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

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Chinese Android Tablet

I bought a 70 USD tablet (they call it  a CDRKing Fastpad, with model number FP-011-M(TM-FP7-03)) last week from CDRKing  because I wanted to know how well such 7 inch tablets perform compared to more expensive ones such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 (GT-P3110) (which I also own). Properly speaking, the tablet is likely to be worth only 50 USD; the extra 20 USD is a markup for shipping and retailer's profits. The tablet information from CDRKing can be found here.

The experience is surprisingly good, at least for the kind of applications that I like using. I've installed the following: EbookDroid, FBReader (these two are for reading ebooks and cover almost all formats I'm likely to encounter), a scientific calculator, and an app for managing the root user, SuperSU. The tablet is pre-rooted, and I didn't need to look for an exploit that gives me superuser permissions.

Of course, since it's a cheap tablet, the resolution of the screen isn't as good as the Samsung Tab. But it's good enough for reading ebooks, browsing the web, doing video calls with Skype, and watching videos. The games that are installed play well--- the pre-installed games here being Angry Birds, Plants versus Zombies, Temple Run Brave, Fruit Ninja, and Skyrider. I've even installed a computer algebra system (CAS), Maxima for Android.

Among other things I did was to run the Antutu benchmark app, and do a plot of the sine function using Maxima. See the following screenshots:

For reference, the net score of my Cherry Mobile Flare is 7036, 5410 for my Samsung Tab, and 1817 for my Samsung Galaxy Y phone (which I now mainly use as a mobile wifi hotspot and music player).

Some of the interesting things that this tablet can do that my Samsung Galaxy Tab can't do are the following:
(1) Using the included USB to go cable, I can connect a mouse and supposedly a keyboard as well. Of course, doing that contributes to the battery drain.
(2) Also, using the USB to go cable, I can use supported Huawei USB modems and connect to the net.
That's something the Tab can't easily do.
(3) I can still use the USB mass storage protocol to access the SD card using my laptop. I find it more convenient when it comes to transferring files because it's a simple copy and paste.

Now what about the things this tablet can't do (compared to the Galaxy Tab)?
(1) The front-facing camera is not very good since its main purpose is for video calls, and there's no camera at the back. But since a Cherry Mobile Flare costs only 97.5 USD, you're still ahead if you buy this phone and pair it with this tablet.
(2) The screen resolution isn't as good as the Galaxy Tab. But then, if it's good enough for what you plan on using it for...
(3) It doesn't have a GPS sensor, nor does it support Bluetooth.
(4) If you look at the benchmarks, you can definitely see the difference between a more expensive tablet and this one.

Would I recommend it to the budget-conscious consumer? Absolutely. Although I do love my other tablet, I do know that I don't need all of its features. So for a student who wants a decent e-reader, a portable computer algebra system, simple games, and internet access, it's good enough. Tablets like these actually make the idea of a computer for every child seem realizable. Give the Chinese manufactories a year or two, and I suspect that we'll see lower prices and better quality.

(What it means for the global economy, and the US in particular, is another topic that I plan to tackle on another day. )

update: December 30, 2012
I've been keeping my eye out for the original equipment manufacturer--I still think it's manufactured in China--but haven't had any luck so far. I did find out that this tablet might also be known as the Ubislate 7ci, based on the exterior build and the specs.

The Ubislate 7ci, by the way, is known as the Aakash 2.  Datawind, the company that won the contract to supply the tablet to the Indian government, didn't seem to have the manufacturing capability needed to produce the tablet in India, and they had to outsource to China in an effort to stem their losses.

I've also seen a teardown of the Aakash 2, and it doesn't look pretty. There's actually a lot of extra space inside, and the manufacturer could have used a bigger battery. But because of the effort needed to keep prices within the contract (should be less than USD 50), this is one place where they skimped.

The tablet itself seems to be easy to open, based on the other reviews I've read, so someone willing to tinker with it might just decide to replace the stock battery to improve battery life. One workaround that I use is an external battery.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Another round for the patent wars

One of the amusing news items that I've read today is about Apple's court ordered "apology". The original notice was pretty well-hidden on Apple's website and contained a lot of snarky comments from the Apple side, which the magistrates did not find funny. And so they were ordered to print a revised version. (I do love these British magistrates!)

After reading the article, I decided to go down to the comments section (it's actually not healthy to do this on a regular basis) and I found a back-and-forth between people who liked the decision, and some guy with the user name "Peter Blood". 

It's pretty funny how much this guy's self-image is so tied up with Apple products. Although I do like some Samsung products (my phone for example, is a Samsung), I wouldn't go to an Apple forum playing the troll. For every pro-Android comment there, it seemed this guy just had to go and reply to each one. I'm hoping he won't find this post-- I do want to be left alone by trolls.

I'm not an Apple user; I'm typing all this on an inexpensive netbook running Linux, and I can of course be accused of bias. On the other hand, my Dad did get an Ipad, and we tutored him on how to get things done (skype, music, videos, and web-browsing were things he was unable to do with his rig, so we walked him through it). It's not my tablet of choice, but so long as it gets the job done with a minimum of bother for my Dad, buying it is actually something I approve of. It also helps that it's not running the latest version of IOS: google maps is still safely in the apps. 

In fact, if I had to buy a tablet for senior citizens, I'd probably go with Apple's walled-garden approach because most of the users in this category aren't very tech-savvy. Apple's design choices do make it easier and safer to use. After using that tablet though, I think Android and IOS differ enough to make accusing Google of patent infringement nutty, no matter what Steve Jobs would like us to believe. 

