Wednesday, October 31, 2012

going ahead of the all saints' day crowd

October 31 to November 2. Those are the days when I absolutely avoid traveling by road in the Philippines (aside from Holy Week, if I can help it). No, it's not because I'm afraid of fictional Freddie, Jason, or Chuckie. They're icky now, not scary. And certainly not because of ghosts, ghouls, trolls, or poltergeists... JK Rowling has helped popularize them in a kid-friendly way.

I don't like traveling on those dates because the roads to the cemeteries become parking lots. Vehicles are in a standstill while passengers just get off the vehicles and walk. And if I'm fortunate enough to be able to navigate the car through the barely moving traffic, there comes the question of the parking space inside the cemetery... particularly where my late paternal grandpa, who we grandkids call Lolo Batangas (the grandpa from Batangas), is buried: the Manila Memorial Park in Sucat Paranaque. 

My solution: visit him way ahead of the All Saints' Day crowd. This year, I dropped by a week before the holiday. I wasn't the only one, I found out; other people had started putting flowers and candles on grave sites. However, the atmosphere in the Manila Memorial Park was still peaceful because the place wasn't crowded yet. No blaring music, no vendors selling candles and flowers, no ropes to cordon off people from the road. Perfect setting to enjoy the place and to reflect upon happy childhood memories here.

The man-made lagoon

My family used to visit Lolo Batangas on his birth and death anniversaries, aside from All Saints' Day. Back then, we'd bring roller blades, bicycles, tents, and picnic on the grass beside his grave. One of my elder cousins used to practice driving over the bridge and we'd occasionally ride with her as she took her place behind the wheel. We also used to visit the zoo within the memorial park... there were monkey there. Lots of good memories.

Eventually, we didn't do those anymore lest we disturb his "neighbors". By the time I was in college, we'd just drop by, say a short prayer, and greet him. And with Lola Batangas (my paternal grandma) becoming frailer as she goes into her late nineties, she couldn't join us when we'd go even if she wanted to.

This is the garden where Lolo Bats now rests

Now with my family in opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean or on different schedules, visiting Lolo Bats as a unit has become even more of a challenge. So on this beautiful afternoon, I went -- even on my own -- to say hi and to get his grave cleaned up (since I got ahead of the rest of the clan).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

the blog migration continues

Since I've got a few minutes to spare today, I thought I might continue migrating content from Multiply to Blogger. 

The good news is that I've already obtained the .xml file of the Multiply blog posts. :)

The bad news is that what have been imported before are imported again! So there's a bit of manual tweaking involved to get the two blogs in sync before the December 1 shutdown of the social functionality of Multiply.

At least the posts are now in Blogger. It's just a matter of determining which ones are duplicates of what's on Blogger.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

the smallest plane I've ever flown in... so far

I am fascinated with airplanes; always have been, ever since I first saw a replica of one at the Fiesta Carnival back when I was still in pre-school. Actually, the fascination with planes has extended to my interest in manned space flight. I even went twice to the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Festival to see them up close! The first trip was okay because I got to see the private planes but the second trip was better because there was an AirAsia passenger plane parked right on the plane garage!

Anyway, someone once told me that my fascination with airplanes will eventually die out when being a passenger in one becomes a more common occurrence... particularly after getting tired with all the security checks. I disagreed. I think that I will stay in awe of these giant metal birds until I am able to actually fly one...

... Even if it looks like a bus with wings.

On the last leg of my US training in September, I had to fly from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Probably since the flight was under an hour and there were only a few passengers, the airline chose to bring passengers to Sacramento via the smallest plane I've ridden on so far: a Canadair Regional Jet (CR9 or 7, I can't remember). Based on the passenger count, it's literally a bus with wings! Plus, while walking towards the plane via the jetway, I saw the sky above the plane... this plane was not as tall as the Boeings or the Airbuses, I thought.

The smallness of the plane was further emphasized by a crewman who mentioned that my carry-on wouldn't fit in the overhead compartment. That made me worry that the plane was really tiny! And it really was. Thank goodness the flight was short. I wouldn't want to ride this plane from San Francisco all the way to Manila!

And I'm note even complaining about the smallness of the economy cabin in international flights. :)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Want to go paperless in the field? There's FieldLab for that!

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


Ten years ago, I'd go to the rice fields to collect data about flowering time every morning and come back to the lab to process the data that I collected in spreadsheets. One time, I was startled by one of those big birds that call rice fields their home. Then there was a time when I fell down into the rice paddy because I had slipped. On both occasions, the paper I was using to record my data in got muddied up. That made it hard for me to encode information into the computer.

At this year's Global Rice Science Partnership Asia Review, as I was listening to Ed Redona, the global coordinator for the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER), I learned that data entry in the field has moved forward a lot. Instead of just paper for data entry, researchers these days have a another field data entry platform:  an Android-based application called FieldLab. With it, anyone with an Android smartphone can go to the field and record their observations; this saves on time and on paper (thus, is more environmentally friendly).

Smartphones. Mobile applications. High-tech computing. Agriculture certainly now requires its students and practitioners to be increasingly tech-savvy. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

prepping for my GRiSP 2012 five-minute presentation

During the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, I was tasked (along with Tita Dory and Crystal) to talk for five minutes (each) about a year's worth of scientific progress. The five-minute talk was definitely a challenge because of the length; the time limit was a good thing too, because that meant that the audience's attention spans won't be something to worry about.  

