executive Officers. Rebecca is the brain. I also noted earlier that the Fund Secretariat would not receive applications from individuals.

Now the critical part. The initial estimate of the number of beneficiary is 230,000. This number will increase should the political parties be successful in raising the income limit. The present thinking is for applications to be made to the secretariat. This creates chaos and the first bottleneck. Just imagine 230,000 persons sending in application or queuing up outside Southorn Centre. I hope there will be announcement on a more detailed and workable plan. Perhaps the banks and Post Office will take this on as well.

Then comes the validation. As there is an income limit, applicants are required to submit proof. Some will claim they are already benefit recipients and some will just declare they earn very little. Each application will have to be processed and examined, and perhaps with data matching (note PDPO restriction) with other benefit systems. In fact, any non-permanent resident could just declare and claim the $6000. An odd statement is that the secretariat will audit 10% applications. This is a revelation of operation secret. A clever way to say it is that applications will be audited. But 10% would mean a lot of cases to be investigated.

Same as the big queue, there is also work on data prep, data matching, bank account validation, fund transfer and cheque printing. I think there is no way that the secretariat could undertake all these work and there is no choice but for the exercise to merge with the big queue some point in time. The Fund has set aside $30 million as administration fees and bank fees. That is $130 per application. What a costly exercise; and this has not taken into account the staff cost of civil servants and the social cost of 230,000 persons making application.

Who will do the initial check of the eligibility and then the random audit? Will there be another office to be created staffed by Executive Officers and NCSC staff, or a very much expanded Fund Secretariat?

「關愛」向23萬新移民派六千 (星島日報報道)
關愛基金執行委員會昨日敲定對新移民派錢資格,須按家庭入息中位數上限接受審查,已領政府多項援助的新移民自動合資格,包括綜援家庭、領 書簿車船津貼、住公屋等家庭等,均毋須再受審查。一人家庭入息中位數上限為六千五百元,二人家庭不可超出一萬四千六百元等。

低收入新移民須在明年三月三十一日前居港未滿七年、已年滿十八歲才合資格,十月三日起至明年六月底前,郵寄表格向關愛基金秘書處登記領 錢。現已接受政府援助的新移民,亦須填表及附上有關援助單據證明;沒有受助的新移民「N無」人士,只須填寫法定聲明家庭入息沒超出入息限 額,毋須交證明,只填姓名、地址、銀行戶口等資料已可。有委員指出,本港現有約三十六萬名居港未滿七年的新移民,估計一半人屬低收入,保 守估計有近二十三萬人合資格領六千元,其中八成人已領政府援助,早已通過家庭入息審查,只要填表交援助證明便可;餘下兩成人估計是「N 無」人士,亦只須填寫聲明毋須特別交入息證明,秘書處料抽查約一成個案了解有否濫用,委員形容「今次真是好寬鬆」。

政府向新移民派錢整筆支出料近十五億元,其中百分之二屬行政費及銀行手續費,即不多於三千萬元,首批新移民可在十一月初由銀行戶口或支票 收到六千元。

協助新移民的同根社主席楊媚指出,最低工資後薪酬上升,不少新移民月薪已過七千元,單身人士易超越入息上限不能領六千元,變相鼓勵新移民 暫不工作以符派錢資格,入息審查更如標籤新移民,「窮人就一定係呃政府,仲要係新移民。」她批評關愛基金堅持對新移民設關卡派錢,只浪費 公帑,更再次挑起分化新移民與香港人關係。

Monday, June 20, 2011

The birth of religion

The June 2011 issue of the National Geographic carried an article on The Birth of Religion. This article can be read on line. The substance of the article is actually on an archaeological finding at Gobekli Tepe, located at the southern part of Turkey.

To a layman, the site is just like many archaeological sites around the world, with stones crudely sculptured and placed in odd arrangement. But expert said that Gobekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture. The site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that it was built much earlier. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple and can be traced to the birth of religion.

The birth of religion is always an important question for the archaeologists, scientists, psychologists and philosophers. It is not an important question to the religious because as history being exposed, the less holy and less supernatural it becomes.

There has been a long standing theory that the triggering point of human civilization is the Neolithic Revolution, occurred about 10,000 years ago when human settled down in stable communities and started agriculture. The change enabled many groups to grow larger. More resources were available and a society hierarchy was established with clan elders and leaders governing the communities. Religion started at this moment when groups of human worshipped the unknown nature and the respected leaders. The discovery of Gobekli Tepe added more information and variations to the theory because it was much older. Around 11,600 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution was not in full swing. Human were mostly scattered in very small groups as scavengers and hunters. The discovery of such an archaeological site with religious intonation suggested that the fear of nature and the urge to worship appeared much earlier. In fact, it was such psychology that scattered human were attracted to a location of natural significance. The gathering of more individuals would create the problem of subsistence, order and security, thus give birth to the Neolithic Revolution of mass production of food, social structure, exchange and retention of knowledge and civilization. The old model of transition of human from hunter/gatherer - agriculture - religion - to farmer is now supplemented by another model of hunter/gatherer - religion - agriculture - farmer. These two models could co-exist for a long time and interact with each other.

