Saturday, October 31, 2009

Top 5 Free Photo Apps for iPhone

EVEN though it doesn't have a great camera compared to other current smartphones, the iPhone has a whole slew of apps that can make your photos look great. And a good number of them are absolutely free although you may need an iTunes Store account to download them. If you like taking photos with your iPhone and want to have fun with your shots even before uploading them to your computer, then here are five must-have free photo apps that you should not do without:

Photoshop Mobile. Call it a bite-size version of the standard-setting photo editor. It’s not anywhere like the Photoshop we know but you can certainly crop, rotate, change color, soft focus, sketch and other one-touch effects.

Snapbox. It’s an all-in-one solution for the weekend warrior photographer with a wide range of photo filters and effects including Auto Correction, Lomograph, Noir, and Cinema. It also does not reduce the resolution of photos it processes like other apps.

Pop Art Lite. You want your 15 minutes, then by all means Warholize your iPhone pics with this nifty application. Does one thing and does it very well. An effortless way to have fun with your pics.

Flash For Free. Because the iPhone’s camera doesn’t have its own flash, this is perhaps the next best thing. Brighten your photos especially at nighttime with this simple but must-have app.

Crop For Free. From the makers of Flash For Free, also does one thing and does it very well. You can crop your photos
multiple times without losing image quality.

And here's a review of Photoshop Mobile for iPhone:

Friday, October 30, 2009

Up Dharma Down “Rocks” 16th NU 107 Rock Awards

LIVING up to the much-anticipated show's high definition billing, Up Dharma Down, a band that "progressively blurred the lines between genres in a constantly evolving landscape was the big winner in last night's NU 107 Rock Awards.

The genre-busting Up Dharma Down snagged the coveted Artist Of The Year, Album Of The Year for their widely-acclaimed Bipolar (no sophomore jinx there) and in a tie with Sugarfree's Ebe Dancel, Vocalist Of The Year for the foxy-looking Armi Millare, who also sang the national anthem before the main show started.

Having previously won the NU 107 Rock Awards in 2005 for the In The Raw category and again in 2006 for Best New Artist and Best Female Award (no such category this year), the band was a heavy favorite right from the get got, having garnered a total of 10 nominations this year.

While the crowd was noticeably thinner (owing perhaps to the bad weather) even as the awards returned to its well-loved venue at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, NU 107 main man Atom Henares was right on the money when he called it one of the best Rock Awards show in recent memory. For starters, the terrific hosting tandem of Ramon Bautista at ang napakaganda at napakabango na si (translation: and the beautiful and radiant) Iza Calzado certainly knew how to set the pace and liven up the proceedings with their mostly hilarious banter. Just about every performing artist brought their respective A game and yes, there was a moving In Memoriam portion that included a nice tribute to posthumous Hall Of Famer awardee Francis M.

But back to Up Dharma Down, their feat pretty much validated what their producer and Terno Recordings head honcho Toti Dalmacion thought about them all along. In a feature story that I wrote for IMAGINE THE GROOVE magazine on the maverick music guru, here's what Toti said about the band just shortly after the release of Bipolar.

“I guess there’s always one artist in every label where it’s like Boom! And you feel the connection right away,” he enthuses. “That’s how I felt when I first saw them at Miriam College. The sound was refreshingly different with soulful vocals even though the sound itself is not exactly soul.”

Toti is proud to declare that his relationship with Dharma has been “rosy” right from the beginning. “They have now emerged as our flagship artist along with Radioactive Sago but I think Dharma has a more crossover sound,” he beams. He is excited over the consistently rave reviews that the band has been receiving not just here but just about everywhere else. One feedback he’s particularly excited about came from Paul Buchanan (of the influential new wave group, The Blue Nile) who he considers as one of his musical heroes.

“Paul Buchanan declared Up Dharma Down as his favorite group and that’s an encouraging development since I’m already eyeing the international market for Terno,” he says.

At this year's rock awards, Up Dharma Down's performance was also a first of sorts in the sense that Armi was standing up instead of sitting down, which she usually does during their performances' entire sets. While I personally have no problem with the music itself, I've always believed their stage presence could use a big boost if Armi will lose the keyboard (you know she can still play that during recordings and just get a session musician to do those parts on stage) and just simply front the band. She certainly has the looks for it and with a little more confidence, maybe the moves, too. But then, that's just me.

Other winners last night were Peryodiko, Hilera, Rico Blanco, Sugarfree, Bamboo, Chicosci and Kamikazee. I'll talk about some of those other winners in future posts here. Meanwhile, here's the music video for Sana from Bipolar, directed by Pancho Esguerra who also won Best Music Video for Bamboo's Last Days On Cruise Ship:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Got Ovi Mail? Win Ayala Mall EGC's!

Uh, Guys,

Here's a little reward for tuning in here. I got three ways for you to win an Ayala Electronic Gift Check worth P1,000 pesos each from OVI by Nokia!

Got a best food discOVIry?

Then by all means, share and email to fooddiscOVIry@ovi.com.

Got a best fashion/beauty discOVIry?

Share and email to fashiondiscOVIry@ovi.com.

Got a best tech/gadget/game discOVIry?

Share and email to techdiscOVIry@ovi.com.

Contest period is from October 27 to November 20, 2009. Ten (10) winners per category will be chosen, and each of them will win an P1000 Ayala EGC! How about that for just dropping by in this blog, huh?

Important:

1. You have to have an OVI Mail account. If you don't, then open one at www.ovi.com.
2. You also must put the following details in their email entry: (a) Name, (b) Address, (c) OVI Mail Address, and (d) Mobile Phone Number.

