About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Children's Books

While at the mall a few days ago, I indulged in searching through a used book sale. I originally had no intention of looking through the book sale but could not resist. I did remember I was supposed to give a Christmas gift for my nephew and niece, so I decided to scan the shelves for good children's books. Happily, I found two good books by Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?, and for a good price.

Good children's books are always on my list of gifts to give. Before I give them out though, I make sure that I've read it before giving it away. (One of my pet peeves is to be given a book by someone who has obviously not read the book. I will mention no names to protect the guilty.) I admit that I also wanted to reread the Mulberry street book; it brings back the time when I was in second grade and I newly discovered the joys of library access.

Not all of the books I give out to kids are American or British. When looking for children's books, one local source I use is Adarna House, a publisher that specializes in Filipino children's books. Adarna books, as well as other children's books written and published in the Philippines, can be a good buy. A typical book costs only around PhP 75 or about a dollar and a half, so they make cost-effective gifts. Before giving them out, though, make sure you've read the book. :-)

Advanced Reading and MIT OCW

I've noticed that working through the material on my own is much more effective than trying to follow the lectures and the pace of the class. In contrast, when I cannot prepare and read ahead, I do much worse than other members of the class. Last semester was such a disaster; I was forced to take an optics class where I was unable to read ahead and solve problems.

Some physics topics captured my interest long before I took the required coursework. On such happy occasions, I read ahead and solve problems. Sometimes, I do the preliminary reading and problem solving months or semesters before taking the course where that topic is discussed. But to do that, I need a good source on what textbooks to use.

This is where MIT's Open Course Ware comes in. It's a website offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology containing course materials used by their Professors. Aside from the course descriptions, you can also find the syllabus, the reading assignments, homework and exams, and lectures or lecture notes. Sometimes the relevant pages will contain the schedules of topics discussed each meeting. This gives me an idea of what the pace is in that school.

Not all of the courses will have OCW pages, nor will all courses have all of the above. For example, some courses, such as Professor Lewin's physics course, 8.01 (the introductory physics course) contains videos of the lectures, while other course pages will have no multimedia content. But enough is provided to get a flavor of the course, and the most important information is the choice of textbooks, and the problem sets. For a student in a developing country, this is important, since it allows me to compare what is offered here with what the rest of the world has to offer. I learned from OCW what is expected of a typical undergraduate or graduate student.

When I first wanted to study general relativity, I got wrong-headed advice from a friend on what the best textbook was. (The recommendation, by the way, was Weinberg's text.) I couldn't learn it from that book because there were no problems for solution; it was also a textbook for graduate students, so it was at the wrong level. I had to go through a sequence of books before I found a good one at the right level . This was Bernard Schutz's A First Course in General Relativity. Although it provided some formalism, I felt that my ability to see the results at a glance was still in need of remediation.

It was at around that time that I first learned of OCW. To remedy the lack I felt, I looked up the introductory relativity course, 8.224 . I organized a study group with some fellow undergraduates. We obtained copies of Taylor and Wheeler's textbook Exploring Black Holes, and we worked through it. ( I still have my solutions to all of the questions filed away, in case I get to teach an undergraduate course in relativity.) My current research is an outgrowth of the things I learned from 8.224 and the graduate level course 8.962.

Sometimes, I wander around the other archived courses. I've used materials from the complex variables course, 18.04, when teaching methods to undergraduates. I'm happy that the methods we learn is standard, although we go more into the theory of gamma functions instead of studying integral transforms (which is taught anyway in the regular methods courses).

I've read the biographies of some well-known scientists, and many of them are good at learning things on their own. But without knowing the necessary books, self-study may be doomed to failure. A sequence of lucky accidents is required before it works. I know of cases of otherwise intelligent people who were just unlucky; Without mentors, without access to online resources (this was years ago, before internet access became something taken for granted), they were lost from the world of theoretical physics. Their talent was wasted.

My collaborator is luckier than I am because OCW gives a good list of introductory general relativity texts. No more wandering around the library shelves. (Although this has its own disadvantages!) As a result, general relativity can be understood by a well motivated sixteen year old. Compare this to Eddington's time when it was claimed that only few people understood general relativity!

Monday, December 27, 2010

firecracker bans and prostitution

(First, credit where it is due: I owe the ideas to Steven Landsburg, and the book I read was The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics. I do not necessarily endorse all of his views, but the questions -- if not the answers-- should provide a decent amount of distraction. )

Every New Year's Eve, the streets of my country become a war-zone. The tradition is to use firecrackers ranging from sparklers to rockets and simple explosives called pla-pla, superlolo, etc. Every year it seems, we have kids on tv saying "Hinding-hindi na ako magpapaputok." ("I will never use firecrackers again."), while displaying a mangled hand or foot or worse.

I don't have any sympathy, by the way, for those kids. Even though it's politically incorrect, I cannot help but feel some amount of Schadenfreude. In fact, I would rather that they had blown-up their gonads so that they won't propagate their stupidity to the next generation. (This actually happened to an idiot playing with explosives; he is the only living recipient of the Darwin awards. ) I ride a bicycle, and such explosives are a hazard. There is a ban on the use of firecrackers that pose danger to life-and-limb, and these idiots still persist in going against the law.

That said, one of the futile ways of discouraging the use of firecrackers is to ban the sale. This is akin to what happens when prostitution is banned, because bans have never worked. One need only look at Prohibition in the United States to see that. What will develop, instead, is a healthy blackmarket.

My modest proposal, therefore, is to have the sale legalized and the use penalized. I think it would do better at reducing firecracker use. I'd even recommend inhumane punishments like sticking lighted pla-pla on the gonads of the offender and then letting it go off. That way, the clever can earn money at the expense of the stupid, the stupid pay twice, and maybe, reduce the propagation of stupidity unto future generations. :-)

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Something I found hilarious. Compare the fine and the illegal profits. All this with no admission of wrongdoing. No wonder Mr. Goldfield is happy.

Research with wikipedia vs primary sources

I'm a big fan of wikipedia, and it's one of the websites I regularly visit. When I want to learn something, I use it as a first step, because the references of a well-edited wiki entry can be a good second step.

Wikipedia entries are not the end, especially if you are doing academic research. When I read undergraduate research papers, a wikipedia entry (or worse, if the whole paper is cut-and-paste from wikipedia!), as sole reference would most assuredly draw my ire. Many undergrads (and a few graduate students!) who use wikipedia probably do not understand the limitations of wikipedia.

There is a nice entry in wiki itself on how to use wikipedia for research, but it's too many clicks away from the main page. To get there from the main page, I clicked on help, and then on Browsing Wikipedia, after which, I then clicked on Doing Research Using Wikipedia. Most regular users, I suspect, would skip the help pages. After all, you just plug in the search box, and then wikipedia will give a list of entries that may be relevant.

One of the reasons to be cautious when using wikipedia as a primary reference, is, paradoxically, because it is an encyclopaedia. Encyclopaedias are not meant to be the last word; they may act as a quick reference, but the meat is in the original or primary sources. A good scholar will track the primary works because the primary sources will be much more careful than secondary sources (of which Encyclopaedias are an example). Primary sources are much more likely to explain the limitations of the study, and will be less likely to contain outrageous claims.

Even within research articles, there is a tendency to be lazy when it comes to citing primary sources. I remember reading an editorial in Nature Cell Biology 11, 1 (2009) where the editors asked that authors be more careful with citations. Sometimes, researchers will just copy and paste the references used in papers they cite, even though the references themselves may be irrelevant, and then because of page-number limitations, forget to cite the true pioneering work.

Second, Wikipedia is editable by anyone with online access. Sometimes, there will be people with sinister agenda who re-edit pieces to suit their beliefs. This means garbage can be created at-will, and some time may pass before another venturesome soul will decide to create a more balanced account. After that, there may be some back-and-forth editing before a consensus view emerges. Even then, we cannot really be sure that the consensus view is correct. This will inevitably bring us back to a search for primary sources.

Third, there will be hoaxes. One of the best ones I know of is the Brahmanical See, a former wikipedia entry in which it is claimed that Hinduism has its own equivalent of the Pope. This entry lasted for approximately three and a half years before it was caught by a zealous editor who could find no supporting documents. Which brings us back to to the gospel of looking for primary sources.

There are a lot more reasons (of which I am too lazy to state), so I'm linking (ironically) to two entries in wikipedia: Why Wikipedia is Not-So-Great, and Wikipedia is Failing.

Thus, one should look for the primary sources. After that, one needs to know if the primary sources can be trusted. Arnold Arons, a physicist I admire, has always emphasized the questions "How do we know?" and "Why do We Believe?", and these questions should always be your company when sifting through primary sources. These questions, by the way, form the foundations of epistemology, and answering those questions, in turn, is surely a story for meant for another day.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

random christmas greetings and seven things about myself

I received text messages today wishing me a Merry Christmas. For the life of me, I do not know the senders. One of the senders identified himself/herself(?) and just to make sure, I used my online stalking powers to check on the sender's identity. I don't know who that person is.

So what to do when that happens? Since I did not want to be a churl, I texted back, "Merry Christmas to you and your family."

I don't really go around the blogosphere much-- the blog entries that I do read are my friends' blogs, and the blogs that turn up while doing google searches. So I was surprised when a friend, Helen, decided to give me an award. So I'd like to thank Helen first.

My interpretation: seven things (about the self) and seven blogs.

