RIP: Jerico Tolentino

Last night, I received unexpected and unpleasant news which stirred a lot of memories and emotions. I was supposed to write about the UP Academic Leadership Conference that I just came home from. But this news prompted me to write something different, instead.


October 2007 – I was probably within my first week on the job at UPOU. I couldn’t access my MyPortal account and found the helpdesk completely unresponsive. I wasn’t aware that the person manning the online helpdesk had just resigned. I then sought the help of Ems, the administrative officer for the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies who promptly called someone and got him to talk to me and give me access I desperately needed.

That was my first interaction with someone whom I would eventually supervise for the next three years.

Along with Joshua Ebarvia in the former Management Information Systems Office, UPOU has Jerico Tolentino to thank in playing a key role in keeping the university’s decaying network infrastructure afloat. Jerico and Joshua came in at an unfairly difficult time in UPOU. My predecessor was on his way out and there was no clear plan for moving forward. I wasn’t much help early on in my taking over because I could barely make sense of anything that was happening.

We were a small team of three and at the time, we were among the youngest staff members of UPOU. And while it was almost never explicit, there was never a lack of things that reminded us of that fact. But at the same time, we understood that borderline radical changes were necessary in order to effect the improvements in UPOU’s infrastructure that management expected. These were changes which would not sit well with a number of people. That, in turn, meant our office did not sit well with them either. While Joshua was relatively pliable, Jerico can be one cold, uncompromising S.O.B. And I mean that in a good way, because I believed that there were times when it was the mindset required for us to be able to do our jobs. I don’t know how much of this he actually knew or even appreciated, but it was because of this belief that I spent a LOT of time in front of my superiors having to defend him and explain our side of the story whenever some complaint arose. It was my most important but least pleasant job as head of the office — shield my team as they do their jobs with as little interference as possible.

Again, unlike Joshua who I consider a close friend to this day, I had a bit of an unstable personal relationship with Jerico. There were times when we could confide with each other with matters beyond work. I am close with the person who would eventually be his wife. On the other hand, he had this barrier or attitude around him which I never really figured out. Things came to a head between us because of how he left UPOU. It got bad enough that even my relationship with his wife got soured. I never got the chance to speak to Jerico in person again, but in time, when I found myself in speaking terms again with Iyen, I took it as a sign that things were ok. There never really was no animosity on my part to begin with, anyway.

Whatever non-positive aspect there was in Jerico’s personal relationship with Joshua and myself, there is no way it could overshadow everything else. The three of us had a pact – no matter what happened in the office, we would always have each other’s backs. When one of us screws up, the other two would cover and make up for it. I gave us three years. If within those three years it got really bad, all of us would resign together. And we almost did – twice! Somewhere under my junk would probably be my signed resignation letter. They never made it to the Chancellor, though. The Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration deftly intercepted my attempt to submit it and defused whatever emotions the three of us were on, pulling up what was probably the lowest morale I had ever experienced as a staff member. I do believe we had a considerable amount of will to endure, but in those moments when it proved insufficient, we had our boss to catch us. I will always be thankful to her for that. None of us ended up leaving during that crucial formative period.

For Jerico’s part, I will always credit him for a number of milestones. Aside from the number of applications he developed for UPOU, he should be acknowledged as the person responsible for UPOU adopting Google Apps. I imagine it might be hard for the newer constituents to appreciate now, but this was a game-changer for us. UPOU email accounts were suddenly available again. It also helped in making the upou.edu.ph domain safe to use again. He helped me find a better means of running the ever problematic MyPortal. The difference made be moving the learning management system from an old in-house server to a Moodle Partner’s data center was like night and day. I also recruited him as a lecturer in the Diploma in Computer Science program right after he graduated from it. He still is one of the most reliable lecturers I have ever had the privilege of working with. With the whole MISO team teaching in DCS, the program was at its most efficient. To say the least, unlike with the rest of UPOU, hardly any DCS student complained about late grades.

It was around 2010 when, despite the fact that there were still a lot of things that need fixing, I felt that we had already established a general direction for IT development in UPOU. Unfortunately, our little victory took a huge toll. We were all burned out and it had felt like we had worn out our welcome amongst colleagues. A change was imminent and this time, we had no intention of fighting it anymore. Unsurprisingly, Jerico was the first to go. Joshua followed suit a year after. Even I was starting to make plans in the event of my own departure. Breaking up the band was bittersweet for me, but as I had suspected, it eventually turned out to be for the better. Both of them successfully found their greener pastures and eventually found the careers they deserve overseas. They, in turn, were replaced by people whom I would say are better suited to the dynamic among UPOU staff. However, to this day, I always make it a point to credit them where credit is due. I owe them that.

I was content that things had gone well for all of us…. until last night.

I had received word that Jerico, my former colleague and comrade-in-arms, passed away. He was too young. But what made this particularly saddening for me is that he had just signed up for what I would guess is a lucrative contract to work in Germany. His wife and baby girl were preparing to follow him there. That sounded like a promising future for the family, as far as I could tell. But now, this…

I am not a religious man and cannot come up with a comforting Bible quote or a faith-based reason to explain this with conviction. But what I do know is that no matter how bleak this looks for Jerico’s grieving family, I have no doubt that at some point, hopefully sooner than later, he would want them to survive this tragic setback, get back up and move forward. It isn’t going to be easy. But I have no doubt that they will.

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An open letter to my students on meeting deadlines

In May 2014, I started to serve as Chairperson for the BA Multimedia Studies program of UPOU. It was strange every time a BAMS student congratulated me for my promotion. I would thank them, but I would explain to them why it was not a promotion. I had already been serving as the Chair for the Diploma in Computer Science program and I was quite content over there. Students over there need very little guidance and there isn’t a lot of things in DCS that needed guiding. Whereas BAMS…. ugh. Let’s just say there is an unending supply of issues that need addressing.

At best it was a move sideways. If anything, the only thing the move adds is workload… a heavy workload. But the previous BAMS PC was leaving UPOU and my colleagues seemed to believe that I was the one left who was suited to take over.

My first trimester as BAMS PC was particularly draining. Aside from my predecessor, another colleague went on hiatus and I had to assume his role as well, and that included handling Multimedia Studies 100, the first major course all BAMS students have to take. Before I even realized it, I was doing the work of two faculty members.

This was also the first time we admitted passers of the most recent UP College Admission Test who explicitly wanted to come in. The influx of more students fresh out of high school has led me to believe major changes for UPOU are in order, but that is something for me to write about in another time. What I will say right now, however, is that this was a new frontier for me in so many ways.

I thought MMS 100 went as well as I could hope. But it wasn’t bereft of kinks. Most of the people in the class were new students, a few of which couldn’t seem to grasp a few things, including what the word deadline meant. Others had trouble following instructions, and yet hope, or worse, expect that I turn a blind eye on it.


The actual concept of the word ‘deadline’ seems to be lost to some students.

While I couldn’t be bothered to be angry with the students, I did find the whole thing exasperating. That prompted me to write the following for them:

The hard lesson of accountability

Class, this will probably be the most serious post I will ever write here, so please pay attention. I might be tired right now, but rest assured, I do not write this out of anger or any other negative feeling.

I can imagine I’m probably not very popular right now in class because of my seemingly hard-line stance with regards to your most recent assignment. But let me tell you…. none of this is new to me.

You are all talented and intelligent people. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. But that is only half the battle.

There was this time when I found myself in a similar situation. I didn’t know any better back then. So, out of exasperation, I actually went to Facebook and mulled in the open, that went something like this:

If there are students making excuses and asking for consideration about deadlines and submissions, and giving failing marks. Should I be lenient?