Contest brought to you by Nokia Ovi and Nuffnang Philippines.

To find out more about Ovi Mail, check out this video:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Review: (500) Days Of Summer

WE can romanticize, sugarcoat and read too much into it all we want but the fact of the matter is there is really no rhyme or reason when it comes to love. People fall in and out of love not because of anything but because we just wake up one day and feel what we feel towards the other person. There may be some mitigating circumstance along the way but for the most part, people just fall in and out of love. Period. Just like that.

In this refreshing and honest take on the subject, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a greeting-card writer is a hopeless romantic who found out the hard way that no matter how many times he rewinds what went wrong with his relationship with officemate Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the truth is far less, uh, philosophical, than what he would like to believe.

Bottom line and as the sound bites of the teasers, trailers and posters suggest: boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl doesn't. She's a free spirt, however, who found him interesting enough to consent to an intimate relationship. I mean, an architecture major who writes greeting cards, listens to The Smiths, wears alternative music t-shirts like The Clash's London Calling and Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart and sings The Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man" during their company's karaoke night has to be intriguing enough for certain girls, at least for the short term.

Of course, Summer never really took the relationship as seriously as Tom obviously and intensely did. And for 500 days (that's almost one year and a half if you're doing the math), Tom carried a torch for Summer that while having its share of peaks was for the most part, filled with painful valleys. And only an actor specializing in troubled souls like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout) can effectively pull it off. "I don't want to get over her, I want to get her back," Tom told friends in a rather pathetic show of false bravado. Well, moving on was always easier said than done.

For Summer, played to, yes, free-spirited perfection by Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man), there's only one rationale why her relationships meet their rather abrupt end. "What happened?," Tom asks about one of them. "What always happens: life," she matter-of-factly replies. She probably meant well and still haven't found what she was looking for when he came along. But for the most part, she was just bad news who almost drove him over the edge when she broke his heart in cold-blooded fashion.

With a non-linear narrative and an edgy, indie feel reminiscent of last year's Juno, (500) Days of Summer has cult classic written all over it. It is certainly far more original than the deluge of chick flicks like The Proposal, Management and The Ugly Truth that we've been swamped with as of late. The feature length debut of music video director Marc Webb channels both Wes Anderson and Jason Reitman in a very special way.

And with a big-voiced narrator that sounds like James Earl Jones (or is it Darth Vader?) and an equally engaging soundtrack that combines old favorites (Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, The Smiths) with emerging indie sensations (The Temper Trap, Doves, Black Lips and Zooey Deschanel's own She & Him), this "non-love story" that views love from a largely male point of view works in a way that can nonetheless be enjoyed by both sexes and should merit its mention alongside Singles, Reality Bites and Before Sunrise as all-time favorites of next generation hopeless romantics. As one reviewer correctly pointed out, it's not just bitter or sweet but, yes, everything in between.

(500) Days Of Summer is currently showing at a theater near you.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Martin Gonzalvez: Pinoy Mac Genius

FREELANCE journalists, okay, writers, especially those who specialize in feature stories like myself don't usually stumble upon stories that would be considered scoops.

But back in 2004, I was literally sitting on a gold mine of a story involving Martin Gonzalvez, whom I profiled for the Manila Times years earlier when he was a web designer during the internet's early years. If the name sounds familiar, it's because, yes, he used to be a broadcast journalist for ABS-CBN. Martin or Gonz, as he is known to close friends, is one of the pioneering figures behind what would be known as the Philippine Mac Users Group or PhilMUG, where I was also an active member.

A very passionate Mac user, Gonz and his family migrated to the US earlier this decade where he would later realize a longtime dream of working for Apple Computer as a certified technician or Mac Genius which was his official title. News of his hiring by Apple has been known to his fellow Mac users for quite sometime, about two months or so before I decided to break the story for the broadsheet Today (now known as Manila Standard Today). To be honest, I thought a Filipino being employed by what is arguably the coolest computer company in the world would be such a big deal that major media outlets would be quick to pick up on it, and there were quite a few of us media types in the Mac users group at the time.

To my surprise, no one did. So I decided to pitch the story to Vlad Bunoan, Today's then business editor who gave me the green light to write it. Next thing I knew, ABS-CBN.com, then using the name PinoyCentral posted my same story on their site. Both ABS-CBN and GMA picked up on it as well and featured Gonz on their respective morning shows, with Gonz's former media colleagues looking and sounding visibly happy for him as they reported his feat.

A colleague of mine who was with the Infotech Section for the Philippine Daily Inquirer later told me I should have mentioned the story to him. I just told him I thought he knew. A lot of people (well, mostly the local Mac users) already did before I even wrote my story. By the end of 2004, the Inquirer included Gonz's employment by Apple as one of the paper's top IT newsmakers of the year.

It was that much of a big deal. It was that much of a scoop. And yes, it was one of my proudest moments as a journalist and as a writer, part-timer and freelancer as I was and still am.

Today, Martin Gonzalvez remains a good friend and yes, he is still with Apple Computer. "In July 2008, I achieved one of my biggest dreams working for Apple by being promoted to its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California," he told me in a recent Facebook chat session. "After four years of working as a technician in an Apple Store in upstate New York, I am now a Technician Trainer."

Way to go, Gonz. And here's that 2004 news story, which was actually quite short. Yes, that's Martin Gonzalvez and his beautiful family in the pictures.

