Generation 40s – 四十世代

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How innovative China is beating Facebook, Google and Amazon at their own game

CommentInsight & Opinion
Niall Ferguson says China, unlike Europe, has shown great economic and political acumen in choosing to challenge the dominance of US internet giants

Only in China could there already be a museum of internet finance. Though most Britons have barely adopted the term “fintech”, online banking is old hat in Beijing.

I toured the museum with its founder, Wang Wei, who delighted in showing me exhibits such as a bitcoin cash machine. The cryptocurrency is eight years old: in today’s China, that’s ancient enough to belong in a glass display case.

Some time soon, Europe needs a similarly designed museum of political idiocy. In its glass cases, I would like to exhibit stuffed specimens of politicians who have so hopelessly failed to understand the information technology revolution that began in California in the 1970s and has now almost completely taken over the world.

Prime candidates for the taxidermist’s knife are the members of the UK’s Commons Home Affairs Committee. They have laid into Google, Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to censor the web on their behalf. Yvette Cooper, their chairwoman, complained that Facebook had failed to take down a page with the title “Ban Islam”. As she put it: “We need you to do more and to have more social responsibility to protect people.”

Another possible exhibit in the museum of political idiocy is Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, who unveiled a draft law last week that would impose fines of up to 50 million euros (HK$417.6 million) on social networks that failed to delete “hate speech” or “fake news”. He said: “Too little illegal content is being deleted and it’s not being deleted sufficiently quickly.”

If these people want censorship, let them get on with it, but arguing that Google and Facebook should do the censoring is nuts. As if these companies were not already mighty enough, European politicians want to give them the power to limit free expression.

Best of all is the revelation that government advertising has ended up on jihadist and white supremacist websites. The news that London’s Department for International Development and the Metropolitan police have been spending taxpayers’ money in this undiscriminating way just strikes me as more evidence of European naivety.

There are three essential points to understand about the IT revolution. First, it was almost entirely a US-based achievement, albeit with contributions from computer scientists who came to Silicon Valley from all over the world and Asian manufacturers who drove down the costs of hardware.

Most of the big breakthroughs in software that made mass personal computing possible were made in America – think Microsoft and Apple. The internet, too, was made in America. Online retail was made by Amazon, founded in 1994 in Seattle. Online search based on the PageRank algorithm: made by Google, founded in 1996, its first office a garage in Menlo Park, California. Online social networking for one and all: made by Facebook, founded in 2004 at Harvard. YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), the iPhone (2007), Uber (2009), Snapchat (2011) – you get the idea.

A post on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page shows him running through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in March last year. Photo: Facebook

Point two: the most important of these companies are now mind-blowingly dominant. In Facebook’s little red book for employees, it is written: “The quick shall inherit the Earth.” Mark Zuckerberg has certainly inherited quite a chunk of this planet. His social network now has 1.23 billion active daily users.

Google and Facebook are predicted to increase their combined share of all digital advertising this year to 60 per cent. Google has 78 per cent of US search advertising. Facebook has 39 per cent of online display advertising.

Third point: this dominance translates into crazy money. Facebook will make US$16 billion from display advertising this year. The business is valued today at about US$400 billion, including a US$30 billion cash pile. That equips Zuckerberg to buy up pretty much whatever comes along that he likes the look of – as he did with Instagram, for example.

It is an amazing state of affairs. Consider the functions these companies perform. Google is essentially a vast global library; it’s where we go to look things up. Amazon is a vast global bazaar, where more and more of us go to shop. And Facebook is a vast global club. The various networking functions these companies perform are not new; it’s just that technology has made the networks both enormous and very fast. The more interesting difference, however, is that in the past libraries and social clubs did not make money from advertising. They were funded out of donations or subscriptions or taxes.

In other words, the truly revolutionary fact is that our global library and our global club are both making money from advertising, and that the more we tell them about ourselves, the more effective the advertising becomes, sending us off to Jeff Bezos’ bazaar with increasing frequency.

Not for nothing is “Fang” the investors’ acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. These guys really have got their teeth into us.

Confronted with this American network revolution, the rest of the world had two options: capitulate or compete. The Europeans chose the former. You will look in vain for a European search engine, giant online retailer or social network. The US Fang has been well and truly sunk into the EU.

