Friday, July 04, 2014

How I Stay Awake

I love the feeling of being trapped in a loop of thought, because that's how I used to survive and I find the familiarity in it: the feeling of being reined in, while charging towards the desired ending.

Perhaps, this is how I stay awake.

It's still in the way that I think nobody is watching
Yeah, nobody's watching me

So cover up for the rain
You see in way too much safety
Cause I don't stand a chance
Any longer than you do my friend
But you're still keeping me sane

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Pure Action

Honor not the mere act of doing;
Disgrace it not too,
with a multitude of decorations.

Right, Wrong, Success, Failure.
Such are the fictitious concoctions
when motivation delights itself in the company of desire.

Weather not the mere act of doing,
for clouds are always alive, not laden

Sunday, March 09, 2014

As Airplane Malfunctions: What to Expect

[Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them. References are supplied in the embedded URLs]

Now that MH370 is suspected to have crashed into the sea, one cannot but hope that there will be survivors. People are praying all over the world, and we all wish for miracles. The thought of an airplane malfunctions and crashes is not new; it happens time and again, often out of the blue (which led statisticians to conclude that driving a car puts you at a much higher risk than taking an airplane). Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Brazil in year 2009, in fact not long ago. The thought that this happened to a Malaysian-owned plane leaves me shuddering. This incident tells me that I am not an outsider but am within the reach of such risk. As this broods on my mind, I then ask, what should I expect when a plane malfunctions? What should I expect, e.g. how long will it take for it to crash into the land / ocean? What if there is a structural disintegration, will I have a chance to survive?

Pray for MH370 (source: MH370 News Update Facebook page; see bottom for link)
To put this into perspective, a flight experience can be separated into the following stages: 1) taxiing in airport waiting for takeoff call; 2) takeoff; 3) achieving airlift; 4) rapid altitude climb; 5) gradual altitude climb and 6) cruising at high altitude (usually at 35000 feet or 10668 meter). The reverse is true for landing. In contrast to the fear of flying, in fact most of the airplane accidents happened in airport. Air Traffic Control (ATC) is often overloaded with information and requires a huge amount of efforts to communicate radar information to one another, so if one landing plane is overlooked, chances are two planes might cross each other. Same is true for takeoffs. So the risk of dying as a result of airplane crash is the highest when you are on a plane taxiing, about to take off or about to land. So when flight attendants and pilots tell you to buckle up your seatbelt during taxiing, take off or landing, you better heed it and behave. At least when your plane is hit, you are not thrown out of your seat and snap your neck or break a rib if nothing serious happens. I always admire people who are always in such a hurry to unbuckle their seatbelts and stand up to retrieve their cabin luggage while the plane has just come to a taxi after landing.
[see the SCMP report on the near miss of a Cathay Pacific and Dragonair jet on 18 September 2011 as they descended into the Hong Kong airport]

Aircraft check (source: AirTeamImages)
Now if a plane is well-maintained, one can be assured that great safety is what you can expect for stages like (2), (3), (4), (5) and (6). Especially (6), since auto-pilot can take over manual maneuvering. Indeed there is no such thing as total manual maneuvering anymore, since there will always be a network of motion sensors calibrating the stability of the pitch, yaw and roll. Now if something goes wrong during any of the stages when the plane has achieved airlift, it will go very wrong. This is because stability control is crucial to safety. Redundancy is built into the system to buy time for the pilot to execute emergency landing or ditching. I need compiled data to draw a statistics on how often is this desired outcome achieved. For now, my interest is on the worst case scenarios. Let us go through them one by one.

Pitch, yaw, and roll of an aircraft relative to the direction of gravity and the plane body [source: Wikipedia]

1) Electrical Power Loss

Multiple redundancies are built to ensure the scenario of power loss is next to zero. A typical Boeing 747 has 4 engine driven generators, 2 APU generators and batteries for last back-up. 2 generators can run the airplane good for the whole flight. If all else fails the batteries will supply emergency power for about 30 minutes. This 30 minutes is designed to be used in extreme condition when a lightning strike knocks out all engine generators. So there you go. At least emergency ditching can be achieved in time.

2) Human Errors (most of the time, in addition / in response to machine errors)

Yes you read it correctly. When engineers design the aircraft, they make sure humans have the last say if there are errors in the sensors or machines. But if you have operated a machine before, you will know that it is the human "error" that often leads to the fatal blow. Machines and sensors are honest stuff. They show you everything. You have to judge in time what goes wrong and how to react to them. I will go back to the availability of reaction time later, but more often than not, the time available is short (typically less than a minute; extend that to 5 minutes for an early detection of fishy machine / sensor errors). An experienced, calm and decisive pilot is very, very crucial to the passengers' survival. The rest is luck. I will give the example of Air France Flight 447 crash in year 2009 again:

The vertical stabilizer recovered (source: Wikipedia)
The final report states that the temporary inconsistency between the speeds measured caused the autopilot to disconnect. The pilots, who failed to understand the situation completely in time, made inappropriate control inputs that destabilized the flight path. Aircraft went into stall and the pilots again failed to make inputs that would have made it possible to recover. 

All this happened in a really short time. Think about the emotionally charged situation, initial 'small' error will then lead to an emotionally-laden quick decision to correct the error, which you and I (if you are an alien / intelligent animal reading this, please disregard the 'you and I' reference) are so familiar of, often than not escalates the initial error. This is very sad indeed, but we are all humans. That's why Google is serious about self-driving cars. That way we can reduce accidents on the road if all cars self-drive.

3) Structural Disintegration

Although I speak of the assumption of a 'well-maintained' airplane, how well-maintained is well-maintained? That means how often you routinely check the plane and service it. Well, that's what most people would say. But little do they know that how you check it is actually much more important than how often you check it. You can check an airplane twenty times per day with eye inspection and might end up with a malfunctioning aircraft in flight. 

