Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in a nutshell

2014 has proved to have a hectic start. For one thing, January barely ended when I had to face three trips and I wasn't home alone for most of February. I realize, however, that I am such a small part in the overall scheme of things. So now, I list events and activities that make 2014 a unique year.
  • Dr Achim Dobermann, IRRI's deputy director general for research, bid farewell (for the second time) as he gears for a life back in Europe. Dr Matthew Morell takes over his post.
  • Ukraine faces political turmoil as Russian military troops enter in response to a crisis.  
  • Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared into thin air shortly after it took off. Investigations, search and rescue operations, and hypotheses about this fateful flight have been flooding news channels daily. Some say the plane crashed somewhere along its original path while some say there is evidence pointing to a change in course. I am hopeful that the plane is found and the passengers are all accounted for soon.
  • Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago visited IRRI during the International Women's Day celebration on March 11. Trust her to bring in the laughs while talking about politics, the economy, social welfare, and women. I was truly entertained during the event. 
  • People going up Mt Banahaw on a pilgrimage in March decided they wanted to light candles. Hello, brush fire! Without any rain coming for the next few days, the firefighters faced a big and dangerous challenge of quelling the fire on this sacred mountain.
  • A total lunar eclipse happened on April 15th. Unfortunately, the sky was hazy and mountains blocked my view of the first of a series of lunar eclipses. Judging by the beautiful pictures in websites, this one must have been a spectacle to see. Oh well, better luck next time to me!
  • Friends of mine graduated from General Medicine, Nursing, and a fellowship in Cardiology. Two nieces and a nephew have graduated from grade school and college. A very very good way to start 2014 Q2, indeed. :)
  • U.S. President Barack Obama visited the Philippines in April. I wasn't paying too much attention to the news coverage because that's when I was working on many technical papers or was cooking at home.
  • Pope John Paul II became a saint. That was fast... Really fast!
  • My post-doctoral fellowship ended. But not without me realizing that my circle of friends has grown immensely.
  • I took up wakeboarding this year... and I'm teaching myself how to use iMovie and GarageBand for video post-production.  :)
  • The FIFA World Cup happened. Germany emerged as the winner and I was told to stop gloating when my brother's team lost though he was gloating when my teams fell off the rung one by one. Sore loser.
  • I started teaching at the Ateneo de Manila University. 
  • Another Malaysian Airlines flight (MH17) fell off the sky, this time shot down somewhere in Russia or Ukraine. It was a bad day for medicine because among those killed were HIV experts en route to an AIDS conference.
  • Typhoon season kicked off with Rammasun. Now we watch as low-pressure weather disturbances start lining up, as if queued in a shooting range, with the Philippines in their sights.
  • Robin Williams, one of the most well-known comics, died in August. Two of my favourite movies of his, Jack and Dead Poets' Society, ironically, are not laugh-out-loud funny.
  • I took up flying trapeze this year... and loved it!
  • Another total lunar eclipse happened in October and I dropped everything to be able to watch it from the best seat on campus: the middle of the road where there were no trees close by to block the view.
  • Juan Flavier, one of my science and communication heroes, died in October. His slogan, "Let's DOH It!", was one of the snappiest one-liners I've ever heard.
  • The "Olympics of Rice", the International Rice Congress, was held in Bangkok, Thailand. I was an exhibitor and a member of the press!
  • Man has successfully landed a spaceship on a comet! Sounds very Armageddon to me. I Don't Want to Miss a Thing was my earworm for several days after the news broke.
  • The Philippines is bracing for a strong typhoon yet again! Supertyphoon Hagupit (known locally as Ruby) packed winds at 100–185kph and struck the Visayas and Southern Luzon in December. Certainly not like the monster Typhoon Haiyan was but people were ready this time: we now know what storm surges are and are more receptive to evacuation orders. The good news is that Tacloban, seriously hit by Haiyan, was spared.
  • NASA successfully launched Orion, a spaceship that will eventually bring exploration to a new level: deep space. Someone's going to Mars!! and someone's going to make the visual feats that are Chris Nolan's Interstellar and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey come true!!
  • Another plane vanishes from the sky. In late December, an AirAsia plane (flight 8501) lost contact while en route from Indonesia to Singapore. This year proves to be challenging to airlines. Still, statistics show that air travel is still the safest mode of transportation.
What a year. 2014 was a challenge accepted. 2015 will yet be another challenging and exciting year. Keeping my fingers crossed and seat buckled for the new roller coaster ride.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

RIP, Patches. :(

Patches, one of the cats which call my home their home too, died yesterday sometime after I left the house. 

He's been seriously ill for a few weeks already. First, his appetite decreased and he increased his water intake. And then he showed signs of a skin condition and a big reduction in weight. Anna had a vet check him out and I've been giving the cat a medicated bath daily plus medication, as per doctor's orders. Patches began to appear as if he was recovering a few days into the medication... but that was only until I noticed that he started becoming constantly disorientated and losing his balance while walking to his food and to his water bowls. It was all downhill from there.  

Yesterday morning, I observed that Patches was struggling to walk for his daily morning greeting. He was so quiet, sun-bathing. He came to the food bowl but didn't touch his food. I realised that the end was near, alarmingly near. That made me worried and sad but I thought I'd still see him in the evening when I arrived home.

But no. When I got home, there was no cat running over from the garage. No meowing from the laundry area. The welcome party that I had come to look forward to every night wasn't there. I was met only with silence. 

Patches had passed away on the garden where I had seen him in the morning, sun-bathing.

