Monday, July 31, 2006

Digital Video Editing tutorial

I'm running a short two-hour tutorial on digital video editing using Kino, FFmpeg, and vcdimager this coming Saturday, August 5, 9:00am to 11:00am, at the DTI office. This is also the long-delayed third meeting of the Oriental Negros Linux Users Group.

Obviously, this workshop is only available to Dumaguete residents. Please sign up in the comments field below, if you are interested.

Some details on the software:

  • Kino is a non-linear DV editor for GNU/Linux. It features excellent integration with IEEE-1394 for capture, VTR control, and recording back to the camera. It captures video to disk in Raw DV and AVI format, in both type-1 DV and type-2 DV (separate audio stream) encodings. This is the main tool I use for the actual editing.

  • FFmpeg is a complete solution to record, convert and stream audio and video. It includes libavcodec, the leading audio/video codec library. FFmpeg is developed under Linux, but it can compiled under most operating systems, including Windows. I use FFmpeg primarily for conversion.

  • GNU VCDImager is a full-featured mastering suite for authoring, disassembling and analyzing Video CD's and Super Video CDs. This is what I use for creating the actual VCDs. It's also great for ripping VCDs for, er, archive purposes.

    It's not as complicated as the descriptions here make it sound.

  • Featured Blogger

    I'm the featured blogger on Manila Bulletin's Blog-o-Rama for this week. Thanks to Ajay for featuring me. Below is the original text of my response.

    Please tell us something about yourself.
    Ouch. This is always the hardest question to answer. "Who am I?" is an ongoing process of discovery and maturation. Currently: I'm a bicycle bum, a part-time pharmacy manager, and an aspiring writer. Not the most lucrative of career paths, but I can afford to do it right now after a ten-year stint in IT consulting. I'm also involved in community development in Dumaguete, working with schools and the NGOs to bring new investments into the city. Linux and open source remain my advocacies, though, and I write regularly on these subjects for PC Magazine.

    Why the title "Village Idiot Savant?" When did you start to blog? Did anybody influence you?
    "Village Idiot Savant" is a play on words, combining "village idiot" and "idiot savant." Why the fascination? Forrest Gump, mainly. "Rain Man" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" also had their influence. I've fancied myself a little autistic -- well-developed intellectually, poorly-developed socially. Then there's the romantic attraction of being a Fool: innocent, yet honest.

    "Sketches of a Village Idiot Savant" was the title of my first personal web site (on Geocities) in 1997. Plain HTML, a real chore to manage, so it didn't last too long.

    I wrote a simple blogging engine in 1999 to host my columns "Linux Links" for Philippine Daily Inquirer and "Rational Technology" for a local Dumaguete paper. It's still accessible from

    I started my current site,, in September 2004.

    Why do you blog?
    I'm a very poor correspondent, even through email, so blogging is my way of keeping in touch with friends, letting them know what's happening with me. This is especially true now that I live in Dumaguete away from most of my gang. It helps that many of my friends also blog.

    It's also a means of self-expression. Sometimes there's something that you're just dying to say because you think everyone is missing the point. Blogging is one way of getting my voice heard. Thankfully, that doesn't happen too often.

    What benefits do you derive from blogging? What do you like about this activity?
    It's such a boost to the ego when people you don't know come up to you and say, "Hey! You're the Village Idiot Savant, right? I read your blog." That happened on the first iBlog, and it was very flattering. I'm making connections with other bloggers. It's a great way to meet like-minded people, some of whom I have yet to meet.

    But it also works with non-bloggers. One time, I got a Yahoo message from a woman asking for my help to arrange her and her friends' visit to Dumaguete. This from Googling my blog. No, I didn't make any money from it, but I made some new friends and got to join them on some of their excursions.

    Finally, it helps to shape my thoughts, and to a certain extent, to shape the thoughts of others. Dean Jorge Bocobo is one blogger I admire very much. I was following his pre-blogging work way back when he was still writing for the Inquirer. I didn't always agree with him, sometimes I even got upset. But nowadays, I can exchange ideas and even argue with him. Imagine that. And he's actually a great guy in person.

    On the other hand, anything you dislike about blogging?
    In a way, it's a bit of a chore. Sometimes I wonder what I'm going to blog about. And when I don't blog for a couple of days, I feel a little guilty. It certainly takes up a lot of time, especially for a slow writer like me.

    Sometimes I also wonder about who "owns" my blog. Is it still mine, or is it now owned by a larger and regular audience? If it's the latter, am I constrained to writing about topics they like? So in a way, it becomes something of a performance for an audience, and that's scary.

    And...Adsense. Grrr! I'm still $999,990.00 away from becoming a millionaire.

    Do you still see yourself blogging five years from now? Please explain.
    Ha, ha, of course. Sometime soon, after I meet the right girl, I hope to have kids. Guess where the kids' photos will go to?

    Are you guided by certain principles when you blog?
    I treat blogging as an ongoing exchange with my friends, so I aim for a tone that's friendly and conversational. I also try to be careful with what I say because it is a public forum, after all. If I say something controversial, I ask myself whether I am sure I want to say it. But I also try to keep an open mind: if I'm wrong, I'll say so. Politicians are fair game, though.

    How do you choose which topics to post?
    I write on the things which interest me, and they can be a bit diverse: biking, comics, books, cartoons, toys, Dumaguete, technology, politics, entertainment, the Filipino psyche. That's why my blog does poorly on Adsense, because it's not focused on any one topic.

    Your blogging habits: how do you find the time to blog?
    I try to write in the morning, after my morning biking run to Valencia or my jog on the Dumaguete boulevard. I'm already thinking of what to write while exercising. The actual writing happens during the cool down.

    Then I write again in the evening, if I have time.

    Can you tell us more about your blog design and what platform you're using?
    I use Blogger. Not the most flexible of platforms, but I like working within its limitations. It's quite easy to blog in, too. Plus, it's owned by Google, so the information technically exists forever.

    My blog design is a modified Minima by John Bowman. I like its simplicity. I decided to customize it a bit, though, because I didn't want it looking like a generic blog. Graphic design, unfortunately, is not my strong suit.

    In your own opinion, what are the qualities of a good blogger?
    A good blogger, in my opinion, is someone who explores topics with some depth, and doesn't just relate what's happened or repeat what someone else has said. The writing style should be easy to read, almost conversational, but should not fall into text-ese or slang. And please, not too much angst! I can't stand angsty blogs.

    A good blogger should also be willing to engage his or her readers in conversation. After all, that's what a blog is: a running conversation between the blogger and the readers.

    And, of course, regularity and frequency of posting.

    Your observations of the Philippine blogosphere, if any, in terms of its demographics, growth, and its potential.
    Not counting the Personal blogs, the Filipino blogs on my blogroll fall into the categories of Tech, Politics, Literature and Philippine Travel. There's quite a number of them in these categories, and that's promising. It means there are folks out there thinking about things which define us, which move us forward, and which keep us rooted in our heritage.

    One of the things I'm concerned with is the Filipino identity. I think the reason we're so dissatisfied with ourselves is because we haven't really found out who we are. We haven't really expressed ourselves in terms of heritage and philosophy. Our identity is something that's been imposed on us: by historians, by politicians, by writers, by journalists, many of whom have their own agendas. Against this background, blogs are a liberating tool, because now we can participate democratically into exploring who we really are.

    The challenge is to try to get more people blogging. Blogs are still a largely upper-middle class phenomenon, so there's a large segment out there that still doesn't blog. It's not that they don't have access to the Internet: they do, but they're playing games and stalking Friendster, all in all, very passive stuff. They need to know that they also have something worthwhile to say.

    How would you encourage more young people to blog, and blog with meaning?
    Blogging is really only the tool. The essential activity is writing. And the prerequisite to good writing is thinking. This is going to seem off-tangent, but I really think they should be teaching more philosophy in school.

    But any start would be a good start. Many young folks already take to the Internet like ducks to water. So I would probably take whatever healthy interest they have a starting point and encourage them to start a blog on it in order to become part of a community. It surely helps if they earn prestige points by becoming an authority.

    Finally, the schools: some of the schools I work with are in the process of institutionalizing blogs as means for students to submit regular reports. I think that's also promising.

    Saturday, July 29, 2006

    Commercial break: PSP for Sale

    My good friend Kel is selling his PSP, along with 12 original games. He's even written a wonderful poem extolling its virtues.

    Mabuti pa ang PSP.

    Ang girlfriend, naagaw na sa iyo, nang-iiwan pa.
    Ang PSP, at least, naagaw lang (Kung tatanga-tanga ka.)

    Ang girlfriend, madalas, wala sa mood.
    Ang PSP, laging game.

    Ang girlfriend, pag nagtampo, hindi mo makausap.
    Ang PSP, hindi nagtatampo.