I do not wish to go in depth into NDT (Non-Destructive Testing) techniques, but I attended a state-of-the-art seminar last December and came across a shocking revelation that modern airplane NDT technique cannot reveal some of the fatigue cracks in the fuselage. I am not saying that the current techniques are not working. What I am saying is that, there are rooms for improvement. Fatigue cracks are common in structural elements that construct the building you live in, and also the airplane you are riding on. Fatigue, as you might have guessed, refers to forces coming on and off the element and over time, cracks will form. If fatigue crack happens in a bolt, it will be hard to detect! Don't worry, engineers turn to reinforced + redundant welding to make sure that does not happen. The interesting thing is, once cracks are formed, no matter how small they are, they will propagate once the element is loaded again. We do not wish to let them propagate during flight. But these tiny creatures are still a nuisance. They are very hard to detect. Next time don't complain so much when your flight is delayed again and again. Let those people make damn sure there are no fatigue cracks!

Fatigue cracks emanating from at least 42 of the 58 rivet holes in the fuselage skin, a test results on the investigation of Southwest Airlines Flight 812 accident on April 1, 2011 [source: National Transportation Safety Board]
However, if so unfortunate that it happens that fatigue should have occurred in one of the crucial structural elements of the plane, then you will risk structural disintegration of the plane. Upon this point, you will be left with almost no option but to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

A) How Much Time to Crash?

Here I calculate possible altitudes at cruising / altitude climb at which structural disintegration begins and the plane takes a dive. Say the inner compartment stays intact, how much time do you have?

Now, nature dictates that the easiest way is the best way. So when a plane loses stability, it will fall along its long axis because nature dictates that it falls in the easiest manner, that is in the least air drag configuration. In this case I think I can safely assume there is next to zero air drag. High school physics teach us that the time taken is simply the square root of [ ( 2 * distance to fall ) / gravity constant] if you regard the initial falling velocity to be zero. Similarly, the terminal velocity is calculated with the square root of [ 2 * gravity constant * distance to fall]. Results are plotted as follows:

Time to crash in seconds vs. Altitude in feet
Terminal velocity at crash in km/hr vs. Altitude in feet
As the typical cruising height is at about 35000 feet, it takes about 46.6 seconds for the plane to crash into the sea or the ground. You have approximately a few seconds to panick, then to put on your life vest and brace for impact. That is to say, if you can survive a 1647 km/hour dip at the point of impact without snapping your neck and lucky enough to avoid flying objects coming your way. The story of the calculation lies within the short reaction time. If the pilots lose control of the aircraft (most likely when structural disintegration happens), you have less than a minute to prepare, often than not less than half a minute. It's near impossible to do that unless you are well informed of where the life vest is and how much time you have. And now you know you don't have much time to waste. Also it is very important to listen carefully when aircraft safety instructions are given and to grope for the location of the hidden life vest before you go about your own activity. The rest is luck.

B) What If Cabin is Exposed to Air?

The cabin is pressurized during flight in order to make sure the passengers do not suffer from hypoxia and go into hyperventilation. Hypoxia happens because the lower partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude reduces the alveolar oxygen tension in the lungs and subsequently in the brain. It is a matter of minutes or seconds until you lose consciousness due to the conditions of hypoxia. So let's assume you buckle up your seatbelts. As the cabin is exposed to air, it loses pressure and you are not sucked out because you have your seatbelts on. However, when this happens, you are exposed to lower pressure of the outside atmosphere, and here is a table of the time of useful consciousness you can maintain, depending on how high you are. See to it that at 35000 feet, you still have a chance of staying conscious to brace yourself against the impact for the 46.6 seconds fall. But if the plane starts falling at a higher altitude, you probably need oxygen to remain conscious. That's why there are oxygen masks popping down from above in these dire moments. It's for you to maintain conscious so you can help yourself to the life vests and brace for impact. Again, safety instructions on how to wear the mask is extremely important. And again, the rest is luck.
[Be reminded that the table is plotted for tests done for people at rest. Any exercise will reduce the time considerably]

Average time of useful consciousness at various altitudes [source: Wikipedia]


The MH370 accident is a huge shock that jostles me out from my ignorance of the risk I face if anything happens during a flight accident. As I put together the pieces, I hope I would be mentally prepared in such an event if it should happen (immediately touch wood). I share with you the knowledge so you listen carefully to the safety instructions given to you by the cabin crew and be reminded that, in face of such a misfortune, you do not have much time left. Time is of the essence to prepare yourself so that if luck happens to cross your path, you have a conscious brain to wear a vest that floats you on the waters and a whistle to blow to the direction of the search party.

For more information on the latest news update, follow:

[Disclaimer: I summarize the contents in a go, so there must be errors. For in depth studies, one is advised to refer to the scientific literature and reliable sources instead of jumping to conclusions by basing your judgment on this article. This article is written by the author to express his views instead of stating the facts.]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

On How Time is Measured

If I compare my reading level now as compared to years ago when I was still in my teen, it definitely has improved by leaps and bounds. I can comprehend a lot more of the narratives, and connect them to life and what may lie beyond. It soothes me when I thought about this. Traces of time are meaningful only when one progresses mentally and spiritually; else it is just a measurement of space one travels. Space has a magical attribute, certainly of immediate effect as compared to time since as one is removed from a familiar daily space, one will have felt that he has moved on. However I have seen too many a face that space merely transforms itself in the form of creases on their skins, and they age not much mentally since their youth. I guess that's the reason why everyone is always looking back to his youth. That period is a measurable period, as the mind grows in pace with, sometimes even outpace, time.

The line of thought brought me inevitably to the reason why scholars graduate with degree called 'philosophical doctorate'. Philosophy weighs not in the amount of knowledge being accumulated, but in the amount of meaningful traces collected in the process of discovery. Meanings are imprinted on the memory only when one sits down to contemplate the truth and the existence of the mystery one is indulging in solving. As meanings are being fathomed, philosophies take their forms and the footsteps they then leave behind are what we remember as the passage of time.

After all, the sense of time in our memories are the traces left by our mental or spiritual growth. And it makes me sad to think that so many spend a lifetime measured so short in such traces. Maybe that's why so many think that the summit of life has passed after their youths, the times when the bustle of menagerie of emotions and reflections about life are constantly in their minds. Too many have told me that 'high school life' or 'university life' were the best times of their lives, and they wish to experience that period of life once more if they could. I would like to ask the people who make the remark this: "Do you think it's time that has left you behind, and in fact truly it is you who left time unaccounted for?"