Good bye, guardian of the labada and of the car windshield. I know your healthy in cat heaven now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Space, the next frontier

One, I still can't stop thinking about the awesome visuals and the genius juxtaposition of the musical score in Interstellar

Two, I believe that space exploration is ready to go into leaps and bounds again. After all, probes were shot and successfully landed on a comet... yes, ala Armageddon; but without the end-of-the-world premise. And NASA has launched the Orion spaceship a few days ago. It looks like someone's going to Mars!!

Three, astronauts and cosmonauts who currently fly on space missions have caught the attention (albeit maybe not as much as during the Apollo programs) of many people, particularly because of the stunning images of Earth they transmit back to us from miles up in the atmosphere.

Thus, when I stumbled upon two videos about space exploration, I thought it's a good idea to share them. The first video is about what astronauts captured while in the International Space Station. It shows stunning images of the clouds, lightning, city lights, and auroras as the ISS glided by. This is real life! The second video, on the other hand, is a mash-up of cinematic takes on what space exploration looks like. Yes, images may be fiction now, but these could be the reality in the future. For all we know, humans might start living in eternally spinning space stations someday, as tourists or as colonisers... just like in the story of the spaceship whose holes have been plugged with bubble gum

So, without further ado, here's All Alone in the Night (by David Peterson) and Cinema Space Tribute (by Max Shishkin)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2014)

Back in 2006, two French post-docs introduced me to Australian culture by projecting "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" on their terrace house's wall. It was an opportunity for me to see the Australian outback (which I knew I wouldn't see as a student) and alternative lifestyles (blown up to extravagant proportions). It was fitting that I'd see it that time, while residing in the very cosmopolitan suburb of Newtown, Sydney: lots of members of the LGBT community, students from the University of Sydney (where I first enrolled for graduate school), and artistic individuals with brightly coloured hair. Definitely a lot of things to bewilder a sheltered provincial girl from the Philippines who went to live in a city far away from home and family for the first time in her life. Culture shock!

So, when I heard that an adaptation of the movie, entitled Priscilla, Queen of the Desert The Musical, was being staged in Manila, I decided to watch it, for nostalgic reasons. Together with me at the Newport Performing Arts Theatre for the second gala show, were Kor, Annette, and Ate Nancy. It was girls' night out and instead of only one probinsyana, there were four! 

The cast was superb; the men in drag (and in Roman togas) were beautifully led by Jon Santos, Michael Williams, and Red Concepcion. The soundtrack, as always, was lively and engaging... brought back memories of me walking along King Street, late at night, to go back to the post-docs' home (they provided a room for me during my studentship in USyd) to the tune of "It's Raining Men" blaring nightly from the Newtown Hotel (yes, nightly! as if it's the only song in the world!). The door was kept open every performance night thus the flamboyantly dressed female impersonators on-stage (yes, I picked a term from Priscilla) were quite easily visible from King Street. It took two Sydney trips and an explanation from my professor for me to get that the Newtown Hotel catered, at that time, to the gay crowd. Now, the venue has been revamped to entertain a wider audience, as I understand it.

The theatre's LED backdrop for the musical featured scenes from the Australian outback, plus glimpses of Sydney's landmarks: the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, both of which I've visited as a student during my walking tours of the city. I've never been to Uluru/Ayers Rock, a UNESCO Heritage Site; or to Broken Hill, a mining city; or to the opal capital of the world, Cooper Pedy. But the movie allowed me to see these places for the first time and the musical allowed me to, sort of, relive that experience...

Including the most uncomfortable of them all: watching the portrayal of the Filipina as a one-dimensional character: an exotic dancer that became a mail-order bride, with very poor English communication skills. Maybe the movie just needed an Asian stereotype and got a Filipina by chance; maybe the producers encountered this Filipina type in Australia and generalised all Filipinas as such. I still don't know. Nevertheless, this character upped the shock value even further for me back when I saw the movie and drew the laughs of the live audience of the Manila staging.

What a fun, fun night! The rainbow-coloured sprinklies and icing on the very pink cake: Kor and I were picked by a cast member to dance and I got my playbill signed by the leads as well. Oh, and I got close to the orchestra pit too (where there were Korg Kronos music workstations... my current keyboard pales in comparison to those).

A photo posted by Rochie Cuevas (@rochiecuevas) on

A photo posted by Rochie Cuevas (@rochiecuevas) on

A photo posted by Rochie Cuevas (@rochiecuevas) on

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rush (2013)

Music is one factor that draws me to keep watching a movie on cable tv; particularly a movie that I've never watched before. In this case, it was the sense of urgency evoked by the score of Rush (directed by Ron Howard) that got me hooked. No; the music was not like the typical soundtrack associated with race car movies. Definitely very distinct from the themes of Gran Turismo (the video game) or of The Fast and The Furious movie series. And it was surely different from the music I've listened to when I wandered accidentally into a car show in UPLB. However, the feel and the visuals of the movie showed what it's like to be amid the frenzy of a race track.

Anyway, the story is about two rival race car drivers vying for the championship in the 1976 Formula One Grand Prix, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Their attitudes towards racing contrasted the other; Lauda was calculating the risk of each of the races he participated in while Hunt raced as if that day was the last. Their rivalry began when they were still racing Formula Threes and reached a peak when Lauda, the current champion, got seriously injured in an F1 race car fire at the German Grand Prix. That accident sidelined him for six weeks as doctors treated him for burns on his face and in his lungs. Hunt, who was running behind Lauda, used the latter's downtime to gain points he needed to finish on top of the Grand Prix. At the end, Lauda retired at the Japanese Grand Prix and Hunt won that year's championship, making them equals. Their lives took different paths after that: Lauda became an aviation entrepreneur and an F1 champion once again; Hunt went into sports broadcasting and died soon after.

