Category Archives: Learning process

Teaching Math

I haven’t posted for sometime because of a busy schedule — nine hours a week as an MA Economics student, and six hours a week as a Math lecturer at the University of the Philippines. I applied for a teaching position, and was accepted, because I wanted to try out teaching ideas which came to me while attending lectures as an MA student. I have written several posts about this.

I am now implementing those ideas. As usual, reality is much more complex than theory, although I believe I am moving towards a better teaching method and my students are responding positively to my novel approach.

Basically, I keep lectures at the minimum and make students spend most of their time solving problems. Instead of lectures, I give reading assignments, together with a set of problems to solve. I assign homework every class session and we do seatwork in most class sessions too. As I wrote in earlier posts, in swimming classes, it is the student, not the teacher, who stays in the water most of the time. In a Math class, the water is a blank sheet of paper. Lots of them. Instead of the teacher solving problems on the blackboard, I make the students solve problems on paper.

The advanced students caught on quickly. Among the low scorers, some have shown major improvements. But a few students still lag behind. I spend hours thinking how I can get the concepts across. At their current pace, they will fail the course. I (or, rather, they) need a breakthrough. We are nearly two months into the course, we have another two months. Sometimes, it simply takes time to sink in. I hope that is simply the case.

My biggest problem was that students tend to hide their lack of knowledge, instead of bringing it out in the open, so that we could do something about it. For weeks, we seemed to be playing hide-and-seek, with some students copying from classmates or using all the time-tested student methods for beating the system. The problem is grades. They have become a student fetish, separate from learning itself. Student will do all kinds of things, including cheat, to get better grades. It is not really their fault. The school system makes them do it. Instead of lectures, I simply explained on several sessions why it was important that students admit to themselves the lack of knowledge and to acknowledge it openly, especially to the teacher, instead of hiding the situation (unsuccessfully) from the teacher, their classmates and themselves. I think it took weeks for the message to sink in. But now, I think most have gotten the message, and we are ready for real learning.

Initially, I thought I could encourage my students to solve problems by using grades as the incentive: it was easy to get high scores in homework and seatwork because I encouraged them to ask for help from classmates, high scores which could pull up their final grades. I think it worked for some, but for others, the high scores became an end in themselves and some were getting them minus the learning that should have accompanied the high scores.

So, I’ve changed the approach. Now, homework are not graded by score but by effort. As long as there is an attempt to solve a problem, they get a point. If this creates another problem, maybe I’ll end up not grading homeworks at all. We’ll see.

In the meantime, it is gratifying to note that many students are responding to the method. What I need now is a breakthrough with respect to the few remaining low scorers. Just like swimming, maybe the breakthrough will simply come on its own time. I do hope it comes in time for their exams, not after.

A chance to prove a method of teaching math

I’ve written several posts earlier about how I would teach math if I had a chance.

Well, I’ve been given the chance. When classses start June 16, I will be handling two Math 2 classes at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. I will be using the method I described in previous posts.

If you want to follow the detailed progress of my teaching efforts, you can do so here, a blog about helping students to learn math which I started specifically to document my teaching experience.

Wish me luck. And my students, too.

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.

Improved instructions for making a professional CD envelope purely by folding (origami)

It has been a year since I released my own design of an origami CD envelope. It is the best design I’ve seen so far. Apparently though, the original instructions were quite hard to follow. So I tried to improve the instructions and include clearer diagrams. You’ll find everything on this 82Kb file (Improved instructions for origami CD envelope). Once I manage to convert the diagrams into individual JPEG picture files, I’ll post them here too.

A YouTube video that demonstrates the procedure is also available here.

The original instructions are here.

If you think the instructions can be improved further, please send me a note or leave a comment.

Happy new year to all!

Learning arithmetic

My attitude towards learning and education has been shaped by my own experience as well as by authors like A.S. Neill and John Holt, who represent what might be called the “free school” (“free” as in freedom) approach. Taking a cue from software, this might also be called the “free/open school” approach, an approach that basically gives students much more freedom to choose by themselves what to learn, how to learn, when to learn, and even where to learn. Teachers play a more passive role in the background as advisers. Traditional schools, in contrast, are so regimented that John Holt has called this traditional system a virtual prison for children and youth.