Unfortunately, there are only two blogs that I actually visit (on a semi-regular basis). The first one, of course, is Helen's A Quarter For My Thoughts and Beyond, and the second one is Nath's Imprints of Philippine Science, a science related blog.

As for my seven things:

(1) I try to be minimalist. A (dead) mathematician I admire, Paul Erdos, has said "Some French socialist said that private property was theft … I say that private property is a nuisance." Although I cannot carry minimalism to the extremes he took it (living out of two suitcases), I share the notion that owning too many things is no good because things need to be maintained; you have to spend time and money maintaining property.

This is also one reason I dislike knick-knacks (especially souvenirs whose only purpose is to be a souvenir): they take up space without any purpose. My version of hell is an infinite collection of knick-knacks (from Boracy, Vigan, and other tourist spots) and being made to dust them through eternity.

(2) In spite of my efforts not to own tangible things, I love books, and buy too often. My thesis adviser and I share this love of books; since he earns more, he buys more books than I do. (I suppose this is good for me, because our reading overlaps.) Bookstores are moneytraps for me; even though my only mission is to buy school supplies, I sometimes end up buying books. I've decided to use electronic books to keep our house spacious, but it's hard to resist actual paper.

(3) I'm trying to save money for intangibles (stock, bonds, etc.). While I was an out-of-school youth, I read Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor and got interested in personal finance. I went through a finance phase (reading various popular books and selections from Investments-related textbooks), and learned about the need for a good portfolio.

(4) I'm a procrastinator. Although I know what I should be doing (saving money and investing, writing papers, etc), I spend a lot of time randomly surfing the web. There's a comic strip I read; you can find there Newton's Three Laws of Graduation. The First Law applies.

(5) I'm a skeptic. Repeated exposure to crazy stuff (Bulalo is good for hypertension being the most recent example.) has made me doubt many of the things people take for granted. I find it hard to take things on faith; if there's a statement in a math or physics book, I try to figure things out from first principles just to make sure that I have firm foundations for belief (that is, construct a proof). When I do take things on faith, I try to remember that I took it on faith, and that eventually, there ought to be a reckoning.

For example, interchanging the order of two limiting processes in mathematics is something physicists perform without much ado, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that I need to justify the step. Religion is also another thing taken on faith, and I have thought carefully about what I believe. Also, I believe in continuously improving my bullshit detector.

(6) I'm a dabbler. I'm interested in a lot of things: physics, math, finance, fiction, etc. A physicist's career depends on concentration, and dabbling in many things is dangerous in an era of specialization. The spread of my interests means it's hard to know everything. Even one subfield of theoretical physics can consume a lifetime, and dabbling reduces the time I ought to be spending on specialization. One advantage though of being interested in many things is I'm never bored. There's always something new under the sun.

(7) I like reading biographies of famous mathematicians and physicists, and I am drawn to people who were good teachers. There are ongoing efforts to improve the teaching and research environment in my country, and I take inspiration from people like John Wheeler, Lev Landau and Enrico Fermi whose own efforts helped create the environment I desire. I dream of a time when Filipinos with PhD's from the Philippines can be proud of the fact. A few decades ago, graduate education in physics here in the Philippines was like being cast-away in the middle of nowhere. I hope that, like the physicists and mathematicians I admire, I can do my part in improving physics teaching and research here.

random thoughts on christmas day

During Christmas Eve, the custom here is to prepare a feast to be eaten at midnight. Strangely enough, that's also the time when I least want to eat. I was ill yesterday, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Right now, I can't even work up an appetite, so there's a lot of food still in the refrigerator.

I'm planning to go on a bike ride later. It's been a few days since I last took out my bike, and I worry that I'll eat too much food and have too little exercise. Going to school is out since the faculty was reminded that school will be closed from the 22nd of December to the 2nd day of January. It's a pity since the trip from here to school and back will consume 2 hours. Maybe I'll go to Luneta or go along the bayside.

I have two bicycles; my road bike and a japanese one with basket and lights that I use for shopping. Although the japanese bike has a mudguard, rack and basket, it has the disadvantage of being hard to fix when during times when I get a flat tire. The rim is larger than the one on my road bike, and the interior (27 by 1.38) is hard to find in bike shops. The rear wheel is also hard to unmount, you need a screwdriver to undo the brakes and a 13" wrench. My regular wrench (the one I bring with me to school) doesn't match the nut on the rear bolt. I have an adjustable wrench but it's too big to bring. Aside from the difficulty with unmounting the rear wheel, I also need to fix the front light because the dynamo isn't working properly.

Friday, December 24, 2010

toilets and euphemism treadmills

While I was at the hospital, I was reminded of bedpans, and I've wondered, now and then, how people actually use them. A google search gave me some images, and I was finally satisfied. I read about bedpans in wikipedia, and I got to wandering through the toilet related entries.

It's really interesting what people, before modern plumbing (sometimes even after the invention of modern plumbing!), had to put up with. I learned for example, of outhouses; you built a small wooden house with a hole in the ground. The idea was to dig a very deep hole, and then drop your waste there. Worms and other aerobic organisms then broke down the waste. Eventually, the pit would fill up, and then you covered the hole with soil and then move the outhouse elsewhere.

I also read about commodes. Originally, a commode was a cabinet with a washstand, a pitcher and basin for washing. The cabinet was supposed to hold a chamber pot where you deposit your waste. Since there were no flush toilets then, one had to make do with a pot. A vestige of this era can still be found in the term "potty training".

While I was wandering through the entries in wiki, I was led to a link on euphemism treadmills. Steve Pinker invented the term to describe how some terms evolved. You can see how the various toilet related entries can serve as an example of the euphemism treadmill: some words were originally used as euphemisms; once these euphemisms gain currency, they become impolite to mention in company, and another euphemism is born.

Another example of the euphemism treadmill is the various terms people have used for African-American. think of Negro, Black, Nigger etc. There are a lot more examples out there.

Today is Christmas Eve, and I'm feeling extremely lazy. I'll think of something simple to cook, and I plan to go to bed early. Maybe later I'll start working on math. There's a chapter in Ablowitz's Complex Variables book that I plan to incorporate in the methods tutorials. The sections on asymptotics in Arfken is too skimpy, while Bender and Orszag would be overkill for undergrads. I'm still looking for a good reference for undergraduate methods..

Sunday, December 19, 2010


My Aunt left for England this afternoon, so this will be the first day we'll be spending the night without her help. I greatly appreciate what she has done for us; without her, we would have been quite lost. My mother's relatively rapid recovery is due to my Aunt's care; she also made sure that my Mom followed doctor's orders.

Starting tonight, there will be a lot of changes at home. I'll need to be at home by 7pm, so I'll be losing whatever nightlife (not a lot actually) I had. I'll also need to sleep near my mom, in case she needs something at night. We'll have to make sure that lights off will be by 9pm, to ensure that both of us will wake up early.

Our help will be here from 7am to around 7pm. Since it's Christmas break, I won't need to worry about having to be at home early, since I don't need to go out of the house except for bike rides for fitness, and shopping. I do need to go to school tomorrow to get some papers for marking, but no more than that. The next time I'll go to school will be after New Year's day.

My Mom has made a lot of progress. The therapist was pleasantly surprised that my Mom could stand on her own, and she can now walk with some help. We'll be buying a quad-cane (the kind with four legs) so that she'll have more practice walking. If all goes well, she should be able to do without it after a few months.

Although I know some of the principles of physical therapy, I know that a professional will still do better. The idea is easy enough; my Mom is training both her left brain and the right side of her body to work together. The neurons she lost due to the stroke have to be compensated for by other neurons in her brain. So therapy has to be done while she's awake so that her other neurons will form the needed connections.

My Mom will also need to make sure that she doesn't lose her flexibility and that her muscles stay balanced. Among the consequences of not having therapy is losing the ability to move her arms and fingers. There are stories of people who cannot stretch their arms; the arm keeps folding back in place because one set of muscles has grown much stronger compared to another set.

Lights off will be at around 10pm. I'll wake up early to get some work done.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Unmasking charlatans with fake scientific credentials

One of the downsides of having the internet is that anyone can post all sorts of claims. If you happen to believe in strange claims, (such as miracle cures, ways to make a thousand dollars every hour, etc.) there will be websites just for you. I think that this is hard on the elderly, since a lot of them have not developed enough filters to separate the true from the crap.

If you go to the websites of charlatans (I have a certain "doctor" in mind), you will find lots of things. If the charlatan claims to be an expert, then he will have to produce a C.V., and that is the best place to start. Do not read his claims; instead, check out his credentials.

The C. V. should contain where he had his schooling, his listed refereed publications, his work experience, and other information that should support his claim of expertise. A charlatan will pad his C. V. because he must make an effort to look like an expert. A real expert's C. V. will have all of the above and more, so on the surface, it will be hard to distinguish the real from the fake.

This is where google comes in; if he claims to have received an outstanding research fellow award from a Newton Hall Foundation, then type "Newton Hall Foundation" in the google search field. Include the quotation marks to indicate that google should search for the whole phrase. Without the quotation marks, it will search for each of the keywords, and the webpages produced may contain only two out of three, or one out of three of the keywords.

If you try doing it, you will (as of today) generate only two hits from google. (If I happen to be unlucky, it may rise to three after this posting.) From the hits I generate, I can easily conclude that the said foundation exists only in the imagination of the charlatan. An imaginary honorary degree should raise warning bells. If he can lie about this, then he may be lying about other things as well.

