December 30, 2010

The 7 Habits and Confucianism

Recently I have been rereading The Seven Habits by Stephen Covey which I first read in junior high. When reading, I find that the Seven Habits are sometimes closely related to the wisdom taught by Confucianism. For example, Habit 6 is Synergize: "Synergize is the habit of creative cooperation. It is teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems." Covey teaches that it is most important to find the difference in people's paradigms and respect this difference. This makes me think of the teaching by Confucius: "The superior man is affable, but not adulatory; the mean man is adulatory, but not affable (or I would rather, The gentlemen are in harmony but does not need to agree on the same things; the villains agree but are not in harmony; Junzi he er bu tong, xiaoren tong er bu he)."

At the same time, Covey says that Synergy is the essence of nature. Everything is in such harmony in nature; everything is so synergized. Laozi, the founder of Daoism, says, "Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is (or, The Dao takes its law from Nature)."

December 19, 2010

Liberty and freedom

Marginal Revolution: Google ngram: the word "liberty"

Achart
For the pointer I thank Kevin Edwards. The link here allows you to see the full graph. In contrast, here is "freedom."
But if you plot both "liberty" and "freedom", you'll see that, added together, the use of these words still declines.
Source.

December 13, 2010

The Legal State

Today I read on NYT that
But two other cases — United States v. Lopez in 1995 and United States v. Morrison in 2000 — limited Congress’s regulatory authority to “activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.”
When will I be able to see a case in China titled PRC v. Wang?

December 3, 2010

Things happen.

My Gmail account is close to the storage limit. What am I going to do?

Been using it for five years.

December 2, 2010

No ads Wikipedia?

I don't understand. Why can't Wikipedia post some ads on its pages to make up for their operational costs? If they integrate Google text ads it won't be a distraction for the readers while it may even provide some relevant commercial information to them. Since editing Wikipedia is made by volunteers, the revenue generated from these text ads should be more than sufficient to maintain its operation, given that Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website on the World Wide Web. It's not like because you are a non-profit organization then you cannot post any ads on your website; it's not like advertising is an unethical conduct - and if it is, then Wikipedia needs to remove that strikingly colorful photo of Jimmy Wales from its billions of pages.

Posting ads is good to Wikipedia (so that it does not need to go this far to beg for donations), good to its readers (so that they don't need to face Jimmy Wales every time they use Wikipedia and may also get some relevant information in the text ads), and good to the economy as a whole (after all most commercial activities will indeed increase the revenue of the whole society). Then what's been hindering Wikipedia?

November 21, 2010

A few quotes from Milan Kundera, *The Unbearable Lightness of Being*

Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Faber and Faber, 1999.

If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. P.8

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers. P.171

And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good, and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions. P.219

The longing for paradise is man’s longing not to be man. P.293

November 19, 2010

Coffee Stains on your paper

You can't be completely sure how much (more) LaTeX can do (to your documents). My favorite package of the year. Pointed by Cheap Talk.

November 18, 2010

Doomsday

I have a good friend who is a Christian and usually talks about the doomsday as described in the Bible, when according to her everyone who have died will come back to life to face God's judgment (Those who really have read the Bible, please forgive me for any mistakes here).

I do tend to believe that there is an end to our time, just like there is a start (possibly out of nothing). That end may be explainable by a singularity in the development of human civilization. If our development can be measured by a monotonically increasing function with time being the independent variable and the level of develop the dependent, then if there is a vertical asymptotic limit line lying somewhere in the future (which can possibly be Year 2012), we will one day realize, in the final seconds of our time scale, that we have utilized all forms of resources in this universe and become "all-knowing", and since time is nothing but a form of energy, we will be able to take control of time as well. Time, as a dimension that constrains us in this positive direction (so that we cannot go back to the past) will lose its power and meaning, and literally we will have reached the end of time.

Alternatively, if human development follows some sort of exponential function, which is not asymptotic, if there is an upper bound to the level of development, then we will at some day "suddenly" reach a point that ends this universe we came to understand. Compared to the former scenario, this is less romantic, without the myriad of miracles that we will witness in the final seconds. How come there is this upper bound instead of any other is also difficult to reason out, rendering this conjecture not all that probable.

I picture in the doomsday, some individuals of human beings will transform into an existence close to God, and the remaining of our species may be wiped out from the Earth. A sad story. But it is nothing more than a million possibilities that our limited intelligence can come up with.

November 14, 2010

Da Vinci - The Gay Genius

The Hong Kong Science Museum has been recently exhibiting the Marvelous Inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci in its G/F Exhibition Hall. I yesterday paid a visit and recommend everyone nearby interested in science and art to have a look. They made physical models of many of Da Vinci's inventions that were far beyond the time that Da Vinci lived in, many of which have made major contributions toward modern mechanical engineering. Da Vinci's major paintings are also on display, including a digitally restored version of "Mona Lisa" hung side-by-side with the original painting for the visitors to compare.

I regard Da Vinci as one of the few "super geniuses" in world history, alongside Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla and Su Shi, and probably a few more. Not only were they the experts of experts in quite a handful of areas, but many of their inventions were truly beyond their era, and maybe even ours.

The Exhibition Hall
The Warship
The prototype helicopter
Perpetual motion
The bicycle

November 13, 2010

An alternative approach to the pressure to appreciate the Yuan

Okay now the whole advanced world seems to be unanimous in attacking the manipulation of the exchange rate of the Renminbi, how much longer can the Beijing government withstand this pressure? It seems that eventually China will have no choice but to free the trade of Yuan and see it appreciate. But does it have to be so?


Exactly two years ago China began to release it’s 4-trillion-yuan stimulus package; that is roughly 603.86 billion U.S. dollars, or more than a tenth of China’s GDP in 2008 ($4.33 Trillion US dollars at current prices). Yes, China is one of the most successful in overcoming the late financial crises, but that is achieved at a cost. Housing price skyrocketed, with house-price-to-income ratio as high as 164, and we are witnessing the 17th straight increase in property price; CPI has risen to a 25-month high in October; food alone rose 10% from a year earlier.


