Friday, April 5, 2013

Moved to Wordpress

Thank you for following this blog. To improve hosting, editing, and reading, I have moved the blog from blogspot to my own domain and now use Wordpress. The new url is http://playgroundhk.com/raympoonnotes. Please update your RSS link. Thank you.

Raymond

Friday, March 29, 2013

Do not track me

Amendments to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance will be effective on 1 April 2013.  Companies are required to notify their customers about using their personal data for direct marketing.   Citizens of Hong Kong received notification of this use from many companies in March.  They will be presumed to have given consent to such if objection is not raised in writing.   The Privacy Commissioner advised citizens to object, bringing out a wrong message that all such uses are evil.

We live in a society where everyone needs to depend on others on goods and services.  Thus information on goods and services are essential for us to make a considered choice.  All companies provide such information we call advertisement.  But there are so much of them and many are on goods and services we do not need.  So it is a better arrangement for the information to target customers in need of them instead of flooding the world with all of them.  To do so, companies may need to know who their customers are and what they want.  There is where personal data come into play.

The dichotomy of the work of the commercial world and personal privacy is hard to resolve.  A similar case is the tracking of web surfing data.  Companies track such data to improve the placement of advertisement but citizens do not want to be tracked.  In order to devise legislation on regulating such activities, the USA Federal Trade Commission brought privacy advocates and online advertising industry together to work out a compromise.  The discussion has been going on for over a year but there is no sign of any agreement.  IT World recently has an article on the situation which you may like to read in full.

Despite the wish to work out a compromise, any agreement reached would be less favourable for the companies than the present unregulated scenario.  The disagreement comes down to the basic definition of some common terms.  The article points out some essential points where there could be mistrust on both sides.

1. Redefining track

When we think of web tracking, we probably think of someone or something recording what we do as we browse a website.  When the online advertisement industry says track, they really mean "target advertisement based on your web surfing history."  So when a network says you can opt out of tracking, they actually mean "you can elect to not see targeted advertisement".  Information about you will still be collected and added to your profile.  Some data would be collected for the purpose of assessing the advertisement placed, but some may be collected for other reasons.

2. Redefining anonymity

Advertising companies claim that tracking data is collected anonymously.  Therefore the network cannot identify a person or match the web history to a real identity.  But that is not entirely true.  Anonymous tracking is not always anonymous.  A Stanford researcher who is a member of the do-not-track working group demonstrated on a few occasions that this is not so.  Another programmer who attempts to provide transparency into the world of web tracking acknowledged that "in certain cases, data may be combined with other sources to produce more detailed profiles."

3. Redefining choice

When adding the Do-not-track option in Internet browsers, companies claim that they are enabling a choice for consumer.  It is only half-hearted, presuming web users do not easily choose this option.  When Microsoft includes in Internet Explorer 10 for the Do-not-track option to be turned on by default, many web designers simply ignore that setting.  And when Mozilla announced that it was thinking about blocking third-party cookies in Firefox, the advertising industry reacted fiercely, claiming it would be counterproductive for consumers and business.

4. Redefining free

A key argument on why tracking is necessary comes down to the advertising money which keeps some web companies going.  Without tracking, advertisers argue, the "free" web will cease to exist.  Some even claim that Do-not-track will ultimately kill free speech by putting web sites out of business.  This is certainly not the business models many websites are pursuing.  A free (free-of-charge) web is different from a free-speech web.

I think all these doubling talking may just be an illusion.  If you have a good understanding of how Internet browsing works, you will know that data exchange between the user and the website is a basic technical requirement.  For the two parties to interact, information request will need to be sent to the website, and the website must need to know where the information should be forwarded to.  Data exchange is a stream of bits of 1 and 0 moving in high speed.  Both ends will need to capture the data, store it in cache, and then process them and display them in the proper format.  Information stay in the cache, working area and in temporary files for quite some time in order to speed up the processing speed should the information be required again.  That means all sort of data, including personal data, browsing history, and preferred information are all tracked and stored by default.  The Do-not-track option may simply mean that the users are not alerted of their data being used.  What the privacy advocates should concern is how the companies make use of the personal data.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beethoven's Late String Quartets - Sublime Madness?

I wonder if Daniel Chua wrote a book on all Beethoven's late string quartets, or is going to.  But he was invited to speak on such at CU's Book Club on 22 March, and the material could construe a book.  Daniel Chua is the Head of the School of Humanities, HKU, and is a music professor.  I would say a talk about music to a general audience would be likely on music appreciation and its philosophy.  But Daniel Chua's talk was heavily dotted with technical aspects of the art, and would require some music knowledge to understand.  This may not be applicable to the regular book talk attendants.  Luckily, among the audience, there were many Daniel Chua fans, including music scholars and his music students.  Also, Daniel Chua gave a lively talk with energy and humour.  The floor was generally enlightened and satisfied.   I think the CU Book Club website will have a video recording of the talk later on.  Those who are interested may re-visit the talk in full.  However, there are a few issues on the topic which allow me to wander further.

Beethoven concentrated on writing these string quartets during the last three years of his life.  The style and emotion expressed were different from his previous work.  All music critics pretended to be a worm in his belly and drew up various theories on the change, most were subjective and speculative.  Some said he was deaf then and the music were for the eyes on the score instead of the ears; some said he was disillusioned from his heroic period and went pessimistic; some said these were his death songs.  But none was true.  Though with hearing impairment, the sound effect of music was still in his mind.  Many musicians could hear music by reading the score. It was true that the heroic period in Europe as a whole diminished by then, but the late string quartets were not sad music.  They were experimental and many passages were full of spirit.  On the last part, Daniel Chua cleverly pointed out that Beethoven did not know he would die in three years.  Instead, he just recovered from illness and was happy about it.

Beethoven was well known for his creativity and innovation.  It would be a natural process for his music style to evolve.  On appreciation of music, there are some standard approaches.  One is to follow your natural instinct and reaction to melody and rhythm.  Anyone would feel romantic or sad on slow passages, and be excited on loud and fast tunes.  The other is to distinguish music instruments in an orchestra and appreciate tone colour.  A deeper appreciation is on form, to be able to understand how the music developed following some composing methods.  These are the perspectives of the audience.  However, the mind of the composers may be different.  While they still do all these normal things, at the same time they will try to break away from tradition.

After listening to Beethoven's glorious symphonies for a few decades, the audience suddenly found that Beethoven abandoned the orchestra and only composed string quartets, a simple form without other instruments.  Also, the familiar construction of sonata form was also changed.  Movements were arranged differently and expectation was broken.  Even the basic melodic and rhythmic progressions were changed.  There were mimics of conversation and recitative in the music which were theatrical.  Beethoven had gone mad.  This was the assessment in the 19th century.  Nowadays, we found that all composers were doing the same.  This was just not accepted as normal practice at that time.

A well-known work of the late string quartets I admire is the "Heiliger Dankgesang" or holy song of thanksgiving.  It is the third movement of string quartet in A minor, op. 132, composed after Beethoven recovered from a serious illness.  The main theme is peaceful, slow, steady, long and with perfect harmony; only white notes are used.  Critics at that time called it a thanksgiving song to god.  However, there is a middle section which is a dance, showing smooth bodily movement and is not suitable for use in worship.  Modern critics considered that this movement was a record of the state of mind of Beethoven recovering from his illness.  The slow and solemn section is a representation of him in convalescence in bed; and the dance section, marked "Neue Kraft fuhlend" with renewed strength, simply reflects his becoming energetic again.  The slow passage in this movement contains much deep thoughts, and could only be discovered more and more as being listened to time and again.

