Monday, March 11, 2013

The Ghetto Guide to Growing Your Own Food

From Ari LeVaux's Slate column

I was working at home yesterday, and sometime in the afternoon, I grew hungry. Didn't have much time to cook, so it had to be a low effort, what's-in-the-fridge endeavor. We had tomatoes, I had bagoong. I started washing the tomatoes when I spied the patch of alugbati creeping up the side wall. 

I'm not sure who planted it anymore: usually, when we buy vegetables, like bunches of camote or alugbati, those branches get sticked into the soil outside the house. It's something that we grew up with when we still had a huge yard with several trees. When I was a kid, there was a summer that we had the backyard overrun with camote. My brother and I would pick the leaves and put them on the rice and have them as snacks, which annoyed our mother as come dinner time, we wouldn't have appetites for a proper meal anymore. So you could be sure that at any given moment, there would be something edible growing in the yard, diminished size or not. Cut vegetables stalks turn into more vegies. Egg shells become fertilizer. But I suppose I've inherited a more practical approach to growing things. 

When people talk about gardening, it's usually this big effort--not to mention the expense that comes with cultivating plants. The idea of growing one's food is something that can be done to help out with the food expense. People are concerned with "local" and "organic" and "carbon footprints," but for the life of me, I cannot bring myself to pay a hundred bucks for a small tin of cherry tomatoes. It's just not practical. 

It even becomes more complicated when you talk about city or urban gardening. There isn't enough space, specially if one lived in an apartment or a cramped condo unit.

I was glad to run into this "lazy gardener's high yield technique," and it's simply this: throw seeds in the garden. It's so low effort, and yet you get good returns. I have been planning to start a more "proper" garden, but like Ari LeVaugh, it takes me a while to get things done. So I like this approach. It's so similar to our stick it in and watch it grow approach that I'm sure it would work. 

So yesterday, I saw the alugbati and picked off the leaves, blanched them, and ate them along with my tomato and bagoong salad.  I count myself lucky for that small patch of earth we can stick things in. Now if only I can get myself to be a little less lazy and clear the yard so there would be more room to scatter seeds in. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Government trolls citizens: We got jobs, y'all. Why so choosy?

Do the math.

The government tries to explain the country's unemployment problem by basically telling its citizens to shut up and just take on any job.

DOLE Public Information Office Director Nikon Fameronag made public a study by its Bureau of Statistics that the Filipino jobseekers are "maselan" and "mapili sa trabaho," ie, too choosy and sensitive about the work they want to do. Fameronag identifies most of these applicants as new graduates, and even offers them advice: "Huwag maging maarte sa pagpili ng trabaho dahil ang mahalaga ay maranasan muna nila ang pagtratrabaho sa isang kumpanya." 

I wanted to excuse the report's fingerpointing, given that this report comes from the tabloid Remate, and not Fameronag's actual words. But I looked for other reports on the subject and found a report from the Philippine Star's PangMasa, this one just a little bit tame but still rather unfortunately worded. 

Both reports go on to say that the government does its share, by posting anywhere from 34,000 to 40,000 jobs on its PhilJobNet website. Surely, any one of those jobs can be taken on by any random Filipino jobseeker. What it all comes down to is that a representative of the government  blames the unemployment problem on what amounts to be the "bad attitude" of its labor pool. 

I looked at PhilJobNet's  top 5 vacancies: call center agent, service crew, cashier, sales clerk, production/factory worker. 

But if one checked out the "Top Skills" postings, the #1 job in offer is that of factory worker at 2,399 jobs on offer. Rounding up the Top 5: cashier (2132), service crew (2123), and sales clerk/sales lady in the high thousands. Call Center Agent only comes in at #12 at 386 jobs and Customer Service Assistant is at #15 with 352 jobs. 

An interesting aside: PhilJobNet only has two openings for shoemaker, and only single offerings each for "indexer"--whatever that is, valet, author, museum guide, telephone switchboard operator and aquaculturist. 

