Earth Hour

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fight the Spread of Ebola Through Information

I have to admit, I am getting concerned about the Ebola crisis. The news of health and aide workers contracting the disease and eventually bringing it to their homeland only make me more afraid that it's only a matter of time before the disease reaches our country.  If that happens, it will be another major crisis for our country.

At one point I wanted to run to the nearest health store and stock on face masks, hand sanitizers and wet tissues to protect myself.  However, I decided to check first for information on the disease from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) websites.

Here are some key facts I got from WHO:

  • Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans.
  • The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.   The initial source of past EVD outbreaks was likely human contact with wild animals through hunting, butchering and preparing meat from infected wild animals (“bush meat”), with subsequent transmission from human to human.
  • The average EVD case fatality rate is around 50%. Case fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks.
  • There are currently no licensed Ebola vaccines but 2 potential candidates are undergoing evaluation.

Dr Bruce Aylward, the WHO assistant director-general, warned that the number of new cases was likely to be between 5,000 and 10,000 a week by early December. Their regular updates show that deaths have resulted from 4,447 of the 8,914 reported cases. Aylward added that any assumption that the death rate was 50% would be wrong. He put the death rate at 70% because many deaths are not reported or recorded officially.
From the CDC Ebola website, I gathered that Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease and unlike respiratory illnesses like measles or chickenpox, which can be transmitted by virus particles that remain suspended in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes.  Also  coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, however, if a patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone, and saliva or mucus come into contact with that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease.  It is also NOT  spread by water, or in general, by food.

Moreover, the CDC website clarified that the EDV is killed with hospital-grade disinfectants (such as household bleach). Ebola on dried on surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops can survive for several hours but the virus in body fluids (such as blood) can survive up to several days at room temperature.  Also, there is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals (for example, humans, bats, monkeys and apes) have shown the ability to spread and become infected with Ebola virus.

Here's a useful infographic on the EDV with information mostly gathered from the CDC. It's not mine and I just got it from Google images but the information are very helpful in understanding this disease.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Apple Adds Two Items to My Christmas Wish List: iPad Air 2 and Mac Mini

I just finished watching the Apple Event this morning (it's 2 AM here in Manila) and I am stoked with two things that the guys in Cupertino unveiled today.  The company just released the latest models of their flagship iPhone last month and now, they released what could be the last of their gadgets for this year in time for the holidays.

Apple introduced this morning the iPad Air 2, which they say is the thinnest and most powerful iPad ever. In introducing the new iPad, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing can't help gushing about the latest model of their gadget.  He described it as the thinnest tablet in the world and that two of the new gadget stacked on top of each other would still be thinner than the first generation iPad.  

iPad Air 2 has a new Retina display with anti-reflective coating, second generation 64-bit A8X chip, all-new iSight and FaceTime HD cameras, faster Wi-Fi and LTE wireless.  It also includes my favorite Touch ID fingerprint identity sensor.  

It's open for pre-order on the U.S. Apple Online Store starting later today. The Wi-Fi models are priced at $499, $599 and $699 for the 16, 64, and 128 GB capacities, respectively.  It will be available in gold, silver, and space gray.

Initial impressions of the new iPad Air 2 are very favorable.  Most are raving about how thin it is and the better screen resolution.  The Verge noted  the big improvement on the camera:

 "One thing that is definitively better is the new camera, which is now 8 megapixels; it's a lot faster and shots seemed a lot clearer, at least in Apple's hectic demo room. "

I am not yet sure how much iPad Air 2 will cost in the Philippines and when it will be available here but I hope just before the Christmas Season.  Apple also unveiled the iPad Mini 3 but I prefer the 9.7 inch iPad Air.  I am eyeing the 64GB wifi model owing to the experience of the on-air update of iOS a few months ago when I need to delete some files to get some space on my 16GB gadget.

