Sunday, 30 December 2012

Wired Article: “Better Than Human” by Kevin Kelly

Great summary of the robotic transformation happening now by Kevin Kelly:

“Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields.”

“It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation.”

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Book: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

Score: 3.5/5

In the year 1420, the east seemed much more advanced than the west. China improved its massive Grand Canal to support its thriving internal trade, its systematic sewage collection kept streets cleaner than many European cities, and the grandiose Forbidden City seemed larger than life.

England paled in comparison – its buildings and bridges were of a smaller scale, warfare was a constant affair, and the city of London was unpleasant and a health hazard without proper sanitary solutions.  Its population in 1349 was only a tenth of the Nanjing’s in China.

The picture changed by 1900, however.  Tokyo was the only Asian city in the world’s ten largest cities, and London, with 6.5 million people, was the global metropolis.  By 1990, the average American was 73 times richer than the average Chinese, calculated in current dollars.

What caused this dramatic rise of the west?  Ferguson argues the answer lies in the western institutions (or as he calls, the “killer apps”).  In particular (quoted from introduction, my addition italicized):

  1. Competition – a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-state and capitalism
  2. Science – a way of studying, understanding, and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest
  3. Property rights – the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis of the most stable form of representative government
  4. Medicine – a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies
  5. The consumer society – a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable
  6. The work ethic – a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5 (above)

Ferguson states that many such institutions have been adopted by the rest of the world, including Japan and China, resulting in much improvement.  Ferguson concludes by asking a few potent questions. First, are such institutions a package for success?  Could a country adopt, such as China, a free market economy without a pluralistic political system and maintain its growth?  Secondly, is the west in decline?  Some western countries are losing their habit for hard work and spend frivolously.  Would this work?

The book contains stories from a vast horizon of time and geographic span.  However, at times Ferguson seemed to stray away from the topic being discussed (the chapter on medicine focused more on the spread of the French revolution, for example), and I wished he could discuss more on the significance of each institutions mentioned.  How do each app contributes to the rising of living standard?

Though the book at times feel like a collection of historic facts, Ferguson provided a great introduction on the topic of development of nations with much insight and some convincing arguments.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Daphne Koller: What we're learning from online education

A friend introduced Coursera to me, and for a while now I've been taking the course "A History of the World Since 1300" from Princeton University.  I like it very much and am very excited about it for the following reason:

  1. Technology.  Coursera is not bounded by constraints of the physical classroom and allows for a new kind of individual experience through technology.  Instead of one smarty pants answering all quiz questions from the professor, now each student can answer individually.  Lectures can be broken up into small sections and each individual can go at their own pace.
  2. Structure.  I find this unique to Coursera - they allow students not only to receive formal education from some of the best universities and professors, but accepts assignments and give students some degree of recognition in the form of certificates.  It required some very innovative approaches, for example, letting students grade each others' papers in the humanities, and letting computers auto grade programming and math assignments.
  3. Community.  This is my favourite point.  Coursera has students from all ages, geographies, and backgrounds.  Each class can be huge - my history class currently has 86,000 students enrolled.  Though not all students are active, it creates for a very unique interaction experience both on and off line.  Online forum discussions are thus jam packed with new perspectives, and with so many students keeping watch on the material, discrepancies are quickly found and improvements can be made.  I've learned very much through the exchange between my fellow students.
There will remain challenges in recognition of a students' work, especially in the context of work.  One might be - how can an employer be sure their employee was the one who took the course online?  Most people are honest, but for more mission critical work, this becomes a more important question.

I am very excited to see Coursera's quick developments - it makes quality educational content and interaction available and accessible, especially to the less privileged.  Here's a wonderful talk by one of the co founders of the initiative.  Enjoy:


Friday, 9 November 2012

Book: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Score: 4.5 / 5

This is one of the best books I’ve read thus far.

As a kid growing up in Taiwan loving Chinese history, I wondered how the ancient Chinese regimes could be so cruel to their criminals, often mutilating them as a punishment or torturing them for confession.  It wasn’t until I had come to Canada and at a random bookstore browse came across books on Medieval torture methods that I realized our European brethren are scarcely less inventive or conservative when it came to means of punishment.  What then, has been the trend of violence across geography and time?  This became my motivation to read the book.