Besides giving up manipulation over its currency, China may be litmus-testing an alternative approach: lowering the real value of the Yuan by gradual but continued inflation. Four years ago when I first came to Hong Kong, consumer prices was still about twice those in Beijing; but last summer when I went back to Beijing, prices were already comparable to those in Hong Kong in many categories, if not most. While the CNY-USD exchange rate has been quite stable in the past two years (until recently), the true purchasing power seems to be depreciating throughout the years (this I based on personal experience but not official data). It is now quite reasonable to expect banknotes with 500- and 1,000-yuan denominations to be out in the market in the near future.


With such continued effort, the Beijing administration may well depreciate the value of the Yuan to a level consistent with or much closer to the pegged exchange rate before unleashing the Yuan exchange market, while earning a huge amount of seigniorage revenue from thin air.

Sources:

CNTV.cn. (2010, November 10). China Winds Down Stimulus Efforts. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from Beijing Review: http://bjreview.com.cn/special/2010-11/10/content_311065.htm


Global Property Guide. (n.d.). House Price to Income Ratio - China Compared to Continent. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from Global Property Guide: http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Asia/China/price-gdp-per-cap


Google. (n.d.). Gross Domestic Product. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from Google: http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:CHN&dl=en&hl=en&q=gdp+china


Pierson, D. (2010, November 10). China's inflation rate hits 25-month high. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/10/business/la-fi-china-inflation-20101111


RRT Staff Writer. (2010, November 10). China Property Price Growth Cools In October. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from RTT News: http://www.rttnews.com/Content/AsianEconomicNews.aspx?Id=1475327&SM=1


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October 3, 2010

Textbook Adverts

Have you ever thought about advertising on textbooks? Textbooks are widely circulated, and the readership is well targeted; then, why not? This website is doing exactly this. Now you can download a wide variety of textbooks (and travel guides and business titles) for free - even without registration. These textbooks are written for this website and only available here. I'm not sure how many professors will begin using such free texts for their teaching (and I do hope my professors will), but this could be an alternative future of the over-profiting textbook market we are facing now.

September 23, 2010

The use of "de" in a Chinese-English bilingual environment

It is not uncommon these days for people in the Chinese community to use Chinese and English interchangeably while speaking. In Chinese, adjectives are usually followed by a de, classified as an "auxiliary word" in Chinese grammar, and somewhat like a preposition but placed between an adjective and a noun. When adjectives in English are translated into Chinese, they are also usually followed by a de, to indicate their classification as adjectives and to make them easily integrable while translated in sentences, e.g. joyful, huanle de, and beautiful, meili de. However, as people colloquially often insert English terms into sentences otherwise Chinese; in the case of English adjectives, they are also often followed by a de, even though as an English adjective, it is an unnecessary complication; and theoretically, while the commonly accepted translation of English adjectives already contains the de, it is incorrect to attach a redundant one on top of that.

The reason why people often commit this redundancy and feel awkward if without it, is probably attributed to that when people speak, their logic and thinking pattern is in a Chinese environment. The English adjectives are treated like Chinese adjectives, ripped off their English-ness. Therefore the English word in a Chinese sentence is only easily identifiable by a Chinese audience as used as an adjective when it is accompanied by a de. With the use of English widely accepted in the Chinese community, more studies into the effect of language integration and its impact on both languages are expected to be carried out.

September 20, 2010

The Christian Sin

One concept that I cannot understand in the Christian teaching is that, if man are after all sinful, how come they can be created by God, who is perfect and almighty? According to my understanding of perfection, if something imperfect or even unpleasant can be derived from some other thing, this latter being must be flawed and definitely not perfect to produce such a faulty creation.

This is also where I like about Daoism. Dao respects the natural state of things. There is nothing as perfection in Daoism – anything proclaimed to be “perfection” must be flawed viewed from another angle, put another way, perfection by itself will always turn into inadequacy. Human beings are a byproduct and part of Nature; they inherently come to this world, without restraints as they are in accordance with Dao. They default but they are not considered sinful because of this as it is only an innate occurrence in Nature.

September 15, 2010

A Simple Model on Marriage

Finding your life partner is in some sense like doing a numerical approximation. After the first a hundred steps if you still cannot find a satisfactory approximation to the true value, you're probably better off stop and try with another algorithm. Despite that there might be a "perfect" match for you in these some seven billion people, but since one's life-span is finite, we can only meet finitely number of people from which we choose the most suitable spouse among them.

Assume you are a male (for the convenience of narration only; all the results can be similarly applied to a female reader. However, due to the radical difference between marriage markets for hetero- and homosexuals, this model may not well apply to the latter group.) in your twenties; you have met some 300 similarly-aged women whom you have contact with throughout these years. Let's further assume that 280 of them do not qualify your life-partner criteria, and ten of the twenty left are separated from you geographically or otherwise physically unreachable. Among these ten, five have already been married off or are currently engaged in a long-term relationship. Therefore there are only five candidates, from the initial 300, that meet your criteria and is geographically available.

Okay, now since most people have similar judgements over a "fit" couple, the five candidates tend also to find you somewhat suitable too. Therefore the chance of engaging with one of them should be sizable. Mostly likely the first one among the five that initiates / accepts a partnership with you will eventually make it to the end of this life's most extensive filtering process.

September 3, 2010

About Plagiarism

I every now and then find my fellow students plagiarize materials from a wide variety of sources and in many different forms. Whenever that happens, I would try my best effort to correct the student's behavior. The critical and dreadful thing is that many students are unbelievably ignorant about plagiarism, and do not know how to create their own work (which should have long been an integral part of their ability after more than a decade of education). This situation would improve significantly should every college student take their studies seriously and investigate themselves the right methods to do research.

July 10, 2010

Change of BU Mail SMTP Server

Last week I experienced a series of connection failures while using Gmail as a client to send emails via the BU Mail account and server. It seemed that the SMTP server I had been using, net16.hkbu.edu.hk, was not working any more. I googled the problem and found the new SMTP server

    • server address: smtps01.hkbu.edu.hk
    • port: 465
    • secure connection option: SSL

It has been working well so far. Please comment should you find problems using this server. The original file I found documenting this mail protocol setting is here.