Some people say that the five-minute presentation just a matter of creating five text slides and allotting one minute to talk about (or read) the contents of each slide. No rehearsals necessary. True, sort of. That's quick and simple to do. It, however, makes for five very slow minutes for the audience (unless they want to write down what's on the slides), just like in class. And rehearsals are still needed to make sure that the presentation is within the time limit.

I didn't want to present my report that way, definitely. 

As usual, I went back to my speaker role models for some inspiration: Al Gore and Steve Jobs. There are three things I find these two speakers really work on (aside from them both using Apple Keynote): the story, the presentation style, and the visual aids.

The story. Each Stevenote and Al Gore's talk in Manila engrosses people because there's a plot, a storyline that they could hang on to. Aside from seeing this in Jobs' and Gore' talks, I have always heard Dr Fukuta (my first supervisor in IRRI) talk about the importance of the story in each presentation. For my GRiSP 2012 talk, I asked: how do I plot the story into a five-minute talk? What are the major plot details? What can I leave out and just talk about when a question arises? What do I need to build up on? How do I end narrating an unfinished story? These questions were answered when I talked with Melissa, former head of the lab I'm in. I liken it to a storyboard session. 

The presentation style. After getting a story together, I had to figure out how to weave it with how I was going to talk about it. I definitely wouldn't go slide-less because this was a progress report BUT if there were technical issues and my slides won't work, I should be able to present my report without them. I definitely wouldn't do an Al Gore- or a Steve Jobs- styled presentation because I wouldn't have enough time, or material, to build up the suspense (a la An Inconvenient Truth or a MacWorld keynote). In the end, I think I mixed elements of Lessig (slide transition cues and no slide count limitation) and Godin (high quality photos plus statements) with a few bullet points (grudgingly). The Lessig style required a lot of rehearsal to make slide transitions seamless. My five-minute talk actually took quite a few hours of mentally practicing my lines and "time trials" considering I had prepared my presentation mere days before my talk. If I could master my talk so that it took less than five minutes to present in rehearsal, I would be right within five minutes when the nervousness kicked in during my presentation.

The visual aids. Unadorned slides are like blank canvases and so are my favorite starting points. However, there was a pre-made slide template for GRiSP so I had to stick with that. A few good images I had taken were included; the font sizes were all big enough to be readable in the back of the lecture hall; animations were not used. 

The preparation helped a lot for my presentation. I won't say that it's perfect because I did get tongue-tied and mispronounced a few words but I think that the story came across loud and clear within the time limit. That was most important.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The King and I at the Resorts World Manila

After "The Sound of Music", my aunt and I watched the Philippine production of "The King and I" at the Resorts World Manila's Newport Performing Arts Theater. That was over the weekend. I have always been puzzled why I couldn't seem to finish watching the movie version of this play, even if it was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner. And I actually fell asleep when I was watching the 1999 Anna and the King film! (That's the one with Jodie Foster as Anna. To my defense, I did have jet lag at the time)

The matinee show was led by Bo Cerrudo as King Mongkut of Siam and by Sheila Valderrama as Anna Leonowens. Bo Cerrudo is great as the King, but Yul Brynner had made the role synonymous to him that it's difficult to imagine someone else playing the part. In fact, I don't even remember who Anna was in the 1956 movie. On the other hand, the stellar performance of Sheila Valderrama kept teacher Anna Leonowens from being overshadowed by the King. The artist who played Lady Thiang was the perfect example of poise, dignity, and grace... truly the first of the King's many wives. The dancers who performed Uncle Tom's Cabin, particularly Eliza, were so good!

Then there were the sets. I particularly liked the intricate detail of the palace sets with the gold elephants. It must have taken ages to create those! The ugh factor in "The Sound of Music" was the digital, highly pixelated imagery in the backdrop; it was a big distraction. But in "The King and I", the set designer made sure that the LED screen enhanced the scenery (like temple view from a balcony or a window), not drew attention from the actors. I just didn't like the presence of the TV screens at the sides of the theater; these got me confused -- Where should I look? The stage? The TV monitors?

At the end of the show, I realized why I didn't finish seeing the whole thing in the movies: the show was three hours long! 

If there was one thing that made watching The King and I a challenge, it was the presence of a lot of children in the audience. By the time the play had finished the first act, kids were standing on their seats or talking loudly, or running all over... with their guardians not seeming to mind! Next time I'd watch a play like this, I'd go to a gala performance, that's for sure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Best Western Plus Avita Suites


My home, during my trip to the US last month, was where my suitcase was. The second leg of my trip saw me transfer from the bayous of New Orleans to the coast of Torrance (in the Greater Los Angeles Area).

During my training week in Los Angeles, I stayed at the Best Western Plus Avita Suites. It's my first time to stay in a suite so I came largely unprepared when my room had its own kitchen area. There was no stove but there's a microwave, a coffee machine, and a fridge. I didn't bring eating utensils and dishwashing stuff! Aside from the kitchen, my room also had spacious living and working areas. And note that staying here was a lot more affordable than staying in a hotel! No wonder I saw a lot of families also staying there (probably on vacation) and people who looked like they were on business trips.

