Monthly Archives: April 2009

How to teach algebra in 15 minutes

Yes, I did try to teach algebra in 15 minutes, before a panel of about a dozen math professors at that of the University of the Philippines Institute of Mathematics.

In previous pieces, I had expressed frustration at the lecture-based method of teaching math and math-related subjects. Having gone back to school for an MA in economics, I strongly believed there was a huge room for improvement in teaching methods. (You can read those pieces here: “How I would teach Math“, “The only way to learn is to accumulate flying hours“, “The problem with lectures“).

I felt strongly enough about this matter that I did what seemed to some a very presumptuous thing: I applied for a part-time teaching position so I can implement the methods I had in mind. Prof. Joey Balmaceda of the Math Institute very kindly considered my application instead of rejecting it outright, and I was scheduled for interview and a demo lecture last Monday, April 27. About ten other applicants were also interviewed that day.

This is my “algebra made easy” 15-minute lecture:

Imagine a balance people use to compare weights. Yes, the same balance typically held by a blind-folded lady to symbolize that everyone is equal before the law. If you can understand how a balance works, you can understand algebra in 15 minutes.

Suppose I put an unknown weight on the left side of the balance and, by trial and error, find that a 5-gram weight (in the demo, I used kilos) balanced the unknown weight. Then, we can conclude that the unknown weight is 5 grams, right? Suppose I add a 2-gram weight on the left side, how do I keep the two sides in balance? I should also add a 2-gram weight on the right side. If I add a 1-gram weight on the right side, then I need to add a 1-gram weight on the left side two, to keep the two sides in balance. If I take 3 grams away from one side, then I must also take away 3 grams from tne other side to keep the whole thing in balance. Lady Justice

Like Lady Justice is supposed to do (this sentence occurred to me only now, I didn’t say this in my demo), both sides must be treated absolutely equally. If I triple the weight on one side, then I must also triple the weight on the other side. If I halve one side, then I must also halve the other side.

Do unto one side what you would have done unto the other side.

That, in essence, is algebra. Everything else is just details and tricks.

Solving algebraic equations is simply playing this game of balance. And that’s what we will learn the next time. (If I had another 15 minutes, that would have been enough to explain the process of solving for X.)

How did the panel of interviewers respond? They were very polite, but I also saw a few nodding heads.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Actually, I found it ironic trying to prove myself with a demo lecture (as required from all applicants), when in fact I spent the previous 30 minutes trying to convince the panel that my approach would be to minimize lectures and to maximize individual reading from the textbook and actual problem-solving with pencil and paper. My own demo lecture highlighted, for me, my point that lectures are a very poor way to implement the learning process. If it were a real class, I would have simply started by giving everyone a set of algebra problems, from the extremely simple to the moderately simple, and in addition assigned as homework a range of pages to read as well as another set of problems to work on, for submission in the next session.

In a lecture, I had told the panel, the lecturer learns more than the students. A math class should be run like a swimming class, where the instructor stands by the pool, out of the water, while the students are in the pool, learning how to swim.

In math and other math-related subjects, paper and pencil are the students’ swimming pool.

Horacio Potel’s Derrida site shut down, but available on Internet Archive

According to a U.S.-based Brazilian literature professor who has expressed solidarity with Argentinian philosophy professor Horacio Potel (see the full Potel story here), the complete Derrida site of Potel is still available from the archiving project called Internet Archive. Hence, those who still want to access the Derrida site, which had been shut down by the Argentinian authorities, may do so from this address:

Potel’s Heidegger site, which had also been shut down, is likewise available on this new address:

Here’s my translation of the original letter of support in Spanish of Prof. Idelber Avelar address to Prof. Horacio Potel. Avelar describes how Potel’s Derrida and Heidegger sites have been preserved by the Internet Archive project, as well as by other bloggers through Easy Share, which enables Internet users to download the zip-archived version of Potel’s sites.

Dear Professor Horacio Potel:

I speak to you as a Brazilian, a literature professor in New Orleans (who has, in fact, done some work on the literature of Argentina), and a blogger. I would like, first of all, to extend to you all my sympathy for the horror caused by the insane application of the anachronistic copyright law. I am at your service for whatever help I can extend. In the Brazilian blogosphere, we have accumulated some experience in fighting attempts to censor the Internet.