Once upon a time in Beijing High School Four

I’d like to share a few stories that happened during my years in high school, this being the first one.

 

Suicide

The senior year was obviously the most busy and stressful of all. Three days after the final exam of the First Semester, the scored papers were returned to the students and the total score rankings released. Inevitably there are students complaining about poor performance once again and others cheering, mostly silently to themselves.

The school days always ended early after major exams; and since this was only less than a week before the winter vacation, students only had morning classes; by noon, even some students living on campus had gone home, leaving less than a handful of students in each classroom. A few friends who had not performed well gathered and decided to eat out and have a drink for lunch.

People in China count days after the Winter Solstice in nine-day intervals to endure the long bitter winter waiting for the coming of spring. And at this time, it was right in the beginning of the Fourth Nine Days, the coldest of all. As the old saying goes: In the Third and Fourth Nine Days, on the ice people walk their ways.

Saddened for the result of the exam, and at a lost about what to do merely a little more than three months before the College Entrance Examination, or Gaokao, the students easily got drunk. Having finished the meal, against the roaring wind that scratched the face, they stumbled their way back to the school through a narrow lane, with their necks covered by heavy cotton scarves and hands tucked tightly into the pocket.

The Academic Building was almost empty. Eventually they made it to their warm classroom on the Third Floor, and sat together and continued their chatting, with one tired from the day and went back to the dormitory and another student, Ming, leaving to stay alone for a while in the hallway for the fresh air.

It was only a while past midday, yet the winter sun seemed distant and chilling. Upon opening the window, the piercing wind soared onto Ming’s sorrowful face. He stood, staring out of the window at nothingness. The view was blurred. His mind was addled by alcohol and he could not concentrate to think, to think of what he will do with this messed up future, what to do with this grinding life.

Gradually he began losing his conscientiousness. He couldn’t catch his breath and climbed onto the sill seeking the cooling air; he felt that he was lifted, high and out of the open window, and then he lost it, hearing people shouting, “He’s falling!”…

Am I dead, he thought. He felt the pain in his back, and slowly opened his eyes; the sky was blue, and there was not a piece of cloud. He struggled to get up, only to see the small circle of people standing around, totally amazed. He silently stumped away.

Luckily Ming was saved by the grassland, and was actively discussed on campus for his somewhat amazing experience of falling from the Third Floor while landing almost intact; however, he was also openly and seriously criticized by the Head Teacher of the Grade in the Grade Assembly on the next day.

The Executioners

The country (Iran) executed 388 people last year – more than any other country apart from China, according to Amnesty International.

Source (Guardian).

July 8, 2010

Gmail: Rich-Text and Multiple Signatures

This is the one long-awaited Gmail feature of all time, and it’s eventually here! If there has been anything I don’t like about Gmail webmail is the primitive signature settings. But now it’s all different!

Besides rich text, Gmail now even supports multiple signatures corresponding to different email addresses you’ve set up Gmail to send email from.

July 6, 2010

Sometimes I wonder why there are still people using Internet Explorer

firefox_4_peacekeeper_benchmark

What’s the speed of your browser?

Image Source.

Firefox 4 beta 1

I tried the new beta of Firefox 4.0. Dramatic changes has been made to the appearance, most significantly, that the menu bar is eventually replace with a button.

Firefox 4 beta 1

I suggest these possible improvements:

  1. To save space, the Firefox button should be elevated to the same latitude as the tab bar, either place on the left or right;
  2. Where are the “minimize”, “maximize”, and “exit” buttons? Whatever buttons can be disposed of but definitely not any of these;
  3. The status bar at the bottom is not that useful and there should be an option to hide it.

New finding: The location bar of Firefox now also supports search, i.e. type your keywords there and you’re ready to go, just like in Chrome. I don’t know when Firefox added this feature (probably long ago just that I didn’t know) but it’s definitely important and useful.

July 5, 2010

Flavors.me

I came to know this website via the personal page of an employee of Google Tina. Flavors.me provides users a personal webpage that can be easily set up to present a brief bio of yourself in a rather designer style, alongside embedded personal blog, twitter, etc. I tried to make one my own. The background is a picture I took at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

flavors.me 2010-7-6

Students of China

Lin Yutang wrote, in Moment in Peking, after describing the March 18th Massacre of 1926, marking the death of Aman, a girl student:

Aman was but a little girl, unwittingly a victim of merciless murderers. But in the revolution which began only three months later, many a young patriot consciously laid down his life that there might be a reborn and regenerated China. (Last paragraph of Chapter XXXVI)

But sadly there wasn’t.

Not even more than sixty years later. Students still demonstrated merely to get killed on that very same spot.

June 18, 2010

The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People

Suggested and explained by Dan Ariely:

  1. Procrastination;
  2. The planning fallacy: underestimating the amount of time we’ll require to complete a task;
  3. Texting while driving;
  4. Checking email too much;
  5. Relativity in salary;
  6. Overoptimism; and

Where is the seventh? It seems Dan Ariely somehow forgot there should be a seventh habit… Anyway…

No. 4 can be avoided by installing Google Talk or any similarly functioning email notification client; and I don’t think there are that many people texting while driving, or do they?

May 20, 2010

Win the War on Terror

In response to William C. Martel’s article on Reader’s Digest.

As Martel points out, to win the war on terrorism once and for all (victory on the third level, in Martel’s language), we need to destroy the ideological reasons that backs terrorism, which is probably not possible in the foreseeable future. Therefore at the moment we can only temporarily achieve the first- and second-level victories. My question is: whether this strategy works?

There is a market in everything, and terrorism is no exception. If there is an active labor market for the recruitment of terrorists, and if the market for terrorism is competitive, meaning that there is little to prevent a new terrorist organization from establishing; then as soon as we capture a terrorist, another one is on the way, and whenever we eradicate a terrorist organization, a new one will immediately emerge.