Friday, October 04, 2013




你的你抑或我的我     那個瞬間,彼此

                            你在            的幾許

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Free from Idolization

I have come to appreciate mathematical rigor, only recently. I used to be fond of it, coming to the physical meanings a logical deduction requires of. However, I don't pursue it. I let it go by, only understanding them rather than judging how true the derivations would be, mathematically.

However, I realize that it is simply impossible to run away from mathematical derivation and rigor, especially when you dig deeper into the fundamentals of nature and wish to simplify them into a few variables that truly matter. Tools like differential equations, integral calculus etc then decide to organize a homecoming party, in my brains, to show me the impossibility of ignoring them. Then it occurs to me, they are my friends, not my enemies.

The way of studying mathematics and physics that I was going through has one fatal flaw to it: idolization. It is detrimental to learning and embracing the mathematical derivation as a tool; always the method seems to present only the true solution. Imagine idolizing your computer, you then lose the playfulness to toy around with all the features, including running crazy computational algorithms with it because you love it/respect it too much. The same with mathematics. Once you think of it as a factual expression (worse, beautiful factual expression) then you lose the ability to screw the whole thing up, wrench open the inner workings and think to yourself that, hmm, this does not look right. It is exactly because of this that creative elements are added at a slow speed to the field. I bet a lot of us are scared by the symbols and logical computations. Once you look at it as a tool, like the screwdriver kit lying near you, then the attitude will change. Suddenly, everything is in its own respective 'clarity'. You are free, although the freedom is confined within a set of restrictions.

I would like to extrapolate that concept: life, is like that too.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The stand

I am up while I should be sleeping soundly by now. The past few weeks have been fulfilling. I am getting more and more accustomed to the person anew; the inner struggles and some sort of 'shock' somehow has dissipated away. What replaces the previous uneasiness is a kind of guilt; not the bad kind, but the kind which a man who found himself late in life bears. It is very likely one that I will carry for the rest of my life. I can never be truly evil; it's just not possible anymore. 

I think this has more to do with the meaning instilled inside, now glimmering instead of a shining glow that pierces. I am more comfortable with this kind of light: subtle enough. Not standing out too much, not trying to prove anything. Simply there, doing his own deeds, sowing quietly. I kinda like it. There's this inner peace to it.

And I come to admit that bad habits I used to call bad are just inevitable natural part of a cycle. Of course I would get mentally tired after a long haul; of course I need to fail a number of times enough to be able to do something well. And of course I need to read for a few days before I can write with a crafty touch on academic subject. I am no more too harsh on myself, and because I admit these being parts of the natural cycles in life, I can observe myself from another perspective. It's hard to explain, but it's certainly a refreshing spot to be in.

Life moves on. I hope I can be there, places where revolutionary ideas and paths torching the paths, and be the one who starts the fire. The only way I can reach there is to be honest with myself, to fulfill responsibilities and at the same time, to trust people who fight hand in hand with me. I have made my stand. The unknown is yonder, and the sails are set.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How Important Reading is in the 21st Century

Time and again I cannot stress enough how immensely important reading skill is. I do not care whether it is chinese, malay or english language which you prefer to read and write; you must be able to read well in at least one of the languages in the world, critically and synoptically. It is the least I can ask of you, and in case you wonder which 'you' I am referring to, I am addressing university graduates.

For God's sake, how painful it is to see university graduate cannot even read critically! I even wonder to myself, how can you even graduate from a university if you cannot even do that? The often circulated posts on Facebook are filled with misconceptions on historical facts, scientific myths and healthcare tips and they are most of the time written by a nonprofessional. Most of them contain errors and they are not even reviewed by experts before being let out into internet. They do not bother me much; only when a university student or graduate reposts it then I am shocked. Why and how in the hell could that ever happen?

I would attribute the phenomena to two core problems: (1) tv / computer / iPad; (2) university education functioning as commercial product. Let's talk about (1). New generation of kids do not read well not just because they do not want to; they simply cannot concentrate long enough to decipher the words. The primal evil is television. Often the parents just let the kid watch television at home; this seriously alters the kid's concentration span as he/she grows up. Television program designers know about how often should a show switches animations in order to capture full attention of the audience. I do not quite remember the time span, but a shadow of the memory tells me that it was about 1.7 seconds. If you grow up watching television as a kid, you would often find it so much harder to just read more than 2 lines, and if you count the time, that's about the maximum allowable time span for a show to switch attention frame. If you grow up playing computer games as a kid, it is even worse. Computer games like Role-Playing Game (RPG) operate on immersive virtual environment and the experience is refreshed every second. Now, influences of iPhone and iPad are not quite well studied yet, but I can think of the damage they bring: they feed you the drive to prod your device to 'move on'. Well you might argue that reading a book is the same, but it's all about time frame I am concerned about here. Prodding an iPad / iPhone for new information happens in a matter of 1 to 2 seconds while turning a page of book usually takes at least 10 seconds (even if you are a fast reader, and I am talking about full comprehension). If there is nothing new in 2 seconds, you lose interest.

The direct impact of (1) seems to be the detrimental effect on reading. However, I would like to bring your attention to the indirect impact on the mental health of individuals: tv, computer, iPad, they all feed the monster called anxiety. When your attention span is that short, when you lose interest that quickly, you are always anxious. When you are anxious, you will be easily agitated or depressed. You always look for something to fill your brain, and your mind will become more restless over time. Look around you: isn't this the general picture of the new generation we are observing today?

Now I do not wish to talk that much about (2). I hope it is self-explanatory. When university education is marketed as a commercial product, something you spent money on to get an entry certificate into wealth, then the real meaning of education will certainly evaporate. One does not seek knowledge anymore in university; one seeks graduation. University is the place where interactions of bright minds on interesting subjects happen. It will not function like that as long as the program turns out to be another high school system. This is the reason why university graduates (at least those in Hong Kong) do not acquire the sole important skill which a university offers: critical and synoptical thinking. 

