Geek God

An attempt to decode a tech start-up genius

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Looking dapper in crisp blue shirt and expertly cut khaki trousers, Alvin Hung Yiu-kei looks too well groomed to be your average neighborhood geek. But as the proverb goes: you cannot teach a crab to walk straight so don’t be fooled.

“I became addicted to video games in primary school – so much so that I would take apart the computer codes to modify the characters I was playing to make them become invulnerable, and have unlimited attack points and money,” said the Hong Kong native.

Cashing in on his inner geek, Hung founded GoAnimate, a California- headquartered animated video creation company in 2007. The firm has produced 22 million animations via a cloud-based platform over the last decade.

Hung’s company also has offices in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And in his Sheung Wan office, a team of 40 local employees are serving 8.5 million registered users around the world, including the US government and universities in the Golden State.

Born into a family of industrialists, Hung chose a different path from his uncle Peter Hung Hak-hip and elder brother Marvin Hung Ming-kei, who still manage the family’s cooking oil and restaurant empire.

Hung’s late grandfather was founder of the Hong Kong-listed Hop Hing Group Holdings, which currently operates the Japanese “beef and rice bowl” fast-food chain Yoshinoya, and American ice-cream and restaurant chain Dairy Queen in northern China.

His family also owns the privately- held Harvest Trinity Development, which produces Lion & Globe and Camel cooking oils.

“I am not interested in my family business, and I don’t want to say too much about it,” he said. “It’s not fair to my company and my team if I am always mentioning what my family does. My company is successful today because my team built it from the ground up piece by piece.”

Although Hung is now boss of a thriving tech company, he has not given up his game addiction. When he hires new employees, he expects them to boast about their prowess in World of Warcraft. He also finds time during lunch to play online card games with his staff.

“You can learn a lot from playing video games,” he said. “For example, StarCraft taught me resource allocation, and through Overwatch, I understood the importance of sympathy.”

Hung got the idea of starting his own tech company, thanks to his father’s complaints about his addiction. Hung’s father left an issue of Fortune magazine in his room one Sunday when he was in primary four. In it was a story about Bill Gates.

Since then, the Microsoft founder has become an idol for Hung. Hung majored in computer science at Columbia University in New York. After graduation, he founded two tech companies, Net Strategy and Ascent Technology, which he later sold.

“At university, my classmates were struggling with their programming homework,” he recalled. “Not me. I was having so much fun that even if I lost sleep to finish a project, I enjoyed it. It was as enjoyable as playing video games overnight.”

GoAnimate is Hung’s third start-up. It started as a personal project after he quarreled with his wife. Hung had wanted to make a short animated film to cheer her up, but did not succeed after trying for hours.

“I was very irritated,” he recalled. “All those drawing and animation software were so hard to use. Even someone like me who have read computer science couldn’t manage them.”

That experience prompted him to start a do-it-yourself platform on which users can make their own animated films using pre-produced clip arts. Users can publish their videos after dubbing them with their own audio recordings.

Initially, Hung raised funds in Silicon Valley to finance his third company. In 2011, YouTube invited GoAnimate to join a suite of chosen apps available to individual content creators. GoAnimate broke even a year later.

“Short films have become a sought- after marketing tool. Traditionally, it takes tens of thousands of dollars and at least three months to produce a short film. What we offer can save time and money,” he said.

“Our growth in North America and Europe has been strong over the last 10 years. We kept hiring but still couldn’t catch up with the demand there. That’s why we are less visible in Hong Kong. We didn’t have enough manpower and time to take care of Asia.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 24, 2017.

 

Quantum of Solace

Quantum scientist Michele Mosca explains what quantum computing is, and why the technology is going to change our views about cybersecurity

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Like big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics is perhaps one of the most successful and baffling theories in science. The theory that was developed at the start of the 20th century calculates with incredible precision how light and matter behave.

It became the theoretical foundation of much of today’s information technology, as it has for some aspects of chemical processing, molecular biology, and the discovery of new materials.

Yet physicist Richard Feynman’s private joke about the theory still rings true today: if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t.

“We don’t understand it, but we can tell you how it works,” said mathematician and quantum scientist Michele Mosca. “We know how to use it, and we are building devices that can use it. There is no uncertainty about how it works and how we can use it to do robust cryptography.”

For years, Mosca has been trying to program a new type of supercomputer that uses the principles of quantum theory to increase the computational power beyond what is attainable by a traditional computer.

Large-scale quantum computers are still a dream today, but Mosca predicts that there is a good chance they can become a reality in 15 years. And when the time comes, these supercomputers could work on complex mathematical riddles.