The main reason we see the patent wars is this: eventually, tablets will become a commodity product, with lots of competing manufacturers. Like Sony and other television manufacturers, you will eventually meet Chinese knock-offs, and there is no such thing as a monopoly on consumer goods. (Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers are posting losses in their financial statements as I write this.)  If Apple wants to keep the profits coming in, trying to maintain a monopoly using the court system is a good strategy; but no matter what Apple says, what's good for Apple may not necessarily be good for you.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Foot in mouth disease

One of the nice things about internet access is the availability of news from all over the world. Twitter,  facebook, and google makes the news just a hyperlink away. My breakfast habit is to read the news starting with the New York Times and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and then doing a search if I find a particular topic interesting. Other news I get from links suggested by friends on facebook: sometimes Al Jazeera or Rappler.

One of the spectator sports that I engage in is America$^{[1]}$ watching, mostly because of how much what happens there can affect everywhere else. The current hullabaloo though is the presidential campaign, and along with it, the debates.

Although I didn't watch the debate, I've read about it in the New York Times. From what I've read, the first one went to Romney (since it put the columnists in the NY Times on the defensive), but the second one was a sudden reversal because of Romney's unhappy use of "binders full of women". This link goes to just one sample of all the articles talking about it, and a google search using the Romney's phrase as keywords ought to be able to give you a deluge.

Immediately after the debate, someone created a tumblr  for it, while other people put up lot of facebook pages labeled "binders full of women", as well as a lot of internet memes. I confess that the first image that  came to mind was a mouldy porn collection hidden in Bain Capital's filing system, and then it went downhill from there. I guess this is just another example of foot-in-mouth disease, and also one for the adage "Be careful what you say because your words can hurt you", especially so when you're a politician.

$^{[1]}$  Read as the United States--- I know, I know, Canada and Mexico are also part of North America, and don't even get started on South America!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The spiral is a mosquito coil

For a few weeks now I've been working part-time as a math and physics tutor for high school students. It's been a while--- I think last time I did tutor high school math and physics was more than five years ago--- and so the first thing I did was buy a few high school math textbooks. I was afraid, at first, that the texts would be of low quality. Fortunately, the school my student attends is progressive, and their math teachers have good taste. My high school textbook was probably a good sample of what goes around as average, and I never did learn mathematics from it.

I've always thought about the effectiveness of basic and secondary education because of an observation I made as an undergraduate struggling with math and physics. I graduated from a university that's consistently ranked as the best in the country, and so it struck me as ridiculous to see all these supposedly talented people failing their subjects, and I wondered why it was so. And so I started thinking on and off about what makes a good education, and part of the answer is the crummy basic education that we have. (Aside of course from bad teaching at the university level and bad study habits carried over from high school.)

Philippine high school education has a lot of problems: (1) teachers who do not know the subjects they are supposed to be teaching, (2) bad textbooks, (3) short school hours, and (4) our willingness to ape the latest education fads in the United States. 

Take physics teaching in high school. The physics education research effort (done by physicists, and not by people from the Colleges of Education) has produced a goodly set of Conceptual Survey Exams.  These conceptual surveys are used to check the understanding of the various concepts in physics. An example would be the Force Concept Inventory; it presents a set of situations given using non-technical language, and the test-taker is asked to interpret or make predictions. Each of the distracters in this multiple-choice exam are constructed so that they match what a pre-Newtonian thinker would answer. 

I've given this exam to many high school graduates and I'm routinely disappointed. Most of these students would be regarded as being part of the local elite, and routine disappointment should be a cause for alarm because if our best high school graduates have not mastered these basic notions, then there must be something seriously wrong with high school physics teaching. I would wager that the teachers themselves would fail such conceptual surveys; you can't teach what you don't know. 

One reason lies in the monopoly of the Colleges of Education when it comes to high school teaching in the public schools. If you look at the curriculum of the physics teaching majors, they are only required to learn the calculus-based introductory physics sequence and then half of the third year courses for physics majors.  Of the  universities and colleges that do offer a physics major, may of them do not even meet CHED guidelines on texts, faculty, and coursework. There is one horror story about a certain university whose physics majors never went beyond Young and Freedman's University Physics (an introductory physics textbook that people use in their first two years of university use; also sometimes used for teaching AP Physics). What people from DepEd don't seem to realize is that teachers of science and math in the high schools need to be specialists in order to teach their subjects well.

Bad textbooks also share the blame. This is an old issue, and one of the difficulties lie in the procurement process. There is a lot of money involved in selling high school textbooks, since adoption of a textbook means a monopoly at a school, and years of income on the part of the publisher and the textbook authors. 

Pricing is already an issue. I've tried to look for an online list of high school math textbooks, and I can't find one. I've also visited websites of publishers but the prices are not listed, but the binding quality provides a clue. Most high school textbooks that I see are printed on cheap newsprint bound with glue. This means the cost of printing isn't a lot, and there is probably a lot of money left over. The lack of transparency in the choice of textbooks provides an avenue for corruption; Richard Feynman has his own stories of how publisher's representatives appeal to greed when convincing textbook committees to adopt their textbooks. 

If you think about the money involved, you can see why there are lots of complaints about substandard textbooks. And it's not going to get better until we institutionalize transparency in the procurement process. Make the price list available, get user reviews from teachers. The Department of Education should setup a website that shows prices and user reviews of all textbooks used in K-12 education. The higher education market is more competitive precisely because of the ability of users to visit the websites of various schools and learn what textbooks are being used. A visit to amazon.com and a search for a particular textbook in the reviews and the forums allows people to easily rank textbooks in terms of price and quality. 