Another good news at the event was that Apple has finally updated the Mac mini.   Nothing much change in the design of the  Mac mini, but many changes happened inside.  It now features fourth-generation Intel Core processors, faster integrated graphics, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Thunderbolt 2.  The new machine will be shipping with the latest iteration of OSX, Yosemite which was also released this morning and now available for download for free.  It also has a new lower starting price at $499, making Apple’s most affordable Mac an even better value.  Below is a screenshot from the Official Philippine Apple Store of the pricing for the new Mac mini.

I checked our online forum during the event and the most common complaint about the new Mac mini model is that it doesn't come with a quad core CPU. Nevertheless, I am glad there's a new Mac mini and that means I can change my hardworking Mac soon.

In fact, the new Mac mini is now available on the official Philippine Apple Store.  Shipping time is 2 to 3 weeks at the moment.

So these are too items on my Christmas wish list. I'm still thinking which of them I will finally get. I might get lucky though and ultimately get both of them. Happy Holidays, indeed!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"What If?" Answers some of the most bizarre questions

I just finished reading this very amusing book named, "What if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions"

The author, Randall Munroe, is a physicist who used to work at NASA as a roboticist. He created the webcomic xkcd, which features stick figures and deals with science, technology, and math themes.  Alongside this webcomic, he created whatif where he answers questions sent to him by his readers.

The webcomic actually has a cult following and has already received over 70 million hits.[citation needed]  The book is a compilation of some of the more bizarre questions he's received and answered since he started the project.

This is the first time I encountered Munroe and his work, so I am pretty amused by his writing style.  He answers questions that if I or anyone asked a school teacher, I would be immediately dismissed as impertinent.  Consider the following questions:

  • What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
  • How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?
  • If someone's DNA suddenly vanished, how long would that person last?
  • How much physical space does the Internet take up?
  • What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly switched off?
  • If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

And my favorite: What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?    His answer: You can stack the top two rows without much trouble; The third row would burn you with fire; the fourth would kill you with toxic smoke; the fifth would do all of those and give you a mild dose of radiation; the sixth would explode violently and; Do not build the seventh row.  He gave a more detailed explanation of these answers in the same chapter.

All of these and the rest of the other main questions were answered meticulously by the author using scientific facts and his brand of humor.  Yes, sometimes the reader needs a little background about the things he says but this won't stop you from enjoying the book.   Also, don't forget to read all the footnotes, which were also as entertaining as the main texts. There's even a running joke about his constant use of [citation needed]. 

In between the questions are inserts called "Weird (and worrying) Questions From the What If? Inbox," and these contained even stranger questions (example: What is the total nutritional value of the average human body?) which Munroe answered with some funny stick figures or even deliberately left unanswered.

And one more thing, many of the questions and answers lead to scenarios of the destruction of our home planet, which may be the reason why the author, after discussing the effect of the different magnitudes of an earthquake (Q. What if a Richter magnitude 15 earthquake were to hit America at, let's say, New York?),  ended his book with, "Sometimes it's nice not to destroy the world for a change."

I really enjoyed reading this book.  I laughed and learned a lot while reading it. Even if it's your first time encountering the author and his work, you will still find the book very interesting.  

What if? by Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 303 pages
Available from

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Latest in Agribusiness at Agrilink 2014

I went to the Agrilink 2014 this morning at the World Trade Center in Roxas Blvd. Agrilink is a trade exhibition on agriculture, food and aquaculture  held every October. We went there to see what latest technology and trends in agriculture that we can apply in our little farm in Mindanao.

Here are some of the things I saw in the exhibit:

Here's a very good looking Duroc boar. This reminded me of my course in college called Swine Production. 

These fowls are very nice to look at. I was attracted to the crest of feathers on their head that looked like cotton.

These are Pearl Gray Bengalas, their dotted plumage are so beautiful to look at.

I didn't get the name of this beautiful bird but its plumage is so stunning.

American Mallards. A pair cost Php4,000 during the exhibit.

The booth of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research featured "edible landscaping" developed by the University of the Philippines at Los Banos (my alma mater). It combines vegetables such as camote, herbs, etc. with traditional garden plants.