The answer was an overwhelming NO.

And mind you, many of my friends are alumni from UP and other prominent universities who know exactly what some of you are feeling right now. This is a reflection of a harsh reality:

Nobody feels sorry for UP students having trouble with their academics and schedules.

While some of you might be complaining of high tuition fees, the fact of the matter is that despite that you are still largely subsidized by revenues from taxes. Nobody likes the feeling of strangers wasting their money. When you slack, you waste other people’s money.

Soon enough you are going to be vocal social commentators on what is wrong with this country, this university or even me (yes, it’s happened in the past). And if you aren’t already, one day you will be an angry taxpayer reading and watching about graft and corruption. And then you will understand where I’m coming from to the fullest.

Here is the thing. I set ground rules right at the beginning. Nobody complained back then. That means you unconditionally accepted my terms and I hold you to that, even if you didn’t bother reading them.

Again, excuses are supposed to be made prior to a deadline, to help ensure that I can work a compromise with you. I even gave consideration to someone who asked for it two hours before the deadline. In a previous class, a student even messaged me literally five minutes before the deadline about his difficulty in uploading his assignment (something which I will no longer entertain again). I relent as long as I think I can work something out with him or her. But alas, that is no longer possible after the deadline lapses. Just like you, I have my own deadlines to meet. I compromise my own ability to meet them everytime I accommodate you.

Now, how about understanding instructions? Same thing. The support forum is more than just for asking why this quiz item or youtube link isn’t working. It’s for seeking clarifications about how to go about with your requirements, not just with me, but with the entire class. Let me tell you, collaborative learning is a thing of beauty to witness when it happens. It’s a little sad that it’s only really picking up right now, in the wake of the mishaps in [your last assignment] and with less than a month left in the trimester.

Now, while it doesn’t really anger me because I believe they still have a right to do so, I really can’t help but roll my eyes and smile when students who didn’t bother reading instructions intently or seek clarification or failed to meet a deadline they implicitly agreed to still has the nerve to ask for consideration.

Now, please, stop sending me messages asking me to reconsider crediting assignments that are either late or are not displaying properly. I’ve read them all. In turn, I will point out to you that both aspects are completely your responsibilities.

Looking back, I don’t know if I got through to my students. To a handful, I most likely did. But as for the rest who remained silent, I guess I’ll only know if and when I see them wearing their sablay. But in some ways, I really am glad I caught this early on in this batch of students’ residency. I can only hope that this early lesson in accountability is well-learned for all our sakes.

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On mental and emotional health and my inability to address them in class

I would like to think that, over the years, I have significantly improved as an online communicator within an academic context. Having to deal with such a diverse set of students kind of forced me into it. However, there is something that I will openly admit that I am not at all qualified to deal with.

I didn’t really care about it at the beginning. But through time, I noticed more and more that there is almost always some student in a given class who seem a bit odd, given what online behavior I observe from them. Usually, I leave it at that, especially if they do well.

I don’t know if it’s because of my constant prodding in online discussions or if they have become more open about such things, but in the last few years, students have started approaching me about their issues. Usually, it’s about their difficulties in managing their time and emergencies which affect their academic performance. Other times, they just find themselves not knowing what to do or even where to ask for help. Perhaps kids these days are less conscious of this compared to us who grew up before broadband Internet was a thing, but the World Wide Web can sometimes be a lonely place to be in. I learned that first hand. That appreciation has probably helped me connect to students better.


Online learning can be a lonely endeavor for anyone.

Those things, I can help to a certain degree. However, along with the usual issues, students have also started opening up about the more personal issue of mental and emotional health. UPOU’s admission system obviously does not screen  for it. Worse, UPOU has no provisions for assisting affected students. I am certainly not trained to do so.

That is why I feel troubled whenever a student contacts me and talks about their bipolar disorder or their recent breakdown. I don’t really know how to deal with that. Physical disabilities can be overcome, even if a course requires some sort of field work. But when a students says he or she is unable to study due to a mental condition, that reading and retention is not possible, how can you deal with that, especially when you are pressured to work within a short trimestral timetable?

I have been lucky, so far. The students I know of who are dealing with such issues are open about it and readily communicate with me. But I cannot expect that things will be like this forever. At some point, there is likely going to be that one bad case which I will not be equipped to handle. If and when that time comes, what am I going to do?

I do not want to wait for that time to come. That is why I have become a lot more vocal about this among my colleagues. If UPOU will not tighten its screening of incoming students, then it should at least implement measures to help ensure that its teachers are supported in order to cater to such students more effectively.

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Why introducing yourself in class matters

I once had a discussion with my FICS colleagues about the importance of self introductions — something which I doubt anybody really discussed with you. This prompted me to engage MMS 200 students, the ones supposedly on their way to graduation, to discuss how they have regarded their self-introductions in all the courses they have come across.

I personally adopt a pattern — I say my name, educational and professional background, and then relate them to whatever course I was handling. I never found copying from an old site and then pasting it to the new one to be satisfying. So, my introductions to change a bit as time goes by.

The sentiments the students shared were a bit disappointing and I explained to them why. Now, after thinking about it for weeks, I’ve decided to openly share my reasons to those willing to read on.

The fact of the matter is, we are in an online university. I have had an above average level of motivation to get to know students in person and more willing to facilitate F2F sessions to meet you in person. Despite that, I have only met a small fraction of BAMS students in person.

What does that have to do with self introductions?

The thing is, just like in social media and bulletin board/forum systems, in these course sites, what we post is just about the only thing we have to hold you to. For most of you, I wouldn’t know where you live, how many kids you have or how good looking your spouse or significant other is. I wouldn’t have a full picture of who and what you are.

Your words are the only things we as teachers can associate you with.

Therefore, if you share your life story, even though it’s corny for some (or even me in some instances), I will know where you’re coming from everytime I read anything you post. While by no means am I fully equipped to deal with it, knowing that you may have certain handicaps help me accommodate you better.

The less you say, the less we notice or even care.

That is why I find it annoying when some student who I almost never heard from in the duration of a course gets a low final grade suddenly floods me with all sorts of excuses in order to coax any sort of consideration. Well, if he or she said those things early on, he or she probably wouldn’t be in that predicament, right? It is sadly more common than I would want it to be. Heck, I don’t want any such instances to occur, at all.

First impressions last…

Unless you’re encountering a prof for a second or third time, your self introduction is your first impression. If you don’t make it count, you automatically subject yourself to an uphill battle to prove yourself for the rest of the trimester.

That is why it is likely that the majority of the so-called uno-club members of BAMS are particular with their self introductions.

… But so do the second, third….

A BAMS student would typically go through me 2 or 3 times before graduating. And I do observe how your self introductions evolve. For me, it is a good indicator of how you have progressed mentally and emotionally over your years of residency. So, in my mind, I can be like, oh, he sounds different and more determined now and he seems poised to do much better… or… geezus he still sounds like a slacker…


The self-introduction is a symbol of how you carry yourself as a student and as a person. Its quality, as well as any reason or excuse you might have regarding it, is a reflection of what you are. And if you think it doesn’t matter, well… best of luck to you, then.

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2012 Fender Stratocaster

Review: 2012 Fender American Standard Stratocaster Up Close

Guitar reviews – they’re a dime a dozen. I thought about what I could possibly add to everything that has been written or recorded about what is arguably the most iconic electric guitar in history. Everyone has pretty much weighed in on it – luthiers, master players, wannabes, down to the people who really don’t know what they’re talking about. But interestingly enough, I realized that I still had questions about the guitar left unanswered until after I actually bought one.