Apple Computer hires Pinoy ‘Mac genius’ in US
By EDWIN P. SALLAN
Special to Today

A former broadcast journalist with an almost decade-long passion for Macintosh computers was recently hired by Apple Computer as a Mac Genius.

Martin Gonzalvez, a former television news reporter with several local stations before switching to a career in Web-authoring while working for advertising agencies, migrated with his family to the United States in 2001. Since then, he has worked as network administrator and technical manager for K-12 schools in New Jersey and New York before being hired by the very company that created Macintosh computers.

“I first used a Mac in 1995, when actor Subas Herrero, who is also my father-in-law introduced me to his Mac LCIII which he would also let me use,” Gonzalvez recalls in an exclusive online interview with Today. “It was love at first sight and every one of my jobs since then has involved the Mac in one form or another,”

Since then, Gonzalvez has also dedicated himself in serving the Philippine Mac community by providing free technical support to his fellow Mac users through the Philippine Macintosh Users Group, or PhilMUG, of which he was a former board member. More recently, he was very active in PinoyMac.org, an online community that he founded in August of last year.

“A few months before launching PinoyMac.org, I achieved a longtime personal goal when I became an Apple Certified Technical Coordinator in Mac OS X and OS X Server,” Gonzalvez reveals. “I am proud to bring my heritage of nearly ten years of service and participation in the Philippine Mac community to my work at Apple, where I am doubly proud to be one of the company’s few Pinoy Mac Geniuses.”

As a Mac Genius, Gonzalvez’ job is basically that of a technical consultant for sales and support, among other things. He will begin training for the job at Apple Computer’s headquarters in 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Isabel Oli

EASILY one of the prettiest Filipina actresses around, GMA's Isabel Oli has also proven to be one of the most increasingly versatile. She can be a girl next door one day then a vixen from hell the next.

So when I got the call to write a cover story about her for the now defunct MANUAL magazine last year, I just had to take it. At that time, Isabel was already a household name for making life difficult for Nadine Samonte in the daytime teleserye, Maging Akin Ka Lamang. She was so good as the scheming Rosita Monteverde that fans of the show couldn't distinguish the actress from the character and actually hated her for real.

These days, Isabel continues to play third wheel types in teleseryes like Kaya Kong Abutin Ang Langit and the soon-to-aired Philippine version of the hit Korean drama, Full House. She is also hosting her own fashion tips show for the new myView channel of PLDT myDSL's recently launched Watchpad service.

And no, Isabel is nowhere near like the bad girls she plays in person. She's actually nice and quite candid. Here's a slightly revised version of the MANUAL cover story, originally published in June, 2008:

EVEN “BAD GIRLS” GET THE BLUES
By EDWIN P. SALLAN

ISABEL Oli is neither bad nor drawn that way.

Until recently, the 25-year old actress is not just blessed with one of the prettiest faces in all of showbiz and beyond. Isabel also possesses one of the sweetest demeanors in the industry. Given the rather tweetums turns of the GMA Network star in films like Moments of Love as well as in such teleseryes as Sugo and Mga Mata Ni Anghelita, the term hindi makabasag-pinggan easily comes to mind.

But that was, yes, until recently. That was when the GMA godfathers (and okay, godmothers) made her an offer she simply could not refuse: no less than the villainous title role of the obsessive and scheming Rosita Monteverde in GMA’s daytime Sine Nobela, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, a mini-series remake of the Lino Brocka classic.

“It’s the same role that won Lorna Tolentino an acting grand slam in the original movie,” she beams. “I wanted to do something different and when the opportunity presented itself, I just had to take it.”

In only her third year in the business, the Cebu-born Maria Olivia Daytia has gone a long way in proving that yes, she is much more than just a pretty face. There is certainly nothing one-dimensional about a B.S. Information Technology graduate who is just as adept at geeky devices like cellphones, iPods, laptops, software (Javascript and C language, anyone?) and videogames (“I once played the PSP for three days straight!”) as she is with the many products she currently endorses. It’s just that as nice as those other uh, interests are, what Isabel really wants to is for her to be very good at her craft.

“I just want to act and be really good at it,” she declares. “I want to be a better actress and someday win a Best Actress award.”

Well, something funny happened on Isabel’s way to becoming a better actress. She actually became one, almost overnight. Describing her character as “mayaman at sobrang malandi,” she initially had a hard time essaying the role of a rich, spoiled heiress who will stop at nothing to win the love of a man (Polo Ravales) who has no affection for her whatsoever and who instead married his long-time sweetheart (Nadine Samonte) who naturally became the object of her scorn.

“I thought it would be easy to play someone who’s always angry and so used to get everything she wants. It’s actually hard,” she admits. “And the role calls for sexy scenes where my character seduces Polo and Patrick Garcia so that wasn’t easy for me as well.”

With much of Maging Akin Ka Lamang’s high ratings and critical acclaim attributed to Isabel’s effective portrayal of the mentally unstable Rosita, her hard work obviously paid off. The actress knew coming in that with the right interpretation, Rosita Monteverde would emerge as one of the most hated vixens on afternoon television.

What she didn’t count on was the inability of many of the show’s fans to separate fact from fiction or to be more specific, the actress from the character. “Since the series gained a strong following, ilang beses na rin akong inaway ng fans,” she recalls. “May isang babae na kinurot ako nung nag-grocery kami at sabi sa kin, ‘ang arte-arte mo, mang-aagaw ka. There was another who told me, ‘Okay, you’re pretty pero puwede ba, huwag mo nang awayin si Nadine, siya ang true love ni Polo. And there was even another who confronted me by saying, Nakakainis ka na, ang maldita mo!”