If you study in a government run school, unless you study in one of the special schools (For example, a school in the Philippine Science High School System, or one of the better local science high schools), you are likely to have insufficient school hours. A good high school will usually have school hours from 7am until around 3 or 4 pm. An ordinary government-run high school will have at least three shifts of students a day. One such shift, for example, runs from 6 am to around 10 am or about 4 hours of schooling per day. The no-classroom and teacher shortage claims of the Department of Education are thus a joke in light of this.

A case for sufficient school hours can be found in the success of such schools as the KIPP schools (Malcolm Gladwell has the story in Chapter 9 of his book Outliers); for a local example,  the school  run by the Bernidos (Ramon Magsaysay awardees) compares favorably in spite of the no-homework policy. Implementing three-shifts a day therefore, instead of increasing opportunities, just widens the gap between ordinary public schools and other schools with longer hours.  

Finally, let's examine the local tendency to borrow broken educational methods and education fads from the United States. When New Math was popular, the local textbooks almost immediately responded by adopting the style of the New Math textbooks in the US. I remember saving money and buying such a  text when I was in 6th grade (I was feeling ambitious and didn't know any better!). The math textbooks I used when I was in high school was trendy in that it used the so-called spiral method, but in reality the shape that our studies took was the shape of the mosquito coil (katol in the vernacular).

In the latest reform effort (the K-12 restructuring from K-10), people keep on going about Understanding by Design (UBD) and the so-called spiral approach. I've been reading the books of the Understanding by Design proponents , and comparing it with the local implementation and I feel embarrassed. There are good ideas in McTighe and Wiggins' text but the people who are asked to design curricula and materials are made to look like they're following instructions like automatons, without understanding. (An irony, when you think about it.) The point of understanding by design is to construct your lessons and choose the materials you use to meet preconceived objectives. These objectives, in turn, depend on what you mean by understanding a given subject. If your choice of objectives and activities do not foster understanding, then one ought to go back and rethink your plans.

But then again, if you're still stuck in denial (the classroom shortage is a thing of the past, etc, etc.), rethinking your plans is the last thing you'll do.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

True Story

Base sa tunay na pangyayari:
kapag tatay mo tsikboy
wala kang kamuwang-muwang.
isang araw kasama ka
sa simbahan bibisita
kapatid mo iyong makikilala
ikakasal na pala.

A bit of doggerel inspired by one of my professor's stories; because it happened to him.  The translation goes: If your father is a womanizer, you'll never know until the day he brings you to church and introduces you to your sister on her wedding day.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fixing the home network

I wasted one whole afternoon and one evening fixing my home network.

Although there are only two people here, we have three computers (four if you count my phone) that may sometimes need to connect to the internet at the same time. The usual dsl service that PLDT provides (for plan 999, at least) is good only for a modem without wifi. (As for the speed, PLDT should be ashamed! And they dare to call it DSL service?) To fix this, my younger brother set up a wireless router from CDRKing, and for a time, this was perfectly satisfactory.

I've had the annoyance of suddenly disconnecting from the net and then seeing the modem restart on its own.  So I did some tests. I connected a computer directly to the modem, and I noticed that there were times that my computer couldn't obtain an IP address from the modem. The way we handled it was just to restart the modem and then hope for the best. Although it was annoying to restart the modem every once in a while, we lived with it because I was too busy doing something else, while my Mom knew nothing about how to set it up.

One day, though, our router decided to quit. After inspecting it, I noticed that the power supply was busted; there was a crack near the male plug, and presumably, replacing the power adapter should fix the problem. But because I didn't have a second adapter, I couldn't test if that was the only thing wrong with the router.

Since I had to fix the router or get a replacement, I set up the modem at my room and connected my computer directly to it. I stayed up all night and stayed online to check if I had modem to computer connectivity issues, and also to search online for possible solutions to the busted router. I discovered that my computer suddenly gets disconnected from the modem for no reason (pinging the modem gives no response), and presumably some of the connectivity issues we had with the router could be traced to the sudden inability of the modem and router to talk to each other.

One analogy that I've found useful is to think of the DSLAM, the modem, and the router as substations of a postal service. To view a website, your computer sends a message to the router, then the router sends this message to the modem and, then the modem sends it to the DSLAM. The DSLAM sends it further on until it reaches the server hosting the website, but if there's a problem here, then it's PLDT's responsibility or the server's responsibility. Then the server sends the return message or data that allows you to view the webpage along the reverse path. The lights on the modem and the router, as well as pinging various websites, and the router could be used to trace where the connectivity problem might be.

For example, if you ping the router's IP address, and you get no response (even though the icon on your computer says you're connected wirelessly) could mean that the postal service at the router level is down. Since we have three computers, by trying all three, we can easily eliminate the possibility that there's something wrong with the computer service that sends and receives messages (packets is the technical term) to a router or a modem.

Checking the router to modem connection is tricky, and the best way to check is to just connect your computer directly to the modem. If your computer is able to obtain an IP address from the modem and view websites, but you can't get an IP address or view a  website when you're connected through the router, then there might be something wrong with the router.

Other checks are based on the postal service analogy, and any break in deliveries between two directly connected substations will result in having no internet connection. So the task of someone who oversees the network is to find where along the delivery path a failure happens, and then fix it.