    Ang girlfriend, puwede mabuntis.
    Ang PSP, hindi. Pero puwede mo naman lagyan ng mga video.

    Ang girlfriend, puwede magsawa sa iyo.
    Ang PSP, ikaw lang ang puwede magsawa sa kanya.

    Ang girlfriend, magagalit pag tumingin ka sa ibang babae.
    Ang PSP, walang problema kung tumingin ka sa ibang PSP.

    Ang girlfriend, paglalaruan ka.
    Ang PSP, paglalaruan mo.

    Ang girlfriend, mahirap dalhin sa motel.
    Ang PSP, puwede mo dalhin kahit saan.

    Kaya kung ako sa iyo, bumili ka na ng PSP. 27,500 lang, may kasama pang orig na games! Sa'n ka pa?

    Hmmm. Sounds like I need one.

    Details here.

    Hello? Hello?

    Mine is probably one of the few Filipino households with an answering machine. It's one of my souvenirs from my old apartment in Makati. Ordinarily, it would be quite a handy thing to have.

    Except: answering machines and Filipinos -- especially Dumaguetenos! -- just do not mix. I've tried the typical, polite, and boring greeting of "I'm not home right now, please leave a message" and nine times out of ten, they. just. hang. up.

    Fortunately, I've come across the perfect greeting to which everyone -- and I do mean everyone -- actually leaves a message.

    And the message?

    "Hello? Hello-ooo? Hello-oooo?"

    Then comes the beep, typically unnoticed by callers.

    What follows is usually a befuddled mirror response. "Hello? Hello-ooo? Hello? Wala lagi motubag. Na-unsa kaha ni? Hello? Hello! Hello! Guba siguro ang telepono nila. Hello! Hello! Ay, uy! Wala man. Sige na lang."

    Even if you don't speak Bisaya, you probably get the gist.

    What's that? I don't actually get the name and phone number of the caller? Of course, I don't! But that's miles and miles ahead of my previous response rate, where I got nothing at all.

    Friday, July 28, 2006

    "Meanwhile: in hip hop land, crime really pays"

    Do newspaper editors check the cohesiveness of their entire front page, or do they slap the stories and pictures together randomly like a Rorschach test for us to decipher? The question crossed my mind as I saw the front page of today's issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

    I suppose busy editors really don't have time to consider Gestalt but there was something odd about how the main stories and pictures came together today.

    Blazing across the page, the bold headlines plaintive and accusatory: "WHERE'S P8-B OWWA FUND?"

    Just immediately underneath it: Ignacio Bunye, Arthur Yap, Mike Defensor, and Eduardo Ermita, GMA men down to the last, buffoonishly mugging with hip hop stars Black Eyed Peas. Bunye looked particularly...well...

    I'm at a loss for words. I suppose I'll just have to leave it to the reader to form his own conclusions. Looking at this photo, my mind turns to incoherent mush and the only sound I can think of making is "Yiiii!"

    Hip hop fans will no doubt fulminate, but there's a long association between hip hop culture and crime. Hence the title that I borrow from an International Herald Tribune article. I couldn't help but think how apt it was.

    Gestalt time: Why do these fellows look so happy? Because they've stolen P8-B and they're most likely going to get away with it. That's the first thing that comes to mind.

    Up on the top right ear of the mast, is news that their boss GMA is in the hospital with a bout of flu. You know the old saying: when the cat is away, the mice will play. And remember, these are the very same men who thought what a great photo opportunity it was to have their boss wait for the arriving OFWs from Lebanon, the very same who contributed to the P8-B which is now missing. Maybe that's why they're so happy.

    On the bottom left of the page is a story of even more sinister proportions: another activist murdered, shot at close range, in front of his three children as they were having coffee. This makes it the 114th political murder since GMA came to power in 2001. One less voice against them. Maybe that's why they're so happy.

    Ah, theft, thuggery, and hip hop. The perfect combination.

    And somewhere just a little bit below their raucous souvenir shot, a lone woman, standing forlornly in her house deluged in chest-deep waters. Story: floods linger in 190 Central Luzon villages.

    And meanwhile, gets the Presidential Order of Merit.

    Bumboklaat, fo' shizzle!

    On the Evils of PowerPoint

    Scarcely less than a week and SONA fever has come and gone. The fever has shifted to, well, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's fever. (Following GMA's theological bent, can we now say, "It's God's Will?")

    Village idiot that I am, I am slow on the uptake so I am only now writing tangential entries on the said SONA. No in-depth analysis here, folks; you can look elsewhere for a more profound deconstruction. Instead, I am here to zero in on the SONA's use of PowerPoint.

    Much has been said about this year's SONA being the most high-tech and the most interactive, all thanks to the use of an old albeit ubiquitous piece of office software called PowerPoint. And just like the devil, who is also old and ubiquitous, PowerPoint is also evil.

    And that, my friends, is what I am here to remind you of, so I say it again: Powerpoint is Evil.

    The discovery is not mine, so I'll borrow heavily from its principal author, Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University, who first propounded it in an article for Wired in 2003. Tufte likened Powerpoint to a drug that "induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication."

    Tufte's principal accusation against PowerPoint is its encouragement of a pushy style that seeks to set up a speaker's dominance over the audience. Last Monday's SONA should be proof enough of that. Furthermore, Tufte says: "The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

    Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo styles herself as the country's CEO (and I'll have more to say on that on another post) so it might be apropos to look at PowerPoint in a business setting: information tends to come across as a jumbled mass that does not lend itself to analytical processing. Chartjunk, Tufte calls this, and this lends itself to statistical stupidity.

    Several other experts have corroborated Tufte's findings. In follow-up Wired article, Edward Miller, an education researcher says:
    One of the criticisms that's been raised about PowerPoint is that it can give the illusion of coherence and content when there really isn't very much coherence or content. ....PowerPoint serves largely the same role in the classroom as pre-processed snack food does in the lunchroom: a conveniently packaged morsel that looks good but doesn't match the intellectual or corporeal nourishment of, say, a critical essay or a plate of steamed spinach.

    Miller, of course, was referring to the use of PowerPoint in education. There's no reason that his thoughts can't be applied to, say, the boardroom. Or a State of the Nation address.

    To conclude, we go back to Tufte's observation, which is so compelling that I have to quote him once again verbatim:
    At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -- very loud, very slow, and very simple.

    Sounds familiar? Sonofabish!

    Thursday, July 27, 2006

    Silliman congratulates Ian

    Now, this is something that no other winner of the recently concluded 1st Neil Gaiman Awards is likely to have gotten. Ian, being a resident of Dumaguete and a faculty member Silliman's Department of English Studies, will probably be the only one to have his own streamer of congratulations.

    This is one way Dumaguete schools recognize their achievers. Okay, it sounds a little corny, but it's actually quite touching: it shows you how proud the school and the community is about the achievement of its members. You don't get that kind of caring anywhere else.

    Congratulations again, Ian!

    Wednesday, July 26, 2006

    Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

    As an alternative background to the escalating I am currently reading "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land" by David K. Shipler. It's not a political treatise but a portrait of two peoples locked in a lifetime of misunderstanding and conflict. As Shipler says in his introduction:

    Both peoples are victims. Each has suffered at the hands of outsiders, and each has been wounded by the other.

    I am reproducing, without permission, part of the introduction which outlines the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict. It is a history with deep-set roots for which there are no easy answers, at least not for us who are half a world away with our own problems. Always, the first step is understanding.

    From the book:

    According to Genesis, this was the land that God gave to Abraham and his seed, and some of the Jews of modern Israel have articulated their biblical claim by returning to the Old Testament names of the places they now control: the West Bank Arab city of Nablus they called "Schechem"; the nearby Jewish settlement they call "Elon Moreh"; the West Bank they prefer to see rendered as "Judea and Samaria." Those Jews who rely on the biblical deed to the land take their history from the ancient period of 4,000 years ago, skipping easily over the centuries of Muslim rule that followed; thos Arabs who regard history as their ally tend to begin with the Muslim conquests in the seventh century A.D., blithely ignoring the Jewish kingdoms that existed here 2,000 before Muhammad made his appearance....

    ...The Crusaders murdered, enslaved, or ousted the Jews of Jerusalem, but Jews began to return to the city under the Muslims, and during most of the intervening centuries between ancient and modern Israel, Arabs and Jews lived intermingled or in their own neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius, Safed, and other towns...Not until Zionism evolved as a movement in the nineteenth century -- largely in reaction to pogroms in Russia -- did significant number of European Jews begin to migrate to Ottoman-controlled Palestine. By 1845, Jews formed the largest single community in Jerusalem, the vanguard of an influx that gathered momentum after Great Britain endorsed the creation of a Jewish homeland through the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The migration gained urgency as Hitler came to power, promulgated anti-Jewish laws in Germany in the 1930s, then rounded up Jews in Germany and in the expanding sphere of German-occupied countries...

