Are there any engineers in The House?

October 5, 2011

The BBC reports that

The Italian government’s credit rating has been slashed by Moody’s from Aa2 to A2 with a negative outlook.

The ratings agency blamed a “material increase in long-term funding risks for the euro area”, due to lost confidence in eurozone government debts.

To anyone with any sort of engineering background this is as clear example as it is possible to have of a positive feedback loop leading to hunting oscillation. And the answer in this case is equally clear – break the loop and then, if it is certain that controlled feedback has some value, remake it with some appropriate hysteresis in place.

Breaking the loop means simply shutting down the ratings agencies – any useful purpose they may once have served is now vastly outweighed by the damage they are doing through providing this feedback mechanism. I would suggest also simply banning short selling for a period – this too is clearly a major contributor to hunting oscillation. Once the markets have reached a more stable state, and after a period of careful thought, then some elements of positive feedback could be reintroduced, with appropriate regulatory controls.

Sadly, with governments staffed by lawyers and under the sway of the gambling bankers I fear this is unlikely to happen. It’s a great shame that there aren’t sufficient people of a rational scientific or engineering background in government.

Racism in the SCMP

October 12, 2010

I was surprised, and not a little saddened, to read the racist views of Alvin Sallay in the SCMP on Sunday when writing about the Hong Kong ladies cricket team:

Godiva is one of nine Chinese girls in the 15-strong women’s squad. The rest are non-Chinese, but all are united in the fact that they qualify for the games by being born in Hong Kong and holding SAR passports.

This is a quite outrageous sentiment. People who are born in Hong Kong and are citizens of China holding Hong Kong passports must be “Chinese”. What else could they be?

Read the rest of this entry »

Government by Fear (again)

March 3, 2010

With thanks to Bruce Schneier for highlighting it in his blog, I must recommend this essay by Tom Engelhardt for getting to the essence of the US Government’s “management by fear” approach to terrorism. Sadly, many other governments seem to follow their lead.

They just don’t get it, do they?

March 3, 2010

On viewing the plans for the new Legco accommodation (in part of what used to be the beautiful Victoria Harbour) Emily Lau commented “I think it’s better sound-proofing the room because it will be disturbing if there are protests outside”.

Oh dear. Democracy? Who needs it, eh?

“Procurement by false pretences” – the HK legal system makes an ass of itself

January 6, 2010

There are so many issues raised by the case brought against a self-proclaimed Taoist practitioner accused of duping a young model into having sex, and by the verdict and judgement delivered against him, that it is difficult to know where to start. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Hong Kong legal system (normally so sound) has made a complete ass of itself in this case.

Read the rest of this entry »

Meyado / Meretec / MITL / Martin Young – A Cautionary Tale

November 9, 2009

One of the banes of one’s life as an expat is the frequent calls from often very persistent “Financial Advisers” who claim to be able to offer all sorts of ways of enhancing one’s wealth. Unfortunately, bitter experience has taught me that the only people’s wealth they tend to enhance is their own – and the best example of this for me is the “Meyado Private Wealth Management Group“, a UK-based group who were active in Hong Kong in 2001 to 2003 and succeeded in extracting quite a bit of wealth from me before they were run out of town by the Securities and Futures Commission. It is clear that I was far from alone in this, and there are various sites on the internet where others have expressed their displeasure over the years with Meyado (there were more, but apparently Meyado has resorted to legal action to get some taken down). The latest such attempt to get a critical mass of people together to go after Martin Young (the CEO and owner of Meyado) and his cronies has now appeared at and I wish it every success. Read the rest of this entry »

Here we go again!

May 2, 2009

I hope to address the current institutionalised panic in more detail when I have time later. But I just have to say that the government’s imprisoning of 300 people against their will in the Metro Park Hotel for no rational reason whatsoever is a gross violation of their human rights, and I hope that they were take appropriate legal action for false imprisonment when they are released. I hope that a good number of them are foreign citizens who will be fully supported by their governments in this.

It is a crying shame that Hong Kong has been made the laughing stock of rational people worldwide by the actions of the administrative class in Hong Kong. These people were very well trained to administer the city under other people’s leadership, but they are totally and utterly out of their depth intellectually when it comes to providing the leadership which this city has been so sadly lacking for the last 12 years.

Obama on faith & values

February 8, 2009

It is so refreshing to have a US President who isn’t under the cosh of Christian fundamentalists, or indeed of religion in general. The Heresiarch has written an excellent piece analysing and contrasting the speeches of Messrs Obama and Blair at a recent event; it is long but well worth the effort. It is great to see that not only does Obama make a point of reaching out to all faiths, he explicitly and repeatedly includes humanists in his comments and explicitly acknowledges that a decent moral code does not require a religion.