Your work has already been archived in some servers, and the purpose of this letter is to offer you guidance over these archives. Everything that was once part of the Internet stays preserved on the Internet Archive, and the material can only be taken out of the Wayback Machine if the responsible person allows it. Thus, the Heidegger and Derrida websites are still available there. They are here:

Of course, it is possible for them to file a new case to remove the material from the Internet Archive. But not just anyone can request to do so. You must be legally compelled to permit the removal. It is possible for them to do this, of course, so I and some other Brazilian bloggers, like Catatau and Nodari, have also replicated your work in Easy Share, in a downloadable zip file format. Here is the link:

It would be interesting to discuss the difference between a link and a text with Minuit and CAL [the Argentinian Book Chamber—tr.] in the courts, especially with the entire Derrida archives for citation. I repeat: there are several precedents of similar attempts at censorship and of the considerable success of the forces that resist them. So you are not alone. Tell us what you need.

Best wishes, and in solidarity,

Idelber Avelar

Why the BNPP should be every Filipino’s concern

A move is afoot in the House of Representatives, initiated by Rep. Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan, to rehabilitate for commercial operation the Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP). The BNPP has been sitting idle for the past 23 years, a monument to government corruption and nuclear folly.

The cost of rehabilitation has been estimated at $1 billion. Considering the history of cost escalation in the nuclear industry, however, the actual cost may reach two to three times the initial estimates, or even more.

Filipinos living far from Bataan may think they have more urgent concerns than a nuclear plant. They must think again, for several reasons:

1. The Cojuangco proposal will fund the BNPP rehabilitation from a tax to be levied on the consumption of electricity, whether it is from a hydropower, wind, solar, coal or oil plant. Thus, every electricity consumer from Batanes to Tawi-tawi will be hit financially. That means most of us.

2. The government has plans for ten more nuclear plants all over the Philippines which could not be implemented because of anti-nuclear opposition. The target sites are a closely-guarded government secret. If the opposition to the BNPP is weak enough for the government to overcome, this will open the floodgates to more nuclear plants, possibly in your region or province. Or even in your hometown. Remember: several studies have indicated that leukemia and other cancers are more common, especially among children, within five to ten kilometers of nuclear plants.

3. Huge government projects draw corrupt bureaucrats like flies to garbage. These huge nuclear projects, costing several billion dollars each, will suck in funds from other government projects. They will mire the country in deeper debt. Yet much of the money will simply line the pockets of bureaucrats, suppliers and contractors. In the end, we the taxpayers, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren will end up footing the entire bill, as we did with the BNPP.

We have so many rivers, waterfalls and hotsprings that can provide us cleaner, safer, cheaper hydroelectric and geothermal power. Wind and wave can further supplement these.

For years now, the prices of computers, LCD projectors, digital cameras, and other electronic equipment have been steadily going down, thanks to large-scale production. The basic element in all these products is silicon, the same raw material used in solar panels. With the large-scale production of solar panels which have been announced in China, Germany and other countries, we may soon enjoy cheap solar power too. Then we may not even need a Meralco or an electric coop to enjoy the benefits of electricity.

But the government will have no money for any of these, if we open our doors to the BNPP and ten other nuclear plants.

CopySouth group takes up philosophy professor’s case

The CopySouth Research Group (CSRG), an international network of activists and academics studying the impact on the global South of copyrights and related issues, has taken up the case of the philosophy professor whose Web site was shut down for posting Spanish translations of works by Jacques Derrida, the founder of “deconstruction”. Here is the CSRG statement:

Argentinean professor charged criminally for promoting access to knowledge

By the CopySouth Research Group

A philosophy professor in Argentina, Horacio Potel, is facing criminal charges for maintaining a website devoted to translations of works by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. His alleged crime: copyright infringement. Here is Professor Potel’s sad story.

“I was fascinated at the unlimited possibilities offered by the internet for knowledge exchange”, explains Horacio Potel, a Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús in Buenos Aires. In 1999, he set up a personal website to collect essays and other works of some well-known philosophers, starting with the German Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Potel’s websites – Nietzsche in Spanish, Heidegger in Spanish and Derrida in Spanish – eventually developed into growing online libraries of freely downloadable philosophical texts. Nietzsche in Spanish alone has already received more than four million visitors.

One of Potel’s best known websites, focused on his favourite French philosopher, Algerian-born Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who was the founder of “deconstruction”. On this website Potel posted many of the philosopher’s works, translated into Spanish, as well as discussion forums, research results, biographies, images and the usual pieces of information typical of this type of online resource. “I wanted to share my love for philosophy with other people. The idea was disseminating the texts and giving them some sort of arrangement” declares Potel.

To Potel, what he was doing was what professors have done for centuries: helping students to get access to knowledge. “It is not possible to find the same comprehensive collection of works that was available at Derrida’s and Heidegger’s websites either in libraries or in bookstores in Argentina”, says Potel. In fact, only two bookstores in Argentina’s largest city, Buenos Aires, carry some books by Derrida and many of his works are seldom available to readers. Potel spent decades visiting libraries and bookstores to collect the material he posted on his online library. “Many of those texts are already out of print”, he says. Books that are out of print cannot be purchased, but they are often still protected by copyright laws.

