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, September 27, 2011

Population, Sewage and Flood

I slept all day today. We're in the middle of typhoon Pedring, and Metro Manila was under Public Storm Warning Signal #2. With this kind of weather, schools from elementary to secondary are suspended, while tertiary schools (my university, for example) leave it to the school officials to decide on suspensions.

I stayed awake until 2 am reading manga, with twitter on another tab to keep track of the suspension status of our school. I think it's silly to let university officials decide on suspensions when they always do suspend classes when it's Signal #2. They should just make a rule that it's automatically suspended, and then have make-up classes on weekends. 

Public storm warning signals in the Philippines are based not on the amount of rain but on wind speeds. So it's possible to have heavy rain and flooding with no storm warnings. Exactly two years ago, Metro Manila was inundated by tropical storm Ondoy. The wind speeds, in Metro Manila at least, were within the maximum of 60 km/hr. These wind speeds were not high enough to cause damage to roofs here. The government weather bureau actually did all right with its prediction of wind speeds. Although people faulted the government for being unprepared, I don't know if you can actually predict the amount of rainfall from a given storm.

The lack of a sewerage system, and haphazard garbage collection exacerbates the problem of flooding. Sewage disposal is through septic tanks that are later drained by independent contractors (for people with means, at least), and dumped who knows where, or if you happen to be poor and living near a creek or river, it gets dumped directly into nearby waterways. As a result, our floodways are too clogged with  garbage to be useful in preventing floods. 

One sign of the problem is the population density of Metro Manila (18,000/sq km); Singapore, in contrast, has 7,000 per sq km. In fact, Manila (43,000/sq km) is the city with the largest population density in the world, and of the top fifty cities ranked by population density, we have 10 cities, all in Metro Manila, in the list. So people who claim we have no population problems here are talking through their hats. (Or their mitres). Now, translate these numbers into volume of garbage and sewage per square meter everyday, and you can say, that's a lot of shit!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Coffee, Tea, and the Global Financial Crisis

There are a lot of inexpensive pleasures-- one just needs to consciously savor them when they come. One of my more recent pleasures is doughnuts and tea; a feeling of luxury can be achieved by buying doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts and then having two or three doughnuts with Earl Gray tea.

I suppose that pleasures must be contemplated to be enjoyed; it's no use to rush through the ritual of drinking tea. I've read about the  tea ceremony in Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea, but it's not the kind of tea I drink. There's no formality nor ritual; just a teabag, a mug of hot water, milk and sugar. Reading it did give me a greater appreciation of tea. Alas, although it is somewhere here in my house, the number of books and papers, and the lack of a classification system means I will probably take a day or two to search for it. It's faster to download it here.  

Along with Earl Gray, I bought English Breakfast Tea, and Peach flavored  tea. I was pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive it actually is. A teabag costs about PhP 8 to 10 (about 20 US cents) compared to a cup of coffee from Starbucks (around PhP 80 or USD 2.50).

Although I do have a French press at work, I'm also thinking of buying a teapot, and getting an infuser as well. On the other hand, I'd probably have to look for a shop that sells loose-leaf tea, since it's not available in most supermarkets here. Even Rustan's ran out of tea-bags of Earl Gray tea, so it'll probably be difficult to find loose-leaf tea. Most Filipinos prefer coffee to tea, so there's not much to be found here, except in specialty shops (which I do not know). Maybe I ought to ask the friend who got me to drink tea.

This doesn't mean that I dislike coffee. When I was an undergraduate, there was a time when my coffee consumption was 6 to 8 mugs a day. I don't do that now-- I've limited my coffee consumption to just two mugs a day.  I used to drink instant coffee but after trying brewed coffee, you really don't want to go back to instant. Nescafe, for example, has an acidic aftertaste that I won't miss. When I do drink instant, it's mainly for the caffeine; I use creamer and sugar to mask the taste.