Another prominent and controversial work of the quartets is the Grande Fugue, the last movement of string quartet in B flat major, op. 130, or not.  It was originally written as the last movement of the quartet.  The audience did not like it, finding it too difficult and awkward.  Beethoven was furious, but he was persuaded by the publisher and friends to write a replacement movement, which was a dance with much simplicity.  The Grande Fugue was published separately as op. 133, a standalone piece.  Two centuries later, Stravinsky the modern composer still found the Grande Fugue fresh and revealing; and he considered Beethoven had written something well ahead of his time.  The fugue is a standard composing method in the form of a canon highlighting intertwining melodies developed from a theme.  It was popular a generation before Beethoven, but had then become archaic, to be composed as homework by music students.  Beethoven chose this simple form but did it in the most complex manner.  Instead of good harmony and well balanced counterpoint of a fugue, this piece is full of dissonance.  Each instrument seems to have a mind of its own.  The melodies seem to contradict rather than complement each other, creating great chaos.  I took it as a challenge and listened for a week.  It is a double fugue with two themes each with development of their own.  Out of the confusing counterpoint, there emerges a scenery of chaos and pain before settling down.  To put it in context with the quartet in B flat major, some critics noticed that the slow movement before it was the cavatina, a beautiful song with a very sad middle section, like someone weeping while singing with the lyrics broken.  Some critics called it the Gethsemane scene which was the night of the capture of Jesus.  Thus it followed that the next movement the Grande Fugue was about cruxification.  However, I find it too far-fetched.  To really put it in context, one has to consider the whole string quartet, where the first three movements are not religious as such.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cloud computing security

There are many horror stories concerning IT security, which I think are overrated.  All systems have security risks.  Even the most basic method of double locking valuable documents in an expensive safe is not absolutely safe.  Safes could be breached; locked offices could be broken in; documents could be lost in transit; officers could be careless.  When information is digitized and stored on computers, the security risks just change emphasis.  They are not more vulnerable nor safer.  But paperless documents present a different perception.  Some say you cannot steal when there is nothing to hold; but some say you do not even know it is stolen because there is nothing to hold.  The bottom line is, major corporations, financial institutions and government agencies now all store their valuable information on computers.  We could believe that reasonable and adequate protection are in place to avoid foreseeable security risks.

When valuable data are in the cloud, security considerations go one step further.  The fact that the data are stored outside the office in the cloud, and accessed through external connection does raise concern.  News of IT security breaching are often seen in the media, thus giving an impression that it is less safe.  The truth is that online business transactions, especially financial transactions, are now very common.  All banks are pushing very hard for online account management by users.  Online purchasing and bill settlement is a booming business.  Thus among the billions of transactions, the rate of security breaching is very low, much lower than road accidents and other crimes.

There are three main sources of IT security breaches.  The first is a deliberate attack by criminals or hackers, like breaking in.  The second is erroneous setting of IT procedures leading to data loss, like forgetting to lock the door.   The third is information leakage by workers, either through carelessness or malicious actions.  All these are still valid with cloud computing.

I would say that cloud computing could simplify much work for managers on hardware and software.  However, it presents additional security risks which the managers should focus their attention.  For outside attacks, managers could rely on the security of the cloud as the first line of defense.  The security of the servers is the responsibility of the cloud operators.  Managers could assume that state-of-the-art defense is deployed.  There have been talks that security measures by the cloud operators alone is not sufficient.  Additional security could be obtained by restricting access to the cloud through another cloud to prevent skillful intruders.  I think this level of defense is for the top secret data, and may not be feasible for every system.  Just rest assured the cloud could do its job properly.

Additional risks are in data transmission and reception.  Security measures such as virtual private network and data encryption could be implemented according to the sensitivity of information.  These may have to be specifically ordered.  At the user end, computers are vulnerable to be attacked by hackers, or by malicious software rampant in the Internet.  The standard protection is the IT security protection programs widely available in the market.  Make sure that they are completely and actively installed, with instantaneous automatic updating.  On user accounts, there is the issue of identity verification and local storage security.  The standard gateway is the user name plus a password.  Additional verification could be implemented through multi-factor authentication.  In the past, security cards and digital tokens are used to identify an officer.  These are now thought of as presenting only a false sense of security as they are easily lost or stolen.  Furthermore, they present additional headache for managers in their issuing, replacing and maintaining.  Recently, more popular methods are additional password with random digits and security secret questions and answers.  The OCGIO Government Public Cloud Service GPCS bulk purchasing contract includes all these additional security services.  They could be purchased as SaaS.

On the person level, managers are required to nurture the mindset and behaviour of officers on the vigilance of IT risks.  On the technical side, software is available for monitoring staff behaviour on the Internet such as browsing habits and files download restriction.  On the human side, it is more a human resource management subject than an IT management subject.  IT security awareness and conscience could be promoted through training, staff management and staff relations.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cloud computing - Software as a service SaaS

With the IT infrastructure in place in the cloud, managers need to make use of their functions for the delivery of IT services.  Besides computer hardware in the cloud, computer software could also be put and operated in the cloud.  Computer software are usually referred to in two levels.  One is the basic operating system and utility programs generally called the platform.  Upon the platform, computer applications are developed and implemented for the delivery of specific services.

The cloud could offer both as a service: PaaS Platform as a service and SaaS Software as a service.  PaaS could be viewed as a part of the IaaS, that is, the software part of the infrastructure.  As such, the platform is provided as a common service in the cloud.  Managers could take the platform in the cloud as granted and freely make use of its functions for the implementation of departmental applications.

Besides the technical platform for operating the hardware, OCGIO announced that she will make use of a common platform for supporting common e-government applications across departments.  They include a new user directory service for unified identity management, communications and collaboration that complements the government electronic messaging system.   Managers may be glad to hear that the tedious work of managing user log-in accounts, user identification, email accounts may all be replaced by a government-wide common system operating from the cloud.  Departments may need to follow strictly the procedures set by OCGIO in the common system.  This is a great step forward in the integration of communication in the government and a great relief for managers.

OCGIO also announced that she will develop shared services for a portfolio of applications, including software to support electronic information management, human resource management, electronic procurement and support for paper-less meetings.  Operating from the cloud, these software will be common to all departments, but with specific emphasis on individual data and circumstances.  Managers have been working on such systems for a long time.  OCGIO attempted in the past on developing such common applications for all departments, but failed.  Each department seems to have her own special requirement.  A common cloud application could be a way to force departments to adopt and change.  I would raise a word of warning.  Beware of the impact of the change when adjusting the age-old manual system to fit into the new cloud-based system.  The problem is not the technology but the requirement to change human working habits.  But EO are expert change agents.  We could bravely face the issue.

Then there are the most important departmental IT applications to be implemented in the cloud.  Each case is unique and the usual steps of system analysis and design are required.  Managers are the user side.  The technical part is contracted out.  In this connection, OCGIO has shortlisted a number of qualified service providers for the supply of SaaS common commercial software as a service.  Initially, these providers will provide cloud services under four categories: Productivity Applications, Business Applications, Cloud IT Services, and Social Media Applications.  Manager would have to negotiate with the providers, or refer departmental officers to them for the development of specific applications.

One remark on financial management; managers would be required to budget for the expenses of engaging contractors for the provision of cloud computing services.  From the scale of the applications on the list of selected services, the cost would likely need to be absorbed in Departmental Expenses.

 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Cloud computing - Infrastructure as a service IaaS

When things are in the cloud, the ground is clear.

An IT infrastructure is the backbone of IT applications and IT services.  Managers who are responsible for departmental IT matters would know all the issues associated with setting up and maintaining IT infrastructure in the department.  Work would start from the basic requirement of accommodating the infrastructure, that is, special accommodation requirements.  Usually, a secure room with uninterrupted power supply and temperature control is needed for the central servers and hubs.  Then a series of servers is required for various functions.  The servers are connected to individual terminals through a messy network of wire which could turn the office upside down.  This beast requires constant feeding and care-taking.  The manpower, attention and energy required for its up-keeping is enormous and continuous, not to mention the worry of interruption of service and its safety.

To get the infrastructure off the ground, managers first need to perform much work on procurement and installation.   IT hardware needs to be constantly maintained and upgraded.  The cycle of maintenance, system update, replacement and addition is never-ending.

What if someone else could do all these for the managers?  Cloud computing offers such an opportunity.  All those mentioned above could be put in the cloud.  Then all that the managers need to do is to dream about it.  IaaS Infrastructure as a service comes into play.

IaaS could be provided in private cloud, outsourced private cloud and public cloud.  Managers could expect the Government private cloud to be almighty.  OCGIO has tried her utmost to bring the capability of her data centres to a high level which should be capable of meeting all the needs of departmental applications.  A public cloud run by major IT service providers is even mightier.  They do that for a living.  For outsourced private cloud, the contractor would be happy to make the data centre for the department as versatile as possible.  When the infrastructure is in the cloud, all the associated daily chore of operation, backup, maintenance are taken care of as a package.  Managers only need to choose how to use the infrastructure.  They could safely assume all that is required are already in the cloud.  Procurement and installation of equipment for the cloud will be the task of the cloud keeper.  Managers could just pick what function they want from the cloud.  The rest is taken care of by the service charge, or by OCGIO data centres.

