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Kitchen island build

I had initially thought about doing one of those build videos which I have watched non-stop for several months now. Then I realized that there isn’t much of a point to it. It takes a whole lot of time and focus away from what really matters to me, at this stage: learning and avoiding as many screw-ups as I possibly can. However, I was able to take a few pictures along the way and I think those will give me enough help in trying to recollect the entire experience here.

As I have alluded to, I took inspiration from a lot of builders and DIY’ers from YouTube. For this particular project, I wanted to be a bit more realistic and went for a relatively simple design. This was among the walkthroughs which I opted to study… intently:

However, I wasn’t keen on having two lower levels. One was enough, just to help keep the base solid. Somehow, I doubt even that will get used. Instead, I wanted to have two drawers just below the tabletop, for some storage that’ll be protected from dust. I’ve never made drawers before, which made this arguably the most intimidating part of the build. I also wanted the island to be mobile, much like what’s seen here:

While we have a fair amount of open floor space, I wanted the ability for it to be moved around at our convenience. This implied two things. First, I’ll need to add a fairly large set of casters, which will add to the height of the island. The size of the island will also be influenced by the need for mobility. After doing a bit of thinking and measuring of the house’s kitchen countertop, I figured that the build will be 35 inches high with a top that’s about 2 feet by 4 feet… or something close. Then I drew up an awesome and easy to understand plan along with a bill of materials on my favorite little notepad :-D:

Without the tools that can make it easy for me to joint and mill wood, I made it a bit easier for myself and bought two stair steps and hoped they’d be straight enough to be glued together with no issue. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, so I had to shave off a bit from both pieces. Even then, the joint was not perfect. But it sufficed. The rest of the island was build using pine 2″x4″ planks and plywood. The plan I drew up required 3/4″ plywood, but I ended up using a 1/2″ sheet instead.

Along with jointing the stair steps, the first task was to glue up some of the 2″x4″ planks for the legs. In hindsight, it probably was not absolutely necessary, but I really wanted this to be sturdy. Hopefully, it’s more than enough to compensate for my shitty joinery skills (or lack thereof).

I put the frame together using pockethole screws and glue. I originally intended to glue or screw 2″x4″ or 1″x2″ planks for the lower level. But after deciding the frame will be painted, plywood made more sense and would give a cleaner look in the end.

I cut up more of that half-inch thick plywood for the drawers.

Making the drawer faces required a bit of thinking. I didn’t have a plank of the right size and buying more wood was out of the question at the time. So what I ended up doing was use this old 1″x4″ scrap of pine which was luckily long enough for two faces. Then I glued some edging on the top and bottom of the what would be faces, like so.

I like working with solid wood partly because of the look of the grain. That is why I default to using stains and transparent/translucent finishes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it with the frame. I thought the wood I used had for too many imperfections. And since the joinery wasn’t all that good either, solid color paint made more sense. Black was of course, an early candidate, but it wouldn’t match the look of my house’s kitchen and dining area. So, I opted for a medium to a matte dark gray finish. While a bit surprising at the same time, it was a relief that the wife agreed. I even got her and my boy to help paint.

After waiting for the enamel paint to dry (which is quite a while), I installed the casters, which pretty much completed the frame/base, as seen here:

The table top and the drawer faces were obviously going to receive a different treatment. A clear finish was non-negotiable. But I did go back and forth as to whether or not to apply a stain. Eventually, I decided not to, thinking the clear finish can add enough tint on its own. I applied a clear flat lacquer finish. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take pics while spraying as I was too busy worrying about how to control the gun. I hadn’t sprayed with my air compressor in more than a decade. And having no full control of it’s pressure, it wasn’t a graceful process. I was just relieved I got through with it and made a mental note to just get a cheap dedicated HVLP sprayer since I’ve become a fan of lacquer again. The flat lacquer hardly had any tint to it. But still being nitrocellulose based, I suspect it won’t be too long before it starts yellowing to give a bit of an aged look since this will be placed by the stove.

The last task I needed to do was to put the remaining parts together. Doing the drawers was headache-free. The faces aligned just fine and I didn’t screw up when I drilled the holes for the handles. The top, however, was a different story. Centering it proved more challenging than I thought. This was also were my attempt to cut costs came back to bite me in the ass. Using the cheap sliders instead of the ball-bearing variety meant that the drawers can’t be installed or removed with the top attached. I only realized that after I attached the top the first time (with significant difficulty, if I might add). The tight spacing also led to the drawers not sliding properly as the inside was getting snagged by the brackets used to fasten the top. I had really hoped that the most frustrating stage would not come near the end…

After some negotiating, the whole thing finally came together adequately. I won’t deny that looking at it continues to bring a feeling of satisfaction. I was ready to move it to the garage and use it as my work table just in case the wife doesn’t want to use it. But like our son, as seen here, she seems to approve. Nearly two weeks in and it hasn’t moved from the kitchen.

Again, this isn’t a real tutorial. It’s more of me sharing my experiences and relating the difficulties and mistakes I had to deal with. But I hope that you, having endured the entirety of this blog post, still found something useful if you intend to build your own table. If not, maybe you could still post comments or questions below. I’ll try to respond to the best of my abilities.

Thanks for reading!

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‘Fixing’ social media? (Part 1)

I spent an entire week in Siargao some months ago, before the pandemic became a big thing. And while it may as well be the closest thing I’ll have for one this year, it wasn’t a vacation. Or at least, it wasn’t mostly fun and relaxation. I was invited as a facilitator in ColLaboratoire 2020. With pristine blue waters and colorful horizons as backdrop, I was assigned to work with a handful of fellows whose task was to cover the challenge of fixing social media. It was a peculiar theme, implying that social media as we know it today is somehow broken. But is it?

Try as I might, much to my own annoyance, I could not help but constantly think about the need to ‘fix’ social media amidst sunrises, sunsets and inviting waters.

As the fellows went about their business coming up with some project proposal to enact this fix, I found myself weighing the question on my own. It occupied my mind that entire week. On one hand, social media has been the ground upon which some of the most egregious displays of bad behavior have prospered. It has provided a platform for malicious intent with a reach not thought possible a few decades ago. On the other hand, at its base, social media is essentially just a means to an end. It’s essentially the same argument as something like gun control. And I think it’s apt. After all, social media in recent years had been weaponized in the sense that it has been the venue with which people are being heavily influenced en masse. For example, while I cannot prove it, there is word that the Duterte campaign and subsequent administration employed a troll army to muddy the waters not just for the benefit of Duterte and his supporters, but just as importantly, the detriment of his opposition. The documentary, The Great Hack, thoroughly tells the story of how Cambridge Analytica clandestinely mined personal data from Facebook users and used it for the benefit of the Trump campaign in 2016 without the knowledge, let alone consent, of said users. And I don’t want to start on how social media has become the main battlefield of an on-going Culture War. I’ll save that for later.

Perhaps it would be prudent to figure out what being broken means in this context. To me, being broken means being shattered into multiple smaller pieces, to the point where a thing can no longer function as it was meant to. So, in that sense, is social media broken? I’ve tried coming up with a simple answer and failed. Asking other people’s opinions yielded various answers. It occurred to me that people look at social media differently. Or perhaps more accurately, people focus on different aspects of social media when they talk about it. That means I had to deconstruct the question in order to come up with a clearer answer. I hope you can bear with me on this.

When I think of social media, I see three aspects to it.

  • the concept of social media
  • technology
  • users and content

Social Media as a concept

When we see try to define social media, we immediately think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, Discord, Tiktok and the like. But these are social media platforms (which we’ll get into that later). What social media is at the conceptual level has often been taken for granted. Trying to come up with a definition without doing a Google search will require significantly more effort from most of us. Do a Google search and you’ll still have to deal with several ways of defining it. The first article cited by Wikipedia wasted no time defining social media as something that employs mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content (Kietzmann and Hermkens, 2011). It’s ambiguous, making it possible for just about anything operating under the Web 2.0 paradigm qualify. The same goes for derivatives of this definition. But perhaps it’s just as well, if it’s important to hold on to a definition that can remain valid for a long time in the face of rapid technological obsolescence.

Now, let’s assume that the above definition is generally accepted. I would argue that for social media, as a whole, is to be considered broken, it should no longer be able to function as stated. Is that the case? I don’t think so. Concepts can be flawed, but they’d never come even close to getting applied in real life if they were really broken.

The technology of social media

Again, the platforms are what people tend to think of first at the mention of the term social media. Platforms, like any other piece of technology, can and will break at some point. Also, platforms, like any other information system, are always subject to purposeful attempts to compromise system stability and data from the outside. We popularly identify it as hacking. I personally prefer to call them attacks.