How do they hate thee? Isabel can only count the ways. “It came to a point when even my mom told me not to go out of the house anymore. But I take comfort in the encouraging words of my director and the GMA people when they said all of these adverse reactions indicate that I did good in playing this character.”

Not that she intends to play another bad girl anytime soon after this. Isabel says GMA is grooming her in the mold of Iza Calzado, who started out playing the role of an antagonist herself in her first GMA teleserye, the award-winning Kung Mawawala Ka. Isabel, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Iza, admits to being an admirer of the latter’s work herself.

While she admits that adverse fan reaction and intrigues like the so-called sex video scandal supposedly involving her (“no, that’s not me”) do have a way of affecting her, she says she is kept strong by her Christian faith. “I just pray whenever I get hurt, even if what’s said about me isn’t true,” she admits.

Like her acting credits, Isabel's Information Technology degree is not just for show either. Even if she doesn’t really go out a lot, Isabel’s impressive computer literacy has served her in good stead. She leads a very happy social life online where she maintains active accounts in Friendster, Multiply, Facebook, MySpace and even in YouTube. She also likes to shop for clothes, bags, jewelry and shoes at yes, Ebay and Amazon.

“I’m a moody person so there are days when I want my clothes to reflect my mood. There are days when I feel sporty and there are days when I feel like wearing something simple and comfortable,” she enthuses. “Buti na lang I can shop online for the clothes I want.”

As for her type of guy, the very eligible bachelorette has this to say. “He must be a Christian, first and foremost,” she stresses. “He doesn’t have to be guwapo since ang crush ko, di naman talaga guwapo. He just needs to be himself. The rest, honest, loyal, willing to commit and all that, will follow if he can be the first two.”

Hindi makabasag-pinggan ha? Yes, whether it’s the silver screen, the small screen or even the computer screen, Isabel Oli knows how to make her presence felt. No, she’s neither bad nor drawn that way. And there is nothing out of character about that.

And here's the beautiful Isabel Oli in the 2006 Fantasy teleserye, Atlantika:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Simply Ain't No Place Like Manila

REVISED and updated version of an article I wrote for Sense and Style magazine back in 2006:

AS TIME GOES BY
By EDWIN P. SALLAN

“YOU are so not in Makati!,” quips Carlos Celdran as he regales a group of advertising agency folks with a trivia on a statue that stands just outside the Quiapo Church where about 40, yes, 40 rats actually “reside.” These rats, Celdran says are actually “protected” by a chicken wire that surrounds the foot of the statue. And just like the pigeons of Milan, the general public is also allowed to feed these rodents.

Our group never actually saw any rat so this guy may just be pulling our legs. Be that as it may, Manila is so not Milan either. But as anyone who already took Carlos Celdran’s unforgettable tours will tell you, the nation’s capital remains one of the most intriguing places in the planet.

You can either spend a leisurely morning or afternoon walk in historic Intramuros in a tour dubbed as “If These Walls Could Talk.” Or you can find out how much Escolta and Quiapo and the North Side of the Pasig River has changed in “The North Bank” tour. Ever wonder what the mystique of Chinatown is all about? Then rediscover Binondo and San Nicolas one Saturday afternoon in “All The Way Down To Chinatown.” Can’t get enough of the Imeldific herself? Then check out the former First Lady’s greatest legacy with a stroll down the historic CCP Complex in the very popular “Living La Vida Imelda” tour.

Outside of Manila itself, Celdran also organizes similar walking tours of Cubao in what he dubs as the “MRT Adventure to Cubao” and even the flea markets of Bangkal, Makati in “Evangelista Que Linda!”

The tongue-in-cheek titles of the tours alone are already an indication of how much fun they’re supposed to be. And they are. Carlos Celdran himself is a big reason why. This amazing gentleman dubbed by one leading daily as “the new Pied Piper of Manila” is no ordinary tour guide. Wearing one of his trademark “tour demon” costumes—a polo barong over faded jeans, flip-flops or tsinelas that is certainly not a pair of Havaianas and a beret covering his receding hairline, the former Fine Arts major and a performing artist in his own right mesmerizes his guests by deftly combining historical trivia with tall tales and urban legends (hard to tell which is which) in a largely hilarious narrative approach that can give stand-up comedians a good run for their money.

With “props” that include handheld Philippine and American flags, a microphone strapped to his head, a cheap portable cassette player that plays jazz music from the 1930’s and a generic plastic organizer that contains reproduced photos of Manila before and after World War II, he instantly wins his guests over. It also doesn’t hurt that his Spanish mestizo features also lend an air of authenticity to his stories that are both informative and entertaining at the same time.

Along with the said group of ad agency personnel, I decided to join Celdran’s “The North Bank!” walking tour of Escolta and Quiapo amidst the scorching Tuesday afternoon sun. He says, “Rizal Avenue and Escolta was Manila’s premier shopping district until the 1970’s when the rise of Makati Commercial Center and the construction of the LRT somewhat diminished their distinction.”

Escolta

Our tour started at the Calvo Building in Escolta, one of the oldest in the area and now home to a museum of Old Manila memorabilia including framed photos, article clippings, print ads and even department store receipts from the Spanish and American era. Along with Celdran’s old photos, we were able to see how much of Escolta was indeed “the Greenbelt of its time” and how much of it is now a shadow of its former self.

