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.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

互聯網謠言

互聯網上消息傳送很快。網上訊息無限,而傳送又不受地域和時間限制,有用的資料隨手可得。但同時無用或虛假的資料亦充斥網上。上星期六(7/5)的新聞透視就報導這一個題目,可以看看警惕一下。網上重播可以點這個連結 http://mytv.tvb.com/news/newsmagazine/118279#page-1,通常影片會被保留六十天。

近期最被有心或無知惡搞的題目是日本地震和核子災難。各項傳聞和謠言被仔細研究和追尋來源,一一破解。大部份的來源是中國的博客網站和討論區。這些謠言被照單全收,極速轉載,其中一個原因是中國人對日本的介心,任何風吹草動都以陰謀論看待。但網上其他訊息,有很大比例是不正確或甚至蓄意誤導。除非是飯後笑談,如果你覺得內容有參考價值就要小心檢視證據和尋找另外來源證實。

節目調查了多個虛假訊息的例子,其中有兩個我很久以前已向朋友提出警告。第一個是有一小孩有白血病需要找尋適合骨髓移植,電郵呼籲盡快轉發給他人。原來這個虛假電郵和其改編版本已流傳了十一年,但現在仍不時有人轉發。有一位張博士Dr Cheung回信並貼上標準簽名檔,結果下一電郵變種引述了簽名,還說是張醫生呼籲。結果幾年來Dr Cheung不斷收到詢問電郵。這是人類同情心被利用的一個例子。

第二個是伊院一位醫生說多吃鹼性食物可防癌的電郵,被人不斷轉發。電郵的起源是有一健康食品公司提出另類癌症療法的鱔稿,醫生的名字再在電郵變種被加上以加強誤導。醫生後來澄清文章是虛假,人體酸鹼度和癌症並無關係,伊院亦發出通告澄清;但電郵仍不時被轉發,而澄清通告就很少人尋找。這個個案多是沉迷健康食品和另類療法的人士中招,其中一個心理是以為癌症一定是不治之症的恐懼。

這些事件指出互聯網陷阱處處,請小心使用,有用的傳聞資料要求證。最重要的是不要胡亂轉發不明來歷的電郵給所有人,除非是無關重要的笑話和美麗照片,還先要檢查確定沒有病毒。

Friday, May 6, 2011

人類吃什麼

人類數目在2011年達到七十億。我們吃什麼維生呢?其實人類是一定要吞食地球上其他生命維生,不論是動物植物都是有生命的生物。有些是自由的野生動植物,但有些是不自由被人囚禁的動植物;後者命運更悽慘,因為人類多是吃它們。我聽過有人說過,所有由人類囚禁的動植物都因受苦悲慘而有毒素致不適宜食用;所以最健康是吃野生動植物,它們自由快樂一生到死亡才被吃。其實人類幾萬年前都是如此覓食。現在不可能了,環保人士還叫我們不要吃野生。

究竟人類吞食其他生物到什麼程度?國家地理今個月找到一些統計數字,可能令你吃驚?

被人每年吃掉的飼養動物:
- 駱駝 一百七十萬隻
- 水牛 二千四百萬隻
- 黃牛 二億九千三百萬隻
- 山羊 三億九千八百萬隻
- 綿羊 五億一千八百萬隻
- 火雞 六億三千三百萬隻
- 兔 十一億隻
- 豬 十三億隻
- 鴨 二十六億隻
- 雞 五百二十億隻

這些只是冰山一角,只代表一部份畜牧業有系統處理銷售動物數目。未計算的還有其他飼養品種,捕捉的陸上動物和魚類,和所有被吞食的植物,總數比飼養動物多無數倍。

國家地理亦提出一個有趣的建議。人類數目雖然龐大,但地球上現有螞蟻一萬兆隻,即大約一人對一百萬多隻螞蟻。在很多地方,螞蟻是美食。如果大量處理,螞蟻和其他昆蟲是一個充足的蛋白質來源。