There were also a lot of learning seminars held simultaneously for free. Most of them are focused on increasing competitiveness in the light of the ASEAN economic integration next year.  Unfortunately I did not have enough time and I wasn't prepared. Maybe next year, in the 22nd Agrilink,

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Identifying the Near Poor in the Philippines

Policymakers tend to lump poor people into one homogeneous group – the poor, At the most, poor people are classified into two groups: the poor and the extremely poor. Now, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) wants to add another classification: the near-poor.

In a forum I attended just this morning, the DSWD in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) presented a study by Dr. Vic Paqueo entitled “Analysis of the Near-Poor Challenge and Strategy Development Ideas." It identifies near-poor families as those "who live at a knife-edge with little or no buffer against the economic shocks such that they can easily become poor when faced with crisis."

So how do we know who the near-poor families are?  Dr. Paqueo explained that near-poor families are those with incomes that are just above the total poverty threshold.  Given that at present the national poverty threshold is at PhP9,686, the near-poor threshold will be at PhP12.400.

The near-poor, added Pacqueo, are those who have per-capita income higher than the poverty threshold, with small family size, the family head is educated, mostly non-agricultural workers, more of them are unemployed, have access to electricity, and live in houses made of strong materials.

In spite of having jobs and earning or having some savings, these families can easily become poor when faced with crises such as loss of job, loss of financial assistance or sources of income due to calamities, and sickness that incur big amounts for their medicines and hospitalization costs.

He said that many near-poor families may be considered as "balik-balik" or those that are in and out of poverty at certain points in time. By classifying these households as a separate sector based on their poverty risk, government programs can make better and target-driven programs for them.

Pacqueo recommended that the government should take steps because near-poor households are more prevalent.  This may have been due to some policy and program failures, such as the minimum wage law. Also, it is easier to prevent them from becoming poor and therefore should be part of comprehensive and sustainable anti-poverty programs.

This is not an entirely new idea as this has already been proposed by Dr. Celia Reyes of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.  In a study, she identified what she called then as transient poor – families that go in and out of poverty due to shocks they experienced.  Dr. Reyes even pointed out that there are more of these families than those covered by the Conditional Cash Transfer program of the DSWD.

Perhaps this near-poor idea is also an indication of what most of us have been thinking all along: the CCT is not effectively addressing poverty and is just creating a new culture of dependency and mendicancy.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Kindle Unlimited: Over 600,000 Books Available But...

I recently received an email from inviting me to avail of a 30-free day trial of their new service, Kindle Unlimited. The idea is great for any book lover: for thirty days you are free to read as many books as you want (and can) from 600,000 titles. After the trial period, you only need to pay $9.99 per month as subscription.  It also comes with a complimentary three-month Audible membership, which gives access to additional 150,000 audiobook titles.


This is good news for someone like me who loves reading and at the same time owns a Kindle reading device.  Yes, you can also read through any of the free reading app from the company and the audiobooks are available to those who own Kindle Fire. 

So what is the "but" on the title for?  For three reasons. First, although 600,000 title seem a lot, at present I couldn't find the kind of titles I am interested in and want to read.  I expect Amazon will improve the selection later but right now it is extremely limited.

Second, if I choose to stop the subscription, I will lose all the books.  This is because I don't own them and only rent them from the service.

Lastly and related to my second reason, the price of the subscription.  I like reading books at a leisurely pace or at my own pace. If I really like the book, I can finish it in one to three days.  Sometimes, I read it only when I have the time. Most of the books for Kindle are at or near the $9.99 price point, the same amount as the subscription.  I do not see myself buying one book per month so that means that there will be months that I'd be obligated to pay for the service which I cannot use.

I am not discouraging anybody from trying the service.  You may want to take advantage of the free 30-day trial subscription for now.  I am sure that heavy readers would find Kindle Unlimited as a great way to enjoy reading books and save money at the same time.