“Applications include the design of new drugs or new materials that can capture energy better or transport energy more efficiently. New materials are ultimately a collection of atoms which behave quantum mechanically. It’s very hard to simulate quantum mechanical systems or chemical reactions at a chemical level with a classic computer,” Mosca said. “Another example is designing buildings better, such as putting in dampers at the right configurations.”

To comprehend why a quantum computer can work wonders while a conventional computer cannot, one has to first make sense of quantum science that underpins quantum computing. The explanation is not that daunting as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has glibly summarized it: “A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero. On or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that.”

Stephen Watt, dean of mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, explained: “Quantum computing is about using atoms to do computing so it’s not just the true or false, but all of the maybes in between are calculated simultaneously.”

Watt used light as an analogy. “You can think of light as waves or tiny particles of light called photons,” he said. “Since light behaves a bit like waves, when beams are near each other, they mix together. We can look at one of the two photons that are near each other, or come from a common origin, to tell the state of the other one – like the positive and negative of an image.”

So the information that quantum computers process – called quantum bit – can be zeros, or ones, or both. A quantum bit can pack more information than a regular bit. And quantum computers can explore all the different configurations at the same time and learn properties that take forever on a conventional computer.

At the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, which Mosca co-founded, scientists are working on sending information from the ground to a satellite.

Last August, Chinese space scientists launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite into space. The satellite, called Micius, sends encrypted information from space to the ground with a method called quantum key distribution.

The “observer effect” principle in quantum key distribution means that Micius can detect clandestine snooping, knowing instantly if a packet of information has been opened not by the sender and the intended recipient. Micius, in theory, is hackproof.

But with all the excitement around quantum computing, the technology can threaten existing cyber infrastructure. Cyber attackers with access to quantum tools can break current forms of cryptography.

“Cryptography underpins cyber security, which underpins all our cyber technologies. And we are much more dependent on them today than we were 10 years ago,” Mosca said. “So we need to fix the pillars of cyber security before we have quantum computers.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 14, 2017.

Curtain Call

Hong Kong Arts Festival executive director Tisa Ho: All the world’s her stage

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If there is an art to careening through the narrow and bustling backstage hallways of the Hong Kong City Hall, Tisa Ho Kar-kuan, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, has truly become a master.

The performance venue in Central, opened in 1962 as Hong Kong’s first public space for the performing arts, has nurtured Ho’s love for the products of human creativity. One of her earliest memories was singing on stage in an inter-school music competition.

“At secondary school, I came here to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest. It just blew me away. Later on, I acted on that stage in a university production. I was Cordelia in King Lear,” she said.

“So I know these dressing rooms and the backstage very well. I was fascinated with the stage. I would volunteer to do the lights and get on stage. I loved that world where an empty space could have so much potential and possibilities.”

The City Hall hasn’t changed much since Ho’s school production years. It continues to serve as one of the main performance venues for the performing arts. And the Hong Kong Arts Festival has been putting on shows there since its inception in 1973.

Also in the same year, Ho completed a master’s degree in literature at the University of Hong Kong. She went on to finish a third degree in medieval French literature in Bordeaux, and a diploma in arts administration in London, after wishes for business school did not pan out.

The arts sector was a natural choice. As the first generation of school-trained professional art managers, she began a long stint in arts administration in Singapore in the 1980s, while having a side career in broadcasting.

In 2006, she took up the reins of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, inheriting a mission to bring top-quality performances to the SAR and nurture young artists.

Under her reign, the festival also began to produce its original works, created by homegrown talents from beginning to end.

Prominent examples are Datong: the Chinese Utopia, a chamber opera about political thinker Kang Youwei’s vision for a perfect China, and Danz Up, a street dance drama built around the desperate pursuit of one’s teenage dreams.

Both works, though originally conceived for domestic consumption, will go on tour in China, Singapore and Britain this summer after a successful showing in Hong Kong.

“I am glad that these productions are getting a life after. It’s not the first time that a festival’s production has toured. But to do two shows and three locations in a year is a little unusual. It’s a lot of work,” Ho said.

“I will be going along. What I’m going to try and do this time, in London particularly, is not to especially address the Chinese expatriate population. Although I don’t know whether we will succeed, we are working hard to get an international audience to come.”

Closer home, the 45th edition of the Hong Kong Arts Festival will open next Thursday. Ho’s team has lined up a programming that intends to promote complexity, inclusivity, and a great deal of soul-searching.

Thanks to special government funding, there will be two public performing arts installations put up at various indoor and outdoor locations across Hong Kong, inviting children and adults to interact with them.