Besides saving a lot of effort for the departmental users, IaaS offers much benefits in cost saving through economy of scale and resource sharing.  With centralized procurement and system implementation, the infrastructure could be share-used by many different applications.  A strong and ready cloud support is scalable and could meet service change on demand.

Nevertheless, managers making use of IaaS should first know how to ask the right questions.  Up-to-date common knowledge of the IT infrastructure is still required, just like a government human resource manager who would need to know the Civil Service Regulations well.  Most importantly, managers need to know and understand what the cloud could do.  The technical details could be left to the technicians.

In a perfect scenario, which may not be feasible for all offices at present a least, we could foresee all back-office IT services to be carried out in the cloud.  The office could be linked to the cloud through one or a few leased broadband connections.  Users are then connected through wireless routers.  Officers are each assigned a notebook computer or tablet computers so that they could be mobile in the office when using IT services.  No network wiring is then required.  All that the managers need to do is to stock a few spare computers for replacement.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cloud computing in the government

Cloud computing is the order of the day.  The market is now flooded with cloud services.  All major IT service providers are competing to offer the best, fastest, most versatile and most secure cloud services. They are now in great demand.  There are much talks on the mystery of cloud computing.  Simply put, it is just a wider use of the TCP/IP protocol, or in more layman term, the Internet - the cloud.

The Internet has been here for more than twenty years.  In the past, it was not extensively used by serious businesses.  First, connection to the Internet was not reliable; and second, security over leased line was a major concern.  These problems have largely been overcome. Many large corporations, financial institutions and governments are now comfortable in using the cloud as a standard platform for IT services.

The HKSAR Government announced that she would adopt the Cloud Computing model to meet rising public demands and community expectations on e-government services and reap the benefits of emerging technologies.  Actually, the issue has been on the agenda for a long time when the OCGIO set up her own data centres years ago for the storage of data for departments and for acting as central servers for many departmental applications.  The time is now ripe and a full scale introduction of cloud computing is being promoted.

EO as government resource and system managers are required to manage IT projects both for the delivery of departmental services and support services within the department.  Cloud computing represents a new approach to such services.  Thus managers would be impacted first hand with this modern trend.  Lucky to say, the cloud computing model is a way forward and a much easier way from a management point of view.  The major difference between cloud computing and traditional computing is that the majority of equipment and applications are not located on site.

Government announced that she plans to re-provision the central IT facilities and build the Government Cloud environment comprising three service layers: an in-house private Cloud owned and operated by the Government, an outsourced private Cloud with facilities dedicated to the Government in secure data centres operated by contractors, and public Cloud for generic services.  They are used to host applications and data based on the level of sensitivity and confidentiality of the data and information involved.

Managers could look at the change from the organizational perspective.  They have been tasked with the management of IT services, which may entail IT personnel, IT equipment and applications as well as IT security.  OCGIO or the previous ITSD used to undertake the technical work in the past.  Many years ago, OCGIO withdrew from the frontline, leaving departments to handle the technical work themselves.  Instead, IT Management Units were set up in departments.  These units, staffed by OCGIO seconded staff, acted as consultants on IT projects. Actual work was carried out in the departments by contractors.  Departments were required to manage both the IT Management Units and the contractors.  The government consultants, rather than hired consultants who took requests from clients, could dictate projects from the technical rather than the management angle.

The Cloud computing model may change the scenario to our favour.  For private cloud, it could be the data centres operated by OCGIO.  Operation personnel together with the daily chore with the servers will then be the responsibility of the centres.  Some large departments may wish to set up their own private cloud in an out-sourced private data centre at off-site location.  This would be a dedicated technical task usually with strong operational content and run by technicians.  For the public cloud, an IT service provider offering general cloud services to the public may be engaged.  This will be for non-sensitive public information distribution.  In short, if handled well, cloud computing could mean lesser work but stronger control for departmental managers.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

MQ

You may have heard the fiction about a nurse reporting on the wishes of dying patients, that many people regretted that they spent too much time on work but too little on family and friends.  It is the underlying thought of work-life balance: Don't work too hard and play more.  This is not the true picture.  Many people did find joy and satisfaction in their work, and regretted not having worked sufficiently hard.  Many of them are in the creative fields such as music, arts, literature and science.  Managers are more likely not finding satisfaction in work, perhaps of the supportive role they play.  The main difference between these behaviour could be the meaning of work to them.  Mckinsey Quarterly recently reported on the Meaning Quotient of Work MQ which may shed some light.

Many researches have been conducted on why some employees could perform better than others.  This field of management started in the last two hundred years targeting on division of labour, specialization, group dynamics, motivation, and behavioural approaches.  The latest discovery is the meaning of work to the employees.  The more they could find meaning to their work, the better performance could be achieved.

In surveying the essential elements which are required for good performance, scientists found many of them which fell into three categories.  The first set of elements includes role clarity, understanding of objectives, access to knowledge and resources.  These are the rational elements and are conveniently know as Intellectual Quotient IQ.  When the IQ of an environment is low, the energy of the employees is misdirected and conflicting.

Another set of elements includes factors related to the quality of interactions among employees.  They are the baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humour, a feeling of comradeship and the ability to collaborate effectively.  These create an emotionally safe environment to pursue goals.  This is termed the Emotional Quotient EQ.  When the EQ of the environment is low, employee energy dissipates in the form of office politics, ego management and passive-aggressive avoidance of tough issues.

While IQ and EQ are essential for the creation of conditions for peak performance, they are far from sufficient.  The third set of elements is described as involving high stakes, excitement, challenge, something that the individual feels matter, will make a difference, and hasn't been done before.  This set of elements is termed the Meaning Quotient MQ of work.  When the MQ of an environment is low, employees put less energy into their work and see it as "just a job" that gives them nothing more than a salary.

Researchers understood the enormous loss of opportunity cost when meaning is missing in the workplace.  Executives being surveyed noticed a difference of five times between peak performance and average performance in a high IQ, high EQ and high MQ environment.  It is estimated that a modest increase of twenty percent in productivity could be achieved if MQ could be maintained.  Moreover, when asked about the bottlenecks to peak performance in their organizations, more than 90% of executives chose MQ-related issues.  IQ tool kit is readily observable and is well taught in business schools; EQ tool kit is relatively well understood owing to the popularization of the concept in the 90s.  But the MQ tool kit is different and is still lacking.

From recent researches, a number of specific and practical tools that leaders use are identified.  They are communication, quality feedback, job flexibility and empowerment.  McKinsey recommends a few practical and actionable techniques.  Among them, three examples are found to be useful and easily adoptable.

Strategy No. 1: Tell five stories at once.
Typically, organizational leaders tell two types of stories to inspire their teams.  The first is the Turnaround story of dramatical change in order to survive.  The second is the From Good to Great story to become the leader of the industry.  The problem with both stories is that they only centre on the company.  They may inspire some but not all employees.  There are four other sources which could give individuals a sense of meaning and a sense of ability to have an impact on the society, the customer, the working team and themselves.  Stories about making a better society and building a better community; making the life of customers easier by providing superior service; a caring environment and sense of beloging in a team and the opportunity for personal development and empowerment.

Surveys of thousands of employees show that the split of those inspired by the stories is roughly equal.  It appears that these five sources are a universal human phenomenon.  The implication for leaders seeking to create high-MQ environments is that a turnaround or a good-to-great story will strike a motivational chord with only 20 percent of the workforce. The same goes for a change the world vision or appeals to individuals on a personal level. The way to unleash MQ-related organizational energy is to tell all five stories at once.

Strategy No. 2: Let employees write their own lottery ticket.
A truth about human nature: When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome.  People are more committed when they could write their own lottery ticket.  Although it may not be possible to let all employees decide their own direction, it can be done by augmenting the story telling with asking about the story.  Some companies ask their employees on how to make a difference, what improvement idea they have, when did they last get coaching from the boss, and who is the enemy.  The motivational effect of this approach has been noted to increase the meaning of work.

Strategy No. 3: Use small, unexpected rewards to motivate.
When business objectives are linked to compensation, the motivation to drive for results is rarely enhanced meaningfully.  Most compensation plans emphasize financial metrics whose results depend on many variables which are beyond the control of individuals.  Leaders of organizations that could instill meaning use other powerful methods.  Some companies gave all employees a bottle of champagne for Christmas, with a card thanking them on the participation in a project.  A CEO sent the spouses of the team members handwritten thank-you letters.  Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures.  But as a leader put it: Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise.  They are free and worth a fortune.