The Chinese, by contrast, opted to compete. By fair means and foul, they made life difficult for the Americans. And they encouraged their own entrepreneurs to build businesses that rival the giants of Silicon Valley. The acronym of the moment in Beijing is “Bat”: Baidu (the biggest search engine), Alibaba (Jack Ma’s answer to Amazon) and Tencent (the nearest thing to Facebook).

These companies are much more than clones of their US counterparts; each has been innovative in its own right. A good example is Tencent’s ubiquitous messaging app

WeChat, which, by using QR codes to allow users to exchange contact details, is fast destroying the business card.

Needless to say, Silicon Valley gnashes its fangs at being shut out of the vast Chinese market. Zuckerberg has not yet given up hope, doing interviews in Putonghua and even jogging through the smog of Tiananmen Square. The recent experience of Uber cannot encourage him. Last year, it ran up the white flag in China, accepting that it could not beat the homegrown ride-sharing business Didi Chuxing. Cue more gnashing.

I have to say I admire how China took on Silicon Valley and won. It was not only smart economically but smart politically, too. Beijing now has the big data it needs to keep very close tabs on Chinese netizens. And good luck to the US National Security Agency as it tries to get through the Great Firewall of China.

Museums are where history’s victors display their trophies. What I learnt last week is that China may be winning the latest battle in the IT wars: to take not just banking but money itself online.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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科學精神,不單只可以應用到物理、化學、生物等傳統自然科學上,對其他問題, 譬如人類對不同生命群體行為的了解(社會科學),也同樣適用。科學精神承認我們對生命群體行為的了解還很初步,還有大量問題需要一步一步,通過艱苦的觀察和研究活動去了解。不過科學也相信,當我們對生命群體行為本質了解更多後,也會帶來人類社會的進步。承認無知,相信通過自身努力可以逐漸戰勝無知,改變世界,是科學的基本信念。






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Why China doesn’t really celebrate Lunar New Year

CommentInsight & Opinion
Sun Kwok says the traditional annual cycle in China represents a mixed solar and lunar calendar devised to help farmers plan ahead, and its origins make the term ‘Chinese New Year’ most apt for the festival

During the recent Chinese New Year celebrations, the media – including the Post – frequently used the term “Lunar New Year”.

This description is not strictly correct. The Chinese calendar is not a lunar calendar like the Islamic calendar, but a mixed solar/lunar calendar. The date of the Chinese New Year is linked to both the sun and the moon.

Of course, every month of the Chinese calendar begins at new moon, and the dates of the Chinese month track the phase of the moon. A lunar month is based on the phase cycle of the moon, which has either 29 or 30 days.

But a year in the Chinese calendar follows the period of the sun, which has approximately 365 and a quarter days. Twelve months therefore fall well short of a year. In order to match the solar and lunar cycles, intercalary months have to be added from time to time.

The Chinese calendar is also sometimes called an agricultural calendar because farmers rely on an accurate calendar to plough, seed and harvest at the right time. Agricultural activities depend on the seasons, which are controlled by the sun.

The solar aspect of the Chinese calendar consists of 24 seasonal markers. Among these are markers of the four seasons: the vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox and winter solstice.

Since a year in the Chinese calendar can have 12 or 13 months, it is unclear when the new year should begin. The winter solstice is the most important festival for farmers. Starting from this date, they have to stock up food and try to survive the difficult coming months.

In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice (a date set by the position of the sun) always occurs during Month 11, and the new year is assigned to the second new moon after the winter solstice.

For example, the winter solstice for 2016 was on December 21, which corresponds to the 23rd day of the 11th lunar month. The next new moon was on December 29, and the one after that was on January 28, the first day of the Chinese New Year.

The farmers rely on the 24 seasonal markers to guide their work in the field. In the old calendar, devised during the Yuan dynasty by astronomer Guo Shoujing (郭守敬), the seasonal markers were separated by an equal number of days.

However, the sun does not move with uniform speed along its path (the ecliptic) throughout the year, and the seasonal marker corresponding to the summer solstice always fell behind the date of the true summer solstice. These errors were not beneficial to the farmers.