Now if we go back to my problem, one task is to fix the connectivity issue between modem and router/computer. Restarting the modem more often than not gave me the limited or no connectivity icon on my taskbar, and doing ipconfig on the command line gave me the dreaded 169.xxx.xxx.xxx IP address) The modem  we use is a Zyxel P660-R-D1, and we've already had it replaced twice. I was sure it was already out of warranty, so I didn't want to call a PLDT tech and then have him come over, say that the modem needs to be replaced, and then bill us for another PhP 1K. Besides, the last time one came over, he didn't even try to upgrade the modem firmware (this is the program that manages the various tasks of the modem), so it just might be a software issue.

So during one of the modem's sober moments, (after more than a few restarts!), I was able to go online and I downloaded the PLDT version of the firmware (ZyNOS firmware version V.3.40(APG.4)b4; although another version of the firmware was available, I didn't get it, choosing instead to stay with PLDT firmware ) and then uploaded it into the modem. After doing so, I tested it again, by restarting the modem to see if I could finally connect, and if the connection was stable. For now, it looks like the firmware upgrade fixed that problem. I could connect to the modem, access the firmware, all without worrying about modem to computer connectivity. Without the router, everything worked fine.

After connecting the router, I encountered another problem: only one computer at a time could connect to the net. Unfortunately, I was dumb enough to do a factory reset on both modem and router, so I had problems connecting to the rest of the net. Fortunately, I could access the net using my cellphone, and I could look up the correct modem and router setup.  But some of it involved a lot of trial and error because I did not know what all the settings meant. I set up the modem as the DHCP server, set the router on bridge mode, disabled the DHCP server function in the router. If I understand it correctly, the modem assigns IP addresses to the computers connected to the router, and I had the ability to access the modem firmware without having to disconnect the router.  Getting all that done wasted the afternoon and the evening as well.

One gripe that I have is: why in hell doesn't PLDT have a handy website that contains some of the technical stuff that I need? The firmware, for example, should have been on a PLDT website. For comparison, the telco formerly known as Qwest (they're just a subsidiary now) had a website containing the modem firmware. I've also looked at Verizon's website, and it's a lot more informative than PLDT's website. (This link, for example, gives instructions on how to reset one modem brand that they support. If you navigate through their website, you can even find supporting information on each modem and a few routers , as well as information on home networking. )

But then, of course, if it were up to PLDT, they'd rather tell me that if I want more than  one computer connected to the net, I should "upgrade" and get their more expensive plan, and then get the modem with wifi capabilities. They'd rather provide bad customer service and have people pay for stuff that they don't need. After all, in many places, if you want DSL service, they still have a monopoly; they have no reason for improving service because they need not fear any competition.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lost in Translation II

A week ago, I read a blog post on the difficulty of translation. I happen to use a lot of translated media: I watch subtitled anime, and read translated light novels (For example, I've read the light novel series Sword Art Online at Baka-Tsuki). So it's an interesting exercise to try to translate a Tagalog song to English, just to see the problems that a translator might encounter. 

The song I chose was Hotdog's Pers Lab. "Pers Lab" is a Tagalog rendering of the word "first love", and I confess that I find the lyrics funny (maybe because I've become autistic somewhere along the way).

Pers Lab
(composed by Ramon Torralba, lyrics by Dennis Garcia. Performed by the band Hotdog.) 

When I see you, I melt

Like ice cream left under the sun.

What's your secret, why can't I lose the thought of you? 

What potion do you use, that I have fallen for you?"

I can't sleep, I can't eat:

Pimples on my nose and on my cheek;
as I keep thinking of you, they multiply.

When I see you, I melt

whenever you pass by
My heart peeks out.

When shall I get to know you?

I wish it will be soon.
It will be soon.

The original lyrics would be:

Tuwing kita'y nakikita
Ako'y natutunaw
Parang ice cream na bilad
Sa ilalim ng araw

Ano ba naman ang sikreto mo
At di ka maalis sa isip ko
Ano bang gayuma ang gamit mo
At masyado akong patay sa'yo

Di na makatulog
Di pa makakain
Taghiyawat sa ilong
Pati na sa pisngi
Sa kaiisip sa'yo
Taghiyawat dumadami

Tuwing kita'y nakikita
Ako'y natutunaw
Tuwing daan sa harap mo
Puso ko'y dumudungaw

Kelan ba kita makikilala
Sana'y malapit na
Malapit na

Now a few comments: the translation is stanza by stanza. The second stanza gave me a problem because of the word "gayuma". It's a Filipino form of witchcraft that's supposed to be a love spell. One version I've read online mentions using a jar and a photograph and saying words in dog-Latin, so the translation of potion doesn't work out right. 

On the other hand, some people refer to gayuma as something ingested by the target of the spell, with some accounts having it mixed in drinks or eaten. I chose the word potion as a nod to the second meaning, although using love spell would probably work. 

Another problem was the translation of the fourth stanza. "Puso ko'y dumudungaw" was hard work. The connotation of "dumudungaw" is a the act of looking outside a window. How exactly you do that depends on context as well.  I tried google translate to see if someone has provided something I can start with, but it just gives me back the same word.

How many ways can you look outside a window? You could peek through a window, while trying to hide yourself from view. Or you can fully show yourself: there are degrees, depending on how shy you are. I chose "peek" because the song was composed in the 70's, and one model of beauty is "Maria Clara", a character in Jose Rizal's novels. There's a scene in Noli Me Tangere where she is first reunited with a childhood friend (and lover), and of the possible ways that she might look out of the window to spy on her lover's arrival, peek would be the best choice. 