I’m not going to talk all that much about tone or how the sound of this thing blows everything else out of the water. If that’s what you’re looking for, I heartily suggest going to Youtube or your favourite guitar gear forum. I’ve seen and heard all that I want from those places. I don’t have the inclination to do the same. But if you want to read about things not often touched on by the other reviewers, please read on!

In case you missed it, my subject for this blog is the 2012 edition of the Fender American Standard Stratocaster. Yes, it’s 2014, but the specifications haven’t really changed. And more importantly, it’s what I have. A deal that was way too good to pass up came along, so I bit.

The American Standard comes in a number of colors. I would have wanted one in Jade Pearl Metallic, but the store didn’t have any. I was tempted to go for Mystic Blue, but the guitar that I was drawn to the most was this one in Olympic White. It was the first one I tested. Then I put it back on the shelf, quietly slapping one of the “Reserved” signs lying around, just in case. After trying a bunch of other Strats, I went back to it. And before you knew it, it was card swiping time at the cashier!

With everything else happening at home, it took a while before I finally had the time to sit down and take a real close look at this guitar. And now, I share to you my thoughts on what I saw.

The Neck

I can work with a vintage-style Fender neck. But it doesn’t mean I like it at all. The 1 5/8” nut width, soft V profile and 7.25” fretboard radius isn’t particularly comfortable for my hands. Even if I’m no shredder, 21 frets seem a bit inadequate, as well. I went through two vintage-spec’d Japanese made Strats (one of which is also a Fender which I still have, as of this writing). And it takes significantly more effort for me to play cleanly. This is why, prior to this subject guitar, I have been opting for custom-made necks.

The American Standard is thankfully a lot friendlier to my hands. The slightly wider nut makes a significant difference when I play chords on the lower frets. And even though I hardly play that high up, having that 22nd fret is really nice in those rare times I’m called upon to do some guitar solo. Before I intently studied it, I was unsure if the fretboard radius going from 7.25” to 9.5” is enough. I’ve always thought that my ideal radius was somewhere between 10” to 12”. It turned out to be quite sufficient. I can now honestly say that I love these American Fender necks.

Production Fender necks come with either a maple or rosewood fretboard. The American all maple necks are curiously glossy at the fretboard, but with a satin back. They’ve obviously listened to their customers who rave over the non-sticky feel of bare or oiled wood. Satin poly is probably the best compromise between feel and protection there is.

I, however, went for a rosewood fretboard. It was actually the first thing that drew me to this particular guitar. It had the most striking grain among all the guitars in the Fender section, and that included the American Deluxes and the Custom Shop models.

The thing that I didn’t find much about was the rolled or rounded fretboard edges of the American series. I like it a lot – very comfortable. This probably made the Corona factory more particular with the frets themselves. There are hardly any sharp metal fret edges to lacerate your palm. The fretwork is still far from perfect, though. Some parts still need some smoothing and polishing.

You get the Fender-stamped non-locking tuners here. Personally, I prefer the locking or slotted variety. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. They’re smooth and solidly built. And strung up properly, these do get the job done, even with the tremolo bridge set to float. I have a mind to keep them there forever, but I do have a set of Sperzels lying around here and going nowhere else. So, I might as well swap them out at some point.

Perhaps the weakest link in the neck construction is the nut. Fender calls it synthetic bone. To me, it only looks marginally better than cheap plastic. Heck, a lot of people are pretty sure it IS cheap plastic. Considering the retail price, why they didn’t just go ahead and use real bone is beyond me. Close inspection also revealed that, at least as far as this guitar is concerned, the slots are far from perfectly cut. The nut will definitely be the first thing that will be replaced in the neck.

The Body

This model is armed with a standard two-point tremolo bridge, but with vintage style bent steel saddles — a compromise between contemporary and vintage sensibilities. I don’t lose sleep at night thinking about it, but I do know a lot of people mind this modern versus vintage thing. American Standard Stratocasters are shipped out of the factory with the bridge set to float. That’s all well and good. Someone apparently tightened the springs of this particular guitar and set the bridge flush to the body for dive-only whammy action. It’s fine with me, as well. But what I do mind is the slot of the trem cavity cover being aligned for a floating bridge, which I find tedious. Unless you take that cover off, you have to change the strings one at a time. The whammy bar also seems to be bent for a floating bridge.

Speaking of the bridge, at first I thought that the trem cavity being partially exposed up front was a defect. But all the copies I saw were the same. This is something I would understand if the guitar had an aftermarket assembly. But this is a stock Fender American Standard tremolo bridge. I don’t think this is supposed to be the case. Furthermore, it is a good thing that the intonation is already good, if not close to being perfect. If there was a need for the first saddle to be moved closer to the neck, there might be a problem. There is already very little space left for it to move forward, as it’s almost touching the trem post. I also worry that the saddle is already scraping and bumping into the post whenever the trem goes for a dive. And again, all the copies in the store were set up like this.

The finish work on the body is consistent with the neck – impeccable, at least from the outside. Taking off the pickguard and covers reveals how it is a bit rough on the edges. It’s no big deal, but I do believe the workmanship along the control cavities is a sign of a builder’s level of attention to detail.

What I do find a big deal is that the routs weren’t precise. It’s fine for the stock pickguard assembly. But I hit a stone wall when I realized the fat Strat-configured assembly I was going to use didn’t fit. The bridge humbucker is a bit bulkier than usual, and its corners wouldn’t fit in the cavity. At first, I blamed the pickup’s size. But upon closer inspection, I realized that the bridge pickup rout on the body wasn’t straight. Otherwise, the assembly would have snugly fit. So, after a pang of frustration on my part, back in the stock electronics went. Should I find a different bridge pickup? Should I have the rout enlarged? Should I get a new body? This is a dilemma I did not expect to face.

I would like to clarify that I have nothing bad to say about the stock pickguard assembly, though. It’s a bunch of high quality components neatly put together. The Custom Shop Fat 50’s pickups aren’t bad sounding either. I certainly liked what I was hearing when I was testing all those Strats in the store. It just so happens that I have options on hand which I like better.

Despite its flaws, the Fender American Standard Stratocaster is a fine guitar. It’s not the best at anything in particular, mind you. In fact, I already have a list of things I will be doing with it to completely suit my tastes. But it does achieve what its name might suggest – become a measuring stick, a standard, for which other guitars can be held to.

Fender American Standard Stratocaster
Regular Local Retail Price: PHP74,950 (Yupangco/Perfect Pitch)

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The (water) birthing of Aidan

It’s been a week since my son, Aidan, was born. And it has been great. Paternity leave rocks! I get to watch my son all the time in his first days of life outside the womb. Friends and family have been happy for us. Officemates are gladly covering for me while I’m away. Even some of my students are being gracious, telling me to take my time addressing queries about their grades, even though they’re anxious to hear from me.

My boy, mere hours after birth

However, there is also an underlying thread of discussion that has been going since last Friday. Everyone keeps saying we made a gutsy call, opting for a water-birth. They also admitted being a bit surprised that I allowed it. I didn’t tell my dad about it, so when I texted him that my wife gave birth, his first question was where were we at, which likely translated to which hospital were we admitted to. My wife didn’t tell her parents either, knowing full well that it was not likely for them to approve. Even our midwife kept asking me if I was ok with all of this.

By no means am I already an expert on the matter. But I do know for sure that water birthing is not for everyone. I started that way. But what I did learn these past few months are points that may help those who might find themselves in the same spot as I was.


From what I saw, you need to have a number of things in place.