All of the Top 5 Jobs/Skills are at the opposite sides of the job spectrum. Call center jobs require at least a high school diploma or some college education, plus English language proficiency. Factory workers need material skills specific to whatever is produced by the factory doing the hiring. It also doesn't take into account the profile of who qualifies as unemployed, or as the article so gracelessly noted, the "tambays" in the statistical study. And what of the term "tambay" which has a widely negative connotation, ie "person who only finished grade school and may possibly be a delinquent and/or have never had a legitimate job ever." 

Meanwhile, "unemployed" covers a wide swath of people, who could be anyone from "New college graduate" which is different from "OFW transitioning to the local job market" and which is radically different from "only finished Grade 5." 

It does not take into consideration that every job posting requires a very specific skill set that may or may not apply to Jomar who only finished high school or Marilen who only had three semesters at the city college. And what of the aquaculturist? How many people studied that one in college? Or god forbid, acquired the skills and knowledge set for it by apprenticing? 

But inherent in this report that makes reading it infuriating is that the government is assigning the blame to the unemployment problem back to its constituents instead of creating more jobs. Why so choosy? Just take whatever job is there. Unless you want a country of robots, that's never a good idea. And even if you manage to convince millions of people to just give up on choice and the ability to create a good life for themselves, at some point all this will come back to haunt you. 

You want statistics? There are 40,000 jobs for a country with a population of 100 million. Assuming that only 40M are in the active labor pool, that's maybe a 1: 1,000 chance that your skills fit the job. Or let's make it more concrete: PhilJobNet through its website lists 123,928 applicants. There are only 97,610 vacancies. What are the chances any random Filipino job seeker has a shot at that? It still falls short of the target. 

So, why so choosy? Because this is a democracy, and by extension, a capitalist society, if you want to view it that way, where people are allowed to craft a life that is good for themselves. Unfortunately, the government we elected thinks so lowly of  its citizens and don't deserve a shot at a decent livelihood. It's basically trolling us: "Lolz, u fools! You'll take whatever crap we give you." It reeks of irresponsibility, of a government that washes its hands off its inability to supply the need of its people, and somehow symptomatic of a leader who technically does not need to work a day in his life. It almost makes you wish for a revolution to happen, if only to have a chance to rid the status quo of incompetents. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Steven Soderbergh: A Case Study on How To Avoid Burnout*

Lately, I have noticed that there's a good number of my friends quitting what seems to be perfectly good and stable jobs because they are tired of what they do. There's my friend's husband D, who is a tech guy who does projects with international clients and earns in the ballpark of 6 figures a month. But he grew tired of what he was doing and went from corporate guy to outsourced projects guy and then quit the tech scene altogether to do some kind of multi-level marketing**. 

Then there's my friend V, who quit an office job overseas even when the company offered her a 100% raise. But she said that she knows that even with the raise--and $4,000/month is nothing to sneeze at--she knows she will still dread coming into the office in the working, and will show up at 11am and do facebook all day. So she quit. She's sending two kids to school but she's not afraid that she will find other work. It seems that money is not enough of a motivation to stay in a job you don't like. 

Then comes the news that director Steven Soderbergh is quitting directing movies once he turns fifty. In this interview with Vulture, he has some very interesting points about how to approach "creative" work. In between his 1989 debut sex, lies and videotape and this year's Side Effects, he has directed 26 films, each one of them different in terms of style and genre--the "perfect chameleon" is how the Vulture's Mary Kay Schilling describes him. 

This is a director who wants to go to work--after he got fired off Moneyball, he turned his energies to making the super low budget The Girlfriend Experience. So it came as a bit of a surprise when he recently announced that after his 50th birthday, he's going to stop directing movies to focus on painting. He still plans to direct--mainly, theater and maybe television if there are interesting projects. He explains his decision partly as getting tired of the way we tell stories now, and so "wanting to slough off one skin and grow another." In short, the necessity to reinvent when one is getting tired of the way we do things: 
"It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere. But that could just be my form of theism." 
What for me, what stood out in the interview is Soderbergh's attitude on "creative work." It's not enough to learn how to do things--your attitude and how you relate with other people is equally, if not more, important: 
"On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then–Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998’s] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.” 
And it does make sense, especially for those who work in the creative industries. There's a huge threat of burnout, but guys like Soderbergh, who went on a 26 film run in 24 years, you have to admire them for the stamina to just slug through and deliver project after project. A couple of years ago, Soderbergh made public his daily diet of creative consumption: a list of all the books and things he read and movies he watched interspersed with his work schedule (shooting for Haywire, Contagion).*** So it seems like that to be as productive as Soderbergh, one must feed the creative soul and not just tire oneself out with just work. 