    ...Local Arab resistance to the Zionist enterprise began well before the formal creation of the Jewish state. As more and more Jews came to Palestine, a communal war commenced. Conducted from Arab towns and villages against nearby Jewish settlements, it fragmented the early Arab-Jewish relationships.... By the mid-1930s, Arabs in Palestine had endorsed the principle of "armed struggle" and in 1936-39 conducted the "Arab revolt", a futile series of riots and killings aimed at breaking the bonds of the British Mandate to block the coming of Israel.

    ...The Jewish Agency, as the precursor of the Israeli government, expressed its willingness to settle for only half of the land. It was prepared to accept a division of British-ruled Palestine west of the Jordan into two states -- one Jewish, the other Arab. The Jewish Agency's partition plan of 1946, followed by the United Nations plan of 1947 internationalizing Jerusalem and drawing boundaries between a Jewish and an Arab state, was less generous to the Jews than the final armistice lines that followed the 1948 war. If one looks today at the map of that Jewish Agency plan, it is a striking lesson in the fickle nature of compromise, recalcitrance, and history. Had the Arabs accepted partition, Israel would have ended up with considerably less territory than it gained through their rejection.

    Gizmo offers free VoIIP to landline calls

    Roughly a year since its introduction, Gizmo Project, an SIP-based competitor to Skype, is offering free VoIP-to-landline calls across 60 countries. The catch: the plan applies when both call participants are registered and active Gizmo Project users.

    Further details on the fine print from an story:

    "Even though you can all over Europe, Asia, and the Americas (to 60 countries and counting), if you want your pals to call you on Gizmo from their landlines, you're going to have to buy a Call In number. (Fret not though, since those cost as little as $3 a month.) Also, in order to call them up they need to have a number registered to an active Gizmo account, which increases the barrier to entry by a bit."

    Still, it makes you wonder about the business model that they have in mind.

    Of Stories Told and Untold

    The last Rational Technology article
    For the past four years, the Metro Post has been part of my weekly ritual, both as reader and as writer.

    As I writer, I came on board -- on the insistent prompting of Danah Fortunato -- at a time when I was already writing a weekly column for the online edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I wasn't quite sure whether I could handle the burden of two weekly columns. It turns out I wasn't; therefore, I dropped the Inquirer.

    It may not be as prestigious as a national daily, but there's much to be said for writing for the Metro Post. I felt that the paper, and I along with it, was making a palpable difference in the life of this university town. It wasn't just a mouthpiece for political ends nor a vehicle for ads. It was reflective of the opinions of the community just as it helped shape the directions of the community. The Metro Post is the community paper of Dumaguete.

    Without reservation, I will say that the Metro Post has been instrumental in my development as a writer. Four years of column space, side by side with columns of the liveliest writers in the city, has that effect. What was originally a charter to write on technology issues has grown into my sounding board for culture, politics, business, literature, travel, satire, and personal reflection, thanks to the forbearance of the Pals, my editors, and yours, the readers'.

    As I received news that this issue of the Metro Post would be the last, I ruefully thought of all the future stories that would never come to be: an all-Bisaya article, a feature on the morning denizens of the boulevard, and some exploration into the oft-misunderstood Filipino sexuality. Writing for the Metro Post has never been a chore. In fact, it's something that I've come to look forward to, a prompt to challenge creativity. Every missed deadline now goes with much regret; there will be no next week to make up for lost time.

    And there's some regret, too, that I will not get to read those untold stories of long-time Metro Post regulars Ian Casocot, Moe Atega, Kristyn Maslog-Levis, Atty. Whelma Yap, Dr. Angel Alcala, Dr. Perry Mecqui, nor the continuation of the stories of new columnists Olga Uy and Macrina Ramos-Fuentes, nor the return of old favorites like Nikka Jo Cornelio and Gilbert Arbon and Cecilia Hoffman, nor other writers yet to come. Like all good writers, they will find other avenues for their words, but it won't be the same as finding them on the pages of the Metro Post.

    Still, it's not the end. Dumaguete needs a great community paper. It's my hope that the Metro Post will come back one day to fill that role again.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2006

    Requiem for a Newspaper

    The news came yesterday by way of email, with an innocuous, generic heading: MetroPost. I don't know why, but I had a sense of foreboding. Just earlier that day, I received an SMS message from Irma, with the gentle reminder that could I please submit my column by Wednesday.

    Lengthy preamble, addressing all the columnists of the paper, past and present. A celebration, perhaps? I hoped against all hope. Irma then continued with an upbeat tone, citing the gains that the paper had made in readership in Dumaguete.

    And then, the core of the message. July 30, 2006 would be the last issue of the Metro Post.

    Irma's message:
    We are continuing to explore tie-ups with people who could continue to run the paper. But until we find somebody who would be in a position to invest for a good community newspaper, the MetroPost would have to come out with its last issue, at least temporarily, on July 30, 2006.

    No, it's not yet the end, just a temporary hiatus, I tell myself. There's a glimmer of hope in there. Still, I can't help but feel a little sad. The Metro Post is the best damn community paper in Dumaguete City, miles ahead of the competition. And I'm not saying that because I write a column there. I'm saying it because it's so.

    Of all the papers in Dumaguete City, it's the one that's made the most impact on the city as a university town. It wasn't just a glorified mouthpiece for political ends, nor was it just a vehicle for ads. The Metro Post actually represented, as best as it could, the voice of Dumaguetenos. For that, Irma and Alex deserve congratulations.

    Writing for the Metro Post has not fulfilled my notions of making a living as a writer. But, darn it! I didn't care. I actually felt that I was making a difference in the community. And that was why I kept sending in my weekly column. All in all, they must count to over 200. "Rational Technology" might even be said to be my proto-blog, and even continued to be part of this blog's regular content.

    So, for the moment, I'll live without the weekly deadline and the occasional theater review. I could view this whole thing as a break. Besides, I'll still get to meet Alex, Irma, Ian, Moe, Fr. Eking, Gilbert, and all the other Dumaguete-based contributors on occasion as they pass by the pharmacy. That's part of the charm of writing for a community paper.

    Or, I should say, that was part of the charm. I hope the charm comes back soon.

    Damn it, I just feel so sad.

    Monday, July 24, 2006

    State of the Nation

    No, I didn't listen to the State of the Nation address. Mom initially wanted to, but we both got tired of waiting. By the time two o'clock came, we had both had enough of the commentary leading up to the address itself. Besides, (1) there wouldn't be any earth-shattering revelations; and (2) we could read about it in the papers tomorrow.

    So the family went out to witness the true State of the the Gaisano Mall. It's my last day in Davao, so why bother listening to hot air when I can see it for myself.

    And what was there to see: students strolling around on a Monday afternoon, easing the worries of the day away. Many of them were in white, indicating a course of studies in the medical profession. Then there were the young folks glued to computer monitors on the cybercafes. No, they weren't blogging; they were plugging away at each other in Counterstrike or on some MMORPG. No, I won't offer any interpretations: that's just the way it is.

    A funny thing, though: today's event made me think of an old song from the 80's, entitled -- you guessed it -- "State of the Nation" by a band called Industry. I looked up the lyrics, and found them especially poignant in relation to the OFWs in Lebanon.

    I see them marching off to war
    They're looking so heroic
    I'm told they won't be gone for long
    But that's a lie and they know it
    Never to be seen again
    Ten thousand gone they won't return

    Strategic games is all we learn in the end
    But they say:
    Don't you worry about the situation
    (A message from the telephone)
    (I'm waiting a chance to come home)
    They always have to fight the alienation
    They out there fighting for the state of the nation
    (I realize I'm fighting alone)
    When nightmares memories fades to dust

    We'll get back on our feet again
    This war has nothing to do with us
    But somehow we're still involved in it


    Don't you worry about the situation
    (A message from the telephone)
    They out there fighting for the state of the nation
    Well, Don't you worry about the situation
    (I'm waiting a chance to come home)
    (A message from the telephone)
    They always have to fight the alienation
    (I realize I'm fighting alone)

    There's no place like home
    There's no place I don't want to be anywhere else
    There's no place like home

    There's no place like home
    There's no place like home
    There's no place I don't want to be anywhere else
    There's no place like home

    There's no place like home
    There's no place I don't want to be anywhere else

    There's no place like home
    There's no place I don't want to be anywhere
    There's no place like home
    Don't you worry about the situation

    They out there fighting for the state of the nation

    (A message from the telephone)
    Don't you worry about the situation
    They always have to fight the alienation
    (I realize I'm fighting alone)

    They out there fighting for the state of the nation
    They always have to fight the alienation
    (I'm waiting a chance to come home)

    (I realize I'm fighting alone)
    There's no place like home

    There's no place like home
    There's no place like home

    Cemetery for die-hard football fans

    Too bad this story didn't make the World Cup 2006 fever. In any case, still something to think about: "A German soccer club plans to open a cemetery next to its stadium so that die-hard fans can rest in peace alongside their favorite team."