Violence is important because it is pervasive and directly contributes to our wellbeing, as Pinker states:

No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence.  Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

Contrary to popular belief, our past is a rather violent and Pinker shows that we live in one of the most peaceful times in history.  For instance, from 14,000 BCE to 1770 CE, before the emergence of state societies, warfare death rates averaged about 15% of the population.  In contrast, the death rate in the 20th century (even including both world wars) is 0.7% of the population.

The book is divided roughly into two parts, the first shows that various forms of violence – inter- and intra- state warfare, judicial torture and execution, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. – have all been in decline.  My favourite part of the book is that these historical phenomena are narrated alongside the social or technological transition occurring at the time to show their probably role in reducing violence, chief among them:

  • The Leviathan – by setting the state as a disinterested third party with monopoly on legitimate use of force, individual exploitative gain from aggression is reduced, the need for revenge is reduced, and breaks the cycle of ever ensuing feud with each side feeling justified in their own cause, therefore reducing violence within the state.
  • Commerce – the arrival of advanced transportation technologies for goods and ideas makes trading with ever larger groups of geographically disparate partners possible and more profitable – customers and sellers are both more valuable to another alive than dead, increasing the cost of violence.
  • Feminization – perpetrators of violence have predominantly been male.  The ever increasing respect for and empowerment of women tend to dampens the glorification of violence in a given society.
  • Cosmopolitanism – literacy, mobility, mass media, and urbanism makes much more accessible and immediate many strangers’ perspectives and to broaden one’s circle of empathy and aligning their interest with one’s own.
  • Escalator of reason – the more intensified application of knowledge and rationality to viewing violence shows the futility of vicious cycles of violence, curbs one’s inclination to privilege one’s own over others, and helps one see violence as problem and solve it dispassionately.

In the second part of the book, Pinker shows the human cognitive abilities and psychological forces for violence (the demons) and against it (the angels):

  • Demons: Predatory (need for practical gain), Dominance (need for authority, prestige), Revenge (urge for moral retribution), Sadism (pleasure in others’ suffering), Ideology (belief system which justifies unlimited violence for unlimited gain)
  • Angels: Empathy (feel another’s pain and pleasure), Self-control (inhibit our impulses by foreseeing its consequence), moral sense (sanctifies norms and taboos in a culture – can at times reduce violence), reason (ability to objectively evaluate patterns, including human affairs, and seek tangible improvement)

Pinker shows the implications, limitations, and power of each of the forces above, and that combined with the historical institutions created (e.g. state police forces deter homicide), tips the payoff to favour our angels, creating the peaceable world we enjoy now.

Though this downward trend of violence shows no sign of being disrupted, Pinker admits to not having all the answers to why violence has declined, and that in the absence of certain institutions, acts of violence can come roaring back.  The Montreal  police strike of 1969 is one example:

Within hours of the gendarmes abandoning their posts, that famously safe city was hit with six bank robberies, twelve arsons, a hundred lootings, and two homicides before the Mounties were called in to restore order.

Pinker urges for vigilance and the continual debate and exploration on the subject of violence, of why it arises and how it declines, especially given the subject’s impact on all aspects of life.

I have found Pinker to be very comprehensive, covering a wide geography and timespan, being very meticulous in addressing the many angles of scepticism, and crossing disciplines from political philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and economics in his arguments.  It is large book, but very much worth the time.  I highly recommend it.

One more thing lingers in my mind.  Pinker addressed the decline of physical violence in the book, but what of emotional and psychological violence?  If human nature tendencies are rather stable over time, and physical violence was driven by such tendencies, then would such tendencies seek other outlets?  Perhaps this would be addressed in his next book.

ps. Pinker’s TED talk on this subject, in case you don’t have the time to read this book.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Book: Computing: A Concise History by Paul E. Ceruzzi

Score: 4 / 5

I read this book together with A History of Modern Computing by the same author, and wrote about it here.  This book is part of a series of meant for the broad audience (technical or not) to grasp the development of a field in a concise package.