As an example of the free school approach, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 (And ‘Rithmetic) from the book Free At Last (The Sudbury Valley School) by Daniel Greenberg:

Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.

“You don’t really want to do this,” I said, when they first approached me.

“We do, we are sure we do,” was their answer.

“You don’t really,” I persisted. “Your neighborhood friends, your parents, your relatives probably want you to, but you yourselves would much rather be playing or doing something else.”

“We know what we want, and we want to learn arithmetic. Teach us, and we’lll prove it. We’ll do all the homework, and work as hard as we can.”

I had to yield to them, skeptically. I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was cornered.

I was in for a surprise.

My biggest problem was a textbook to use as a guide. I had been involved in developing the “new math,” and I had come to hate it. Back then when we were working on it — young academicians of the Kennedy post-sputnik era — we had few doubts. We were filled with the beauty of abstract logic, set theory, number theory, and all the other exotic games mathematicians had played for millennia. I think that if we had set out to design an agricultural course for working farmers, we would have begun with organic chemistry, genetics, and microbiology. Lucky for the world’s hungry people that we weren’t asked.

I had come to hate the pretensions and abstruseness of the “new math.” Not one in a hundred math teachers knew what it was about, not one in a thousand pupils. People need arithmetic for reckoning, they want to know how to use the tools. That’s what my students wanted now.

I found a book in our library, perfectly suited to the job at hand. It was a math primer written in 1898. small and thick, it was brimming with thousands of exercises, meant to train young minds to perform the basic tasks accurately and switfly.

Class began — on time. That was part of the deal. “You say you are serious?” I had asked, challenging them; “then I expect to see you in the room on time — 11:00AM sharp, every Tuesday and Thursday. If you are five minutes late, no class. If you blow two classes — no more teaching.” “It’s a deal,” they had said, with a glint of pleasure in their eyes.

Basic addition took two classes. They learned to add everything — long thin columns, short fat columns, long fat columns. They did dozens of exercises. Subtraction took another two classes. It might have taken one, but “borrowing” needed some extra explanation.

On to multiplication, and the tables. Everyone had to memorize the tables. Each person was quizzed again and again in class. Then the rules. Then the practice.

They were high, all of them. Sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms, they could feel the material entering their bones. Hundreds and hundreds of exercises, class quizzes, oral tests, pounded the material into their heads.

Still they continued to come, all of them. They helped each other when they had to, to keep the class moving. The twelve year olds and the nine year olds, the lions and the lambs, sat peacefully together in harmonious cooperation — no teasing, no shame.

Division — long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots.

They came at 11:00 sharp, stayed half an hour, and left with homework. They came back next time with all the homework done. All of them.

In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years’ worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.

That’s the free school approach.

A well-known school that uses this system is Summerhill School in the U.K. The school was set up by A.S. Neill, who wrote about his experiences in his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. The books How Children Fail and How Children Learn by John Holt are also illuminating.

Learning to ride a bicycle

According to the book Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale, the most efficient form of transportation on earth is the bicycle. In terms of converting energy to motion, the book says, the bicycle is more efficient than a horse, fish, bird, mouse, car, helicopter, plane, jet, or any other animal or machine.

Given the increasing cost of gasoline, diesel, LPG, and other fossil fuels, we have all the more reason to shift to bicycles for ordinary, day-to-day transport. We should all ask our local officials to set aside road lanes specifically for bicycles, to encourage everyone to use this super-efficient transport mode for daily commuting or just for leisure.

Bicycles do not only save the rider money and the country dollars. They also reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, bicycle assembly, manufacture and repair can become a backyard industry. Best of all, a bicycle keeps the rider fit and healthy.

If you (or your children) don’t know yet how to ride a bike, here’s a painless way to learn, minus the usual bruises:

  • Get a bicycle of the right training height for you: that is, when you sit on the saddle, your heels should barely touch the ground.

  • Unscrew the two pedals and take them out, so that your feet can easily move back and forth without obstruction.

  • Find a level or very slightly inclined road with no motorized traffic that can disturb your riding practice.

  • Practice pushing yourself off with your feet, lifting your feet off the ground for as long as you can, and then extending your feet to stop your fall.

  • Try to stay in balance on the bike for as long as possible. One way to stay in balance is to steer the bike in the direction of your fall. You must learn to do this without conscious thought.