I might sound pessimistic but in fact I am not. I am telling you that you can cure your own anxiety, restlessness and lack of knowledge: start reading. Even you cannot concentrate that well, force yourself. If you can only read one page of book a day, it is fine. Do it. Reading is like exercising your muscles: you get better and better every day. Persevere and you will find that a month later you can read much faster, you can comprehend things better and you feel much more fulfilled and goal-driven. Try to read nonfiction apart from fiction too. From nonfiction you not only learn new facts; you learn how to analyze things synoptically. You learn how to look at things from a boarder perspective, and by that you can tackle a problem more systematically and efficiently in your workplace. You will improve, that I guarantee you.

And I would like to remind you the increasing importance of reading in the internet era. Be reminded that I do not write 'how important reading skill is' but rather 'how important reading is'. When internet churns out so much information shared daily, the amount you read each day is actually much more than the amount people read in the past. The only difference is you also need to filter out the garbage which comprises 90% of the lot. You simply cannot obtain the ability to judge which information is correct and which is not from reading in the internet. But you can with books. There are always books which are peer-reviewed and guaranteed to be the king of certain fields, e.g. running a marathon. These jewels will provide you the guideline to filter out unnecessary and wrong information when you read later on the internet. 

And do you even know that Einstein never got expelled from school? He expelled himself because he detested the education system.

Do you even know that we indeed do use all parts of our brains instead of only 10% as suggested in the urban myth? 

Start to read from today, university graduates.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Engineers and Scholars Should be Doing

It seems that time barely moves. That is a good sign. It means a lot had been achieved and they had been accomplished so in a rather short time frame to have paled the notorious fast paces time is known to man since its introduction

I am finally committing to the landslide book project. I have been benevolently inspired by Chien Ning's writings, especially his epic book on mechanics of sediment transport. It proves a crucial point of a man's work: you have to document what you found. Documentation has to be performed through a careful sieving and crystallization process, and that means the person penning the compilation has to come alive within the words he composes. Few scholars write like that. And that's why they are famous, and also why their influences are widespread. They are able to wade through sea of literatures, pull from it a string that connects them, and upon that line build comprehensive contemplations and progressive works. In the landslide field, you do not see such type of writing. Even giants like Takahashi and Sassa are either too technical or too specific or too superficial. Emiliani said that the still looming science illiteracy today is largely due to the way science is taught in a fragmentary way. And in fact, this alludes to the knowledge of the engineering fields existing today as well: civil, electronics, electrical, computer engineering etc. Everywhere one looks, the flowers are blooming in their own springs but one can hardly see the core of all roots. Nobody seems to bother writing a simple comprehensive text that, say, wraps up civil engineering as a whole for a simple residential building from geotechnical to material to structural and lastly building maintenance.

I see that there are a lot of values in doing this. We as human beings are going to face greater and greater challenges due to intense climate change and population overgrowth. We need to start thinking about engineering the other way around, e.g. condensing a whole 7 million population of Hong Kong into merely two sky towers, a concept which now is heavily researched by the Japanese. Or start to look for possibilities of building structures under sea. Space is a dream. I do not say it will not become a reality 1000 years later, but at least in the future 100 years, I still cannot fathom 10 million people living in Mars. Think about the basic needs we have to supply ourselves in order to survive. How can you even guarantee there would not be a oxygen leak hazard in a dome civilization on Mars? That's a lot of engineering and over-the-edge investments needed to be funneled into that single effort alone.

I am just being realistic. Let's say, we are going to resort to building sky tower and marine structures. We need a lot of bright minds to involve to solve all the problems we are still trying to figure out all these years. Look guys, we cannot even dig into hard earth more than 1.5 kilometers deep, that I assure you. We still do not know for sure what is inside the core of the Earth. There's still a long road down there, and to be able to go revolutionary enough one needs works from the existing scholars today to write comprehensively about the existing technology and the directions academics are heading. Conduct extensive literature review, make predictions, and point out the workable big direction. Then make suggestions. Make a lot of suggestions, problems we need to solve like the impossible foundation loading of such a sky tower or marine structure, fire safety, seismic hazards etc. 

I look to my peers to commit to works in other fields. Every man will have at most 70 years to stay healthy enough to contribute. Let us encourage each other so that we can really educate the bright younger generations through these comprehensive writings and motivate them to look at the right problem in the right direction. And through these efforts, it will not be lost on us too the mountain of works we need to solve together. One day, humanity will need these knowledge. Let's just hope we can provide them before the day of dire needs comes.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Time from My Frame of Reference

Penning this when time is absolutely running short, I know I have to be precise and in fact, I am overwhelmed by emotions.

Yesterday when I was asked by the officer when have I moved to this current address, I was at a lost of words. I thought it was like, what? Years? But then, is it? I can't even remember. I can't even remember that we moved into here in November, and we did go back for CNY in February. I thought those pics I just saw in Facebook was taken during CNY in 2010. Time somehow moves a year faster in my reference frame.

What in the world had happened??

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Balance and Moving

For me the realm of science itself is more about awe, order and the fascinating innate ability of the few people who were able to thread them, sometimes in a web, sometimes a chain and sometimes a fuzzy state of being. Behold the uncertainty principle!

To the contrary of the beliefs of my friends and family, I am seriously very far away from even a modicum of discernment of this mysterious field. My mathematics is definitely mediocre, and I am beginning to pick up Calculus again. I am not particularly crazy about deep and revered passion in one direction, and for which I salvage myself through a pursuit of multiple ideas, fields and inspirations, sometimes crossing fiction to try to register the many psychological responses of human beings. In the light of this, I was and always will be a foot lagged, a step behind my peers in my eyes. I was always an equation short, a tool less. However so, I strive to explain things in my own words. I love to swim around it, or in another word, attack a problem with a sea of knowledge from different angles.

I had been through depression and thus I learned to be humble to myself. The greatest lie in the world is a lie to yourself, that's what I always remind myself. Sometimes I am cocky and stubborn and creasing at words which somehow crossed my line of defense, but these are all arrows pointing outward from my self, while within myself I pierce myself with all sorts of things I need to work on to improve, and this very ritual sometimes seems strikingly similar to the practice of penance. I always have that feeling down there. The feeling to hold on, to go on. It's sort of like jogging. You are hardly catching your breath, your legs are getting squiggly, yet you tell yourself that: lose it now you lose it forever, that sort of catch. 