Ceruzzi shows that through the history of computing, from its earliest conception by Babbage to the present day facebook, 4 main themes have driven the development of computing:

  • Digitization: the encoding of information into electric pulses and signals for calculation, data storage, control, and communication in binary arithmetic
  • Convergence: various independent strands of technological developments converge to form a new technology that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  A smart phone, for instance is a convergence of the phone, telegraph, radio, television, phonograph, computer, and more.
  • Solid state electronics: the invention of the transistor, integrated circuit, among others, and their betterment in enhancing the various computing capabilities (Moore’s law)
  • Human-Machine Interface: the development of ever higher levels of abstraction of interface between humans and machine, from compilers to graphical user interfaces and beyond

My favourite is to see that computers are in essence just a small set of fundamental logic gates in huge numbers, and that the current drive of “user friendliness” has its roots in the development of the compilers to make programming easier and for WWII machine operators, many of whom have no formal technical training, must operate complex machineries like radars in order to ably intercept artillery aircraft.  Some of what was at the forefront of computing – mainframes as an example, have stopped dominating the front page of newspapers, yet still remain relevant and operating much of our fundamental functions of society – payroll, inventories, and financial transactions.  In some ways, our “cloud enabled” world makes mainframes more important.  It’s another way to see computing in context and the power of abstractions as computing is made more accessible.

This book is readable, insightful and provides a very condensed version of computing history.

Enjoy!

Book: A History of Modern Computing by Paul E. Ceruzzi

Score: 4.5 / 5

“Mobile” and “Social” are probably what first comes to many people’s mind in computing technology today.  However, remembering the days when I didn’t have a cell phone and when I used a computer solely to play Tetris, I wondered what computing was and how it came to be.  How did a machine, first invented as large systems to perform tedious mathematical calculations costing millions become the personal empowering media connected through a network?

Luckily, Paul Ceruzzi provides some answers.  This book documents the history of computing primarily in the US from the ENIAC to the dot.com boom/bust.

My favourite theme was how the landscape was disrupted and redefined time and again – IBM’s mainframe lost dramatic market share due to the ever powerful smaller computing platforms (including PCs) that using innovative hardware and architecture, enabled by fast networking technology.  The specialized word processing equipment lost to a general computing platform (the PC) with stored programming principle that made cheaper and more powerful word processing capabilities possible.  Gradually, computing went from what benefited the scientific and engineering community to empower the commercial world that had been used to punch card technology, and gone from centralized batch mode of processing data to a distributed, networked, and interactive paradigm. 

During this transition, multiple iterations of automation gave what we take for granted today.  Operating systems replaced the human operators whose job was to start various jobs specified by the programmers and mounting/demounting tapes.  The graphical user interface turned users into programmers, replacing the days when getting a computer to solve a different problem meant an engineer days of rewiring the machine, even if the problem itself would take mere minutes to solve.  We’ve come a long way.

This book is a detailed and thrilling account showing the political, social, and technical factors that culminated in important events that changed the computing landscape.  The technical detail makes it more understandable to a technical audience, but it is an insightful and enjoyable read (for me, I hope for you, too).

ps. if you prefer, this documentary is the best I’ve seen on the history of computing and contains 5 parts, 1 hour each.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Book: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Score: 4/5

(Image from Wikipedia.org)

A couple of friends recommended this book and I ended up liking it quite a bit.  Morrie Schwartz, a loving sociology professor dying from terminal ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), met regularly with a beloved former student of his, Mitch Albom, on Tuesday mornings after breakfast to share his past and the life lessons he took along.  This book is the result of that course on The Meaning of Life, written beautifully by Albom.

Morrie is adorable, wise, and compassionate.  He would well up just listening to a friend’s misfortune, dance deliriously as if no one around him was looking, and wasn’t afraid of making a fool of himself even as a prominent sociology professor.

Much of his formative years was shaped by the experience as an observer at an asylum, where he saw human beings, many of them well off, acting in strange ways – refusing to eat, crying all night, or soiling his/hers underwear.  One particular encounter stuck in my mind:

One of the patients, a middle-aged woman, came out of her room every day and lay facedown on the tile floor, stayed there for hours, as doctors and nurses stepped around her…[she] stayed there until the evening, talking to no one, ignored by everyone.  It saddened Morrie.  He began to sit on the floor with her, even lay down alongside her, trying to draw her out of her misery.  Eventually, he got her to sit up, and even to return to her room.  What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want – someone to notice she was there.

Morrie realized what people need is connection with others, and despite popular culture’s incessant indoctrination, no amount of money is adequate substitute for it.  It was a lesson he never forgot.

Morrie believes that happiness and fulfillment comes from genuine connection to another, which requires one’s time and concern to build the relationship.  It means to dedicate what we have to those who need it, to become valuable, and could be as easy as teaching seniors how to use computers or simply listening to a friend, lending our ears.