Indeed, websites, including our favorite platforms deal with attacks on a regular basis. For example, while rare, we experience crashes in Facebook. I forget when exactly, but there was this one time late at night when it just stopped loading for a number of minutes. I actually froze with eyes on the monitor and fingers over the keyboard and mouse, not knowing what to do. Then I just laughed at myself a moment later, telling myself, you soft and whiny idiot... Just wait patiently and it’ll be fine. True enough, Facebook went back online shortly thereafter. When I checked my newsfeed, lo and behold… a bunch of angry and frustrated posts greeted me. I could only smile and shake my head. Facebook has, of course, been subject to far serious incidents, such as the data breach back in 2018, which reportedly affected around 50 million users. On a different front, a huge scandal erupted in 2015 when Ashley Madison, an adultery site, was hacked and compromised the personal information of over 30 million users, much of which were leaked in public. The most recent high profile incident, as many of us know, is the Zoom fiasco. As an online teacher and student, Zoom had already been important to me early on, as it provides powerful videoconferencing capabilities through free or reasonably priced professional accounts. It didn’t surprise me one bit when its user base ballooned in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. I won’t get into the technical details in this blog. Suffice to say that accounts were compromised. Uninvited users were able to intrude into meetings (coined as Zoombombing). And at a time where distrust is at a high level, Zoom was forced to admit and apologize for its data being coursed through China, claiming it was a mistake committed in their scramble to cope with the surge of their platform’s usage.

I can probably dig up many other cases, but I think the above are enough to prove the point that social media as a technology works as it should. However, it is and probably always will be vulnerable. I think that’s an important distinction to be made. Any IT expert can tell you that such is the nature of any information system in existence. While you can build it as sturdily as you can, it will inevitably have problems at some point. The good news is that with competent people working on a soundly designed system, solutions are likely to be formulated with relative expediency.

Users and content of social media

Here’s where it gets messy.

The Web 2.0 paradigm under which social media operates still works as it should, as evidenced by the plethora of platforms available to us. However, regardless of whether or not you believe the concept or any specific platform is technically, it is undeniable that there are any issues in social media that need to be dealt with. And yes, there are a LOT of them, some of which continue to have a huge impact in our lives as netizens.

This is where things get really messy, and as I thought about it more, I decided it would be a good idea for me to stop here for now and dedicate an entire blog for this part next time.

Please stay tuned!

References:

Kietzmann, J., & Hermkens, K. (2011). “Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media”. Business Horizons (Submitted manuscript). 54 (3): 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005

Lord, N. (2017). A timeline of the Ashley Madison Hack. Retrieved from https://digitalguardian.com/blog/timeline-ashley-madison-hack

Morris, D. (2020). Zoom meetings keep getting hacked. Here’s how to prevent ‘Zoom bombing’ on your video chats. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2020/04/02/zoom-bombing-what-is-meeting-hacked-how-to-prevent-vulnerability-is-zoom-safe-video-chats/

Neal, D. (2012). Social media for academics : A practical guide (Chandos information professional series). Oxford: Chandos Publishing.

Obar, J., & Wildman, S. (2015). Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue. Telecommunications Policy, 39(9), 745-750.

Perez, S., & Whittaker, Z. (2018). Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data breach affecting 50M users. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/28/everything-you-need-to-know-about-facebooks-data-breach-affecting-50m-users/

Wood, C. (2020). Zoom admits calls got ‘mistakenly’ routed through China. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-zoom-data-2020-4

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Reaction to The Planet of the Humans

Interviewer: Is Al Gore a prophet?
Al Gore: [chuckles awkwardly]
Richard Branson: ummm … ah… how do you spell prophet?
Al Gore: [more awkward laughter with the other two men]

Climate change is such a complex issue that seems to be beyond the full understanding of alarmists and skeptics alike. And yet, it is hardly the only environmental issue which we need to tackle. So, I don’t understand why we are so fixated on it, rather than more acute issues where the science is more solidly laid down, like deforestation, desertification, solid waste management, water pollution… the list is pretty long, and in all likelihood, is tightly linked to climate change, anyway. And then it occurred to me how climate change has been forcefully associated with carbon emission — fossil fuels, or more specifically, how we produce and consume energy. That’s where the big money has been in the last century or so. And to think people and organizations I had looked up to appear to be complicit or turning a blind eye to the whole thing… well, it’s been a while since I watched a documentary with a clenched fist.

The film’s timeline is vague. It definitely covers events within President Obama’s first term, but beyond that I’m not sure. This sort of explains the criticism about it’s alleged datedness. Nevertheless, Planet of the Humans poses uncomfortable, but relevant questions about renewable energy which I have wondered about for a long time now — questions you’d be in danger of being demonized and branded as a climate denier if you dare to ask them openly.

I know greenwashing is a big issue. But I still underestimated how deep and pervasive it has become and how the ugly side of capitalism has subverted, or rather, appropriated the green movement. If Gibbs’s allegations are true, then we really are better off with coal and oil plants, at least for now. And while he doesn’t touch on the topic, nuclear power right now may as well be the available technology with the smallest carbon footprint and demands serious consideration even by those who vehemently oppose it. But no matter what the right answer is, it would only be a band aid solution when one looks at the big picture. Energy is not the only resource we consume. On top of maintaining the integrity of our ecosystems, until we seriously deal with the issue of overpopulation, or at least our overall efficiency with all resources (not just fuel), then civilization may really be in for some drastic unwanted changes in the not too distant future. Maybe not in 10-20 years and not as drastic as mass extinction, as the most fanatical alarmists want us to believe, but possibly close and hard enough for our children and their children to possibly live long enough to see and experience.

* featured image taken from https://planetofthehumans.com/media/

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Another year of raising a son with autism

It’s Aidan’s 6th birthday. It was supposed to be part of an extended stay with my family in the UK which I had been planning for since early last year. Unfortunately, the trip had to be cancelled. Instead we are over a month into the quarantine of the Philippines, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t even have a gift wrapped for him. Thank goodness, I was still able to have some food delivered. In any case, since being cooped up in the house, there hasn’t been a day where I was not concerned about how he’s able to cope. He doesn’t really understand what a quarantine is or how dangerous the coronavirus is. I break a little bit inside whenever he asks to go out or go to school. Maybe, when this is over, I can look back and write about it. For now, I have this.

I wrote and almost finished this blog back in January. But it had to shoved to the backburner as I wasn’t sure how to close it. More importantly, there were other matters that needed my attention. Today seems to be a good day to log in to my website, finish this blog, and put it out.

What prompted me to write this

A while ago, I came across this animated short story in Facebook. I’m not a fan of its melodrama and how it sugar-coats the issue of raising a child with autism. Reality is neither as simplistic nor as pretty. Levitation is so much cooler than many of the real world symptoms it’s supposed to metaphorically represent in the video. Nevertheless, the clip struck a deep, resonant chord which hit awfully close to home as a father who has struggled alongside his son.

Autism

Share it and spread the awareness. Wanting to be free. Wanting to be me. Trying to make people see. And accept the real meLike the page and share : https://www.facebook.com/Dr.ArifKhanconsultantpediatricneurologist/#autism #awareness

Posted by Dr. Arif Khan on Sunday, January 26, 2020
The melodrama touched a nerve.

Where we’re at

My son is now at an age where some parents would broadcast how awesome their kids are. They’d posting pictures in social media of their kids taking all sorts of lessons, performing on stage, and earning medals in prep school. I am years away from that. I’m at the stage where hearing Aidan speak a full coherent sentence or using the toilet on his own as cause for celebration. That is my reality as a father of an autistic child.

Aidan is not dumb. He has smart and inventive ways of going about things. And much to my own chagrin, those include subverting just about any measures I take for his safety and guidance. I love how he is never burdened with indecision. He doesn’t have a hard time figuring out his wants. Expressing it is another thing altogether, though. More importantly, he has speech and behavior issues which have proven challenging to correct. Now, with that said, I never had the problem of comparing my son to those of others. It’s the standards I had set for myself which proved difficult to let go. It took me a lot of time to understand, and more importantly, accept that hardly any of the more conventional wisdom I took to heart in preparation to raise a child does not likely apply anymore.

Last year was a big step for us. Hour-long occupational therapy sessions helped immensely in the past. But in late 2018, we felt like Aidan’s development had plateaued. We also couldn’t ensure regular contact with other kids his age anymore. We therefore had to take things a step further from therapy sessions to a full intervention program. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to be able to afford it. But I was eventually convinced that this was the way to go. And indeed, almost one year after, the payoff has been well worth the time, effort and money. His life skills have significantly improved.

While there are still times when I’d have no idea what’s in his head, with his improved communication skills, it’s now become easier to understand him.

What I realized

In one of the seminars my son’s school hosted, the school director brought up something interesting. She emphasized that it’s not just the children who have bad days. Parents have them, too.

I had months’ worth of bad days last year. And it took a while for me to admit that to myself.