I brew the Barako variety; I like it better than Arabica, and it's actually cheaper here since most of it is grown in Batangas, Benguet and other parts of the Philippines. It's slightly more expensive than instant-(I think it costs me about PhP 15 (or 40 cents US) for every mug I brew) but much less expensive than getting it from Starbucks. The reason it's not as well known as Arabica and Robusta was the coffee rust disease that devastated local coffee plantations during the 1880's. A local coffeeshop, Figaro's, is promoting barako so that this local variety won't die out.  

Steven Johnson claims that the switch from alcohol (with the population being effectively drunk all day) to tea and coffee was one of the sources of the Enlightenment. (His TED talk is here.) Drinking alcohol then was the healthy choice-- the water was bad, and alcohol was one way of making sure that you don't have bad bacteria in what you drink.

Coffeehouses (and tea houses) were first introduced to Europe in the 17th century; this was before Pasteur and the germ theory of disease, and they had no idea that boiling water was one way of making drinking water safe. Now here was a beverage people don't (literally) get sick of, and it changed the population from being drunk all day to one that was alert and ready to engage in more intellectual pursuits. The first coffee houses also served as the meeting places of traders, and were the equivalent of today's financial exchanges. One can therefore trace the rise of the modern sciences and the Financial system from the Enlightenment to the atomic bomb and the Global Financial crisis today back to a coffeehouse!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tea, Earl Gray, Hot

One of  L. E. Modesitt's books, Flash, features a character who drinks Earl Gray tea. Intrigued, I searched for the difference between ordinary black tea and found out that Earl Gray tea is a blend of tea and oil of bergamot. I knew that it wasn't supposed to be expensive, and decided to get some from Rustan's.

I wanted a substitute for coffee that I could enjoy at work, and it was good. Thankfully, I was able to obtain the original blend by Twinings; I was worried that I would get the "new and improved" blend (who remembers New Coke?) but found out from the Twinings website that the new blend was only made available in the United Kingdom.

Judging from the reaction, it looks like the new blend was a disaster for Twinings; the resulting public outcry led them to reintroduce the old blend as Classic Earl Gray.  In the same way, Coca-cola also reintroduced the old formula as Classic Coke, and then later stopped production of New Coke.

I don't know what motivated the Twinings people to tinker with the Earl  Gray formula, but I do know that sip tests of Coke versus Pepsi misled the management into thinking that people wanted the sweeter Cola, and so they used a sweeter (among other things) version of the Coke formula. Malcolm Gladwell tells the story in his book Blink, and his conclusion was that the Coke people were using the wrong test of what people preferred.

While reading one of the rants of the people who disliked the New Earl Gray, I was amused to learn that Earl Gray was Captain Jean-Luc Picard's favorite drink. His usual line was "Tea, Earl Gray, Hot." (with Earl pronounced "Ehl") There's actually a youtube clip of all the instances Picard had Earl Gray. It can be found here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Washing machines

I'm usually not at home, even on weekends. I spend Saturdays at school tutoring my methods students (class-time is not enough!) and working with undergraduates in our research group. So I don't have much time to do the laundry.

People who never hand-washed probably don't appreciate what a miracle washing machines can be. I remember hand-washing clothes when I was much younger. We didn't have a washing machine then, so it was either hand-wash or pay someone else to do the hand-washing. It has never been my favorite work. I remember how much it hurt my back to sit down, and how stiff I felt after a say of doing the washing by hand. So it was a minor miracle when we got a washing machine.

The washing machine we had then was not automatic. You had to wait until the water reached a certain level, then close the tap manually. After letting our clothes spin in soap-water, we then had to transfer our clothes into clean water to rinse out the suds. The washing machine had no spin-dryer, so I had to squeeze the water out by hand, and then hang the clothes on the clothes-line to dry.   

It was only when I was working that my brother and I bought a fully-automatic washing machine. (It was a huge dent in our budget-- around PhP 15 K, or USD 360-- but worth it in the long run.) You put in your clothes, some soap, fabric softener, and bleach and then the washing machine will do everything. It controlled the water inflow and the drain cycles, so you only had to wait. It also has a spin-dryer, so that at the end, the clothes were partially dry.