I’ve found Morrie’s story to be inspirational and refreshing, and hope you enjoy the book, too.

Jacques Loussier Trio: Play Bach... and more. Live from St. Thomas Churc...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Swinging Bach.

A different way to enjoy Bach.  My favourite part is around 1:41:40 when Bobby McFerrin together with the crowd sing Ave Maria.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Monday, 23 July 2012

Some more Videos on Steve Jobs

Steve has a wide range of interests, including technology and education, and can articulate it beautifully.  I’ve found the following to be insightful and interesting, and hope you will, too.

A 1980 presentation from Steve:

Steve in action at NeXT:

‘95 interview (2 years prior to re-joining Apple):

Memorial service for Steve:

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Score: 4.5/5

(Image from Amazon.ca)

Recently finished this book – one of the rare fiction books I read, and liked it very much.  I am amazed at Austen’s stylistic beauty as well as the intricacies in the characters and how they unfold through the plots of the book.

The book is public domain, and can be downloaded from iBooks or the Kindle store for free.

Enjoy!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Book: 知識人與中國文化的價值 余英時 著 (History of intellectuals and cultural values in China)

評分: 4.5/5

(封面及大鋼由博客來網站提供, 英文書名我大略翻譯, 若有不妥當之處請告知)

偶然在Bathurst & Clark圖書館(call number: Chinese 951 Yu)中瀏覽時發現了這本書,我一直對中國的歷史,特別是知識及文化傳承的歷史滿有興趣,身為居住加拿大的台灣人,我常在想中國與北美或西方文化的差別,及此差別對現代社會的發展造成的影響,例如,為何西方發生了工業革命及中國文化對修身養性的注重。

余教授的書探討了中國文化中注重以靜下心來尋找精神價值與道德的意義、士階層由遊士階段漸漸靠科舉制度進入政治中心以鞏固中央集權、人的價值在人倫中的角色,讓我學到了非常多。

此書雖有時較艱深,但有許多深刻研究後的知識值得慢慢閱讀。您若對中國知識及文化發展及士階層的領域有興趣,我很推薦此書。以下截取書的大鋼及作者介紹,感謝博客來網站以下的提供。

作者簡介

余英時

安徽潛山人,1930年生,為香港新亞書院第一屆畢業生,美國哈佛大學歷史學博士。曾任哈佛大學中國史教授、耶魯大學歷史講座教授。1973-75年出任香港新亞書院院長兼中文大學副校長,1991-92年任康乃爾大學第一任胡適講座訪問教授。現任普林斯頓大學講座教授,所獲學術榮譽計有:中央研究院院士(1974)、香港中文大學榮譽法學博士(1977)、美國明德學院榮譽文學博士(1984)等。2006年11月16日獲頒美國國會圖書館克魯格人文與社會科學終身成就獎。

內容簡介

    「知識人」(intellectual)是十八世紀之後才在西方出現的概念,
中國則自先秦時代便有「士」的階層,並形成一個延續不斷的傳統。
從士轉變為知識人,代表「士」文化的斷裂,
也象徵華人價值體系的巨大轉變。

克魯格人文與社會科學終身成就獎得主余英時,
以本書薈萃近三十年的研究見地,
耙梳中國知識人與價值體系之間交相形塑、影響的綿密關係。

本書收錄余英時在一九八○年代之後研究的菁華,論述知識人在中國的歷史淵源、意義等面向,及其流變對價值意識的影響。但本書意旨並不侷限在「過去」與「中國」;作者觀照中、西知識人在追尋真理上的差異,探討中國文化價值體系為何有其獨特性(中國知識人求「內向超越」,西方則是「外在超越」)。在西方人文研究重新檢視「現代以後」(post-modern)價值轉向的今日,本書對於瞭解華人安身立命的價值觀亦有偌大助益。

作者更精闢指出,價值意識一方面淵源於傳統,一方面植根於生活的實踐,不是少數人可以憑空創造而強加於整個社會的。只要社會本身有其相對的獨立性--相對於國家(state)的權力而言,價值觀念的變遷也自然會找到自己的軌跡。此一見解,著實為百年未定的中西文化論辯闢出一條中道。

Monday, 21 May 2012

Book: 親愛的安德烈(龍應台 安德烈 合著)