Highlights of our Escolta tour include Celdran’s many revealing stories about its glory days during the American colonial period. There was “the first Cadillac car dealership in Asia” which was later reduced to the “OK Used Car Company after the stock market crash in the US two years later.” There was the very prestigious Heacock’s Department Store that sold fine European goods but was rumored back in 1929 to be “a front for smuggled diamonds from South Africa that caters to the noveau riche of Bacolod.”

And then there are the several old buildings of Escolta that are still standing like the Calvo, Regina and Perez Samanillo buildings that were already around since its glory days and have miraculously survived World War II virtually unscathed. There was also this nice trivia about Imelda Marcos’ first job as a singer for the Lyric Piano Studio in Perez Samanillo Building and how it eventually led to her joining the Miss Manila beauty pageant.

Sta. Cruz and Rizal Avenue

As we made our way to the Sta. Cruz church, Celdran continues to give us more interesting history lessons. “The Sta. Cruz church became the seat of colonial power during the two year British invasion that preceded the Spanish rule. The British were disgusted with the way the Spanish friars in Intramuros tossed their feces out the windows onto the streets that they decided not to have anything to do with the walled city thereafter.”

The cherubs-surrounded Carriedo Fountain, dubbed by Celdran as “Manila’s most moving monument” and located just outside the church has an equally colorful history. Physically moved three times from Nagtahan to the old Nawasa office in Quezon City and then to its present location, it took exactly 120 years for it to finally become operational.

Next stop is Rizal Avenue, whose very name itself is largely an American legacy. “It was the Americans who introduced to us the idea of a national flower, national animal, national this and national that,” Celdran enthuses. “Well, when they introduced the idea of Jose Rizal being a national hero, we now have a Rizal Park, a Rizal college, a Rizal theater, Rizal everything and naturally, we also have a Rizal Avenue.”

Until the 70’s, Rizal Avenue is the premier “gimikan” place for shopping and recreation. Theaters with giant screens like the Avenue, Ever and Ideal theaters were the IMAX of their day, as were the classic department stores like Good Earth Emporium (a new version of which now stands on its former location) and Fair Mart.

“Under former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza’s Urban Renewal Program, the area has been cleaned up and rehabilitated as a pedestrian promenade, ” Celdran says. “Inspired by the Rambles walkway that the mayor saw in Barcelona, he decided to have his own here.” (NOTE: When current mayor Alfredo Lim succeeded Atienza, he said he will open the promenade again to vehicles. I’m not sure if Lim made good on his word since I haven’t been to the area since.)

Be it in Rizal Avenue or in Quiapo a few blocks later, shopping remains an adventure here in Manila as everything from shoes, hardware, appliances, clothes, sex gadgets, jewelry, beauty queen tiaras, voodoo potions, flowers, handicrafts, videos, electronics and of course, “dibidi, dibidi” are all dirt cheap here.

Quiapo

“Follow the flag. It’s no fun being lost in Quiapo!” our host smilingly yells as our group negotiates the cramped walkway of Carriedo leading to Plaza Miranda. It’s hard not to be distracted by all the bargain items in this hawker’s nirvana, though.

Ah, Plaza Miranda. Best remembered for the August 21 bombing that led to the imposition of Martial Law, it is also a haven for fortune tellers and other “sellers of salvation.” Anyone and everyone who wants to drive away evil spirits, wishes to get somebody to fall in love, needs to abort an unwanted baby or just wanted to have good luck at something, anything can find something of use here.

You got color-coded candles, fresh tea leaves, amulets (“anting-antings”), essential oils and all other items catering to both our Christian and pagan superstitious beliefs. And all the good luck that they offer comes at the price of a song, from only P10 onwards to be exact. Celdran explains that many popular items sold here like the tawas or alum (“the coutnry’s cheapest deodorant”) as well as frankincense and myrrh have something to do with Filipinos’ obsession with personal hygiene.

“All the bad smells here are all coming from the environment and not the people. Many tourists actually smell worse than the beggars here because now and even before Christianity, Filipinos have always been obsessed with personal hygiene. ”

Then, there’s the famous Quiapo Church. It is here where you can actually hire old women to pray for your personal intentions, as you’re off doing something else. It is also home to the equally popular Black Nazarene, who is said to be capable of granting three wishes when you touch its feet.

Craig Reedie, a member of the British Olympic Committee who was in town and went to this very tour found himself buying the biggest amulet or anting-anting in Quiapo. He later left 10 pounds inside the donation box and rubbed the Black Nazarene for good luck. A few months later, London won the bidding for the right to host the 2012 Olympics. In a newspaper article that followed soon thereafter, Reedie attributed his good fortune to an amulet he bought in Asia.

All told

As fun-filled as it was, “The North Bank!” is only one of the many tours of Carlos Celdran designed to appreciate the rich heritage of a very colorful and soulful city. I spent a lot of my waking hours in Manila myself, having studied in Manila-based schools from elementary to college. But even I didn’t realize how much I still don’t know about the nation’s capital until I decided to join Carlos Celdran’s illuminating walk. The man’s famous parting shot says it all: “You cannot change the way Manila looks but you can certainly change the way you look at Manila.”

Watch Carlos Celdran in action:


For details of Carlos Celdran’s North Bank and other tours, visit http://celdrantours.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Coffee Origins

YES, it's that time of the year again.

Now brewing at Greenbelt 3 and 5 is the much-awaited annual coffee festival of the Philippine Coffee Board. This is where both coffee lovers and mall goers in general get to sample for free homegrown coffee from all over the country including Kape Ti Musang , Kape Milo or Kapeng Alamid which retailed at P14000/kilo compared to P150-300/kilo of usual Philippine Coffees is touted as the world's most expensive coffee.