  • Keep practising, until you are confident you can keep your balance as long as possible on a slow-moving bike. Get someone to push you off, for greater momentum.

  • When you can keep your balance without conscious thought, practice how to make turns. Turning essentially involves leaning towards the direction of your turn. Again, practice until you can turn without conscious thought.

  • When you can make turns with confidence, install back the two pedals and learn to use them. You may now start enjoying your new-found riding skill!

Final exams (and learning how to swim)

It’s that time of year… I just took my final exams in Mathematical Economics. One more exam to go.

The experience of taking that finals reminds me of the swimming lessons I took before my teens. (This was in the sixties, if you must know.) Every summer, the Bernardo Park in Quezon City offered formal swimming lessons for the youth. The park had a clean and well-maintained public swimming pool (25 x 50 meters, I think). Since the pool was just a walking distance from our house in Kamuning, it was very accessible and convenient. I went to swimming class with some friends in the neighborhood.

The program was run by “Sir Luna”, a swimming trainer and a real professional, who conducted it at the pool’s shallow end (4 feet deep).

We started with “bubbling”, learning to breathe in out of the water, and breathe out in the water. Exhale through the nose, inhale through the mouth. The key was in the rhythm. Exhale, inhale. You had to pace yourself. Exhale, inhale. We must have done the bubbling routine tens of thousands of times by the time we finished the course. Exhale, inhale. Note very well: exhale first, then inhale.

After bubbling, it was paddling. Standing chest-deep at the shallow end of the pool, arms stretched out in front and on the gutter, we paddled with the left arm, and then the right. Left, then right.

Then, we were introduced to the “flutter kick”. While we held on to the gutter, we started “fluttering” our feet a few inches up and down, knees kept straight. We also did the flutter kick across the width of the pool, at the shallow end, but no breathing. Just face down, arms stretched in front, and looking at the pool’s bottom as it moved slowly past us. When we ran out of breath, we stopped.

After several training days, we also did the routines two at a time: bubbling and paddling, bubbling and kicking, paddling and kicking. Then we tried all three. We held on to the gutter, facing the swimming pool edge, most of the time.

After two weeks or so of these, we got to try all three routines away from the gutter. The hardest part was the breathing. If you lost your rhythm, you breathed in at the wrong time and took water. You had to stick with the “bubbling” exercise, day after day, until the rhythm became part of you, and your muscles knew by themselves, without any conscious thought from you, when to inhale and when to exhale, just like you do out of the water.

This was, I think, the key – for one’s lungs to learn the exhale-inhale routine and to do it without conscious thought. One by one, my classmates got it, and they started to actually swim by themselves! Then, they were allowed to play at the deep end. But I still didn’t get it. My legs, arms, neck, nose, mouth and especially my lungs had not learned enough. I’d lose my rhythm and then inhale at the wrong time and take in water. I must have drank gallons from that pool.

To graduate, one was expected to dive from a diving board at the deep (9 feet) end of the pool, and swim the 50 meters to the shallow end. In full view of relatives, friends and guests. On graduation day, my friends all made that graduation dive. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t. After graduation, graduates were granted free access to the pool for the rest of summer. Sir Luna was kind enough to give me access too.

For the rest of summer, my friends and I enjoyed that pool. They played at the deep end, showing off their new swimming skills. They loved diving from the diving board. Although I stayed at the shallow end, I enjoyed it as much as they did. Then, one day, it just came. I finally got my rhythm and I started swimming too! So, before the summer ended, I also got to play and to dive at the deep end.

One of our professors in graduate school had told us, “sometimes, you learn more from the tests you fail.” How true. “But your grades won’t show it,” he added. Indeed, failures can often teach us lessons better than success. We call it learning the hard way.

By the way, I made that graduation dive the next summer.

The only way to learn is to accumulate “flying hours”

Pilots – including student pilots – accumulate “flying hours”. They are evaluated according to the number of hours they have spent flying a plane, among other things of course.

In the same way, students should accumulate “problem-solving hours”. They should be evaluated according to the number of problem exercises they have actually solved, using the concepts they learned in class. (For language-related subjects, an equivalent might be the number of books they have read and enjoyed.)

I am convinced that this accumulation of experience in problem-solving (or reading literary works) is the key to learning. This is how new ideas become part of one’s storehouse of knowledge, skills and conceptual tools.