There's the myth of industry vs inspiration: that work can only "flow smoothly" if the muse is there to inspire you. But in the real world, there are deadlines and deliverables. One can't pack up a shoot of a commercial or a television show and risk a blank screen. Too much is at stake. Also, there's the idea of eccentric behavior from artists and geniuses. Bad behavior is inexcusable, and surely, ill temper is not the only sign of geniuses. 

Which reminds me with a talk I had with my boss. It's important to meet deadlines. If you have two workers where one is merely adequate and the other has more polished work but takes a very long time and will most likely deliver late, guess which person will get the next project? 

At the end of the day, it's going to be the one who delivers. And it won't matter that it's "just okay" or "sufficiently adequate." Which means that I need to work on working faster. It's slow going, but this is a quest at improving oneself and one's attitude towards work, so we will try. Or as Yoda says, "There is no try. Only do." 

*Or alternatively: Knowing When To Quit

**I'm not convinced that multilevel marketing or networking is the way to go. In my head, these are all variations on the pyramid scheme: common products sold at a high mark up and the illusion that you have your own business. But the only ones who get rich out of this are the ones who got in really early to cash in. Everyone else who comes in later is screwed. 

*** One thing that makes sense with this list now is that in the interview Soderbergh mentions that he was working on an adaptation/reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. So that's why he was watching all those episodes. So even if it seems like the list was just him "reading" or "watching," he was actually working. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Writing Pop Hits

The name Bonnie McKee might not ring a bell, but these songs will have you humming: "California Gurls," "Last Friday Night" and "Teenage Dream" for Katy Perry and "Hold It Against Me" for Britney Spears. 

She might not be the voice for the songs, but the songs wouldn't exist if she had not written them for some of pop's current leading ladies. It doesn't quite surprise me that McKee wanted to be a pop star herself--her 2004 debut album tanked. As she says in this Hollywood Reporter interview, "My experience in the industry was that you put all this heart and soul into shit and then it never happens." But as they say, lemons to lemonade. She knew music, she could write, and write she did. 

Her turning point was "California Gurls," which I vaguely remember was said to be written as a response to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." Katy Perry wanted a West Coast equivalent that was fun and bubbly--and probably something to prove that "I Kissed A Girl" wasn't just a fluke. McKee describes the semi-unreal feeling of hearing the song you wrote on the radio: 

"Well, maybe this will work; maybe it won’t." And then when it came on the radio I was, like, "Wow I did that a couple months ago and I can’t believe it’s actually on the radio and it actually worked!" When that started playing a lot I was just in shock. I couldn’t believe it … I think ‘California Gurls’ is the first one that really showed me that.

It really surprised me that she wrote some of Katy Perry's biggest hits. I had been under the impression that Katy Perry wrote most of her songs. But "Teenage Dream?" Man, that is major:

That’s a title I’d had bouncing around in my head for years that I had been holding onto for myself … So that was tough one to give up. There’s a lot of little Bonnie-isms in "Teenage Dream" that I was hoping to keep for myself. But at that moment I didn’t have hot water, I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have a car. So it was now or never. I’m glad that I did it. 

McKee says "Teenage Dream" is the song she is most proud of having written. And I have to agree. It's the right mix of vulnerability and braveness and oh, youth! That she was hoping to sing it herself, but there were bills to pay. She wouldn't have written it if she weren't poor and desperate. Literally, this is a money for food moment. All we hear is Katy Perry's name and voice and pop sugar outfits, but where would she be if it weren't for the songs, yeah?

I'm also glad that she has not completely given up on her own pop dreams. She is working on her next album. My bet is that she got tons of goodwill from the work she did for others, and now she has another shot at it. She describes her work as something like "what Blondie would sound like in 2013." I would be looking forward to that. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Top 10 Highest Paying Jobs in the Philippines

The Department of Labor and Employment recently bared a list for the highest paying jobs in the country. It was based on the study made by the Bureau of Local Employment, and they defined the current Pinoy workforce as made up of "young, creative and dynamic people." 