I can list down a number of excuses. Indeed, 2019 was a year that tested me thoroughly and took its toll physically, mentally and emotionally. There were days when I had wanted to just pretend I didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone other than myself — that I didn’t have a challenged son to take care of. But in the end, there simply is no good reason to vent out frustration or anger towards my then five year old because rules I had set for him kept getting broken. While I was not abusive, I certainly made Aidan less comfortable and secure in his own home a few times. I felt horrible when his teacher caught signs of the consequences of my actions in school, looking awfully shy and insecure, especially in the face of his more advanced classmates. My son developed self-esteem issues and I was part of the problem. That was unacceptable. And I felt guilty and ashamed because of it. I had to make adjustments. I had to watch myself – my actions, the words I use and how I use them. But perhaps most importantly, I had to be conscious of the emotions that drove all of the negativity I harbored. The bottom-line is that while I won’t go so far as to say my son is never the problem, I need to reset my approach to raising him, for both our sakes.

What I needed to do

I had to earn back my son’s complete trust, or rather as much he is able to give as possible. While I worry that it might backfire later on, I’ve also allowed him to develop a stronger sense of assertiveness. On the other hand, I cannot forego discipline and firm guidance either. However, with Aidan’s erratic development, balance has been a moving target and striking it is a constant struggle. I’m learning how to be more deliberate with the tone of my voice whenever I’m speaking to him. I can never do the high pitched, almost melodic tone his mom or his teachers use, but I can be effective in my own way. His understanding of the concepts of yes and no, as well as his then new-found ability to make little decisions for himself were game changers. While we’re still far from having real conversations, even this most basic two-way communication has been of immense help and has eliminated a good chunk of the guess-work with him.

I would rather have given him something sturdier and maybe cheaper as a Christmas present. But that would’ve been about me. After making it abundantly clear that the RC Lightning McQueen (Disney’s Cars) was what he wanted as a Christmas gift, I thought it best to concede.

We also did what we can to increase the time he spent with his grandparents’, both from my side and my wife’s. Even though it can get annoying when he does so non-stop in my ears, I think it’s sweet that he would regularly ask to visit them. Perhaps we can expand this to relatives and friends in the future, particularly those closer to his age.

How I see things right now

Don’t get me wrong. We are far from done with his intervention program. And he has a LOT of bad habits which need to be corrected. He’s awfully selective with what he pays attention to. He still doesn’t know how to be careful with the things in the house. Hell, just this morning, I got mad at him for stomping on my foot for no reason. But I do believe these are solvable issues, many of which one can even attribute to being typical of little boys his age. Our approach to dealing with them simply needs to be a bit less conventional.

The casualties of rough play continue to pile up.

Someone asked me if it was true that children with autism possess special skills. I wanted to say yes. It is certainly suggested by some people, including the teachers in Aidan’s school. But the truth is that I really don’t know. Savants in the world are extremely rare. More realistic levels of giftedness are apparently more common, but autism is no guarantee for it. Aidan has tendencies and interests, but they’re nothing more than just those right now. And I do not want expect anything. I don’t want to encourage it in the face of other parents either. That said, I haven’t stopped watching for anything, at least passively. Maybe, just maybe, something manifests. But again, I wouldn’t be disappointed if it doesn’t.

We are now well into this year. With this pandemic disrupting everything, I honestly don’t know what to expect right now. I don’t know what the immediate future holds for Aidan. But no matter what, he will have his family behind him the whole way. And with any luck, he won’t have to deal with as many bad days from his dad as before.

With me and his now battered toy.

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Learning journal excerpts from the last three months

For the second module in my PhD programme, one of the activities was to write a learning journal. I wasn’t sure how to handle that. Some in my cohort took a rather analytical approach to it. But I was one of those who took a less formal style. At the end of the module, I shared some excerpts, which I am pasting here in this blog:

July 4: As of this writing, I am tasked to write a literature review paper. I’ve never done one before, so this will be an interesting experience. But hopefully, I won’t be as clueless as I was with the autoethnography paper in the first module…

— As it turned out, I was.

July 23: … never before have I been bothered so much by health issues when it comes to writing. For two or three weeks have been dealing with migraines, sinusitis and tinnitus… It has been extremely difficult for me to focus…

I didn’t get hospitalised. But I had grossly underestimated the effect of hearing issues. On top of that classic ringing sound we associate with tinnitus, any sound I hear gets partially washed out by what I describe as someone peeing on the toilet from different angles… all day. I can sort of tolerate it now, but I had no idea it would affect me that badly these past few months (I need to go see a doctor again…). I didn’t even want to listen to music or play guitar. It was awfully depressing.

July 31: … not happy with [my draft]. I just hope Alex and Daniel doesn’t get too confused with the whole thing, lol.

— They were very kind despite seeing all the flaws. And of course, so was Sue. I couldn’t incorporate all the suggestions to my final output, but their guidance was extremely helpful. And yes, a draft below the minimum word count did help. I do feel a little guilty because it felt like I was gaming the policy.

September 12: I’m going to miss the deadline, probably by a day or two. Looking back now, I am second guessing my decision to try something new (literature review on MOOCs) rather than play to my strengths (mini-project continuing my work from Module 1). Regardless, it has been a great learning experience.

— I probably should qualify why I ended up being late. The most basic way of putting it is that I needed to write my assignment more like a literature review! I had to scale back on context and overhaul everything to make more sense than before. And the only way I thought I could do it is that instead of discussing how my home university’s framework in handling MOOCs would stack against what is being done everywhere else, it had to be turned upside down. And since we’re thin on published articles about our work, it made better sense to do a review on one major aspect of developing MOOCs and draw out what my university (or any other institution for that matter) can learn from others. The inclusion-exclusion criteria helped a HUGE amount and gave me more direction. But I only figured how I wanted to do this late in the game. I could have sent something sort of incomplete like in Module 1, but I didn’t think I’d get a passing grade this time.

It was a brutal three months and I’d probably do things a bit differently if I had to go back. But like in my excerpt. It was indeed a learning experience which I won’t soon forget. And if anything, when I go back to studying communities of practice, I think I can figure out how to be more effective in my research. 

03

Educate before you advocate

These past few weeks, I found myself in face to face forums and discussions about green living. I wouldn’t be motivated to attend of my own accord. But I did so to support my wife, who was part of these talks. She is currently into conducting natural hand dyeing workshops, which would be a fascinating topic for another blog. But today, I’m writing about the open forums where people had a lot to say about green living in general. And I bit my lip for the entirety of the talks.

The wife’s first conference presentation since Hanoi in 2016.

Back when I was a graduate student taking up Environmental Science, I often wondered why my professors weren’t really part of any environmental advocacy movement. They did extension and consultancy work. But they’re never at the forefront of any advocacy, which to my limited exposure and mindset back then, seemed like a no-brainer.

I thought about joining Greenpeace Philippines, but never got around to actually doing so. The reason for my being deterred seemed pretty shallow, though. I just happened to arrive late for their orientation. Traffic wasn’t good and I got lost trying to find their headquarters. By the time I found it, people, most of whom were much younger than me, were already filing out. I talked a bit with the guy who probably facilitated the orientation, but that didn’t amount to much. Maybe he was tired and didn’t have much patience left for some late-comer. Maybe he saw me getting off my old gas-guzzling 1991 Mitsubishi Galant and wasn’t impressed. I don’t know why I expected a warmer reception. But not receiving it cast a wet blanket over my enthusiasm. And that was it. Almost.

Despite that, I still regularly visited the global online forum of Greenpeace. There weren’t a lot of actual volunteers among them. But a lot of people from all over the world visited, which I found exciting. I was eager to be more aware of what’s going on outside my backyard, so to speak. However, as time went by, I noticed tension among its constituency. Much of the activity in the forums was generated by a minority of alarmists and pseudo activists. Moderates such as myself simply tended to go with their flow. While on the other end, were the supposed trolls, contradicting the alarmists. I still haven’t forgotten how a particular Norwegian dude kept posting about his refusal to subscribe to the popular sentiments and how tasty whale meat was. Boy, were the alarmists triggered. At first, I found the whole thing distasteful. I didn’t understand why he even bothered. But in the end just shrugged my shoulders snickering to myself. He was a bona fide troll and not worth taking seriously.

I also had my own tussles in that forum. For example, one time, someone started a photo contest, which I eagerly joined. It was simple enough – send in pictures of birds. Now, I wasn’t much of a photographer back then. This was my pre-DSLR days and I knew next to nothing about photographic exposure. But I was confident enough to say that my work back then could hold its own against anything else that were submitted. I lost. Do you know why? It wasn’t because my pics were bad. Well, they’re not that good by my current students, but trust me, the others I saw were worse . It’s because the judges and the rest of the vocal members didn’t like that one of the birds I shot was tied to a perch. They immediately assumed the birds in my pics – a Philippine Hawk-Eagle, a serpent eagle and a kestrel – were pets. I explained that they were in a bird sanctuary, so I was able to shoot up close. More importantly, these birds were being taken care of with the intention of being re-introduced to their habitats. It hardly mattered.