Known this year as “Coffee Origins,” the event is actually part of the bigger celebration of the ongoing Coffee Month and also includes other activities such as coffee farm tours, seminars and lectures that are held at various venues.

Pacita “Chit” Juan, formerly of Figaro Coffee and now co-chair of the Philippine Coffee Board and the moving spirit behind this annual event said Coffee Origins 2009 is just one of the many programs of the Philippine Coffee Board that also include Pilipinas! Gising at Magkape or PGAM for the increased production of the four varieties of coffee and KAPE ISLA, a marketing program that for restaurants and cafes to bear the sign Kape Isla to assure consumers that what they are patronizing is certified Philippine Coffee.

Respected and regarded as an expert on Philippine coffee herself, Tita Chit never fails to mesmerize whether she's preaching about the virtues of our own homegrown brews or teaching people (among the world's best, she would like to believe) including media snobs like myself how to make our own great-tasting coffee. And that's exactly what she did during a recent Coffee Cupping session where we learned not just to appreciate good coffee the way we appreciate good wine but also to how to make our very own espressos and cappucinos.

I actually wrote about one of Tita Chit's coffee sessions for the Manila Bulletin earlier this decade. There was so much I learned from covering that session that I decided to dig up that old article and share excerpts of the draft I also recently revised. Read on.

HOT DRINK ON A WET DAY
How to make a great cup of coffee

By EDWIN P. SALLAN

SO how does one make a great cup of coffee that's equivalent to the quality served in popular coffee shops and five-star hotels? Does using drip coffeemakers instead of those French Press types have something to do with it? Does it matter what type and amount of water you use? The variety of coffee beans? What you take with your coffee?

Well, if the recent coffee brewing demo for the media conducted by Chit Juan of The Philippine Coffee Board is anything to go by, then making a great cup of coffee is actually a lot more elaborate than most of us think.

The Beans

Among our homegrown coffee, there are four that easily stand out. Robusta is a variety that grows in Cavite and Batangas in areas like Tagaytay. Excelsa is a bigger coffee bean that has a jack-fruit kind of taste. The more common Arabica is known to be grown in mountain slopes and high-elevation places like Baguio, Benguet and Ifugao. The biggest coffee bean is known as Liberica, or “Barako,” as it is called here, and it is also grown in Ethiopia, Laos and Malaysia. While Barako is most often identified with Batangas, it is also grown locally in Palawan, Davao, Mindoro, Bulacan, Bataan and Kalinga.

For those who prefer a milder taste but don't want a decaffeinated blend, Chit recommends Arabica. She recommends Barako, however, for those looking for a stronger, full-bodied taste.

Roasting, Grinding and Brewing

Regardless of the coffee variety you prefer, it is very important that the beans are freshly-roasted. As a rule, the sooner a roasted bean gets into a cup, the better. According to Chit, the taste of coffee deteriorates with time so freshness is a significant factor that’s why locally-sourced coffee beans are ideal for roasting because unlike their imported counterparts, they don’t travel great distances or be in transit for longer time spans to get to their customers so freshness is, in fact, assured.


Likewise, grinding of the beans is crucial to making a great cup of coffee. The filter must let only the flavor come through and not the actual coffee grounds. One scoop of finely ground, freshly roasted coffee equivalent to seven grams is needed to produce an 8-oz. cup of coffee. Therefore, a 56-gram pillow pack of any coffee variety is equivalent to about eight cups of 8-oz. coffee.

You can make a very good cup of coffee whether you use a drip coffeemaker or the usually smaller French Press. When using the drip method, Chit recommends eight scoops of finely ground coffee into your machine's filter paper while a single scoop for just one cup should be enough for a typical French Press.

Chit does not recommend the cheap types of both drip and French Press coffeemakers that are commercially available. For better tasting cups of coffee, those European-branded drips (i.e. Krups) and French Press that uses original Pyrex glass for better heat absorption are ideal.

The Water's Fine

Figaro recommends fresh cold water when brewing coffee. Tap water, spring water and mineral water are all fine but distilled water is definitely out of the question. “Distilled water is essentially dead water,” says Chit. “While it may be fine for drinking, distilled water is also devoid of minerals that it adversely affects the taste of your coffee brew.”

Another critical factor is the proportion of water to coffee grounds. Chit says if you think the finished brew is too strong and you prefer a milder taste, then simply add hot water on a per cup basis. Never add water to the entire brew.

Also never pour boiling water over coffee. Just heat it before boiling or use it off the boil as professional coffee brewers will do. Reheating coffee is likewise a big no-no. Coffee tastes best when consumed immediately after brewing.

And coffee goes well with

If you ask Chit, what you take with your coffee is a matter of personal preference. But if you really want to enjoy its full-bodied flavor then she recommends you take it black. As for those who like to take it with cream and sugar, Chit recommends full cream milk over non-fat milk and non-dairy creamers and brown sugar over regular sugar and low calorie sweeteners.

“But like I said, it is still a matter of personal taste, I don't see anything wrong with using other types of cream and sweeteners for your coffee,” she says. “But I do suggest you try coffee without cream and sugar first as great coffee should be able to stand alone.”

Coffee Origins 2009 will conclude today, October 21 at Greenbelt 3 but will continue to take place in Greenbelt 5 until October 26. For more information as well as the schedule of tours, seminars and lectures, visit www.coffeeboard.com.ph or email philcoffeeboard@gmail.com.