I liked my stay in Best Western. Aside from the nice room, the place is very close to the shopping mall (walking distance) and the beach (a 20-minute bus ride from the mall). It was, however, quite a challenge to go around without a car since public transportation is not as easy to access as in the Philippines.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Flat Stanleys

Flat Stanley by the rocks at Redondo BeachFlat Stanley in Redondo BeachFlat Stanley at the Del Amo Plaza in TorranceFlat Stanley with Mount Makiling in the backgroundFlat Stanley beside a rice fieldFlat Stanley outside the Grain Quality and Nutrition Center in IRRI
Flat Stanley with Mount Banahaw in the distance

Flat Stanleys, a set on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
I first met Flat Stanley when Jeanne Lea introduced me to this children's story character.

Basically, Flat Stanley travels all over the world and has his photo taken wherever he finds himself. In these photos, he has gone to different places with me as I traveled in September and October 2012.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

shopping mode

More rice science and GRiSP in the future. But first, I'm back to writing more about personal stuff...


On one slow evening after I'd gone back to my suite in Torrance, I took to surfing the internet about the shopping malls I've gone into, particularly inspired by my visit to the Del Amo Shopping Center. I realized, as I was reading about them, that I've been to some of the biggest shopping malls in my travels!

The floor areas are from Wikipedia. Naturally, most of the malls that I've gone to are in the Philippines. I was surprised that the local malls dwarf the one's I've seen overseas! I guess this indicates that Filipinos are mall rats, huh?

Here's a rundown:

SM North EDSA (504,900 m²)
In reality, I haven't been able to go around this huge mall just yet. The last time I went there, I was with friends for lunch and snacks. This shopping mall is different, compared to other malls, because the roof area was converted to al fresco dining spots and a waterfall was put in place too. A sky dome has been put in place to allow the sunlight to enter the mall. This mall is accessible from the south via EDSA both by car and by train (MRT-3).
SM Mall of Asia (390,193 m²)
Now this one is a bit closer to home. Easily accessible via the Southern Luzon Expressway or via Sucat Road and Macapagal Highway, this shopping center is more accessible for people driving their own cars than to people who take public transportation (or I just don't know how to go there by bus?). You'd know you're there because you'd be welcomed by the giant globe right at the roundabout. While the mall is huge, especially with the recent addition of the sports arena (the venue of the Manila run of Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco), the floor area dedicated to shopping space isn't as big as that of SM North EDSA.
SM Megamall (348,056 m²)
This used to be the biggest mall that I had been to. I've been there just this week and it still feels huge! To walk from one end of the mall to the other (which is in the other building) takes what feels like ages! Take note, there are a lot of people in the mall whether there's a weekend discount or not. I normally take the train when I go to the Megamall because it's the fastest way to go... traffic in this area of the metro is bad.
SM City Cebu (268,611 m²)
Another big mall. It's so big that I didn't have enough time to actually see what's inside it. The funny thing, though, was that I flew all the way from Manila to end up in SM City Cebu. Because the stores in this mall are mostly the same ones that are in Manila, I didn't feel like I traveled at all... well, except for the language. The people in SM City Cebu spoke in Cebuano but would answer in Filipino when I asked them (because I'm a Tagalog).
Greenbelt (250,000 m²)
Whenever I'm in this mall, I don't know if I feel empowered because I could walk here and window shop or feel sad because I couldn't afford, or refuse to buy (because I feel they're overly expensive), many of the beautiful things being sold there. This mall is home to some of the world's more expensive brands and caters to the shopping tastes of both the upwardly mobile middle class and the truly rich. I don't go here to shop most of the time though. This is the place to eat (for me and my sister) because it has a lot of different cuisines in one location. 
SM Southmall (205,120 m²)
It was big before it was renovated; now, it's huge! I haven't been to this mall for many years because the traffic going to and from is heavy most of the time; I couldn't stand waiting in traffic. When my sister used to figure skate in this mall, the skating rink looked really big. But after seeing the ice at the Mall of Asia, I think that the present rink in Southmall either looks really small; either its size shrunk during renovation, or I've just seen a bigger one to compare it with.
Ala Moana Shopping Center (200,000 m²)
I visited this mall with fellow graduate school students back in 2008 when we were all attending the AACC International annual meeting in Hawaii. I don't remember much about the department stores since it's been a long while, but I do remember enjoying walking in it because the corridors inside the mall were lit naturally by the sun. The outdoor mall was also a good place to walk in. The only experience that I didn't enjoy so much was eating the poi at the food court. I heard that it's what people traditionally eat. For someone who's used to eating rice, the texture of the poi is something I need to get used to.
Del Amo Fashion Center (200,000 m²)
This is the closest tourist spot to the hotel I stayed at in Torrance CA... for someone who has no car. The sheer size of it requires someone to allot one day to explore it or chop the trip there into shorter doses over several days. I chose the latter because I found the interior of the mall to be a bit too dark for me. It reminded me of the Quad in Makati back in the 1980s, before it was renovated and is now known as the Glorietta. The outdoor shopping area is another story. It reminded me so much of Ala Moana, actually. It's sunny outside (conducive for shopping?) and is where some of my favorite clothing brands are located... plus my go-to southern California afternoon snack bar for the week I was there: Jamba Juice.
Sunvalley Mall (130,000 m²)
Another one of the dark malls in California. Even in daytime, I felt like it's late in the afternoon inside. I haven't explored the whole mall yet. But my trips going to this mall has always been pleasant because I'd go there with my family. I didn't mind the rather dark interiors too much. (The malls in the Philippines are so well lit inside that I lose track of time inside... I even feel surprised if it's dark outside!)
Lakeside Shopping Center (89,800 m²)
I guess that when you've been into one shopping mall everything else looks similar. Still, I was expecting something quite different from this New Orleans shopping center. Maybe because the Louisiana cuisine is unique or because the state is known for its musical roots, or maybe because I've always associated New Orleans with voodoo and Halloween is approaching. I did see some stained glass decorations and tiny figurines about New Orleans in the gift shop but I didn't feel so much of the festive atmosphere New Orleans is famous for. 
Broadmarsh Shopping Center (45,000 m²)
My first encounter with this mall was when I was searching for the bus that I could ride to get to the University of Nottingham. It was an interesting walk: I was pulling my luggage on cobblestone roads, still not believing that I landed in England in winter clad in summer clothes! I was looking for road signs but there were none; so it took me about half an hour to locate the bus station in the biting cold. But that didn't dampen my mood; nor did the gloomy weather. I was in England, after all; what student attending a conference would not take on such an adventure? My next trip to the mall was when I had intended to see Robin Hood's statue near the Nottingham Castle. Since the sun set too early for my afternoon walk, I settled on visiting the mall instead. The  architectural style in the surrounding area made me feel like I traveled to the past but the mall's interior reminded me that I was indeed still in the present.
Have I had enough of shopping malls? There are times when I feel that I have. During these times, I stick to grocery stores and supermarkets and then prepare home-cooked meals. But groceries and supermarkets are another story altogether.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Farmers are businessmen too