Clearly it is still very early in the process, but could Obama’s election possibly mark the being of the end of the period (short in the history of mankind) during which religious delusionists have been the major force in the world? We can only hope so.

Genital Mutilation

January 24, 2009

It is good to see from the Beeb that Denmark (my paternal ancestral home) is taking a lead and finally prosecuting people for genital mutilation of their children.

It is unfortunate, however, that, so far at least, they have a sexist application of this law. I look forward to the day when god delusionists of various types are up in court for mutilating their sons.

Food & Drink labelling in Hong Kong

December 15, 2008

My rant for the week is about both the poor requirements of food labelling in Hong Kong and the lax enforcement of such standards as do exist.

Firstly ingredients: the Government in its wisdom recently introduced new food labelling regulations for Hong Kong. Not content with accepting that if, say, the food was labelled adequately in English for the US, EU or Australian markets then that would be sufficient, they insisted on imposing their own rules and hence requiring almost all imported foodstuffs to be relabelled specifically for Hong Kong, thereby imposing a significant cost increase on the suppliers or distributors and thence price increases on the consumers. Read the rest of this entry »

This throwaway society

June 2, 2008

Last week we had a power spike chez smog (in fact the power was out at our apartment for nearly 3 hours, which is a first for me). The only consequence was that my monitor just played dead.

So I bundled it up and took it down to Wanchai Computer Centre to get someone to fix it. Much to my amazement I couldn’t find anyone in any of the so called “repair & service” shops who had the slightest interest in having a look at it. They all simply said “throw it away and get a new one – they are only seven or eight hundred dollars”. I offered them $500 if they could fix it. They refused. Read the rest of this entry »

Pimping, Albert Yeung style

April 20, 2008

The SCMP reports today on some of the details of the contract which Albert Yeung Sau Shing’s Emperor Entertainment Group has with one Isabella Leong. If any doubt remained that this man is basically a pimp procuring young girls as his slaves then it is pretty much dispelled now. Read the rest of this entry »

Jaw droppingly ignorant remark of the week…

April 19, 2008

… must be the one reported by The Standard from one Joseph Law, chairman of the “Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association” (which a quick Google will show could probably be more accurately named “The Hong Kong Association for the Restoration of Slavery”). Read the rest of this entry »

Fair warning as far as I am concerned

March 28, 2008

I find no reason at all to object to the making and publication of the following film. I do, however, have a major problem with the actions and views of the Muslim people shown and described within it. I’ll write more on this later, but in the meantime here is the film. Read the rest of this entry »

Hate speech or fair warning?

March 23, 2008

There’s a big storm brewing over the film by Dutch politician Geert Wilders which apparently describes Islam as “the enemy of freedom”. The site where he was proposing to host the film has been closed down by the American administrators (Network Solutions Inc) after complaints of “hate speech” were received. This raises some very fundamental questions about tolerance, free speech and “hate”. Read the rest of this entry »

Calming words from Professor Yuen, disappointing ones from Mr Chow

March 14, 2008

It seems after all that some lessons are being learned from the SARS experience. Professor Yuen Kwok-yung’s expert panel has found that there is no evidence that the current flu outbreak is any more virulent than normal, and seem to be quite open about their findings.

On the other hand the Health Secretary, York Chow Yat-ngok, (a politician primarily, not a scientist) continues to demonstrate that the concept of leadership is completely alien to him. Read the rest of this entry »

Government by fear and incompetents yet again

March 13, 2008

So here we go again – a couple of kids die and the city goes into panic mode. Whatever happened to having leaders who could analyse a situation rationally, act appropriately and communicate what they are doing and why to the people? Read the rest of this entry »

Yet more Tamiflu hype from the HK medical establishment

March 10, 2008

The Standard today has a huge headline across the front page saying: “TAMIFLU ALERT” and reports that overdosing of the drug reduces effectiveness against bird flu.

It has been clear for some time that the Hong Kong medical establishment has either been completely blinded by the weight of Roche’s marketing of Tamiflu, or, perhaps, that they have some other incentive firstly to place huge orders for a Tamiflu stockpile and secondly to keep it in the public eye so that people go and waste their money on it every time some little kid has a runny nose. Read the rest of this entry »

Government by Fear in Singapore too…

February 29, 2008

I’ve been in Singapore for an annual meeting the last couple of days. Got my Starbucks, went to the office tower, went up the escalator on autopilot and found a set of pass card entry barriers blocking the way to the lifts. So a staff member directed me to where I could exchange some sort of ID for a passcard. No questions asked. I could then proceed through the barriers and up to the office I wanted to go to. On the way out retrieve your ID in exchange for the passcard.