I may be weird, but I couldn't help but compare Rush to Cars and to Top Gun. In all three movies, there was bitter rivalry between the leads. The difference to Cars is that there was no love lost between Lightning McQueen and Chick Hicks. In Top Gun, on the other hand, Ice and Maverick earned each other's mutual respect at the very end (when they had to fight off Migs somewhere over the ocean). In Rush, Lauda revealed that Hunt was one of the few people he respected. In fact, the movie even suggested that Lauda and Hunt inspired each other to be on top of their games, or in Lauda's case, to get back into the race car after that death-defying accident.

So back to the music...

Listening in, I felt at home with the theme; as if I've heard the style before. It was, mind you, never overpowering or in your face. The score fit in so naturally in different scenes. Lo and behold! as the credits rolled, I learned that Hans Zimmer composed the orchestral music. No wonder I liked the orchestral piece. Come to think of it, some of my favourite movies have his name on it! The Lion King, Broken Arrow, Inception, The Rock, The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Frost/Nixon, the Nolan Batman trilogy... You name it and he's probably the composer behind the superb musical score. ^_^

Well, I had thought I knew Hans Zimmer's musical style... Until I listened to his work in Interstellar. That man has a lot of diversity in terms of musical direction. What a genius!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When the going gets rough, whip out the camera!

"Just when the conditions get difficult, that's when adventure photographers get their cameras out."

– Cory Richards, Masters of Photography course (National Geographic)

My adventures tend to be tame, if we compare them to National Geographic standards. However, I particularly like what Cory Richards said in his photography course because there are times when the conditions are suboptimal for photography so I miss good photo ops. And by suboptimal, I only mean that the conditions are too dark, too bright, too windy, too dusty, too slippery, too salty, or dangerously close to the water... any condition that could damage my gear (what gear??? the only add-on to my camera is my trusty tripod). 

There are times too when my stubborn self decides to go take pictures anyway despite the risks to my camera. And the resulting pictures, though not at par with professional shots, are pretty amazing to me. If you find them to be bleh, it's okay. I'm just happy with how they turned out.

For example... 

I wanted to see the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. So one night in 2014, I went despite the cold and strong winds that tempted me to just look and to not photograph the building anymore. 

Waterfalls, one of my favourite subjects. In 2010, I revisited one of the first waterfalls I've jumped into:
Daranak falls in Tanay, Rizal and was having a dilemma: jump or take photos? 

I've taken up wakeboarding and watersports photography in 2014. Saltwater poses a risk to my gadgets. Here, Matty is one heck of a difficult subject to photograph, with all the jumps and carving he kept doing in Tingloy, Batangas.

At some point in 2009, I dabbled into wildlife photography. It was challenging to get the animals to
look at me and it was scary to have them, particularly the big and fast ones, chase after me!
This beach in Laiya, Batangas took a few hours to reach by car plus a few minutes of walking in 2009.
The trip led to some of the bigger waves I've captured so far. What a view!
Biboy and I knew that to get a great shot of the Grand Canyon we had to be literally on the edge. This photo was
taken in 2011, back when we both still didn't have the common sense to stay in the middle of the foot path.

To get to the vantage point of this 2011 picture of a beach in Bauang, La Union, I had to free climb a rock and find a good, stable stance... with an injured foot, mind you. Going up was fine. Going down, a different story altogether.

Typhoon Basyang (international name: Conson) made driving, walking, and cleaning up
a big challenge in Calamba City. Laguna in 2010.

Typhoon Glenda (international name: Rammasun) left my grandma's house in
Padre Garcia, Batangas and my heart in tatters in 2014.

During one of my all-day, anti-homesickness urban adventures in Sydney (2006), I ended up on the Harbour Bridge, overlooking the Opera House with the moon rising behind it. I momentarily forgot that I had walked all day.

As a result of all these adventures, my DSLR has aged pretty fast (the instant camera for the Sydney picture has retired). Compared to my brother's still shiny, flawless, and brand-new-looking camera (they're the same model), mine's corroded, scratched, salty, and battered. AND, my camera is still working. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

I've always been fascinated with space exploration; it began when I was introduced to the possibility of going to an outer space colony and using bubble gum as a plug for holes made by tiny rocks floating in space, colliding with the space ship. That fascination was even more strengthened when I started learning about the NASA test pilots who pushed the limits by going to the Moon and back... with the most dramatic of them all, Apollo 13, being my favorite story.

And so I was very curious about Interstellar, a film starring Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, and Michael Caine (among others) and directed by Chris Nolan. Of course, one motivations to see this film is Chris Nolan... I'm a fan of his works (his Batman trilogy, Inception, The Prestige...).

It began with a very bleak worldview, very similar with Transcendence, as I understand it: the world is going back to its less high-tech roots. In the case of Transcendence, it's about going off the Internet grid; for Interstellar, it's all about people going back to agriculture. I had the impression that people, in the Interstellar context, were facing severe food shortages due to plant diseases so farming became a highly valued career but an extremely difficult one. The situation was so bad that space scientists, driven underground by lack of funding, decided that the most viable solution was to establish human colonies in planets that appear to have conditions conducive for human life. These scientists had sent a few individuals into outer space to explore various planets and transmit data to Earth. Because the trip to these planets took years, the scientists designed a hibernation system to prevent the explorers from getting old too fast. Test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) and biologist Amelia (Hathaway), among others, then had to go to the most viable of these planets and awaken the explorers up. Of course things didn't go as planned and they risked their lives in inhospitable otherworldly conditions... in an effort to save themselves, Cooper ended up in an extra-dimensional space where gravity could be used to communicate with his past self (and his daughter thought that she was feeling ghosts), where time was a physical object (in the form of strings), and which was believed to have been made by aliens. Amelia continued on with the mission of establishing colonies in one planet while Cooper was somehow brought back from this strange dimension into an established space station. His daughter, who became a scientist, was older than he was when they met one last time, thanks to space travel being equated to time travel....