The people who produce the food are the ones who remain poor.
This was one of the messages delivered during the opening of the World Food Day celebration at the Asian Development Bank (October 15-16, 2012). I think it was ADB Regional and Sustainable Development Department Deputy Director General Woochong Um who said it. Data presented by Humnath Bhandari in IRRI during the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia Review (GRiSP) showed that 51% of the Asian population works in producing the food and yet contribute only 8% of the gross domestic product. The segment of the population that works in the farms are also steadily getting older and females are increasingly taking over.

These points got me asking: Why do farmers remain poor? Are they selling their harvests short? Are agricultural research think tanks doing enough to get these farmers above the poverty line?

Thinking that farmers need to increase their income through high-yielding varieties only is far too simplistic, I learned. From what I understand about the law of supply and demand, the increased supply of food crops actually keeps the price down, not really helping farmers get more income out of the land. Prices really couldn't be raised so high to help farmers either, because most consumers won't buy produce that is too expensive. Moreover, inputs needed to maximize harvest (like water, fertilizer, and pesticides) are getting more expensive; these may actually make agriculture a non-profitable enterprise. 

Farmers, it seems, have been given a double-edged sword.

The solution to farmers' poverty has to be more holistic. They are not just food producers; farmers also have to be seen as entrepreneurs, as profit-oriented enterprises, according to Al Schmidley. They have to learn the ins and outs of food economics. As such, they need to learn how to create and to use business models for post-harvest processes. Through business modeling, farmers learn how to project profit, predict where the risks most likely will be, and attract the money needed to initially fund new post-harvest technologies... basically, Al Schmidley and his group are teaching farmers how to make their food-producing business profitable and sustainable.

Land preparation stage for a grain quality field experiment.
Kuya Jun and Kuya Roldan surveying the field.

Farmers as businessmen. This concept may change the way rice scientists view the rice farmer. As I see it, the high-tech aspect of agriculture is no longer the only bait to capture the next generation's attention. Hopefully, the young entrepreneurs can see farming as a business as well AND get interested in venturing in it. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

got to believe in MAGIC

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


During the 2012 Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, the youngest speaker (Nonoy Bandillo) talked about MAGIC

No, MAGIC isn't about wizardry and witchcraft at all, it turned out. MAGIC stands for Multi-parent Advanced Generation Inter-Cross. Mr Bandillo explained that several of rice varieties were cross-pollinated with other varieties at different combinations. In this way, genes that are desired from the different parents are pooled (hopefully) into permanent mapping populations.

Now I understand a bit. That's a benefit of sitting in a session about a topic that I have limited knowledge on.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

the sight outside the GRiSP lecture halls

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


While it's stimulating to listen in to continuous scientific discussions during the 2012 Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, it was definitely a challenge to sit through several technical sessions end-to-end. I guess I would succumb to "conference fever" if it weren't for the well-timed snack times.

Out by the lobby were several posters about rice research being conducted in IRRI.  After hearing the technical presentation, these posters helped listeners digest the information in its more easily understandable form.

Interested in rice science? Here, take your pick.

Monday, October 15, 2012

GRiSP-Asia finds its place under the sun

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...

Opinions and insights written here are my own. :)


Current director of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, Bas Bouman, said it best as he welcomed everyone to the first day of this year's Asia Review week: "Our specific niche is the development of science-based solutions." International rice research organizations -- representing rice-growing countries in Asia, Africa, and in Latin America -- are harnessing science and technology developments to help farmers, along with research and extension partners, through GRiSP. 