And perhaps I could borrow a few tokens from Einstein, Larry Underwood (a character in King's "The Stand"), Feynman, Jobs, and whosoever I look up to. I always look up to people who were through a lot before they are who they are, especially mental struggles, ugly soul-searching and squeezed financial state. I do not believe in heroes. I believe in willpower, and I always believe it is that place which every fragment of the soul unites and unfolds unto an infinite opening.

From now on there are only the promises I made to myself, and the path. Tonight the wind is acing, Nature's demonstration at its best. Tonight, the force field is something which you could feel pumping in the air boisterous and merciless. Tonight is the night, the night which I think I have garnered the enough something in me, ether maybe, to move on.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. - Einstein

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hong Kong Book Fair 2012: What I Got

Years despite my first, I made my second Hong Kong Book Fair trip in 2012 fruitful. I had a book list jotted on my journal and I scavenged the piles of books strewn across the counters, well-prepared before the operation i.e. maps and locations of the places footnoted in my mind.

As expected, I saw no Vikram Seth nor Hilary Mantel nor E. O. Wilson nor Kate Summerscale nor Kurt Anderson. Be damned if I can spot Kurt Vonnegut. My laws. M-O-O-N that spells deprivation. 
              (Please forgive my Tom Cullen impersonation. He is one good soul living in me after I swallowed King's "The Stand")
For God's sake Hong Kong is still Hong Kong, the ever unforgiving malnutrition of the bookstore condition. The rest aside, still, I was sure I could get myself a few pieces of the more classical or critically acclaimed works. And howdy was I not wrong.

That's one thing I reminded myself to do during a book fair. Take a walk, remember the prices, only then purchase. That made damn sure the hole in my pocket does not grow more than its already haggardly state. Well here's what I'd got for myself:

1. Elizabeth Gilbert - Committed for HKD$ 48.00 or RM 19.20.
2. Rebecca Skloot -  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HKD$ 48.00 or RM 19.20
3. Walter Isaacson - Steve Jobs for HKD$ 150.00 or RM 60.00
4. Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel for HKD$ 117.6 or RM 47.04.
5. Mark Twain - The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn for HKD$ 29 or RM 11.40
6. Robert Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for HKD$ 50 or RM 20.00
7. Stephen King - Under the Dome for HKD$ 76.8 or RM 30.72
8. Walter Isaacson - Einstein for HKD$ 111.79 or RM 44.72
9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Brothers Karamazov for HKD$ 53.2 or RM 21.28.

To be honest the Dostoyevsky find is a surprise. Except for Mark Twain I guess I made all those decisions with clear judgment. To be honest I kind of regretted the purchase of Twain's because I could have just borrowed from the library.

Nonetheless, I think I have stocked up a reading chest for the coming 3 months on the very least. And these babies come at a good price!

p/s: There is a detour that I would like to talk about. PageOne's counter was without EPS service, a handy debit card service which works everywhere in Hong Kong but just not PageOne's counter in that Book Fair. Luckily Ling was working in the Fair and I got her to credit-carded title #4, #6 and #8. Lucky lucky.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On My Reading History and How to Keep the Passion Burning

The reading frenzy came back to me about a month ago. It came in such an unlikely circumstance which completely caught me off guard, and that had me thinking about reading once more. Things like the growth of character and honesty, and sometimes about how to keep the passion burning instead of having it put out for the past 6 years.

Maybe because I save my own money for my reading list, I always have a tendency to buy only books which are useful in the long run, and not simply for leisure or pleasure. I love reading, always do. I think since Form 3 at an age of fourteen (I was admitted into school a year earlier than my peers) I noticed my parents do not have big money to spend, and to spend thriftily means to spend on things necessary. On that note I started to save the meager pocket money my mum gave to me every school day (RM 3 or USD$ 1.20 ten years ago) for break meal for books and music. Yes I didn't eat for the few years in high school. Occasionally I did. Usually I didn't. Then at the end of Form 5 I started to teach tuition and took up part-time job as a cashier in nearby store to get the burden off my mum's shoulders. Since then I was on my own till now, spending my own money, on textbooks, meals, petrol etc. If there was any money left, you bet you would surely invest it upon something useful. Something which would make you grow instead.

That in fact, is how my adolescent years were. To buy books which were useful, that always meant non-fiction. To save it up even more, I bought pirated chinese books. The quality was always fluctuating. Some of them you could actually spot that few patches of missing ink and also the obvious photo-stating paper. Some of them were very, very original-like. Even today, I seldom see any pirated english books. That's more the reason why I read a lot of translated stuff those days. I hate translated stuff. They always leave those important terms and concept convoluted in the process of translation, and I spent most of my breaks in between reading to think what the author in his native tongue actually meant. Although this experience trained me to think out of the box and also to judge logically along the line of thought laid bare by the text, it was excruciating.

When my passion of reading came back, it was E.O. Wilson's "The Social Conquest of Earth". I discovered this title through an out-of-the-blue bookstore browsing, which I haven't done more than 5 times in the past 6 years. I bought it on a whim and I enjoyed it greatly. Then the gripping pleasure of reading is back, and I went on with another non-fiction by a Taiwanese Lung Ying Tai, then to my horror I noticed my pleasure in reading suddenly subsides. I mean, I need to constantly encourage myself to keep reading, and that will definitely transform into boredom later. I thought it was the author or the content, but when I tried another Murakami's collection of serious essays I faced the same feeling again. I think to myself, no way. What had exactly happened?

Like what you read before, I trod the history of my very own reading years and I thought some time after the years of heavy non-fiction, I began to burn out. Even for fiction, it was King Lear by Shakespeare which I was reading. It was too much. The only few joys I had was Jin Yong's books, and also the Harry Potter series, which the Jin Yong I bought mostly from pirated bookstore and Harry Potter series were borrowed from my friends. I didn't realize back then. But I burned out. 6 years of non-fiction everyday was too much for me.

I mused upon this, and I realized that I need to balance the books out. Non-fiction then fiction then history then fiction then biography and so on and so forth seems to be a good. In fact, it's far much better. I quickly purchased Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" and I finished it in 5 days. Then Paulo Coelho's "Aleph". Then Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational". Then Stephen King's "11.22.63", and now on his expanded "The Stand" borrowed from the library, all under a month. And not counting the various Murakami and Lung Ying Tai's serious essays I read occasionally, or Time or Fortune magazines, or The Illiad. It was crazy, a reading frenzy which surpassed my past record with a great lead up front. 