Of the three Qs that would likely generate good performance, business leaders frequently said that MQ is the hardest to get right.  Given the enormous benefits for injecting meaning into people's work lives, taking the time to implement strategies of those mentioned above is among the most important investments a leader can make.


Monday, February 18, 2013

教宗辭職

教宗辭職真是大件事。全球新聞不斷播放,所有電視頻道都在評論,二十四小時不間斷。教宗為何要辭職,他在文告中已說清楚,是年老覺得力有不逮。但坊間傳聞不絕,說有苦衷,有陰謀,又有說因被起訴,要辭職來減低影響。亦有人自動出來辯護,說是明智選擇。

教宗是否可以辭職?任何工作都有完結的時刻,退休是自然現象。不能勝任工作就需要退位讓賢。世襲的國王亦有自動退位事件。總統元首都有任期,如果不勝任或有醜聞還會被迫下台。以現代管理來說,首長應要有能力領導,有能者當之是最佳選擇,民主選舉亦被認定是普世價值。但教宗選舉並不民主。教廷是封閉式組織,小圈子選舉,一點都不透明,所有選民都是由教宗任命,比香港特首的選委更差,和民主博愛概念相違背。但信眾都很包容,因為在宗教的傘下,信德打倒一切,有神指點的選舉當然可以超越普世價值。能者當之或勝任不勝任的原則不用費心。因此教宗從不辭職或退休。上一次發生於數百年前,起因是教廷分裂,教宗做不成。

教宗是否可以辭職?以宗教立場,教宗不是一份工,而是天主的代表,是宗教的象徵。第一位的教宗可以說是聖彼得,收了天堂的鎖匙。他可以辭職嗎?其實他正有此意。新約記載他三度否認認識耶穌,但結果都不能逃避責任。猶大亦是一個受害者,不少解釋說他是被選中為告密者,不可辭職。如果教宗不是一個職位,亦不是民選,而是由天主經樞機們的手來指派,那何來有辭職機制。歷來大家都認定教宗的任期在天主的手裡,多少教宗都是做到死,而死前不能工作的時段亦是已被安排的任期的一部份。所以現時B16辭職所引起的全世界震動可想而知。教宗辭職了對一些人來說是天主教辭職了,引發的信仰危機不容忽視。修補這個破壞的工作非常艱巨,可能無法完成。現時只能看看繼任的教宗是否有神奇的魅力可以扭轉乾坤。但最近的消息是教廷內的鬥爭白熱化,醜聞不絕,似乎需要幾代的教宗才能回復平靜。

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Plenitude

Plenitude
The New Economics of True Wealth
by Juliet B. Schor

plenitude

I came across this book by serendipity.  I found it in a second hand bookshop.  The owner must have found it unworthy of keeping.  I was just curious of the title; plenitude could mean a lot of different things.  The cost was only $20.  A hard cover book could at least be used as bookend.

The author Juliet Schor is an economist and an environmentalist.  Her emphasis is on environmental sustainability.  Being a Professor of Sociology at Boston College now, she taught economics at Harvard University a few years ago.

Plenitude was first raised by Aristotle in 300BC.  It asserted that everything that could happen would happen eventually.  In this book, it refers to something more.  Schor proposed that we should go back to basic, that we actually already have all that is needed.  Sustainability is simple as we only need to explore ourselves for resources.  As she is an economist, she brought this concept a step further and proposed that plenitude as an economy would mean we should reshape the entire economy by freeing individuals to strive for and support themselves.

The book is full of the idealistic principle of the environmentalists: everything from a thrifty lifestyle, rural living, self production of food, anti-consumerism, low carbon, recycling waste, etc.  Her vision is to extend all these to the entire economy, break down large corporations, work from home.  The basic tone is more leisure and less work.

The line of thought of the entire concept could be summarized in three steps.  The first one is the present economic problems.  Three facts are exploited.  Fact 1: The world economy is on a decline.  This is something all economists agree.  Raw materials are getting scarce and expensive, production is low, debts are high and the ecology is deteriorating.  Fact 2: Unemployment is on the rise.  As technology progresses, more unskilled jobs are lost.  Even skilled labour is in surplus as the world is going into a recession.  More people are unable to get a job, and many are unable to get a full time job.  Fact 3: Growth strategy is destroying the planet.  The present economic strategy to maintain prosperity is to grow continuously.  We are reaching the limit of the capacity for growth, and the exploitation of natural resources for growth is detrimental to the environment.

Riding on these universally accepted problems, Schor offers the plenitude solution as the second step.  All methods are the liberal responses to the economic problems.  First, shift out of the work-and-spend cycle.  In short, salary for work is not important.  No work no spending and focus on other values.  Second, diversify.  Earn income from different sources, including self-reliance DIY, small businesses and trading of services.  Third, small scale, de-centralized, ecologically oriented businesses.

The third step is a plenitude economy with alternative sources of wealth.  The four pillars of such economy are: 1. Time; people could work part time, sharing a job between many employees.  This could solve the unemployment problem.  People then devote the spare time on recreation, leisure and other life activities.  2. High-tech self-provisioning; people could reduce reliance on the market by meeting basic needs with high-technology in growing food, producing energy, building home themselves.  3. Consuming differently; sharing expensive items and making careful purchases of long-lasting goods.  4. Connection; building local economic interdependence by trading services, sharing assets, and relying on each other in good, as well as hard times.

Rightly or wrongly, the book paints a gloomy and pessimistic picture of the world.  The problems at present are real and the world economy is experiencing a downturn.  However, we could never be sure whether it is a cyclical phenomenon and the world economy would rebound in a few years.  Natural resources are always in short supply, much depend on the ability of human to explore.  The way we now use a definite amount of resources may not be sustainable.  But we could not rule out that alternative materials, new ways of production of energy and new ways to use resources could sustain the world population much longer.

Part time work is now more common.  But it is not a lifestyle people happily choose.  Many are forced into semi-employment owing to the declining economy.  Should full time job openings become available, people will compete to get the job instead of voluntarily sharing a job among others so that they can work part time, receive less pay and be very happy in enjoying life.  Some types of work may be suitable for low participation, or work from home.  But most jobs would require dedicated effort to be done well.  A general mindset change of less reliance on work, thus less commitment to work, would just reduce productivity and also quality of goods and services.

With less engagement in work, people could have more free time.  Whether the free time would be used in leisure activities or life activities would depend on whether the reward of part time work is sufficient for sustenance.  Schor proposed a formula that with less pay and more time, free time could be gainfully employed in activities of self-reliance such as growing your own food, building your own house and providing necessary services by oneself.  We did this before in the Stone Age.  Whether this is still practical in the modern world is doubtful.  A self-reliance community is possible in the rural area with ample land, raw materials and water.  It may be difficult in a modern city.  People with free time but insufficient sustenance would simply go get a second part time job.

DIY household chore is a healthy hobby for many.  Fashionable leisure activities include home gardening for vegetable, home made bread, solar panels, woodwork and even home decoration and construction.  However, if individuals have to do all these themselves, there may not be enough free time for such complete set of DIY to support all the needs of a family.  Industrial revolution introduced mass production thus saving cost, time, effort and expertise in the wide varieties of production.  It would be nice if we could do some of these in free time.  But to do all these by ourselves would be like going back several centuries when farming was the overwhelming human activities.