In the three days of the Asia Review, scientists from the International Rice Research Institute presented highlights of all the exciting things they have done in the past year. All of them, indeed, are science-based innovations leading towards -- if scientists' models and assumptions are proven correct -- the alleviation of poverty, the conservation of rice diversity, the protection of the environment, and food security.  

For farmers, the scientists demonstrated the benefits of mechanized approaches to farming and to research. Imagine, being able to get data about the rice plant in the field by using a machine. That makes characterizing plants so much easier! Or how about planting rice? A machine that automates the process is available on the ground as well. Weed removal, a perennial backyard garden problem for me, can become mechanized too! Scientists also showed smartphone applications that act as decision-making aids for farmers in terms of when to plant, how much to put and how to time the application of fertilizers. If there's a shortage of extension workers in a location, all the farmer has to do is call up the application and get the information he/she needs to keep the rice plants healthy until harvest. If the farmer doesn't have a smartphone, he can still use the voice-prompt version of the application. Innovations in post-harvest rice processing methodologies were also presented by scientists. Different types of dryers that help farmers dry their harvests more efficiently have attracted farming equipment companies; so even after the project has ended, farmers still reap the benefits of new technology.

For policy-makers, strategists, breeders, agronomists, and other researchers, the scientists presented highlights of work conducted in understanding worldwide patterns of plant diseases, temperatures, drought, flooding, and consumer rice preference, among others. Color-coded maps were highly informative because they indicated where opportunities to help, and to study, are. Aside from maps, rice monitoring platforms were introduced; one of which has even caught the attention of the Philippine government. The amount of data that the scientists have crunched to come up with all these color-coded maps and databases for monitoring systems is simply astounding!

For breeders, the scientists showed the progress of developing new and improved rice varieties. New genes have been located; new breeding methodologies, promoted. These new technologies are supposed to produce rice with high yields and of acceptable cooking and eating properties while being resilient in the face of pest and diseases and despite the changes in environmental conditions. Plus, these rice varieties are supposed to be Earth-friendly too.

GRiSP-Asia has indeed found its place under the sun. It has proven its capacity to develop new or harness existing technologies to improve the rice plant and its ability to grow in increasingly challenging conditions. That's quite impressive too since it's been around for only two years. While the science is fascinating and the innovations address farmers' needs, I had this feeling that somehow, the research outputs (apart from the post-harvest innovations) are quite separate from farmers. Maybe it's because the presentations were technical (is this what they call 'upstream research'?) and probably because I have only been to a rice farmer's field once and really don't know what's really going on in rice farms. I was having trouble with the thought that if a subsistence farmer were listening to the presentations, he/she might not be able to appreciate what all these scientists are doing for them. As Phil Abrahams, at last year's GRiSP science forum, said: "Scientists are not necessarily good extension workers." 


Will farmers be able to afford the modern field equipment? Photos from the presentations suggest that a lot of farmers in different parts of Asia still perform very hard, back-breaking labor to till the small land they farm, particularly the subsistence farmers. Will the technologies presented in this year's talks address their needs?

Could farmers afford the smartphones and the data service (if required) to run the mobile phone applications? This question implies several assumptions, which I'd ask about: Do the target farmers have access to electricity and to mobile phone service in the first place? Do they have the time and the energy to learn how to use a smartphone when a number of them might not even be comfortable reading the manual? Do they prefer to talk to an automated multiple-choice-answering-system over the phone or to an actual extension worker right there on the field?

But still, my one visit to a farmer's field taught me not to bunch all farmers into one stereotype. So while I have assumed that the farmers IRRI is helping have small fields and may not have the resources or the conveniences needed to use the technologies developed for them, I may be wrong.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

an old microscope

One of the more challenging things for me in high school and in college was looking for specimens under a microscope. My main difficulty back then was finding a strong enough light to illuminate the specimens; in some microscopes, the mirrors couldn't focus light onto the slides (because they're dirty or the hinges were loose) or the light source itself wasn't really good (weak sunlight thanks to cloudy days and shade from trees or the indoor lighting of the laboratory itself). Viewing specimens became even more problematic when samples were very small, like bacteria, because more light was needed to be able to look at specimens at high magnifications (at the x1000 level for the microscopes I used back then).

Then, I wonder: what was it like for Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke in the 1600s when they used the earliest and crudest versions of the microscope to look at plant, fungal, and microbial cells? Or for whoever used the microscope now enclosed in a glass case (below)?

antique microscope

I'm sure the microscopes back then were not as powerful as the compound microscopes I used back in college. And yet, these men, and others, pioneered the study of a world too small for the naked eye to see. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

New Orleans fare: the subway sandwich

During my five-day training in New Orleans in September, I got introduced to two submarine sandwiches originating in the United States. Karen and Jeanne, my teachers in the laboratory, made sure that I tried these subs while I was there. The third one happens to be my go-to food when I don't know what else to eat. Before this trip, I thought that the submarine sandwich came only from Subway, the restaurant. Now I know better. :)

Hello, po' boy: While munching on my po' boy one lunch break, I just had to ask why the sandwich was called a po' boy. According to my teachers, the po' boy used to be what "poor boys" had to eat in the old days. However, the po' boy has gained quite an acceptance that its target market is no longer limited to the poor boys. Just as an illustration, Zimmer's Seafood in the Gentilly neighborhood had a long queue both at the ordering and the pick-up counters. And there's no sitting area inside or outside the venue -- no tables, or chairs; the establishment is more of a take-away counter.