If an Oxford College of Applied Science is listed, anyone familiar with the Oxford and Cambridge university system will know that a College in Oxbridge is more like a dorm than what we think of as a college in my country. A College is not a degree-awarding body in Oxbridge. (In the Harry Potter universe, Hogwarts would be analogous to Oxford University, while the houses such as Gryffindor and Slytherin would be analogous to the colleges). So an honorary degree from an "Oxford College of Applied Science" is also a warning signal for the knowledgeable. A simple google search with keywords "Oxford College of Applied Science" will produce only two lists of webpages.

Another test is to look for scientific publications. It's not enough to claim that clinical studies have been made. Anyone can claim that. Instead look at the research papers that he cites. Do the said papers actually exist? Does the journal actually exist? Use google to check. If the journal exists, another filter is to check if it's in the list of academic journals compiled by ISI (Institute for Scientific Information), a citation indexing service. You can also check out the papers cited; if the paper has been refereed and is being read by other experts, then it should be cited in other academic papers.

Articles from newspapers (even major broadsheets!) are insufficient. Many journalists do not have scientific training, and I suspect that many of them do not understand the difference between scientific papers from crap. Of the two hits produced by a search for "Newton Hall Foundation" (with quotation marks), the first one is from the website of that imaginative doctor, while the second one is from a major broadsheet. The journalist involved should have at least verified that the so-called foundation actually exists!

Why the emphasis on refereed articles in scientific journals? A scientific paper must go through a process. After the paper is written and submitted to a journal editor, it must go through peer-review. The paper is read by other experts known to the journal editor, and the claims are checked. Only after the paper is approved by the referees will the paper be published.

Although the process may still allow crap to go through, it does reduce the amount. Referees are often overworked, and it is difficult to replicate everything, especially if the paper reports experimental results. A large number of citations by other scientists should increase your confidence that the paper is correct. (Unless, of course, it is cited by papers on scientific misconduct.)

If the paper's results are replicated by many other groups, then your confidence in the correctness of the paper should rise. Conversely, if other groups are unable to replicate the results, then you should doubt the results. This is the mechanism through which scientific misconduct can be discovered; fabricated data will be impossible to reproduce. As an example, Schon's papers were eventually retracted because other researchers could not reproduce his work. (Schon was eventually found guilty of scientific misconduct.)

Testimonials are the least reliable basis for scientific belief. Memory is faulty, and a lot of people are unable to distinguish between causation and correlation. There are a lot of reasons for doubting testimonials, too numerous to go into here. (Maybe a separate blog post?) For example, religious belief is based on the most part on testimonials; if testimonials were reliable, there would be no multiplicity of religions in the world.

So check and recheck. There is a lot of crap on the net; one should always upgrade one's bullshit detector. A defective bullshit detector is dangerous to your health.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wednesdays and Fridays

My Wednesdays and Fridays are fully-loaded. My first class is from 7:30-8:30. Although I have no classes or teaching duties from 8:30am to 10 am, I have to update my class records and then have breakfast.

There are no nearby canteens-- the physics building is probably the most isolated building on campus-- and I have to walk for a few minutes to get to a nearby petrol station, where they have various restaurants and shops (Jolibee and Chow King being the least pricey). The only available food is fast food, and I'm getting tired of having the same thing everyday.

After a heavy breakfast (to make sure that I don't go hungry until 1:30 pm), I attend a quantum field theory class by Professor P from 10 am to 11:30 pm. The pace is outrageous-- the text that we're using is Mandl and Shaw's book, and we've reached the halfway point.

As of today, we've covered the quantization of spin 0, 1/2 and 1 free fields, and we're (rather the Professor) is now deriving the Feynman rules for quantum electrodynamics. Wick's theorem went by too fast for me, so I gathered my courage and explained that the pace was too fast, and that I would like to slowly work through the details. Happily, the professor agreed to do so.

I don't have time for lunch because immediately after (from 11:30am to 1:30pm) is a lab class I'm teaching. I can't just sit there and let the students do all the work. I have to walk around asking questions and providing help when needed. This means I get to have lunch around 2pm; I have to hurry because I would be meeting one of the theory apprentices for math methods supervisions. This is usually from 2:30 to 4pm, after which I have to attend a mathematical methods class on asymptotic approximation methods.

The asymptotics class is a lot of fun because I'm learning new methods of approximating integrals and I find that complex variable methods are of great use here. In fact, I'm planning to include some of the material I learn there to the math methods supervisions. I was impressed by the Mellin transform method for getting asymptotic series; you get the Mellin transform, perform an analytic continuation in the transform space, and then use a Bromwich like integral to get the inverse Mellin transform. The series comes from moving the contour of integration to the left or right, depending on whether you're interested in the behaviour near the origin or on the behaviour at infinity of the original function.

Alas, even though the spirit is willing, I still fall into micro-naps because by 4pm I feel tired. I've tried taking a short nap immediately after lunch, but it's not enough. I even drink coffee before going to class but I still fall asleep. I am thankful though that I don't have a class from 5:30 to 7 pm; that would probably break the camel's back. I'll try to see if sleeping earlier would help.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Spacetime Physics

The first physics book to hold my interest was the first edition of Edwin F. Taylor and J. A. Wheeler's Spacetime Physics. (Our university library still doesn't have a copy of the 2nd edition.) I was a sophomore when I first encountered the book at the hangout of the theory group. (My memory may have failed me here-- the only other possibility is after a random walk down the library shelves.

It was at the right level for me, and when I seriously started working on it (near the end of the sophomore year or was it the beginning of the junior year?), I fell in love with it. Although I tried reading other books, I disliked them. The usual approach is an algebraic one; in other books, one had to endure algebra without being able to see, at a glance, what one was working towards.

I did not understand, before Spacetime Physics, what an inertial observer was. The careful description of a latticework of clocks and rods freed me from the belief that an observer was a person stationed at the origin. Due to this misconception, I had trouble with Lorentz transformations. I also laboured under the belief that things like time dilation, length contraction and so on were consequences of the finite speed of light.

Spacetime physics had an unusual emphasis on spacetime diagrams and the geometric interpretation; this geometric interpretation, coupled with algebraic methods, gave me a better grasp of what relativity is about. I remember many later problem sets ---my classmates would struggle with lengthy algebra, and I would get the desired result in a few lines.

Later, when I was assigned to teaching a modern physics course for engineers, I chucked out the usual books and substituted Spacetime Physics for the relativity portion of the course. Since that part of the course relied mainly on the first chapter, we used an electronic copy of the first edition. (You can download the first chapter, with exercises, from Edwin Taylor's website .). The feedback I get is that relativity is the most enjoyable part of the course.

I've even had fun with the undergraduates of the theory group. I had two of our best undergrads take the special relativity exam; the exam was a 45 item multiple choice exam, and I told them that I would give a peso for every correct answer. I also appealed to their self-respect: would they really allow engineers to claim that they knew special relativity better than physics majors? (They've had the modern physics course for physics majors, so I teased them that they ought to have an advantage over "mere engineers". They used another book for relativity though. )

The result? The engineers had them beat. They scored in the early thirties range, while a "mere engineer" was able to get over 40 items right. The average engineering student was able to get around 30 items right, so I teased them without mercy afterwards.

The summer after that, our undergrads sat through the relativity portion of the course I taught, read Spacetime Physics, and solved problems I assigned. They did a lot better this time around; most of them got 40 items or more. (Appealing to self-respect is a good teaching strategy!)

Starting this year, all our undergraduate apprentices are required to sit-in during the relativity portion of the engineering modern physics course. They are also required to take the exam; self-respect should take care of the rest. I'm hoping to get some changes to seep in from below; Our students will eventually replace us, and I hope that when that time comes, the spacetime approach will become a standard part of the undergraduate toolkit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

gigapedia is moving

I often visit gigapedia when looking for books. Although a google search with appropriate keywords will get you links for downloads, gigapedia provides a one-stop search. I don't know why gigapedia is moving (litigation? piracy issues?), and I'm sad that the website is moving.

Gigapedia is moving to a new portal http://library.nu/, and it provides the same functionality. There is no registration yet, so you can freely access its search engine without having to log-in. I've tried it, and it operates like gigapedia. For example, putting in "Gravitation" in the search field gives a list of books in library.nu pages; each page in turn contains more information about the listed book and links for download.

For people in developing (what a crazy description! developing?) countries, gigapedia has been a boon to book-lovers. Most students in developing countries find books unaffordable. As an example, a copy of Resnick, Halliday, and Walker would probably cost a fifth of the minimum monthly wage. A lot of us really care about the books, and we would be willing to buy them if they cost less.

Libraries do not provide enough here-- when budgets are cut, new acquisitions to public libraries are the first to go. (Our local officials would rather construct basketball courts and hold beauty pageants than subsidize libraries. ) For now, gigapedia's successor will definitely fill a need here in our islands.

update: you're now required to register before you can perform a search. The registration is easy enough. You are only asked for your email address, and once you get the activation email, you're ready to go.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Older programs, Maple 8 and Windows 7

One of the difficulties of dealing with a new operating system (even if it's Windows!) is getting older programs to work. I have an installer of Maple 8 -- a symbolic computation program-- and I wanted it to work on my new machine. I tried installing it but couldn't make it work, because it was developed for Windows XP. I didn't want to buy the newer version because of the cost; and I also preferred the older version (the latest version is Maple 14).

I did a Google search. The first hits I obtained suggested installing a virtual machine and then running the program within the virtual machine. But that was nuts: given the limited capabilities of a netbook, adding a virtual machine would probably make the system unstable.