As always, impeccable movie... signature Chris Nolan. A visual masterpiece, I think. The music was composed by Hans Zimmer but it was so different from the style he maintained for the Batman series and for Inception that I didn't recognize his work. Unbelievably otherworldly genius!

I am amazed at how Interstellar affected me mentally and emotionally; I needed some time to process what I saw before I can make opinions about it. It's very rare to get a movie do that to me... but Nolan has done it three times! I felt as if the story wasn't over... there's something more but it was going to happen after the last of the credits has rolled off-screen. 

First off, I was thrown off with how quiet outer space was... in contrast, space scenes in Apollo 13 (the movie) was mostly filled with chatter between Houston and Odyssey (or Aquarius). For me, the silence in Interstellar was almost like the peace and quiet of being underwater in a swimming pool... Knowing, however, that sooner or later, this quiet would be shattered because I need to take a breath... The peace and quiet of outer space was definitely broken when the spaceship entered the wormhole; when the astronauts landed in the inhospitable planets; when a scientist, bent on completing the mission, became willing to sacrifice his colleagues' lives.

Then there's the food security angle... after all, I have ringside seats to see the best rice scientists work at getting enough food to the table despite increasingly challenging conditions. I was in disbelief with the idea that agriculture is not dynamic---that people think that it's a field that has little scientific input. It is scary and outrageous to think that humans, who (I assume) would've been permitted to use genetic engineering and precision crop breeding tools as a last resort to prevent famines, failed to use the best of science and technology to develop food crops that are disease resistant. I'd understand the situation if it's food shortage related to a catastrophic event which is one-time, sudden, and severe. But crop susceptibility to blight?!? My heart felt for the people living in such difficult state, wishing that it will not occur to anyone in real life if science can help it and politics can make things move. My brain, on the other hand, was screaming: Come on!! What were all the crop breeders in the public and the private sectors doing?!? There's a market for disease-resistant crops and these people weren't planting these crops!!! I might have missed something in the narrative at the very beginning of the movie, though. I was dumbstruck, but was forced to accept the scientists' approach to this food security problem: establish colonies in outer space (where there's even less chance of surviving). 

Connected to this was the movie's take on the future of education. It was backward and with a lot of denialism. Apparently, in the Interstellar world, teachers claimed that the Apollo space program really didn't land men on the Moon. That, I think, kept students' dreams grounded... except for Cooper's kids, of course. It's one thing to have a different interpretation of information; it's a different matter altogether when historical facts have been twisted to match some invisible propagandists' world view. If space exploration was basically denied in the curriculum, it's not a far stretch to think that these educators had also denied the usefulness of science and technological advancements in crop breeding (if it was being practised at all in the Interstellar crop fields). Tsk. If this happened in real life, say hello to homeschooling, kids! 

The thing that struck me most in the movie is this: Love came into the picture, seemingly out of the blue. Amelia described the astronaut she loved as remarkable, as an excellent scientist, as the most courageous man she knew. Seriously?!? It didn't sound like she's in a relationship with the guy... it's more like she admired him from afar and that they didn't know each other. I couldn't grasp how someone could describe his/her significant other in such impersonal terms. Even Temperance Bones, who is so logical at her most romantic scenes in the tv series (hence, my favorite tv scientist), still shows warmth when her husband, Agent Booth, is in the scene... or is the topic of conversation. This gave me pause: if I were in her shoes (because I'm also in the sciences), how will I describe the guy I'll end up with (when I'm asked about him)? Hypothetically speaking, he'll be the guy who'll make me smile and make me feel at home and safe... like I'm drinking steaming hot chocolate milk with marshmallows on a really cold morning. But who knows?

I'm sure I have missed quite a few details on my first watch. I ought to see it a few more times before I understand parts of the movie. It's certainly very different from Armageddon: no heroic guy sacrificing himself to save the world from an oncoming asteroid. No epic end-of-the-world romance. No moving music by a rock band to increase the movie's impact to the audience.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

a case of mistaken identity

Talk about embarrassing!

I was watching an episode of Extras, entitled "Samuel L. Jackson" one evening. That episode dealt with Andy's (Ricky Gervais) stint as an extra in a film being shot with Samuel L. Jackson. It also featured how Maggie (Ashley Jensen) mishandled communications with a mixed-race actor about race, leading to bad and comical consequences. The way she put herself in that situation was certainly embarrassing but what made me shake my head in disbelief was what came next: She talked with Jackson the following day, mistaking him for Laurence Fishburne (who definitely is NOT Samuel L. Jackson!). 

Disbelief, yes, because mistaking actors for other actors was one thing I did too! If not recognising Craig David when I was right beside him in Glorietta 5 or not recognising Manny Pacquiao when I saw him surrounded by his bodyguards in Ortigas weren't embarrassing enough...

A few years ago, I was at Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth lecture at the SMX Convention centre when I bumped into a celebrity. I recognised her because her face was always on the society pages of newspapers. She smiled when I said hi and got her first name right but her facial expression turned sour immediately when I said the wrong surname. I knew I should have stopped at the first name!