評分: 4/5
(封面由博客來網站提供)
偶然在Bathurst & Clark圖書館中瀏覽時發現了這本書,讀了幾頁後感覺很有共鳴,就借了此書,前幾天看完了。
這本書是女作家龍應台為了能更了解大兒子安德烈的世界而與他三年間的交流的家書,這些信被公開讓廣大讀者回應後  也有些被放在此書中。
龍應台從小因中國內戰到了台灣並在台長大,後移居美國與德國,又定居香港,她的思想多來自中國傳統,並因艱辛的生活歷練而顯得宏觀,並對自己的"根"在哪裡有諸多疑問及追求。
安德烈自幼在德國安定優渥的家庭環境中長大,是以德國與新世代年輕人的眼光來看世界,帶有一絲青春的活力及叛逆的氣息。
這本書中充分顯示出許多在各國傳統文化中的微妙不同,讓我開了眼界也獲益良多(我在15歲時由台灣移民加拿大,至今又過了15年),可以另一種眼光了解並欣賞我與父母思想的相同相異之處。
Enjoy!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Book: 解碼郭台銘語錄 (A collection of teachings from Terry Guo, the Chairman of Foxconn)

(書本大綱由天下文化網頁提供)

在《虎與狐》中,是從策略面來分析鴻海如何建造超競爭平台,打造出最有紀律、也最有彈性的企業基因。

要解碼這組企業基因,關鍵正在統帥鴻海帝國的領導人郭台銘身上。
多年來,他透過語錄的形式,向內部員工傳達、灌輸自己的經營理念與治理方針,化繁為簡,一針見血,鴻海人莫不奉為圭臬,朗朗上口。

想深入鴻海的精神面,探究鴻海最獨特的競爭力所在,一定要直搗此核心。
郭台銘語錄的意義,早已遠遠超越一個領導人的話語集,這些話語結合了理論與實務,並融入多年的苦心造詣,讓世人見識「說到做到」這四個字可以有多麼強大的威力,兆元帝國鴻海就是鐵證。

郭台銘語錄既是經營的指標、成功的法則,也是修練的心法。

本書透過實例與說明深入解碼最精華的108條郭台銘語錄,每一條都是中英對照,輕鬆易讀,是認識郭台銘及鴻海集團的最佳入門書。

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book: The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

(Image courtesy of Indigo.ca)

Score: 4.5 / 5

I first got interested in cancer when in elementary school my parents brought me to visit a dear family friend with leukemia in the hospital.  She looked thin, pale, and our conversations were interrupted by sudden onsets of vomiting.  Mom said she has cancer, and the chemotherapy made it hard to keep food down.  This first encounter with the disease left a big impression on me.

Intrigued by cancer, in grade 7 while browsing in the library I picked up a book about cancer and went through it.  Though it explained that cancer is characterised by uncontrolled cell division, I still had many questions.  Why are there different kinds of cancer?  Why are they so difficult to treat?  What is chemotherapy?

Fortunately, Dr. Mukherjee found it worthwhile to write this book to help answer those questions for a layman like me.  This book is one of the best books I have read.  It tells the history of cancer discovery, treatment, and care through the stories of doctors, scientists, politicians, activists, and patients.

Cancer is a family of diseases, characterized by the frenetic and uncontrolled division of cells.  Unlike other diseases that originated with foreign bacteria, cancer cells are normal cells with normal functionalities gone haywire.  Conventional medicine targeted cells or organisms by recognizing their differing enzymes.  Cancer and normal cells have very similar enzymes, thus making it notoriously difficult to target.

Cancer has been around for a long time.  The first possible case was documented in Egypt around 2500 BC.  The examiner carefully documented the observations of the tumour but could offer no treatment.  Since that time, a lot has changed.  Thanks to the efforts of many before us, a series of notable innovations occurred to give us what we have today –