I got myself in another argument later. I don’t even remember what it was about. But I was calling for a less-lopsided and more evidence-based discussion on whatever environmental issue the topic was. Remember, I was still an impressionable environmental science student at the time. All I got for a response was this rant that didn’t even address my point. Then it finally occurred to me… much of the vocal crowd were driven by emotions, rather than a scientific or factual understanding of how the environment works. I suspected that I was in the virtual presence of arm chair activists, judgmental vegans and neoliberals – the makeup of what we know today as the social justice warriors. They hated people like me. This was all but confirmed through interviews with former Greenpeace members I read, including one of its co-founders. I just got tired of the constant hatred for humans, so I logged off one final time and didn’t look back. We can’t come up wth sensible solutions to dealing with environmental issues in contempt against humanity. Like it or not, we ourselves must factor in the solution and therefore cannot be ignored. It’s been years since I have intently browsed through the Greenpeace website.

Dr. Patrick Moore

Little did I know that this was but one of many battlegrounds for the prelude to the post-Gamergate culture war that we are experiencing today. It certainly changed the way I think about global issues such as climate change and how I approached any sort of discussion. And then and there, I understood why my professors weren’t big environmental advocates. We have a different calling – to properly educate people by making them aware of the many sides to each issue and let them make up their own minds. And yes, that includes us, too. There is still so much we do not understand about this planet. Saying anything definitive about how and why there is climate change is something I will leave for people better than I.

Now, going back to the Unconference, I kept quiet because while I definitely have my perception and opinions, I didn’t know these people. Where they come from is easily apparent. But how they are as people… I didn’t know. I wanted to avoid any risk of starting arguments with strangers. I had no intention of making a scene while my wife was in front of everybody. But I will say that such discussions can be helped immensely if more people well-versed in the known science are part of it. The Google search engine is an incredibly powerful tool, but I don’t think we should rely solely on it for knowledge. At the same time, the scientific community could do a better job spreading the knowledge. There is never a shortage of studies in universities. But how much of their findings actually trickle down to the general public? Papers are published exclusively in journals which, aside from people doing research themselves, hardly anybody would read. And even then, many of these papers are behind pay walls, which I honestly, would not bother with unless my university already has access.

Academics and scientists doing local grassroots work need more support and exposure. While I’m not saying there is a total disconnect, the divide is certainly significant. And in some cases, it’s toxic. Smart-shaming has unfortunately become a thing, likely a negative reaction to how some of the more intellectually gifted people behave. As they say… with great enlightenment comes great arrogance. I see it a lot in the Internet and it is miserable. But it is a relief to see that it’s not like that in my immediate physical reality. That’s why there is still much relevance in face to face open forums. You can’t beat the sharing of knowledge and experience that happens in them.

I would like to see the divide bridged someday. Advocacy needs to be tempered by balanced thorough knowledge and academic pursuit guided by positive purpose. I get the value of being emotionally driven, but without the proper compass, it can be a dangerous path to take.

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Grinding in isolation

Every now and then, I write something for my blog which snowballs into a huge personal rant that exposes me emotionally in manners that I might regret. I end up not posting these blogs. Even before I started typing this, it somehow felt like this was going to be another one of those. But I really want to have something new in my blog. This is, after all, my birth month. So, I will try my best to frame this into something that might be relevant to students, colleagues, friends and family who might actually spend time reading. I’m also going to break them down into parts with headers. That way, people can just read the parts they’re interested in and ignore the rest.

My birthdays… they are almost always depressing. Reasons vary each year. I never look forward to it, even when I was young. Anything nice that happens right around it, to me, is happenstance. It’s why I don’t like making a big deal about it. I almost never do anything special for myself. Contrary to what a few people might be suspecting, I still don’t believe I’m clinically depressed. I want to avoid even the remote chance of insulting those who actually deal with depression on a daily basis. But there really are days, like these recent ones, where getting through each day is such a chore, I wonder why I bother getting up in the morning.

This gloom is not what I want to write about, though. Instead, I would like to remind myself of the things I have set out to do and how I intend to have something to show for. And there are a lot to write about.

My studies

I am now six months into my PhD studies at Lancaster University. And there are at least another 42 to go through. I am lucky to have been allowed by UPOU to focus on this. But those first six months were rough. I didn’t feel like a real student until last month, with all my non-academic issues finally resolved. And even then, I do feel isolated from everyone else until now. It has had a significant effect on my academic performance. It’s funny. In my previous stints as a student, I found working with groups challenging. I was a bit anti-social and tended to keep to myself. Today, I find that behavior a liability.

My brilliant cohort at Lancaster University, all of whom are halfway across the world from me.

As of this writing, I am tasked to write a literature review paper. I’ve never done one before, so this will be an interesting experience. But hopefully, I won’t be as clueless as I was with the autoethnography paper in the first module, for which I just received my final score. Yes, I passed. I got a score that’s actually a bit higher than I anticipated — nearly earning distinction. That’s the good news. But I could have done much better, like many in my cohort. I found a critical flaw in my work. Fixing it would have allowed me to do a better job at tying everything more neatly. I only realized that literally hours before the deadline, so I unfortunately submitted and had no choice but to simply brace myself.

Again, I passed. But it wasn’t satisfying. Frustrating, yes, because I was on that line between doing good and doing great. But I’ll live. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Looking back, I’ve always been a slow starter. I’m never among those who make the best first impressions. But I always make it to the finish line. And that’s where I intend to be after 42 months.

At work

I realized that I’ve never really taken the time to read my colleagues’ papers. The good news is that my studies have given me a compelling reason to finally do so. And I’m going to start with IJODeL this month. I will also willingly attend a round table discussion on how UPOU will proceed with its MOOC-related endeavors. As long as it can be tied into my studies, I will always be open to do something here and there at work, even if I am on study leave. Just no administrative work, please.

My affiliations

I’ve been neglecting my affiliations with communities that I am supposed to be a part of. I probably should tie these loose ends. I can’t attend ICEM this year in Memphis, but I have to find a way to ensure my joining next year in Portugal. I still intend to help bring ICEM to the Philippines at some point because I believe there is a huge potential for a productive partnership with UPOU. I don’t even know if SEAD still considers me as a member. If I am, I’ll have to find a way to be more active. If not, the least I can do is thank Angelo Vermeulen for the opportunity to be part of it before I move on. On the other hand, I will always be a member of the UP Animal Science Society. I can never completely let go. I worked too damned hard for it when I was in college and then some. But I will have to ask for my brods and sisses’ pardon if I continue to lay low. Many of them, I consider friends, but I’m too out of place, as far as profession and even mindset are concerned.

My courses and students

I thought I would miss my classes. Perhaps in those first few weeks after stepping away, I did. But now, I fully realize how much I needed a break from it. The stressful grind of repetition was already getting too much for me to handle without compromising my sanity. I was admittedly distraught back in January and February. I was in the middle of dealing with my paperwork for Lancaster University and I felt there was a legitimate chance my enrollment might get suspended (which is a long story). I was also still coming to terms with the shortcomings of the last project I had undertaken with my current and former students, The Digital Collective.

However, I will promise that The Digital Collective will be revived. I’ve even started posting in its Facebook Page again. The process will be slow, and I doubt I will get all of the old band of students back together for this. But there will be progress. That, I can promise. I still believe it can do some good in UPOU. And the thing is, my continued pursuit of this will actually help me with my own studies in the coming years, as I had come to realize through my autoethnography PhD assignment. The best part of this is that I’m actually looking forward to it. Again, I don’t expect most of my former volunteers to return. But I do hope at least a handful of them will. We have at least one major production assignment to get back to.

We’ll be getting The Digital Collective back on track.

Finally, I need to find time to make revisions to my manuals in Photography and Audio. The courses themselves, I believe I’ve been able to let go, for the most part. But the manuals are mine and ensuring their relevance will always be my responsibility. Initially, I had hoped to release a community edition of these manuals with the help of The Digital Collective. But it’s become apparent that in order to accomplish anything related to these manuals in a timely fashion, I have to do it myself.

Personal interests

Photography has sort of taken a back seat in my life. It doesn’t excite me as much as it did before. Going out to shoot has become more of a chore, even during my most recent travels in Finland, Taiwan and England. So, it’s strange that in spite of that, I still think about acquiring a full frame DSLR camera. It probably won’t happen anytime soon. But still…

While I haven’t regressed, it feels like something’s missing in my most recent photography.