Mind you, it doesn't necessarily mean that this kind of shyness (or lack of assertiveness) is something I approve of in girls, but it might be a good description of the kind of person the band had in mind. "Ako'y natutunaw" translates to "I melt", so it's probably a good hypothesis to think of the lyrics as reflecting the emotions of someone who feels shyness at the sight of the beloved.

And so, the Korean has hit the problem correctly. The art of bringing the context into the translation is difficult, and one should be grateful to translators, especially those who do the job for free... like the translators of light novels, scanlators of manga, and the people who subtitle anime. 


Friday, September 28, 2012

Twitting the Twitter

The past few weeks have seen me tweeting more than writing here. One factor would be laziness; I haven't had much motivation to say a lot more than 140 letters at a time. The other one, surprisingly, is the challenge of saying it all in a 140 letter format. The nearest thing that comes to mind would be haiku; the strict limitations mean trying to pack a lot more information in a limited space.

I've also been using twitter to post status updates that I wouldn't want to post in facebook. The number of twitter followers that I do have is a lot more manageable (last count is 29) compared to the number of facebook friends (somewhere around 500), and I'm counting on people having overflowing twitter feeds, so much overflow in fact, that the tweets I do make would be lost in the deluge.

I've learned as a twitter user is that people tend to think that a facebook like is the same as following someone on twitter. I think it's silly to run around trying to gain more twitter followers; if what you say is meaningful and if people do want to know more about what you're thinking, then they will follow you. On the other hand, indiscriminately following people on twitter doesn't do any good because it makes a torrent of tweets that you never get to read.

Still, twitter has many uses aside from posting tweets. It's actually quite fast when it comes to news. If I want to know if classes are suspended, instead of calling the trunk-line of my university, you can count on twitter for fast updates. Or search for a hashtag.  I've enjoyed the snarky tweets on #MuslimRage : "Finding out that the 72 virgins are all males" is my favorite." Or how about the #SavedSex hashtag: "Gigabytes of #savedsex on my hard drive."?

I used to have a pocket diary where the space allotted for each day was so small that only the most important events of the day could be recorded.  When I look at the entries, I could easily see the obsessions I had then (one entry for example,  records the fact that I solved a problem in Feynman and Hibbs' Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals book after almost a month of effort spent.) Rereading my old tweets is almost like rereading that old pocket diary; the tweets hint to me of something more  about that day, and it's good to think back and forward.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Light novels, Translations, and komiks

Aside from reading novels and playing games, one of my guilty pleasures is japanese pop culture, in the form of anime and manga. I'm happy that the net has made this form of entertainment more mainstream than it was back when I was an undergrad, and as a result of this interest, it has become a lot easier to get a hold of new anime and manga.

I remember how hard it was to get access to new anime, and  it was a big deal for me then when university student organizations had an anime film showing. It's so unlike today where it's easy to find DVD's of subbed anime, or streamed fansubs. I remember watching the Ruruoni Kenshin OVA, as well as the first few episodes of Chobits during one such film showing, and the net was a lot slower then so that streamed videos were impossible to watch. 

One reason I like anime and manga is the cultural difference; after being saturated by American movies and tv shows, anime and manga provide a refreshing change. Looking for the roots of the anime I liked was what first led me to manga (after finding out that Ruruoni Kenshin was originally from manga), and then later, I learned about anime and manga that had further roots in light novels.

Light novels are roughly the equivalent of teen and young adult novels in Japan. Many light novels were originally published in serial form. If some light novels became commercially successful, they were compiled and released in book form. (It reminds me of Dickens: many of his novels, such as David Copperfield, were originally serialized.  A local example might be Laro Sa Baga, which was serialized in Liwayway magazine, although given its mature-only content, doesn't exactly fit the teen or young adult classification.)   

But in some ways, I think that light novels are sometimes a lot more subtle than the typical young adult books written in English. (Which is why I used the qualifier "roughly equivalent") The reason, I think, is the peculiar way that Japanese writing, in the sense of physically making marks on paper, evolved.

I've learned that the Japanese written language consists of at least four kinds --a syllable-based script for native words, another syllable based script for foreign loan words (more than two forms of kana!), Roman letters (Romaji), and archaic Chinese characters (Kanji)-- so learning to read all four takes a lot of effort. If I remember right, early Japan was a cultural vassal of China. In the same way that Filipinos learn English today, the early Japanese learned Chinese. 

Unfortunately, written Chinese is in character form, and that means for every word, there is a unique character. This is different from European alphabets that, in most cases, use sound as the basis of writing. For example, to learn written English, you only need 26 letters, and you build syllables from the letters, and from the syllables, you build words, that is, a phonetic system. Now compare this to a system of writing where you have a symbol for each word. If you have 4000 commonly used words, then that means 4000 characters. A Chinese typist definitely deserves a lot of respect.  

Learning Kanji is probably one of the most irksome tasks that a well-educated Japanese person has to go through. In fact, after learning about this horrible fact, I lost all interest in  learning Japanese writing.   (Although I'm still hoping to learn spoken Japanese). So what would publishers of Japanese novels do if they want to reach a wider market? One way is to create novels that mainly use kana and commonly used Kanji: the light novel.