The first thing a couple would need is to educate themselves. Well, actually, I did a terrible job of this. Last year, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as water birthing. Of course, I was hesitant. But as the months passed by, as I remained ignorant, Vanni tirelessly did her research as she weighed all her options. Water birthing still ended up her first choice. So, there was a point where all I had was the fear of what I did not understand against her due diligence. So, it boiled down to me conceding and having faith that my wife knew what she was doing.


Second is the willpower to go through such a thing. Vanni didn’t want anaesthesia to be administered to her. She didn’t want to go through labor without me around. And most of all, she did not want to be cut open under any circumstance outside a life and death situation. She opted for this, despite knowing full well that things can get painful in the event of something going awry, no matter how likely or unlikely.

Third, the mother obviously has to be in good health. My wife took good care of herself throughout her pregnancy, watching what she ate and always staying active. Even at six months, she almost outlasted me during our walks around Singapore. One time, it was the baby himself who saved me from embarassment. My lower back was already acting up and I was ready to call time out when he did a little bit of kicking inside the womb, forcing my wife to sit down and take a long break just before I asked to for myself. That’s my boy — helping keep the old man’s dignity intact!

Most important, at least by my estimate, is the trust among everyone involved. Unlike in a hospital, this is going to be a personal and intimate matter. You can’t just have anybody there. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that family members are the best people to be around. The midwife herself wasn’t about to blindly take the job. She was going to think about it only after she got to know my wife better and intently studied her medical records. After all, providing home service to a family she didn’t know in a place she’s never been to? That’s a recipe for disaster for both parties, if you ask me. Lastly, as there was no way I’d be able to pull off being the sole assistant, we needed someone we were both close to and was willing and and able to stay calm during the birthing. We were lucky someone presented herself early on.

Everything went really smoothly. We only endured less than an hour’s worth of actual labor. In the aftermath, it was more about relief rather than euphoria for me. I can sit down, relax and smile as Vanni held Aidan in her arms immediately after birth. I didn’t have to worry about rushing to the hospital during Holy Week with my family in serious condition. I didn’t have to face my in-laws as I try to explain what happened to their daughter and why I allowed all of it. Everything went really smoothly and I will no longer have even a modicum of doubt if and when it happens again. Still, even with the complete success, the whole thing left all of us physically and mentally drained in the end.

This is how my wife wanted it and will probably want it in the future. My support for it will remain. It certainly makes for an interesting experience. But I’m not going to peg this as the best thing ever. As personal choices go, they will vary among different people. It’s totally understandable for couples to opt for a hospital suite with a full complement of doctors and nurses rather than an inflatable mini-pool at home with a midwife and volunteers who were clueless of what to do half the time. But keep the things I wrote here in mind if you want to consider going through the same thing. At the very least, I hope these give you an improved perspective on the whole matter.


My family owes so much to the midwife, Ate Evelyn (left) and Maya (second from left).

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Visa Application: United States of America (2013)

I previously wrote about how I did not look forward to having my passport renewed. I did so, anyway, and much earlier than I expected. Here’s why.

I got scheduled for a trip to the US, but it fell within six months before my passport’s expiration. I might not be allowed to travel when I go to what is perhaps one of the things I looked forward to the least — falling in line to apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Manila.

I’ve already applied for other visas and would not hesitate to reapply given the need. But I’ve always thought it wouldn’t be a loss nor would I ever feel unfulfilled if I end up never setting foot anywhere in the US. (Un)fortunately, an good opportunity to do so arose. It was hard to pass up. So, yes, I had my passport renewed early just for this.

August 22 — The first stage of the process was strange. The online application consisted mainly of the DS-160 — easily the most exhaustive visa application form I’d ever seen so far (it’s worth seven pages when you print it). It took me a while to finish. The first dilemma came when I had to declare whether or not I had been to the US in the past. I’d make it easier for myself and say no, but that wouldn’t be true. I was barely a year old and hardly remember anything from that time, but my family lived in Indiana for a while when my dad was taking his PhD. I didn’t want to be accused of lying in case they actually still have my old visa on record. The problem was I had very little idea how long I stayed exactly. I had to ask my dad, who didn’t remember either. It was a good thing he didn’t throw my old passport away. I had to dig deep into the old documents in storage, but I found it. When I checked, the visa was so old it didn’t have the 10 digit number that is standard today. The DS160 did not accept the number, anyway. It felt like a waste of time, but I figure I’d just bring the old passport with me at the embassy, just in case.

My first US Visa.

My first US Visa.

With the DS-160 finally accomplished and confirmed, the next thing to do was pay for the processing fee. A hundred and sixty US Dollars is steep, but what choice do I have, no? I opted to pay online. I love BPI’s online banking, but payment does not register immediately in the embassy’s system. I was worried, as I was paying in the midst of a typhoon and there was an upcoming holiday. One banking day may as well be one week in reality.

What made this bad news was the set of appointment dates that were available to me. According to the system, the earliest date for an appointment was October 18. I had to fly on the 19th. I promptly told my colleagues they may have to travel without me. Still, I was advised to keep checking. While I felt like it was fine if I wasn’t going to be able to go, I did check regularly. It surprisingly paid off. By August 29, new appointment slots suddenly opened for September 5 and 6. I got myself signed up for the 6th at 6:30AM

September 6 — The drive from Los Baños to Manila was quick, as expected, being so early. I made it outside the premises and found a parking slot nearby across Roxas Boulevard at 6:00AM. By the parking lot and around the overpass, there were lots of vendors, selling pens and offering storage of electronic devices. Even USB flash drives weren’t allowed in the embassy. But I already knew that. I made sure my bag only contained my documents, a notebook and two pens. Everything else, I left in the car.

The lines were already long, by the time I joined it. It was thankfully still cool and it wasn’t raining. I can only imagine how much worse it is for those who have to endure both conditions later in the day. Fortunately for everyone, the queue moved at a quick pace. Soon enough, I was ushered inside the building. The queue was unsurprisingly long, filling a large area to capacity. But I have to commend the personnel at the embassy for their efficiency and ability to keep things in order.

The application itself is a three-stage process that involves getting a biometric scan, verifying your documents and the actual interview. The online application stage explicitly states that I do not bring any other additional documents that is not mentioned in their checklist. It even said not to print the DS-160. I did so, anyway (in typical Filipino segurista fashion). Needless to say, that was a waste of paper and printer ink.

It was during the verification step that I asked if my going to the US as a baby count. I showed the old passport to the person going over my stuff. I don’t remember getting a clear answer from her. She barely looked at it and told me it’s ok or something.

The final stage involved the interview conducted by Americans. As I waited, I couldn’t help but observe the row of windows manned by the interview officers. Each one handled interviews differently. Among those that I could see, there was a dour older guy, a no-nonsense guy that probably wasn’t that much older than me, and there was the affable lady that was all-smiles. I ended up in front of a no-nonsense guy.  The interview went something like this:

Officer: How are you today?
Me: A little anxious, to be honest…
Officer: What do you do?
Me: I teach at the University of the Philippines
Officer: What’ll you be going for? (I couldn’t hear him clearly.)
Me: … I’m sorry?
Officer: Where’ll you be going?
Me: Oh, I’ll be attending a conference in Las Vegas.
Officer: What’s it about?
Me: It’s a conference on e-Learning.
Officer: How long will you be there?
Me: Two or three days, then I’ll head to San Francisco for four days, if I can.
Officer: [Looks over my documents one last time, and then…] Ok, we’ll just send your passport back to you after a week or so… Good day.

That was quick…

I wrote down the times. I was led inside the embassy at 6:18AM. I got out at 8:07AM. By 8:30AM, I was enjoying a mug of coffee at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop across the street. The anxiety was gone.