And here's Chit Juan doing what she does best:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Singapore's New Majestic Hotel

IN the course of my work as a freelance journalist covering mostly lifestyle subjects, I have been very fortunate to visit some of the most interesting places not just in my own country (and believe me there are a lot of them here in the Philippines) but also in Southeast Asia. For the most part, my experiences in these places have been quite unforgettable.

Singapore is one country I most often found myself in. It's true that there are quite a few people who would say that Singapore is far from the most exciting place in the planet, especially if you don't have enough shopping money to spend. But there are also those, myself included, who consider the clean, orderly and generally laid-back ambiance of this country to be refreshing, relaxing, therapeutic and very much stress-free. And yes, I know those descriptions pretty much mean the same thing.

Singapore, however, is not without its own share of pleasant surprises and in addition to the increasingly vibrant tourist attractions and events that the country has to offer, there are also a good number of interesting places to stay while you're there. One of them is the New Majestic Hotel which made me feel like a very welcome guest in 2006.

Here's a revised version of an article I wrote about boutique hotels in general that included this rather unusual "design hotel." Perhaps one of the many good reasons why the country is now fondly referred to as Uniquely Singapore:

UNIQUELY MAJESTIC
By EDWIN P. SALLAN

Located in the heart of Chinatown at 31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road is another winner of Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s Hot List of Best New Hotels Worldwide in 2006. The New Majestic Hotel is a place that regards itself as more of a "design hotel" than a boutique hotel and for good reason.

As its architecture suggests, this hotel is in fact a refurbished old building. One can see traces of its storied past upon entering its lobby. The over-exposed ruins of the concrete ceiling of the original 1928 structure balances a showcase of glass orbs, restored vintage Compton fans and old-fashioned barber chairs which along with the chic, period colonial furniture is something that you only usually see in glossy designer magazines.

The New Majestic Hotel has only 30 rooms but boy, does each one stand out from the other. Nine emerging Singapore artists namely Safaruddin Abdul Hamid (aka Dyn), Andre Tan, Lee Meiling, Heleston Chew, Tay Bee Aye, Kng Mian Tze, Miguel Chew, Sandra Lee and Justin Lee were tapped to design these rooms and guests are greeted with a brief description of their respective works right beside the door of the rooms.

Bordering on over-the-top, the New Majestic Hotel pushes the boutique hotel concept boundaries to rather uncharted territories, if not the extreme. Its rooms are categorized as mirror rooms, hanging bed rooms, aquarium rooms and loft rooms.

Although very impressed with the hotel’s overall concept and execution, I initially felt that functionality was compromised in favor of style, at least in certain rooms. On the plus side, a plasma or LCD wisdescreen TV’s, an iPod charging dock and a Bose personal CD/radio stereo are all standard features of each room. The compact loft room that I was originally booked in also has a wall painted with the image of a bird in a cage hanging in a tree, a nice touch.

I had a little problem with this design, though which requires guests to climb the steep ladder (yes, ladder not stairs) to get to the queen-sized bed. It looks really cool from a design standpoint but not too practical in terms of, say, access to the bathroom (should one needs to go) or even the door in case somebody knocks and the guest is up there in his bed.

Airing these concerns with the hotel staff eventually led to my transfer to one of their mirror rooms, an upgrade at surprisingly no extra cost, at least in my case. For those who like to watch and be watched, the mirror room which is described as “a continuous ribbon of mirrors that begin on the walls, climbing up and on the ceiling, and returning to the ground to form a bedhead” is the closest thing to a narcissist's wet dream. That aside, it's very cozy, too.

Equally impressive are other standard features like the slick rain shower systems with hydro-massage functions in the rooms and the free internet access. Even those without laptops can avail of free computer use (Apple MacBooks, no less!) with broadband internet access at the reception area. Only two were currently available at the time and since I was part of a Singapore Tourism Board media fam that included nine other journalists who also wanted to use the MacBooks, there were quite a few times when we had to take turns using them.

Our rather tight itinerary could not afford me the time to try out its other amenities such as the vintage cast-iron bathtub in my mirror room, the funky-looking swimming pool, the equally state-of-the-art gym facililties and the Majestic Restaurant offering modern Chinese cuisine.

But that's okay. All told, I had an extraordinary time at the New Majestic Hotel and yes, I'll be more than happy to be a guest here again and experience another, well, "majestic" treatment sometime soon.

For more info, visit http://www.newmajestichotel.com.

And here's a guest giving us a tour of her room:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Electrolychee

AS I hinted in my last post, the nice thing about maintaining a blog is that veteran feature writers like myself can use it to compliment what we write for print. In my case, reposting published works also gives me a chance to not just improve, revise and update on my original drafts but also to recall and write about the story behind the story.

In Electrolychee's case, I stumbled upon this dynamic duo in 2007 when they were named as one of Jansport's "indie icons" and also as among the ambassadors of Lipton Hot Tea. Anyone or any group that makes that kind of noise in the same year is bound to get some media attention as well. They certainly got mine.

Turns out I already know one half of Electrolychee. I actually encountered Bru (not her real name, of course) on several coverages when she was still writing about music for Pulp and I think later, Burn and I was surprised to learn that she was into the arts as well although it doesn't seem far-fetched given her creative background. I interviewed her and her partner Marcushiro during one lazy, late afternoon at Saguijo where they were holding their exhibit there at the time.

When I was writing the story for the Manila Bulletin, I committed a gaffe when my research on one of their supposed influences, Jason Moss turned out to be dead wrong. Wikipedia says the Jason Moss that I wrote about in my story is "a writer about serial killers." Bru later told me that he is not the same person they cited as their influence. Of course not, what the hell was I thinking?

