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