After refining the search, and using keywords "windows 7 compatibility older software", I got a hit for getting older programs to work on Windows 7. It's a support page from Microsoft and among the things it said was "To change compatibility settings manually for a program, right-click the icon for the program, click Properties, and then click the Compatibility tab." The tab will then contain things that you can manually adjust to make the program work. After fiddling with the settings, I was able to install the program and get it running on my netbook. :-)

math methods and saner schedules

When I first joined the theory group, as an undergrad, I was a walk-in. In other research groups, you had to write an application letter, go through an apprenticeship period, and then, if they liked you, to full membership. The apprenticeship was a series of tasks; depending on the group, it could be a series of programming problems to solve, or menial tasks essential to the continuing work of the lab.

At that time, people in the theory group did not have as much respect as they do now. There was a perception then that the theory group was the place to go if the other labs rejected you; although there were a few who went into theory because they preferred theoretical work. The people who were running the group at that time were ronin; they were PhD students with nominal advisers. Except for the undergraduates who were taken in by a PhD (this was rare at that time), the undergraduates were left at sea.

My own adviser was at that time a PhD student; so was the other theorist who took in undergraduates. They had few or no publications in journals, although this was to change later on as they got their PhD's. Since they had little experience advising, they took in anyone who asked to join their groups.

We had to invent our application process; walk-ins would prove unsustainable. The change in character of our group started with the time we were flooded with applicants (ten juniors applied) and we had no rejection policy. At that time, there was a voluntary math methods tutorial session (I set it up with the consent of my adviser) and we expected them to join it as we knew that everyone needed remediation.

This didn't mean our applicants weren't smart; a lot of them went on to get latin honors. We did notice that they emerged from the math methods courses with little or no understanding of basic methods (of the kind you can read in Arfken's book, Mathematical Methods for Physicists). My adviser tried a methods seminar, where each week a participant was supposed to discuss a given topic. That didn't work. After that, I set up tutorials for them once a week.

The tutorials are problem-solving sessions; I assigned Arfken problems and made each attendee write coherent solutions. My job was to critique the solution-- find errors in reasoning, giving tips on how to make the explanations coherent. I even wrote a style manual based on David Mermin's rules of writing. I also help with difficult problems; when I learned math methods, I had to learn it on my own, and it took waaay longer. I remember problems that stumped me for a year before I eventually figured them out.

We noticed that attendance fell as time went on, and it eventually stopped. This was bad because these methods were the keel of the thesis projects; a broken keel meant bad sailing or a sunken ship. We did not want cases where the supervisor was the one who did the work.

So as time passed, we made changes. We instituted an entrance exam that was meant to check mastery of calculus up to the first course in differential equations. If you did not pass this exam, then it would be impossible to cope with methods. It was also meant to scare away people who thought that being a member of the theory group meant less work.

We also found that we had to require attendance because after passing the entrance exam, some undergraduates never completed the math methods sequence my adviser and I designed. Later, we added a post-methods sessions exam; full membership and thesis mentoring would happen only after passing the post-methods exams. If an apprentice did not pass the post-methods exams, then the apprentice had to go look for another research group to join.

Although the post-methods exams seem to be harsh (the post methods exams would probably scare most undergrads), passing the exams is doable because the exam will be from the set of problems assigned during the tutorials. All you need is to actually attend the sessions and do the problems. The post methods exams are designed to get rid of absentees, as well as to ensure that every member of our subgroup met a minimum standard when it came to mathematical methods.

The methods sessions usually takes three-fourths of a year. Since our course was a five year course, we give out entrance exams during the third term (summer) of the sophomore year. The methods sessions are done during the third year; this means anyone we reject, or opts out, has the chance to apply for membership in other research groups.

We work through all of the problems in chapters 6 to 8 of Arfken's book. The coverage was complex variable methods up to contour integration and the method of steepest descent (chapters 6 and 7), and then an intensive study of the gamma function, as an application of all the methods (chapter 8). My experience is it takes the average undergraduate of the theory group three-fourths to a full year to achieve mastery. Again, these are very intelligent students (and I think this description applies to the average physics major)-- so my experience lends me to doubt the utility of the mathematical methods course that's actually required by our institute.

The math methods course required by the institute uses Arfken as the main text. To see how insane the pace is, what takes us almost a year to master during the methods sessions is covered in the first exam of the second course in math methods. This means the usual student is supposed to learn the same content in a month and a half during their sophomore year. In fact, math majors in my university would need to take about three courses during their senior year to cover the same amount of material. No wonder that as soon as the average physics major finishes the methods course, he or she is in need of remediation.

At first, there was only a single post methods exam. But I found that, as in the methods course, a single exam inadequately samples how well our apprentices understand the material. Compare a single exam (as is the case with the required course) with six post methods exams. After passing all the exams, (and I chose the five most difficult questions for each exam!) I am therefore not surprised at the disparity in performance of the average member of our subgroup compared to other people whose only experience with methods was through the required coursework.

During the last few semesters, the methods sessions were held once a week, every Saturday, from noon until 5 pm. I've changed it this semester to what I hope is a saner schedule; I now meet one-on one with each apprentice an hour every week. I ask about their progress and provide mathematical assistance when needed. I found that the Saturday sessions took a toll on me: I was unable to get my own research done; and I need to do that to get my PhD. I'm hoping that this new arrangement will work, and I'm relying on apprentices asking for help from older members who have passed the exams. I'm keeping my fingers crossed; it's time to take care of my own work as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A dangerous person

There is a dangerous person at loose today; an international criminal who ought to be in the lists of interpol and other police agencies.

His offenses include: (1) stalking children, and enticing them with offers of gifts so that children do what he wants. (2) breaking and entering. (In the Philippines, there is a term for this kind of miscreant-- "akyat-bahay" since his favourite mode of entry is by chimney or window), (3) performing unnatural acts with animals, and (4) income tax evasion.

A description is in order: the suspect is male, elderly, and has a fetish for red and white. He is known to be obese, and sports white facial hair. He is an international traveler who is reputed to have visited every part of the world. He is known to have various assistants of short stature, and is thought to be, when not engaged in the above-mentioned criminal activities, engaged in the manufacture of various goods for worldwide distribution. Be warned that the suspect has many impersonators, and care must be taken to distinguish the original article from the copycats. Although active all year round, the peak of his activity occurs during the week of the winter solstice.

For parents: if you see the suspect or an impersonator, be sure to watch over your children. Contact the local police, and the authorities should take care of the rest.

Have a great Christmas.

Monday, November 29, 2010

after the discharge

My Mom was discharged from the hospital last Saturday. We left the hospital 9pm and got home around 11 pm because of two things: a traffic jam and a stalled engine. The jam we survived; it was due to a long line of trucks.

As for the stalled engine: It happened that the engine of my brother's car wasn't getting enough gas because of the filter. We weren't towed home. Instead my brother removed the filter and the hoses connecting filter, gas tank, and engine. To clean it, he sucked the gas from the hoses and the filter. As he said, "Real men drink gasoline."...

My Mom is still unable to move her right side, but she can talk, drink and eat. She'll need physical therapy, and then occupational therapy. We also need to make sure that she takes her meds. Dr. Navarro is still a problem because in spite of the stroke, she still believes in that guy even though high cholesterol levels may in fact be the cause of the stroke.

What makes me suspicious of Dr. Navarro's claims is the lack of peer-reviewed publications in decent medical journals. One can always claim that clinical studies were done, but without peer-reviewed papers supporting those claims, it's just hearsay. It's difficult to get my Mom to understand why, as a scientist, I react this way. There is a process that new knowledge has to go through before it becomes accepted by any scientific community; publication in journals and peer-review is one of the mechanisms that scientists use to eliminate crap. (I am, of course, taking the charitable view that Doctors constitute a scientific community. If you look at history, doctors have a sorry record. After all, they believed in bloodletting until the late 19th century!)

My Mom learned about Dr. Navarro from AM radio, at DZBB. (Is there a connection between advancing age and increasing patronage of AM radio?) It's the Nazi saying (I think it's from Goebbels) in action "A lie repeated thousands of times becomes a truth". It should probably be modified to: "If it's said often enough on AM radio, it becomes the truth." Maybe there ought to be a warning sign on new units: listening to AM radio may be hazardous to your health.

During the weekend we took turns being her minder, but we faced a problem during weekdays. All of us had work, and we're still looking for hired help. For now, my Aunt will be here for a few weeks to help us out.

When my Aunt heard that my Mom had a stroke, she bought airline tickets and traveled all the way here from England. She's British, married with adult children. She's now retired from being head nurse at a hospital there, and it's good to get help from a pro. Since she's the second eldest in my Mom's family, she will likely not take much nonsense from my Mom, but she'll be much gentler, I think, than I could possibly be. I'm extremely grateful that she's here.

I went to school today to get some paperwork done. I started marking papers around 1 pm and left school around 7 pm. I estimate that I was able to do only 20 % of the total. This is only marking my student's papers. I wasn't able to get any problem sets done. The massive amount was collected during the week I was alternating hospital stays with my other brothers. I'll continue with it tomorrow.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

my bike and I

I bought my first bicycle nearly four years ago while I was working as a call-center agent at Accenture. I got it at first because I was worried about fitness-- I used to jog every other day around the academic oval, and my job then meant being away from university.