I received my passport with a 10-year multiple entry B1/B2 US visa within five days. Everything eventually went as planned. It’s going to be a while before I will have to go back in there to have my visa renewed. But when that time comes, I don’t think I will be anywhere as apprehensive as I was during this first application. It wasn’t the easiest process I’ve ever experienced, but it sure wasn’t nearly as hard as I first imagined.


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A godsend of a repairman for photographers

Being into a number of hobbies can be a curse sometimes. For most people, myself included, the likelihood of doing extremely well in one of them can be quite low. But right now, the biggest problem entailing them is the amount of money one can spend because of these hobbies.

It was particularly bad for me, I think. Thankfully, I easily gave up on cars well before the real spending started. It would’ve been too much for a teacher on government salary to support. For the most part, I’ve already given up on being a computer enthusiast. I wouldn’t even know what I’ll do when my Nvidia Geforce GTX460 video card finally dies on me. Unfortunately, that still left guitars and photography.

I’ll be writing about the latter.

I had a lens cleaned for the very first time back in 2010. My Nikon 18-200 was growing a lot of fungus from the inside. I had no idea where to have it serviced. Eventually, I stumbled upon the Pinoy Photography forums. Someone named Mang Ady was starting to make a name through word of mouth over there. I admit to feeling anxious about entrusting a P33,000 lens to someone I’ll be meeting for the first time somewhere in the TriNoMa food court. But I felt I had little choice, so I took a leap of faith. So, I made the trip, met Ady Balce, the man and talked a bit. I found him soft-spoken and amiable, and felt comfortable with the whole thing at the end of the day. I met him again a week after, with my lens handed to me impeccably clean. So, I happily paid for the very reasonable service fee and went my own way.

One year and several trips after, the same lens got dirty again. But by this time, I heard that Nikon finally had an authorized service center in Manila, care of Columbia Digital Service Center (CDSC). Now, I wouldn’t have really minded going back to Mang Ady, but I was curious about the new service center. Being in SM Megamall, it would be easier for me to go to, and I could go there anytime I want (Mang Ady only meets up at Trinoma on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons). And I wanted to see the results of authorized servicing first hand. It felt appropriate, anyway. I was excitedly anticipating my very first trip to Europe and was willing to pay for the best service. That perceived best service ended up costing me P3,500. The technician assured me that the cleaning will be done in two weeks and I should expect a call or SMS from them by then. That cost nearly thrice as much with a waiting time twice as long as it would be with Mang Ady. But that was still ok with me. I waited two weeks and no word from CDSC. I had to follow up on them repeatedly at that stage with my flight to Holland looming over me. At this stage I was getting concerned and a little mad. Is this the vaunted Nikon service, overpriced and unable to keep their word regarding timetables?

I was eventually notified they were done with me lens by the third week or so. In the shop, I immediately inspected my lens. It didn’t look any cleaner than it would have with Mang Ady. It’s not a knock on CDSC’s quality of service per se. They were late, but the lens really was cleaned well. So, I didn’t leave the shop angry or anything. My lens made it in time for my trip to Europe, which is what was important. Still, I do not look forward to going back to them.

True enough, when it was time for this easily-dirtied lens to be cleaned again, there was no one else for me to consider. I sort of heard before that clients can send lens to him by courier, but I wasn’t sure. Besides, I thought it would be good to meet Mang Ady in person again. It wasn’t just the 18-200, but also my wife’s Nikon 18-105 too, which required servicing. So I did. I also told him about my experience with the service center in Megamall and he smiled. We agreed it would be more convenient for him to just send me back my lenses by courier and I pay him through his bank account when he’s done. Both lenses made it back to my office desk within five days and cost me P3,000 total, including shipping cost. Not bad at all, no?

Nope. Unless absolutely necessary, I’m never going back to CDSC. Ever. Not as long as I have a better option.


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Like day and night: passport renewal then and now

There are two renewals which I don’t look forward to. One is for my driver’s license, where I have to endure long slow-moving lines every three years. I hate falling in line. Who doesn’t, right? But what beat all the lines I queued up for in the four LTO offices I’ve had my license renewed in was the one in the old Department of Foreign Affairs compound more than four years ago. I was overdue to have my passport renewed. I dreaded the thought of it, but I needed my passport for an upcoming business trip to Australia. It was my first time to go overseas as a UPOU faculty and the person coordinating the thing was incessantly pestering me about it, which, as I look back, I am actually thankful for, by the way.

So, I forced myself to do it. I woke up early and took a drive, eventually making it outside one of the DFA building’s gates just before 7:00AM. I asked a security guard for directions and he directed me to the department’s covered basketball court. Much to my surprise (not to mention dismay), the court was packed with people and it took me a while to take care of all the documents and then actually find the end of the line. The queue was snaking across the court from end to end. I was finally able to join the queue outside the damn court. That took nearly three hours to go through. I spent another two hours inside the actual DFA building waiting in line. I haven’t forgotten how somebody puked in the waiting area and the rest of us had to smell it for half an hour before I mercifully made it to another stage of the application process. I finished the process just before lunchtime. Inhaling the smell of vomit notwithstanding, I still thought I came off lucky. Others don’t get through that fast. I just went  back to my car and thought to myself, god, I’m glad I won’t have to go through that again for another five years…

But yes, you guessed it. My five years were almost up.

Due to my ignorance back in 2009, I did not know that, as a government employee, I was actually eligible to avail of what is called the Courtesy Lane. Presumably, I would only have had to deal with a shorter and faster queue. The DFA also seemed to have significantly increased the speed and efficiency of the whole passport application process. They now have a nice online appointment system that allows you to choose from a number of offices. They even have one at SM Megamall.

I was told that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to set an appointment, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I chose the day and time and set my appointment online, anyway. I was tempted to try the Megamall branch. But with me not being sure that there is a Courtesy Lane there, I chose Office of Consular Affairs building along Aseana Ave for a 7:30AM appointment.

So, once again, I anxiously drive early in the morning, making it to the area just before 6:30AM.

The gates were already open and the lines were already accumulating. Did I mention I hate falling in line? After having my forms verified, I asked where the Courtesy Lane was. Upon showing my UMID as proof that I worked for the government, I was directed to another door. It was by the door on a nearby bench I waited for about half an hour, writing a blog (not this one) to bide the time. My group was ushered in Door 5 and to the second floor at around 7:15AM. I got my counter number at 7:25AM — #7001, the first among the regular group. Well, what do you know? The actual application process started five minutes early.

I felt pretty relaxed. Even though there were a few people ahead of me who were slowing the queue (I may had been the first among the regular group, but there were other groups ahead of us). It was still early, and I was having a seat in a sparsely occupied air-conditioned room. I even had the time to help out the lady ahead of me who lost one of her receipts (it slipped through her daughter’s things under a bench) and after her thanking me, consequently listened while she gently, but a bit too loudly reprimanded her daughter for being careless. I don’t think she actually paused from talking the whole time. You know how some mothers are… But that’s ok. The overall mood in the room was light. I saw other people in the queues helpful to each other. The people in the booths hardly smiled, but were otherwise polite.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s still a copier machine to accommodate those who didn’t come in prepared. And yes, there were those in front of me who had to make use of it, including the lady I mentioned. Me, I had all my documents in good order and photocopied. And so, everything went smoothly on my part.

By 8:15AM, I was already by Gate 4, the exit, leisurely thinking about where to eat breakfast instead of lunch. I was done in less than an hour and have no horror stories to tell. I’m sure there will be people out there who will beg to differ (like that whose story is recounted here), which would indicate there is still room for improvement. But from my own experience, along with everyone else I was with in the Courtesy Lane, I was very happy with how quick and painless the process was — a complete turnaround from my experience back in 2009.