Notwithstanding that, this beautiful, or horror, story could become true one day.  It would not be a happy substitute of the present day economy, but could be a relegation of human civilization by several hundred years by brute force.  In the unhappy event that a catastrophe destroys much of the economy, be it a major natural disaster, another world war, or unstoppable epidemic, we may need to go back to basic.  This would mean abandoning large cities and returning to rural life, which would accommodate only a small world population.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

買居屋

香港人非常聰明,看到任何機會都不會放過。最近黃金機會是買居屋,包括房協的資助房屋。早前五千個免補地價白表二手居屋配額,有六萬份申請。近期房協推售置安心項目約一千個單位,亦收到近六萬份申請表,超額認購近六十倍。

居屋和置安心都是資助房屋,協助低收入家庭置業。地產價錢急速上升,一般中產家庭都覺得置業很困難。資助房屋比市價折讓三成,但價錢對低收入家庭來說仍然很高。不過看它們受歡迎的程度,卻和高昂的樓價不成正比。林本利博士近日有一篇文章指出這一個不合常理的現象。

房委居屋和房協置安心,說是房屋福利。但市民清楚知道它們是私有產業。幾十年前計劃推出時尚有買賣時限,但現時已可自由買賣。它們訂價時是市價的七成,即是買家可付出較少就可入市。賣出時是市價,內含需要補回的三成差價,最後是由買家支付,業主就可穩袋他投資那一部份的升幅。現時大家都看好樓市不會大跌。政府沒有好辦法亦沒有決心去刻意壓低樓價,樓市就算有調整到最後都會復原。居屋這類資產,就算不是短期炒賣,亦是中期必賺的投資。

雖然政府這一個以資助房屋作為私人樓宇供應的政策是否錯誤還要看房委將要做的政策檢討的結果,但起碼申請這一項福利還有入息和資產審查來把關。這給人的印象是買新居屋的得益者都是低收入人士。這雖然是一廂情願的想法,但居屋業權是歸於經資產審查而及格的人士。其他人如果借用其名義來投資而沒有業權似乎不太可行。但這個假設已被打破。去年十一月,終審法院在兩宗爭奪居屋業權的案件中,裁定家人之間夾錢買居屋的協議不受房屋條例限制,令一眾有份出錢但沒有在契約上記名的人士亦獲法律保障,擁有實質業權。這些案例表明日後市民申請購買資助房屋,只需要找一些符合資產和入息限制的成員出面申請,之後可再由其他人提供首期和供款,便可變相擁有單位的實質業權。這些安排可使不合資格的父母出資協助子女購買資助房屋;而中產的子女同樣可以出資協助父母購買資助房屋。一些在契約上沒有業權名分的人,可以擁有實質業權。這一個漏洞,使入息和資產上限變成一個笑話,資助房屋不能達到幫助低收入市民的目的,而變成炒賣樓房的工具。

林博士舉出的例子,是有錢買樓無錢開飯的現象。第一,資助房屋在現時水平並不便宜,符合入息和資產上限資格的人士如果買了,供樓的款項會是很大的負擔,對其生活質素有很大影響。第二,政府現推出很多福利措施如長者生活津貼、復建居屋等。市民會想辦法符合申請資格,以求獲取政府福利。將會有人符合申領綜援和長者生活津貼的資格,又可申請購買資助房屋,形成雙重福利。

這個現象開始浮現至受人注意。在近期資助房屋申請中,有人填寫無入息。既然無入息,如何可以付出首期、辦理按揭和每月供款呢?政府應對頭痛的方法是只醫頭痛,考慮入息資產下限;即是將受資助階層再分為可供樓和不可供樓等級。其實沒有能力買居屋的人士仍要買居屋的真正原因是居屋有價,引致超出資格的人士仍想入市。家人互相協助買居屋並無不妥,起碼在政府有限的資助下仍可加一把力讓低收入人士可以安居。但當居屋可變成私人樓宇,買居屋的動機就變成炒賣投資掛帥而非用作資產保值以儲蓄來改善生活水平。房委的政策檢討會考慮應否限制資助房屋只可轉售給綠表白表申請者。且看結果如何。


Friday, February 1, 2013

服務劵

政府要繼續推行教育券醫療券。 陳文鴻對此有點意見。可惜他只是延續棒打梁振英,對這個課題仍是搔不著癢處。且看他怎樣說:

"教育券醫療券背後    陳文鴻
梁振英政府依循以往政府的做法,推出教育券、醫療券。這屬行政方便,可惜卻沒有考慮這些券背後的制度與政策意義。公共服務可以有兩種發展:一是公營化,由政府以不同的公營形式經營,另一是私有化,讓牟利的私營機構替代政府提供。前者的詬病是效率不如私營企業,後者的問題是私營機構有一個盈利取向。以政府公帑支付的代用券,無論是教育券或醫療券,可說是局部私有化;公帑支付的代用券購買的是私營機構提供的公共服務,其中必然包含利潤部分。政府把教育券和醫療券的公帑支出改為投入公營部門,實際的效益可能更大。"

教育劵 Education Voucher 的討論已久。參考各國做法的利弊,政府仍是把不定主意。結果試在幼稚園教育推行,但效果不佳。持續進修基金亦是專上教育的教育劵一種形式,但管理困難,不斷有濫用和作弊情形出現。這個課題相當困難;我曾數次嘗試在招聘面試中提出,但很多人連基本理解都未有。政府最近又推行長者醫療劵,目的只是資助長者看私家醫生。教育劵,或學劵,和其他服務劵的基本概念,和陳文鴻所說不大相同。

什麼叫做公共服務私有化?私有就不再是公共服務。我們可以更清楚的說,有一些市民需要的服務,政府要製定政策,由政府一手包辦,由公帑全數支付或只收回少量成本,是為公共服務。服務亦可以由私營自由市場提供,服務成本和服務水平由市場主導。一些基建和保安是前者,由政府壟斷。市民願意不願意都要納稅以支付成本。一些民生必需品如食物,房屋等,通常自由市場可以提供足夠服務;市民可以選擇,經營者公平競爭。亦有一些在其中間,政府不想全權負責,但自由市場又未能有效負擔,就做成私人壟斷或寡頭壟斷。在此政府有監管角色,需確保服務在公平原則下提供。還有一些四不像,多是由政府做成,即是服務由政府、自由市場、壟斷者同時提供。原則上是市民可以各取所需,喜歡那一樣有自由去選擇。但實情是混亂的市場有競爭又有反競爭,政府還可推卸提供公共服務的責任。民生服務是否應該是公共服務是一個政治選擇。很明顯的例子是食水和電力;各國有些是公營有些是私營。香港食水是公營而電力是私營。交通亦是一樣,很多國家有公營公共交通。

香港有十二年免費教育。理論上中小學教育由政府全部負責,有官立和資助學校。但政府卻仍鼓吹私立學校,教導另一種課程,說是給市民一個選擇。市民當然想有最佳教育;政府已是間接承認教育局定下的課程比私立學校差。那為何不改進課程呢?早前政府考慮推學劵制,讓教育資助跟學生走,更是想將教育由公共服務轉向私營服務。學劵現時在幼稚園推行,只可以說是十五年免費教育前期工作,更只是在金錢上補助低收入家庭幼兒教育費。這應該只是權宜之計,作過渡之用。將來所有幼稚園由政府全數資助,不收學費,幼稚園學劵就可以取消。

另一個醫療劵安排亦有同一矛盾。醫療服務是必需品,是所有政府都要提供的服務。但自古以來醫療服務有價,私人執業市場很大。政府原來的如意算盤是提供公共醫療服務給一般市民,私人執業醫生提供更方便的服務給可以負擔的階層。但現時的趨勢是政府在擴展公共醫療服務方面放慢腳步,驅使更多人向私營市場求取服務。現時醫療劵反映的就是這一個現象。對長者提供的公共醫療服務不足,以致要用醫療劵讓他們流向私營市場。但醫療劵銀碼卻有限,以致長者的醫療開支被迫增加了。現時構思的醫療保險更進一步,直接將責任推給私營醫療市場。政府舉出的一個理由是公共醫療開支日益增加至政府不能負擔。其實醫療開支是由市民負擔,是已出之物,問題是付出稅收還是付給醫生。私營服務有利潤因素,市民 總支出會更多而資源使用效率會更低。醫療劵只是在金錢補貼上作短效的支援,對服務水平有害無益。

間接一點的,交通津貼和長者交通優惠亦是服務劵的一種形式。但對低收入人士提供交通津貼和交通服務無關,只是在金錢上對生活的補貼。長者交通優惠較好,因為所有長者都可享受,但亦和交通服務無關。營運公司只需將補貼或政府資助列為成本和開支一部份。還有人指出優惠使長者使用公共交通次數增加,對交通服務做成額外壓力。

服務劵是一個以金錢為核心的政策。其不公平之處是人為地扭曲了市場。以服務劵方式將提供公共服務的責任推向私營市場會突顯資本主義市場的缺點,受害者是市民。我認為服務劵的作用只能是過渡性,讓政府可以有時間改善和擴充公共服務,是過程或手段而非目的。

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

戲曲中心 Xiqu Centre

近日討論戲曲中心 Xiqu Centre 的聲音很多。正反意見都有。陳雲這一篇亦有讚同反對聲音。在云云議論之中,他的一篇算是最深入,起碼他的意見有點基礎,不像一些見有政府關係就一概反對。

