Saturday, November 27, 2010

Burn, paper, burn.

After the theatre lights had dimmed and the tourists had left, several shopkeepers gathered in front of the puppet theatre and started praying by a makeshift altar right there on the sidewalk. I didn't want to intrude into the solemn activity, so I hung back as they burned incense sticks and paper money. Just as I thought that they were finishing up, I was shocked to see them set a papier-mache horse on fire! That one I caught on camera (with their permission).

One of the participants in the ceremony explained to me (non-verbal communication trumped language once again!) that what I have witnessed was a prayer for happiness and for prosperity in their businesses. It was fascinating to watch the ceremony because it's so different from the culture I grew up in. The incense sticks burning on the altar were certainly familiar; I've seen them amid the fresh fruit and the flower offerings in cemeteries back home with significant Chinese portions...

Hmm. The prayers and the offerings I have seen must also be a way of sending these earthly materials to their dead relatives. Just a thought: All Souls' Day was celebrated the week before we flew to Hanoi.

The water puppet show

So, finally, we arrived at the puppet theatre. Ana and Crystal decided that they'd rather go shopping right outside the venue, and the rest of us had taken our seats. The place was packed! Tourists from different parts of the world were with us as we waited for the show to start. As the houselights dimmed, the voice over began. 

I was excited! Would handheld puppets come out? Were they anything similar to the Muppet Show's human-arm puppets? 

Nope, there were no residents of Sesame Street in sight. Water puppetry involved wooden puppets dancing on a pool of waist-deep water. They looked more like old-fashioned marionettes (sans the strings). The performance was sung and spoken in Vietnamese; in short, I did not understand any of the dialogue. However, the scenes were easy enough to decipher: they were about daily activities in rural Vietnam. Puppets depicted rice-planting, horse-racing, what looked like buffaloes playing. Then there was a wedding and coconut-picking. A dose of folklore was also added: amid what looked like clams, a dragon emerged at the end of the show. Frankly, I was amazed at how intricate the puppet designs were and was wondering at how the puppeteers avoided tangling all the poles and strings that they might have used in animating the puppets.

The orchestra consisted of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. Singers were sitting close to the orchestra, singing operatically or speaking lines of dialogue. Lights were effectively used, drawing everyone's eyes up to the character beating the gong, to the water to see the horses jumping through fire, to stage right to focus on the monochord, and then back centre stage in time to see the fluorescent dragon soar in the pitch black set. All in all, these elements contributed to the ambiance: we were not in a modern theatre; we were in old Vietnam that night, out by the rice paddies, enjoying traditional entertainment. 

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is found at 57B Dinh Tien Hoang St., Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. More information can be found in:

In search of Hanoi's water puppets

"You've never been to Hanoi if you haven't seen the water puppets," Jojo Lapitan said over lunch on the last day of the International Rice Congress in Vietnam. I guess I have experienced Hanoi then, since I went to the puppet show on my third night in this vibrant city...

_o_  _o_  _o_  _o_
/_\   /_\   /_\   /_\

Getting there was nothing short of a challenge...

It was the night after the Grain Quality and Nutrition technical session. People were ready to go out and relax, as we have finished our presentations. A large group in a foreign city, with different agendas, and only one Vietnamese among us... that certainly spelled disaster – we couldn't stay together as one group. We were supposed to eat a buffet dinner, but the place we went to was packed. The group decided to split up: the shoppers and the tourists. Tran, the sole Vietnamese in the group, went with the shoppers; while the tourists (including me) wandered off armed only with road maps provided by the friendly staff of the Royal Gate Hotel. 

Our goal: arrive at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in time for the last full show. 

(We wanted to catch the 9:15 pm show.)

Challenge #1: We didn't know where we were.  
The taxis dropped us off a popular buffet restaurant somewhere in Hanoi. Unfortunately, the short drive only allowed me to locate one of the roads we passed by on the map. By the time we got out, I was disoriented. Thank goodness for road maps! While the group was busy figuring out where to go as a big group, I had the chance to at least narrow down where we likely were, with the help of the restaurant staff and those policemen-like people right on the sidewalk. The shoppers left a few minutes earlier than we did.

