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

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.


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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.





Wednesday, November 10, 2010

2nd day of school

I'm preparing to go to school --- it's pretty early. I woke up around 4:30 am so that I'll get to school before 7:30 am. In fact, I should probably have gotten up around 3 am so that I could fully enjoy my morning ritual of brewed coffee and preparing for teaching.

Last semester was very hard on me because the class was at 7 am-- the 30 minute difference was enough to put the rest of the day out of kilter for me, especially since I sleep around 10 pm. I did sleep earlier last night so that I could at least have 7 hours of sleep, and I'll probably try to maintain a schedule of getting to bed around 8:30 pm.

I finished reading Audrey Niffenegger's book, The Time Traveler's Wife, two days ago. Some parts were pretty good-- but on whole it's probably like one of the cloying desserts that are good for three or so spoons worth and no more. I did like the allusion to Odysseus, and the hook that pulled me in (while reading the book in the bookstore-- which caused me to buy it) was the prologue. Clare waiting, reminding me of one of Neruda's poems. Another thing that I liked was the way the author worked on making the time-travelling self-consistent, which seems to be good physics (see Novikov's self-consistency condition for time travel).

Time travel is among the things I think about scientifically because it turns a lot of the paradigms we use around, The usual way of posing the laws of physics is as an initial value problem: If I know the state of the universe now, the laws of physics dictate how the universe changes from now to tomorrow. This kind of statement-- known as the Cauchy statement-- doesn't work when dealing with a (for now hypothetical) universe that allows time travel.

There is another book that I read on the physics of time travel (by J. Richard Gott III) that tries to discuss the issues involved as seen from the theoretical physicists end. I favor the self-consistent histories approach, but have no basis for belief except a feeling that time travel ought to be doable so long as it's self-consistent.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

first day of registration

I woke up early yesterday to help me readjust for the coming semester. I checked the class schedules of physics 7x, and noticed that there were three sections with times set around 7 am, so I think it's extremely likely that I'll be assigned to another 7am class.

Some of the things I got done yesterday: I had my bike sprocket fixed for PhP 35. I patronize two bike shops, one along 10th Avenue of Kalookan and the other one along C. P. Garcia Avenue. One advantage of the Kalookan shop is their low labor cost. They're also much more likely to repair broken down parts than to replace. For example: the C. P. Garcia shop would have probably told me to replace the sprocket instead of fixing it. It turned out that all it needed was to be cleaned so that the pins that connect the sprocket to the wheel would work.

This reminds me of the need to doubt experts. I recently reread Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, and one of the topics that they talked about was information abuse-- how experts manipulate the asymmetry between what you know and what they know in order to get away with charging you more. It's a good read,so I'd rather plug it rather then giving a summary. If you do plan to buy it, be sure to get the more recent version because after the first printing, a few inaccuracies (mostly about Stetson Kennedy's role in the campaign against the Ku Klux Klan ) were found in the book.

Another task accomplished was to install new lenses on my eyeglasses. I had my eyes rechecked (at no extra cost) at the optical shop in front of the church at 11th avenue. The cost is far lower than the shop I first visited (at SM North). The new lenses cost me PhP 350-- far lower than my initial guess. But then it does make sense because the main cost of the glasses is the frame rather than the lenses themselves.

Finally, I went to school to get the grade sheets printed and submitted. I also went to the graduate office to find out what I need to get my records fixed.

One of the things I enjoy every morning is brewed coffee. Yesterday, I was unable to have some because of the power outage. Turned out Meralco was installing new meters and wiring in an effort to combat the use of jumpers. It meant having no electricity all day yesterday, and it looks like the same thing will be true today, since they haven't finished the work.

But I was really talking about coffee. I own an inexpensive coffee maker, and get the grounds from the Rustan's or shoppersville. It's more expensive than instant, but worth it. I don't buy grounds from starbucks because it costs twice what I usually buy, and I notice no difference in quality. But then, I do prefer kapeng Barako (Liberica), while the usual starbucks brew is a mix of arabica and robusta.

My coffee consumption has gone down, however, from the peak it was on during my undergraduate days. Then, I probably drank 6 mugs of coffee a day, and was on a perpetual caffeine high. Now, I drink around two mugs of coffee a day. While at work though, I have to make do with instant. It's only when at home that I indulge in brewed coffee, although I do visit the starbucks branch near the institute.

I miss writing my morning journal. The last entry was a few months back. To get back to the habit of reflecting about the day before, I'll try using electronic means instead of my notebook.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

getting ready for school

I'll go to U.P. tomorrow to fix my records and to prepare for the coming semester. I'll probably be assigned to teaching physics 73 again, so at the moment I'm revising the syllabus to make it more in-line with what we think is examinable. I've sent emails to my fellow course group members so that we can negotiate on the changes.

Among the things that I'd like to see are: (1) a better attendance policy and (2) statement of objectives, and (3) a better reading list.

I've looked at my class records and notice that people who are often absent or late tend to flunk the course. There's one student who missed 34 class meetings, and the exams were terrible. Other students with absences greater than the mandated number in the University rules also do badly. It's expected since they can't benefit from class activities.

We made a mistake in the syllabus when we chose not to automatically flunk people with excessive absences. It made possible the illusion that you can pass Physics 73 without coming to class. There are a lot of meetings (for the 2nd and 3rd exams) that are critical since the topics aren't in the textbook. So we need to encourage good attendance.

We should also spend two meetings on the orientation, instead of just one. I'll get Mazur's article "the science lecture: a thing of the past?" printed and then hand it out to students. I have homework prepared, and a quiz to follow up.

Last semester was bad compared to the summer term and 2nd semester. My passing rate was only 82% (I usually get around 90% and above). I was also unable to concentrate because of the academic load I had, to the detriment of my physics 73 students. I shouldn't have taken an optics course since I was badly unprepared. My usual practice is to read and solve problems before enrolling in a course so that I don't get floored. I was unable to do that for both my courses-- optics and solid state physics.

I have this belief that one ought to respect prerequisites. Taking those graduate courses last semester was a violation of respecting prerequisites. I don't really know solid-state physics and optics at the undergraduate level so it's expected that I'd do badly with the graduate versions. I hope to do better next semester.