Oh well.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

at the Caliraya Resort Club

I had the opportunity to visit the Caliraya Resort Club one more time this year. Previously, it was with Ate Madie and Trisha and we went there out of curiosity one summer afternoon. Other times I've been on the lake, I've been learning how to wakeboard. Therefore, this last visit (my second day in Caliraya for this visit, actually) was my first time to roam around the resort and take photos early... as in right after sunrise, when very few people were up and about. Perfect time to take photos of flowers, dew, bugs, and maybe the view. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

No running in November...

My right foot got injured exactly a month before my only road race of 2014. Being the stubborn girl that I am, and despite my friends saying that I'm not supposed to run yet, I still hoped I'd be ready and healed by November 16th. Race Day. Maybe, they just didn't understand that I needed the motivation to get my foot ready or something. In any case, I knew that if my foot wasn't ready, I wouldn't do it. Healing takes time; it's not something that responds to a deadline set without considering health factors...

So, instead of lugging a heavy heart, I heaved a sigh of relief when the organizers of the road race announced, via email, that the race has been moved to March 2015. That was one race I would have surely passed on if it pushed through. And now, there's a possibility that I can run in it! 

Before I got injured, most of my November weekends were filled with sports activities: wakeboarding on the first weekend; running on the second weekend; surfing on the last weekend. But somehow, they're all turning into duds: bad wind conditions in Anilao for wakeboard weekend; scratched-off running event and a cold for the second weekend; postponed surfing weekend. 

God's obviously giving signals and I think it is this: 

You better listen, kid. You've been benched for high-impact sports for the meantime. Go have fun doing something else. Bawal ang makulit.

Ok, I hear You. Loud and clear.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bon voyage, Nelzo!

Nelzo's moving to Cambridge! So on one of his last days in the Philippines before he left, he had to attend (yet again) to a send-off party for him. This one's at Dalcielo's with Rizza, Kuya Rhulyx, Ate Mers, and Jo.

He has a pretty hectic schedule so we totally understood when he had to leave us after he ate. That didn't mean we left, though... We continued the send-off party after he left! 

Have a safe trip and I hope you enjoy your stint in England! There are no good byes among friends; see you soon!! (But not too soon... Get settled in England first.)

                                     (Nelzo distributing the butter pecan-flavored ice cream)

(Before the ice cream)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Matty's over-reminded 33rd birthday :)

He calls my 2014 birthday "over-celebrated" because I had a week's worth of birthday parties coinciding with the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. His birthday this year, I am calling the "over-reminded" birthday because my mobile phone and laptop decided that I had to have not one, but many, alerts! 

I'm sure I've been pressing the Close and not the Snooze button so I was really getting puzzled as the day wore on.

Alert #1: Day before his birthday (did I get the age wrong???)
Alert #2: Closer to midnight, as I was reading social media coverage of an event I was involved in earlier in the day.
Alert #3: Seriously?!? But I've greeted him twice already!

The story of my November 11 this year could be summed up by a Monty Python-inspired birthday card:

My computer and phone were so excited about his birthday... more excited, even, than for my own 33rd birthday last July!!

He was so excited and happy about his birthday, that I can say so myself. And I am glad that I was able to contribute to this happiness by helping him organise the venue for the most insignificant of birthday numbers (he always jokes that the 33rd birthday is the most insignificant of the lot). We initially reserved 10 seats for dinner at the Black Pig, one of my favourite restaurants in Alabang; but by the time we left Los Baños, the group had grown to 15... and by the time the evening ended, I think the group further grew (Val brought a few friends along). Oh, and there's quite a selection of rosé wine too. These made for one very happy boy.

Once in the restaurant, the group got all excited with settling at the table and with looking at the menu that I had a very easy time to slip away and to talk with two of the restaurant's investors, Berna and Anton. They were very accommodating when I first ate at the Pig and I felt instantly at home. It also helps that the other investors, Tricia and Steve, and the head chef, Carlos, had visited the lab after I've eaten there, making me even more at ease with the place. Since then, I've been eating there whenever I had a chance. 

And since we're celebrating a birthday, they were up for sending a present to our table. Over lunch earlier in the day, Matty had thought that he's finished with the surprise gifts. Little did he know that the Pig had more. The dinner surprise came in the form of pumpkin risotto as a starter for everyone and a chocolate praline with a candle on top for him.

The dinner, as always, showed what a genius Carlos is in the kitchen. The food was just excellent! Everyone had a good time at the Black Pig, judging by the wide grins and full bellies. 

Alas, all good parties must come to an end and everyone had to go their separate ways. In this case, we left past 10pm. As I was entering my car, my phone beeped once more. Yes, it was yet another reminder that it's Matty's birthday, less than two hours before someone else started celebrating his/her birthday. Seriously.

An over-reminded birthday indeed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mag-biotech ka na!

Many years ago, I was seated at the Havener Auditorium listening to scientists talk about the future of international agricultural research. Given the date of that discussion, it's a question about who's going to continue tilling the land six years from now and beyond.

I have to admit that I surprise myself a lot of times. Barely a year after sitting in that discussion, I found myself talking about being a scientist in my very first career day (either as a speaker or as part of the audience) event for high school students, as part of efforts to encourage students to pursue agriculture as a career choice. Somehow, I've made it a point to grab opportunities that can help encourage kids to give science careers a second look... after all, I'm living my first-grade self's dream career, that of becoming a scientist.

The most recent career day event I got the privilege to be part of was aimed at encouraging students to take up agricultural biotechnology. It was part of the celebration of the National Biotechnology Week in the Philippines.