I acknowledge the fact that I availed of a perk and may have gotten off easier than most people. But one thing I haven’t mentioned yet was that I first heard about the Courtesy Lane from my dad, who had his own passport renewed shortly after mine. He was both a senior citizen and government employee, so he was spotted easily and promptly sent to the Courtesy Lane, but it still took him well beyond an hour to finish. I also have been hearing and reading good things about how it’s pretty fast in other branches. Good feedback is actually easier to come by than bad ones, which by itself is remarkable. That is why I plan on having my passport renewed elsewhere and maybe even forego the Courtesy Lane in 2018. Or maybe I can accompany someone sooner just to see. But for now, it’s nice to see a government agency dramatically improving their service. I wish more of them did the same.

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MMS 173: Epilogue – First Trimester 2013-2014

As I wrap up my assessment of the final projects of my students this trimester, I can’t help but look back in what has been a roller coaster ride on my part. It ended up as a scramble to get the course in order the whole time. And I still screwed something up in the end. I wasn’t able to establish a system for submitting all these projects. They were coming from all over the place and easy to lose track of. With their own deadline only to think about, I don’t know if students realize how difficult it is on my end as well (not that it’s really their problem).


A class of 90 students for a course of this nature is cumbersome. It was a big point of contention for me, which I hope, with a formalized schedule of offering starting this year, won’t be happening again. Fortunately (or unfortunately for some people), not all of those students made it through the course. As I look at my class list right now, I have a mortality of just over 40%. Now, now now… before people who aren’t really in the know raise the red flags, sure, for a traditional classroom-based course (or subject, depending on where you went to school), that is alarming and cause enough for a teacher to be sat down by the dean for a heart to heart conversation at the very least. But for an online course, it is quite common, sadly enough. Not to wash my hands of anything, but in most cases, it really isn’t the teacher’s fault, and not mine in this case, as far as I can see. In any event, as unsavory as some people might see it, that drop in attendance really did help me in making the class more manageable. Still cumbersome, but manageable.

Losing a rather huge chunk, however, did not seem to have made the class lose its diversity and liveliness. And even though the latter somewhat dipped after a month or so, there remained an active core who, even at the time of this writing that’s two weeks past the end of the trimester, continues to check in with me and the course site. And mind you, it’s not just for the following up of their grades and submissions, but also for actual discussions even after I’ve graded them. That’s unprecedented for me. At a time when some of my colleagues lament how their course sites turn into a trimester-long monologue because of passive undergraduate students, here I am wondering when my students will finally call it a trimester and start preparing for the next one.


Going over the final projects was draining. Looking back, it’s probably one of the reasons why I encouraged students to work in groups — less work for me to assess. It took nearly two days to finish and it wasn’t a very deep evaluation, at that. Heh, chances are, scores would generally be lower than they are now, if I did that. I’m thinking about going through it again, now, actually.


Anyway, after two days and nearly two liters of coffee, I went through an array of project exhibiting a wide range of skill and exerted effort. While I feel a little bad that there are some that would have been better had they taken the time to consult with me, I am quite impressed at the sight of this lot. As you can see in the first picture, money was spent on presentation, and I can’t ignore that. I probably should offer to return it to them, as these projects probably mean so much more to them than it does to me.

While I’m pretty much over the class now, there are other things I realize I should not take for granted when it comes to class policies:

    1. Some students have a hard time following instructions. It gets worse for every detail I forget to include in the instructions.
    2. It doesn’t matter when you set it. Most students will submit them at or near the deadline, anyways.
    3. No matter how hard you try to prepare all sorts of considerations, there will always be a grey area between saying a definite yes or no.
    4. Finding the right balance between having a fricking bleeding heart and being a heartless bastard (with a slight bias towards the latter, preferrably) will be a never-ending quest for me.
    5. A certain amount of accountability on the part of students is a really good thing.
    6. Demanding commitment when it comes to attending face to face sessions is another good thing.
    7. I’m not sure if honesty is the best policy, period. But I do know it can do wonders in class. Compliments and higher grades would hold more meaning to students. On the other hand, overly sensitive students might regard not-so-positive critique as sledgehammers to their souls.

It’s also nice how taking in former students to volunteer as mentors in the class worked well. But I can also see how there’s still a lot of room for improvement in its implementation. I am thankful for Blaise, Misael and Winter being game with it. I owe these guys a drink, at the very least. Perhaps they can be part of the course again later. And maybe one or two of the standouts in the recent class will be interested to be part of this group as well.

And so, with this blog, I conclude Multimedia Studies 173 of the first trimester, AY 2013-2014. For some students, it will be their last encounter with me. Others will see me in one or two more courses. And for mortalities who want to graduate, let’s hope things will be better next time.

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A few music ideas

I haven’t really done much writing since finishing Pat Pattison’s Songwriting in Coursera. I guess I’ve been occupied with other pressing matters. Managing my photography course has been time-consuming. Another course of mine started earlier today. That’s going to take up some of my time, too. And when I do pick up the guitar, it’s to work on my assignments in the Introduction to Guitar course, also from Berklee College of Music via Coursera. It’s almost done, and it’s been an interesting experience. Even though it’s a beginner level course, it still managed to expose much of my weaknesses as a guitar player.

I also had to practice a song called Running To Stand Still. When thinking of U2’s The Joshua Tree album, for most people, it’s always about the first three or four tracks. I don’t even know if non-U2 fans have even heard of it, but Running To Stand Still is part of the album, and happens to be my dad’s favorite. It really is a well-written simple little song. I played it in UPOU Headquarters on his day of retirement and recognition of his professor emeritus status. I tried to slither out of my part in the programme to no avail. But I admit it was nice to share to the university what little common ground me and my dad have when it comes to music. And… it was nice to play a song and have the audience’s complete attention and get really complimented for it for a change.

Anyway, that song was not as simple to play as I thought and had to spend hours on it. And I still didn’t get to play it the way I really wanted. But the interesting thing about practicing for it was that I started plucking a simple passage that evolved into an idea:

It’s simple, but very emotional, as my songwriting classmates and online contacts remarked. I like emotional. I’m looking forward to wherever this idea takes me. I mean I’ve had quite a few guitar multi-effects units in my time. But I never really got into doing ambient guitar. That might change soon. This Line 6 POD HD500 is one heck of a device.

Another thing I’ve been spending a bit of time with is listening to the projects of my Songwriting classmates. One of them is Aseem, an Indian based in Greece (or at least I think he lives in Greece right now) who came up with a catchy song idea in our series of assignments in class.

He’s been talking about hitting a stone wall with this one. I’m thinking that’s a shame, since it really sounds promising. I’ll see if I can help him, but first, I have to figure out how to play the song. I think I’m almost done with that.

I think the song is almost complete. Aseem said he’s got the music laid out. Then again, I think there’s something else it needs. I can’t put a finger on it yet, though. Hopefully it’ll come to me. Or better yet, I hope it comes to him — it’s his song! Then I can just ask his permission to cover it when I go out and play.

But for now, I need to find the time and inspiration to finish these off and come up with real songs…

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Review: Korg Pitchclip PC-1

Last month, I thought I lost my clip-on guitar tuner. And of course, like the rational person that I am, instead of exerting a little more effort to find it, I thought it would be better to go to the mall and get myself a new one. So, I went to the nearest Audiophile store to look for the Pitchclip. These things sell REALLY fast. The first time I saw one in the store, there was a huge pile on display. That pile didn’t last long and took a while before the stocks got replenished. I felt lucky to find one when I actually needed. And it was green!