I think I’ll be able to get by without selling some of my guitar gear, which is a relief. Aside from the sentimental value of those actually worth selling, I really don’t want to go through the actual process of having to sell. My overall previous experience hasn’t been good. I don’t want to add to that. Well, actually, I have sold something – an LAG acoustic to one of my nephews. I sold really low. But hey, that’s family. I also wanted to make sure that he gets the best out of how much his dad is willing to spend. Not that this particular guitar is the best ever, but it is good enough to make learning how to play more pleasurable. The problem with cheap pieces of shit guitars is that they aren’t well made, painful to play and poorly intonated. All of them take away from the total enjoyment a person gets out of playing music. And following that same logic, I doubt I’ll hold on to the RJ mini-guitar I bought last year. My son deserves to play on something better, should he actually develop an interest in playing later on. I don’t think it’s worth selling, so who knows… I might give it away.

My nephew is the new owner of this one.

What I would like to do right now is to finally sit down on work on the songs that I’ve had in my head since I was a teenager. If I can sit down and record two of them this month, then I’ll be pretty happy. They’re not hard to play, so I’m not worried too much about my guitar chops (or lack thereof). It’s the singing which I dread. I haven’t been a decent singer since my 20’s. I’ll just have to see if I can still do anything presentable with my vocals. I would also like to record the short sound and music clips I had intended to make available through The Digital Collective — things people in UPOU can use.

I’ll be squeezing these little audio projects in while studying.
Result of the mix above.

I’m also starting to get back into reading books again. By this, I mean materials outside the required readings in my PhD. I already have a huge backlog thanks to Humble Bundle. Them being eBooks doesn’t make things more conducive for reading, but they are pretty convenient. I’m currently halfway through Sword of Destiny from The Witcher series and started with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I’ll get to the design books from Humble Bundle after.

I should seriously remind myself that, after some refreshing and brushing up, I am still an environmental scientist and ecologist. I’m never going to be able to do that within UPOU, but maybe I still can somewhere else.

I haven’t done any carpentry recently. The house is in need of a bunch of repairs and modifications, which I think I can do on my own. I just need the funds.

Family

Aidan’s progress, while not insignificant, remains erratic. One of his school’s teachers said something important a few weeks ago. The child will have bad days, yes. But so will the parents. I’ve had so many this year and I hate myself for having them. The slow grind of repetition and erratic development gets to me everyday. Any father of an autistic child would understand. Any loving father of an autistic child would find a way to soldier on.

His compulsion to act on his curiosity is relentless, which a parent must match with patience and vigilance to keep him (and everything else!) safe.

Perhaps I’m feeling the grind more, not just because Aidan is getting bigger, faster and stronger, but also because I have attempted to take some of the load off from my wife. She has finally started anew doing her own thing, with her workshops. I’m still heavily involved, though… as financier, driver, porter and babysitter. Just a bit more than I initially bargained for, to be honest. She also has found herself in an environment-conscious crowd, which was what spurred memories of mine as an environmental science student. Maybe one day I will engage with that crowd more actively. But for now, I’ll be staying in my lane. More autonomy for my wife from me would also be nice, I think.

Vanni at the Green Unconference at Taguig last June 8.

I’ve also started preparing to bring my family to the UK next year with me for maybe a month. It’s a bit challenging as my income decreased significantly when I went on study leave. I can barely get by as it is. But next year will be the best time for them. I’m fairly sure I already have the plane far covered. But if anyone has tips on how to make the actual stay cost effective (the accommodations alone will be murderous), I’d love to hear them.

Closing

This is a lot. I’d be surprised if I manage doing them all within the year, let alone this month. But hopefully, the learning experience, as well as the reward of finishing these tasks, will be incentive enough for me to get up from bed during those bad depressing days.

I write not to ask for sympathy, advice, or any sort of assurance that tomorrow will be a better day. But I would like to somehow be better connected with you. All these things I plan on doing or getting back into is pretty much a reaction. Going on study leave to purse a doctorate degree online has brought about a sense of isolation that is not quite like anything I’ve experienced in the past. I’d like to combat that. And I would be grateful for any help.

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Digital Collective Autoethnography Study Blog 3: Peer feedback

I was able to get a few of my cohorts to provide some highly valuable feedback regarding my one-page proposal, which I posted here.

The level of discourse has so far been higher and more focused than what I have grown accustomed to in my own courses at UPOU. Limiting discussion posts isn’t something I would enforce myself, but I can see the benefits, provided the entire class is all in. But I digress. Below are the highlights of the feedback I received.

The concept of change management

As far as I know, the Digital Collective project is the first of its kind in UPOU. There is certainly nothing of its kind within the BAMS program. The idea of students themselves being a resource is not exactly new, given our efforts towards ePortfolio-based learning. However, students becoming active participants towards the production of new resources and the betterment of existing ones is entirely new. One can argue that this would undeniably bring about major changes to how we approach learning. I had focused acutely towards the production aspect of the project. I may not have given enough care for the human element.

Directly inviting/recruiting participants vs. volunteerism

I realize that self-motivated active volunteers are arguably the best kind of participants one could have in a project such as this. But such people are exceedingly rare in UPOU. That is why I went with the other approach. However, I had not thought much about how hand-picking participants would pose its own set of potential issues. Did it cause participants to see it as more of an obligation because they somehow felt like they owe me something, rather than an opportunity to enhance their learning experience in the university? Did they see it more as a distraction to their studies, rather than a means to actually be of help to it?

Dissonance of perspectives between me and the participants

As an online teacher and with experience managing the BAMS program, I have an opinion of what the community needs in order to thrive. That said, I remember my assumption that students would agree with that opinion cracked the first time when I discussed the BAMS program’s trimestral schedule. I hate it. But much to my surprise, there is an indication that majority of the BAMS students might actually prefer the trimestral schedule, rather than the conventional semestral schedule of UP. While I still disagree with them, looking back, I do understand why. Beyond ourselves, we as teachers/administrators need to account for the needs of the students and the university. Students, on the other hand, only need to look after themselves. And when the popular primary goal is to graduate at a quicker pace (something I do not share), as currently allowed by the university, then yes, the trimestral schedule could potentially allow that.

The point is, with all of my preaching about how the Digital Collective benefits everyone in the UPOU community, I did not seriously broach the question of whether or not the participants honestly cared as much as I did, or at least care enough to want to be a part of the project long enough to provide a meaningful contribution.

Facilitating vs. Managing

According to a cohort:

From my understanding of what you’ve written, you were not facilitating the project but managing it. To facilitate the project is to remove the obstacles for students to run it themselves, and I think this follows from the point about ownership. OER is (are?) excellent for autonomous learning, though it is something that needs to grow organically.

An excellent point. My purpose was to facilitate, however, what I did was management work. But to my partial defense, I believe it was necessary, as the project was an entirely new thing for everyone. I had to be particularly hands-on at the beginning. Letting go of the project to allow the students to run it themselves was an end goal. Unfortunately, we failed to meet that goal. I honestly don’t know how to allow this to organically grow in an ever-changing online community. That’s why I don’t think I can do away with managing the project. On the other hand, I probably should have had a conversation with the students about them taking over at some point.

Exploring student motivations

As already alluded to, I should have been more conscious about the motivations of the participants. Sharing motivations really was a one-sided affair, with me seeing little more than fairly passive agreeing by the students. I need to understand their personal motivations and agendas better, so as to allow students to better align their needs and wants with the project. It will help them develop that sense of ownership that is crucial for their sustained involvement.


I had been given a LOT to think about. I am impressed at how much my peers were able to catch just be scanning through my one-page proposal. In the coming months, I am going to find out just how valid these points are and how they can help answer what are to be my finalized set of research questions. And perhaps by then, I can think about rebooting The Digital Collective project.

Hopefully, I’ll still have people with me when the time comes…

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Digital Collective Autoethnography Study Blog 2: One-page proposal

We were required to submit a 500 word proposal. Below is my submission, word for word, along with paraphrases of our professor’s comments.


Enhancing student engagement in an online university: successes, failures and how to move forward

Submitted February 17, 2019
ED.S821: Research Methods in Education and Social Science Settings: Philosophy, methodology, techniques and tools

For the past few years, I have been working on and off with an idea to leverage technology and know-how learned in class to enhance student engagement and benefit different sectors in the university. I was allowed by my office to start a project to test the waters, so to speak. The project was centered on the idea of student co-creation of content that they can add to their portfolios, and at the same time, share the content as open educational resources (OER) with the greater learning community in my university. The goal was to build a self-sustaining community that can enable co-creation that will span multiple cycles.

I hand-picked a group of students whom I believed would be deeply interested to lay the groundwork for the project. Unfortunately, getting even those students to buy into the idea and then actually do work had proven to be more challenging than I had expected, leading to the project stalling at its infancy.