Furthermore, Potel finds the prices charged by foreign publishers, such as the Mexican companies Porrua and Cal y Arena, “prohibitive” by Argentinean standards. He gives as an example the price of a recently published booklet of a conference given by Derrida. Printed in large typeface, the booklet has about eighty pages, although the text would certainly fit in twelve. It was being sold for 162 Argentinean pesos, around 42 US dollars at current exchange rates. Even at that steep price copies were very hard to find within two weeks after they arrived in Argentina. Potel relates how he had to walk around Buenos Aires for an entire afternoon in order to find a single copy of the booklet.

But the price of foreign books is not the only concern in this case. For Derrida’s works to be accessible to the Spanish-speaking world they have to be translated. While the Spanish versions of the texts available on the website were not done by him, Potel made corrections to a few of them, since some of Derrida’s Spanish language books have been quite poorly translated. To make the texts easier to understand for readers, Potel also linked each translation to the original text, as well as to other works cited by Derrida.

Eventually, Potel’s popular website caught the attention of a publisher. A criminal case against Potel was initiated on December 31, 2008 after a complaint was lodged by a French company, the publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit. They have published only one of Derrida’s books and it was in French. Minuit’s complaint was passed on to the French Embassy in Argentina and it became the basis of the Argentina Book Chamber‘s legal action against Potel.

The Argentina Book Chamber boasts of its doubtful precedents of having been responsible for a police raid at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires and for having managed to condemn some professors for encouraging the students to photocopy books and articles. “The view of the police entering the Puán building is remembered with astonishment by many members of the academic community” says a report. The next possible effects of the legal action against Potel are the wiretapping of his phone line, the interception of his email accounts and an incursion into his house to “determine the actual place where the illegal act occurred”.

Potel has already removed all the content from his website, a decision which he regards as a tragedy. “These websites are my best work. They are the result of many hours of work and have been entirely funded by me”, he says. Those who access today find a warning: “This website has been taken down due to a legal action initiated by the Argentina Book Chamber”. Potel insists that he “never intended to make a profit” out of Derrida’s works. Yet he faces a possible criminal sentence of one month up to six years in prison for violation of Argentina’s intellectual property laws, according to a February 28, 2009 story by the online version of Argentina’s largest newspaper, Clarín.

If Derrida was alive, he would probably be thanking Potel for bringing translations of his texts to millions of Spanish-speaking readers, who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to read the works of the French philosopher. Here’s what the founder of deconstruction said about freedom within the university:

“And yet I maintain that the idea of this space of the academic type has to be symbolically protected by a kind of absolute immunity, as if its interior were inviolable; I believe (this is like a profession of faith which I address to you and submit to your judgment) that this is an idea that we must reaffirm, declare, and profess endlessly. […] This freedom of immunity of the university and par excellence of its Humanities is something to which we must lay claim, while committing ourselves to it with all our might. Not only in a verbal and declaratory fashion, but in work, in act and in what we make happen with events.” (Jacques Derrida, “The University Without Condition” in Without Alibi, ed. & trans. by Peggy Kamuf, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 210)

Those who profess to “protect” Derrida’s “intellectual property rights” are now persecuting a professor who is simply following the French philosopher’s teachings and popularising them in the Spanish-speaking world.

The CopySouth Research Group calls on the Argentina Book Chamber and the government of Argentina to drop these criminal charges immediately and to respect and protect professor Potel’s academic freedom in providing popular access to philosophical works. In any conflict between intellectual property and the right to education and to access knowledge, we choose education and we urge those who share the same concerns to spread the word widely and rapidly.

You can send letters to Les Éditions de Minuit (7 Rue Bernard Palissy, 75006 Paris 06, France, email:, the Argentina Book Chamber (Av. Belgrano 1580, Piso 4, C1093AAQ Buenos Aires, Argentina, email: and the Argentina Federal Council of Education (Pizzurno 935, P.B. of. 5, C1020ACA Buenos Aires, Argentina, email:

30 March 2009

The CopySouth Research Group

The CopySouth Research Group (CSRG) was established in 2005. The CSRG is composed of researchers and activists in more than 15 countries and conducts research on a range of copyright and related issues in the global South. Copies of the 210-page CopySouth Dossier are available as a free download (in English and Spanish) on its website (


Note: This report is based on information collected from Horacio Potel and from several other sources, including the article on the online version of the Argentinean newspaper Clarín, a blog post by Patricio Lorente translated by Carolina Botero and a Wikipedia entry on Horacio Potel.