Monday, May 2, 2011

我們都是希律王

往德國旅遊,到每一個城鎮我都會找尋教堂攝影。德國的復活節比我想像中要平靜,只在復活星期日遇上彌撒,其他時間包括受難日教堂只是景點。德國復活節的主角是復活兔,和聖誕老人相似,都是非基督。耶穌受難,很多基督徒認為是猶太人所為,但其實當時耶穌的追隨者全都是猶太教徒,始作俑者只是scribes and pharisees,等於現時的AO/EO和神父。聖經對耶穌受難點出了三個壞人;第一個是猶大,但後世都認定他的使徒地位,他只是被神利用;第二個是彼拉多,但他跟從民意判耶穌死刑之後,就洗手表示自己與此無關;第三個是希律王,如果耶穌能過他這一關就不會有基督教。

以聖經的偏頗說法,希律王是為了一己私利,保護他的王位,而不承認耶穌。但如果我們設身處地思考一下,就會發覺希律王並非想像之中那麼簡單。他是猶太王國之首,對於猶太教義是權威演繹者,舊約預言的救世者來臨對他來說是大事,如果在他任內發生就流芳萬世。他亦清楚理解救世者預言是指全世界,並不是只取代猶太國。再者,希律王當時的處境是和香港一樣,是羅馬帝國殖民地。香港在1997之前是英國殖民地,而1997後主權屬中國。希律王當時只是傀儡,受羅馬操縱而受盡恥辱,如果救世者來臨,傳說他就會從羅馬人手中拯救猶太人。如果放了耶穌,或可以趕走羅馬人,就算不成功仍可歸罪耶穌。

希律王應該對耶穌充滿期望,但他為何不相信?我看過萬世巨星劇本對這一段的描述,他充滿期望,要求耶穌讓他看看神蹟,結果失望而回。希律王聽過很多有關耶穌的事跡和他施行神蹟的故事,但這些由他人轉述的訊息怎能就此置信,尤其是向他傳送資訊的人都是他的下屬,所以他需要向耶穌求證,但卻碰上冷冷的一幅牆。所以他不相信,交回彼拉多處置。我們的處境比希律王更複雜,信仰的選擇非常多,有亞伯拉罕三教、佛道儒三教、幾百個其他宗教,還有無神論和不可知論。更甚的是我們從少就被有權威的人士灌輸各種資訊,他們之間還不時互相引證夾口供而不是提出證據。我們的遭遇和希律王相似,充滿期望,收到很多無憑的訊息但無法可證明。我們都是希律王,他在二千多年前就已經作出了選擇。

請你看看希律王之歌這一片段,亦請看看歌詞。



Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet You face to face
You've been getting quite a name all around the place

Healing cripples, raising from the dead
And now I understand You're God
At least that's what You've said

So You are the Christ. You're the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that You're divine; Change my water into wine
That's all You need do and I'll know it's all true
C'mon King of the Jews

Jesus, You just won't believe the hit You've made around here
You are all we talk about the wonder of the year
Oh, what a pity, if it's all a lie
Still I'm sure that You can rock the cynics if You try

So if You are the Christ. You're the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that You're no fool; Walk across my swimming pool
If You do that for me, then I'll let You go free
C'mon, King of the Jews

I only ask things I'd ask any superstar
What is it that You have got that puts You where You are?
I am waiting, yes, I'm a captive fan
I'm dying to be shown that You are not just any man

So if You are the Christ; Yes, the great Jesus Christ
Feed my household with this bread. You can do it on Your head
Or has something gone wrong? Why do You take so long?
Come on, King of the Jews

Hey, aren't You scared of me, Christ?
Mr. Wonderful Christ
You're a joke, You're not the Lord
You are nothing but a fraud

Take Him away. He's got nothing to say
Get out, You King of the Jews
Get out of my life