In light of the setback, I would like to look back to the efforts exerted by myself, as well as colleagues and students who were on board at the time. In intend to find answers to lingering questions in my mind:

  1. Have I overestimated the worth of this project to the students? If so, how much incentive do students need to take more active roles? (A more exploratory question, rather than one that can be answered by a simple yes or no.)
  2. What were the roadblocks that students faced in trying to participate? (Being an autoethnography study, the central focus needs to be me, rather than the students.)
  3. Was my approach ineffective? If so, how can I improve as a facilitator? (Our professor remarked that this may be too personal and difficult to draw out useful information from. On the other hand, I had a peer who finds it interesting. As of this posting, I still not need to further understand what our professor meant.)

Admittedly, at the time, my main focus was on the production aspect of the project. In my faith towards my hand-picked volunteer students, perhaps I had unwittingly had not paid as much attention to their circumstance as I should have. This study ought to provide an answer for that. It would especially be a huge oversight as nurturing a learning community is something I had studied in the past. I will most certainly have to revisit that.

A subjectivist approach will likely be taken. However, my suspicion, or to a certain extent, fear, is that this would be a good fit for attempting to apply complexity theory , as the subject project, is a (pseudo)community of individuals with a diverse array of circumstance which need to be accounted for. I will still have to study this intently before finalizing.
As far as data collection is concerned, my likely course of action will be to interview as many of the involved students as I can. I just need to come up with proper questions. It may require a significant amount of effort, but the group wasn’t that large. I think it’s doable.

Autoethnography will undoubtedly be an effective tool for this study, due to my role as the main proponent of the stalled project. Detaching myself will not be possible. How it moves forward still depends on me and how I deal with the other moving parts. I will be dealing with matters of human perception, behavior, and interaction which might be best presented through narratives.

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Autoethnography study blog 1: The Digital Collective

So, I’m nearly a month into my PhD studies. I started off pretty good, then got derailed by a bunch of things and am now trying to catch up. I’ll manage that, but I just had a thought. The depth and structure of the discussions we are expected to participate in class has been challenging, even by my standards. And now, I just realized that each post is actually substantial enough for me to re-post as a blog here, especially with the nature of the discussions at the moment. I wasn’t quite expecting to get into autoethnography, but it has proven to be intriguing. And it will definitely help me produce material for my personal website.

In this post, we were asked to write about a difficult or uncomfortable experience at work or school in the past which I would like to study further. Hahaha… I have quite a selection. But the most intriguing of them is my recent efforts in establishing the Digital Collective, which has definitely led to a high level of frustration and disappointment. I wasn’t expecting to get more mileage out of the experience so soon. But lucky me…

Below is my post word for word…

It was actually late last year, just before the start of the program, where I had a profound experience. I had been teaching in my university for more than 10 years, half of which I have spent dedicated to an undergraduate program, BA Multimedia Studies. Unlike in graduate programs, many of my students were quite young, ranging between 16-25. My belief is that they had needs and concerns which weren’t necessarily important for older students anymore. They need, or at least they claim to need causes and interests to foster, which are related, but not necessarily ingrained in their program’s curriculum.
So, I had this idea the channel their energies to help fulfill their wants, while at the same time, practice the knowledge and skills they have learned from their program, while at the same time, allow their output to benefit the greater learning community of the university. Hence, the birth of what I called the UPOU Digital Collective.

I had it all planned out, down to the part where it will eventually factor into my PhD studies here. This was actually my pitch during my discussion with one of the faculty members prior to applying.

Anyway, one of the key steps was to get a select group of students together — those whom I felt I could rely on. Our task was to produce an initial set of multimedia content as a proof of concept, as well as to map out their future tasks and what they need from the university to fulfill them. So, I worked to get a budget to get these students, as well as a handful of alumni to convene face to face for a two day workshop. I did my best to make clear what the expectations were, to which they agreed to. I also consulted with them to ensure I was meeting their own expectations and the project can fit into their own agenda, if any. I thought I did. It was tiring, and yet it felt fulfilling. I thought I had succeeded and my project was on its way to a successful start.

I was wrong.

I hardly heard anything from them again regarding the deliverables. It was particularly disheartening because I gave them everything I could. I know it’s not right for me to do so, but I even harbored thoughts of betrayal because I trusted them and perhaps it did not help that I believed this would impact my own studies. I was like… well, now what!?

At best, it was a major roadblock. At worst, it was a complete failure. But perhaps I can salvage this and write about it in Module 1. I would like to have a clear understanding of what happened. I cannot relate this with any specific principle or theory right now, but I would like to figure out what I did wrong, or did not do enough of. How can I do a better job at engaging students and motivate them well enough to produce, whether or not the project has a direct impact in their grades. As much as this was a downer, I still refuse to believe that this is simply the nature of our undergraduate students and we as teachers and mentors cannot do anything about the whole thing.

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The detour to 2019

Yes, each year hardly turns out being the same. But the past ones haven’t really been all that different from each other either. The milestones were different. The routine… not so much. But even that changes this year.

The last few years were a buildup for this one. And they were rough. It has been mentally and emotionally draining. I was making decisions and moves that affected people’s lives, as well as the university itself. And while I think I got things right most of the time, I had become progressively more worried about my being fit to keep making these decisions. The job had taken its toll on me, and it was pricey. And to top it all off, the pressure to continue my studies perpetually loomed over me, casting major uncertainties over my future.

I needed a break. A long one. And there were only two ways to have it. The first was to start my PhD (believe it or not). The second was to resign, and at some point look for another job — admittedly a scary proposition. But oh so many times did I come close to doing it..

I had struggled to find a doctoral program that suited me. It was even more difficult to find one that would admit me. One problem was my inability to come up with a solid topic to help me get admitted in PhD by research programs. Professors willing to support me to turn my ideas into a topic were far in between. What few I met were in universities which I either could not afford to be in or did not have openings for me. I got rejected quite a few times. . I could have returned to UP to study. But there was no way I was doing that. I would rather quit my job. Don’t get me wrong. There is no other place I would rather study in the country. But I have spent nearly my entire life living in or around a UP campus. It isn’t just school or my place of work. It has been my life. Whatever I got from UP before, I have given back. I need to get out, even if just temporarily, and then return with something new to offer back to the community. I don’t expect everyone to understand, but that’s how things go around here. I had to study, and do so abroad. Unfortunately, I felt that my window to do so was closing.

Fortunately, opportunity came, and in an unlikely manner.

After years of worry and suspicion, my son’s condition was more definitively diagnosed, or rather, there is now a more definite working impression. Aidan falls within the autism spectrum. It’s finality was… incredibly difficult to process or understand, let alone come to terms with, especially when there are no clear reasons how it happened. Why him? Why my family? Those first days of being hit with the news… There had been times before when I seriously considered that I may had already been gradually sinking into depression. If I were, this would have really brought me to the brink. I didn’t want to move, let alone get out of the house. To go online and do my job required great mental effort. I was barely functional. I’m still not sure what spurred me to get up one day, talk to the people I needed to talk to, and deal with important matters that required the most immediate decisions. But I am extremely thankful for it. Things could have definitely been worse.

This changed everything.

One of the few things which experts consistently say when caring for such a child is to build routines and a solid support system around him. I strongly believed that at the time, we already pretty much had those, or at least they would be relatively easy to attain here, near friends and family. Going abroad for three years was no longer an option. I was staying. We were keeping the house and will commit to the upkeep. My wife gets to remain in close contact with her immediate community and perhaps resurrect her professional life in some form or fashion. My dad would have more time to be a grandfather. We would finally get ourselves a newer and bigger car. I could stop worrying about who would adopt our Golden Retriever, Roxie. Settling these matters was a cathartic experience. It was such a relief.

Yes, the matter of my studies was still in limbo. However, I should know full well that being unable to move abroad is no longer an issue in this day and age. If anything, it actually provided a clearer path. My boss earlier broached the idea of me looking into studying in distance mode at Lancaster University. It was something which I was never against, but wasn’t overly excited about, either, even as I was in constant communication with a professor from there. However, thanks to all the life changes happening, it suddenly made the most sense. Even though I lodged in my application too late in order to be included in their 2018 uptake, I continued to pursue it for 2019. The process didn’t exactly go smoothly, but yes, I was lucky enough to be accepted. Reading that offer letter led to my biggest sigh of relief in years.

I remember reading that first sentence, closing my eyes, breathing in deeply, and slowly exhaling…

It also became an inspiration to renew my focus on research, leading to even more unlikely career milestones. My first book chapter was finally published. I was able to make it to Tallinn, Estonia and reconnect with friends at ICEM, which in turn has led to collaboration, and perhaps, partnership opportunities at an organizational level (we’ll see). These are things which seem to be seen as next level achievements in a faculty’s career. My only regret is that I have to undercut this momentum myself as I have to take my leave of absence, a week from the time of this writing.