My schedule shifted once in a while, but the usual time I worked then was from 11pm to 9 am. I was so tired afterward that I didn't have the energy to commute to uni to jog. I just went home to sleep. After months of having no exercise, I set aside some money to buy the bike.

It was an inexpensive mountain bike--PhP 2 K or approximately 50 dollars--no shock-absorbers (I later had the front-fork changed to one with them), and a very hard seat. I scheduled my bike rides either before going to work or right after I got home; I started with 15 minute bike rides, but gradually increased my mileage until I could bike for two hours without any distress.

I didn't have a helmet then. My rides were usually in Caloocan, just going around Grace Park. But I got ambitious after that, so I started going farther from home. My brother suggested getting a helmet when I planned to go to uni by bike, and I bought one, as well as bike lights. By then I was able to ride two hours straight, and I felt confident that I could go to uni by bike.

When I was first hired as an instructor, the bike came into its own. An instructor's first salary is usually delayed by around three months, and since I knew that I could go to school by bike, I bought plenty of shorts for my rides to and from work. I left my shoes and some clothes at my faculty room, and since the faculty restrooms had a shower stall, I took a shower before classes start.

A regular commute takes about an hour and a half; sometimes more if there's a traffic jam. The bike ride to school takes from 45 minutes to an hour. I was on the saddle for nearly two hours everyday. My training rides paid off here because I didn't feel tired after my bike rides. No muscle pains; I did sweat though, and the two hour long bike rides became the substitute for jogging.

Another bonus (aside from getting the exercise I wanted) was saving money. It costs about PhP 70 (or about a dollar and a half). So this meant I could save the money for food (my food expenses did rise!) and I didn't need to pay for gym membership. I sometimes wonder at people who pay for the privilege of riding a stationary bike when a real one is available. In fact, the money I saved then (around PhP 5K or 125 dollars) plus my 13th month pay was spent on my first laptop.

One of the first lessons a cyclist learns when he goes on longer rides is learning how to find a vulcanizing shop. When I first had a flat tire, I didn't know how to fix it. Once I was absent because I had a flat tire and there was no vulcanizing shop nearby; I learned how to replace tire interiors after that. I now bring a spare interior, a wrench, and tire levers so that I could fix a flat tire fast. I also bought books on cycling to learn about repairs and maintenance.

Over the years I've had repairs made. I've busted two handlebars, rear sprockets, and I've also damaged the rims of my bike. The only part of the bike that is still unchanged is the frame.

One of the things I'd like to do is to go to my hometown in Antique and back by bike. The Philippines is an archipelago, and there are ferries connecting various islands. I read about a priest who rode his bike from Luzon to Mindanao, and boarding a ferry when he needed to go from one island to another. One of the bike mechanics I know has traveled to Iloilo by bike and ferry.

I think I could handle a century (a 100 km ride) without problems. I've even gone from home to Antipolo; I met with friends at school and we rode our bikes to a friend's house in Antipolo and had steak. The uphill was tough but we managed to get to Antipolo, though we had to take rest-stops along the way. If I could get some friends to go with me, I'd like to go to Tagaytay by bike in the near-future.

My friends think it's eccentric to go to school by bike; at first they thought it was a way of dealing with the delayed salary, but now that I regularly get my salary, I don't need to worry about the fare. It's good that my school is tolerant, because I really like riding my bike. I even bought a second bike for shopping and another one for use in my hometown. My needs are taken care of: I go to school, eat out or shop. In fact, I bought my second computer (a netbook) by going to Gilmore avenue (just 30 minutes away) by bike.

I don't envy people who ride cars; I have them beat whenever there's a traffic jam. My commute time is invariant, even during a heavy downpour. (I do have a raincoat in case it rains. ) Where cars would struggle, I just pass them by. I might get a motorcycle later, but I think procrastination will keep it from happening in the near future. For now though, I will keep using my bike.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TeXworks and MikTex 2.9

I wrote my thesis using LaTex (pronounced La-tek, although other pronunciations are acceptable), a typesetting language. It's not like MS Word-- the output is not what-you-see -is -what-you-get -- you write a program and then compile it to produce pdf output. It's very handy when typing equations; you don't need to worry about portability. All pdf readers should be able to handle opening the finished product.

This portability of output can be contrasted with the various versions of Equation Editor on the market. Every time you upgrade to later versions of equation editor or math type, the equations you worked hard to prepare become gibberish.

You do need to learn the correct syntax. When programming in C or fortran, you can use an ordinary text editor like notepad, and then go to the command prompt or console, type in the compilation command, and wait for the executable to be produced. For latex files, compilation produces a pdf file. That was actually how I first learned to TeX; I used the console of a Linux distribution and an ordinary text editor.

A few years ago, I learned about TeXnicCenter. It was an integrated development environment (IDE) that allowed you to edit TeX files and then you can click on an icon to compile and view the output. To get it running, you had to install a TeX distribution-- I used an earlier version of MikTex, and you also needed to install a pdf reader (Like Adobe pdf reader). You needed to configure TeXnicCenter to recognize MikTeX and Adobe reader, and if you happen to be a newbie, getting it to work properly was hell. (I did learn though, and that's how the thesis got written.) For all of its faults-- and the only fault I could think of was how hard it was to get it working when newly installed, it does a very good job. If you compiled to dvi, then each new compile would lead to changes that you can easily track, if you had a dvi viewer open along with TeXnicCenter.

Pdf's were a problem. If you compiled to pdf, and you wanted to see the output, you opened the file with Adobe reader. If you make changes in the code you wrote and wished to recompile, you had to close the open pdf file; an open pdf file stopped the compiler from modifying the pdf because it was locked in place by Adobe Reader. So closing the open pdf took a few extra moments in addition to editing, viewing and recompiling.

Now fast forward to my new computer. Among the necessities of scientific writing (at least for the physics, engineering, and math community) is a TeX editor and compiler. So I looked up TeXnicCenter and MikTex and downloaded both of the latest versions. After installing both of these programs, I was surprised that .tex files were associated by Windows with TeXworks instead of TeXnicCenter. Since I did not recall installing this program, I decided to open a .tex file and found that it was a different IDE from TeXniCenter. I didn't like unncessary duplication, so I decided to look it up on the net, and I learned that it was bundled with MikTex 2.9, so there was no need to install TeXniCenter. Best of all, the output was a pdf file, and the associated viewer did not need to close the pdf in between compilation cycles.

I showed the program to the resident TeX geek, and she was overcome with admiration for TeXworks. Installation was a breeze-- you needed only one installation, just MikTeX 2.9. No more messing around with ghostscript, and configuring TeXniCenter.

The people who worked on MikTeX 2.9 did a terrific job of making the TeX editing easier with their latest stable release. In fact, I've uninstalled my copy of TeXniCenter and will be relying on TeXworks from now on.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

a night at the hospital

I went home last night around midnight and swapped places with my brothers, an in-law, and a soon-to-be in-law. I took a taxi and spotted one of MGE's. It cost me only PhP 100. One of the nice things about that taxi company is their good service; I've never been disappointed by them. Their meters are honest, and their drivers will choose the fastest way of getting you from here to there. As luck would have it, the driver was someone who lived in our neighborhood, and also knew my Mom.

I'm spending the night at the hospital as my mom's minder. My brothers and I haven't talked about the schedule we'll be keeping; for now it's ad hoc. I volunteered for tonight's duty because I won't be free the rest of the week. If I do spend the night here during weekdays, it will be from 8pm to 4 am only, to make sure that I get to work. For Monday, my youngest brother will be here from 5 am to around 2pm, and then another brother for the next few hours.

There will be hours that all of us need to be at work, and we need to plan for it. We have some relatives on my Mom's side (a lot of them, in fact), and I hope that we could get some of them to volunteer for the gaps in between.

I brought some clothes, a towel, and papers to mark, and a laptop for browsing the net. I've transferred music files into my laptop so that I can have some music to listen to. I'm not a fan of cable television, so the tv in this room is wasted on me.

So far, I was able to do one out of the two problems that I need to submit on Wednesday. I haven't begun the paper-marking; that's the part I dread because it's boring and repetitious. (Students should be grateful when their professors give them homework, most especially if the professor actually checks the student submissions.

The reason we ask for homework is to help students get ready for examinations. Eric Rogers ( a physics teacher) has said (although it's probably from someone else who thought first thought of it) that the exam is the dog and the student is the tail. It's also one way of getting students to achieve the objectives set in the syllabus, and if you actually do the homework, without shortcuts, then you will learn something.

Unfortunately, there is another class of professor who assigns homework as a form of make-work. On the other hand is the professor who gives no homework at all, and you are left to guess what you actually need to learn to pass exams. That's why we have a detailed syllabus; there is little or no ambiguity as to what students need to be able to do if they want to get a 1.0.

I digress, of course. Let me get back to a description of our room. )

The room I'm in is approximately a cube with an edge of three meters. The WC is shared by two rooms; when you need to use it, you have to lock both doors. Afterward, you have to unlock both doors so that the other room's occupants can also use the WC. An hour ago, the people in the other room forgot to unlock the door. I knocked, but there was no answer. Figuring there was only one minder, and making allowance for extra-long dumps (it happens), I looked for another WC. I had to go from the 5th floor down to the 2nd floor just to find another WC. We later called on a nurse to find out why the door was locked.