  • How Chemicals in mustard gas used in wars were discovered to have dried up the bone marrow cells in those exposed and would later become a drug for chemotherapy
  • How multi drug chemotherapy (a norm now) was heavily resisted but eventually proven correct
  • How radical mastectomy, a procedure excavated huge amounts of a woman’s body in hopes of curing breast cancer, took nearly a century, the quality of life of five hundred thousand women, and many brave surgeons willing to challenge the status quo to prove wrong
  • How the public became aware of cancer and public movement on the war on cancer was formed
  • How, slowly, the medical field learned that caring for patients’ quality of life (for example, by developing antinausea drug and dispensing opiates as a measure for pain management) is as important as curing the patient
  • How cancer biology finally turned the descriptive symptoms of the disease into functional actions and gave birth to targeted therapy (though still in its infancy) that is turning a deadly disease into a chronic condition with minimal side effects for certain cancers
  • How scientists achieved the difficult task of proving cigarette as a carcinogen when smoking was so pervasive (it’s like proving sitting down causes cancer – everyone sits, so how can you prove that “non-sitting” helps in the long run?)
  • How scientists, surgeons, and chemotherapy doctors stayed in their silos and tried each to understand and attack the disease alone, but finally came to find a jointed effort was more effective
  • How there are hype and disappointments with each types of therapy at various points in history

Ultimately, Mukherjee had written a book rich with historical context, filled with the zeitgeist and hopes of the public and medical community at various points in time, and full of the interplay between different industries and medical disciplines.  The book is beautifully written and is a balanced account of humility and optimism.  To me, it is also a history of innovation in the medical field, and shows the totality of human effort in the face of this ancient disease.  I highly recommend this book.

I will end with an excerpt from the book about Germaine, a patient in Mukherjee’s care:

Germaine seemed, that evening, to have captured something essential about our struggle against cancer: that, to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies.  Germaine fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately,fiercely, madly, brilliantly, and zealously – as if channeling all the fierce, inventive energy of generations of men and women who had fought cancer in the past and would fight it in the future.  Her quest for a cure had taken her on a strange and limitless journey, through Internet blogs and teaching hospitals, chemotherapy and clinical trials halfway across the country, through a landscape more desolate, desperate, and disquieting than she had ever imagined.  She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage, summoning her will and wit and imagination, until, that final evening, she had stared into the vault of her resourcefulness and resilience and found it empty.  In that haunted last night, hanging on to her life by no more than a tenuous thread, summoning all her strength and dignity as she wheeled herself to the privacy of her bathroom, it was as if she had encapsulated the essence of a four-thousand-year-old war.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Book: 大江大海(作者: 龍應台) Da Jiang Da Hai 1949 by Yingtai Long

Score: 4/5
(Cover picture from the web site of 博客來)

Embarrassingly, I have been quite ignorant of recent Chinese and Taiwanese history, especially pertaining to the 1900’s.  Luckily, someone like Dr. Long had written this book to educate me on the subject.

This book is about the Chinese civil war in the year of 1949 between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, with the historical background on the Japanese invasion and WWII.  Long wrote vividly and objectively on the past, telling stories of first hand accounts in the book from veterans and civilians.  I am happy for this book placed more emphasis on the multifaceted perspective of the historical events, rather than focusing on one character and have the narrative revolve around one person.

Due to my lack of knowledge in Chinese history and geography, the book with its eyewitness accounts jumping from one person/location to another can at times be hard to follow.  However, it did give a good sense of the zeitgeist of the era.  It helped me to realize the horrors of war: teenagers were made to escape with their teachers from the war and separate from their parents, never to see them again.  Some of them would climb onto such overcrowded trains that they had to sit on the rooftop, and a train tends to exit a tunnel with less people than when it went in.  In one group, 5000 students who tried to escape the war had reached the Vietnam border with less than 300 students left.  In prisoners of war camps, any small cut to the body meant certain and painful death, as infection ran rampant in the camp due to malnutrition and lack of medical care.  Siblings saw their sisters raped dozens of times and hang themselves in desperation.  Parents collapse in despair in a field of corpses upon finding their son/daughter’s mutilated body.  In Leningrad, the city was encircled by the Germans for so long that cannibalism occurred and 500,000 civilians starved to death.  It saddened me tremendously yet also made me cherish the peace I enjoy all the more.

As the book unfolds gradually with characters of vastly different backgrounds sharing their points of view and stories, a cultural identity and understanding slowly and vaguely emerged.  I felt the book gave enough historical background to help me start understand the various sentiments between the different sides of the this civil war.

The civil war was fought in 1949, yet its consequences are ever more present today.  This is an important book and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to get a glimpse of living as a Chinese around the year 1949.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

(Image from Amazon.ca)
Score: 4.5/5

I first got interested in Steve Jobs when playing with my friend’s iPod touch a few years ago.  It was my first serious encounter with an Apple product.  Though my initial reaction was “it’s just a fancified Walkman”, I was soon eager to try out all the function on the device and declared to my friend that I wanted one for myself.

