Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Changes

By now you may have noticed a change in how I run this blog.  Instead of sometimes-daily sometimes-not sometimes-long sometimes-short posts, I've restructured my schedule to just one long essay per week.  Friday / Saturday, to be more specific.

Gone, too, are the pictures.  For my mobile phone pics, I created a new blog, As Viewed Through Android, where I post daily.  DSLR pics will go to my Google+ account.

Why the change? For one, this blog has gotten a bit unwieldy, what with everything going on; I felt it was time to streamline it, but without touching whatever content I already have.  For another, I'm trying to instil discipline in my daily and weekly habits; with my current schedule, I didn't think I could aim for a daily post. 

And finally: I really want to go back to long-form writing.  In this social media world, it seems to be a dying form.

If you've been following along this blog far, thanks very much. So many online distractions out there now, and it's getting much harder to be heard.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Brave New World

It's not every day that a Silicon Valley entrepreneur comes to town, and so it was with much anticipation that we waited for Dado Banatao's visit to Ateneo de Davao. And not only us, apparently, because the presidents and heads from the other Ateneo schools, Manila included, also came by to join the talk that Banatao would give.

Banatao has been dubbed by local press as the "Bill Gates of the Philippines." I'm not quite sure that's a proper compliment, but that's media for you. Regardless, Banatao's achievements are quite impressive. Microprocessor pioneer, founder of three Silicon Valley companies, and now venture capitalist with a portfolio of almost thirty semiconductor companies -- an impressive record for someone who started out as a poor scholar of the former Ateneo de Tuguegarao.

When a VIP comes to visit, expectations are always high. There's the implicit hope of assistance or partnership. Banatao talked in some depth about PhilDev, an organization that is the conduit for many of his charitable activities in the country. PhilDev's focus is on education in science and engineering, with a view towards the Philippines becoming a center for development of new technology. Per Banatao: "Simple humanitarian gift-giving, while having an immediate impact, does not move the economic needle in the country."

Much of the rest of the talk we can readily agree with. "With education, we can't see the result right away, but it has to start." "Entrepreneurship will enable growth in the country; while economic growth is not an end in itself, it is a necessary condition to enable individuals to be productive and creative." "The Philippines, with 100 million people, is a major market. We are part of the demand, but we are going the wrong way, because our value add is mostly small."

Of the diagnosis there wasn't anything terribly new or perspective-changing. But what of the solutions?

At heart, Banatao is an engineer and a venture capitalist, and a terribly efficient one at that. When asked about ailed Philippine education, he pointed to the lack of original research, attributable in large part to the small number of PhD's in science and engineering and to the lack of funding for projects.

Banatao is keen on the big payoff that comes from groundbreaking new intellectual property, not just in any field, but in engineering, the type you can write patents from and build companies on. What of other areas like, say, the services sector? "The overall value returned by service companies is low." We need to be thinking long-term, not short-term.

To Banatao, many of the current programs that go under Bachelor of Science aren't really worthy of the name. "Where's the science in Information Technology?" he asks. And to prove his point, he stumps the IT students with a trick question on binary searches and tables. You don't need to go to school for the things we teach in IT; you can just pick it up from a book. In six months.

In the face of this bold vision, I'm trying to extrapolate how things would be if this were to all come to pass. We would have real distinctions between science and mere applied discipline. A university would truly be a university, where gifted, dedicated students are steeped in the foundations of prepare for careers in research; a university, distinct from community colleges and technical vocational schools.

O brave new world, that has such people in it!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Jose Rizal Does Not Throw A Spinning Fireball Attack

Our students, it seems, have finally discovered video games. Not in the sense of playing them -- of that they already have plenty of experience -- but rather in the sense of making their own. All I can say is: it's about time.

The occasion for these projects is their senior year thesis. This is just about the final hurdle that our students have to face, the sine qua non on the road to graduation. Every year, it's a mad scramble: to find the right topic that's acceptable to the faculty, and then to conduct the research and write the paper. For computer studies students, there's also the added challenge of building a workable prototype.

In recent times, we've had more game-oriented theses. This year probably marks the bumper crop. Half the proposals now concern games of some sort, and not just for the PC but also for iPads and Android tablets.

It really shouldn't be that surprising. Students will do what they know best, and I think it's a sign of honesty on their part and hours that we're finally letting them venture into this territory. And why not? Games are mainstream now, part art form and part business, in many ways a bigger market than traditional media.

Somehow these game proposals, in search of a mentor, manage to make their way towards my desk. I suppose it's because in the faculty I'm the only gamer who's really and truly out of the closet. (See, Mom and Dad? All those hours on the Atari finally paid off.)

Sadly, though, many of the proposals that come to me for evaluation don't really stand a chance in the market. As thesis projects, yes; as viable marketable products? No. Not quite just yet, anyhow.

It's not the lack of talent or skill; these students are really just starting out, and it's almost a given that their output will be a little raw. Rather, their most significant deficiency is a crippling tunnel vision that keeps them from venturing into a space that they truly believe in.

What do I mean? Aren't our students already following their interests when they propose to make games? Yes, but sadly only in a half-hearted manner. The real tragedy is that they don't even see it.

Because invariably, when our students propose a game, they compulsively qualify it with "educational." Now who the heck wants to play an educational game? If it's a game, we'll play it for fun! Educational games are boring!