Challenge #2: We didn't know a word in Vietnamese.
... to be more specific, we did not know how to be conversant with the attendants who were trying to assist us. By this time, I could only attempt to thank people in Vietnamese, and I was sure I was pronouncing the words wrongly. Eventually, we figured that the attendants were saying that we're supposed to go along the main road on a southeasterly direction (thanks, map!) and then turn left on the Ly Thuong Kiet Street. Whew!

At the intersection, we saw the Pacific Place Hotel. I figured that there were English speakers in there because it was a hotel... and I guessed correctly. They drew the path on my map, which I was able to show the rest of the group. 

Challenge #3: It was a LOOOOONG walk.
A few minutes on the road and I knew I wore the wrong pair of sneakers. After a whole day on high heels, all that my feet needed for a long walk were ample arch and ankle supports, and my sneakers didn't have those. I should've brought my trusty running shoes instead, I thought. Time was running out, and we had to walk about 2 km; the orienteering challenge was a welcome distraction.

An hour after we started walking, we finally arrived in the Hoan Kiem District... the water puppet theatre was somewhere close by. We could almost smell it!

(The tourist group, pausing – posing – at the Hoan Kiem Lake. Do they look like they walked the 2km?)

Challenge #4: Shouldn't we have reserved tickets?!?
Okay, I had to admit that I didn't consider this one. Rachelle Ward (a former PhD student in GQNPC) asked me about the ticket situation during a break in the session earlier that day. I didn't know the wisdom behind her question until the group arrived at the theatre. We were ahead by just a few minutes to a busload of tourists, all wanting to buy tickets! The ticket lady said there were no more tickets available; however, I didn't walk all the way to the theatre and not see it. Priscila (Brazil) and I convinced the lady to sell us six tickets (never mind where we sat... we wanted to watch!).

FINALLY! We got in the theatre, sat back, and enjoyed the puppet show. =)

(The stage of the night's performance.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

City of Lakes

San Pablo City in the Philippines is known as the "city of the seven lakes". Hanoi (Vietnam), on the other hand, is nicknamed "city of lakes". According to the Vietnam Tourism website, the city has 18 lakes! In my week's stay in the city, I was fortunate to be in proximity to three of them.

The Royal Gate Hotel (where I stayed with the INQR and the GQNPC people) is found very close to two famous and adjacent lakes: Truc Bach Lake and the West Lake, both in the French Quarter (Ba Dinh District). These lakes are said to be walking distances away from interesting cultural tourist spots such as temples. True enough, there's a pagoda somewhere between the two lakes that could be seen from the hotel. I wasn't able to explore these areas during my stay, though.

As afternoon turned to dusk on my first day in Hanoi, I wanted very badly to photograph these lakes because I was going to miss the sunset. However, after a whole day of travelling (from Manila to Hong Kong, and then to Hanoi), I was just too tired to lug my tripod (the camera was with me every time) all the way to the West Lake (which was a lot bigger). I decided to just concentrate on photographing the nearer Truc Bach Lake.

Reflection at Truc Bach Lake
(Truc Bach Lake at night)

Missing the sunset wasn't too bad after all. The view was beautiful at night! Warm lights from the buildings reflected on the calm water and I enjoyed taking picture after picture. :) 

Then there's the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old District. In English, it's the "lake of the restored sword"; to me, that meant that the history of the area is akin to the Arthurian legend of the Lady of the Lake. A bit more crowded, this area was when I visited it, compared with the Truc Bach Lake area. But then, aside from its two cultural icons, this lake is just a stone's throw away from the market and from the water puppet theatre; tourists gravitate to the area. It's literally the centre of the action in the district.

The icons... In the middle of the lake is the Turtle Temple, a reminder to the foreign tourist that Vietnam has its own architectural legacy that dates back at least a thousand years. I'm not sure how to get there, though. On my third evening there, I contented myself taking photos of the temple from the side of the lake. 

Turtle Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake
(Turtle Temple)

On the northern side of the lake, I noticed a curious structure. A second island, perhaps? It turns out to be the Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) Temple, which is accessible via the Huc (Rising Sun) bridge. I was, and still am, clueless at what the temple's name means. 

The Huc (Rising Sun) bridge to Jade Island
(The Huc bridge)

I wonder what's inside the temple itself. I've never been inside a Buddhist temple (and I assume that this is a Buddhist temple). Lucky me, the doors were padlocked. No way for me to know what's in there during my visit.

My missing out on many tourist spots during my week's stay in Hanoi means only one thing: I am going back to visit the city someday. :)

We don't eat gelatinisation temperature, but we cook rice.