Inside the po' boy: I got a 1/2 "half-dressed" turkey po' boy. Karen calls it half-dressed because it has all the good stuff inside (tomatoes, pickles, and lettuce) but for the mayonnaise. All that yummy goodness surrounded by a baguette that's crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.

A tongue twister: \Moo-foo-let-tah\. That's how I pronounced it when I first talked about my third submarine sandwich. Hey, that's the way it's spelled! But my pronunciation was corrected right away. Apparently, there are many ways locals pronounce it: \ muf-uh-luh-duh\ was one and \muf-uh-LOT-uh\ was another; there are other variations. One thing's for sure: the spelling, and the many pronunciations, indicate that the French were not the only influence to New Orleans cuisine. The Italians were in New Orleans too.

Inside the Muffuletta: Karen brought one on my last day in her laboratory. It's a sandwich that I had to try, she said, particularly because of the olive salad inside. The mention of olives in a salad in a sandwich got me interested. :) The loaf reminded me of croissants. But the comparison stopped there. I likened the muffuletta to a folded pizza slice but without the tomato paste: cheeses, slices of different types of meats (sausages, ham, pepperoni...), and that infamous olive salad. Karen was right, that salad was so good! It made the muffuletta different from other sandwiches. Now, I wonder if I could make that olive salad back home or if I can buy one ready made in the grocery...

Subway sandwich
The 6-inch turkey sub (with jalapenos, olives, and other veggies, cheese, and some sauce) meal was my staple for lunch and dinner on the home run stretch leading towards my thesis submission in 2008. Afterwards, I rarely ate at Subway since there's no branch close to my house; but if I pass by a branch and I'm not in the mood to try a restaurant I haven't encountered before, I eat there.

When I finally settled into Rose Manor Inn, I found out that a few minutes' walk from there is a Subway branch! It's the only food brand I recognized among the stores on that block (well, there's Walgreen's, but it's more of a grocery than a restaurant), so that's where I got my first dinner: the turkey sub (as usual). Because the sub was so huge, I had to split it into two and made two meals out of it.

Yup, I had three types of sub sandwiches in five days. Did I miss eating rice, like what happened in 2006? This time, I can honestly say that I didn't miss eating rice because I had been taste testing different types of rice all day. The sandwiches actually gave some variety at meal times. I don't think I'll make the switch and become a sandwich eater anytime soon though.

Friday, October 12, 2012

on reducing rice's carbon footprint

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


Rice is one of the most important food items in the world. It is eaten by the majority of the human population. The sheer size of land dedicated to rice production is said to be a major contributor to global warming.

When I first learned that rice farms -- a traditional sight in Asia -- is a source of the greenhouse gas methane, I was nothing short of shocked. As a grade schooler, I had thought that the involvement of plants in agriculture surely made it an Earth-friendly endeavor.

But no. The rice farm, particularly the irrigated type, produces a lot of methane due to the decomposition of plant matter thanks to anaerobic bacteria (the ones that thrive where there's no oxygen... like under the water in irrigated rice paddies). Because of methane emission, the rice paddies are considered to have relatively high carbon footprints.

How then do rice scientists reduce rice fields' (and grains') carbon footprint?

In the 2012 Global Rice Science Partnership Asia Review, scientists from different fields of study at the International Rice Research Institute highlighted some technologies that could help mitigate methane emissions in the rice fields. Here are three of them:

Alternate wetting and drying. In this technique, the soil is irrigated and allowed to soak for several days before it is dried to a certain level (as indicated by a pipe inserted in the ground which monitors the groundwater level). Then it is flooded again. According to the talks I listened in on, the shorter time spent in flooded conditions, the less methane should be generated by the field. But another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas) is released once the flooded fields dry up. One of the speakers assured the audience, however, that the way fertilizer is applied can help reduce the emission of laughing gas.

Dry-seeded rice. Another way of reducing methane emissions is to not flood the land for so long. Actually, by using the dry-seeded rice technology, scientists aim to hit two birds with one stone: (1) reduce methane emissions and (2) address the water shortage issues (since the fields will depend more on rainfall, right?).

Green Super Rice. No, the rice grains aren't green. The 'green' in this super rice is in it's ability to thrive in the toughest landscapes. That means that it will live healthily with minimal fertilizer and pesticide application and can easily compete with weeds! It can live in drought conditions too. Varieties that are considered green super rice have been developed through conventional rice breeding.

So, will these three Earth-friendly technologies actually stop greenhouse gases from giving rice a bad name? Only the future can tell. In the meantime, what ways can we, rice eaters, do to reduce rice's carbon footprint?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Science "reporting" at its fastest

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


It all began with an email from the Govinda Rizal, the current president of the Association of Fellows, Scholars, Trainees, and Residents in the International Rice Research Institute (AFSTRI), sent an email about a search for volunteers who would like to use their social media capacities to blog about the talks at the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review. I've been writing about scientific meetings that I go to, so I thought, why not? I'd be attending the GRiSP sessions anyway. Surely, this endeavor would keep me awake in the sessions. Plus, I find blogging about things a good way to gauge if I had understood what had been discussed. After all, Albert Einstein did say:
"If you can't explain it to a six-year old, you don't understand it yourself."
Thus, I signed up.