Therefore, to win the war on the first and second levels, we can only count on the time lags before a new extremist can be found and a new terrorist organization can be founded. If indeed as Martel says, “terrorist organizations can easily find new terrorist recruits” and “new networks and organizations pop up as soon as others are destroyed”, assuming the labor supply for extremists does not change however many we detain and bring to justice (i.e., there are always new potential terrorists for these organizations, which should be a reasonable assumption), what we are doing will hardly work even in the relatively short run.

Thankfully since many obstacles should be preventing the recruitment of terrorists and the organization of terrorist activities, e.g. from governments and international peace groups, inefficiencies presumably exist in both markets for terrorists and terrorist organizations, enabling us to subdue the impact of terrorism temporarily, despite that the grand victory still takes the effort of many generations to achieve.

April 18, 2010

So people can only be rational when making binary choices

French scientists discovered that the human brain can only handle two tasks accurately at the same time, explaining why people tend not to be as rational when making choices over a list of items. Reported on BBC.

March 31, 2010

Shulaibao

Researchers at UC Berkeley discovered that rap music, commonly believed to have originated from African-American culture, was actually derived from a form of traditional Chinese performing art known as shulaibao. The full story is here.

March 30, 2010

The value of education

Mark Thoma: "Human Capital: Literal Truth, Fairy Tale or Myth?"

I thought it was a criticism of the theory of human capital but it turned out to be much more inspiring and far-reaching than that. The true life story of an economist.

March 24, 2010

Erdős number

Though the number of people with finite Erdős numbers will probably keep on increasing, and it is not the least possible that one day every experienced researcher on Earth will have a finite Erdős number, the mean value of Erdős numbers belonging to people alive will inevitably rise overtime.

Image source: xkcd.

March 23, 2010

Setting Google.com to be your default Google portal

The generic Google site, or the Google site for the U.S. (www.google.com) is always the pioneer in utilizing new technologies and improvements that Google develops and makes. Despite that there are customized and localized Google regional sites (e.g. www.google.com.hk) in most parts of the world, many English-speaking users would rather use the generic site. Nevertheless, Google automatically redirects traffic to your regional site based on your location. If you want to use the generic site, you’ll have to click “Go to google.com” every time, and it sometimes switches back and forth when you are using different Google services which is a little annoying.

To deal with this, you can use the “No Country Redirect” URL www.google.com/ncr or http://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en (until now I don’t know the difference between these two sites but I use the prior one). However, you have to bookmark this location or type the “ncr” every time; otherwise the browser will still turn to the regional site. The way to solve this is to

  1. delete all your cookies,
  2. restart the browser, and
  3. visit www.google.com/ncr so that your browser will remember your preference next time.

To delete all your cookies in Chrome, go to Options, under the Under the Hood tab, open Content Settings under Privacy. Under the Cookies tab, open "Show cookies and other site data…”. Finally, click “Remove all” in the pop-up window.

Note that if your homepage is set to be your regional Google site, or www.google.com, this will not work since when you restart your browser, the regional site is loaded and this site will be remembered instead. So make sure the first Google site you visit after clearing your cookies is the generic site by changing the homepage setting.

After this, whenever your type www.google.com in your location bar, the clean and simple Google.com will be shown. Tell me how it works and enjoy browsing!

References:

March 17, 2010

Foreign official balance

Dollar-denominated reserve assets held by foreign central banks.

I found no clear definition of this item in the balance of payment accounting on the Internet, so I came up with mine. Please reply if it is mistaken.

March 13, 2010

Congregation of the “Atheist Church”

More than 2,000 atheists from around the world are gathering in Melbourne, Australia, to celebrate their lack of religious belief.

But isn’t institutionalized atheism a kind of religion? I don’t think atheism is anti-religious. Only agnosticism may qualify. The news report on BBC is here.

March 7, 2010

Gender Imbalance

In China the male-female ratio has been rising at least since the 1980s, and the unmarried males, or “bare branches”, alone are not the whole problem:

In any country rootless young males spell trouble; in Asian societies, where marriage and children are the recognised routes into society, single men are almost like outlaws. Crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates are all rising and will rise further as the lopsided generations reach their maturity (see article).

So how can we resolve it?

In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.

The author inevitably mentioned the one-child policy of China and criticized it. In respect to this matter, I choose to withhold my opinion. It may not be a perfect solution, probably not even a good one – but any other alternative may be even worse for China, with a culture so headstrong to believe that “more children, more happiness”, especially in the rural areas. Here for the full article at The Economist.

The Dinosaur Extinction Theory Settled

A group of 41 researchers have pored over the evidence and decided that—in accordance with the original postulate put forth 30 years ago by a team led by father and son researchers Luis and Walter Alvarez—it was, indeed, a massive asteroid that slammed into Earth, creating Chicxulub Crater on Mexico's Gulf Coast, that killed off many of the species on the planet, including the non-avian dinosaurs.

Here for the full story and exactly what happened on and after that tragic day. Note that only the non-avian dinosaurs were killed – in fact we are still living with dinosaurs everywhere, despite that we usually only call them “birds”.

March 5, 2010

Three Levels of Time Management

I do not intend to establish any new time management theory. The three levels are as simple as the following:

  1. Wasting time. That is, doing things that are (almost) purely a waste of time, without any value added. Well, you probably wouldn’t call it time management at all. This is the lowest level.
  2. Fully utilizing time. Consuming every minute doing things that are meaningful and beneficial in some ways.
  3. Maximizing the utility of time. Doing everything that is the most important and meaningful at each hour, with rational marginal-cost-marginal-benefit analysis. This should be the ideal situation among the three.

Aware of it or not, many of our fellow students are sometimes still in the entry level of time management as listed here. For example, a student may set her alarm clock to ring every five minutes starting from 7am; however, she does not get up until 8am. The hour from 7 to 8 is close to a pure waste: she doesn’t either sleep well or do something more meaningful than lying uncomfortably in the bed damning herself. So how to resolve it? Simply set your alarm at eight, or get up and find something to do.

March 2, 2010

Did the discovery of cooking make us human?

'Bigger brains': "Did cooking our food make us human?"
[I]t is no coincidence that humans - the cleverest species on earth - are also the only species that cooks.

How many colors do you know?