That's how Dara Daygon began her talk on gelatinisation temperature, that range of temperatures in which rice is cooked, as a response to Harold Corke's previous presentation ("We do not eat gelatinisation temperature.").

(Dara, on gelatinisation temperature classes.)

Dara concentrated on the genetics behind gelatinisation temperature, showing the distributions of samples with high and low gelatinisation temperature. However, breeders aim for intermediate, a class not explicitly seen in the distributions. The gene associated with high- and low- gelatinisation temperatures is identified, but what pulls the values up or down into the intermediate range is still unknown.

Why is gelatinisation temperature important if it can't be eaten? This property is directly proportional to how long it takes to cook rice. And that is related to fuel consumption, water use, etc. that falls into the realm of the social sciences.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rice as gems.

Clear rice grains or opaque ones? Consumers tend to gravitate towards varieties that are highly translucent, which command higher selling prices than those that are somewhat cloudy. In this sense, rice grains are comparable to gemstones. Rubies, emeralds, and sapphires of low clarity are not as expensive as those that sparkle, for instance. The opacity of the gemstones is caused by imperfections in the otherwise crystalline internal structure of these stones. 

In rice, imperfections of starch granules (the grains become porous) inside the grain likewise decrease the translucent quality of the grain. This is also known as CHALK. Xiangqian Zhao reported that grain chalkiness is affected by day and night environmental temperatures. As temperatures increase, so does the degree of chalkiness. Chalk is a detrimental property because it makes grains easier to break. Thus, given a high-yield paddy grain with lots of chalk, it is inevitable to have large losses post-harvest. In the light of rapid rice demand increase in a warming world, efforts are being made to understand the genetic factors affecting chalk to produce grains that are unaffected by environmental conditions.

On the other hand, with millions of grains going through quality evaluation programs, it's next to impossible to measure chalk manually within a logical timeframe. Imaging instruments that can take multiple photos of grains make life easier because these have algorithms that convert pixels into degree of chalkiness. Johan Van Asbrouck, a perfect example of a person thinking outside the box, presented new equipment that look into the physical traits of rice grains.

In his search for instruments that can measure important quality parameters of grains, he has attended conferences whose themes are outside the realms of agriculture. Machines initially developed for other fields are adapted for the seed industry.

Chalk is an economically important trait. Learning the genetics behind it and the efficient means of measuring it will help breeders reduce post-harvest losses and allow farmers to command higher prices to their produce.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Volatility is not only for markets... it's for grains too.

Throughout the International Rice Congress 2010, I heard people talk about the volatility (aka. instability) of the rice market. The rice price crisis in 2008 illustrated how badly economies and governments dependent on rice imports were affected by existing policies and by unhealthy speculations. 

However, aside from volatility of the market, rice price (particularly of those prized in the export sector) is also affected by the volatile compounds surrounding the rice grain. 

Robert Hall and Fe Calingacion presented comparisons of chemical profiles between basmati- and jasmine-type varieties. These profiles were obtained using high-technological platforms made available in the European Union via the Metabolites for Plants, Health, and Outreach (META-PHOR) project. Based on the reports, the compound believed to be the most critical to fragrance is not the most important after all, based on the levels of chemicals in the profiles. Also, the aroma associated with basmati rice and with jasmine rice have the same compound; BUT what makes these types distinct are hundreds of other compounds that have yet to be identified.

(Fe and Robert on metabolite profiling.)

On the other hand, Chanthakhone Boualaphanh presented updates on the genetics behind the fragrance of Lao traditional glutinous rice and her attempt to incorporate the gene to a non-fragrant but high-yielding improved glutinous variety.

(Chan on the genes of aroma.)

Fragrance adds value to rice varieties. Understanding what else affects it will help breeders identify more precisely what genes they need to target. 

"Darling, it's not normal."

Catchy right? This was the title of Roslen Anacleto's presentation during the International Network for Quality Rice (INQR) workshop in Hanoi. Basically, his presentation complemented those of Melissa Fitzgerald and Ruby Jimenez, who both talked at length about the updates of the amylose project.

The members of the INQR were given a glimpse of the complexities of the maths used to analyse the data they submitted for Round 3 which, if I remember correctly, was a proficiency test. Roslen used the Anderson-Darling test for normality to see if the distributions of the values followed a bell-shaped curve. The title evidently showed that the distributions did not. Results of a suite of statistical tests were also presented.