不過以純文字角度來解構 xiqu,我覺得是跌入了文字的井內,看不到整遍天。先說大家都說的 Chinese opera。Opera 是一個獨特的體裁,起源於意大利。雖然亦有 German opera,English opera;但其實是同一體裁,不同語言。Opera 基本上是音樂劇,很多地方有其自己名稱,美國叫 Musical。現時西九藝術區針對的戲曲,是泛指中國戲曲,不單是廣東粵曲。以戲曲作為一個專有名詞是一個可行的選擇。以中國戲曲獨特的體裁,獨有的唱功,舞台設計,戲服化妝做手動作的象徵性,是很難在英語中找到一個貼切的意譯名詞。不如乾脆就叫做戲曲,對這門藝術有興趣的觀眾自然會找門路去理解。至於 xiqu 是否適合,就見人見智。在香港說粵語方言,我自我覺得可以叫 hey cook。不過如要惡搞,就什麼名字都可以搞一番。既然這個名詞會全在世界推廣,不如就用最通用的寫法,或用聯合國都使用的寫法。

語言約定俗成,大家常用又理解就變成文化一部份。針對中文名詞在英語的譯法,有很多是不能準確意譯,或是中文發音已廣為接受,中文拼音就直接成為英文名詞。這些名詞可以融入英語文化,成為英文寫作標準用詞。我在網上問一問有什麼英文字其起源是中文。新版英文字典列出很多,其中包括: qigong  coolie  kowtow  tycoon  typhoon  cheongsam  chowmein  ramen  dimsum  fengshui  kungfu  mahjong  sampan 等等。我們不用妄自菲薄,xiqu 這個名詞經香港推廣後可能以後無人不識,音樂界以之為重要派流,和 opera 一樣由外語變成英語一部份。

在中心 centre 一詞,亦可以作同樣思考。看西九文化局介紹,這個不是一個純表演場地。除了招納中國各地戲曲外,設施包括表演廳、實驗劇場、茶館、教育中心等。叫做館好像古典一些,高級一些;叫中心就有點現代感。我們又要思考現時搞戲曲是想懷舊還是想持續發展至適合今天的觀眾。我覺得館,或 house,較為中性,做什麼都可以。但中心 centre 就有了目的,環繞一個主題發展。

再解構一下名詞。Gallery 其實只是一條通道。古時有人在通道兩旁擺擋,吸引買家,要買好東西可以去看看。Gallery 現時就可解作畫廊或名店街。博物館 museum 更遙遠。Museum 其實是 house of the muse,是靈感女神住所或神廟,內裡藏有可以引發靈感的聖物。博物館是有很多好東西的地方。但有些專題博物館其實不博物;只有某人或某事不能稱為博物館,應只叫展覽館。

陳雲見識廣博,看他的東西刺激一下腦筋得益不少。不過他有一個敗筆,就是經常說自己是文學和文化權威,然後就攻擊政府和民政局白痴。不知是否以前有過未解的恩怨。

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戲曲中心、Xiqu Centre 與 Chinese Opera House  陳雲
聞說西九文化區管理局將規劃中的戲曲中心,英文定為Xiqu Centre,還說是從學術 上考慮到西洋的opera不能用來翻譯中國的戲曲云云,不禁令人失笑。此英文譯名一出,社會輿論嘩然,但西九當局依然故我。不學無術的機構一旦學術起來,就是這個模樣。我是中西比較文學專家,也曾供職於香港藝術發展局及民政事務局,出任研究總監一職,xiqu這個名也是在我任內採用的藝術界別名稱,在此向西九當局進一言,請他們不要一意孤行,貽笑天下。

首先,中文定名為「戲曲中心」,就是專業失準,也無文化修養可言。中心(centre) 是綜合文化建築或多功能建築之用,專門建築的文化場館(purpose-built cultural venue),應該叫house、gallery、museum之類。專門演出中國戲曲的場館,中文是「戲曲館」、「曲藝館」,不是戲曲中心。香港太空館、香港藝術館、香港科學館,都是叫館,不是叫中心的。藝術館叫中心的話,就變成巴黎的龐比度中心(Centre Georges Pombidou)、 紐約的林肯中心(Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts) 那類綜合大型場館,集展覽、收藏、研究、教育與表演於一身,也是跨界別藝術的。

其次,是英文譯名。在中國文化研究、中西比較文學的學術討論,要用xiqu的拼音詞,是避免套用opera的西洋觀念入宋元戲曲,然而通用英文,大家依然用Peking opera或Chinese opera。西九文化區的內頁宣傳也是用Cantonese opera之的英文名稱的,中國大陸則用Chinese Theatre之類。如果要依循採用xiqu拼音的原則,粵劇的英文請改用Yuet Kuk (粵曲)或Kwang Tung Tai Hei (廣東大戲),不要用Cantonese opera。至於xiqu用了漢語拼音的x和q,在大部分歐洲語言都是不熟悉的輔音字母,用英文發音,毫不便利。也許若干年之後,西九文化區落成,一個美國人見我是香港文化專家,便對我說:"I want to attend a xiqu show in West Kowloon . Can you give me some hint?" 我答,"Oh? You'd better go to New York . Broadway has it better." 西九文化區的Xiqu Centre,是戲曲中心, 還是西曲中心。戲曲的拼音是xìqu, 西曲的拼音是xīqu, 由於在英文上面標音是匪夷所思的,故此Xiqu Centre不好意思標音,而且西人也無法辨別普通話的第一聲和第四聲,故此聽起來都是xīqu,即是西曲。
Xiqu從學術譯名演變為香港的文化行政(cultural administration) 名稱,源自是藝術發展局內訂立戲曲界(xiqu group)之後的譯名,主要在對內文書使用。界別包括粵劇、京劇、崑劇、京崑、地方戲等,故此不宜用Chinese Opera來概括,便引用源自比較文學和漢學研究的音譯譯名xiqu。此譯名是避免套用歐洲的opera觀念入宋元雜劇。當年藝術發展局戲曲組採用xiqu group的譯名,無傷大雅,組內全是華人,英文譯名只是符合中英並重的行政需要,例如在中英文的年報使用。世上沒幾個研究中國戲曲的漢學家,西九文化區是面對全世界觀眾的,用漢學界才會明白的xiqu來翻譯,而中心主要用於舞台表演,而非用來召開宋元雜劇的學術會議,故此翻譯為Chinese Opera House已經可以。翻譯為Xiqu Centre, 是個文化行政的大笑話。

近代粵劇及革新京劇在舞台表演上,頗多採用西洋歌劇和音樂劇的技巧,故此在舞台表演用Chinese opera也是無妨,宋元雜劇當然不可翻譯為opera。戲曲踏入民國之後,已經現代化和西化,也在現代舞台表演,堅持翻譯為xiqu, 根本是拿着老黃曆做人,不知道業內情況。戰後香港的粵劇,大量採用西洋技巧:編劇、主題曲式、旋律、人物角色佈局,甚至電影編劇及鏡頭(粵劇電影而言)。將現代化了的戲曲表演,堅持翻譯為xiqu,是不知今日何日。
九七之後,香港的政府和公營部門行政,已經脫離常識。一句話:不懂裝懂。我在比較文學及文化行政兩方面,都算是本地權威。西九文化區管理局的人聽不聽, 他們要出學術笑話,是他們的事。反正一開始,他們就是無從問責的獨立王國。這也是我向 來不屑評論它的原因,這次涉及語言,是例外。
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mickey Mouse is following you

Your personal data privacy is constantly invaded by various parties; to many of those you voluntarily and happily give out personal data.  Who else is the most likely party than your favourite games and toys.  IT World recently disclosed that the Disney World is planning to improve the fun and her services this Spring by introducing RFID wristbands to visitors to the park.

This gadget is not new.  Many game parks are already providing RFID bracelets to children to monitor their whereabout in the park.  Lost kids are now history.  Many large safari parks also use such devices on vehicles in order to monitor the movement of tourists.  A safari park is practically the wilderness and safety of tourists is a major concern.  The Disney wristband attracted media attention because it is an upgrade of RFID usage and could do a lot more.