This is the first time that I participated in live-reporting at a scientific conference/meeting via Twitter. I learned soon enough that it wasn't as easy as professional journalists make it seem to be! Quick thinking, sharp listening skills, and fast typing hands (on a computer keyboard or on a mobile phone) are all required to be able to get what the speakers say into the web in (almost) real time.

Here's the challenging part: the topics being discussed were not exactly easily understandable (for me) because these aren't my fields of study. There were topics that were Greek to me (like eddy covariance), that made me dizzy with all the complex equations (there's this slide where the only equation I recognized was the ideal gas law!), and that had acronyms that conjured images of onomatopeias and wizardry (like SNPs and MAGIC).

But that's not all. After getting an idea of what a speaker was talking about, it's time to simplify that even further for a non-technical audience (like Albert Einstein's six-year old) AND write it on Twitter in 140 characters or less. Sounds tough? Did I mention that it's supposed to be done in real time? Like in less than two minutes?

I was live-tweeting (via the web) during the presentations of the people
involved in GRiSP Theme 5: Targeting and Policy.

Don't get me wrong. This has been one of the most enjoyable mental exercises I've been in. I don't think that my brain has ever been gripped by GRiSP as it had in this year's review sessions. For instance, I wasn't particularly keen on attending entire technical sessions on soil science and on genetics last year but I sat through some of them this year. And I learned a lot of things just because I was there, I listened, I digested information, then I tweeted. 

I think I'd do this live-tweeting gig more often! :)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Spotlight falls on young (or early-career) scientists in this year's GRiSP sessions

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


In past scientific fora that I had been sitting in, I've noted that it's very rare to see researchers and scientists in the early stages of their careers attending and participating in discussions. It was even rarer to see them actually presenting in front of audiences. 

Two years ago, high-level scientists (past and present) from the International Rice Research Institute sat down together to talk about the future of international agricultural research. They discussed the very real problem of who will remain in the field as agriculture becomes more knowledge-driven. But I guess they were also looking for ways to help fledgling scientists (including me) to grow.

Then 2012 came. Things are definitely getting stirred up this time. If the first two days of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review are any indication, it looks like budding scientists are encouraged to take their careers off to the next level by no less than the Deputy Director (Research), Achim Dobermann. Several of them (us) took to the stage to talk about their groups' research outputs for the year. 

And that's not all. IRRI also harnessed the young ones' knack for embracing new technology, particularly of the social kind. Tech-savvy researchers took the scientific discussions from GRiSP to a larger audience through social networking sites and blogs. #GRISP2012 may not have trended on Twitter the past two days but it did catch the attention of people interested in agriculture and in rice research. You can't get more real-time (aside from live-streaming) than that! 

Exciting things are surely in store for the up and coming rice researchers at IRRI. Here's to looking forward to more opportunities for the young ones in the future. :)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

a bit of sight-seeing in New Orleans

streetcar trackThe Rose Manor Inntree-lined road in New Orleansa steamboat on the bank of the mighty MississippiCathedrale Saint-Louis, Roi de FranceBourbon St flags
wall art along Bourbon Ststickered street signA French Quarter classic: the hotdog cartWelcome to Bourbon Street, New Orleans' party placeDusk settling in at the French Quarter, New OrleansNew Orleans was colonized by Spain too?
Street performer dancing to Michael Jackson on Bourbon Street, New OrleansCity Park, New Orleans

New Orleans 2012, a set on Flickr.
Via Flickr:
Some photos from my trip in the Crescent City. All taken relatively late in the afternoon in September 2012. It's amazing that in here, the sun's still up close to 7pm. :)

Thanks to Karen, Elaine, and Casey for showing me around the Crescent City. I absolutely enjoyed seeing the place. :)

Rose Manor Inn, New Orleans

Home away from home. That's what I call the Rose Manor Inn, the bed and breakfast that I checked into during my stay in New Orleans. This is the very first time that I stayed in a bed and breakfast, I think. The tripadvisor and yelp reviews of the inn were all right!

The Rose Manor Inn
The Rose Manor Inn
What makes the stay in Rose Manor Inn a very pleasant experience is the people behind the inn, the owners: Ruby and Peter. During my stay, they gave tips about where to eat and where to buy groceries and souvenirs.

Aside from the hospitality extended by the owners, I absolutely loved the room they assigned to me. It's quite big and it's charming. Lots of yellow lights to cast a warm glow to the interiors and to the paintings hanging on the wall. The room's spacious enough to have a couch and a coffee table!

My room in Rose Manor Inn
The Inn's living room

The one thing that surprised me was that the inn is supposed to be in the Lakeview district of New Orleans but I couldn't see the famous Lake Pontchartrain from my room's window. I guess the location's name fooled me once again! This is just like when I was in Cebu City with fellow IRRI Grain Quality staff to attend the 2011 Philippine Chemistry Congress at the Waterfront Cebu City Hotel and Casino. I thought we'd be right beside one of the pristine beaches Cebu is famous for. But I was wrong.