Compared with the birth of religion, the three Abrahamic religions and other existing religions are much younger and developed much later. Religious scholars claimed that from the Bible, the creation of the world occurred only 8,000 years ago. Notwithstanding the scientific discovery of the age of the present universe being 13.7 billion years old, there is now evidence of religion tracing back as far as 11,600 years. Even Adam and Eve did not exist at that time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Positive non-intervention

Positive non-intervention is a contradictory term in itself. It can be found nowhere but in Hong Kong invented by John Cowperthwaite, followed up by Philip Haddon-Cave. It is often mistaken as an economic theory, or a public policy. But both these men are not economists, nor politicians. They were civil servants in a colonial government. The core value of such practice is the mentality of bureaucrats of doing nothing and be proud of it.

Non-intervention is an inaction, like standing in the sideline just watching. But watching is now disguised as a positive action, as if there is some supernatural power to be conveyed by eyesight. You may notice that there is an underlying line that government may intervene the economy in some circumstances. You may even call those the effect of negative non-intervention.

Whether the government should intervene or not intervene the economy is a long standing debate for several decades between the schools of John Keynes and Milton Friedman. Both theories are supported by sound arguments commensurate with certain economic conditions. When the market is prospering and full of opportunities, the market force itself will maintain a momentum of growth. Under that situation, the market is best left to itself and the market mechanism will complement itself on fair trade and growth. However, the market is not perfect and there are always noises arising from scarcity, incomplete information and externalities. When these noises disturb the market to a certain extent, the government can intervene and regain market balance by kick-starting it with infrastructure projects, or by regulating unfair practices. The world is not static and we have seen the economy going through boom and bust several times. As a result, we have also seen the theories of Keynes or Friedman becoming the favourite in successive governments. Such alternation will likely go on.

Promoting positive non-intervention is like riding the fence of Keynes and Friedman. It best suits civil servants. In the 60s and 70s when the economy of Hong Kong is growing, civil servants were happily just watching. Later on when some government actions were forced to be taken on the economy, it was still said that those were only exceptions to non-intervention. With the close of the colonial era, such matters were lifted to the political arena with more exposure to the political limelight. Non-intervention is gradually regarded as government inaction and is getting out of favour. In 2006, the Chief Executive mentioned in the Economic Summit that such policy was no longer applicable. There goes an era of economic illusion.

The minimum wage saga is a case in point. Wage level could be left entirely to the market should the supply and demand of labour and the reward system are healthy and fair. When the market is distorted, some regulations are required to put it on the right track by providing minimum protection. This is beneficial to a healthy labour market. Even the employers are aware of this and thus the law was passed with great support on both sides.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Filter bubble

The world is large. There are a lot of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. There is no way that one could know them all. We could only learn a little. What we learned were selected by others. There are always censorship and filtering of knowledge, perhaps with self-proclaimed good intentions. First we only learned from what told by parents, then only what told by the schools and peers, and then what told by the government. However, for a free person with a free mind, he can always breach the boundary by seeking other knowledge.

Now we have the Internet. Almost all knowledge are available at our fingertips. We would have thought that there is no more boundary of knowledge. But it is not the case. The sheer volume and diversity of knowledge prevent us from knowing them all. We need to be selective in knowing, but we should still have the freedom of choice.

Why is Google so successful? It started by introducing a good search engine of the Internet. The search engine is so powerful that it can give you enormous amount of information relevant to your search. The niche of Google is that it ranks the search results according to its popularity of being hyperlinked. This will give you results which are most circulated in the Internet, or in other words, most other people know.

A more recent development of Google and the customer services of many Internet companies is that services are customized. What they did with the search engine and other customer services is the filtering of the information so that only what you are interested are shown to you. To view it in another perspective, what you are not interested in, or what the companies do not want you to know, are filtered out. As more Internet services are designed based on this concept, one can hardly find information which are outside one's stated preference.

This phenomenon called the filter bubble is observed by Eli Pariser as presented in his TED talk. If you are interested, you may take a look at the video below where he outlined the danger.

Your world is shaped by the filter bubble. It is a catalyst of prejudice. What you sought out more are given to you to the extent that your world shrinks, like a star collapsing on its own gravity. In the past, this filter is man-made in order to frame your mind. If you can see through the conspiracy, you can break the bubble by seeking other points of view. The problem we are now facing is that such filtering is built in as an algorithm in a machine. There is no intention but just number crunching. The filter bubble is created according to your needs and wants. We all know the danger if a person only focuses on his own needs and wants. But the state of play is that the filter bubble is a comfort zone. It makes you indulged on your own belief, without ever knowing that it could be wrong.

To be a free man, we should be free to access all kinds of information. Pariser compared the filter bubble as an information diet to you. To have a balanced diet, one need to have vegetable, meat, as well as dessert. To have balanced information, we need to know things which are relevant and important, and also those which are uncomfortable, challenging and other points of view. One way to do it is to make effort to seek out such other information yourself. Pariser suggested that we should also ask the Internet companies to change the algorithm so that more diversities are automatically included in their services to the customers.