I have to admit that in the end, I was lost, utterly lost, in the statistics. 

Amylose ended up black and blue in Hanoi.

DISCLAIMER: What follows is a somewhat technical article. Prepare tissue, cotton balls, and ice in case of nosebleeds. You have been warned. Hehehe.

Have you ever tried adding iodine to potatoes or to bread in science class? The bread and the potato normally turns dark blue because the starch in these food items react with iodine. To be more specific (take a deep breath), the long and linear molecules of starch, known as amylose, turn blue. For the longest time, quality evaluation programs have been relying on the proportions of amylose in a sample to predict whether the cooked grains become hard or soft after cooling. In seminars I've attended, a breeder always mentions amylose content when asked about consumer preference. 

Enter the International Network for Quality Rice (INQR). The group is composed of rice scientists involved in quality evaluation programs in different national agricultural research and extension systems (such as PhilRice, BRRI, RRRI, etc.). Its first project is to standardise the measurement of amylose across all systems because in the light of the globalisation of rice trade, it is important to make sure that amylose content values of a sample measured in one country will be the same as those measured in another. After a few years of fieldwork, lab work, correspondence, and complex statistics, the INQR has succeeded in developing a standard method that is now being processed by ISO. As a result, rice traders in different countries will now hopefully begin to be on the same page.

So, amylose content is an important trait. However, the merits of amylose content was put under a more criticising light. According to Dr. Harold Corke, amylose content is not enough. We "don't eat amylose content", as he put it. 

To illustrate this point clearer, I presented my work on glutinous rice; varieties of this type do not have amylose because of a mutation in a gene, and yet have different texture profiles (which I still have to verify in a larger set of samples). At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tran pointed out a different mutation in the same gene, which apparently makes varieties with high amylose content have different textures. 

Amylose content, the golden boy of quality evaluation programs of old, ended up black and blue during the rice quality session of the IRC 2010. It may not predict cooked rice texture ALL the time, but it is still an important test nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

GQNPC Road Trip Leg 4: Hello, Hanoi!

This year, IRRI celebrates its 50th, UPLB its 101st, Manila its 439th anniversaries. All these pale in comparison to that of Thang Long (now Hanoi) as it celebrates its 1000th anniversary. Hanoi is ancient!

(We missed the celebration by a few weeks!)

We arrived at the Noi Bai International Airport as the sun cast a reddish glow over the Song Hong River (the Red River). Along the way to the Royal Gate Hotel (where the delegates from the International Network for Quality Rice and the Grain Quality Lab were staying), we couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the traffic flow. There seemed to be order amid all that chaos because there were no road mishaps despite all the tailgating, the swerving, and the counter-flows we've observed.

More motorcycles
(Here, the motorcycle is king.)

The distance from the airport to the hotel was about 30 km according to the cab driver, and took about an hour via the freeway (Quoc Lo). We were supposed to attend the welcome reception for the International Rice Congress; but since we missed the afternoon shuttle bus to the Vietnam National Convention Centre, we opted to have dinner close to the hotel... in the process, we had our first taste of pedestrian crossing, Hanoi style. 

(We had to cross streets with these bikes swerving to avoid us... like boats avoiding rock outcroppings in a river. I just didn't have the guts to shoot while in the middle of traffic flow.)

Crossing the street was nothing short of daunting. However, the experience proved to be invaluable as we were planning to go beyond the hotel–convention centre–hotel routine. We wanted to explore this city and no amount of traffic could stop us from walking (and shopping, for some). By the time the conference had ended, I thought everyone got used to it.

GQNPC Road Trip Leg 4: Who likes pho?

I do! 

I had pho ga for breakfast on Days 2, 3, and 4 of our Hanoi adventure at the Royal Gate Hotel. It's a rice noodle soup with chicken, basil, mungbean sprouts, lime, and peppers. What a healthy and filling yet light way to start the day! With local cuisine available to me at the hotel's restaurant, I didn't even notice the continental breakfast served for the less vegetable-friendly consumers. At Hoan Kiem district, I was determined to try out the pho ga found in the street stalls. Five adventurous souls, Tita Dory, Tita Ruby, Fe, Dara, and Priscila (from IMBRAPA, Brazil) all ordered pho too, but we had different variants. Just the same, we all enjoyed the food and the hospitality extended to us by the shop owner (who spoke very little English).

