About Me

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

Thursday, 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.