To see why it is not enough to simply read and understand, consider the process of learning how to swim or to ride a bicycle. Learning the theory is the first step. It is an important step, but it is not enough. You can play and replay the process in your mind again and again, until you know it by heart. You can even go through the motions a thousand times, imagining yourself in the water or on a bike and making all the necessary movements. But you will never learn until you actually jump in the water or ride a bicycle. And when you do, then you will realize that you haven’t really learned anything yet. Yes, you know about it. Yes, you can imagine everything in your mind. But the knowledge is not yet a part of you.

And the only way to make it a part of you is to practice – to actually jump into the water, ride a bike, solve the problem exercises, read literature, and accumulate “flying hours”.

By the way, this shouldn’t lead students to underestimate the value of theory – the necessary study of ideas and concepts before plunging into practice. This should be especially obvious in the case of student pilots learning to fly airplanes. But it is important in other areas of learning as well.

Let’s go back to swimming. This is actually a perfect example. When I was in grade school, I attended formal swimming lessons at the Bernardo Park swimming pool in Quezon City. The summer classes were run by a trainer who, I’m sorry to say, I remember only as “Sir Luna”. He was assisted by “Sir Roger”. Sir Luna was the father of Grace Luna, who eventually became a national swimming chamption. We used to see Grace, as a 5-year old, do the laps at the swimming pool, as his father watched.

The first thing we learned from Sir Luna was swimming theory. We went through the individual motions of breathing, paddling with the hand, and the stamdard “flutter-kick”. We went through each motion thousands of times. Then we went through breathing and paddling, breathing and kicking, and paddling and kicking – two combined motions at a time. Then we tried all the three combined motions together. All this time, Sir Luna watched and made sure we went through the right theoretical motions – the proper form. Thus, we learned swimming properly – from theory.

Those who disdained theory simply jumped into the water and learned the amateur way. They invariably picked up what we called “langoy-aso” (“dog paddle”). The sad thing is that, once your muscles pick it up, this inefficient and ugly style will probably stay with you the rest of your life, unless you were willing to spend double or triple the effort to unlearn it, so your muscles can learn from scratch the more efficient “breast stroke” or “Australian crawl”.

I used to be heavily involved in software development. When you work with software, you learn to become multi-lingual, and learning a new language becomes second nature. I had three rules in learning a computer language: 1) learn the theory, 2) do a lot of practice, and 3) use it in a major project. Those who did not learn theories of software engineering and system design relied on GOTOs, wrote spaghetti code, and picked up bad programming habits that were hard to break. They often ended up poor programmers who wrote buggy code.

I have subsequently added a fourth rule: 4) teach others. Yes, teaching is one of the best ways to learn. The lecturer who solves problems on the blackboard learns more about the subject than the students watching passively behind.

I can see now that these learning rules, properly adapted, will work in other learning situations as well.

The problem with lectures

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the only way lectures make sense is if the material can’t be found in journals, books or videos yet, or if the speaker is so compelling that s/he inspires and challenges the audience in a way that can’t be done by a written piece, or perhaps if one simply wanted to see and hear a great author in person.

But for most subjects, I think students would learn best if they simply read the source materials – going through each page according to their own pace and level, rereading the portions that are not yet clear, jumping to other portions to clarify certain words or ideas, and reworking the concepts in their mind until these concepts become familiar and their very own.

In contrast, you can’t rewind lecturers. Well, maybe you can ask them – once or twice – to repeat a sentence or go over a concept once more, or answer a particularly nagging question in your mind. But if there are 30 (60?) of you in the class, each one asking for clarification about different portions of the lecture, it obviously won’t work.

It would even be better if the lecturer simply kept quiet and asked the students to read the chapter or specific pages covered by the lecture, and simply made him/herself available for clarificatory questions.

In fact, given the current level of video technology, it would now make sense to simply record each lecture beforehand and give students a CD copy each to view, absorb and study at their own pace and leisure. Over time, these recorded lectures can be edited, improved, supplemented with graphics and visual aids, and updated, so that they keep getting better with time. Then, too, the best lectures can be made available to thousands, not just one class.

There is one problem with reading (or viewing lectures, even if you could rewind them). If you’re stuck with an unanswered question in your mind, particularly if the answer is essential to understanding the rest of the material, then you reach a dead-end. If you can’t find the answer yourself through further reading, you are unable to move forward.