Color Names: "

 
Author: chris
Posted on: 2010-03-02 14:49:24

I remember reading scientists found that how a person categorizes colors will affect his or her ability to perceive the differences between colors. Does this contribute to the fact that there are more males who are color amblyopic?

February 27, 2010

Will capitalism lead to socialism eventually?

I was asked this question in an interview a year ago. Today morning when I rethought about it, I came up with a more concrete answer now.

No, I don’t think capitalism will ever lead to socialism, as long as the form of human beings remain the same, and there is no extreme and catastrophic events such as technological singularity which by and large render this question meaningless.

For one thing, socialism is grounded on the belief that one day there will be sufficient resources for everyone to enjoy without working. First of all, by sufficient we mean that every human being can consume as much as they want, and that indicates, as the principle of diminishing marginal utility implies, the consumption of every good has reached a level where its marginal utility is zero (so that no one would want to consume anymore; imagine you probably won’t eat a tenth hamburger in a row even if you are paid to). That will probably come true one day for industrial goods like food and clothes. But that is generally not possible for goods whose stock is limited in the natural world and cannot be produced manually due to limitation by the law of nature, such as gold and diamond. Since people cannot all have enough of gold (and not even close to enough), people who have gold will treasure it and demand clearly defined property right, which is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism.

For another thing, besides goods, there are services that can only be provided by human beings to meet a certain standard. In these professions, simply the notion of service by machines, even as competent as humans in accomplishing the job, would render the service two-bit or sometimes worthless. Examples are education, R&D, massage, prostitution, etc. Since there is a demand for these services, there has to be property right to provide ways to pay for these services.

Update on 4/28/2010: I read this article by Jonah Goldberg about capitalism and socialism and find it interesting. “Socialism is a system based upon an assumption about human nature that simply isn’t true.”

February 26, 2010

LaTeX installation in library

Letter to the librarian

Dear Sir/Madam

I am writing to suggest that we have LaTeX, the de facto standard typesetting software used in many technical fields of study (e.g. Math, Physics, Economics etc.), installed on computers in the library. It is widely used in writing papers, reports, and sometimes assignments in technical courses/studies. Thank you.

Faithfully

Han Zhang

February 25, 2010

How to reduce sweatshop labor

BBC: China's Pearl River manufacturing hub 'lacks workers'

This is unprecedented. That means the manufacturers now has to improve the payment for laborers, upgrade their workplace conditions, and/or develop new technologies that require fewer labor to meet the production target. If this trend continues, the number of sweatshops in China will inevitably decrease, without any intervention of labor unions and human rights groups.

See this is where economics come into play. The way to improve the standard of living of laborers is not by boycotting clothes made in China – that normally only does the opposite, since the sweatshop jobs are probably already the best those undereducated laborers can get. The right way is to let the “invisible hand” to adjust the market, like in the case of Pearl River manufacturing industry now. Let the workers have their say.

However it should be noted that this shortage is largely driven by the stimulus package last year. We are still not sure how the trend will continue after the effect of the package dies down.

Philosophers and Economists

I have heard a saying that “Philosophers and economists are the two kinds of people with the most agile minds.” Today I read in Sophie’s World that “Plato believed the state should be governed by philosophers.” However, probably every economist would agree that countries should be governed by economists, or at least politicians well trained in economics.

February 24, 2010

My Old Blog

I found that I do occasionally write something in Chinese that I would like to share with others. Therefore I have restarted my old blog. The feed is here. By the way, please do not expect me to update it often – probably once every few months.

February 17, 2010

February 5, 2010

Summer Storage: Letter to the Student Housing Section

Dear Officer

I am writing to suggest that we eliminate the requirement for students to remove all their belongings from their rooms during summer, both for the convenience of the Student Housing Section and residents, under the following conditions:

1. The students are bound to return the next year;

2. There is no constraint in summer hall rooms and rooms for other functions during summer;

3. The students concerned are willing to stay in their original room in the following year.

The reason I am suggesting this is that, if you ask whichever mainland student who had the experience of packing and unpacking during room transitions and summer storage, they will unanimously complain about how much trouble such processes cause them every year – some would even claim this is the worst experience in their hall life every year.

I understand that the Student Housing Section has its own concerns, which I formulate are probably confined to the following:

1. There are extra income generated by summer hall and other renting services of hall rooms;

2. Emptying the rooms facilitate the room inspection process;

3. The rooms need to be checked every year for defects caused by residents such that proper deduction from the caution money fund could be carried out;

4. Personal belongings are not safe locked in the room for too long;

5. There are students who are willing to change their rooms every year for this or that reasons.

These are the reasons I can think of now. (Should there be any other, please inform me so we can think of solutions together.) Here are my solutions to the corresponding questions:

1. There are many extra rooms left empty during summers and relatively few summer residents. The rooms of former residents who will not live in the hall next year are more than sufficient to accommodate all summer residents;

2. Emptying the rooms is not necessary for room inspection. I have seen rooms effectively inspected before residents’ belongings being packed;

3. There are two solutions to this problem:

a. As explained in 2, it is feasible to carry out the room inspection and assess the damages without emptying the room;

b. A probably smarter solution is to carry out the room inspection only when the residents are leaving, i.e. at the end of their last year of residence, and assess the room damages and debit the caution money fund the amount accumulated for all years of residence;

4. In fact, every winter vacation, most mainland students just leave their belongings in the rooms as they are for a period sometimes as long as a month, and I haven’t heard any claim against lost items (but such claims do arise regarding summer storage). Also, it is easy for students to bring along with them or lock away valuable items during the summer if this is of much concern;

5. We can still arrange new rooms to students with such needs as before, but this work load should be significantly reduced.

And the benefits to the Student Housing Section as well as residents are:

· Saving the substantial amount of time and effort that Student Housing Section staff and returning residents have to make every year for summer storage, and avoiding the risk of injury that sometimes occur during the process of packing (considering the incredibly bulky luggage some students have, such incidents should not be difficult to imagine);

· The Student Housing Section’s work required to allocate rooms every year can be reduced;

· Congestion in the storage rooms can be alleviated;

· The occurrence of occasional lost items claims concerning summer storage can be significantly lessened;

· The extraordinary wear and tear of the elevators during luggage transportation periods could be minified;

· Once my luggage was tainted by water during the storage period and partially destroyed, probably because of swilling rains. If properly stored in the dorm room, such occasions should not occur since there is sufficient space for placing belongings away from the windows.