I was not surprised that "geologist" made it to #2. There aren't that many geology majors in the country,  which makes their rarity and brand of expertise extremely prized. (I know or knew one geologist in real life.  He died. But when he was alive, his consultancy fees from mining and oil companies certainly were his bread and butter--not the teaching job he held at the university. Anyway, RIP Geologist. But don't worry, kids, his death had nothing to do with rocks. Science is cool; geology rocks!) 

But I certainly wasn't counting on "art director" to be on top of the list. So what does an art director do, exactly? The BLE has an answer: 

"[A]rt directors in the film industry typically work with production designers and serve as the head of the art department. He attends production meetings, oversees the film sets and special effects, supervises the production staff, and is responsible for allocating and maximizing the budget for the art department.
It added that depending on the qualifications and experience, art directors could earn a monthly salary of as much as P70,000, particularly those who work in big budget films."

Again, I've worked in that creative industry and production designers earn enough to buy a van and a house with nine rooms. But that is for someone who has worked for a long time, so this is not necessarily true for everyone. Perhaps the rates are different in commercials, but film and television, probably not as much. This somehow makes me consider the veracity of the BLE's study. 

If you would look at the list carefully, almost all the jobs require a very specific area of expertise which most likely requires higher education. The bare minimum would be a college course with a healthy dosage of science and math (geologist, pilot, mining/metallurgical engineer*, statistician, system analyst, computer programmer.**) 

DOLE Secretary Baldoz admits as much, that "the salaries and jobs identified are not entry-level wages. She says, “The compensation are obtained after years of work experience and after attaining some level of competency, as most employers in the identified industries would require. Also, occupants of these high-paying positions need to have bachelor’s degrees related to the field, at the very least." You can't just apply and say, I can do that. It needs real skills and a diploma. Imagine if your surgeon says he studied heart bypass operations in the internet. You wouldn't trust him with a cross-stitching needle, what more your heart. 

I might be wrong with this, but I think "General foreman" is a job you can learn from the ground up. You still need (construction?) skills and then build on that experience. 

Of all the top jobs, "call center agent" is the most free-wheeling. A decade ago, call centers (or BPOs) were just starting to get attention. They recruited college graduates who knew how to operate computers. But mostly, one must have a command of English. Accents are neutralized, and because Pinoys are great mimics, so that's a piece of cake. Also, you need a great deal of patience. You guide people through what needs to be solved, and there will be "irate callers" who will demand to talk to the manager and a hefty refund. 

It's a nice job to have if you don't mind the tedium and the hours--you have to follow Eastern or European time. It fills the bread basket and gives young people a job. But what happens when you no longer want to be a vampire on night shift? What other options are often? 

I might be the last person to champion a skills-only education, but now I can also recognize that not everyone needs to go to college. We put such a high premium on a college diploma that we lose sight of the fact that a country can't all be made up of desk slaves. But we've had enough of by-the-numbers people. We can't be all accountants.  Look where bureaucracy has brought us. If not everyone has the aptitude to study rocks, then we need to push technical vocational courses. 

And yes, we do need artists and poets and historians. But that's for telling the story later. If there's an apocalypse, what will happen to us? For that, we need people who know how to build bridges, operate heavy machinery, cultivate crops so we won't go hungry, save lives in case of emergencies. For that we need our scientists and skilled laborers. 

But we can't all be singing when the ships go down. Some of us would have to use labor and skill, some need math and sharp logic, some will have to write it all down. So really, a well-rounded education still wins the game for the country. 

*Entering college, I knew two people from my school who elected "metallurgical engineer" as their major and we were all, "What is the hell is that?" Later, the guy spent a lot of his time in a rig in the middle of the sea. 

**Some people would argue that all it needs is a decent computer and the internet and in the spirit of free knowledge sharing, one could learn to code and program on one's own. But in a country that has STI and AMA colleges on every corner, I would like to think that people go to school for that as well. Also note that most computer colleges boast of programs where they have E2E or enrolment to employment protocols, ie, they guarantee that you can get a job immediately afterwards. It won't be a well rounded education, but most people don't go to college now just "to learn." And that's sad.