RFID is basically an electronic barcode from which simple information such as a serial number can be read.  It is convenient because of the proximity access; it can be read from a short distance.  More importantly, it can be read by scanners placed at strategic locations, thus obtaining location-based data.  The advertisement of Disney announced many benefits.
  • Use your wristband to open the door of your Disney World hotel room.
  • Use your wristband to directly go through the turnstile at the entrance of the park.
  • Use your wristband to buy a cinnamon bun at the park bakery.
  • Meet Mickey Mouse, and it will address you by your first name.
  • Hold up your wristband for the photographer, and he will take the classic family photo at the famous spot for you.
  • Use your wristband to play the interactive spy game.  It can help unlock the hidden secrets for you.
  • Just hold up your wristband at the thrill ride and a video of you on the ride is added to your PhotoPass account.

All these friendly features and improved services hinged on the fact that you gave out your personal information and credit card information to be recorded; and the many scanners located at service delivery spots around the park.  The reporter asked the obvious conspiracy theory question: What are you going to do with my personal data?  The standard answer is: Data are only used for park business; more convenient, fast and personal services, easy accounting, and safety in the park.

The worry of the privacy advocators is how long will these data be kept, and will they be disclosed to others.  Despite the assurance that data will be destroyed after a certain period, the fact is that data will be kept for accounting and audit purposes for as long as they are required. If the data are stored somewhere, then someone somehow may gain access to them.  Many large corporations have stated the intention that the data en masse may be used for statistical and research purposes.  However, the assurance of the security of personal identity is still weak.  We may have to live with the fact that our personal data are always in the cloud.

Personal data privacy with the RFID technology has been studied for quite some time.  Notwithstanding its convenience and power in logistics, marketing, and commerce, its weakness comes from its strength.  It is as convenient as air that anyone with a scanner can read the RFID information from a distance.  The initial success of RFID was from warehouse control where the movement of pallets and inventories were accurately tracked.  Academics warned that RFID is not secure and should not be used on sensitive information and personal identification.  There is a related article in IT World on this topic which is very interesting.  However, hopefully after weighing all the pros and cons, the government moved away from the personal privacy concern and pushed RFID technology into diverse areas.

The basic form of RFID only records a number.  This number can be related as an index to a database for further information.  The hardening of the database and its security measures could provide strong security to information.   Plain scanning of this number may not have deep meaning.  New RFID chip could do a lot more.  The memory capacity could be a few kilobytes large.  It could then store identity card number, social security number, full name, credit card information and much more.  We are all quite familiar with the Octopus Card where storage of door access code or membership number is now very common.

printoutSomeone swiped the Octopus Card to buy something.  Just see what happened.  This was a printout for the customer.  The shop should know much more.  From the printout, this Octopus Card holder, whose identity and credit card information were known to the merchant, was at Apleichau shop AL03 on 13 January 2013 at about 1 pm.  He bought two packets of biscuits at a discount.  He is probably a teenager who likes sweet snacks, and is probably a couch potato who likes to watch TV while nibbling on the snacks.  Without his knowing, the shop based on his personal data rearranged the shop front, putting sweet snacks and soft drinks at prominent location; more stocks and more varieties of snacks were ordered.  Next time he visits, he will probably buy a lot more.  If the shop did this for me, I will be very happy.

Proximity is relative.  We have a false sense of security that keeping the card safely in the wallet is good enough.  But being a proximity card, RFID can be read from a distance; and the distance depends on the scanner device.  We again have a false sense of security that the card must be swiped against the reader for it to function.  But it is not quite true.  If you have watched the MTR advertisement, you should know that you do not have to hit the turnstile with the Octopus Card; just pass the card a few millimetres above.  With a powerful scanner, few millimetres could become centimetres or even metres.  There was an experiment that a powerful scanner carried along a busy street could capture many credit card information of people passing by.  But don't panic.  The thief who carried this scanner all day could die of cancer first because of its strong radiation.

tagOn the good side, we could make use of the convenience of RFID technology to improve our quality of life.  Embrace Mickey Mouse while you still can, and on a more friendly term because you now know each other by first name.  The reporter said, RFID is good, but not in my arm.  What if the RFID tag injected in your arm recording your every move is also your cell phone, digital camera and MP3 player.  Would that be cool and worth a bit of your personal data?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

算命失準

下面的花邊新聞,不知你是否看到其中玄機。算命算不算是宗教呢,還只是一個騙局?有人指出學名可叫 narrative fallacy;廣東話更傳神,真接叫吹水,或大隻講。不過亦有擁護者言之鑿鑿,說有根有據,歷史悠久,還有統計數據基礎。面對一半應驗一半失準,有人說是和大師功力有關。不過我覺得是否有人信卻是和大師口才有關。至於有一半靈驗的現象,可以聽講波佬預測:呢個12碼,一係入一係唔入。同兩個人講相反結果,靈驗機會是百份之五十,易過中六合彩。有新聞報導很多騙局的基礎都是如此。

算命比一般騙局更客易令人相信是因為其宗教元素。很多大師都可以舉出其履歷,很多和宗教掛鉤,在香港流行的多數是道教佛教,還有各種民間宗教分支如矛山,黃大仙,或任何一位土地公公;再加上表面功夫技巧如八卦、命盤、擺陣、起壇、請神等等。最重要的是求助者多有心結,主觀要求解救辦法,還將私隱資料奉上;大師的勝算就大大提高了。

最理想的情況就正如宗教的正面效應一樣,聽了大師一言,有了安慰,心結解開,心理健康了。但世事不是這麼理想;有宗教就有迷信。看看這位縱火客,他原來是大師忠實擁護者,對他言聽計從,幸運地 (或不幸地) 命運被算中了,從此跌入迷信深淵。到了發現被騙時,受到的傷害極大而反應亦極強烈。其實他才是受害者。大師口才甚佳,還要極力保持大局;竟然說縱火事件一早已算到。但其實糾紛已有數次,激動行為是意料之中。不如一早對受害人說明他有衰運,或是一早報警。大師的功力在此還差少少。

古語有言,風水佬呃你十年八年。古人的經驗已說明十年八年後真相會揭開,而風水佬騙人的事實就很清楚了。但宗教會更進一步,同你講下一世運程。宗教更有政治優勢,政府會保障宗教自由,所有迷信吹水騙局都受保護。不單止大師受保護,連法輪功都一樣。受害人發覺被大師騙了還可以回來討回公道,但發覺下一世被騙了就無能為力,因為人死了就什麼都沒有了。

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2013-01-10 07:33 新聞快訊
楊天命辦公室被縱火遭客指算命失準尋仇

堪輿學家楊天命被指算命失準,遭一名舊顧客索還送贈的三尊觀音像費用。多次上門向楊索錢不果後, 昨午在楊天命位於銅鑼灣辦公室門外淋天拿水縱火,幸及時被職員用水及滅火筒救熄,不致釀成巨災,警方事後拘捕涉嫌縱火男子。

楊天命於事後承認為其舊顧客,在多次被對方滋擾後,楊又聲稱自己龍年犯太歲,早前卜算出昨日會遇火劫,一周前已在辦公室配置九桶水及一支 滅火筒, 以防對方上門縱火。

事件緣於9年前,楊當時為經營建材的樂姓夫婦算命擺風水陣求子,後來樂喜獲一子,生意更蒸蒸日上,樂送贈一套三尊觀音像答謝;往後數年, 樂都有找 楊算流年運程。其後樂疑因生意失敗及與妻子離婚,更因犯事在當地入獄。 樂認為楊算命不準,去年7月返港後多次找楊,稱要索回以三萬元購買三尊觀音像的款項;其後更在其辦公室外派傳單,呼籲客人不要相信算命,驚動警員到場調 解。

 到昨午3時許,樂到楊天命的辦公室追討,被女職員阻擋下一怒離去;不久樂雙手各拿住一樽及一罐天拿水折返,將天拿水淋 於門外,然後取出打火機點火,女職員見狀即取起放在門旁的九桶水及滅火筒救火,瞬即將火救熄。樂縱火後逃去,警員到場翻看閉路電視片段相信他未逃 脫,封鎖大廈逐層搜查,在四樓一間食肆將他拘捕。
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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Megaflood

aIn 1861, starting from Christmas Eve, there were several continuous severe storms in California.  It rained for 43 days.  You could call it biblical scale.  The result was mega flooding in the Bay Area and Central Valley.  The heavy rain quickly transformed rivers running down from the Sierra Nevada mountains into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and mining settlements. The rivers and rains poured into the Central Valley, turning it into an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Thousands of people died and 200,000 cattle drowned.  Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown water filled with debris.  California’s legislature was unable to function.  It had to move to San Francisco until Sacramento dried out six months later.  By then, the state was bankrupt.