I had also attempted to engage students and alumni again on a higher level and establish something that would be mutually beneficial to them and the university, and somehow tie the whole thing in with my PhD studies. Everybody would have won. I tried before and it didn’t work out. I tried again in the hopes of having a different outcome. I was even planning on spending more time with these students this year to help them with their projects. Unfortunately, things did not pan out as I had hoped. It was disappointing, since there were early signs of promise. Maybe later on my vision will really catch on. But it won’t be with these students and alumni. Their time is passed. Once again, my hope will rest on the future batches.

The (UPOU) Digital Collective website was among many projects I had in mind to do with UPOU students.

While I happily look forward to this year, I do wish my colleagues at FICS and ICTDO great fortitude in the while I’m out. There’s so much that needs to be done at UPOU and I am well aware of how much additional weight my hiatus applies to their already heavy workload. That is why I will maintain some presence when I’m needed. I can’t facilitate classes or do administrative work. But I could help out in other things. I owe them that, at the very least.

As for Aidan, I truly believe that he will be fine. Yes, he has development issues. But there are flashes of intelligence and awareness in him that gives me hope — a story for another blog entry, perhaps. The next few years will be challenging, but he will achieve normalcy once we find the best way to support his development. And the good news is that I will be physically around to help him.

He’s a handful. But he’ll be fine.

It’s interesting to me how everything unfolded and is turning out ok, heading to 2019. I’m not saying it’s smooth sailing from here on. After all, I’m about to take on things that will undoubtedly pose its own set of challenges. But it would be nice to deal with as little turbulence as possible in these next years. Here’s to hoping.

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Farewell and thank you, Ma’am Liza.

I had strong second thoughts about attending my high school alumni homecoming last December 8. I always do, because I have mixed feelings towards my time in UP Rural High School. I don’t hate it. But I didn’t particularly enjoy it, either. However, one of the few things about high school that I cherish to this day is the respect I had for many of my teachers. And there was one algebra teacher in particular that comes to mind.

Little did I know at the time of the past and future ties I would eventually have with Ma’am Liza Carascal. She was a family friend. I found out because she told me during my first day in her class in my sophomore year, which was embarrassing because I had no idea at the time. It was of course, confirmed by my mom the same day when I got home from school and asked her. But it was only a few years ago did I have an idea how far back that friendship went. I was rummaging through my mom’s old things. She was a bit of a pack rat and quite the documenter. She’d probably have loved social media if she were alive today. I found her old scrapbooks covering my childhood. I find out that Ma’am Liza was actually among her first visitors right after I was born.

Mom’s handwriting. She listed Ma’am Liza among the first people to visit her after giving birth to me in 1977.

It would be years after high school when I crossed paths with her again.

She transferred to UPOU full-time after a while, but by the time I came in as a faculty there, she had already returned to UPRHS to serve as its principal – something which suited her incredibly well and will likely be best remembered for for in the years to come. However, she still maintained multiple roles in UPOU, as an affiliate faculty and part of the UPOU Foundation, Inc. It was in these capacities in which I interacted with her professionally. I admit that, at times, I shied away from her – again, because I had moved on a lot from high school and was not particularly interested in revisiting that part of my life, of which she was a huge reminder of.

Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010. It was one of my first trips as a UPOU faculty. Aside from learning how awkward I look beside my petite bosses and not to trust that strangers will be able to take good pictures for you, I got to know Ma’am Liza more. She was quite the shopaholic.

True enough, nearly every chance she got, she kept talking about Mutyang Rural. She’d say it needed help from alumni such as myself. She’d ask me to hold this or that seminar or workshop for students and teachers in Rural. She’d also ask about my batch and why we weren’t as united as we were supposed to be (in hindsight, she probably said this to everyone regardless of batch in the hopes of spurring us to move). I’d just smile at her. But I didn’t have it in me to tell her the truth of the matter. She lived and breathed Rural and cared for its students like no other, me included. I couldn’t live with myself if I ended up disappointing her in any way. So, it was a few years ago, when I promised her that I will make it a point to start giving back to my alma mater. I would make it a point to play a more active role as an alumnus in the coming years.

Ma’am Liza with me and some of my batchmates in her office after discussing plans for our Silver jubilee. This was a little over a year ago.

But I was still not particularly fond of attending the Alumni Homecoming.

Even last year, with my batch’s 25th anniversary and turn to host the event looming, I wasn’t planning on attending. But who else was going to convince me otherwise? In the middle of an important yet unrelated meeting, she reminded me of it and told me that she expected me to be there.

I did eventually make it there last December 8. Yes, it was partly because of some sense of obligation to my batch. But it was mainly because Ma’am Liza asked me to. That’s why at the end of the event after the homecoming event responsibilities for 2019 was turned over to us, I broke off from my batch’s ranks, went to her and gave her a hug. I thanked her and told her Ma’am pumunta po ako! (Ma’am, I made it!). She laughed and replied Oo nga. Salamat! (Yes, you did. Thank you for coming!).

Little did I know that it would be the last time I would see her alive.

She’d been looking weak during the months prior. But it was not that surprising to me. She had a huge amount of work on her plate. Stress constantly looms over our shoulders in our line of work. She looked visibly tired during the Homecoming, but soldiered on through it to continue lauding the achievements of the school and campaigning for additional support from UPLB and the alumni — her duty to her school and its wards. Again, I was sensing something was wrong, but I didn’t realize the severity of her condition. She had battled health issues before and I had believed the worst of it was over. She’d be retiring soon and have lots of time to enjoy it. I was wrong.

From what I’m gathering, I believe she probably knew she didn’t have much time left. Yes, she did slow down. Who wouldn’t? But she chose to continue working as aggressively as she possibly could. In her mind, much work still needed to be done, all the while not wanting people around her to know something was wrong, much like she did during her first bout with the sickness. I can’t imagine how lonely and frustrating walking that final road could be. And yet, she was at it until the end. Because of that, as I am writing this, I have found an even higher level of respect for her.

Today, I grieve for my math teacher, mentor and colleague. And I deeply regret not being able to tell her any of the things I’ve written here. But I am glad that warm and happy hug was my final memory of her. Perhaps my mom has returned the favor of being among the first to welcome her, wherever they may be in the afterlife.

From this point on, she will be an inspiration for us who has worn the black, white and blue colors of UPRHS and those who stood and worked alongside her. And it is an honor for me to have been both.

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Congratulations to the BA Multimedia Studies Class of 2018

This is the last batch whom I will be marching with, at least for a while. As I look at this picture, most of their faces felt unusually familiar, perhaps more so than previous batches. Obviously, I know all of them. But the sight of them elicited emotions not quite like last year.

And then it occurred to me… some of them were students in my MMS 100 class. That means they never had anyone else as their program chair. Even though Diego was already the one who marshaled them to the ceremony, I was the one who did the most in guiding these students through BAMS.

Some of them were students in my earliest classes in BAMS. One of them I even distinctly remember proctoring for when he took the UgAT all those years ago. A few of them were my baptism of fire in dealing with the difficult issue of mental health. I would like to think that while my record isn’t spotless, I was able to do more good than harm to them.

Each of them have stories of adversity and success. I know many of them and not having the right to tell is almost painful, because I am so proud of these people. It was good to finally see them switch their Sablay to the left shoulder.

The personal highlight for me here as that I had four advisees graduate this year, which I believe the most I’ve ever had so far. Gimson was honestly someone I almost gave up on. But that would have been a crime to do to someone who himself would not. For whatever he lacked, he made up for with determination. Jewel, Igie and Shari, on the other hand, were a curious case for me. The first time I knew them, they were kids to me — just about the same age as my eldest nieces. They did a LOT of growing up these past two or three years. It almost felt weird standing by their sides tonight and regard them as young women moving on with their lives after UPOU and BAMS. I’m going to miss teasing them like I did my own friends back in college.

Last, but not least, is again, Shari. Seeing an advisee earn Latin honors is always a matter of pride for me. And to see her up there as the only one who did it this year… No, I won’t take any credit for it. She pretty much did it on her own. But getting there wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Much like what happened with Aia last year, there were a few… loose ends that needed tying. Once again, I was asked to look into it and write an endorsement, should I choose to fight for her case. I will share with you the ending statements of my letter to the University Council:

“On another note, Ms. San Pablo was directly under my supervision in a number of courses, as well as her special project. All throughout, she had shown above average aptitude, diligence and initiative – hallmarks that I look for in a UP student. And it is with this faith in her for which I laid out the above explanation. Thank you…”

Some of them I will continue to be interacting with, mostly through here in the UPOU Digital Collective. While they may never really regard me completely as such, it will be interesting for me to be with them more as peers or even friends rather than as students. But for the others who will be really moving on, I truly hope they succeed in whatever they set out to do. And I hope the BAMS program has helped them prepare.