Since most readers who have difficulty with Kanji would probably be teens or young adults without an extensive knowledge of Kanji, light novels came to be associated with teens and young adults. But I think that it's a tad misleading. I've watched some anime that I think are quite sophisticated-- for example, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does a lot with its dialogue. And I discovered that it was originally a light novel series.  

Although I've known about light novels for quite some time, it was only recently that I found light novel translations. Although I did a search for light novel translations some time ago, I couldn't find them then. It was only after I got curious about the light novels underlying the Sword Art Online manga that I started searching for  light novel translations again. So right now, I've quit gaming and instead spent the last week reading a few light novels. The fan translation groups have a wiki, Baka-Tsuki, and I started following a few ongoing series as a result. Some series, such as Kaze No Stigma, were old friends because I watched the whole series through streaming websites, and so the reading was faster because I was already familiar with it, and I could focus on the differences between the light novel and the anime (the light novel features a more ruthless and violent Kazuma). 

Some light novels not in the wiki can be found in the blogs of other translators. One such light novel that I'm following is Sayonara Piano Sonata. It's not, however, a direct Japanese to English translation. Since the translator has Chinese as his mother tongue, his translations are actually translations of Chinese translations of the original Japanese light novels. I don't have a problem with that because even a second-hand translation is better than having no translation at all. And the Engrish isn't bad-- university students in the Philippines would be happy to have his command of English! So I can only be grateful that somebody put in the effort. 

Which makes me wish that I could also do my own scanlations. But since (1) the only languages I know are English, Filipino, and Fortran, and (2) I'm supposed to be working on a dissertation, that seems to be out. I do think that there are Filipino komiks (the local term for comic books) that deserve to be scanlated. I remember such titles as Ding Abubot Junior's Voltes Juan (serialized in Silangan komiks). A more recent example of excellent komiks is  Carlo Vergara's "Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsa-Zsa Zaturnah" (for this one, I can already imagine the headache that the scanlator would have!). It's sad that the komiks that used to be sold at newspaper stands disappeared. Which makes me wonder: where have all the komiks gone?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Almost a NEET

My new life as a full-time student began on June 1. Teaching duties can be quite heavy; aside from being the course group coordinator for the third introductory physics course, I also taught an intermediate  electromagnetism course, and had duties as a member of the theory group. There was little time to "just stand and stare".

I also haven't had a vacation for four years. So I'm not really in a rush to go back to work; I'll spend a month or so on doing other  non-physics or math stuff, and then when I feel the urge again, I'll go back   the to work. After all, I do have a back-log: I'm supposed to write some papers, and study new things to keep my mind fresh. For example, I never really learned solid-state physics. I also have a new edition of Arfken's math methods book, and there is a lot of new material that I want to incorporate into the mathematical methods training of our subgroup. 

For now, though, I'm wasting time playing computer games (the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), and reading about the game mechanics (there's a wiki that I found useful). In particular, I've finished the main quest  of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and I'm slowly working my way through other quests in the Shivering Isles expansion. I've always enjoyed role-playing games, and Oblivion happens to be the game I'm playing this year. (I've also played Fable, and Neverwinter Nights 2.

I suspect that my current obsession with the Elder Scrolls goes back to one of my frustrations while I grew up; I never  got to play Dungeons and Dragons. It was just ill-luck; knowing the game mechanics and access to the game itself meant three things about your peers:a minimum amount of brains, the geek factor, and money. Growing up in the pre-internet era meant limited exposure to rpg's. (The nearest thing would probably be the Choose Your Own Adventure books).  I also didn't have my own computer until about four or five years ago. In fact,  I was only able to learn how to play DnD after playing Neverwinter Nights 2, and then reading some of the online material on the mechanics of  the game.

Aside from spending my time playing Oblivion, I've also enjoyed reading about how the game works, and I find discussions of the underlying algorithms good reading as well. I've downloaded the construction set to play with and maybe make my own mods. It's one way of experiencing the fun of being a dungeon master; I've always admired creators of good game content, and it's one way of experiencing what game development can be like. I will, though, need to keep things within manageable limits, so that what is really just one of my hobbies won't overshadow my main occupation.

One of the nice  things in electronic versions of role-playing games was the removal of some of  the hassle when playing the game. The dungeon master in DnD actually has many roles that a computer takes over: creating some of the game content (for example creating random dungeons), describing the game setting and non-player characters and creatures, and then ensuring that  players follow the rules of the game. 

Combat in DnD for example, involves some computations and record-keeping, since (1) whether you succeed or not in an action, and (2) the damage you do on enemies is dependent on the roll of the dice, and stats of both combatants. Instead of rolling a d20 die and looking at the stats and making some computations, your computer does all that for you. Your computer takes on the role of dungeon master, and the gameplay is therefore much faster. In Oblivion, there will be a similar set of rules (that I'm still in the process of figuring out.) One nice touch is the way the game implements marksmanship using bow and arrow. The arrows follow a parabolic path, and so one has to take some that into account. 

I'm actually having fun figuring out the rules. Sometimes, (especially now that I've done the main quest) understanding the rules makes the actual game quests take a backseat, since playing with the character and seeing how it interacts with the gameworld has its own fascination.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Coffee without hassle

While having a latte at Starbucks yesterday, I chanced upon the following single-cup cone for making coffee:
Although it cost me PhP 195, it's good to have because using it is a lot cheaper than going to Starbucks. (I estimate a per mug cost of PhP 10-20 compared to PhP 90 at Starbucks.) You just put in a paper filter and ground coffee,  pour hot water, and end with a cup of brewed coffee. Before I bought this, if I needed a quick coffee fix at work, I had to make do with instant coffee or use a coffee press.