I was intrigued and attracted to the device not only because it had a beautiful hardware and software interface, but also the entire user experience “flowed” graciously.  The hassle of trying to figure out how to use the device is replaced with the joy of seeing yourself performing the functions without prior instructions, and the entire experience has consistency and elegance to it.  It’s like being checked into a 5 star hotel by an fashionable, courteous, and experienced receptionist.  So I wondered – what type of person does it take to create such a device and how did he do it?

Isaacson is a masterful writer who provided a balanced account of Jobs that is easy and delightful to read.  At 571 pages it can feel long at times, but it’s a small price to pay for completeness.  I highly recommend the book.

It would be naive to think this book is the definitive guide to being Steve Jobs, but there are many thought provokers in the book.  This is what I derived from after reading the book:

  • Much of Steve’s genius is in his ability as an editor.  He may not know how to use a computer to draw out the specifications that engineers can understand, but he knew intuitively and logically what the customers wanted, how much they wanted them, who he can entrust to come up with solutions, and recognize a good solution when it is presented and present it to customers in an attractive and relatable way.  Malcolm Gladwell says it very well here.
  • Steve’s idea of design isn’t just aesthetic, it’s also philosophical.  The goal of design is to create a beautiful and useful user experience, using both form and function to achieve that goal.  I think he understands that though aesthetics can generate hype, tools that people find useful and easily accessible is what gives sustainable attachment.  He often thought deeply and philosophically about what is the “essence” of the things he creates.
  • One of Steve’s greatest contributions is design education – how technology can be “sexy”, and what beauty can mean in retail, movies, computer hardware, and software.  Design has gotten more legitimacy and taken on more concrete form in the many industries, I think thanks to Steve.  He also showed that art and technology can be a powerful combination, that the creative talents at Pixar are very disciplined, and that the software engineers at Apple can be really imaginative. 

Ultimately, I wondered if Steve felt truly happy or fulfilled.  He was certainly driven and cared deeply about his company, yet whether that gave him the satisfaction in return isn’t as clear to me.  Steve is probably the only one with the answer.

I will let Steve end this post.  Below is a quote of him about what motivates him to do his work:

What drove me?  I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us.  I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use.  I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes.  Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on.  And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow.  It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how – because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays.  We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow.  That’s what has driven me.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Video: “China Rediscovers its Own History” by Dr. Ying-Shih Yu

A fascinating talk from Dr. Yu, a renowned Chinese historian, at a Library of Congress event on the recent Chinese phenomenon to rediscover its roots.  It covers many aspects of Chinese culture, commenting on the Taiwanese political situation regarding China, and on the Chinese legal system as well.

The video requires a RealPlayer plug in but that didn’t work for me.  If you’re having the same issue, you can download it from my dropbox account here and watch it on RealPlayer.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Video: 余英時----傑出華人系列part1 (with Chinese subtitle)

Dr. Yu is a renowned Chinese historian who taught at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  He won the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity.  This is a short documentary film on him.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Singularity University

It’s a non-profit seeking to pool researchers in studying technologies in multidisciplinary fields.  This is the mission from the Singularity University web site:

A number of exponentially growing technologies will massively increase human capability and fundamentally reshape our future. This warrants the creation of an academic institution whose students and faculty will study these technologies, with an emphasis on the interactions between different technologies. Our mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey



Glenn Gould was the first North American concerto pianist to visit Russia in the cold war era. He had an impact through his artistry, musicality, and historical perspective that gave many Russians musicians a glimpse of what the musical world is like in the west. I enjoyed this documentary very much.

Book: Campus Confidential by Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison


(Picture from Amazon.ca)

Score: 4/5

This book, written by professor Coates, the University of Waterloo’s Dean of Arts, and professor Morrison, caught my interest as it demystifies and reveals many things about the Canadian university system.  I recommend this book to prospective university students, parents, employers, and even policy makers.