If such event occurs today, it would be catastrophic for USA.  Unlike 200 years ago, the Central Valley is now home to more than six million people, 1.4 million of them in Sacramento. The land produces about $20 billion in crops annually.  Portions of the land have dropped 30 feet in elevation because of extensive groundwater pumping, making those areas even more prone to flooding.  Scientists who recently modeled a smaller event that lasted only 23 days concluded that this smaller visitation would cause $400 billion in property damage and agricultural losses. Thousands of people could die unprepared.  Central Valley is a major food supply site.  Such loss could seriously affect the food supply of the entire world.

So scientists started to investigate the cause of such event and the likelihood that it would occur again.  The result is very alarming.  Scientific American reported this in an article in the January 2013 issue.  You may wish to read the online version for details.

Geologic evidence of sediment in that area and in coastal region along the west coast of North America shows that truly massive floods occurred in California about every 200 years.  Layers of deposit revealed that extensive flooding of a mega scale occurred in AD1100, 1400 and 1650, preceding the 1861 incident.  A pattern was established thus hinting that the mega flooding events were not incidental.  There must an underlying cause for their recurrence.  A theory was proposed that such floods were most likely caused by atmospheric rivers: narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of miles.  Much smaller forms of these rivers regularly hit California, as well as the western coasts of other continents.

riverAtmospheric rivers were discovered relatively recently by serendipity.  In 1998, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA conducted a research on storms and found some were the result of jets: streams of high altitude humid wind.  Also in 1998, MIT researchers doing computer simulation of global wind and vapour pattern found that water vapour from the tropic were transported to high latitudes from east to west in just several narrow bands.  At about the same time, satellites with the new Special Sensor Microwave Imager for the first time observed images of water vapour distribution globally.   It showed concentration of water vapour appearing as tentacles from the tropic to cooler region formed and dispersed on time scales from days to a couple of weeks.  The three findings collaborated on the theory.

In perfect conditions which on average could appear at intervals of several hundred years, an especially strong jet of water vapour, or atmospheric river, could reach coastal areas and be blocked by mountain ranges, thus causing heavy and continuous precipitation.  Just imagine the Mississippi River is vaporized.  The volume of water expanded several hundred times, now a mile deep, a hundred miles wide, and extended several thousand miles into the Pacific Ocean; it then empties itself over Sacramento.

Based on this mechanism, it is estimated that atmospheric rivers could form over large body of water in the tropic.  The west coast of all continents are under threat.  For the North America west coast, layers of sediment being evidence of serious flooding were found from North Mexico up to British Columbia.  England and Spain suffered from serious flooding recently, which were also the result of such phenomenon in the Atlantic Ocean on a smaller scale.  Western Australia also experienced the same attack.

The researchers duly raised a warning that the California government should get prepared, set up warning system and emergency response procedures for flooding of mega magnitude, same as those for hurricane and earthquake.  As a normal gesture in any research nowadays, they added the perspective of global warming.  Owing to the warming of the earth in the last one hundred years, the energy and moisture in the atmosphere have increased a lot compared with that 200 years ago.  Statistically, California is now due for another mega flooding.  This time it would be much more severe in magnitude.  The damage would also be much greater owing to the increase in human activities and production in the area.  If we are looking forward to the end of the world, this may be a rehearsal.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Towards Our Better Natures

Towards Our Better Natures
Wendell Funk

The environment, education, equality - attend to these three well and one will be an exemplary citizen.

Without a healthy environment, we, and the generations following, will not have a healthy economy.

Over population and over consumption, especially of carbon-based energy, are root causes of socioeconomic ills.

Earth climate is changing - for the worst - yet individually, collectively and intentionally little has been done to rectify our destructive ways.  Bad habits are difficult to end.  Are we virtuous enough to accept a carbon tax as a means of lowering our carbon consumption?

An educated citizenry is essential to the advancement of any society.  The earlier it begins, the greater its effectiveness.  A child mind is very plastic.  If began early, curiousity, knowledge and rationality will have their greatest positive impact.  Humanity, unfettered by ideologies embodying arrogance, excessive competitiveness, parochialism or selfishness will be our lasting legacy.

To attain this enhanced level of learning, are we willing to devote to education as much as our wealth as we do to the militaries or prisons?

Unless equality prevails, no culture can long endure, nor should it.

We all do not receive the same deck.  Our DNA and exposure to beneficial experiences (education, health, economic opportunity and goodness) are not equally apportioned.  Treating unequals, equally, magnifies the inequality.

Justice cannot exist in a climate of inequality. Confucius said it well, “Do not pervert justice, having one judgment for the poor and another for the rich.”

A nation, or world, in which great wealth and great poverty coexist in no measure exhibits equality.  Haven’t we each a moral obligation to at least mitigate this grievous wrong?  Can a culture or country claiming to be Christian ignore, “as you have done unto the least of these, my brethen, so have you done unto me.”

Wendell Funk
December 2012

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Equality

On Equality
Wendell Funk

Placing figures on social issues is an iffy and contentious proposal.  However, a dialogue of socioeconomic equality is long overdue.

Does one percent of our population control forty percent of the nation’s wealth?  Do annual earnings of $350K get one into the top one percent?  Are exact figures as important as what flows from their disparity?  Is it the ‘richness’ or the increasing ‘gap in richness’ that is of greater significance.

Runaway income at the ‘top’ while those at the ‘bottom’ gain little, if any, increase, rapidly widens the gap between the haves/ have nots.  Is this increasing rate of income disparity acceptable in a democracy?  Why should the non-affluent pay proportionally more taxes than the affluent?  Does anyone believe that tax dodges, tax loopholes, and tax shelters were created to serve the middle class?  Government should not be an institution that allows some to benefit and others to suffer - Gandhi.

The plight of those at the bottom (reduced access to nutritious food, inadequate health care, and low quality education and a greater exposure to violence) are large negative impacts to their mental and physical health and to opportunities for economic advancement.

If one percent of the population accounts for thirty five percent of health care spending, is this equality? Is rationing health care on the basis of who can pay, moral?

The wealthiest consider themselves in excellent to good health with longer life expectancy.  Those at the bottom have far lower expectations. Extra millions are not going to make the one percent live much longer but a small amount of extra income can make a huge difference to the health of a broad band of those low on the ladder!

The poor have the largest families and shortest lives but are denied family planning assistance.  Greater economic and social equality would improve health, education and social cohesion.  However this worthy goal is not likely to be attained without a great shift in western political culture.  Must we await another evolutionary leap forward?  Darwin II, perhaps?

Though the young can’t, on their own, develop the data displaying the damaging effects of inequality on their education, it is as grievous as that resulting from inadequate health care.  Growing income inequality has widened the disparity in resources that rich vs poor families can invest in their children.  Early schooling can greatly affect income distribution in later life.  The earlier the schooling begins, the more effective and rewarding it will be.
Does the absence of economic justice make charity necessary?  Can perpetrators of unbounded wealth honestly display regard for the impoverished and defenseless?

When deciding issues such as equality it is most productive if input to the brain is rational in nature rather than emotional - though emotions have an important function in sensitizing us to the vital needs of society.

We claim to believe in the rights of man, but isn’t it primarily the rights of property that are upheld?  We claim to stand for freedom, but isn’t it the freedom of the strong to dominate the weak?  To make them work harder, we pay the rich more, but pay the poor less, expecting the same result!

The magnitude of inequality damages social cohesion.  When the affluent pay directly for necessary services in their lives, they become less willing to spend tax money on everyone else.  This erodes public services and creates a hierarchy of quality - hardly typical of a ‘one’ society.

The issues of relative poverty are more subtle than those meeting basic needs.  It matters if one can answer “yes” to the questions: 1. Can I participate in society?; 2. Am I a member of the community?  Community being a focus on what is best for all rather than of what is in it for me.

Inequality serves the interests of some.  Equality serves the interests of all. Making societies poor, poorer is repulsive.  When we see gross inequality, vanity, greed and corruption it saps the will to contribute to society.

If our moral concepts coincide all too well with our personal advantage, we should be suspicious of them.  Do not pervert justice, having one judgment for the poor and another for the rich - Confucius.

Wendell Funk
27 September 2012