When I do the laundry (about three times a week), I usually put my clothes in the washing machine just  before going to sleep, and then hang them out to dry as soon as I get up. Imagine what it must be like for the rest of the world. In fact, Hans Rosling has a TED talk on washing machines:

So I'm already just above the wash-line, but below the air-line.

Although I had an opportunity to see him live (he was in the Philippines a week ago, and was  scheduled  to give a talk at UP Diliman), I had to forego the opportunity in favor of doing some paperwork. I just hope that someone uploaded the talk.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Waiting for a plane

I'm writing this while waiting for a plane bound for Tacloban. My younger brother is getting married and they (that is, he and his fiancee) will be having their wedding at the bride's hometown. We're having some bad weather here-- lots of rain, but no wind-- and they're also having a traffic jam in the air.

I'm a bit nervous about flying in this weather, given that I'm riding a plane whose crew has among the highest power-distance-indicators. Malcolm Gladwell talked about it in his book, Outliers. Among the things I learned was the likelihood of having a crash is higher when the crew has a high-power distance indicator.

Power-distance is tied to culture; a large power-distance indicator tells you that a given culture places great value on authorities. One sign of a large power-distance index is the use of honorifics and a well-developed notions of polite behaviour. For example, Filipinos use the words po and opo, kayo at ninyo to indicate respect. Po is almost meaningless; it's word added to a sentence just to signify that the person being spoken to has a higher rank in society. Kayo and ninyo are probably more like the word "thee".One uses the word kayo as a substitute for ikaw (you) to be polite.

One of the disadvantages of a high-power distance culture is the use of mitigation when a social inferior is talking to a social superior. Malcolm Gladwell takes the example of a pilot and a copilot. Pilots and coipilots take turns handling the plane, and one of the surprising statistics is the higher likelihood of a plane crash when the pilot is handling the plane, compared to when the copilot is steering.

If the copilot is seen to be doing something stupid, then the pilot can easily correct his copilot, without mitigation, because he's the boss. On the other hand, if the pilot is steering, and he's doing something stupid, the copilot will use the most mitigated statement-- he hints! Example: the pilot would say: "Turn this way!" while in the same situation, the copilot would say: "Uh, you might want to look at the weather radar."

A lot of plane crashes happened (according to Gladwell) with the plane being in good shape; the biggest factors were bad weather, and bad communication between pilot, copilot and ground control. Mitigation exacerbates miscommunication especially when the pilot is steering; the copilot can only hint-- because the copilot is talking to his boss.

And which countries have the highest power-distance indicators? The top five just happen to be: Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, the Philippines,  and Mexico.

No wonder I'm worried.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Library.nu has risen from the dead

For the last month or so, library.nu has not been allowing me (and my friends) to log-in or register. The website provided no explanation-- it allowed me to browse, but gave no links. After a month or so of visiting the site, I'm glad to know that everything's back to normal.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How textbooks shape researchers, and mislead students

I downloaded a copy of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions because I couldn't find my hard copy. Sometimes finding a particular book in my collection is a problem because of the number I actually own. I'm not even sure if it's in one of the boxes, or in one of the shelves, or hidden under the stairs.

I was looking for a statement he made on textbooks-- and how unusual a textbook  that discusses alternative theories is. Although I would like to discuss historical issues in the development of physics, I don't have enough time in the classroom to do so. I find such issues fascinating, and you can sometimes use the confusion of the ancients to understand how difficult some of the concepts can be.

One of the books that I like is Arnold Aron's The Development of Concepts in Physics, which is unfortunately out-of-print. (I have to rely on a photocopy so that I could read it.) It  actually owes a lot to Gerald Holton's book (in fact, large areas were taken from it and reprinted with permission), and it helps me understand why older scientific beliefs, such as Aristotelian physics and impetus took hold in medieval minds. Another example is its development of the Bohr model, which follows Bohr's seminal paper.