However, Vietnam is known not only for its noodle soup. Our first group dinner was at the Nha Hang ABC in the Ba Dinh District. I wasn't able to catch the Vietnamese names of the food I ate, but they all have lots and lots of sauteed vegetables. Once again, I was worried about eating seafood; Tran was very helpful in translating the names of the food into English for me. I ended up with spaghetti with carrots, celery, onions, and cabbage.

For the less adventurous but still want to be amid the busy streets of the Old Quarter, Hanoi has a branch of ThaiExpress in the Hoan Kiem District. This restaurant is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Inside, it felt no different from a western restaurant, except of course that the food is Thai and the menus are printed in Vietnamese (with English subtitles). The haggard foreigner can rest easy here as the staff are conversant in English. Once again, a scrumptious dinner for me because I got olive rice with chicken.

Khai's Brothers, Ba Dinh District ... now this is classy dining, where the ambiance is similar to Kanin Club and Crisostomo's. I ate at Khai's Brothers with the International Network for Quality Rice participants. Still a buffet set-up, but the food is prepared right in front of the customer. My top picks (because I came back for more) were the pork and vegetable rolls in rice paper, what looked like noodle soup with mushrooms, and baked oysters. There were other viands as well, but many of them had shrimp, so I couldn't try them out (not even the mango salad I was ogling over... it looked like it had shrimp paste!)


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Prep time

I'd say that "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs" is a gem. I bought a copy at the National Bookstore after choosing between a presentations book and a photography book. When I learned that I was speaking in a conference, I got the book out of my bookshelf and leafed through it, hoping to find some secret shortcut to good presentations. Alas for me, the author reminds presenters to prepare and rehearse long before public speaking engagements.

So I started working on my slides early on, following the book's advice. I've planned, story-boarded, and assembled my slides a few weeks before the conference. The long prep time allowed me to think through the change in focus and to overhaul the talk after my supervisor and co-workers suggested improvements in its title and in its content. I'm currently on the tenth version of my presentation, and though I'm hoping that this is the FINAL version, I just might (after my experiences in previous conferences) tweak the talk a bit on presentation day.

Now, I guess the only thing left to do is to practice. If I want to get over my stage fright, I have to practice hard to get everything down pat. Steve Job's conversational tone doesn't come naturally, the book says, but is a product of long hours of rehearsals.

That means: timer starts now...

Tran vs. the MSc thesis

One of the industry's criteria for classifying (and putting a price on) rice is based on sensory properties. Scientists have devised a way of predicting cooked rice texture based on chemical analyses. However, there are times when one of these tests, which is based on rice starch's colour reaction to iodine, is not reliable because there are rice varieties with similar results but have different textures.

Enter Tran, a MSc student from UPLB, who conducted her research at the Grain Quality, Nutrition, and Postharvest Center at IRRI. For the past two years, she's been determining why rice grains of the same quality class differ in cooked texture by exploring the genetics behind these variations.

After several semesters of hard work and perseverance, this ADB scholar has passed one of her major hurdles: she defended her MSc thesis and garnered a grade of 1.00.

Congratulations, Tran! 

Friday, November 5, 2010

The shoe hunt continues

Back on my feet on another Saturday in Makati. This was my last chance to get a pair of black leather pumps. I won't leave the mall without buying shoes!! Hmmp! 

Walking round the mall, I spotted a beautiful pair inside a shoe shop. Might as well try that, I thought. So I got in, without looking up at the name of the store, and tried on the shoes. Wow, a pair of high heels as comfortable as sneakers! The soles were non-slip and the insoles were really soft. More importantly, my toes were not being squished... I thought I could walk for hours in that pair. 

Reality set in when I started asking about the price. I was shocked at how expensive that pair was. Suffice it to say that it costs about five times more than what I was willing to spend on leather shoes. 

No wonder. I had unwittingly tried on a Cole Haan! 


I ended up with a locally made pair that looked similar to (but didn't feel as luxurious as) the Cole Haan shoes... and at a tenth of the price. 

Perfect example of how NOT to drive.

Drivers, do this on the race track, not on public roads...

The driver in this video and one of his passengers are DEAD after the tires of the car they were in (not the Jazz in this video) blew at high speed, according to comments on the original upload. The video here (from youtube) has been reuploaded since.

The driver was 21 years old.