Not only that, I found passion reading scientific papers and reports in my research field now too. Inspirations are coming by the hand and I could formulate thoughts more easily. I have revelations now and then when I saw some news or heard some experience relayed by friends or during reading, because these non-fictions and fictions suddenly draw a good picture in my mind, mapping themselves to the concepts, the events, the stories which happened to explain each other. I realized how important this is, not just to make reading a bearable and fun experience, but too the knowledge which reinforces each other, be it fiction or non-fiction.

I guess now I earn my own bucks and have more than enough to spend, I decided to break myself free of the thought that books have to be educational and useful in the long term. I was so wrong. If you care to select good titles which have a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, you would live a fulfilling life of lifelong learning and interweaving perspectives on the myriad of life itself, instead of having yourself trapped to the boring or narrowed lens of non-fiction.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hong Konger: It's Time to Face the Facts and Start Doing Something

It's been some time since the intense debate about mainlanders vs Hong Kongers. The voices die down quite a bit, but there are some repercussions. For example, a lot of Hong Kongers on Facebook refer to the Simplified Chinese as 残体字 (crippled form of writing) etc.

I do not wish to participate in this mess. I just hope that my article could ring a bell, a bell loud enough to stir Hong Kongers to wake up a little. To do that, I need you to face some of the simple facts.

1) Mission Perfectly Impossible: Independence from China.

Face this serious, serious fact. With Taiwan out of reach, and self-immolations + rebel uprising in Xinjiang and Tibet, do you seriously, as a Hong Konger, think that Mainland China would, in any of their right mind, would let Hong Kong independent? That's outright bullshit.

So, stop talking about remaining as a Special Administrative Region. You know yourself, in your heart, that China is already meddling with the politics. And, would some of you stop stooping so low to waving British Hong Kong flags? What's the point? It might make you happy for like, a few seconds and then reality punches you right in the face after that? Does that feel good, like ever?

2) Stop Complaining.

The sheer disgust I derived from local Hong Kongers, especially the new generation, is that they love to talk shit and never do a thing about it. They lament, lambaste the government, curse on Facebook. After that? Nothing.

3) Start reading news, for God's sake.

By news, I mean news like Ming Pao Daily or South China Morning Post, and best if you can read a few more like International Herald Tribune etc. Stop reading Apple Daily or the gossip magazines. For God's sake. A lot of Hong Kong locals don't even know how the legislative council is elected in Hong Kong before the recent filibustering episode. And for God's sake, filibustering in a 'one-party' Hong Kong?

If you want to change Hong Kong, you need to understand Hong Kong inside out. Not just waving some flags and remain silent when you are offline.

4) Fight for United Media Watchdog.

Yes you know that. Even Ming Pao is watched and somehow 'controlled' by the Hong Kong government.

The one crucial thing Hong Kongers can do is, set up a trustworthy united media watchdog. Make it totally independent, and fund it through social channels, not political. Recruit top journalists, get experienced people from the UN and also renowned media like New York Times and Time Warner and whoever you can think of to coach the reporting standard, to mentor the independent media so that it produces an thoroughly opinionated and objective report. Hong Kong needs that. If not, I am pretty sure Hong Kongers will still be as separated today ten years later, and the divide might be even bigger without an independent watchdog.

5) Set up a Commission for General Election Advisory Board.

Get the professors to head this. Get a few of the UN people in as well. Set up milestones, and collect the people's opinions by constantly touring Hong Kong. (Come on, Hong Kong is small).

You cannot change the fact that one day Mainland China will eat you whole, culturally and linguistically. But you can change the destiny of your coming generation by being the first region in China to have independent general election. If you succeed in this, then Hong Kong will certainly have quite an important say in the political arena of China. Your time is running out. It has been 15 years since 1997. You only have 35 years left.

Get all the right voices, channeled together into an independent and collective milestones needed for Hong Kong to organize the delayed-and-delayed-again general election. You need great lobbyists, people from business, political figures etc. These lobbyists will keep organizing talks through meeting the current administrative people, through the United Media Watchdog, through university talks, through roadshows, through charity concerts, through television programs, through documentaries that are available internationally, through carefully crafted messages in funded local movies and drama.

To be honest, there is so much Hong Kongers can do, and still it really hurts to see you all are growing silent. I see a lot of foul languages on Facebook. I see a lot of misdirected laments, like that on Simplified Chinese. I see a lot of intentionally generalized anger towards Mainland Chinese. I see a lot of time-wasting efforts, if you keep on going in this direction.

It's time to wake up, Hong Kongers. Stop cursing, stop complaining. Do something, before it's too late.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

HKUST and Research Obstacle

I love research, especially the physics which explain all these phenomena as simple and from a scale as tiny as it would be. Sometimes I love the maths, sometimes I don't, although usually I tend to love it more. 

Up until now, there are of course ups and downs that I went through during my career as a research student. I even fell into a long period of depression for as long as a year. However tough it was for me, I pulled myself together in the very end with the help from the love of my family, and particularly the ever-tolerating attitude of my supervisor. One of these days when I am working real hard, I come to think that one of these reasons that made me really upset all these years would be the ever-dragging university technicians

I admit it. A lot of them are top-notched, but some of them are worse than drunkards when it comes to working out the possibility of your new experimental design and refining it. I know the mentality that they're getting paid no matter you get the job done or not, since the research students are in such a position which we own no superiority nor the employer-employee relationship with them. But these situations, when occur more than three times a week, will really get frustrating when one or two of these really hard-to-go-with people decided to screw you up over, maybe, how you look on that particular day when you relay your idea to them.

I learned to go around them. To please them, with some of the hometown cookies. But seriously, they are the reasons which I loathe and put myself down at times when I am thinking of some new designs. Sometimes when you are doubting whether these new designs would work or not, because of these hurdles, you would tend to tell yourself, nay, maybe, some other day? 

And that day never comes.

Well, unless some of those days when you let in some lights during a meeting with your supervisor and he/she decided that it is such a good idea to try, then will it get revive and you toughen yourself up to fight with these people again.