These are the benefits and solutions to potential problems I can think of now, and I welcome discussions as for other related issues. As a matter of fact, in mainland China, virtually all college students remain in the same room for as long as their undergraduate programs last, and this has not caused much problem in its own regard as far as I understand. This has effectively demonstrated the feasibility of my suggestion above.

Thank you for your attention.

Faithfully

Han Zhang

January 31, 2010

World is changing fast

BBC:

According to web analytics company StatCounter, Firefox is now a close second to Internet Explorer (IE) in Europe, with 40% of the market compared to Microsoft's 45% share.

In some markets, including Germany and Austria, Firefox has overtaken IE, the firm said.

Better Than Jay-Z

This Keynes vs. Hayek rap is gorgeous. Thank Prof. Mankiw for the pointer.

January 28, 2010

Why I want to be an economist?

I have been witnessing the rise of my country with industrialization and significant economic development year by year throughout my childhood, the rapidity of which would have been unimaginable for people living on the same land a hundred years, fifty years, or even just twenty years ago. Yes, lucky I am born in this golden age, and in one of world’s most gigantic metropolises and the capital of a nation with a five-thousand-year history and gradually catching the eyes of the world with its undeniable consequences over international matters, and even luckier I am that I have been thinking of the reasons for such fast development and the propeller for it to be sustained into the future of our nation, ever since my childhood.

Economics is too abstract an idea for a child to fully comprehend, and of course I was no genius in this. What I could tell of the reasons for our development was by no doubt what I could touch and see around me every day as a child. In those days stores in China had already become abundant of western brands and the television with westernized commercials. Compared with completely hand-made clothes, furniture, and soap made from extractions of animal tissues decades ago, people were now using Colgate and Rejoice in mornings and evenings, having Big Macs for a quick lunch, and some of the wealthier were already driving to work. Although I was not sure how those things were developed and realized, I did know that China could not have relied solely on its own and got all these within just a dozen years – We needed to borrow the technologies from the developed and industrialized world, not from begging, but from mutually beneficial trades and exchanges, enabled by the economy reform started during the years of Deng Xiaoping, as I later learned.

When everyone across China had benefited from market economy, average people began realizing the importance of it and the government knew they will have to keep the market expanding and developing while some defects in many market economies away from China, in order to maximizing the welfare of the people. But how? What the Chinese government knew best was the application of military forces, but not the development of economy, a fact made only clearer by the known impoverished China under a planned economy. We lacked the knowledge needed to develop economy well, which is the very foundation of development of our technology, education and academic research, national defense, international status, and the well-being of our good countrymen and future of our nation. We need dedicated economists alongside politicians to design economic policies that are suitable to our specific conditions. With economics being one of the youngest subjects in the fields of research in most Chinese academic institutions, the scarcity of economic specialists is most obvious.

More than five years ago, when I first became a senior high school student, our teacher asked us to write down our wishes and goals for our study. Never would I ever forget what I have written on a slip torn from my notebook in that summer afternoon: Live for the welfare of the whole human race, and contribute to the development and future of mankind until the last day of my life. I believe by studying economics, I will best dedicate my life to our nation and the world. To realize that dream – an eternal dream of humankind.

I read A Brief History of Time back in junior high

Back in junior high, I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and was inspired by his vivid description of this splendid universe we lived in. It opened up the world of philosophy to me. By then I began thinking, why we, as individuals, existed in this world? (Or did we exist at all, which was a epistemological topic I discussed frequently in my high school essays.) If I had never been born, would this world be different in the slightest? If not, why was I still breathing and talking and laughing? Since then, I made my mind that, whatever would I choose as a career, I had to make a difference to this world; I had to leave my trace after I would pass away one day, to make my life meaningful. This also contributed to my aim at becoming an economist, as I believe economics is the study that can make all on this planet better off, to save thousands of people from poverty and diseases, and to leave a heritage to future generations.

January 24, 2010

Obama’s New Regulation on Bankers

Friend Nelson emailed me asking for my opinion on Obama’s recent regulations to limit bankers’ speculation in financial markets.

Actually I don't think President Obama can actually achieve that. Over the past century, countless such regulations intending to limit the activities of the banking sectors were passed by the Senate but none were effective enough to achieve their initial goals (and many have been abandoned since). The problem is that bankers are notorious for innovative ways to combat such regulations - they work about the law and invent new kinds of derivatives or forms of products to bypass the limitations of law. With these reactions, the regulation on the financial industry can at best change bankers' behavior in the very short run - this is merely an inefficiency to the economy which cannot change the future of the banking industry.

Similarly, last week, I heard that the Obama administration is proposing to limit the size of financial agencies, in order to avoid the "too big to fail" problem. I bet it won't work either. You can control the size of each company, but you cannot control who owns these companies. Bankers can easily work around and split one company into several with intimate ties that link them to each other financially.

Basically I have not yet seen any such regulations that truly work, and if one does not work, it becomes mere inefficiency. Some propose the government should deregulate bankers and restrain from bail-outs to teach bankers to be independent in the long run and be responsible for their own behaviors. But this solution is also problematic. After all I still do not know a suitable solution to the asymmetric information concerns in the financial sector. Maybe this is a theme I can work on in the future.

January 23, 2010

Why China Won’t Take Over

Now that China has emerged from the chaos of the economic tsunami, with again close to double-digit growth, the first and only among major economies. Though China’s figures are doubtful in the eyes of the outside world, the Harvard-educated economist Guo Kai claims that, if anything, the true growth figure in China should be even higher. The theory of China dominating the world seems more and more indisputable. But is it true?