    Hamburg SV, a Bundesliga side from the northern port city, aims to open the graveyard some 50 feet from the stadium's main entrance, said deputy chairman Christian Reichert.

    "For a large number of people, it's important to be close to the club after their lives are over," he said. "The cemetery will have the look of a small, open stadium."

    With 42,000 registered supporters at the club and just 500 graves up for grabs, competition for places promises to be fierce. Officials have already begun taking reservations.

    More at Reuters.

    The pi site

    Some wag has put up a site with the URL What's it about? Of course you know what it's about.

    Previously, the site offered the first 1 million digits of pi, but this is what happened, according to the maintainer:
    Okay, wait a minute. You guys are killing my server. I used to have a million digits of Pi listed here, and it was really great. But now you have brought my server to its knees with your interest in its greatness.

    So now it has considerably less digits than that, together with a lead-in to a joke site. However, the entire 1 million digits is still available here.

    Saturday, July 22, 2006

    Review: Masks

    Sean posted the full text of his story, "Masks", over on his blog. I've done a review of it.

    As always, Sean displays his trademark smooth writing and deft world-building. I'm guessing that this is an Antaria story, but even if I wasn't aware of that creation, I would have no trouble imagining the world he's describing from the details. The dialogue shows enough characterization to differentiate one person from another without too much description. These are enviable strengths, and these are what draw me into the story.

    However, as a reader, I found my interest waning steadily somewhere in the middle of the encounter with Lord Polonius. There's a hint of intrigue, but at that point, I start to wonder whether it will actually lead to anything. A lot of information, especially the narrator's opinions about masks, is repeated, but I don't feel any buildup of tension.

    This lack of buildup brings the ending as a total surprise. Masterfully done, I must admit, because it evokes shock. But I found myself asking: "Where did that come from?" It may be in line with Sean's concept of masks hiding purpose, but it hides the purpose even from me, the reader.

    When the end comes to the point that it does, I don't have enough emotional investment in the characters to feel anger or pity or sadness. It's just a rude shock.

    All this is from a first reading. I'll revisit it again sometime and see if I hold the same opinion.

    Friday, July 21, 2006

    University Spaces

    Rational Technology for July 23, 2006

    Davao City--Like a famous monument that's too close to home to be admired, the Jacinto campus of Ateneo de Davao University has escaped my attention for the longest time. Lying just behind our pharmacy, it's disappeared into the background because of an excessive familiarity. That's probably the reason why I didn't pursue my degree in the school. But time and distance have a way of refreshing your perspective, and that's what I'm experiencing on this visit.

    Not that it should be much of a surprise. For one thing, the campus has become the center of rapid commercialization. In the immediate vicinity are dormitories, restaurants, boutiques, shops, convenience stores, and Internet cafes, many of them springing up only within the past three years. Around the area are three major constructions, each one set to become a multi-story combination dormitory/commercial space.

    The campus makes for a good case study of how a university can be the catalyst for renewed commercial development in its surrounding area. For several decades, changes in the neighborhood around the campus came in small increments. Then, in 2002, Ateneo inaugurated the thoroughly modern seven-story Finster Building. That's when the major changes started to happen.

    From the outside, the Finster Building hardly looks like a university building. Ateneo brochures will no doubt point out the Finster Building's state-of-the-art multimedia-ready classrooms, research facilities, laboratories and ampitheater. Not so obvious from the promos, but quite visible from the street, is the row of commercial shops on its first floor. There's an NCCC convenience store, a Philippine Airlines ticketing office, a Netopia Internet cafe, and a beauty salon. This commercial area is just outside the confines of the school and therefore publicly accessible.

    The city has also done its part. Finster's facade is along Roxas Street, and the local city goverment developed this into a generous eight-lane main road. It's an investment that's paid off. Try as they might, neither the jeepneys plying Roxas nor the cars parking on the curb can't really hog the road: it's just too big. And it's just as well. Roxas, via the Finster Hall, has become the main entrance to Ateneo, and that's where students take their rides.

    Ateneo's commercial space combined with accessible parking and smooth-moving traffic has in turn attracted other commercial developments along Roxas. Establishments otherwise displaced from such a prime spot have also brought life to the other streets surrounding the school. Several blocks around the old Jacinto main entrance are now the site of dormitory/commercial space, a common enough combination in this area. It helps that there are two other nearby colleges also exerting demand for living space and services.

    Development in these neighborhoods are a bit more haphazard, though. It's partly because many of the buildings had already been built prior to the resurgence. The rows of makeshift stalls housing barbecue joints and photocopying services highlight a typical problem: how do you prompt modern development in land subdivided among several owners who don't have the desire or the means to build new structures?

    Other remnants of old habits in this part of the neighborhood are the "trisikads" that lie in wait for passengers. These are slow-moving, always take up a lot of space and their drivers are unmindful of the traffic they cause. Sounds familiar? It doesn't help that the roads here are narrower, made even more so by double-parked cars.

    Still, these two problems are not insurmountable. Davao, of late, has shown considerable political will that's directed at positive developments in the city.

    And what of the campus itself? You might be surprised to know that its land area is actually significantly less than any of the major universities in Dumaguete. Still, it houses 8,000 undergraduate students and a little less than a thousand students in the Law and graduate programs. Despite that, the school doesn't seem crowded, what with good use of high rise buildings. It still manages to have a small basketball court/stadium, a chapel, and a relaxing central garden.

    Thursday, July 20, 2006

    A specious argument

    "If a woman cries rape, then it must be true because no woman is willing to subject herself to such humiliation unless it were." This is the logic that women's advocacy groups put forward in any such incident.

    I don't know. This argument just strikes me as specious.

    This argument is premised on the supposition that all women are virtuous and unwilling to face humiliation except under the most extreme of circumstances. This supposition is simply not true.

    Not all women are virtuous, at least, not in this day and age. It's entirely possible that a woman will cry rape for extortion or for revenge or for love of another man or for her children or for just plain spite. Women are complex, just as all human beings are complex.

    Social stigma no longer carries the sting that it once did, either, at least, not in this day and age. Sex doesn't have the same exchange rate it once did and rape victims are hailed as heroines for coming out with their story. Media attention and a ready support group, what more can one ask for?

    Sitting in a jail cell in Bulacan is a young quadraplegic, without use of his hands or feet, poring over chess books while spit drools from his mouth. Two men have to carry him to the bathroom. What was he accused of? Rape. Those strengthless hands, which could barely hold up a book, were supposed to have pointed a gun at his friend's girlfriend and forced her to have sex with him. Go figure.

    But the accusation has to be true, right? He deserves to be in jail, right? Because if a woman cries rape, then it must be true because no woman is willing to subject herself to such humiliation unless it were.

    Following this argument, why bother with a trial? A woman's accusation is already as good as condemnation. An accused rapist is already guilty. Of such are witch hunts made.

    Let's stop with this outmoded psychology. Let the physical evidence speak first and foremost.

    Wednesday, July 19, 2006

    Cavalcade of Insanity

    Like an unfolding soap opera, the ongoing trial of the Subic rape case has me checking daily for new developments. It's not so much the lurid details nor the political/nationalist implications nor, I must admit, even the plight of 'Nicole' and the accused. It's the whole emerging pattern of strange behavior that's caught my attention.

    For the moment, let's dissociate the case from the political color that it's taken. Because of the players, some groups are using the trial as a rallying point against the Visiting Forces Agreement. And that's unfortunate, because it draws attention from the human tragedy. If the VFA must be reviewed or decided upon, it shouldn't be from a single isolated and emotionally-charged incident.

    What's more interesting, at least to me, is the behavior of the people on the night of the incident and now on the ongoing trial itself. It's turning out to be a whole cavalcade of insanity.

    No one is denying what took place before and after the incident: the drinking and the dancing at the bar, and later, dropping off the girl with her pants down. No one is even denying that a sexual act took place, the difference being one side saying it was forced and the other saying it was consensual. Without any apparent premeditation, it all seems to hinge on what happened inside the van, and it's really the word of one side against the other.

    That's the first thing that strikes me as strange. No one seems to be raising any eyebrows over the fact that the sex took place in the van filled with four other people. Has this thing become...normal? If not normal, has it become at least acceptable? What if the sex had indeed been consensual? Would we have been expected to applaud?

    Assuming the sex was consensual: I wonder what was going on through the mind of the marine who did it with the girl. The act would not have been just to satisfy his lust, it would also have been a performance for his friends. I wonder what was going on through the minds of his friends as they watched or heard the two. Were they cheering him on in esprit d'corps? I wonder what was going through the mind of the driver? Did he shrug, saying it was none of his business, or did he smirk in worldly wise fashion, or did he join in the cheering?