Worse yet, there's also the compulsion to tack onto it "nationalism." Just as the games are educational, our students also feel they have to make it culturally relevant, with an obligatory hat tip to history or to hagiography.

And the coup de grace? A pitifully limited sense of history that's obsessed on the expedition of 1521 and the revolution of 1896 -- and in between? A black hole that spans 375 years.

Mix all this together and what do you get? Nine times out of ten: "We want to make a role-playing game that will teach kids about the life of Rizal." Now there's a formula for a blockbuster....

Whenever I get this proposal, I want to shake the students by the shoulders and scream in their face: "STOP GIVING ME WHAT YOU THINK I WANT! BURN YOUR CARICATURE OF NATIONALISM! BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF! DAGNABIT, HAVE FUN!"

But of course, being the dignified teacher that I am, I must be content to just tell them: "Jose Rizal does not throw a spinning fireball attack."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kibble

The late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick coined a word for it: kibble, he called it, which is to say the gradual accumulation of...stuff. We've all seen this happen -- how once empty rooms over time build up a collection of knick knacks, odds and ends, and just plain old junk. It's a tangible expression of the law of entropy, that systems tend towards greater disorder over time.

I'm no stranger to kibble. I've seen its effects. When I moved into my rented studio condominium in Manila, it started out bare; when I moved back to Davao two years later, I packed away the equivalent of two balikbayan boxes. This, despite the occasional cargo-laden trips back home the year before to unload my room of junk.

So where did all that junk end up? Home, of course, or in my case, redistributed to Davao and Dumaguete. Because that’s one of the rules of kibble: in a perversion of the rule of conservation of energy, kibble can never be destroyed, only moved. Up to now I have kibble that still makes the occasional journey between Davao and Dumaguete.

Repeated resolutions to moderation haven't really helped. Kibble is just that persistent, an inescapable law of the universe. This year, though, I'm taking another stab at it. The motivation stems from Christmas spring cleaning that the family undertook to clear out the ancestral home. We carted out several boxes worth, accumulated over the years, and yes, I recognized a substantial chunk of it as mine.

The spring cleaning exercise gave me a chance to see my kibble habits at work. Kibble is different for everyone, and my affliction seems to come in three categories: books, toys, and office supplies.

I could go in-depth with each one, but likely you already know the pattern. You go to some shop, and something catches your eye. You don't really need it, not right now at any rate, but...you might! Someday, soon! And the price, it's on sale! Think of the savings! Too good to pass up, and besides you have that little bit of pin money. You satisfy the urge and voila! Kibble!

I saw how pathetic my obsessions had become when, from that spring cleaning, I uncovered a box with unused notebooks, yellow pads, and dried-up glue sticks. I think I must have bought those ten years ago. Maybe more.

Faced with this waste, I decided to take drastic action. This year, I'm taking on an extreme new year's resolution regarding my personal purchases. It goes like this:

I will only buy services and consumables.

Yes, it's rather bold, and I'll be lucky to last the length of January before I break. So far, though, the principle has saved me on several occasions from when I might have bought some useless novelty. It's also forced me to look into my stash for anything I needed.

If I do succeed, though, I'll have gone the entire year with zero physical intake into my life. Then I can say I'm finally making headway in the war against kibble.

Friday, January 04, 2013

What Are You Still Doing Here?

The day before the End of the World it was a Thursday, and I went to work early. Classes had been shifted up, owing to the university-wide Christmas get-together. So close to the long holiday, students weren't really in the mood for classes; neither, I suspect, were faculty. My students turned up anyway, bless 'em, so I purposely kept the lectures easy and light, interspersed with anecdotes here and there. As an added bonus, I told them there would be no homework or assignments because, time being what it was, we ought to have room for more fun.

The day before the End of the World, we had a Christmas get-together. It should've been a party, and if we had followed the example of the previous year, it might have been a pageant. But what with the havoc Typhoon Pablo wrought on Compostela Valley and Cateel, it didn't seem right to have a loud and lavish celebration. The school donated the money for relief instead. It felt like the right thing to do.

The day before the End of the World, I swung by my parents' house. I gave them a hug because, though I really didn't believe it was the End of the World, just in case I was wrong. Besides, it's always good to hug your parents. Of course, I hugged my wife, too, the night before the End of the World.

On the morning of the End of the World, I peeked out the window, and the day seemed quite ordinary. I wanted to heave a sigh of relief, but then again, the Mayans didn't quite specify at which time zone the End of the World would come. To be really certain, I would have to wait another twelve hours, give or take. In the meantime, there were errands to run, a construction to look after, friends to meet, and last-minute tasks before school shut down. If the End of the World came, I wanted to be doing what I should have been doing.

The day of the End of the World went by so quickly, I don't quite remember which errands got done, and which ones got pushed off the queue. For a moment, there was the ominous darkening of the sky, but it turned out to be only a little rain.

Eventually, the End of the World ran out of time zones in which to come. Hooray! We're still here! I wanted to heave a sigh of relief, but then I remembered that that meant I would have to check papers, submit grades, prepare lessons for the remainder of the semester, pay the bills, and do all the other things that adults are supposed to do. Drat!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013, Engage!

For several reasons, I really am looking forward to the year ahead.  Here's hoping it's a good one, filled with opportunities to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Engage!