First we should understand what has been the compeller of China’s recent growth. The China of the past under planned economy concealed its potentials. With no incentive system and established property right, China was left with an entirely underemployed working force. There were the natural resources; there were the talented mathematicians; but the energy sources and mines were left unexploited and the scientist were either growing rice or grazing cows. No matter you worked or not, everyone was kept almost equally poor under the redistribution system. What development can you expect from such utilization of resources?

After Deng Xiaoping placed China on the road to market economy, everything changed drastically. The previously fettered forces of this potentially huge economy were eventually freed. People finally had a reason to work. Starting from then, people all over the world awed the breathtaking growth of a nation with a population constituting one fifth of that of the world.

It should have come with no surprise at all – after all it was merely that the power of this machine had been artificially hampered, and now it could finally run at full speed. The growth of China was nothing like that of Europe after the Industrial Revolution. The majority of the technology utilized during the growth of China were already there at least half a century ago, given that China’s growth were mainly driven by low-value-added manufacturing of products such as toys and textile, and with such a huge population, even under a comparatively good institution, it took China more than thirty years at least to warm up to function at maximum speed. To sum, the growth of China was not powered by innovation, it was just the sequela of the inefficiencies of the pre- Reform and Opening Up era.

So with the freed work force and the capital accumulated in the past few decades, China should be ready to conduct true innovation, which is the primary way any country can sustain long-term development. But that is not as easy as it may seem. We now know that real growth is motivated by improvement in cutting-edge technology, but this is also the very thing that is difficult to materialize in China.

For example, the cloud computing technology that is gradually becoming the center of attention in the scientific realm requires the collaboration of hundreds of thousands of personal computers across vast geographical areas. Google, among several multinationals centered about information technology, is currently investing heavily in this. However, with the Internet censorship in China, I do not see how cloud computing is ever going to work out in China. (Actually, with the withdrawal of Google China, the prospect of cloud computing in China seems remote at best.)

Another obvious constructive force to development is education and research. Good education is the indication of future growth, and research is the engine to every development at the cutting edge. However, according to personal experience in top high schools in China, and my former classmates in top universities, education in China is still mainly controlled by bureaucratic school officials and rigid military-type school regulations – far from the ideal ground to encourage innovation. In fact, even in the very top universities, students are mostly only allowed to access the “educational sites” on the Internet while on campus. That means not only BBC and Reuters are not available, even the Bureau of Economic Analysis is blocked. I wonder how economics majors there can conduct any meaningful research without all those important sources of data. Also, a significant percentage of those top students in high school, e.g. the former president of our Student Union back then, are now studying and living in the U.S. or other advanced countries. Without these students, who shall shoulder the responsibility to lead China twenty years from now?

We have seen Japan; we have seen Germany. They are excellent examples as successful economies, but they never had a chance to surpass the U.S., let alone taking over the world. Now I heard that free distribution of newspapers in Beijing subway stations are recently banned, while government officials claim that “reading newspapers while on board is not safe for passengers”. With these internal disturbances, I do not see where this country is going.

Here is an unverified story happened in ancient China I heard from a friend, quoted here just for fun: During the Warring States Era, a government official went back to his hometown after three years of duty in the capital. To his dismay, he found his wife pregnant when he arrived. He returned to the capital and sought justice from the King, who told him that it was probably because “his wife loved him so deeply that she got pregnant thousands of miles apart”.

January 21, 2010

Paving the Way for Future Elites

This is a letter I wrote to the president of my university, suggesting that students should be allowed to change their study schedule, and undergrads should be allowed to take graduate-level courses.

Dear Prof. Ng

I am a student from the Department of Economics. I am writing to suggest two improvements that could be made to our curriculum system. Since there is only one week left of the Course Add/Drop period, should there be any change made regarding these two suggestions, please kindly inform me so that further amendments to my time table could be carried out timely.

To allow students with legitimate reasons to tailor-make their own study schedule.

Since enrollment in college, I’ve been planning to pursue a career in the academia, for which I have since decided to join a PhD program after graduation. Since nowadays the study of economics is unbelievably mathematics-intensive, major economics graduate programs unanimously require students to take a wide range of math/statistics courses, including calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, real analysis, mathematical statistics etc. Also, since PhD students specialize quickly after enrollment in graduate school, it is also of undeniable importance for students to gain an accurate and deep understanding of what each of the subdisciplines of economics is about. With both these concerns taken into account, our three-year college program for an economics student should already be crowded with these math/stat/econ courses. However, since there are required courses such as those business and management courses, which are only remotely, if at all, related to the study of economics, in our university’s program, students interested in graduate school have to squeeze in as many relevant courses as possible to their schedule while barely meeting the requirement of admission to graduate school.

Here I am not saying that these “irrelevant” courses should be eliminated completely from the economics program – of course there are students who are intending to become business leaders and need the skill taught in these courses – but that since the career plan and thus the needs vary significantly among students, we should not have a strictly unified course arrangement for every student at all; even if there is one, we should allow as much flexibility as possible for students to make extensive adjustments as resources allow. Respecting the personal development of each and every student, helping every individual succeed in her own way – this should be the ultimate goal of the true “Whole Person Education”.

To allow undergraduate students to take postgraduate-level courses.

I once inquired the Academic Registry and the response was: An undergraduate student cannot take postgraduate courses because the level of academic requirement is different. What difference? In terms of the thirst for knowledge and the courage to achieve, there should be no difference between a student taking an undergraduate course and taking a graduate one. In terms of knowledge, I would say no one understands better how much a student knows about a subject than her own. Therefore instead of forbidding undergrads to challenge themselves to take graduate-level courses, the University should support students who are willing to learn and who has the ability to do so – as long as the student can demonstrate good academic standing.

As I said above, for a PhD Economics student, it is important to learn about the different subfields thoroughly before going to graduate school and choose a research area. Specifically, such understanding should best be gained from graduate-level courses instead of undergraduate courses. For one thing, due to the historical course of development of the study of economics, undergraduate-level economics courses differ considerably from graduate-level courses. A graduate field course works much better than an undergraduate course in helping a student learn what it really is like in graduate school. For another thing, how well a student has performed in graduate-level courses is probably the best indicator on which the admission committee can base their decision. Therefore I believe it would benefit students significantly if they are allowed to take graduate-level courses as long as they are in good academic standing, and this would not cause much of a resource-constraint to the University as well, since there should not be many undergraduates interested in taking graduate-level courses.