Textbooks mislead. Let's again take the Bohr model as an example. If you follow the development in Young and Freedman's University Physics, what will be given is quantization of angular momentum as a postulate. This is in fact a major reversal of Bohr's paper. What Bohr actually did was to argue, from the Rydberg formula, and then argues that energy must be quantized. After that, he derives as a consequence, the quantization of angular momentum.

There are more examples of such reversals, which I will not multiply. The point is that textbooks will not present the historical development because it is too confusing, and distracts from the purpose of the textbook-- to display the current paradigm, give examples or models that serve as pieces that the scientist builds on when doing what Kuhn calls normal science.

(An aside: if you read older textbooks in general relativity, and compare them to each other, you will see examples of how the paradigms changed within the study of general relativity. The main problems in relativity during the early days was the study of small effects-- the deflection of light being the main example. It was only in the 1960's when strong gravitational fields, in the sense of great distortions of spacetime geometry from global Minkowski space, replaced weak effects as the main application of general relativity, as found in textbooks. An example of a text where this transition was incompletely done is Weinberg's Gravitation and Cosmology. Bergmann's, Moller's and Pauli's texts would represent the older the generation of textbooks, while Misner, Thorne and Wheeler's Gravitation, Hawking and Ellis's The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime, would be representative of the post-1960's paradigm shift.  

Another shift that I see is in the textbooks of today, which emphasizes the physics-first approach. When I first learned general relativity, I used Schutz's A First Course in General Relativity, which follows the math-first approach. The way it was developed put black holes near the end of the book, and I suppose that it took much stamina to be able to reach that point.

I think that the ordering it uses shapes the research of the people who use it. For example, since it places black holes at the end, its discussion of alternative coordinate systems is brief. This means the technique of choosing appropriate coordinate systems is under-emphasized, and it seems unlikely that a terminal user of Schutz's book will develop that skill. Or the technique of using orthonormal basis vectors. Compare this with the recent textbooks, such as Hartle's Gravity, or Taylor and Wheeler's Exploring Black Holes where these techniques are much used to answer basic questions.

Textbooks shape the research of the people who read them. The questions researchers ask are based on their choice of textbook, and someone who learned relativity from Schutz will ask different questions compared to someone who learned relativity from Hartle. )  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Of Nursing and Bubbles

The Philippines has an oversupply of nursing graduates; I've heard stories of nursing grads having to pay hospitals so that they can do "volunteer work" just so they can gain necessary experiences.

A few years ago, I had an idea that there would be a glut-- a simple count of hospitals and expected nursing graduates would have given the game away, and I didn't expect demand from abroad to leave salaries at high levels after the inflow of many new nurses. About six years ago, there was a shortage of nurses, and this shortage meant large salaries.

Parents who saw those salaries didn't think about supply and demand-- and given that a nursing degree takes about four to five years, this means that by the time nursing freshmen graduate, the marketplace would be  much changed from what initially led people to take up nursing.

This reminds me of bubbles in financial markets. A famous example of a bubble is the Dutch tulip mania. Charles Mackay gave an account in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. (A wikipedia article on Tulip Mania is here.)

A relatively recent example of a bubble was in the nineties, when people kept buying technology-related stocks (even when the underlying businesses were lousy-- no earnings, etc) because people convinced themselves that good times (an upward trend in the prices of stocks) will last forever. (They don't.)

Due to higher stipends and an increase in the number of DOST scholars, we've been getting wonderful students in our research group, and I now worry about their employment prospects.  I think that the openings for tenure track positions will be available only within the next three to five years. Given the increasing PhD graduation rates at NIP, there's probably a coming shortage of available academic tenure-track work.

The same thing can be said for geology and chemical engineering. Right now, the employment opportunities look good. For new geologists with a BS degree, the monthly take-home pay starts at around PhP 70 K.(USD 1.7 K, a decent amount if you spend it in the Philippines.) DOST has encouraged the inflow of new geologists by increasing stipends, and I can see that there are larger numbers of geology majors compared, say, to a few years ago. What this means in terms of salaries is an eventual decrease in take-home pay.