(Photo grabbed from Aileen's Facebook post)

Since my sprain was still bugging me, I opted to sit down rather than remain standing during my talk. And I just really talked and interacted with the students: No slide decks. No handouts. No lectern. Just plain story-telling. Pretty much, it's like practising what Garr Reynolds was saying about the naked presenter... although I did it unintentionally (or at least not knowing that this was what I was doing until I came across his blog post).

I hope that I have actually encouraged kids to at least consider taking up biotechnology as a career path with my story. After all, they are the future scientists and the future food-producers of the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bangkok food trip: Gelato Vintage

Fish. Otep and I were looking for live, swimming, colourful fish. 

When we disembarked the BTS SkyTrain at Udom Suk, we followed how we understood the instructions and ended up in a wet market that sold freshly caught (and ready-to-cook) fish. Not willing to give up, we ventured further into Udom Suk. During the hunt for the goldfish, we became very hungry and so every food item we saw looked delicious... but nothing tempted us to actually stop except these glorious brightly coloured gelato in tubs. We just had to take a break, reward ourselves for finding the fish, and try them out!

These mouth-watering treats were being sold in the aptly named Gelato Vintage. As usual, the first person I had in mind as Otep and I entered this shop was Man because he's always been the food trip buddy with a good eye for food photography. Knowing Man, however, I knew that he was somewhere else in Bangkok, taking his sweet time to take photos of his meals. 

As Otep and I were looking at the selection of gelato, we bumped into two Germans interning at the Mercedes Benz facility in Bangkok. We all faced the challenge of communicating which flavour we wanted to try and then which we've decided to buy because the ladies behind the counter had difficulty understanding us. But in the end, I got my stracciatella gelato and everyone else got their own ice cream. And the flavour I got, it's delicious! Although I was expecting the gelato be less creamy... but never having been to Italy, I don't really know what gelato should be like.

Aside from the gelato, I liked the vibe of the place. A lot of pastels, indoor plants, and bright lighting evoked a happy feel to the restaurant. It's almost has the same feel as Vanilla Cupcake: I was back at the Mad Hatter's tea party in Underland.

I can easily imagine little girls drag their dads to eat gelato here or drink tea here with dainty tea cups. In my case, I convinced Otep. Hahaha! Poor guy had to endure the girly theme (because we didn't find a more suitable place to rest) after enduring the hour-long walk in search for the fish.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bangkok food trip: Royal Dragon Restaurant

Second evening in Bangkok.

The day was exciting. It's my first time to go behind the scenes of a major event in the field of rice sciences: I helped prepare the IRRI exhibit; I went shopping for goldfish with Otep; and I toured the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre (BITEC). Oh, and I grabbed one of the very few opportunities I had to see what I can of the city when Otep and I got lost in Udom Suk and when I went shopping for supplies for the exhibit. 

The next time I turned around to look through the glass wall of BITEC, all I saw was darkness. Evening had fallen and it was time for dinner! I joined the Comms Team at the Royal Dragon Restaurant, a few minutes' walk from BITEC. Nothing prepared me for the size of the restaurant. Let's just say that it is only the BIGGEST restaurant in the world! Even the signage by the road is huge! I thought we were eating atop a tall building because of the sign.

This is the biggest restaurant in the world and it has a Guinness World Record to prove it.
It reminded me of Isdaan, the most grandiose restaurant I've eaten in so far in the Philippines. Both restaurants occupy sprawling spaces that it'd take a long while to get to a table, and that's when you know where you're going... it's highly possible to get lost in both restaurants just because of their sheer sizes. But I knew that the Royal Dragon Restaurant was the bigger of the two just by judging the parking space. Imagine, the spaces allocated were for buses, not for cars. Oh my goodness, we were eating with busloads of people... there must be a crowd at the entrance as everyone waited for their group to be called.

The parking space of Royal Dragon Restaurant is so long!

Nope. Despite the busloads of people, the crowd at the entrance seemed smaller than I had expected. Maybe that's because everyone who ate there had to have a reservation or there's plenty of space for everyone who wanted to eat there.

Facade of the Royal Dragon Restaurant. Even with the number of diners, it didn't feel crowded.

So this was what Kuya Boyet was talking about: the Guinness Book of Records plaque was awarded to the Royal Dragon Restaurant for being the biggest in the world. According to the marker, this place could seat 5,000 people. Oh my, that's about half the audience of a sold-out concert at the Araneta Coliseum!

This is the champ of giant restaurants.
I've always wondered how in the world could such a giant restaurant deal with so many diners. For the Royal Dragon, the waiters skated from kitchen to dining area. And that's no small feat, balancing a tray and all. Plus, there must be several kitchens scattered in the vicinity because I couldn't imagine one kitchen dealing with 5,000 guests at any one time, particularly with the wide selection of food on offer... the menu has at least 1,000 dishes from different cuisines.

One of the many kitchens.
As Kuya Boyet, Paul, and I walked into the dining space, I slowly understood how 5,000 people could fit in such a restaurant. Aside from the buildings for various functions, Royal Dragon also had a sprawling al fresco dining space. It was a great dining area, as long as it didn't rain.

Al fresco dining areas.

Finally, we were finally able to join our group in a private banquet space. There was a lot of food served that night. It was nothing short of a feast! The food was delicious. It was distinctly Chinese cuisine, reminding me of family gatherings at Ding Hao and at the Mandarin Palace. I enjoyed the Royal Dragon dinner despite not being able to try half of what we ordered (thank you, seafood allergies... I just had to see the food). Just don't ask what they were; I didn't get the names of the food.