Below are some of my favourites:

  • All Canadian universities are public institutions.  As such, available funding is smaller and they are obliged to adhere to political priorities, such as focusing on accessibility of education to all Canadians.  One consequence of this focus is low cost education and lower admission standards.
  • Traditional core disciplines from the 19th century, including literature, history, social, natural, and physical sciences are slowly giving way to other more lucrative, applied, or newer fields such as commerce, accounting, law, to name a few.  There is a tug of war between professors who advocates for the traditional disciplines (who dominate the decision committees) and professors, students, and employers who want a more interdisciplinary and flexible education.
  • Universities are incentivized to see students as customers and cater to their needs.  This sometimes run counter to the need of the workplace and national competitiveness.
  • Aboriginal students tend to put the need of their communities first and pursue areas of study that will directly benefit their communities.
  • The authors argue that the Internet with its abundance of piracy, is lowering the moral barrier to stealing intellectual properties, thus undermining intellectual integrity in universities.
  • Quebec universities are working closely with provincial government to transform the provincial economy with some success already.  An example is Montreal’s emergence as a Canadian leader in pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
  • Of the 10 provinces in Canada, Ontario ranks last in the amount of provincial funding to universities.  Of the 50 states and 10 provinces in North America, Ontario ranks 59th.  In Stats Canada’s ‘07 – ‘08 report, public funding for Alberta per student was $22,469.  Ontario?  $9,718.
  • The resources dedicated to research in technology and scientific innovation far exceeds resources for innovation research from the field of social sciences and humanities.  This leaves many important questions such as “how are innovation societies created and maintained?  Which forms of education best support industrial and economic innovation?  What impact do community structure, multiculturalism, and local heritage have on innovation” unanswered.
  • Harvard’s endowment fund per student is 100 times greater than that of U of Toronto’s.  This impacts the quality of research and professor to student ratio.
  • Canada’s quality of high school education is quite high.  According to OECD rankings, Canada ranks 3rd in science (US ranks 29th), 7th in math (per ‘06 ranking.  US ranks 35th), 4th in reading.  Canada isn’t doing as well in funding research, and especially in commercializing research efforts from private sectors.  Patents and commercialized products are examples of what Canada doesn’t have enough of.  With great education and somewhat lackluster basic research, and lacking commercialization, this hurts Canada’s national competitiveness.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Book: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt


(Image from Amazon.ca)
Score: 4/5
While I was researching for my democracy essay, I learned that during the Renaissance period there was a shift in art form and societies to focus more on humans and their experiences rather than the stories of gods.  I kept wondering – how did this shift happen, and how did this contribute to cultural values of our time, the modern world?  This was my motivation for reading The Swerve.
This book is about how Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter in the 15th century, discovered an ancient Greek poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius.  This poem and the discovery of other ancient Roman and Greek texts laid the foundation for the mainstream thoughts of the Renaissance.
Europe in the Medieval times was very repressive.  The Church had much power and often influenced matter of the state.  It persecuted many who contradicted its teachings.  Curiosity was frowned upon, as Adam and Eve committed their sin out of curiosity.  The pursuit of pain is viewed as the way to a better afterlife, just as Jesus had suffered for eventual glory.  Discussion of textual material is strictly forbidden and book commenting is a privilege reserved for high authorities.
Lucretius’s poem, however, proposed that the world is made up of innumerable, small, and indestructible particles called atoms.  These atoms, without the guidance of a divine being, move unpredictably, constantly, and humans are made up just as everything else in the world is.  Humans are not unique, and gods, even if they existed, cared only for their own pleasure and not for humans’.  The poem extols the pursuit of pleasure, human sensations, and vindicates curiosity, as humans no longer should fear their exploration would inevitably bring on a god’s wrath.
Lucretius’s idea seem rather mild to us now, but as the book shows, it was very radical and dangerous at the time of its discovery by Poggio.  Though the book’s focus was more prior and during the time of discovery of this poem (thus not well suited for my question), I nevertheless enjoyed understanding the historic background.  The writing style can be a little daunting, but is beautifully written.
Below is one of my favourite parts of the book.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, owned at least 5 editions of Lucretius’s poem:
Jefferson took this ancient inheritance in a direction that Lucretius could not have anticipated but of which Thomas More, back in the early sixteenth century, had dreamed.  Jefferson had not, as the poet of On the Nature of Things urged, withdrawn from the fierce conflicts of public life.  Instead, he had given a momentous political document, at the founding of a new republic, a distinctly Lucretian turn.  The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and the liberties of its citizens but also to serve “the pursuit of Happiness.”  The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.