My brother Russ's fiancee is a doctor, and I asked her to give me an explanation of what happened to my Mom. (It's wonderful to have a second opinion!) The doctors of this hospital have not completed their tests, but it seems likely from the tests (so far) that a small area of my Mom's cerebellum was damaged by the stroke and the areas affected have to do with her sense of balance. My Mom's right side is now weaker than the left. She cannot lift her right arm or leg, but can do it with the left. It's not paralysis on the right; my Mom can move her fingers and toes, but she will need to work with a physical and then an occupational therapist so that she'll be able to walk on her own. We hope that the damage was limited and that she'll be able to get back to routine living.

Tomorrow, I'll need to finish some paperwork. I plan to sleep around 10 pm; if there's anything my Mom needs, the nurse or doctor will wake me up. I'll leave the hospital when Harold, my youngest brother, gets here at 5 am.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Strokes and Charlatans

I'm in the hospital (Manila Doctor's) as I write this. My Mom had a stroke last night, and I learned about it only when I got home and checked facebook-- my brother's wall post was about my Mom's stroke. Signals from my phone provider do not reach the junior faculty room-- and by the time I got to an area with good reception, my phone battery went dead.

I later learned from my Mom that she called my younger brother; my brother then relayed to our neighbor that she was in distress. They brought my Mom to the nearest hospital (MCU). Later, they had her transferred to Manila Doctor's hospital. It happened around 1pm, while I was in school.

I looked up strokes on Wikipedia to check on what it meant (it has something to do with the blood-deprivation of the brain, as I vaguely recall, but confirmed via online search) , and then I visited the website of the hospital to find out how much the rooms cost, because I know how budget-busting medical emergencies can be.

One of the staff members of the Institute had a stroke, and I recalled that they had to raise money for her. I needed to get some idea of how much we needed so that I could plan. My recent acquisition did not help matters because it consumed almost my whole holiday bonus. I still have some refunds coming in, so it didn't mean I was totally destitute.

My guess on the cause: a bad diet. My Mom is much like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly :

"She began to try all manner of remedies on him. She was one of those people who are infatuated with patent medicines and all new-fangled methods of producing health or mending it. She was an inveterate experimenter in these things. When something fresh in this line came out she was in a fever, right away, to try it; not on herself, for she was never ailing, but on anybody else that came handy. She was a subscriber for all the "Health" periodicals and phrenological frauds; and the solemn ignorance they were inflated with was breath to her nostrils. All the "rot" they contained about ventilation, and how to go to bed, and how to get up, and what to eat, and what to drink, and how much exercise to take, and what frame of mind to keep one's self in, and what sort of clothing to wear, was all gospel to her, and she never observed that her health-journals of the current month customarily upset everything they had recommended the month before. She was as simple-hearted and honest as the day was long, and so she was an easy victim. She gathered together her quack periodicals and her quack medicines, and thus armed with death, went about on her pale horse, metaphorically speaking, with "hell following after." But she never suspected that she was not an angel of healing and the balm of Gilead in disguise, to the suffering neighbors."

What saved Aunt Polly was, I think, the fact that she stayed healthy, so she never needed to try the latest nostrum on herself. My Mom however already has hypertension, and the latest charlatan that she listened to was a Dr. Navarro on AM radio.

What was really bad about it was that quack's notion of a good diet: eat lots of eggs and beef. Bulalo was, in particular, a wonderful thing to have on a regular basis, a cure-all for almost all kinds of unsavoury conditions. Although I have remonstrated, time again, against the fad diets and practices that she periodically introduced, I could not convince her. All my protest was plain negativism according to my Mom.

As luck would have it, that diet I described is the stroke-inducing diet. Lots of cholesterol to clog the carotid artery, and eventually guarantee brain-death by blood and oxygen deprivation. And so here we are, staying in the hospital.

netbook maintenance 2

My netbook is supposed to be optimized for work, and I've also made sure that all my software is legal.

I installed Windows 7 Professional-- it took me around 30 minutes to get the operating system in. I tried to use the anytime upgrade feature on the previously installed trial version of Windows 7 Home Basic. I downloaded a legal product key from Microsoft and hoped that there was a method of upgrading to Windows 7 Pro without having to reinstall everything. Sadly, that didn't work out, so I had to reinstall Windows 7 from scratch.

After the installation of Windows 7, I then downloaded the drivers from the MSI website. I figured that MSI should be able to provide the appropriate drivers to go with Windows 7. It took me about an hour to download all that and install.

I also downloaded Open Office for my word processing. Since I wanted everything to be legal, MS Office was no good. I knew that some documents created with Open Office would not open properly on MS Office, but I thought I could live with that.

Among the issues I encountered with Open Office while I had the trial version of Win 7 installed was that it did not properly display slideshows. I thought it was an Open Office problem, so I left it alone and thought updates of Open Office would fix it. I was wrong there; it turned out that after installing the MSI provided drivers ( with a VGA driver included), the problem disappeared.

As for the antivirus, I at first downloaded Forefront because it was among the software Microsoft provides for the faculty, but it was too complicated because the setup was supposed to be done by a system administrator within a local network. For a single computer, that was overkill.

I couldn't install another antivirus because there were known issues-- the version I had was incompatible with Windows 7. Instead, I performed a search and looked for an antivirus from Microsoft, that, hopefully, I could install. I found Microsoft Security Essentials (http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials/ ), a free downloadable antivirus. I searched for some online reviews, and they were positive. The only issue was if the computer used had an unlicensed version of Windows. Since my copy was licensed I didn't expect that to be a problem.

The initial installation is small; only a few MB. But after the installation, you had to update the virus definitions, and that took an hour of downloading. Add an extra 15 minutes for the quick scan and configuration.

My estimate of the time it took was almost two days, because I had to think about the kind of software I needed, as well as reading or skimming the documentation. I think I understand now why people would rather have someone else do the work because it does take time if you do it on your own. Still, there was some satisfaction from knowing that I didn't need to pay some computer tech to do it for me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

netbook maintenance

I'm still here at school even though it's already 9 pm. I'm downloading a security suite from Microsoft (it's part of the privileges of being a faculty member). The internet is fast here and doesn't disconnect compared to my home dsl connection.

I've upgraded the operating system from a trial version of Windows 7 Home Basic to a licensed Windows 7 Professional. I had to completely remove the trial version because the anytime upgrade feature doesn't work for my system. In the process, I needed to reinstall Adobe Reader, Firefox, Open Office, and the djvu reader. I also downloaded and installed drivers for my netbook.

I started working on it around 3pm until 4pm (when I had to go to a class) and then got back to it at 5pm and then I searched for and downloaded other programs.

I completed the installation of Windows 7 before 4pm. So from 5pm onwards I just downloaded the drivers, office, adobe reader, and Microsoft Forefront Client security. I'm still downloading as I type this, and I estimate that I will leave around 9:30 pm. The drivers are essential; the lovely visuals that Windows 7 offered depends critically on the drivers.

I did learn something new about Windows 7... the product key is not stored in the CD. I originally guessed that the key was encrypted somewhere in the CD, and that you could not complete the installation without because if the key you type in doesn't match the encrypted key, the installation will abort. The key has to be obtained from Microsoft, and their servers check if that key has been used by someone else. So one of the ways to cheat Microsoft is to guess a viable product key that has to both be (1) unused by someone else and (2) in Microsoft's list of viable keys. That's actually hard to do because a key has so many digits and it's alphanumeric, so that means trying 36 raised to the 25th power possible combinations. the verification process also takes time, so if the key is wrong, you will experience a 2 minute penalty.

teaching as a way of learning

I write this while I prepare for school. It's 5 am, and I've finished breakfast and I'm having my usual cup of coffee. Yesterday, I was able to rewrite two solutions to the problems assigned in the particle physics course I'm enrolled in, but procrastinated again when it came to marking my students' papers. I'll do that later, in between classes.

Part of the fun of teaching is rethinking what you know, and hopefully understanding the thing you're teaching better. I have friends who teach some subjects to force themselves to study the things they didn't learn as undergraduates or graduate students.

This means making mistakes sometimes in class, or at least experiencing hang time. You know how it is when the professor pauses to think about what he has to say because there is a conflict of ideas in his head. Sometimes, the professor is only a few days ahead of the class-- it happens most often for new assitant professors, because they tend to get the teaching load garbage.

Garbage doesn't mean worthless topics; in fact, the teaching garbage loads are actually the hardest topics to teach; they tend to be demanding mathematically. The problem sets are hard to mark as well because the professor has to read the papers carefully, and make sure of correctness of reasonning. Examples include graduate core courses like electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical physics. The prerequisites for these courses include almost all the mathematical methods we are supposed to learn as undergraduates.

This means a lot of preparation. I think a good rule of thumb is 8 to 10 pages of carefully reasoned lecture notes. You'll also need to prepare what your eventual boardwork should look like. Also included in the preparation is a syllabus (this can only be prepared after actually teaching the subject), and the syllabus ought to include a list of learning objectives, reading assignments for each day of class, and suggested problems for solution.

I've taken on the challenge of preparing for teaching a solid state physics course even though I know almost nothing about it. I won't be teaching it this semester; maybe a few years down the line, I will offer a seminar for the theory group based on the materials I and a friend will prepare. It's better this way compared to an actual teaching load because I really want to learn this material, and I do not elarn things fast. I usually spend a lot of time thinking and solving problems to make sure that what I know is self-consistent.

I agreed to learn solid state physics for the following reason: The things that I do know well (relativity) are not as relevant to most experimentally-minded physicists I know compared to solid state physics. Solid state physics also has the advantage that there are experiments ongoing here as opposed to, say, astrophysics or general relativity.