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Presenting the UPOU Digital Collective at ICEM 2018

Hardly anything went according to plan. I’d decided on attending ICEM 2018 the moment  it was announced. It was just as well, as with anything that involves a trip to Europe, you need to prepare well in advance. I already knew back then what I’d be presenting. However, circumstances would not permit me to do what I needed to do in a timely fashion. I had to focus on the curricular revision of the BAMS program. I had to be part of a Business Analytics course writing team. My classes were unusually large. The funding I needed wasn’t coming. There was always something. My project ended up losing steam, stalling for several months.

My visa application, which I wrote about here, was probably the only thing that really went my way. I wasn’t able to properly book my flight and accommodations as I did not receive my grant in time. More importantly, this was the first time I headed to a conference without a full paper on hand. And it sucks that I failed to submit something ICEM could consider for publishing. And up until a day before my session, I wasn’t even sure what I’d be presenting exactly. I had no results to show.

 

The UPOUDC website is nowhere near being ready.

 

My plans for the UPOU Digital Collective is, by far, the thing I have been most passionate above as far as my recent work in the university is concerned. And rather than immediately seek out my friends in ICEM, there I was, in a room at the Hotel Metropol in Tallinn, Estonia, cramming for my presentation, not really knowing what to include. I hated it, not just because I was cramming, but also because in my unpreparedness, I wouldn’t be able to present my project the way I wanted.

I did come up with an idea, though. I couldn’t show any results. But then I realized that instead of that, I could take a retrospective approach. Student co-creation and collaboration was actually not new anymore in UPOU. I myself have had experience with it dating back to when I started teaching. In fact, up until that point, I had taken for granted that with projects such as Biomodd and the UPOU Community Site, I had actually been into it early on in my academic career. I hadn’t always been successful, but even in failure, there were vital lessons that I learned which are worth looking back into in the hopes of avoiding them as we go forward with UPOUDC. I ended up having more to say than I would have thought.

 

ICEM seems to cycle between big and small conferences, which I suppose is more a function of the partner institution. This one, due to a few good reasons I’m told, was fairly small, at least in terms of attendance. There could not have been more than a hundred who attended at least at one point. The floor plan of the venue also felt a little awkward.

That said, what more than made up for the shortcomings was the actual quality of the attendance. While a little daunting in the past, it felt pretty good, surrounded by brilliant and like-minded people from all over the world willing to listen to what you have to say.

Estonia itself is an intriguing country. My province, Laguna, in the Philippines, has more than twice as many people in less than half the land area. Tallinn itself, I think, is quite sparsely populated for a capital. I didn’t get the chance to see the countryside, so I can only imagine how it looks. In any case, they are world leaders in education, right up there with Finland, Denmark, Japan and Canada. Their GDP per capita is also more than three times as high as that of ours. But the way the people from Tallinn University put it, they sort of consider themselves a poor country, of which I couldn’t help but smile. While I concede that I may be ignorant of their history and what they went through, all I could think of was that these guys should have a wider perspective on the matter. Conditions probably weren’t that good back when they were under the Soviet Union. But seriously, even though it is obvious they still have some work to do, when you’ve got people from Finland, a country they look up to, asking how they maintain progress to be right on par with them and with the momentum to have an apparent chance of surpassing them, it can’t possibly be that bad.

 

My session

My presentation went surprisingly well. Ironically, I ended up having twice the number of slides I would usually have for a 15-20 minute presentation. It had been years since I found myself in a session full of attentive people, nearly all of which were my seniors in either or both age and stature. I predictably went over the allotted time, but my peers were gracious enough to allow me to finish and even ask questions and offer suggestions. Someone from Hungary even recognized Biomodd, saying he was familiar with what the Biomodd London team has been doing recently. It has also been a while since I’ve been really engaged in a conference. I learned quite a bit in those three or four days. Already, I am thinking of how I will move from then to the next three or four years. Establishing and maintaining a persistent environment for co-creation is definitely something I will have to be into for a good amount of time. With enough luck, I’ll succeed. If not, the least I can hope for is to understand what works and what doesn’t, so others will have a better chance of succeeding in the future.

 

Maybe someday, ICEM, or at least some of its members, will make it to the Philippines. I believe there is a lot we can learn from them. These are people with extensive experience with technology and the ways of integrating them to the classroom, physical or otherwise. At the same time, maybe a visit can give them a better perspective of how things are in this part of Asia and reach an even greater audience. I would also like to see more of its members work in their respective institutions. The thought of these things are exciting to me. Which is weird… this is work — something I have wanted less and less off over the past few years.

For now, I go home knowing that we are on to something in the UPOU Digital Collective. It’s time for me to focus on it and see how my work on the project can carry over to my studies starting next year. Perhaps next time, whether it be in Memphis, Tennessee or Portugal, I’ll be able to show the results I had wanted them to see last week.

 

 

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My Schengen Visa Application (Estonia c/o Norway)

I love traveling to Europe. I’ve been lucky enough to make the trip a number of times, and they all leave lasting memories for me to fondly remember. But what I do hate is the preparation. After the initial excitement fades, the weeks leading to the actual departure is riddled with anxiety and second thoughts about pushing through. Can I afford it? What am I going to do if something goes wrong? Isn’t there something more important for me to spend my money on first? Will I be able to eat anything there? All these questions circulate in my head.

The anxiety comes to a head when I start the Schengen Visa Application process. In my experience, it was by far, the most tedious process to go through as far as visa applications went. My first two times were in the Netherlands embassy which subjected me and my documents through a long and strict process. I’m not complaining, though. I distinctly remember sharing the waiting area with a lot of people having a more difficult time. The third time was in the Belgian embassy, which was even stricter and dealing with them was a less pleasant experience. By the time I prepared for my fourth trip, this time to Hungary and Austria, VFS Global had taken over just about all the embassies of the countries in the Schengen area, at least as far as dealing directly with applicants are concerned. With the whole thing now having a middleman, the overall cost of applying for a Schengen visa increased. But in exchange, you get a friendlier vibe where you get the feeling that you’re being assisted by people to ensure approval rather than being interrogated with the intention of being caught with something that would be grounds for the rejection of your application. It also sped up the process with the booking of appointments being so much less of a pain, with queues being significantly shorter, without processing time having any apparent delay due to having a middleman.

I recently went through the process for a fifth time. I was now heading to Estonia, who’s represented by the Norweigian embassy in the Philippines. It meant I’d be heading back to VFS Global in Manila, but before that, I encountered Norway’s online application form. It was a lot more convenient than what I was used to in the past. Printing the form wasn’t even necessary. I did leave it hanging longer than I wanted, though, due to circumstances affecting my schedule and finances.

Scheduling my appointment to submit the necessary documents was also easy. It’s probably even possible to set it the day after on many cases, which is just as well. I tend to err towards the side of caution, making sure I already have all the documents I need in hand before setting that appointment. In that regard, there was nothing outside the usual for Schengen visa applications — invitation, certificate of employment, permission from your employer, bank statement, itinerary… those sorts of things. I did note that I didn’t need to submit a copy of my income tax return this time (I’ve needed to in two out of the four previous applications).

So, I set my appointment on Wednesday, August 22. I could have booked it the following day, but opted for August 24, Friday, 8:45AM instead. I arrived at the building early (6:45AM) to avoid traffic. So I tried to take a short nap in the car. By 7:45AM, I went to the entrance to check if they’d let me in early. They did. Once again, I noted how friendlier VFS Global staff are, compared to those in the actual embassies. Considering how much they charge for processing visas (on top of the 60 Euros charged upon submission of the online form, I paid nearly 2,000 Pesos for the processing and courier fee), I suppose it’s something I should expect. I also noted that people are now allowed to use their mobile devices more freely. Picture taking is probably the only thing that’s explicitly prohibited now. There’s no need to check bags in a locker anymore. If I knew that prior, I’d probably have been able to bring in a book to read. I was hoping that I’d be processed early. But it looked like everyone who booked appointments before me were there, as well. But to VFS Global’s credit, I was called right on the clock at 8:45AM. And in 15 minutes, all my documents were inspected and accepted. By 9:20AM, I was done with my biometrics and was on my way to the parking area.

That was pretty fast. But what I found even more surprising was that by Monday, September 27, I had already received a text message that my visa has been approved. And by the following day, my passport had been delivered. I got it back within three business days. This was the fastest visa application I’ve ever gone through.

This was not the end of my headaches as I had other problems to deal with regarding my travel plan, but this part was surprisingly quick and hassle-free. It certainly helped in lowering my anxiety. I have a few other visa applications looming already. But this experience has given me confidence that they won’t be much of a problem when the time comes.


Copyright 2018 Al Francis D. Librero © All Rights Reserved.

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