Now I can see absolutely no purpose being served by this whatsoever, except to employ a few people to exchange IDs for passcards. To me it just seems to be something designed to remind people that they should in some undefined sense be afraid of something. WHY?

Read the rest of this entry »

Some Statistics & Relative Risk Analysis on SARS

June 23, 2003

For the historical interest (and because echoes of the hysteria are still heard in the context of “bird flu”) I have posted here some analysis from the time of the mass hysteria known as SARS. I have updated the links where they have changed and I can still find the relevant document. Unfortunately two documents no longer appear to be online, as noted in the text. Any help locating them would be gratefully received.


On 23 June 2003 the WHO declared that Hong Kong was no longer an area with recent local transmission of SARS. The outbreak is officially over, although a few patients remain in hospital. My thanks to various people who have emailed me with comments. I hope this site has helped to allay some people’s fears.


Click for a graphical summary

Click here for the underlying Excel spreadsheet.

Summary @ 23 June 2003
Latest day’s change
Total Cases 1755 100% 0
Deaths 296 16.9% 0
Of which: age 65-79 110 37% 0
Age 80+ 75 25% 0
0-64 chronically ill / late treatment 53 18% 0
“general population”* 58 20% 0
Intensive Care (snapshot) 10 0.6% -1
Still in hospital (not ICU) 38 2.2% 0
Recovered (discharged) 1411 80.4% +1

* by which I mean people who were under 65, not chronically ill, and sought treatment early

For a full list of the age, sex, and previous medical status of all the people dying so far click here.

The “long run” mortality rate of the cases admitted to hospital using the figure for the cases “concluded” one way or the other is 296/(296+1411) = 17.3%. However, calculating the overall mortality rate of SARS also requires us to know how many people in total have been exposed to the causative factors (virus and/or other things); no data is currently available on this except some small sample tests in North America which show that around 15% of the general population test positive for the virus.

There is a very helpful (but quite technical) information paper at the Chinese University website with data from Prince of Wales Hospital. It shows that approximately 20-25% of SARS patients had symptoms severe enough to require Intensive Care admission and 10-15% require intubation and ventilation (i.e. they cannot breath unaided).

Pneumonia in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong the “normal” annual number of cases of pneumonia which require hospitalisation is in the range 15,000 – 25,000. 50% of these pneumonias have an unknown cause. (Source: Hong Kong Medical Association [Update March 2007 – unfortunately this link is broken and I have not been able to find a copy of this report online.]) A much higher number of cases of pneumonia (perhaps 100,000-150,000) are not severe enough to warrant hospitalisation, but I have not found hard data on this.

The normal number of deaths due to pneumonia in Hong Kong is in the range 2,000-3,000 per year.
(Source: HK Government Health Department Annual Report)

The vast majority of these deaths from pneumonia occur amongst the elderly. For example, in year 2000 there were 3,041 deaths from pneumonia, of which 79 were in people age 44 or lower.
(Source: HK Government Health Department Annual Report ibid)


1. How easy is it to catch?

From the data on the Amoy Gardens Block E case it appears that about 1 in 4 of the people in that building have shown some symptoms. This makes it similar to common colds or influenza, but much easier to catch than “typical” pneumonia.

It seems that very few people who come in casual contact with virus carriers develop symptoms of pneumonia. Even amongst health workers attending SARS patients (albeit with a high degree of protection) only about 6% show any symptoms of SARS at all.

2. Who dies with it?

On 27th May the Health Department published a bulletin [Note: March 2007, the link is now to the Chinese version of this – I can no longer find the english version online.] including the incidence by age and sex of the cases and deaths up to 16th May. This emphasises the, not unexpected, higher mortality rates with increasing age. However, the age profile is skewed more towards younger people than the profile for “typical” pneumonia.

Men are significantly more likely to die if they are diagnosed with SARS than women, constituting about 45% of the cases, but 60% of the deaths.

Curiously, despite constituting about 22% of the cases of SARS, only six deaths have occurred amongst public hospital medical workers, which, by the “concluded case” calculation method, suggests that medical workers have a mortality rate of about 1.6% and everyone else has a mortality rate of just over 20%. Moreover, the Amoy Gardens patients have a mortality rate of about 10% and those patients who are neither medical nor Amoy Gardens have a mortality rate of about 33%.