I write this on my new netbook; and I'm getting to know the keyboard. I didn't understand what a chiclet keyboard was while the saleman talked about it. After some thought, and a google search, I realized that the keys looked like gum made by Cadbury Adams. I got that from a wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the new new thing

I got a new netbook today, and used up most of my 13th month pay. I envied my friends because they only brought a 10.1 inch computer compared to my 14.1 inch laptop. My regular laptop is my workhorse: that's where I do things like computations, powerpoint presentations, and photo-editing. It's also the one I use for games like command and conquer, warcraft, etc.

The new one is an MSI netbook I got for 13K at pc options just this morning, and I'm using it right now to get a feel for how it performs. I was thinking of getting a NEO Basic B3280 netbook, or an emachines one for approximately the same price that I saw in the PC express catalog. The NEO had the advantage of having an operating system installed while the one I got had none preinstalled. I did get a trial version, and plan to install the full package later. My university provides faculty with legal copies of Windows, so getting one wasn't urgent. What made me go for the MSI laptop were the rumours of NEO's bad customer support.

The emachines netbook was priced at 13.2K-- it had an operating system installed but the hard disk had only 160GB of storage compared to this one with 250GB. The salesman recommended this one for various reasons I will not go into.

My aim is to use the netbook for travelling and for non-intensive work. At school, the only applications I do use are for reading pdf and djvu files, word-processing (including presentations), and internet browsing. I'm not supposed to play games while at school so the netbook is perfect for what I have in mind. And it's less massive! I haven't weighed it of course, but size and mass does matter. The netbook is small enough to put inside a purse (a large one though), and it's not as conspicious as my other laptop.

It doesn't mean that I'll stop using my other laptop.However, my older laptop has battery issues. I think the battery lifetime is only 7 minutes. So I always need to have it plugged in, which defeats the purpose of having a portable computer. My younger brother (the computer geek in the family) suggested getting the battery repacked, but I didn't want it done without having a spare battery at hand, or a spare laptop with working batteries. Now that I have the new new thing, I'll set aside some money and get the batteries repacked.

Monday, November 15, 2010

how I became a physics major; or a random walk down the past

I never expected to be a physics major. When I was in high school, the year-level I was in was divided into different classes: an honors section, and the clutter. I was part of the clutter-- one of the many boys with so-so grades, without expectations of entering the national university.

I did like to read, and I spent recess and lunch hours in the school library, and reading. Or I would bring novels (we had a lot at home) and read them in class, while pretending to be paying attention to our teachers. A bibliophile. (Bookworm is a derogatory phrase-- most people have never seen bookworms; I have, and they do look like the drawings of Robert Hooke. My grandfather's library suffered an infestation, and I was saddened by the loss of so many magazines and books. )

Liking reading had nothing to do with grammar-- I couldn't diagram a sentence; I didn't know what the difference between an adjective and an adverb was. When I had to write, or check for correctness, I played it literally by ear. I would check how a sentence sounds in my internal ear, and if it sounded right, that was it.

I also disliked mathematics.When I was in elementary school, I believed that mathematics was the memorization of meaningless algorithms. I hated memory work; and I still dislike it, and this subject seemed to be another one of those memory work dependent things. It also seemed disconnected. I think the disconnect was caused by this mistaken spiral approach, where every schoolyear seemed to be a regurgitation of the things done the previous year.

I experienced failing marks in Filipino, History, and didn't do well in Grammar class. My grades were so low that my family never believed that I would get into the state university. I think during the first three years of high school, my average grade never went beyond 83%. The guys in the honors section did much better than that. I think the class valedictorian got marks above 90%.

So what was I to do in life? My parents could not afford having me educated at the better universities. In fact, after my third year, they had me transferred from the city to my Dad's hometown-- because the tuition fees were a tenth of the tuition fees that we had to pay while I was in the city.

At that time I had no girlfriend, and despaired of ever having one. An all boys school is not the place to look for a girlfriend. And in my despair-- no prospects of entering a good university; no girlfriend-- I decided to apply for the priesthood.

The school that I transferred to was a coed school. I did achieve something there-- I was part of the top section. Niels Bohr said: "The opposite of a great truth is also a great truth." My great truth's opposite is I graduated in the last section. (There was only one classroom for the whole fourth year.)

During my fourth year, I remember applying for entry into at least three seminaries. These seminaries sent representatives to give a talk about their vocation. One thing I noticed was they were all well-fed. I also remember having misconceptions of what the priesthood was like; the only time I saw the parish priest was during Sunday mass, and I had this notion that the rest of the week were days off. (I know better now.)

The Dominicans had a very attractive offer. Pay PhP 2K every month for two years, and they will take care of the rest. In return, they had someone to do the laundry, the cleaning. In fact, they provided everything you needed, including your education. All you had to do was eat, study, pray, and sleep. After the two years, all expenses were care of the order.

I took the state university's entrance exam as a lark. It was an excuse for going to the provincial capital and spend the time wandering the malls and watching movies. I also had a crush on a relative's relative, and they were both staying in the capital. I stayed with them and they gave me a tour of the place. But i didn't expect anything from it.

Near the end of the schoolyear, the acceptance letters from the various seminaries came in. Before that, I got to know a girl (not in the biblical sense), liked her, and found out she liked me too. Now I had a problem: I had to choose between God and a girl.

I chose the girl.

That eliminated the priesthood for me. Luckily, I received an acceptance letter from the National University. I remember my teachers' astonishment because they didn't expect it at all. No surprise: I didn't expect it either. It was only much later that I found out how I got in when I visited the guidance section to talk with them about the exam results. (But that's another story.)

I got accepted into the campus of my choice (Diliman) but was waitlisted for the BS Business Administration and Accountancy Program. It meant I could wait for slots to open, and get into that program, or I could look through the catalog and pick another academic program.

The acceptance letter also mentioned an advanced placement exam. Among the exams I could take was the algebra and trigonometry exam. If I pass both, I would not need to take Math 17. (5 units of math). Remember, I disliked math, and I though that here was an opportunity to skip a semester of suffering if I could only pass that exam. I had a month to prepare, and my cousins (since they studied in U. P.) had an algebra textbook (Vance). I decided to do it.

I stayed in my room the whole month before the exam. I decided to work on the problems in Vance, section by section. I also decided to work through the proofs, and I discovered something wonderful about math. It was a logical system, and if you do the necessary work properly, you didn't actually need to memorize anything. It stays with you because you would know how everything fits together. And I knew --like some divine revelation-- that I wanted to study mathematics. I read Neruda's Poetry ("And it was at that age, poetry arrived in search of me...") years later, and it brought back the feeling I had at that time.

So I wanted to be a math major. When I got to the Registrar's office, I told the person interviewing me that I would like to be a math major. The person I talked to discouraged me, claiming that there were already too many math majors, and that I ought to look for something else. I thought that meant there were no slots available; on reflection, I think I misunderstood her point. So I scanned the catalog looking for the nearest thing. I found BS Physics on the catalog, and that was how I became a physics major.

( My high school experience misled me into thinking that physics would be just like mathematics. Why I remained a physics major is to begin another tale...)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday morning random musing

I'm listening to the standards as I type this. Among the standards, the singers whose songs populate my hard disk are Michael Buble, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. I'm aware of other singers, but these two have enduring appeal for me. I grew up listening to the standards on the radio because my Dad liked listening to DWBR before he moved on to listening to classical music. Friends of mine associate this kind of music with Sunday mornings, when some FM radio stations play the oldies.

Not that I listen only to the standards. I have a mix of pop, jazz, disco, rock and who-knows-what in my music folder. But, the standards have an appeal for me because they remind me of childhood. I often sing along -- I realized much later that it's good practice for pronouncing words and sentences. I suspect that my accent owes much to Frank Sinatra. The singers of standards pronounce things well, and what they sing often comes out in the form of complete sentences set to music.

A few years ago, I read the "The Artist's Way", and among the things that appealed to me was the idea of "morning pages"-- writing that's meant to help you think. It's not supposed to be organized; if you feel like rambling or saying whatever comes to mind, go ahead. The morning pages were supposed to help the self find what it needs before the day starts. If the result were chaotic, then that's all right because the chaos of writing was the prelude to the beginning of order in the self. I don't actually recall what she said about it, but I've noticed that writing the morning pages relaxes me. I'm actually a bit shy when it comes to letting other people read my morning pages because it contains a lot of clutter. I usually write about what happened the day before, because looking back helps me think of the future.

It may seem strange to think of the scientist as an artist, but I think that science is also a creative process. The link between experiment and theory is not as solid as most people believe; one doesn't look at the data and then formulate a theory. (Recall the "scientific method" as taught in grade school) My reading of Kuhn parts of Feyerabend, scientifc biographies and physics education research has me doubting that the process of scientific creation is as straightforward as claimed by the various philosophers of science.

Formulating a scientific hypothesis is a creative act. A good experiment is also a creative act. I suspect much can be written of good experiments alone; the downside is a lot of the writing will likely be unappreciated because learning about good versus bad experimental technique is a long process. The care with which good experiments are designed is hidden from the readers of elementary physics texts because we need to cover so much during the regular semester.

We don't have enough time to explore the actual experiments, and the textbook cannot provide the nuances because it would double in size. A textbook such as Young and Freedman, already of encyclopaedic dimensions (or at least, of the same mass as an unabridged dictionary) is unattractive enough as it is.