    All the more odious, then, if the sex was forced. In either case, it's just...insane.

    Sex has become a sport. Not just any sport, but a spectator sport. We've been primed by FHM, Cosmopolitan, and other forms of media -- blogs included -- to accept an open-mindedness about sex. Sex is not to be hidden, sex is to be talked about and brought into the open. And once sex is brought out into the open, it becomes the subject of exhibitionism and one-upmanship. Think about it: if 'Nicole' hadn't cried rape, the story would have been fodder for FHM's "Ladies' Confessions."

    "God was in the van," one of the accused marines said, yet another sign of insanity. But isn't that message consistent with the subjective God that we've heard preached over and over, the God-in-the-self? If God is in the self, then yes, God was in the van just as God was in the rapist. If that sounds like an abomination, that's because it is: in the same way that God-in-the-self is an abomination.

    What about 'Nicole?' Advocacy groups involved in the case want to paint her as a courageous heroine, but they seem defensive, even a little embarrassed, about her actions leading up to the incident. At the very least, 'Nicole' was stupid and naive. Subic is a long way from Zamboanga; far from home, in the company of strangers, prudence dictates caution. What did she do? She downed six strong drinks.

    So now, the women's advocacy groups are saying that it's her right to drink as much as she wants, but it doesn't give the marines the right to take advantage of her. Of course. But drunkenness and its associated loss of control has its own consequences. One makes a fool of oneself. Babbling. Giggling. Hurling. Crawling. Passing out. Being taken advantage of.

    We're not supposed to say that 'Nicole' had it coming, but there's one age-old adage: you play with fire, you get burned.

    Rape is a heinous offense because the object that's violated is placed in high value. It's not enough to say that the dignity of a woman has been offended: there are many ways to offend the dignity of a woman, say, by verbal abuse or by physical non-sexual violence. Both are deplorable but not in the same category as rape. Rape is odious because it assaults the sanctity of a woman's sex, the wellspring of life, something which we instinctively put in high regard.

    If sex is so valuable, doesn't it make sense to safeguard it with modesty, temperance, and prudence? Why risk something so valuable for the sake of openmindedness and a person's right to do with herself what she wishes?

    Putting oneself in a position where one loses control of one's faculties and relying on strangers' good behavior as the only defense is just...insane.

    Tuesday, July 18, 2006

    And the winners are...

    It took forever for me to find out who the winners of the Fully Booked contest were. It took a while for them to announce their list of winners (that, or I just couldn't find the links). Thankfully, the Literature Philippines blog had pointers.

    And the winners are:
    1st place (tied) – “The God Equation” by Michael Go and “A Strange Map of Time by” Ian Casocot
    2nd – “The Great Philippine Space Mission” by Philbert Dy
    3rd - “Atha” by Michaela Atienza

    I'm happy Ian is up there in first place. Three reasons: (1) I liked his story; (2) promotion for Dumaguete; (3) I can bug him for pista sa Dumaguete. Yeah!

    And the honorable mentions:

    1st Honorable Mention – “The Omega Project” by Kim Marquez
    3rd Honorable Mention – “Monstrous Cycle” by Cecilia Estrada
    4th Honorable Mention – “Stella for Star” by Yvette Tan

    I wonder what happened to "Song for Vargas." Was it the 2nd honorable mention, and the Fully Booked people forgot to add it in?

    And for the comics:
    1st – “The Sad Mad Incredible But True Adventures of Hika Girl” by Clara Lala Gallardo and Maria Gallardo
    2nd – “Splat” by Manuel Abrera
    3rd – “Dusk” by Rommel Joson and “Defiant: The Battle of Mactan” by Juan Paolo Ferrer and Chester Ocampo

    I never got to write reviews for the comics, but I really liked "Hika Girl." I'm not saying that because it won. I'm saying it because it's so. The art may have looked childish, but that's part of the appeal. The story reminded me of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Loved it.

    Saturday, July 15, 2006

    Live from Neverland

    Well, I'm becoming quite the reviewer. Snigger. I attended a presentation at the Luce Auditorium tonight. I was suitably impressed to write it all down lest I forget some of the details.

    Paul Pfeiffer's impressive yet unusual resume cites his groundbreaking works in video, sculpture, and photography to dissect the role of mass media in shaping consciousness. It's an eclectic collision that results in art, specifically, pop art. But what is it about exactly?

    "Live from Neverland," a joint presentation / performance by Pfeiffer and Silliman's Department of Speech and Theatre Arts, was an introduction of the uninitiated to the world of avant-garde video art. Held at the Luce Auditorium last July 14, "Neverland" featured samples of the Pfeiffer's work as well as a live recording of a speech choir for use in one of Pfeiffer's ongoing projects.

    Pfeiffer's brand of art defies easy description because it doesn't fall into the traditional categories that many of us are used to. It's work that needs to be experienced firsthand even as the effect varies from one viewer to another. Pfeiffer's first presentation, "Pure Products Go Crazy," set the tone for what the audience was to expect for the rest of the evening.

    "Pure Products Go Crazy" is a video of a half-naked man in briefs, face planted into a sofa, performing a wild epileptic dance. It goes on and on for quite a bit until one realizes that it's actually a short clip of Tom Cruise from the movie "Risky Business" run in an infinite loop. The effect is unsettling, so much so that many of the Luce audience burst out in nervous laughter, possibly unsure of how they were supposed to react.

    Pfeiffer's other works follow the same spirit. "John 3:16" focuses on a basketball, and just the basketball, as it is passed from hand to hand. "The Long Count" is a triptych of famous Muhammad Ali fights, including "Thrilla in Manila" and "Rumble in the Jungle", in which the fighters are digitally erased, leaving only the ring and the audience. "Caryatid" features a floating Stanley Cup as its bearer is digitally removed, leaving just an adulating team. Another work also entitled "Caryatid" shows scene after scene of soccer players tripping and falling down. "Fragment of a Crucifixion," like "Pure Products," is a clip in infinite loop: it shows basketball player circling a small section of the ring in what looks to be agony or ecstasy.

    These are samples of some Pfeiffer's earlier works, and they can be quite disturbing to watch. Pfeiffer removes the context in which the scene is being played, leaving the viewer gasping for some structure, any structure. Pfeiffer explains he likes to make the audience aware of themselves instead of being lost, as with traditional cinema, in the story and in the medium. In this he succeeds: owing to the lack of linearity, the viewers find themselves detached from the work yet affected by it.

    Other aspects of Pfeiffer's work with his art are time and perception. A video sculpture displayed in the World Trade Center (prior to 9/11) depicted incubated eggs hatching into chicks which eventually grew into fledglings and then full-grown chickens. The video played in real-time, with a total run length of two-and-a-half months. It may sound like a kooky idea, but one has to view it from the perspective of its audience: busy Manhattanites catching a few seconds' glimpse at a time over a period of two months, and then, all of a sudden, the exhibit is gone.

    Pfeiffer's artistic philosophy tracks the influence of pop culture and the mass media on the human psychology. Inasmuch as he uses contemporary icons familiar to everyone, the viewers become part of the canvas. Pfeiffer, who studied in Silliman as a child and continues to visit Dumaguete regularly, notes the unique effect this has on Filipinos who are primarily impressed by American-style media. "You are aware of it, you have an almost intimate knowledge of it," he says, "and yet you know that you're not really part of it."

    His Filipino heritage makes its way into some of his works. His most ambitious project to date, an audio recreation of the England's 1966 World Cup victory in Wimbley Stadium, to be replayed in Wimbley Stadium, makes use of Filipino voices to supplement archive sound footage. Another project he plans to work on involves the Wowowee game show, digitally erasing the host, the dancers, the audience, and all other visual cues, leaving just the contestant.

    "Live from Neverland" is another such experiment, one that the Luce audience was privileged to hear as part of a live performance. "Live from Neverland" references a 1993 interview with Michael Jackson, protesting his innocence and decrying the indignities he suffered at the hands of the police. The Speech Choir, a troupe of over 80 Silliman speech students directed by Dr. Eva Lindstrom, mimicked this speech, down to every pause, every inflection, every nuance.

    Eighty voices speaking in near perfect synchronization is no easy feat to manage, and yet the Speech Choir pulls this off. It takes on an eerie quality as a mix of male and female voices match Michael Jackson's monologue, describing how he was made to strip and how they took photographs of his penis and his buttocks. Pfeiffer intends this to be a modern take on the Greek Chorus, where the actor becomes everyman. The voices will later be superimposed against the clip of the Jackson interview. In this way, we've made some small bit of history in Dumaguete.

    Paul Pfeiffer's work won't appeal to everyone, at least not on the first go. Not only is it unconventional, it's also uncomfortable. But that seems to underlie the whole point of it: to take the viewer outside of the established boundaries. It makes one think and it makes one feel. Ultimately, that's art.