I seriously think this is such a waste of time. In the end, university is the spring of creativity, of places where all things and ideas are tried out, whether they work or not.

In the end I decided enough is enough with the technicians. The only way I can minimize my frustration is to build my own lab, with my own people, and so far I got pretty satisfied about it, with everybody working as hard and crazily as I am.

I secretly promise to myself that when some day I land myself at a place in this university, like the Dean, then this would be the very first problem I would attend to. I would make sure the contract of the technicians who are reported by the students be put under renewable contract, half a year once. Maybe then, they would get serious with the all the vibes going about, trying out new things and getting new findings.

I am not so sure if other schools have this problem too. I refrain from making generalization, but there is in fact some things you can do:

1) Get your supervisor to help. Persuade the technician to get something done faster. Some supervisors are really helpful, they might even scold the technicians as I had heard, although I don't really like that to happen, since after the incident the worst victim would be the student. Soft persuasion is preferred, of all the others.

2) If you have a new idea, talk to people around you. If the feedback is good, or you have a great feeling that this is going to be the next big thing for you, just bang head-to-head with the technicians, and use (1) to solve things afterwards if they decide to 'snail', a.k.a. indefinitely prolong the working progress.

3) Sweet-talk them. Or buy them things, from time to time. Write them thank you cards. Surprise them! Play badminton with them. Go to the illegal afternoon tea sessions with them often enough to make them feel guilty! It works!

Well at the end of the day, if none of the above works for you, perhaps, you need a bit of luck!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Feynman, Death and Population Overgrowth

Tired and aching from the journey to China, I came home early to sleep but then on second whim I decided to stay awake. Not that I am much refreshed after shower, but rather that one of the articles in Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" coated me with inexplicable sadness. That kind which blankets you about an inch away from your skin, if you know what I mean. It is not deep within you, nor is it strongly felt. It's just, there.

In case you do not know who Feynman is, he is one of the finest treasures of the human race and he is one of the great scientists recruited in Manhattan Project, the creation of atomic bomb.

Feynman is great. For me he is much greater than Einstein, Bohr, von Neumann or any other of those famous physicists or mathematicians you heard of. The thing is that, Feynman lives life as if it is an experiment, and in it he poured all kinds of imaginable chemicals and stir them up to see if there's any spark coming out. More than his science is his treatment of love. Arlene, his first wife and him. My heart breaks when he wrote about how he found his wife dead on the hospital bed after 7 years of fighting with tuberculosis.

"Arlene died a few hours after I got there ... ... Then I looked at the clock I had given her seven years before, when she had first become sick with tuberculosis. It was something which in those days was very nice: a digital clock whose numbers would change by turning around mechanically. The clock was very delicate and often stopped for one reason or another - I had to repair it from time to time - but I kept it going for all those years. Now, it had stopped once more - at 9:22, the time on the death certificate!


I had obviously done something to myself psychologically: Reality was so important - I had to understand what really happened to Arlene, physiologically - that I didn't cry until a number of months later, when I was in Oak Bridge. I was walking past a department store with dresses in the window, and I thought Arlene would like one of them. That was too much for me."

Apparently it was shot into a movie too. And the ending was exactly that of the last sentence. I didn't know that. I should spend some time to watch it some other day when I was not that busy. It must heartbreaking to see that moment portrayed, especially if the actors are good, and that I don't really know.

And Arlene always probed Feynman: What do you care about what the others say?

That alone kept Feynman going against his critics, achieving great success in science, only to remind himself more of Arlene when he basked in the glory of Nobel Prize.

During the Trinity atomic bomb test, everyone was given a dark goggle to wear, to protect the viewers from the bright light. Feynman was given one too, but decided to not use it because he simply could not see anything at all. He knew that the only dangerous light would be UV light, so he hid himself behind a car's glass, because UV cannot penetrate glass, and watch the atomic bomb exploded with human eyes. And I think he is right: he is the first and only person to see the atomic bomb test exploded, real-time, with human eyes.

At first he was simple exhilarated to have achieved the success, and only to see Bob Wilson the physicist who recruited him to join the project sitting in the office chair, saying: "We had built ourselves a monster, a sin." which Feynman did not understand at first.

Only then after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were eradicated did Feynman realized the complication at heart. What if where he was sitting now, the cafe at New York 6th Street, was receiving a shock wave so powerful that all glasses were shattered, his body thrown away like a dust and when the rays of a thousand sun burning engulfs him, everything is lost forever?

Would life ever be the same again? Would he join the Manhattan Project cause again? He didn't have an answer too.

In fact these kind of situations were so hard that even the facts themselves made us crimped:
1) Population growth is simply draining our earth resources;
2) More oil reserves used means a much more destroyed planet which could not possibly be savored if we continue to burn them in the coming 25 years.

If you extrapolate that, lower birth rate is actually a good sign. Stalling economies mean that the world will be forced to spend less resources, thus preserve a good balance. What I know now is we are in such a desperate situation today, the world would do much better by cutting half of the total population. If you start to take a gun and shoot people on the street, human will punish you in jail or sentence you to death, but the Mother Nature in fact would probably be sighing in relief.

We celebrate life but we are disgusted and recoiled when we are told that death of a lot of human is actually necessary to preserve balance. Like what Isaac Asimov said, everything human builds, moral values and ethics and religious belief all in all, this will all simply crumble when human population exploded into uncontrollable scale which simply depletes all but a few resources on Earth.

When that moment arrives, there is no God. Or it's like in the Bible, the Heaven and Earth joins. We will all simply meet our ends at the same time after we single-handedly destroy our own ecosystem. That, would be the cruel Judgment Day.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Light up, light up

The first time I heard this song, I twitched. My face, my heart. Somehow I bought one of the compilation albums and there it appeared at track 7, with this deepened sadness lingering around the air. It was 2004, my Lower Six year.

Year after year, the lyrics rings a louder and louder tone of sadness. It is the rhythm of farewell, that kind which you barely could even look at any more in your life henceforth. The choice I made up myself to part way is what makes it even more heartbreaking, and as you look back, you could see a clear steer-off path which at that time you somehow could not decide whether the choice was going to be all right for anyone, at all. 

As if you have a choice.