Sacred music, a part of the classical music canon, will return by popular demand. But Ho has also recruited three other orchestras from Norway, Turkey and Cincinnati in the United States to add to the audiences’ global view of the classical music genre.

“Every year, there is at least one concert in which the whole audience will get up and dance, and turn the show into a party. Sometimes we guess which one that will be,” she added. “This year, my pick will be Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra (from the Balkans).”

In the theater front, seven family dinners from three productions will unavoidably provoke equivocal opinions about the most immediate social and political issues.

While A Floating Family explores what happened to a typical Hong Kong family before and after the handover, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family portrays the joys and fears of a middle-class family in suburban New York during the last presidential election.

Meanwhile, The Last Supper captures the uneasiness of the Egyptian society following the Arab Spring, exemplified by the banal exchanges that masquerade as human interaction in a bourgeois Cairo family.

“With the performing arts, it’s infinite with what you can layer and how complex it can be,” Ho said. “The idea about a festival is that if you go to one performance, you will get a certain value out of it. But if you go to more than one, you will get much more. So we want to set up linkages and reverberations between different programs.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 10, 2017.

Great Gamble

Macanese casino heiress explains why the smart money is on arts and culture

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Pansy Ho Chiu-king might have inherited the mantle of her gambling tycoon father Stanley Ho Hung-sun, but don’t expect her to be content with running the baccarat tables. She has set her sights on greater things.

The junior Ho, 54, is turning the world’s most lucrative gambling mecca into an arts, culture and entertainment center. In recent years, she has spent much time ensuring that her plan will come to fruition.

“I asked my secretaries yesterday if they have spotted something missing on my itinerary,” she said about her daily schedule filled with back-to- back appointments. “They didn’t have a clue. It turned out no one has noticed my itinerary left no time for lunch.”

The introduction of art exhibitions at MGM Macau, a five-star hotel resort which Ho co-owns with American MGM Resorts International under MGM China Holdings, was a start. In December, she sponsored the first international film festival held in Macau.

Born into a family with 17 children, Ho is the most prominent heiress to her 95-year-old father’s business empire that stretches from gambling to aviation, banking, entertainment, real estate, shipping, and tourism.

While she is not involved in SJM Holdings, through which Stanley Ho operates more than half of Macau’s casinos, she sits on a number of political, economic and tourism committees in China and Macau.

And apart from being co-chair and executive director of MGM China Holdings, she is managing director of Shun Tak Holdings. She is also an independent non-executive director of Sing Tao News Corporation, which owns The Standard.

In a sense, promoting arts and cultural programs sits well with the Ho family’s business interests in Macau. But Hong Kong’s second richest woman, whose estimated net worth stands at US$4.3 billion (HK$33.54 billion), said her connection with the silver screen runs deeper than that.

“Actually, the MGM label has always been a supporter of the creative industry. It went back to [its hotels and casinos in] Las Vegas, and the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio in California, where many films were produced,” she said.

“MGM China has inherited this tradition and supported the shooting of Look For A Star, Finding Mr Right 2, and Skiptrace at the resort.”

Ho added that films are a good way to introduce the different faces of Macau to an international audience. And local production crews can gain valuable experience by working with overseas practitioners.

Before Macau’s first international film festival, MGM China has helped host a public seminar with award- winning female film director Xue Xiaolu. Ho believes the Macanese are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the road to economic diversification.

“We sponsored Macau’s first international film festival. It was a mega arts and entertainment event. It brought the world to Macau, and at the same time, Macau became more integrated with the world,” she said.

“MGM China will continue to support activities that will help develop Macau into a world-class tourism destination. We will also spare no effort in promoting the sustainable development of the local creative industry.”

Ho’s interest in the entertainment industry is partly personal.

Before becoming the career woman that she is today, she had a brief acting career, appearing in a music video of deceased Cantopop singer Danny Chan Pak-keung.

And she enjoys going to the cinema. “I find the experience relaxing,” she said. “Through films, you get to know the landscapes and cultures of different countries.

“The Asian cinema is more varied than it was in terms of subject matter and genre. A number of Asian films have successfully entered the international market. Some have even won awards.

“Many big-budget international productions have chosen to shoot or be set in Asia. It proves that Asian cinema is playing an important role worldwide.”

MGM China will host arts events again during Le French May. It will also open a second integrated resort, MGM Cotai, in the second half of the year.

The HK$24 billion resort, designed like a jewelry box, will provide approximately 1,400 hotel rooms and suites. An ultra-luxurious accommodation concept, conceived by MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, will be introduced for the first time.

Another highlight is a theater equipped with the most advanced digital technologies, such as a 180-degree backdrop and LED walls capable of reproducing 4K content.

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 3, 2017.