I was alone during my first breakfast at the inn. But on succeeding days, I started meeting the other guests at breakfast. I guess having to share one breakfast table with other people allowed all of us to have a chat with each other before we went our separate ways. And that's another thing that I liked about staying in the Rose Manor Inn.

I thank Dr Karen Bett-Garber for recommending the Rose Manor Inn to me when I was arranging for accommodations in the area. I wasn't a tourist in New Orleans during this visit though; I was a trainee in her laboratory. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

a 27-hour trip: New Orleans

(27 hours later, it's still) September 10, 2012. New Orleans.

I finally arrived at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport late in the afternoon. This was the first time that nobody was picking me up from a US airport, I realized as I collected my checked-in bag and went on to queue for a cab. And it got me thinking: a lot of overseas-based Filipinos have a penchant for bringing balikbayan boxes whenever they go to the Philippines in lieu of wheeled luggage. When they fly back to foreign lands, how do they manage to move their boxes from the baggage carousel to public transportation, or to their own vehicles, if nobody's picking them up in the airport?!

Anyway, I arrived late in the afternoon but the sun was still bright outside. The cab driver was explaining that the airport wasn't really in New Orleans and we were going towards the city. Downtown New Orleans came into view on my right as the cab went into a more residential area. 

A few minutes later, I arrived on the front porch of my (first) home away from home, Rose Manor Inn.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

a 27-hour trip: Detroit

September 10, 2012. Detroit.

If my calculations were correct, I had been traveling by land and by plane for the past 21 hours because I left Calamba at 3:00am and I arrived in Detroit at 12:15pm (which is 12:15am, September 11th in Manila). Oddly enough, if I just look at the departure and arrival times without considering the time changes, it appeared that I've traveled around nine hours only! That never fails to amuse me. One more thing: the sun was up in Nagoya; the sun was also up in Detroit. If I weren't taking note of the time, I'd think my flight only took a few hours!

Anyway, my stop in Detroit was the second time I was at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. The first time was when I flew from Detroit to San Francisco after my cousin, Rico, got married in 2008. This time, though, I was entering the USA in Detroit and not flying domestic. And just like my experience in Los Angeles back in 2006, I had to collect my checked-in luggage at the bag carousel before I checked them in again for the flight to New Orleans. Take note: I didn't have to pay for my domestic flight checked-in bag :)

The express tram at the terminal is one of the main attraction (for me) at the airport. I didn't ride it this time, though. I thought it would do me some good if I walked to the boarding gate after I got through immigrations and cleared customs. After all, I'd spent most of the time in the plane sleeping in a sitting position. Walking would get the blood flowing properly before my next flight. 

I arrived at the gate an hour before my next flight. While waiting for the boarding call, I met group of fellow passengers that came from Manila on the same flight that I was on. They were also going to New Orleans; but unlike me, New Orleans was just another layover for them because they were going to Mississippi.

One more flight and I could rest. Couldn't wait to get to New Orleans!!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

a 27-hour trip: Nagoya

September 10, 2012. Nagoya.

About four hours later, the Boeing 747-400 started descending into the Chubu Centrair International Airport. It was a good, peaceful flight. I had spent most of the time sleeping (because I hadn't taken a nap since Sunday evening) or watching movies using the Delta Airlines' entertainment-on-demand amenity. 

Based on past experience, I thought that passengers going into the next leg of the flight typically stayed in the plane as those leaving at the stop disembarked. I was proved wrong, however, when all passengers needed to get off the plane and clear security one more time.

The wait at the boarding gate was shorter than what I've wanted. I would've finished reviewing at least one of the papers I brought with me (whose deadlines were approaching) had I been given at least two hours in the waiting area. But the flight was leaving in 30 minutes so I didn't finish one of my layover tasks. Not to worry, I thought, I'd have time while en route to Detroit. After all, the flight should be at least twelve hours, right?

Alas, sleep overtook me again; partly because I was sleep deprived and also because the entertainment-on-demand on my seat wasn't working properly. When I woke up, the plane was flying over the western coast of Canada already. A few more hours and I'd be landing in the USA.

Monday, October 1, 2012

a 27-hour trip: Manila

September 10, 2012. Manila.

Since the first leg of my overseas journey was scheduled to fly a bit after 6:00 am, I had to be at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport pretty early. And so at 3:00 am, my trip from Calamba to New Orleans began.

As I walked with my luggage into the terminal, I was relieved to see that there was no queue at the first security check (as people enter the departures area at the airport). The guard, however, dampened my happy mood by mentioning that the Delta check-in queue was already long inside.

If the check-in queue at Delta was long, the line snaking towards the immigrations counter was even longer: so many pre-dawn flyers and only three immigrations officers were on duty as I took my spot in the queue. After some time, the queue moved a bit faster as more officers opened more counters; just the same, I wasn't able to eat breakfast before take-off.

But before I say that this trip was off to a slow start, let me put a positive spin on things. Thanks to the long queue and the long minutes of waiting, I learned a good thing about trolley laptop bags: they are a big convenience when walking and waiting in airport terminals. Because I was pulling my trolley bag most of the time, I didn't get the back pain that I used to get when carrying my backpack. I don't think my backpack will be seeing a lot of travel anytime soon because of this. 

My trip met a few snags early on, but as I walked towards the departure gate, I thought that the actual traveling bit was finally off to a good start.

Next stop: Japan!