By catering to the needs of the constantly changing body of students, and the dynamic ideology of the society, we will realize the true “Whole Person Education”. This demands improvements every now and then, which is what our University has done in the past, and should not and will not cease to persist in in the future.

Sincerely

Han Zhang

January 16, 2010

Ad: Summer Research

I am looking for a research assistantship for this coming summer. It does not matter where the institution is located – it can be overseas. Below are my academic specifics.

Honors: President’s Honor Roll in all semesters

Related courses that I have finished or will have finished by summer:

  • ECON1110 Principles of Microeconomics
  • ECON1120 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ECON1130 Mathematical Economics I
  • ECON2110 Intermediate Microeconomics
  • ECON2120 Intermediate Macroeconomics
  • ECON2170 Applied Econometrics
  • ECON2130 Money & Banking
  • MATH1120 Linear Algebra
  • MATH1112 Mathematical Analysis II
  • MATH1550 Calculus & Linear Algebra
  • MATH2110 Differential Equations
  • MATH2130 Real Analysis
  • STAT1131 Statistical Methods and Theory I

I got excellent results in almost all courses. (Email me to request a transcript.)

Software packages:

  • MATLAB
  • LaTeX
  • EViews

I would be more than happy to acquire new skills whenever needed.

Why languages easier to learn for kids

As is generally accepted, it is easier for young people to pick up a language than adults. A reason could be that when people are younger, they do not possess an advanced level of thinking. Therefore the largely simple thinking patterns a child may have can be sufficiently expressed by the basic vocabulary and expressions they have learned in a language. In other words, the language and the mind are “synchronized”. However, things are much more difficult for adults who need professional terminology and sophisticated sentence structures to express accurately their delicate and sometimes philosophical thoughts. With repeated failure and frustration, adults soon give up learning a second language.

January 11, 2010

January 10, 2010

Yearly Book Review

Okay I should’ve written this by year end, where everybody was summarizing the year that would soon pass. However I’ve been busy back then, and just found the right mood to get down writing something at the end of my winter break.

In this past year of 2009 I read more books than any previous year – that is, counting only non-textbooks and excluding abbreviated versions. I used to defy novels in general and read non-fictions only, but I recently found that novels play their indispensible role in leisure reading.

Over all I read seventeen books, as follows:

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics
There are just too many reviews on this marvelous title to behavioral economics. It was from this book I first came to understand what behavioral economics really is, and grew my love for it. Recommended.

Barack Obama, Dreams form My Father
A brilliant memoir. Touching and unforgettable. After reading this, I truly understood why Obama is capable of the presidency of a great nation. Recommended.

Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture
Memoir from a moribund professor. This book talks about the meanings of life and the importance of realizing one’s dreams. It also teaches the way to face a pending death. Recommended.

Peter Taylor (ed.), A Day Saved and Other Modern Stories
An interesting little anthology of stories written by famous writers of the 20th century.

Cal Newport, How to Become a Straight-A Student
A fantastic guide to succeeding in college with many useful advices streamlined into a system, some of which I had already used before reading it.

-, How to Win at College
Another guide from the same author. It includes some seventy tips for college students. Better suited for a freshman, since many of those tips need to be worked on since enrollment in college. I’ve written another article about this book.

Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal
From the Nobel laureate. I remember the first several chapters are an economic history of U.S. with detailed interpretation. Later the author gives solutions to the economic problems as in 2005, including the universal health care. Recommended for people interested in the U.S. economy or medical economics.

David Colander, The Making of an Economist, Redux
If you are thinking about getting a PhD economics, and you have not read this book, you should read it. From it I learned what grad school in economics is really like.

David Packard, The HP Way
I found it on a bookshelf in my father’s study. It is written by the cofounder of the Hewlett-Packard company (HP), and tells the story of how they turned a workshop in a garage to become the biggest PC maker in the world.

Roger E. Backhouse, The Penguin History of Economics
The author is obviously knowledgeable on the subject, and I did learn a lot about how my field of study evolved since pre-Plato eras. I would admit that it is a little boring to read, with relatively plain language and structure. Probably there are more enjoyable titles on the topic.

Haolan Ma (ed.), American Literature
Claimed to be selected from high school literature textbooks used in the United States. Poorly edited, with spelling errors every now and then. Though the articles included are all truly gorgeous.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
This is my first encounter with poetry written in English. Actually I do not like reading (near) modern poetry that much. And for classical poetry, I only enjoy them when reciting out loud. Despite these, Whitman’s Leaves was amazing in how he embraced progressive ideology (some can even be considered progressive today).

Yutang Lin, My Country and My People
Dr. Lin’s book on China was almost defining when it was first published in 1935 in America, soon becoming a bestseller. Its description of China and the people of China are accurate and vivid. Though the majority of the books may be obvious to a college student from China, it probably still retains its charm to a Western mind.

Charles F. Haanel, The Master Key System
The grandfather of all modern self-help success books. Somewhat too abstruse, probably due to age. Since I’ve read quite a few similar books when in junior high school, not many ideas came fresh to me.

Anthony Bozza, Whatever You Say I Am
A biography of the rapper Eminem I bought in the Heathrow Airport of London way back in high school. I've started to read it ever since and have just finish last summer. Besides a biography, it also includes a history of hip-hop culture.

Best Nonfiction This Year

Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
Harford is inborn with an economist’s mind. The Under Cover Economist covers topics from behavioral economics, pricing strategies, monetary economics, asymmetric information, development, international trade, and more. He explains each topic with easy-to-understand and real-life examples that help an economics lay-person to understand and apply in everyday thinking. If you are a student of economics, this book will give you more interesting examples of what you learned in Principles; if you are not familiar with the study of economics, this book tells you what it is and how economics can help achieve what you desire.

Best Novel This Year

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader
My Aunt recommended it to me. When I first started to read it, I thought it was just a usual romantic novel. But soon I discovered that it was much more than that. It is a book of war and ethics, of sin and redemption.