Sometimes, I wonder why you could not just speak up. You could have just voiced your real feelings, and maybe, for that slight moment, we could have changed the course of our lives. Maybe you already did, maybe not. The choice has already been made, and the course already differs ever since.

Louder, louder
And we'll run for our lives
I can hardly speak, I understand
Why can't you raise your voice to say?

Even if you cannot hear my voice
I'll be right beside you dear

Maybe. As an old friend, from a far away place in alternate time.

everybody's life without this song is incomplete.
BAMFU80; Youtube comment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Malaysia in Every Malaysian

Malaysia, our home, the place which always resides inside me, inspires me and provides me that kind of subtle exhilaration every time the plane touches down on her soil the air stewardess said: "...and Malaysians, welcome home!"

Because of all the political debacle, being a Malaysian is harsh. Unless your family is well-connected to a political figure, most probably you need to dye yourself with a little patch of black before you can make a dent in the industry you wanna set foot in. Or it requires extra, extra effort. Most of us opt to seek better and readily offered opportunities overseas.

Malaysians are always passionate inside, but not really aggressive. We choose peace instead of "I-gonna-hate-you-the-rest-of-my-life" stand-off, which is pretty different from the atmosphere here in Hong Kong. We do not take the stance of dissing each other for fun and past time activities. Instead we hike, picnic, seaside barbeque-ing (yes with a real fire!!!) and apartment stay! We value peace, relaxation and comfort. Especially comfort. The shorts and slippers and slightly gelled hair, sipping milo ais under an umbrella of mamak stall, isn't that wonderful?

When it's hot, we hide under umbrella. When night falls, we love the cool open air!

We might not have prettiest girl in the world, but we have the kindest and cordial girl in Asia. Most of them not super brand conscious, fun to chat with and love to eat all those delicious food readily available everywhere. Zee Avi touches my heart the most among all the Malaysian singers, which includes Fish Leung (梁靜茹), Penny Tai (戴佩妮) etc. I guess we all have an affinity for these comfortable voices, softening us up when we need to loosen a bone or two. Gentle, not truly a trouble-seeker and not too individualistically stubborn: and that writes the underlying personalities of most Malaysians I would say.

I love Malaysia. Every inch of the soil and the air. The friendly smiles on strangers when we greet each other. The good old days, the good old country, the good old people. It's a pity that we are driven into a corner today by corruption and havoc inducing politicians. No matter what, I want to change Malaysia, for a better future. This coming election, I am going back to vote for goddamn sure, so that one day whenever I have a successful business, I would want to base that in Malaysia. Such a beautiful place with such heart-warming culture!

Ask every Malaysian you know around you who are living and/or working abroad. No, we just do not renounce our nationality. In the heart of every Malaysian, we are still who we are. We are from Malaysia.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Home Office, the Bauhaus Way

A serene view: The tranquil bay decorated with preserved terrain of shrubs and trees

The breeze brushing past my cheek slowly, wakens me up to the beautiful sea view unfolded before my eyes. I am up pretty high in the sky, but I am not on a mountain. This photo is captured right out of the window of my home office.

The mesmerizing moment comes when the sun shines onto you in the early morning after waking up from a slumber for work. The monthly rent of HKD$8500 for 600 sq ft in Hong Kong is expensive, but if you got lucky and take your time with apartment hunting, you have a chance to grab one of these serene lots, and with the peace awakened within your soul when you breathe into the salty wind, it's just priceless. That's even more wondrously gratifying when you have to work from home.

We got two rooms, so we decided one of them to be used as the office. Rooms in Hong Kong when you are not well-off (fresh graduate) could be a little crampy, and after living in this metropolitan concrete jungle for over 5 years I somehow obtain the sense of making the most out of space, while securing private corners without sacrificing comfort. Steamrolling my engineering training and blending it with the bauhaus design concept, I mix and match furniture I need in my mind and from what's already available. The landlady lent us the lot along with a few traditional chinese wood furniture and we think it's best not to buy too many things of our own since we are going to move in the future anyway. The room is about 3.2 meters by width (the side with windows) and 3.5 meters by length. Extremely small, by Malaysian standard which is.

Spacious working table and comfortable sofa bed for reflection

We didn't get to this arrangement from the very start but I knew that we need to have a huge working table, which is able to lay across on top of itself a desktop and a laptop while leaving some extra space by the length of an arm for document processing. We got the table from IKEA for about HKD$300. 

The sofa is a later addition, which itself could be stretched out into a sofa bed, providing us a double function. I am very particular about sofa. Since childhood, I have always been working and studying on a sofa. The past 4 years have been excruciatingly painful for me because you simply could not add an extra stool in your university dormitory, let alone a sofa (the university dorm is very small). Plus, the Hong Kong universities in general are very bureaucratic and they will simply freak out when you told them you want to buy your own furniture and have theirs temporarily cast away in storeroom. I remained utterly unhappy for the rest of my undergraduate years, trying to make myself comfortable on public sofa in the library while ignoring all those assaying eyes on you when you take off your slippers and pull your feet underneath your butt.

When you equip your office with a desktop, inevitably you would have to deal with all the cables and wires. We shrewdly hide them behind the table and the computers, while not stashing them too far out of reach so that cleaning is made easier. On the right hand side of the table we make the landlady's pot rack into one where a printer stands on the top, and the rest of stationery holders, connecting cables, wireless radio etc. on the racks beneath, cleverly creating a clean workstation. The pot rack itself is hidden away from sight by a open wardrobe. An unused polo luggage is laid on the side of the hidden from view rack, serving the purpose of CPU stand and also a place for handy stationery.

Printer on pot rack, and Polo luggage turned into a small table
Book rack and mobile reading lamp

The book rack completes the home office, allowing organization of personal, office and research documents. Perhaps you had already caught sight of the reading lamp in Photo 2, and here it appears again in Photo 4. By plugging the reading lamp to an electric socket right behind the sofa, it becomes a mobile light which could be simply put on the book rack for a casual reading experience on the sofa and the table while serious work has to be tended to properly.

For me, workstation is almost meant to be refreshing, clean and comfortable. By putting a little bit more effort into making the most use out of a space which is to be tailored to your purpose and also aesthetics, you could achieve wonders too, bauhaus-wise.

Saturday, April 07, 2012