3. How high is the risk relative to others?

a) Death

Since SARS was first publicised (on 11 March) – i.e. in 104 days – there have been 296 deaths classified as SARS, amongst over 1000 total deaths from all types of “atypical pneumonia”. (Source: Presentation at FCC by Vivian Wong, 12 May. Extrapolated from end April. Not available online.) In other words, throughout this period, twice as many people have died of other types of atypical pneumonia as from SARS.

In that same period up to June 23, around 550 people in HK would have been expected to die from accidental injury or poisoning.

b) Serious Illness

The data on the Chinese University site data above suggests that the cumulative number of people with SARS who have spent some time in ICU is around 400.

In year 2000 there were the following number of cases (not deaths) of these serious diseases in HK:

Tuberculosis: 7578

Viral hepatitis: 683

Bacillary dysentery: 310

Typhoid: 105

(Source for all illness/mortality data: HK Government Health Department Annual Report 2000/2001)

4. Is this really something new?

At a Panel Lunch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in HK on 12 May, Vivian Wong, Director at the Hospital Authority presented data which showed that the total number of deaths from Atypical Pneumonias of all causes in the period Jan-April 2003 was less than 5% higher than the number of deaths in the same period in 2002. The number of reported cases of Atypical Pneumonia increased by about 40%, however, Ms Wong stated that a significant proportion of the cases being reported this year were suffering from symptoms that would not normally be sufficiently serious for them to be hospitalised or even to consult a doctor.

Reading from a printout of a graph, the total number of deaths from Atypical Pneumonia in Jan-Apr 2002 was around 1220. In Jan-Apr 2003 the number was around 1280, of which 157 were classified as SARS. In other words, SARS has not significantly increased the overall death rate from atypical pneumonias, and still only constitutes about 12% of the deaths in HK from them so far in 2003 (although SARS deaths constitute about one third of atypical pneumonia deaths since the start of SARS dignoses in mid-March). Pneumonia deaths fluctuate significantly by year, and an increase of 5% is well within the normal fluctuation.

Discussion, Tentative Conclusions & Open Questions

(This section contains personal opinions and hypotheses)

It seems to me that there is clear evidence that if you search for SARS using the current heuristic “tests” then you will find it in quite significant numbers. It seems reasonable that the medical staff are being examined for SARS most closely, and a fairly large number of them (386 @ 13 June) have been diagnosed with it. However, a press release on 30 April stated that 5800 HK medical staff (doctors plus nurses) were then engaged in treating SARS patients. So even with very intimate contact with other sufferers (albeit with heavy protection) only about 6% of medical staff have contracted any symptoms of SARS.

In the Amoy Gardens case there were efforts to diagnose all residents, but I presume these were not as rigourous or regular as those for medical staff. This results in a higher number of identified cases for Amoy Gardens, and hence a much lower mortality rate than non-medical, non-Amoy cases.

This third category (non-medical, non-Amoy) is essentially self-diagnosing. The case will only enter the statistics if the patient chooses to visit a medical facility. With less severe cases this will result it a much lower notification rate, particularly amongst men (if experience of other viruses is followed).

When considering the significantly higher ratio of death to diagnosis amongst men, it seems that there could be two reasons for this: either men are simply more likely to die from SARS (possibly due to many more being smokers) or far more women than men with mild cases of SARS choose to seek medical help.

For me, the key data is that on the medical staff. We can assume this is a thoroughly observed and tested group. Out of 5800 public hospital staff, only 6% have shown symptoms of the disease and only 1.6% of that 6% (i.e. six out of 5800 people) has died with the disease. Clearly, data on how many medical staff have required ICU treatment would be valuable.

For the more general population the data presented at the FCC on 12 May is critical – it shows that there is no significant increase in the number of deaths due to Atypical Pneumonia in Hong Kong. More cases have been identified because of the focus on it, but many of these are not severe enough to warrant hospital treatment except as a means of quarantine.

It is also interesting to note that the best available test for the CoronaVirus allegedly responsible for SARS showns positive in only 40% of patients labelled as “SARS” and also shows positive in around 15% of the general population without SARS symptoms. (Source: Head of Toronto Microbiology, widely quoted in the press)

Professor Yuen Kwok-Yung of HKU was reported in the South China Morning Post on 9 May: “He said most Sars patients died because of the serious side-effects of the steroids. High doses of steroids suppress
patients’ immunity, making them more susceptible to infection by other bacteria.” It would be very interesting to study the mortality rate of a random group of people matching the demographics and health condition of the SARS patients if treated with the regime of drugs which has been imposed on them in Hong Kong.

In a press conference on 10 May various senior medical figures talked of a revised treatment regime which is now much lighter on steroids. Read the Press Release here