The Comms Team pre-conference working dinner feast.
Dinner quickly became a meeting (despite the distracting off-tune karaoke singer outside) as everyone talked about final preparations on the night before the International Rice Congress. The Comm Team's energy was infectious! It looked like everything (and everyone) was ready. 

And so I parted ways with the team at the end of the dinner. It was such an experience eating at the Royal Dragon. I ought to return here when I visit Bangkok again. But still, I couldn't believe that I've been in the city for two days but I haven't gotten off the beaten path, food-wise. 

I really should've gotten myself a Lonely Planet guidebook...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Happy birthday, Biboy!! :D

My baby brother has joined us in the 30s. Not quite a baby anymore, surely, but still the youngest in the brood of three. Welcome to the club! Since Anna and I couldn't be there with you on you special day, I made a photo slideshow for you. :)

Monday, November 3, 2014

#IRC2014: Listening in on scientific sessions...

Since my main assignment in this year's International Rice Congress was in the IRRI exhibit, I got to attend only a few sessions in the latest IRC, held in Bangkok. My notes took the form of tweets, resulting from my live-tweeting assignment for the week. Now that I've got some spare time post-conference, I round them up and try to make sense of them. Here goes...

Glutinous rice is a fabric of life in Asia. —PSattaka
When I was a grad student, my research work focused on understanding starch properties of glutinous rice, or what Filipinos call malagkit. This type of rice has a rather small market (~2%, according to the presentation) since it is mostly used as a base for desserts and food for special occasions in the bigger parts of the world. Indeed, it is a food that binds Asians together culturally. But in a relatively small part of the world, mainly in Lao PDR, northern Thailand, and pockets of Indochina, glutinous rice is a staple. Yes, the consumers there eat glutinous rice with meat, fish, and vegetables. At the IRC, research on how to increase the market share of glutinous rice was discussed, noting that to do so requires creativity. Also at the IRC, I learned that glutinous rice originate in many other parts of the world, not just in mainland Southeast Asia, based on the country sources of the collection stored at the International Rice Genebank.

Green Super Rice is like Superman. —MMarcaida III
I've attended participatory varietal selections over the course of the development of Green Super Rice in the last two years. My main role there was to conduct sensory evaluation activities with consumers (in this case, rice farmers). Man, on the other hand, was part of the group that look at how resilient these rice plants (measured particularly by yield, or the amount of rice that can be harvested) are in environmentally challenging conditions: low fertilizer input and water scarcity. Based on his presentation, I got the impression that not all Green Super Rice plants were created equal: some responded better to environmental challenges than the yield benchmark; some performed at subpar levels. I learned, in this presentation, that it is not enough to have the genes for certain characteristics. In the Green Super Rice context, the genes equip them with the capacity to perform. And perform they must, at least as well as the standard... otherwise, they're eliminated. Sounds like a beauty pageant, no?

Even the most extreme anti-climate change activists don't smash thermometers. —MLynas
But those who oppose the development of genetically modified food crops are destroying field plots in which studies about these crops are being made. Here's the thing: if scientific experiments are being destroyed, how can scientists prove (or disprove) and address the food safety concerns being raised by these anti-GM crop people? If these crops turn out to be safe to eat, how can the food reach people who need them the most (probably NOT the anti-GM crop people who can afford to eat balanced diets) if fields are destroyed? During the presentation, I learned that it's not all about the science. There's a bigger world out there beyond the laboratory and this is where the movers and shakers of society influence the type of scientific endeavors people engage in. Powerful people who write off GM crops as unsafe will be difficult to convince, even if the data is staring at them in the face. Media practitioners who are always on the lookout for headliners can cause widespread rejection of these cutting edge crops by sensationalizing failures and not highlighting breakthroughs. Scientists, therefore, have to get out of the lab and see the bigger picture. How can scientists encourage people to not fear GM crops? I think that that's the arena in which scientific communicators can shine very brightly.

If it's more expensive, it cannot be sold. —VSriprasert
That is true, unless a product is specifically designed to be a luxury good. In the case of rice, the goal is to ensure that it is available and affordable for anyone (regardless of social class) who wants to eat it. I remember one of the questions during a long exam in my Biotech class: with all these technical inputs, do you think that genetically modified rice will be more expensive than regular rice? I guess a similar question can be posed for any newly released rice variety as its development most likely required the services of highly educated people and the use of the latest technological platforms. In the presentation, the case of rice grown in highly mechanized fields of the USA was mentioned. The rice harvested there are more expensive than rice grown in labor-intensive fields of Thailand. If both are set side by side on a grocery shelf, which one would a consumer most likely buy? I lost track here: Was the presenter shunning farm mechanization or asking the audience to find means to make this approach a cheaper way of producing rice?

Lots of interesting presentations, indeed. I didn't expect anything less. After all, the IRC is the olympics of rice science.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bangkok food trip: Pizzeria da Luigi

Thailand is known for its cuisine. I was raring to eat real Thai food in Thailand as I've only tasted versions of it in San Francisco, Sydney, Los Baños, and Manila. One of my favourite dishes in cooking class, Thai beef salad, features the right balance of different tastes; and it is exactly this balance that I was looking forward to experience when I landed in Bangkok.

Since it's my first time in the bustling city, I figured that it would be a good idea to eat my first meal with Matty, who had been in Bangkok before. Meeting him was quite a challenge because I discovered that the hotel I was staying at, the Heritage Hotel, was not as easily accessible to train transportation. I had to take a cab to go anywhere in the city, which was the reason behind a crash course in how to speak English with a Thai accent (thanks to the hotel's concierge).

