July 1st in Hong Kong

July 2, 2011 at 8:19 am (History, Personal experiences, Politics)

July 1st is an important date in Hong Kong for two main reasons: it is the day when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, thus leading to the creation of the Hong Kong SAR government; and it also happens to be the day when the the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921.

During July 1st, the pan-democracy camp in Hong Kong organizes a march to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong; while the pro-Beijing camp celebrates the anniversary of the CPC. Every year on this date an interesting sign of social division occurs: the sons and daughters of every family leave to march on the streets, while their grandparents stay in their homes humming along with the red anthems on TV.

Yesterday, I joined half a dozen of my ex-schoolmates in the annual march, which turned out to be one of the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen. According to the organizers, around 218,000 people turned out at Victoria Park in the afternoon; the police claim that the number is closer to 54,000. At any rate, this is the largest march Hong Kong has seen since 2003-2004, during the last two years of the extremely unpopular Tung Chee Hwa administration.

The 2011 July 1st march in Hong Kong, at the front

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The problem with Humanities

June 17, 2011 at 2:36 am (Arts and languages, Logic and philosophy, Natural sciences, Personal experiences)

I remember when I was in my early teenage years, I was quite fond of thinking about (or attempting to think about) various philosophical questions on my own: the nature of the universe, the development of civilization, the underlying logic of society, and so on. At some point, when I was 14 or so, I started to study philosophy and literature seriously as an academic discipline and devoted a lot of time to it. This was a stupid blunder, and it cost me quite a few years. Today, at the age of 18, I understand essentially very little beyond what I had understood when I was 14. I did learn about a few principles about economics and a few mathematical truths during this time, but all of it I could have gotten without a pursuit of the humanities.

What I got from the humanities was entirely confusion. I learnt a massive array of terminology that contained very little depth. I was almost contaminated by the sense that philosophy is a puzzle to be solved with the aid of old white men, rather than a series of natural and essential questions that all men ought to think about. My thoughts were compartmentalized in meaningless and arbitrary ways by meaningless and arbitrary definitions: ethics, modernism, stoicism, deontology, and so on. All of these definitions are quite useful when you are communicating with people that are equally confused with you; all of these definitions are completely useless when what you are trying to do is to think.
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June 4th in Hong Kong

June 5, 2011 at 1:40 am (Personal experiences, Politics)

Over 150,000 people came out today in Hong Kong to mourn the victims of the incident on June 4thMay 35th, 1989 at Tian’anmen Square where absolutely nothing happened.

More on this later.

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A few comments on Grade inflation

June 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm (Personal experiences, Price theory, Rochester)

One of the most unpleasant things I had to deal with while studying under the American system is grade inflation. I grew up studying for one of the most harshly curved exams in the world, in which usually less than 2% of students receive an A in each subject, and less than 7% receive a B (there is no +/-). The American system was obviously a drastic change for me. The first day I entered my American high school (for the senior year), I realized that I could receive an A with work that formerly only deserved an E. I was quite delighted for about twenty minutes before it dawned on me that the system is absolutely terrible, especially for students like me who only knew how to distinguish ourselves by our grades.

Steven Landsburg has an excellent article that says pretty much everything which needs to be said about grade inflation – why it exists and why it is horrible. Grades, he argues, are fundamentally a source of information to employers. With less distinction on the higher end of the curve, employers are not able to distinguish between the best and the slightly less great applicants. This makes it difficult to allocate work effectively in society and hence reduces productivity. He raises the example of a worker worth $40,000 and another worker worth $30,000 with a similar profile (let’s say they both get a 4.0 – the matter is more complicated but essentially the same once we introduce lower GPAs). Because the employer cannot distinguish between them, their average value drops from $35,000 to something like $32,000. While the lesser worker is quite content, the better worker ends up a lot worse.

As a student and as someone who has studied in an alternative system, there are two points I would like to add:

First, the focus is somewhat narrow. The biggest problem, I would argue, is probably not with the “demand” but with the “supply”. To be succinct, this is because students influence their own value as workers.  If employers cannot distinguish between the best and second-best students, the best students may choose to slack off (until they can barely, but still, get an A) and hence reduce their future productivity. Or, more optimistically, they may find other methods to set themselves apart besides studying for classes. These methods should also increase their future productivity (with the possible exception of socializing with professors), but are certainly not effectively as taking classes, or such methods of selection would have been adopted without grade inflation.*
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“The Capacity to be Alone”

May 27, 2011 at 12:18 am (Humans, Mathematics, Personal experiences)

I realized several important things in my freshmen year at college:

  1. That my real talent lies in academics and not in organizing;
  2. That my real interest lies in economics and not in literature and philosophy;
  3. That I frankly am not good at mathematics.

The latest is not a life-changing discovery by any means, certainly not comparable to the first two; but it is important. To elaborate, I don’t think anybody in fact is really good at mathematics. One begins to realize quickly after studying point-set topology that pure mathematics is far less about the quick wits and clever intuition that underlies success in high school algebra, and far more about hard work – a willingness to spend hours and hours on what seems to be a trivial problem, but which you simply cannot grasp.

Even the old trick of staying up until mornings to solve the problem no longer works; some concepts crack only at the right moment, often when you least expect it. I had always thought that Einstein’s famous quote (of genius being 90% perspiration) and more recently Terence Tao’s comments were merely modesty.  Now I understand that there is, of course, no modesty involved when one consider the kind of work ethic that it takes to be such successful academics.

But hard work is not impossible. I have found that there is a far more substantial limit to my mathematical ability, namely the state of my mind. I trust that the passage that follows will be a sufficient explanation for what I mean here. From the great French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“…Since then I’ve had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more “gifted” than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle — while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end.Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects. In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of 30 or 35 years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birth-right, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.”

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