It’s not hard to understand why these little things are popular. Korg has always been a trusted brand when it comes to reasonably priced musical instrument tuners. But when reasonably priced turns to crazy cheap (relative to the competition, at least), you potentially have a winning formula.

So I took my new green Pitchclip home and wasted no time testing it in one of my guitars. The excitement gradually faded when the thing started struggling to track certain strings. I mean, it’s not that bad, really. But I started to think if it was a good idea for Korg to risk a bit of a dip in their reputation here.

Tracking can get erratic at times.

Maybe a week after I bought the Pitchclip, I was surprised to find my old tuner buried deep in one of my backpack’s pockets. In hindsight, spending an extra 5 minutes to search that bag in the first place would have saved me 600 Pesos. But that would have been no fun, no? And it wouldn’t have made the ensuing comparison test possible. I can now determine if the Pitchclip is actually any better (or worse) than my older tuner.

The other tuner is a Musedo T-40C, which I bought nearly two years ago from Lyric for somewhere between 700-800 Pesos. I know nothing about the brand and have to keep reading the tuner’s label to remember the model. But I bought it because my first choice at the time, which was, surprise surprise, the Pitchclip, was unavailable. So, I went to another store to look for my second choice, the Snark SN-1/SN-2. They didn’t have it on stock either. So I was resigned to browsing through their display shelf and hope I saw something decent. It was there that I found the Musedo.

The Musedo T-40C has a rather fancy colored LCD display and can be set for tuning various instruments. The tuning modes don’t interest me much as the tuner is always set to chromatic. What I want to test the accuracy and tracking of my tuners. In the end, these are all that matter, really.

A few things struck me in this particular test. It is no longer apparent in the video as the strings were already in tune (well, for the most part, at least). But while you’re actually tuning, the Pitchclip is the one which has the most difficulty in tracking pitch, especially with the wounded strings (you can see it somewhat when I plucked the 6th string). Of course, one can say that it’s expected. But having those LED’s doing a Cylon impression is something I rarely see from my previous Korg tuners. The next thing that I noticed was that after it settles down, the Pitchclip is fairly consistent with the Pitchblack’s own readings. I can’t gauge actual accuracy, but both tuners do allude to the same ballpark area of sharpness or flatness. You’re certainly getting that Korg accuracy with the Pitchclip.

The Musedo T-40C doesn’t seem to be as sensitive as both Korg units. The reading also seems to lock in a certain range of whatever note is being tuned. Obviously, this could compromise accuracy. But I wonder if that is such a bad thing. If you look at the video clip, the readings are really close to each other. A hyper accurate tuner, at first glance, will always seem to be the best thing to have. But when the reality of your practical needs sets in, you start to think twice about it. That fancy strobe tuner is great of setting up your guitar. But for most purposes, personally, I’d rather spend 15 seconds for adequate tuning rather than 5 minutes for perfect tuning. Why bother? Pitch is never going to be perfect as you play up and down the fretboard, anyway.

I still like the Musedo a bit more and it will remain my go-to tuner. But after this test, I realized that the Pitchclip is actually better than I first thought. It held its own against its bigger brother, the Pitchblack. It takes longer to stabilize, but it gets there. When the green LED in the middle lights up, I can always trust the Korg Pitchclip.

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A pencil is for writing, not lubricating a guitar!

I admit it. I’d been peeved. One of the problems with a fairly large and high-traffic forum such as PhilMusic is that anything you write can easily get lost in the ocean of posts and topics found within. Sure, some people do have the sense to at least attempt a forum search before posting stuff. But one thing I have noticed is that sooner or later, just when you think that a certain topic has been beaten like a dead horse, someone is going to come along and ask the same question again… and again… and again. It gets more annoying when you actually pour your heart out in these particular discussions out of your desire to help. You suddenly have this unshakeable feeling that all your efforts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

So, instead of wallow in the misery of my perceived insignificance, I will instead take on guitar-related issues here in my own blogsite instead of doing it everyday in forums like I used to. At least here, whatever I write won’t get buried by nonsense. Well, with my nonsense, sure. But not that of other people. And I am not even ashamed to say that’s what ultimately counts.

(This is going to be a long one. So, if you have a short attention span, the important parts are highlighted in green.)

Take the case of the nut and keeping a guitar in tune. At some point, guitar players figure out that one of the main reasons why their guitar goes out of tune after a big bend or a whammy bar dive is because sometimes, the strings doesn’t totally revert to its original position. One of the critical areas is the nut, where it is not uncommon for strings to bind, even if it is properly slotted, and made of good material. That, ladies and gentlemen, is due to friction coming into play. The Floyd Rose system includes a locking nut so it wouldn’t have to deal with nut friction (I know, writing that phrase feels awkward, lol).

In reality, it is not possible to totally eliminate friction, but it can be reduced. For the guitar, an obvious solution is replacement, especially if you have some cheap plastic or a poorly prepped bone nut. There are the roller nuts, like the LSR and the Wilkinson, where you’ve got metal bearings that help the strings roll over the slots more smoothly as they move. Problem is, they’re a bit expensive and aren’t drop-in replacements. Some wood has to be shaved off the neck to fit a roller nut assembly. I’m sure some people wouldn’t be keen on that.

An alternative would be to have a standard-size nut, but made of material that’s more slippery than the old one, such as graphite and slipstone. In theory you’d still have more friction compared to a roller nut, but much less compared to plastic or bone. Another popular option would be the Graphtech TUSQ XL, an artificial material embedded with some proprietary lubricant. Graphtech, will of course claim superiority over other material. I can’t really confirm or deny that, but I do have them on two guitars.

graphtechGraphtech nut and string retainers on Spirit 3.

Now, for those who do not want to replacing anything in their guitars, there is the option of applying any of the number of lubricants available on the market. There’s the popular but ridiculously priced Big Bends Nut Sauce. I’ve also heard of people using stuff they get from the hardware store like WD-40 and lithium-based lubricants. I have personally settled with a small tub of Guitar Grease I got from Stewart-MacDonald some years ago.

All those are well and good, to varying degrees. But what has gotten me peeved enough to prompt me to write this blog is peoples’ insistence in using pencil lead. It’s bad enough to be a cheap ignorant bastard. I used to be one. But a cheap ignorant bastard spreading bad advice. That is horrible, no matter how well-meaning the intention.

But pencil is made of graphite, right?

Jeezus, I used to think so. But I started thinking that back in the mid 1990’s. My parents couldn’t afford the Encyclopedia Americana or Britannica that I always wanted when I was a kid. I didn’t even have a pirated copy of Microsoft Encarta. Worst of all, I didn’t have anyone to teach me the do’s and don’ts of maintaining a guitar. Nowadays, nearly everything you need to know is a Google search away. It is one of our greatest gifts in the 21st century so far, so for the love of God, make use of it!

The Wikipedia entry for pencil is that first result you will get from a typical Google search. Let’s check that out (good thing this is just a blog — I’d never get away with this in the academe). Let us consider the definition of graphite pencil contained therein.

These are the most common types of pencils, and are encased in wood. They are made of a mixture of clay and graphite and their darkness varies from light grey to black. Their composition allows for the smoothest strokes.

Yes, the common pencil has graphite, but the truth of the matter is that the core of your Mongols is mostly made of clay, which I am sure you will agree is not a lubricant. Sure, maybe there are still pencils out there using pure solid graphite. According to the same Wikipedia entry, such things are not encased in wood. How many people are using pencils like that?

Your pencil lead shavings do work for a time. The graphite does kick in. But it doesn’t take long before the lubrication wears off. By then you will find it necessary to put in more shavings between the nut slots and the strings. The lubrication wears off, but the clay (or charcoal) accumulates, leaving you with a nut full of gunk which is very difficult to clean up. And as long as all that gunk is there, not only will you have tuning issues worse than before, you lose a lot of sustain, as well.