The best way out is then to ask someone else. This, I think, is the teacher’s role – to respond to students’ questions and to guide them through difficult portions of the subject. By interacting with students, studying their questions, and analyzing their mistakes in written exercises, the teacher can focus on the obstacles that prevent or delay the students’ understanding, clear these obstacles away, and set students off on their own to a successful learning experience. Along the way, students will pick up learning skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

The teacher’s other role – unfortunately, few teachers fulfill this role – is to inspire and motivate their students, to nurture and enhance further the student’s innate love for learning.

I have been talking about lectures. Obviously, laboratory, shop or field work is necessary to complement the students’ book learning. More on that later.

Freedom in schools

Being a 55-year old student seems to have given me a unique perspective. I am going through an experience that is usually reserved for the youth, but I do so with the benefit of half a century of hindsight.

I can see clearly now the two parallel strands of school life – the regimented part, and the free part.

Regimented learning. It was educator John Holt who wrote eloquently how regimented schooling, from the primary grades to the university, tended to suppress the joy of learning. The school was a prison, he said. I can easily appreciate that observation, having spent three years myself as a political prisoner. Children who went to school – university students are no exception – are forced to learn one topic at a certain hour and a certain room, whether they wanted to or not, whether they were ready for it or not, whether they were interested in it or not at that particular time. The lecture, and its variations, remains the main teaching vehicle of this regimented method. High technology has not improved things. The computer and the LCD projector has made it even easier for teachers to indulge themselves, with their presentations and bullet points now available for instant display at the push of a button. Under such regimentation, most students gradually lose their innate love for learning. Instead they feel bored, sleepy, uninterested, constrained, and even tense, lest they couldn’t answer a teacher’s probing question.

Freedom lives. Fortunately, the undercurrent of freedom has survived in schools. It is best represented by the library, where one can indulge one’s love of learning, reading whatever gave one joy for that moment. In the library, freedom lives. Students who have not lost completely the innate curiosity and love for learning that makes us human can nurture it here and give it a chance to grow and to flourish. The books in the library have been my best teachers, whenever the textbook didn’t make sense. If a topic was specially hard, I’d pick several books on it from the shelves and browse them. Usually, I’d find a book or two whose authors talked to me as if they read my mind, what I knew and what I didn’t, and what questions I asked myself. When browsing, I would often come across a specially interesting title; I took the book to my desk too. This is real freedom. This is what learning should be. If educators understood this, they would build the learning process around it, not around classroom lectures.

More and more schools are getting connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, some school administrators see the Internet as an extension of the regimented system. They add a subject in the curriculum entitled ‘Internet’, assign that subject a time and a room (the Internet Laboratory, or some such name), like they do with Math, Physics, Biology, etc. How tragic that they can’t see it an extension of the library instead, as a new space where students can exercise their complete freedom to learn according to their own schedule and inclination, on their own time.

If I were a lecturer, I would conduct my classes this way. In the previous meeting, I would have assigned students to read a particular chapter or chapters in the textbook, reminding them to try to understand the chapter content. The class would then start with a question-and-answer session. The students would ask me what wasn’t still clear to them, after taking the effort to understand the material. This part would clear the remaining obstacles to understanding. It would be a discussion, an exchange, not a sterile one-way spoon-feeding of sentences which are better read than heard. Studying from books, one can always go back and reread a difficult phrase, as many times as necessary; it is hard to learn from lectures, because lecturers have no rewind button. By the way, I will even encourage students to write their questions and sign it with an alias, if they want to ask simple questions but don’t want to sound stupid. I’ve often felt the same thing.

When all questions have been clarified, I would give an “unquiz”, basically a problem set that the students have to solve in class, again, either with their true name or an alias. It will not be graded. But it will test them if they could now apply what they just learned to actual problems. I now know that one of the most important phase in learning, which I had underestimated when I was younger, was the actual problem-solving exercises. Pilots accumulate “flying hours”, students should accumulate “problem-solving hours”. It’s as simple as that. If you want to get good grades, solve the exercise problems. The more you solve, the more you learn. It’s a pity most teachers choose to solve problems themselves on the blackboard, to show their students how to do it. What a waste of time. They should be assigning the exercise to their students, and then testing them in class with similar problems. This is how students learn. The “unquiz” would give the teacher a very good window into the strengths and weaknesses of every student in class. Those who need special attention and help should then get it.