Once we've met, Matty and I started looking for a place to eat. Out of habit, I took photos of sights along Sukhumvit Road–bread crumbs that Hansel and Gretel can use to guide them back home, if you will–just in case we get lost in a city where English communication is a challenge.

Sukhumvit Soi 21. The Asok SkyTrain station runs atop Sukhumvit Road.

I was open to try hole-in-the-wall type restaurants so I kept pointing at those but my dinner partner was quick to dismiss them because there were only a few patrons (which, in any city, may mean that the food wasn't worth queueing for). A few minutes later, I first got a whiff of a very familiar smell. No, it wasn't of Thai food. I smelled the smoky aroma of pizza crust! I really must have been hungry because I smelled food at least a hundred metres away... the restaurant was behind a building on the other side of the road!

Pizzeria da Luigi, the restaurant I was able to smell from the other side of Sukhumvit Road.

The owner of the restaurant, Luigi, popped out of the kitchen to greet us and to discuss the best options for first-time patrons of his restaurant. While we waited for our pizza, Luigi and Matty exchanged stories about Napoli, a place Matty has been to, Luigi has grown up in, and I've never visited. One day, I'll be able to visit Napoli, but in the meantime, I was content to listen to them talk about that part of Italy.

Waiting for our pizza orders.

Lucky for us, the rain that began as soon as we arrived in Bangkok had dissipated by the time we sat for dinner because we opted to eat in the courtyard. There were flowers in elevated pedestals everywhere! Maybe there was a wedding reception previously. Or maybe that's just how the venue was decorated. I was confused with the vibe: was this a casual dining restaurant or a more formal one? But judging by the salt and paper shakers, I decided that I'd be allowed to hold a pizza slice with my hands while eating it... no need for forks and knives.

Plastic horned cows for salt and paper shakers. Okay, this is definitely casual dining.

Finally, our pizzas arrived! We were both famished! The black olives pizza was delicious but might not have been the best on the menu. Maybe I should have tried the pizza Luigi had suggested. Nevertheless, I loved how generous the olive portion was on top of pomodoro and mozzarella. Matty, who's been to Italy, proved to be quite a pizza foodie... he always jokes that a good (or is it great?) pizza comes from restaurant with a dirty kitchen and a rude owner (he struck out on both criteria at Luigi's). He was looking for certain pizza characteristics and he didn't get them from the pie he ordered.

An Italian dining experience is never complete without dessert so I thought I'd go for panna cotta, a dessert I fell for the first time I tried it in Dalcielo's. The version in Luigi's however, was just heaven in a cup! Strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, and raspberries provided a tangy and textural contrast to the milky goodness found underneath. Yum!

Heaven in a cup. Enough said.
As I mulled over my first meal in Bangkok, while sitting in one of the city's well-known evening traffic jams en route back to my hotel, I wondered when I could try authentic Thai food in my very short stay in this cosmopolitan city. That was still a mystery.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Heritage Hotel Srinakarin

After spending half the day in transit, I arrived at my home for the next week: the Heritage Hotel Srinakarin. It's not easily accessible, unlike the other hotels fellow participants in this year's International Rice Congress are billeted in. However, the location held a lot of promise. I was relatively close to a huge shopping mall and to street food that have made Bangkok a go-to place for foodies. As the cab drove past the neighbourhoods, I became excited... the community surrounding the hotel is definitely worth exploring. But that's a different story.

The hotel wowed me as I entered my room. Look at that! It's so homey! The picture behind my bed was just beautiful. Aside from the giant bed, I also got my very own balcony... the view wasn't impressive, because my room was way too low to see the skyline, but it gave a bird's eye view of the residential neighbourhood. The lighting was so relaxing I almost didn't want to leave on my first night there! Alas, I had to go for dinner, so I had to leave it as soon as I had unpacked. Settling in, I thought, would happen as soon as I came back from dinner.

My room when I entered. Reminded me of my hotel room in Los Angeles.

My misadventures in Bangkok stemmed from relatively remote location of the hotel. I got lost quite a few times and ended up in a different parts of Bangkok, unintentionally touring the city, while the cab driver searched for my hotel. 

Despite these misadventures, I still looked at my hotel wistfully during the wee hours of the morning as I was pulling out of the driveway. The hotel contributed to lots of good memories (including those bloopers) of my visit to Bangkok and my participation at the conference. 

The bright interiors welcomed me home every night... never failed to cheer me up after nights of detours.

One of those good memories is finally being able to eat Thai food in Thailand! Yes, I ate Thai food in the convention center, but eating in the hotel somehow made the experience more real... maybe because my food was so spicy I had to pair my dinner with Oreo cookies. Not kidding! The staff also made my stay very memorable because they are so friendly and helpful. 

Indeed, this was home away from home for me.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

#IRC2014: I know those people in the telly!

Late at night, after the opening ceremony, I started flipping channels back in my room. I settled on a local channel because there were no English channels. So with the ambient noise in check, I started reviewing Twitter posts about the event and catching up on unread messages.

Hang on... was that Dr Matthew Morell's face? And then there's Dr Bruce Tolentino! And the other faces... those were sitting in the front row of BITEC's grand hall earlier that day. The local late-night news covered the opening ceremony! (In Thai, of course, so I didn't understand anything.)

Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough... I was watching the telly but I forgot to take a picture of the screen. 

A few days later, I was back watching a local telenovela, albeit not understanding a word of what the actors were saying, followed by a news clip (I think). 

I know those people, AGAIN!!! 

The clips were taken at the IRRI exhibit. Wow! The International Rice Congress really was getting some media coverage! :) And that's an example of how important rice is to the Thai people: An event, in which scientists from all over the world discuss rice, makes it to the news.