Using a coffee press is easy; you put in coffee and hot water, wait a bit, and then push down the filter. However, my biggest difficulty with the coffee press was cleaning it after use. To get rid of the coffee grounds at the bottom of the coffee press, you need to use a spoon and a fine wire filter just so the coffee grounds do not go into the sink and cause clogging of the drain.

Because of the difficulty in cleaning the coffee press, I gave up on it (except for special occasions) because it took too much effort. With this one though, the paper filter made disposing of the used coffee grounds easy. All you need to do was just pull out the used filter and throw it into the trash. Finally, I can now have good coffee without hassle.

Monday, March 5, 2012

On mining

There's an ongoing debate on government policy on mining in the Philippines, but a lot of it seems to be fueled by emotion and appeals to "save Mother Nature". I've always looked askance at people who use the phrase "Mother Nature". It looks like a regression to belief systems where people pray to the sun and wind, and maybe dance for rain during droughts.

I'd rather have reasonable numbers, and a good cost-benefit analysis. So it's nice to read an article that doesn't use the "Mother Nature" card, and instead attempts to give an argument based on numbers and fairness. One paragraph that I really liked has this to say about the issue: 

"As for the argument that minerals are meant to serve humanity and are the raw materials for the modern conveniences we use everyday, the point is that, in cases where mining is allowed, the minerals should be priced at full cost, including environmental, social and economic costs. Otherwise, our poor who mainly bear these costs would be subsidizing the consumerism of the rich, both domestic and foreign." 

Whether the numbers are right or not is something that does need investigation. But whatever the numbers are, an appeal for fairness is always a good argument.   

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reading Physics Textbooks

One thing I noticed while talking with some freshmen physics majors is how few of them actually know how to use a physics book. I think it's due to how different high school physics textbooks are from university physics texts-- the high school texts are usually readable on a per chapter basis, as opposed to a text like Young and Freedman's or Resnick's.

It's also due to how low high school physics expectations are here. I recall surviving high school physics without actually learning anything, and doing a cursory reading of my high school physics book when there was a looming exam. So it comes as a surprise to many students how different university physics textbooks are from what they've encountered in high school.

The common reading strategy seems to be memorizing equations or the end of the chapter summary, and so whenever students encounter textbooks without end-of-chapter summaries, they complain how hard it is to read the book. That's one of the most common complaints I encounter whenever I assign  reading from Spacetime Physics.

A similar strategy is looking for boxed equations and then memorizing all of them. When such a student encounters a physics problem, the problem-solving strategy becomes "Try all the equations with the same variables!". What students forget is the boxed equation is actually something that should be understood in context. The surrounding text is there to explain what assumptions underlie a derived result, and once the underlying assumptions are understood, one can also understand the limitations.

One of my favorite ways of teaching students to be sensitive to underlying assumptions is the De Broglie frequency relation $E=hf$. The problem I assign is to find the De Broglie frequency of a free electron in terms of the wavelength. (The mass of the electron is not given within the problem statement but listed on a table of physical constants.) One common mistake is to write, for free particles with nonzero mass, $E=\frac{hc}{\lambda}$; the wrong assumption here is the wavelength frequency relation $\lambda f=c$ which only works for particles with zero mass. To ensure that my students make an effort to understand underlying assumptions, I make multiple choice items with distracters that reproduce their most common mistakes.

So a student who memorizes equations and is not sensitive to underlying assumptions will find the correct answer (which is derivable from invariance of mass) and the wrong one. One student, who merely memorized formulae and then used a trial and error approach, was unpleasantly surprised to find that his trial and error approach generated all the choices in many test items.

Having talked about the wrong way of reading an introductory physics text, what is the correct way? The right way is to read introductory physics texts on a per-section basis. After reading the section, go to the end of the chapter and then try solving all the odd-numbered problems for that section only.

Probem-solving is a sanity check. The only way to find out if you've actually understood what you've read is  to try to use it, and that is what the problems are for. If you can't solve the problems, reread the section (assuming you actually understood the prerequisite knowledge!) and then try to solve the problems again. If it still doesn't help, try talking it over with classmates, a tutor, or with your professor. Bring your problem solving attempts, and then try to find out why you get the wrong answers-- finding out why you're making mistakes is also part of the learning process.

Obviously, this is not something you can cram, and it means doing the reading and problem-solving on a regular basis. But if you do it right, your understanding will last a lot longer than the formula-memorizers. As a bonus, when faced with a new technical situation, you can build on what you know, and eventually become the expert in your field.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

electric fans and quality control

I bought a new electric fan for my desktop as a replacement for an older desk fan that stopped working. I suppose I could have had the older one fixed; I suspect that the grease just died on me and that a re-greasing would fix the problem. But I didn't want to do that because I'm quite clumsy when it comes to handling all sorts of mechanical equipment, and I might leave loose screws or damage the unit while doing repairs. (That's the main reason I chose theoretical physics rather than experimental physics--- I'm less likely to cause a mess that way.)

The older fan lasted less than two years. And I wonder why it's so. I remember the old electric fans we had, and I recall that they seemed to last for years. From first grade to at least sixth grade, we kept using the same electric fan and I think that these older electric fans saw use until my high school years. The same thing can't be said for the newer models-- I've never seen the new ones last longer than a year or two. Maybe it's quality control-- I'm not sure though because the problem seems to show up no matter what brand I encounter-- or maybe the grease that's commonly used now is not as good as the older kind.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

School Closures

I saw a tweet a few moments  ago from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) announcing the closure of International Academy of Management and Economics (IAME). I couldn't find the reasons for it, but I suspect noncompliance with CHED standards. It's reminds me of the closure of PMI Colleges, a maritime training school.