The problem of coverage is still unresolved. Take Special Relativity as an example. The textbook that we currently use is the first edition of Spacetime Physics. In physics 73, we spend a month covering the material, and then give exams. My actual reading of Spacetime Physics was a semester because I spent a lot of time tracing how the ideas fit together, as well as solving the problems. In fact, I haven't solved all the exercises in it, just what I hope is a representative sample. I gained further experience with special relativity when I taught myself general relativity by working through the books of Bernard Schutz and James Hartle: reading and solving problems, checking for consistency and correctness. It took me years to do all that. Good thinking requires more than a semester.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that mastery of a particular field requires 10,000 hours. I think I've spent more than that on general relativity, and I still can't say that I think my understanding is adequate. It is a lot better than people who've just finished a two semester course in GR because I've had a lot more practice.

Consider my experience with quantum mechanics. I first learned quantum mechanics during Physics 141. For every hour of class, I probably spent 3 or more hours on my own reading Dirac, as well as the textbook, and then solving problems that were not assigned by the teacher. We had problem sets with 4 questions every two weeks. My own problem-solving rate was probably about double that. (It also meant a disgraceful showing in other subjects!). Even then --let me check my academic records-- it was only worth a 2.0.

I was dissatisfied with my understanding. I was also broke, so the schoolyear after, I went on leave for a year, and during that time I taught myself complex variables (among the mathematical methods needed for quantum mechanics.) and then got myself a book on Path Integrals and quantum mechanics. I spent the whole year on those two books, when not working.

After that, I got myself a graduate level book by Sakurai and worked through all the problems in the first two chapters. I did that before enrolling in the graduate course. The course was based on that textbook, and it meant I was two chapters ahead. When Dr. Chan assigned problems, all I did was look at my files and then copy my previous work. While enrolled, I continued my problem-solving in that textbook to maintain a comfortable lead over the rest of the class. I wasn't surprised when I finished the semester with a 1.0.

My filed solutions had to satisfy a self-imposed rule due to David Mermin: they had to be well-written enough that they could serve as supplementary lecture notes. So as an added bonus, my solutions became the answer key. My classmates were at a disadvantage because they didn't do that. They didn't realize that the extra effort paid off because my search for clarity sharpened my understanding of quantum mechanics. Because I solved all the problems, I could see what ideas were important, and as a bonus there were techniques that only someone who worked all the problems would learn. I recall problems that my classmates would spend pages on while I learned a technique that allowed me to write the solution using a few lines.

I learned from various scientific biographies that this method was also used by some of the greatest physicists: Dirac, Fermi and Feynman for example. But it takes a lot of hidden work. I empathize with the stories of how long they got stuck on particular problems. I know what it feels to be groping in the dark, without anyone to consult. I recall weeks of frustration and lots of wasted paper when I couldn't solve a problem. I would eventually solve most of them, but for some of the problems, it took me more than two weeks, sometimes months of thinking, trial and error. I find it amusing when people consult me on GR (and not just GR) and at their stunned reactions to how fast I can give an answer to the particular homework problem that they've been given. But it shouldn't be surprising when you realize that there's a lot of work hidden in the fast answer. So the fast answer was actually attained by a very slow process.

After realizing how useful pre-reading was, I recruited various undergraduates and got them to take the graduate quantum mechanics course . I had them work on Sakurai's problems the summer before actually taking it. It was no surprise that they aced the class. So it's now a tradition in the theory group to read and study a semester before actually enrolling in some physics and math classes. That tradition is a source of great satisfaction for me, and I hope that it will be kept even when I leave U. P.

I'm off to S. M. to buy coffee and filters, so I'm signing out.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

on my reading worldline

My reading is not organized-- I'm more a reader of opportunity than someone who has a definite path through the literature, especially if the reading has nothing to do with my work. I'm a physicist, so what I should read are the research journals of my specialty: that means Physical Review D, Classical and Quantum Gravity, and other general relativity related journals.

Having said that, it means I shouldn't have time to read other things. Richard Feynman once criticized Tony Hey ( a Caltech postdoc at that time) with: "You read too many novels", because concentration is extremely important for a theoretical physicist who needs to make a name for himself in terms of publications. I happen to be guilty-- I do read too many novels. And not enough physics!

So how did I begin reading for pleasure?

When I was in first grade, the school library was off limits. There were old copies of Reader's digest at home, but a toddler won't appreciate reading all-text. One needs access to children's picture-books to be able to make the transition to better things. My aunt gave us coloring books and simple children's books as well. But such things will bore after you've read them a few times.

There was a childhood incident that set me to reading.When I was young, one of our househelp believed that there was going to be three days of darkness: she told us horrifying stories of what it would be like, and to top it off, she claimed that it was in the Bible. Now at that time, we had two Bibles at home, one was the New American Bible, and the other was The Good News Bible. For some reason, I decided to look up the claim, and I chose the Good News Bible to read because there were line drawings of some scenes.

The Bible is a thick book, and my decision was to start with Genesis and then go on from there. I think I was lucky that there are a lot of entertaining stories in Genesis. If the Bible began with the Prophets, I suppose my reading would have ground to a halt. (By the way, I still cannot abide reading the Prophets.) Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, Abraham, the stories of Jacob, Joseph and the rest of the family can be very entertaining.

It went downhill after Moses laid down the law, and I decided to skip to Samuel and the stories of David. After Samuel, I went to the New Testament to read the gospels. I also read Revelation, because that was where the three days of darkness was supposed to be, and for the life of me, I couldn't find it! That shook me. (But that is a story for another day.)

After first grade, my family moved from Las Pinas to
Caloocan, and it also meant changing schools-- from Las Pinas College to Claret school. That was a big change, and I owe a lot to Claret. The major event for me was the library tour during second grade. We were given library cards and set loose. I read things like Adarna books, Dr. Seuss, and then I made the transition to books for older people. The library was the bridge, because we didn't have children's books at home. Once I got into the habit of reading, I then moved on to Reader's Digest (probably during third grade.) I also read the old hand-me-down reading textbooks of my cousins. My cousin was about two grades ahead, and every year, their family gave his old schoolbooks to me.

The next milestone was my first "adult" book. I was in 4th grade at that time, and I decided to take on the challenge of reading one of my Dad's books. I read "The World According to Garp". I skipped Garp's writings (the book was about a novelist named Garp) for the entertainment of Garp's life. I sometimes think of getting my own copy, but keep forgetting to do so.

I also read books from the school library but none of them made as much of an impression on me as Garp, Reader's Digest and the Bible. After Garp, when I reached fifth grade, I felt ready to read the rest of my Dad's books.

From that time, I read through my Dad's copies of Robert Ludlum's books, and then went on to Frederick Forsyth and other thrillers and spy novels. My mom read romance novels, and I remember going behind her back to read them as well. Mills and Boon, Harlequin, Silhouette Desire, Barbara Cartland: all these were the sources of my entertainment, especially during the years we had no tv. Aside from these,
there were some memorable books: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Twain's Tom Sawyer, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

As a rule, I didn't read the classics, except for excerpts that showed up in the old reading textbooks from my cousin. The only classic I read for pleasure during my high school years was Tolkien's The Hobbit. I wanted to read the rest of the series, but I didn't have the money to buy the books. I think I avoided the classics during high school because they felt like schoolwork.

It was only after I entered university that I started sampling the classics them because I was bored by thrillers and romance novels, and wanted to read something else for entertainment.I started with D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's lover.

I didn’t plan to read fantasy—a friend of mine brought along his copy of The Hobbit, and I read it while pretending to be listening to my high school teachers. That got to be a habit of mine, and I remember being sent out of the room when a teacher discovered me reading and not paying attention to mathematics class. I remember placing the book I read within the textbook so that I would look like I was scanning the textbook while listening to the teacher.

Science fiction was also an accident—someone brought a copy of a collection of Heinlein’s short fiction to the theory group room, and I read it while I was waiting in-between classes. Once I found out I liked science fiction, I decided to explore other authors.

I got into more recent literary work also in university after browsing the shelves of the physics org, as well as the shelves of my friends. For example, I read some of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, in-between classes and borrowing the books from a friend. I read parts of the Last Temptation of Christ during tambay hours at the physics org.

I also read non-fiction. My thesis adviser likes reading nonfiction, and he has an extensive collection. I learned about Malcolm Gladwell’s books from him, and about other writers who do good nonfiction. You could spend a lot of time just reading from my thesis adviser’s collection.

How do I choose what I read these days? I actually do it at random. I walk through the shelves of Book Sale or National bookstore, or whatever bookstore I'm in and scan the titles, browse through a few pages, and if what I read grabs me, I buy it. Or I look at Amazon's catalog and check out the titles and summaries, as well as reader reactions. I also look up Wikipedia entries of the authors. If the book looks interesting, I either buy it or download.

Some authors (Orson Scott Card, and Larry Niven, for example) I got to know because I found them in Book Sale, and at a bargain price. Once I like what I've read, I remember the names and look for other examples of their work.

Another way is by listening to friends talk about what they've read. For example, I read Harry Potter after noticing that a few of my dorm-mates were carrying it around to read. After they've read the book, I borrowed their copies so that I could read it as well.

There are many times when I have to fall in line and wait. It is not for nothing that U. P. stands for "university of Pila". I've found that a good book will always help me pass the time.

There is no grand design-- I don't have a notion that I should read, or even worse, that there is a set of books that I ought to read. Like a lot of things in my life, my reading is a stochastic process.