It was unfortunate that it took me a long time before I stopped being a cheap ignorant bastard. My luthier, Jun Castro, is a close friend, almost like a brother to me. That is why this is not a scene you would witness between him and most of his other clients. But he took me by surprised when he suddenly snapped at me when he saw pencil residue on the bone nut on one of my guitars which he cut himself.

When I was 17, I thought I was so clever using a #1 Mongol (left) on my guitar. Stupid, stupid kid.
Nowadays, I use something more proper (right), if at all.

Wag na wag kang gagamit ng lapis! Eto pakinggan mo… (Don’t ever use pencil! Listen to this.)

Jun then proceeded to demonstrate how my guitar couldn’t stay in tune even with light whammy use and how the higher strings sounded dead. He had to file down the nut slots just to get the residue off. It wasn’t an ideal move as overdoing it by even just a bit could lead to enlarged slots. Worst case scenario was that he’d have to replace the nut. Luckily, that would eventually be unnecessary, at least for that day. I felt so stupid. Needless to say, it was the last time a pencil ever got near any of my guitar nuts. I promptly switched to Graphtechs and never looked back.

These days, there is simply no reason for guitar players to not do any background research on whatever they’re buying or doing for their instruments. Just because someone recommended you something he or she has been doing for years doesn’t make it good advice. If you want to remain a cheap bastard, that’s still ok (sort of). The least you can do is stop spreading ignorance and do more research. You’ll find that some people use lip gloss or similar substances. The important thing is for you to find a product that does not build residue and does not harm the guitar, particularly the fretboard, the strings and the nut itself. Then I’d say you’re good to go.

While I may sound condescending at times here, it is also still my goal to help whoever are willing to listen. And I hope I achieve that here, and in succeeding blog entries. So until then, thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something!

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Cleaning the fretboard

It was time for a string change on my custom strat. I hadn’t done much cleaning on the fretboard for like a year either, so I went ahead and did that, too. But instead of the usual lemon oil wiping, I wanted to try something. In one of his youtube videos, Scott Grove asserted how unnecessary it is to use oils when cleaning unfinished fretboards. A damp cloth would do. I wanted to test this.

After polishing the frets, I dampened some cotton balls and wiped. It did get gunk off the wood and the frets. But I expected that. My question was whether or not water can get all of it. So, I got my trusty bottle of oil out of the drawer and put just a little bit (much less than I ever did) on some cotton and buffed away. Even more dirt came off the board.


Cotton balls by cutaway — with water on the left and lemon oil on the right

Water does not get it all off. Now, do you really need to? Not all the time, at least as far as I am concerned. But if I ever use water, I’d feel safer following it up a little bit of oil, anyway. I doubt it’ll ever be much of a problem for Scott Grove, as he lives in Nevada and actually needs to use humidifiers for his guitars. But keep wood damp even for a short while in a warm humid area, like the entire Philippines, and you’re bound to grow all sorts of fungus fairly quick.

At least this is something I only need to do once in a while. So, it’s not much of a bother having to be more thorough.

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Review: Lenar Gigbag

Review: Lenar Gigbag Made to Order Gig Bags
Price: Varies

Made to order services for musical instrument bags and cases are aplenty, if you know where to look. I’ve seen and owned a few. They’re not the best make ever, but the bags serve their purpose well. The people who make these bags make a killing in supplying cheap but fairly reliable merchandise. But there are also those who dare ask for an added premium for their work, in exchange for a significantly higher level of quality – something they claim can hold its own against well-known ready-made and imported brands.

It’s been a few years since Lenar (formerly Bumbum) Gigbags started building a reputation over at the PhilMusic Forums. They got regularly showered by compliments from clients who seemed very happy with what they got. I’d always thought about ordering a bag to see the workmanship for myself. But I’d just end up changing my mind and buy a Gator bag or something. Once again, I found myself in the same quandary after buying a Line 6 POD HD500. I was told at the store that they didn’t have a Gator bag available that would be a good fit for the effects unit. A few days later, I was told that it actually wasn’t the case and they had just the thing. But this was only after I sent an inquiry to Lenar about having a bag custom made. The Gator was more expensive (around PHP2,500), but I’d have to wait for the Lenar (PHP2,000 including shipping with a two week waiting period). I live outside Manila, and since at the time I had no planned trips within the next two weeks, I figured this was a good time to go custom!

Fast forward to the day the bag arrived…


I wasn’t high on the available colors, so I stuck with the ever-popular black. I asked for his standard design following the dimensions of the HD500 – one main compartment and two side pockets. The bag itself is lined with a heavy duty nylon fabric that’s noticeably glossier than what I’m used to with Gators. I had never been particular with zippers. That was until I came into possession of two cheap semi-hard cases whose pull tabs broke off after only a handful of tugs. At least the sliders didn’t jam. Otherwise, I’d have been frantically ripping the case apart as this happened just before a very rare gig, but I digress. Needless to say, just seeing the sturdy-looking black zippers allayed any lingering concern of mine.


Flipping the bag over reveals a compartment for the shoulder straps (in case one wants to carry it as a backpack). It’s a nice touch, but the obsessive-compulsive might have an issue with it as the bag will not be able to lie completely flat on a floor or table.


What I am not a fan of, however, was the set of plastic boots. Of course, I probably should be happy that the bag has those (not all bag makers include them) whenever I lay it on the floor upright. But wide rubber skid pads would have provided a nicer touch.


Opening the bag reveals an interior lined with a thinner and softer light grey fabric covering the padding. It won’t scratch all but the flimsiest plastic, so it serves its purpose well. But I wished the bag had a plush-type interior instead. One thing I really like about the inside, however, is the internal flap for added protection. I was a little disappointed because the side pockets cannot fit a folder where I usually put chords and lyric sheets (not Lenar’s fault – the size of the bag was dictated by the HD500, after all). But with the flap, aside from providing additional padding, it also acts as a divider which provides more than enough space for my folder).


Another important thing to consider about this sort of bags is the fit. Bags not intended for any specific item, and even some custom made bags have varying degrees of allowances. For my order, I just specified what the bag was going to be for, and the HD500 fit snugly right in. Sometimes I do like more slack. But for this particular bag, a snug fit is ideal for me. The interior flap can also be fastened tightly in place for good measure. Very nice.


Overall, the only other thing I could think about picking on are the stray strands of thread sticking out of the seams, some of which you will clearly see in the pictures here. It’s not a deal breaker and I know that the case is the same in many other bags. But still, attention to this tiny detail does mean something.

I’ve seen so many glowing feedback on Lenar bags. But my point in bothering to write this review is to provide an honest perspective. I’ve already patronized them with my money. I don’t need to patronize them with empty compliments. Come on people, Lenar bags aren’t the best. I’ve certainly seen better stuff out there.


Even they realize that’s not what they’re about. Even though they’re no Mono, you are going to be hard-pressed to find anything better for the money that you would spend for a Lenar Gigbag. In case that is not enough, you also have customization options otherwise not available in ready-made counterparts (like, when was the last time you saw after-market bags for a Flying V or an Explorer readily available?). And, you will enjoy the benefit of dealing with a proprietor who always seem to go put in the effort to keep their lines of communication open to their clients. Thank you, Arnel!

I love bags. I can probably rival my wife in that regard. But by no means am I an authority. While I do not know if my word carries any weight if I say that I heartily recommend getting a bag from Lenar to all musicians looking for reasonably priced well-made and rugged gig bags, one thing is for sure – I know for sure I will do just that whenever the need arises.

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