Since I couldn't find anything yet on IAME, I decided, out of curiosity, to follow-up on the PMI story. While looking it up, I chanced upon a blog of a PMI alumnus who actually agrees that the closure was long overdue. Now if an alumnus agrees that his school should be closed,  then there must be something seriously wrong.

CHED geting tough with standards compliance is actually a recent thing. CHEd has become aggressive on making sure that higher education institutions do meet international standards. In my field (Physics) Professors I know have been travelling around the country evaluating BSc Physics programs; from what I've heard, some of these programs are on the way to  shutdown because of the low quality of coursework they offer, the lack of competent faculty, and shortage of students.

If degree programs have been shutdown, then it's not unreasonable to expect shutdown of higher education institutions; a school, after all, should not offer courses it cannot teach. I know it will be painful for students of these substandard schools.  However, if the standards are unmet, and CHED allows schools to operate (the line of least resistance, which seemed to be the policy of the previous administration), then, in the end, it is the graduates who will suffer: because their degrees will only be treated as useless paper.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whatever Happened to Ivory Soap?

I ran out of soap a week ago, and I decided to go to the mall to buy some more. I like using Ivory soap (the original variety), and I can't seem to find any. I know that Procter and Gamble is still around, but no matter what shop I go to (SM, Rustan's, Mercury Drug, or Gotesco Grand Central-- hardly a representative sampling, I know), I can't find any bars of Ivory soap!

I tried doing a Google search, and I still can't find out why Ivory soap isn't being sold here. I don't feel comfortable using other brands, but need to make do with what I can find. I noticed the missing soap since last year; most stores reduced their stock and then eventually the soap disappeared. What gives, P&G?

Monday, February 6, 2012

What happened to library.nu?

I recently visited library.nu and found a totally different site. No log-ins, and new positioning as "the book review encyclopaedia". The old ability to post links to books is gone-- and so if you've been using it as a virtual library, you'll need a new source of books. There are still other websites for books-- the Russians and the Chinese will have something to replace library.nu (and its predecessor, gigapedia).

Of course, there's still ebookee.org, but the searching for books there is a lot messier than it was in library.nu. Also, many of the links in ebookee don't work; old websites that allowed file-sharing, such as filesonic, have lost their old functionality. I suspect that it's one of the aftershocks of the Megaupload takedown.  I thought that the resurrection of library.nu was gonna last. Ah well: Sic transit gloria mundi

postrcript: (February 15, 2012) I can't log in anymore even when I go to gigapedia.info, and based on the comments to this blog entry, nobody seems to be able to get in. For now, I'll use an alternative ebook search tool: http://gen.lib.rus.ec/ . It seems to be a decent alternative to ebookee. I will, however, miss library.nu's user-friendly interface.

(As of February 17, 2012) Short answer to "What happened to library.nu?" : Legal problems. I found a link from slashdot telling the story of library.nu. After some more searching, I found additional links from the huffington post . I doubt the claims of the plaintiffs here--- that the admins made a profit here. Many of the users are from developing countries and are likely to be students. Also, I think that claims that the admins were selling premium level accounts is doubtful. Many of the people who actually registered on the site would probably have a different story to tell.

(As of March 17, 2012) Even http://gen.lib.rus.ec  doesn't seem to work anymore; I keep getting a 404 error message. Still have no news why it's down.

(As of July 8, 2012) There's a article in aljazeera about library.nu, (I got it from library.nu, by the way) and it expresses some of the unhappiness that book-lovers and scholars -- especially in the third world-- feel about  the shutdown of library.nu. The library.nu website is still there-- it's morphed into a search site with reviews but no links. If you buy a book from amazon using library.nu, it should help the administrators with their legal troubles. See this link.

(As of  March 1, 2013) I url library.nu now redirects to http://www.internationalpublishers.org/, which looks like an organization whose philosophy seems to be diametrically opposite that of gigapedia's and the old library.nu Donors who wish to assist the original owners of the library.nu domain name have no more means to do so; the link I mentioned above is dead.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

One-sided treaties

I recently read about Richard O'Dwyer's case after following up on a 9gag post. Although he did not violate British laws, he still faces extradition to the United States because of a crazy extradition treaty. He is being extradited for things (posting links to pirated films and tv programmes on his website, TVShack) he did in Britain (he's British, by the way.) , that violated no British laws, that the United States government considers a crime.

How could the US do this? It turns out that during the Bush-Blair honeymoon, an extradition treaty was passed that allowed violators of certain US laws ---even if the violator was offshore!---  to be extradited to the US. I think a similar treaty with New Zealand was used for the arrest of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, a Finnish and German citizen, in New Zealand.

What's really grating about the Dwyer case is the one-sidedness of the treaty. Although the US can get British citizens extradited for violations of US law committed in Britain, the converse does not seem to apply. This is particularly worrying, since it means that even though your representatives (Parliament or Congress) do not deem certain acts to be illegal, you can still be on the hook for violating US laws on your own native soil.

I think it's a crazy situation: not only do you have to pay attention to the laws of your own country, you'll also have to pay attention to laws made by stupid US congressmen, thus making your own native soil effectively a neo-US colony.