    Paul Pfeiffer was born in Hawaii in 1966 but was raised in the Philippines. He spent part of his grade school and high school years at Silliman University. Pfeiffer relocated to New York in 1990, where he attended Hunter College and the Whitney Independent Study Program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, most notably The Bucksbaum Award given by the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was also artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Artpace in Texas.

    Thursday, July 13, 2006

    Review: The Omega Project

    Download the story from the Fully Booked website.

    Alright, I'm down to my last review, and I'm rushing a bit because I'm keenly curious to read what Sean has to say. I don't want to cheat by peeking ahead. We're not ego-tripping in any way, we're just bringing to bear our tastes against the judges' selections. Besides, who's reading us, anyway?

    Onward, then....

    I read "The Omega Project" three times, an honor usually reserved for philosophy and science books. I couldn't quite grasp what was going on. I know I'm not that smart, but when I have to go through a story three times, it usually doesn't bode very well. Nevertheless, I persisted because there's something quite appealing about the concept.

    I'm not quite sure I get everything yet, so here's my synopsis: the story revolves around a race of intelligent Alpha cockroaches on which scientists are conducting research. Apparently, these cockroaches hold some secret to survival against radiation brought about by nuclear weapons. Omega is some sort of super-cockroach from which all cockroaches descend, and this is the object of the quest. Did I get it right? I don't know.

    The story runs on two parallel lines: one from the point-of-view of the scientists who are conducting the research, and the other from that of the Alpha roaches who are fighting a losing battle against humans and non-intelligent Beta cockroaches. This is where I have my first difficulty. I don't quite know what's going on.

    There are additional difficulties that the story poses for me, following the two levels on which the story happens.

    First, the scientists are bickering like junior high students in a love/hate relationship. Their one-upmanship is quite annoying to read.

    Second, the cockroaches don't read like cockroaches at all. The author frequently refers to the cockroaches' hands, but cockroaches don't have hands! Same thing with the references to stomach, instead of thoraxes. Given this propensity, the roaches read more like humans than insects. I don't know if this is the intended effect.

    As I said, there's some appeal in the concept of the story. I'm just not quite sure what the story is all about.

    But then again, I'm jest an idjit.

    Reviews: The God Equation and The Great Philippine Space Mission

    Download The God Equation and The Great Philippine Space Mission from the Fully Booked website.

    If the previous two stories could be lumped together because of their common genre, then we could do the same with these two stories, "The God Equation" and "The Great Philippine Space Mission." Nevertheless, how doubly fortunate for me that they should follow consecutively in the alphabetical list, as they are both parodies of contemporary pop culture entertainment. Only one seems to intend it, though.

    With a title like "The God Equation," the reader is promised something profound, thought-provoking, and controversial. The story even begins by quoting a news report of a murder in the Vatican, thereby promising intrigue. And yet as the tale picks up, you realize that this is less of "The Da Vinci Code" as it is a pastiche of The Matrix and Neal Stephenson with some crime noir thrown in.

    In place of agents and adepts chasing each other in a virtual reality world, you have angels and demons in an eternal cold war. It's very Matrix-y, and it's obvious all throughout. The characters speak with an amoral and inhuman superiority; they can take over the bodies of people; and they use the word "anomaly" a lot.

    But what about the God equation? It's supposed to be a mathematical formula that's going to prove the existence of God. Leading up to the revelation of the equation is a whole lot of intellectual posturing that borrows from popular math books and Carl Sagan's Contact. Then, the unveiling...oops, the grid of computers is still computing the answer. What a letdown, but why bother? We already know the answer is 42.

    Really, the God equation is just a red herring, an excuse to paint for us this ongoing shadow war between angels and demons. It's almost forgiveable because it's a smooth read, the pacing is good, and there are hints of good concepts. I say "almost" because as I try to recall the story now, all I'm really left with is a sense of annoyance because all the time it's screaming: "Look at me, I'm so cool and smart." Just like the Matrix, "The God Equation" is all style and no substance.

    "The Great Philippine Space Mission" is a comedic parody, and unlike "The God Equation," it is at least overtly so. It doesn't try to be too smart, and in fact seems to revel in its silliness. At the same time, it also has some good pacing and a moment of suspense that makes you want to see how it reaches its happy ending.

    The plot: space shuttle crew needs to land on a comet to save the world. Sounds a whole lot like "Armageddon?" It is, and that paternity is acknowledged (and twitted) within the story. I will tip my hat to the author for creating a unique circumstance for such a mission: a hyperreactive element is converting all the oxygen in the atmosphere and so a counteragent from the asteroid is needed to reverse the process.

    The plot device: the space shuttle is powered by chismis. How's that again? Well, you'll have to read the story for the explanation, just don't try to think too hard. Here, the story borrows from "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," but uses the Metaphysical Drive in place of the Improbability Drive.

    Since the shuttle is powered by gossip, you need to put the celebrity with the highest concentration of gossip field around her. Now, that's positively inspired. I'll hold off on the disclosure of said celebrity, but it's an appearance that's played for laughs. Pity that this role isn't played out to maximum effect, though, either for the humor or for the pathos.

    That's my problem with this piece. It would have been a whole lot funnier if the characters didn't look like cardboard cutouts. I understand that it's comedy, therefore all the more reason to exaggerate the mannerisms to cartoonish proportions. As it is, the author doesn't seem to go far enough, which is an interesting counterpoint to "The God Equation" in which its characters actually do.

    Reviews: Monstrous Cycle and Stella for Star

    Download Monstrous Cycle and Stella for Star from the Fully Booked website.

    By now it should be obvious that I'm going through the stories in alphabetical order. It's fortunate happenstance that the next two on the list, "Monstrous Cycle" and "Stella for Star", fall in the same genre and can thus be reviewed in a single entry.

    Both stories attempt a new take on the monster story, specifically, Philippine monsters. "Monstrous Cycle" uses the monster motif for humorous satire; "Stella for Star" is somewhat more conventional but uses unconventional characters. One works well, the other falters.

    "Stella for Star" is a changeling story played as straight horror, the twist being that the adoptive couple are two gay men. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away; that revelation is made as early as the second paragraph of the story. But ultimately it's pointless: the story never exploits the fact. The couple could have been heterosexual and it wouldn't have made a difference to the story.

    From the get-go, we already know with which character we're supposed to sympathize, but the psychological build-up comes haltingly and is never fully developed. It doesn't help that the narrative undertakes several point-of-view shifts between the two men. Ultimately, it dilutes the impact of the story.

    As with the unconventional relationship between the two men, there are many other gratuitous details that don't go anywhere: the changeling's language, the fax from the Professor of Philippine Lower Mythology, the lover-turned-colleague, for example. Some scenes seem to have been added simply for their gross-out effect. "Stella for Star" seems like so much wasted material.

    "Monstrous Cycle," on the other hand, makes no pretensions as to what it is. The opening line already tells you that you're going to be reading a comedy. The story is so simple that it really only needs two characters: a demure, overweight manananggal who wants to be a star, and a psychic doctor whom she approaches as promoter. The language is tongue-in-cheek all the way, and works well enough on that level alone.

    However, there is more to the story. It's really a satire on the local celebrity culture, and it pokes fun at celebrity doctors, celebrity endorsements, celebrity tiffs, and celebrity tantrums. Where the story really bites is in the transformation of the woman into a true monster, and that happens near the end. You'll have to read it to see what I mean.

    There are some areas where "Monstrous Cycle" could use some improvement. First, the story is so simple that it almost reads like a comic skit. There's never really any development of suspense, one that ought to serve a monster story well. Second, the language could use a bit of polish here and there to make it a smoother read. And last, I wonder if the approach might not be too contemporary Filipino as to exclude readers from other cultures.

    On the whole, though, "Monstrous Cycle" is an enjoyable read. It's simple, it affects no airs, and yet it has something to say.

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Review: Atha

    Download the story from the Fully Booked website.

    "Atha" is a Frankenstein's monster story in two ways. The titular character is a gigantic robot bird/dragon that takes on a life of its own. Its creators, have no recourse but to destroy it, and this forms the framework of the story. All this takes place in a gothic dystopian future that's evocative of an Industrial Revolution gone wild. No microprocessors, no nanobots, and no genetics here, folks; it's all driven by gears. Quite charming, really.

    And that's why I want to throttle the author and scream in his ear: "Get the story going!"

    The first third of the story is a rambling narrative, and you never really know where it's going. The author, through the narrator, indulges in a long description of the future city and the mad scientist who loves it so much. One begins to think that Atha is the name of the city. But no, its only somewhere in the middle that you get the glimpse of the monster, and much later that you realize that it's a creation of the scientist and his protege. The action only picks up in the last third with the climactic battle.