The third part of the class will be another question-and-answer session to wrap up the students’ learning experience and questions that arose while doing the problem-solving. This part would cap the students’ positive learning experience. It will be a final chance for the teacher to add icing to the learning cake.

Finally, before leaving the class, I would announce the reading assignment for the next class meeting.

Back to school

I haven’t updated this blog since April for several reasons. I thought I could do some blogging while doing my research on automated elections and electronic voting machines last April and May at the University of Oxford Internet Institute (OII). But I only managed one short piece. I needed all the time I could spare for the research. (My final output: four working papers – check here — and two early drafts). When there was time to spare, the spare time wasn’t enough either for the OII library, Oxford’s Social Science Library, the museums of Oxford and London and other attractions. So blogging had to wait.

Deaths in the family. When I arrived on June 4, I went straight to the Lung Center, where my 91-year-old mother Anastasia was in the Intensive Care Unit, due to pneumonia. Unfortunately, she probably picked up drug-resistant varieties of the disease from the hospital itself. After a month in the hospital (we took her out of ICU so her children and grandchildren could spend more time with her), she succumbed from the disease. We buried her on July 1 beside my father, Pio, who died 10 years ago when he was 84. On their tombstones we put two epitaphs: “A principled man who led a simple life”, and “A devoted woman who lived to help others”. Both had enjoyed a full life. A few days before my mother passed away, a dear cousin, Bienvenido Verzola Jr., “Manong Tron” to us, and whom I considered an elder brother, also died from cancer. He was the incumbent mayor of his hometown, Luna, Apayao, and was well-loved by his constituents. He was buried July 2 in Luna.

I have also gone back to school. I enrolled in my old alma mater, the University of the Philippines, for an MA Economics course. Many have asked me, “why economics?”

Why, indeed? I had been studying the social impact of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) for decades. I had even written a book about this topic, Towards a Political Economy of Information (full text available here). In the mid-1990s I started work on environmental issues and, starting 2000, basically went on semi-retirement from ICT work to volunteer for farmers’ groups, I worked for years with the sustainable agriculture network Pabinhi and also became coordinator of SRI-Pilipinas, which promotes the System of Rice Intensification. I think I have found a conceptual thread that ties all of my work together. This is the phenomenon of abundance. I decided to go back to school to learn everything I can about abundance, and to distill my own insights about this phenomenon. More about abundance in future blogs.

At 55, I struggle with my courses: Statistics, Math and Microeconomics. My mind doesn’t absorb as fast or retain as much. But I take the courses very seriously, because they are immediately useful to me. The Stats course is important for our election audit work at Halalang Marangal. We have a standing proposal for the Comelec to use double-entry accounting in election tallies, and to conduct a post-election statistical audit to double-check the automated election results. The Math and Micro courses, I need for studying the political economy of abundance, a personal project I have began to embark on. The pace of the Math course (Econ 206) is blazingly fast. I try to study in advance, but each lecture leaves me feeling way behind. The textbook is not very useful for those who want to learn from the book. But I am gradually acquiring some tools for my study on abundance, so I am not complaining. When the semester is over, I will let you know how things turned out.

By the way, one of my election pieces (Automated elections: voting machines have made mistakes too) made it to the top ten downloads at the Social Science Research Network. Nice reward for the hard, hard work that went into that paper. My Oxford pieces were also cited in Dan Mariano’s July 23 Manila Times column entitled “From ‘Hello, Garci’ to ‘Hello, IT'”.

Finally, a pleasant surprise for me: former President Fidel V. Ramos cited my work on intellectual property rights (IPR) in his July 15 speech at the 17th Annual International Conference of the Asian Media Information and Communication Center. I like the part that he quoted: “Advanced countries think nothing of pirating our best scientists, engineers, technicians and other professionals. They also pirate our genetic resources.” He missed the best part though, where I said that advanced countries complain when we pirate their software, though we never take the original copy away, but they themselves pirate our best professionals, taking the original away and leaving nothing behind. You’ll find the full article here.

In the meantime, I think I can now spare an occasional hour, to keep this blog updated. Thank you all for your patience.