With the introduction of Western astronomical knowledge, efforts to reform the calendar began as far back as the late Ming dynasty.

South Koreans separated from their families by the Korean war gather to pay respects to their ancestors at an altar at the Imjingak Peace Park in Paju, near the demilitarised zone with the North, as they mark the New Year on January 28. Photo: AFP

In 1645, the Jesuit priest Johann Adam Schall von Bell designed a new calendar, in which the seasonal markers were based on the sun’s actual position on the ecliptic and were no longer separated by equal time intervals. These changes resulted in a much more accurate calendar for the farmers.

The Emperor Kangxi finally adopted the new calendar in 1670, and it remains in use today

The court astronomer Yang Guang Xian (楊光先) opposed this new calendar and famously said: “I would rather China not have a good calendar than have Westerners in China.”

The Emperor Kangxi (康熙 ) finally adopted the new calendar in 1670, and it remains in use today.

We should note that other Asian countries such as Korea and Vietnam also celebrate the New Year at this time, so maybe the term “Chinese New Year” is a bit chauvinistic. However, since these other countries inherited their calendars from the Chinese, the term is not unreasonable.

Until someone can suggest a better name, I will continue to call it Chinese New Year – but certainly not Lunar New Year.

Sun Kwok is chair professor of space science at the University of Hong Kong and the president of the Astrobiology Commission of the International Astronomical Union. The history of calendar reforms is one of the many topics covered in his upcoming book Our Place in the Universe

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Time to take secondary education in Hong Kong into the digital age

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Simon Wang

Simon Wang says computerising the DSE exam will encourage teachers and students to embrace e-learning, which will better prepare them for a world now shaped by technology

With the advent of artificial intelligence and the increasing popularity of e-learning, it is time to consider computerising the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam in Hong Kong. Using computers to design, deliver and mark the tests can improve the efficiency of the exam administration, making it possible to offer the exams more than once a year. It may also catalyse the adoption of e-learning in our secondary schools and help students develop information literacy that is vital for the knowledge economy.

Computerised exams would save manpower and resources. With secure cloud computing, test candidates could bring their own tablets or laptops to the exam centres and connect to their servers to take the exams. Invigilators could monitor candidates’ activities in real time. With more efficient administration, the exams could be made available twice a year, reducing the pressure on candidates to perform well in a single attempt. In fact, the past decade has seen computerisation of high-stake tests such as the Toefl English-language test and the GRE, for admission to graduate schools in the US.

Computers can also be used to assess candidates’ performance more accurately. For more than 10 years, the Educational Testing Service in the US has been using a computer program known as the e-rater to assess the quality of essays written for GRE and Toefl. The Examinations and Assessment Authority could develop a similar system to improve the validity of the DSE results.

When I was a college freshman 18 years ago, Matlab, software for mathematical computing, was introduced as a new feature. Today it would be hard to imagine doing college-level maths without it. Likewise, computer modelling has become an indispensable part of studying the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Even in the humanities and social sciences, computer tools have been used for statistical and textual analyses. Armed with an author attribution software, for example, researchers discovered that J.K. Rowling was the author of the detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith.

In sharp contrast to the computerisation of knowledge at the university level, secondary school teachers and students in Hong Kong still rely mostly on pen and paper, which severely limits the range of skills and knowledge that can be acquired.

Computerising the DSE exam would motivate a complete overhaul of the curriculum for both science and humanity subjects to reflect the latest developments. Teachers and parents would have more incentives to adopt e-learning if public exams were delivered electronically. Students may also find the e-learning experience more relevant to their future university learning and workplace communication.

The development of computing technologies has fundamentally changed the modern economy and threatens countless low-skilled and white-collar jobs in the coming decades. A new economy, dominated by intelligent computing devices and robots, will require a set of information literacy skills that the current school curriculum and paper-based DSE exam are unable to cultivate.

The move would not be smooth sailing but, given its huge potential for reducing exam pressure and creating new learning opportunities, it deserves serious consideration from all teachers, parents and officials who care about the future of our children.

Simon Wang is a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong. He holds a master’s degree in comparative education from Oxford