    A short story that takes this long to develop loses a lot of its emotional core. You don't really care for the scientist, and you don't really care for the monster, either. This is a tragic failing because it is at least one of these elements that make a Frankenstein's monster story so appealing. The story could have been made much better with the proper pacing and the proper revelation of mystery; instead it diverts your attention far away.

    So why spend so much time talking about the city? Atha the monster is really a metaphor for the decay that has set into the city, and by extension, a metaphor for the regression of society. The story attempts to come full circle by pondering the future of the city he lives in; however, it comes off a little too heavy-handed.

    Reading through the story, I can't help but think of its anime influences. It's something that the author successfully manages to evoke quite well without sounding too derivative. That's why it's a real shame that the story doesn't quite develop smoothly.

    Review: A Strange Map of Time

    Download the story from the Fully Booked website.

    As the title suggests, this is a time travel story though one in the vein of magical fantasy rather than science fiction. The main character is born at some future time as a precocious child. Following a map that he has drawn, the titular map of the story, he starts travelling back in time to unravel the mystery behind his identity.

    It's a charming story, and many of the elements work well together. The epigram and the setting all coherent to the story and are not in any way arbitrary, thus escaping the typical fault of Filipino-written fantasy/science fiction tales. From the get-go, the reader already knows the identity of the character, but what drives the story forward is the reason why he is travelling through time. It is an subtle unspoken device and one that draws you in up to the end of the tale.

    All this is very well, because the story suffers from a muddled beginning that could potentially turn off readers. Who is the main character, and why is he so strange? It doesn't help much that the story hints that it's taking place in the 22nd century, leading one to wonder initially if it's a science fiction story. Fortunately, things start to come together once you get the futuristic scifi elements out of the way.

    Which is just as well. Drawing a scifi setting is clearly not one of the strong suits of the author. The hoverjeepneys he uses to place the time at the beginning of the story are a jarring contrast to the very contemporary mannerisms of the supporting cast. There's some attempt to paint a world without stars, possibly hinting at grimy air and high-rises. It's all gratuitous and doesn't work very well. The story could have been made stronger by just situating it in the present.

    There are some other minor editorial nits: part of the muddled beginning is the unfocused central intelligence as the narrator shifts from character to character. Thankfully, that disappears as the story progresses. Somewhere in the middle, the suspense relating to the identity could have been sustained. Closer to the end are some problems with tenses. All of these are quite forgiveable and once corrected would lead to a more enjoyable experience for the reader.

    Ultimately, it's the unfolding mystery, the prose, and the imagery which tips the balance for the story. The narrative is excellent, and the dialogue works quite well. The payoff at the end is well-earned.

    I must end this mini-review with a small disclaimer. I know the author of the story because he imprudently admitted as much in a shameless attempt at getting votes for the People's Choice. That makes it harder to write an impartial review, even one done purely on a lark. Not that it would have mattered, anyway, as many of the story elements are a dead giveaway. Anyway, I feel compelled to make the disclaimer because this is a story that I liked very much.

    Review: A Song for Vargas

    Download the story from the Fully Booked website.

    At its core, "A Song for Vargas" is the story of a sea captain who is in search of an unattainable dream. It is a quest that has haunted him since childhood, and it is this goal that has driven him to travel far through many arduous adventures. A story as simple as this relies much on the execution for its effect, and sadly, this is where the story fails.

    The story's main fault is that it is overladen with many elements that do not contribute to the core of the story. The captain is haunted by four ghosts and keeps a talking skull for company. Everything the captain touches suddenly turns gray. These are elements introduced early on, but they seem to have been added simply for mood. None of them is fully explained. Only the skull plays any role, and unfortunately, it's that of deus ex machina for the ultimate revelation.

    The story suffers from unfocused central intelligence. We begin with an idyllic island and its people. And then we shift to the captain. And then we shift to the crew. And then we shift to the priest. These shifts are confusing and distract the reader from the flow of the story. It isn't until the last three pages that the story comes together, and it really just involves two characters.

    The characterization is poor. Only the captain seems to have been fleshed out, and even then the revelation of his motivations is desultory and verbose. The supporting cast is pure cardboard. Most glaring are the reactions, which run along these lines: "What? The captain is haunted by ghosts? Oh, okay." There's no terror at all, as if this were only mildly unusual.

    The setting is arbitrary and poorly researched. We are led to believe that this is the Hispanic Philippines. Even hewing loosely to historical accuracy, the priest (not a parson, as the author repeatedly insists) would have established the church and the village first before any mode of Hispanic government would have been imposed. Similarly, keeping a galleon as a floating off-island base for an eccentric captain is a dreadful waste of resources.

    Finally, the story warrants a fair bit of editing. Tenses do not match, incomplete phrases stand for sentences, and its far too wordy. The cadence is difficult to get into, and the first page alone would have turned off casual readers.

    All of this detracts from some otherwise memorable scenes, like the dinner between the captain and the priest and the conversation between the priest and the talking skull. These are elements that could have been used to much better effect in a story with the proper flow and characterization.

    The answer to life's questions

    Got this in the mail and I was awed by the revelation, so I decided to post it here.

    A man is driving down the road and his car breaks down near a monastery. He goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, "My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?" The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound. A sound not Like anything he's ever heard before. The Sirens that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship comes to his mind. He doesn't sleep that night. He tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound. the next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, "We can't tell you. You're not a monk." Distraught, the man is forced to leave.

    Years later, after never being able to forget that sound, the man goes back to the monastery and pleads for the answer again. The monks reply, "We can't tell you. You're not a monk." The man says, "If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk." The monks reply, "You must travel the earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a monk."

    The man sets about his task. After years of searching he returns as a gray-haired old man and knocks on the door of the monastery. A monk answers. He is taken before a gathering of all the monks. "In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All a man can know is himself, and only then if he is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self deception." The monks reply, "Congratulations. You have become a monk. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound." The monks lead the man to a wooden door, where the head monk says, "The sound is beyond that door." The monks give him the key, and he opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The man is given the key to the stone door and he opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that he needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl and diamond. Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks say, "This is the last key to the last door." The man is apprehensive to no end. His life's wish is behind that door! With trembling hands, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover the source of that haunting and seductive sound.. .....

    But I can't tell you what it is because you're not a monk.

    Yes, a shaggy dog story. I could smell it coming from a mile away. Still, quite enjoyable.

    Anyway, everyone knows that the answer to life's questions is 42. So there.

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    The reason for the family...

    From Heretics, Chesterton on the family:
    The common defence of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible,
    and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.
    And he's right. Some days, family just drives you crazy. I guess that's the whole point of being a family: they can drive you crazy, it's their right to drive you crazy, and yet they're an inescapable reality. As the saying goes: you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. Otherwise, life would be just, well, boring.

    I got the opposite of boring the past few days. It got to the point where I cut my part of the family vacation short. I'll skip the details, except to say that things could've been better thought out. It might have been worked out, but by then my mood had deteriorated to the point where I just wanted to go home. So I did.

    Maybe it was just a streak of petulance. Maybe it was a streak of meanness. Maybe it was madness and melancholia. Maybe it was me finally asserting my right not to take part in a family vacation. Or maybe it was all of the above.

    Now I'm back in my usual surroundings and the rest of the family is enjoying (or trying to enjoy) the remainder of the vacation. I've restored some small measure of my sanity and I can look upon the events with a calmer mind.

    Could I have worked things out differently, more pleasantly? Of course. But I don't think the lessons would have stuck if I hadn't done what I had done. It would have been the same thing over and over again. Well, not anymore.

    And so the rest of the family might not look kindly on me for the next few days. But so what? Fair is fair, they're stuck with me, too.

    This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there. So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally, you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men. The element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.

    ...and the reason for friends

    So you can't choose your family. But on the flipside, you can choose your friends. And I'm thankful for the friends that I do have.

    First, the Mentat took me in for a couple of days while I got some breathing room. I was mighty thankful for that. Then, since I had cut my vacation short, the weekend plans I made were also shot. I wouldn't be meeting with my other friends as I had planned, or so I thought. I just wanted to make sure I met Sean to I could pay him for the book I asked him to buy for me some months back.

    Surprise, surprise, that simple transaction turned into a long dinner with several friends at The Old Spaghetti House along Makati Avenue.

    Clair showed up, and Charo and Ealden followed not long after. Conversation touched on writers workshop, the Fully Booked fantasy/sci-fi contest, Madagascar penguins, family vacations gone awry, psychological space requirements, Java, Orange and Bronze, giant stuffed penguins, a potentially controversial critiquing project, employment possibilities, t-shirts, and countless other things that geek friends talk about. I was happy again.

    Others would have joined -- Ranulf, Mario, and Marcelle -- but the reunion was unplanned and sudden. Maybe next time, then.

    Thanks, guys. It means a lot to me.

    Teasing a tiger

    Saturday found the entire family at an outing to Zoobic, the zoo attraction at the Subic Freeport Zone. It was a rainy afternoon and we managed to catch the last tour.

    The highlight of the trip was the tiger safari. City slickers like us piled into a jeepney modified with passenger cage enclosure. Then we rode off into the enclosure where several tigers roamed in relative freedom. The rain actually helped because the cool weather made it conducive for the tigers to be out. Tigers, apparently, are one of the few species of big cats who like water.

    One of the passengers purchased a chicken (and a very expensive dressed chicken it was) and the guide teased the tigers with it through a small enclosure on the side. What a thrill! But part of me was wondering whether it was right to be doing so.

    Wasn't it cruel to be teasing such a majestic animal with a bit of chicken? Was it even right that they should be in this zoo instead of roaming out in the wild? Why were we asserting our dominance over a fellow creature?

    That got me wondering how and why I felt that way. Then it dawned on me: I've been brainwashed by radical modern literature on animal rights and the environment.

    Oh, I understand that it's not right to be cruel to animals. But apart from my reflexive mental reaction, what exactly was cruel about this? The cats were not hurt or wounded in any way, and they actually seemed to be having fun pushing against the jeep. Besides, 400 lbs of striped predator doesn't seem to need a whole lot of pity. They can fend for themselves.

    Okay, criticize me or criticize the zoo. It was still quite an experience.

    Thursday, July 06, 2006

    On Being a University Town, Part 2

    There's no question as to the economic impact of the academic sector on the economy of Dumaguete. The seven universities and colleges pump in an estimated P2-B into the city annually. Much of the city's services -- the restaurants, the laundromats, the boarding houses, the department stores -- depend on the thousands of students who call Dumaguete home. That, however, seems to be the extent of the relationship between the academe and the city at large. What a waste of potential!

    Take, for instance, the relationship between the city's universities and the local government. It's an oft-repeated complaint that local government policies do not reflect the needs of the academic population. On the flipside, the universities seem content to take a reactionary stance towards the local government's policies. Witness the recent debacles on the unwanted flyover and the previously proposed port area reclamation. No doubt, academe can be vociferous in its response to these issues, but all the same it has always been reactive, not proactive.

    These issues, like so many others affecting the city, could have been taken as a joint practical exercises in urban planning and traffic management between the local government and a university. Yet we see no such cooperation taking place. It's not that we don't have a congestion problem along a major street fronting Silliman; we do. It's not that we don't need better terminal facilities; we do. But academe cannot leave it to city planners to devise the solutions; academe needs to participate and propose alternatives.

    It's much the same situation with the state of entrepreneurship in the city. Letter-writer Razcel Salvarita laments the lack of creative performances, of coffee shops, and venues for artistic expression. He would do better to see these as opportunities for enterprise in a market that he and his compatriots obviously know so well.

    And that's just it. How many local small business startups catering to the aforementioned markets have emerged from the business management programs run by the local colleges and universities? In a university town, the academe is supposed to be the breeding ground for wild yet plausible business ideas. If Salvarita says there is a demand -- and I believe there is -- then how come our business majors are not partnering with the artists to meet the opportunity?

    Admittedly, it can be hard starting new ventures in a conservative town like Dumaguete. For one thing, local business is dominated by a few families who have made their fortunes and the tried and true formulas of retail, transport, construction, and real estate. But of the three -- academe, business, and government -- local business is the most pliable because they are the most predictable in their motivations, which is to increase their fortunes. Aspiring entrepreneurs simply have to be more creative in their approach. Don't they teach that in marketing classes?

    Of the local government what can be said? Say that local government lacks foresight (flyover), morally bankrupt (proposed ordinance rewarding confessed killers), devolves to demagoguery (ordinance 88), ignores environmental issues (dump site location, lights on acacia trees), or is just plain medieval (banning a controversial movie): but who put them into office in the first place? This I find unbelievable: a sector comprising more than 20% of the population of the city and contributing over P2-B to the city economy annually cannot parlay these numbers to represent their interests. Tricycle drivers, it seems, have a more effective political machinery than the academe.

    It should be fairly obvious by now that the thrust of my argument points to the universities and colleges as the source of these new ventures. Why should the onus be on academe? Why not on local government or on local businesses? Because to those whom much is given, much is demanded. Because the currency of these ventures is not money or influence but ideas, passion, and daring, three things which institutes of higher learning are supposed to breed.

    Fortunately, we're starting to see changes in this dismal landscape of an academe indifferent to the practical needs of its host city. Dr. Perry Mecqui of Foundation University began what's turned out to be a very successful marathon clinic, one that attracts hundreds of runners every Sunday. Ian Casocot of Silliman University organized the Literatura Festival (of which I hope there will be more). Boni Comandante put up an innovative venture out of his graduate thesis and is giving back to the community by funding new business plans.

    These are the initiatives we need to transform the city. After all, a university town is to a large extent what its university population makes it.

    Wednesday, July 05, 2006

    On Being a University Town, Part 1

    Rational Technology for July 12, 2006

    Before the story becomes lost in the mists of legend, the local historians ought to document the beginnings of the application of the term "university town" to Dumaguete. It's still a fairly recent usage, one I first heard around the same time I started writing for the Metro Post some four years ago. I'm curious as to its definitive provenance, and I'm sure a number of people are, too.

    Regardless of its origins, "university town" is a monicker that has stuck with some ease to Dumaguete, largely in recognition of the seven universities and colleges that drive the city's economy. People wear it like a badge of pride, and "The Philippines' only university town" is as much a nickname for Dumaguete as "The City of Gentle People."

    And yet, lest we get too complacent, we have to ask ourselves: is Dumaguete deserving of this distinction?

    This is essentially the question that Razcel Jan Luiz Salvarita asks in his letter to the Metro Post entitled "A Pseudo-University Town" some two weeks ago. Salvarita's starting point is an observation by a foreign visitor who calls Dumaguete a "sleeping University Town." It's a comment worthy of some consideration because within the answer lies the kernel of truth as to who and what we are.

    First, what makes a university town? It's a community, as small as a neighborhood or as large as a mid-sized city, which is dominated by its university population and where the educational institutions pervade economic and social life.

    In a paper published in 2004 by the University of New Hampshire, Professor Blake Gumprecht established the parameters for his study: Are the educational institutions the largest employers in the town? What is the enorollment of the schools compared with the population of the city? What percentage of the labor force works in educational occupations? Of the US cities that Blake studied, college students made up at least 20% of the town's population. By this basic metric alone, Dumaguete clearly qualifies as a university town.

    But wait! Gumprecht makes the distinction between a university town and a town that is merely home to a university. While he admits that the difference between the two is fuzzy, it was real enough for him to list down some distinguishing features of real university towns. Gumprecht makes further observations in his definition.

    University towns shape the urban personality of the communities around them. They are youthful places, with average population age being at least ten years younger than industrial cities. They are also transient places as both professors and students tend to stay only a few years. By these factors, Dumaguete meets the standards of being a university town.

    On the other hand, some other demographics bear further consideration. Gumprecht notes that university town populations are highly educated, with adult residents are twice as likely to possess a college degree in comparison to similar-sized cities, and seven times more likely to hold a doctorate. University town residents are also more likely to work in education than in other industries.

    By far the most marked difference between Gumbrecht's definitions and the reality of Dumaguete is the effect of the universities in the personality of the community. University towns are unconventional places, known for their slightly eccentric atmosphere, liberal politics, passion for sports, and environmental stance. On the whole, university towns are comparatively cosmopolitan.

    One may argue that these also characterize Dumaguete. Here I beg to differ. To be certain, we may have some vocal groups who campaign for causes, but for the most part, these seem to be isolated and cyclic concerns. Apparently, I am not the only one who feels that way as Salvarita's foreign visitor, too, comments that "there were no intellectually-stimulating and creative activities, no art performances, no [open] museums, no old-school, Parisian coffee shops where artists abound, no murals on the so-many blank walls, no green projects."

    For the moment, never mind the bohemian slant apparent in Salvarita's lament. It's his vision and his prerogative to seek such an artistic eden. The question is why, given the academic population that is supposed to inhabit Dumaguete, such enclaves and endeavors hardly register a blip in the city's life.

    This is where Dumaguete's shortcoming as a university town is most apparent. There's a dichotomy to Dumaguete: on the one hand, you have the universities and the colleges. On the other, you have the city itself which, despite the stellar history of education in its confines, seems to have been largely insulated from the intellectual, philosophical, and even emotional effects of the universities and colleges. Instead, the impact is largely isolated to the economic contributions of the academe. Why is that?

    Salvarita ventures some answers: the local government is not responsive to the needs of the studentry, and neither, it seems, do the local businesses. These accusations have some truth in them, but they are not the complete picture, either. All well and good to blame government. Anyone can do that.

    A harder question to ask is: aside from the economic contribution, what have the universities and colleges of Dumaguete done to positively influence the community around them?