But that's probably why blogs exist. It doesn't just give written works that appeared originally only in print a new lease on life and get a chance to be appreciated by a bigger, online audience. But it also allows booboos to be rectified the second time around.

So here's a revised and updated version of that original 2007 piece. And yes, the Jason Moss referred here is no longer that writer about serial killers. Turns out he's a reputable artist in his own right.

STRANGE CREATIONS
By EDWIN P. SALLAN

WE are two creative souls from different worlds. One came from the land of robots and another from the land of ponies. We are armed with an arsenal of color swatches and a penchant for harmonizing chaos. We merge digital and analog art like a poetic dance to a punk rock tune on acid. We make design, illustration and strange creations. In electro, we lychee.”

Big words that don’t seem to make much sense, does it? But for the creative duo that makes up the sought after graphic studio known as Electrolychee, their uncanny approach to art that’s neither too profound nor too nonsensical is also their gift.

These two talented individuals who answer to the equally intriguing names of Marcushiro and Bru have over five years of commercial design experience, Electrolychee’s brand of “slick, computer-generated vector art with organic hand drawn imagery” have individually and collectively, graced a good number of books for children and adults, magazines, web publications, murals, clothing brands and most recently, album covers of alternative acts like Cambio, Drip, Sound, Paramita, Chillitees and Imago that pretty much brought them into the mainstream.

With a moniker that according to them is actually a fusion of two words meaning “digital” and “organic,” Electrolychee’s style is as Bru would put it, “pop-art inspired.” “It’s fun and playful and doesn’t take itself seriously.”

Artists, like writers, are rarely as interesting as their actual works but this doesn’t seem to apply in the case of Marcushiro and Bru. Both are actually good enough to strike on their own and were fairly doing well respectively prior to their partnership. Marcushiro is a graphic designer who already found some success as a children’s book illustrator even before he finished his advertising arts course at UST while Bru is a self-taught artist and writer who was actually rejected by her own grade school Art Club before eventually getting the last laugh when her work for Paramita’s debut album snagged the 2005 Awit Awards Best Album Packaging trophy.

Even with such individual accolades, getting together was a no-brainer. “We had a lot of similarities to begin with. We both love the same things, pop culture, mga kakengkoyan, kitsch, Lipton teas and yes, digital art so in September of 2005, Electrolychee was hatched,” Marcushiro quips.

The duo cites influences as varied as free-spirited American artist Tim Biskup, manga-influenced Superflat artist Aya Takano, Jason Moss and our very own Louie Cordero, author of the now cult classic comic book, Nardong Tae (not a typo, folks) and who also recently designed the latest album of Radioactive Sago Project aptly titled Tanginamo Andaming Nagugutom sa Mundo Fashionista Ka Parin.

The duo's affinity for album covers stems for their love of music—alternative music, to be more specific. “Music is a big part of our lychee lives,” Bru enthuses. “We are always swayed by striking album art and design since it acts as the ‘face’ of the album and translates the music visually. Album packaging can be so much more than square sleeves of paper and we want to push the boundaries of album packaging design here.”

Electrolychee has no qualms of approaching artists who they think plays music that’s consistent with their vision and design philosophies. Two such groups were Drip and the Chillitees who gave them free rein and full confidence with their album designs.

Strange creations, they call them. But Electrolychee’s work is not just limited to album covers. In their website, they also make tongue-in-cheek t-shirts, tank tops, badges and clocks with printed catch phrases like Ek-Ek, Panget at the Disco, When I Say ChukChak, you say Chenes, Bangs Not Dead, Matring Bling and I’m Not Ukay Today.

And as extensions of their cover art, their 3D model toys are equally fascinating. “Our first batch of Third World Toys is inspired by the music albums we designed for bands such as Cambio, Sound and Paramita,” Marcushiro notes. “Because these album sleeves already tell visual stories, we want to bring these stories to life via three-dimensional toys.”

Now after four years of the business, Electrolychee’s growing popularity has approached rock star proportions. Along with Rock Drilon, Cynthia Alexander and Lourd De Veyra, they were honored as “indie icons” during the 40th Anniversary celebration of backpack-manufacturer Jansport. They were also part of the distinguished company of Lipton Hot Tea brand ambassadors that included Up Dharma Down, filmmaker Lino Cayetano, photographer Jake Versoza, Opinion columnist Patricia Evangelista and young entrepreneur Happy David.

So in electro, they lychee? Well, yeah, in electro, they lychee indeed.

Visit their official website at www.electrolychee.com.

And here they are:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rachel and Barni Alejandro's The Sexy Chef Cafe

HEALTHY living used to be a dreadful proposition, given the awful rubbery taste of what usually passes for health food. Rachel and sister Barni changed all that with The Sexy Chef, a fastfood catering service offering delicious and yes, healthy fare. Rachel herself still possesses the same whistle-bait figure she has diligently maintained since her That’s Entertainment days and along with sister Barni gloriously showcased it, if we may add, in a recent cover shoot for MAXIM Philippines. Yogurt, anyone?

And here's a revised and updated version of a 2006 feature story I wrote on The Sexy Chef for the Manila Bulletin that remains relevant. Ah, the things a writer can do with his blog.

DOUBLE THE FLAVOR, DOUBLE THE FUN
By EDWIN P. SALLAN

Pasta Bolognese. Chicken Barbecue. Beef Steak. Burritos. Brownies.

When it comes to food choices, these are just some of what most of us would consider as all-time favorites. But how many people would actually equate these dishes with healthy eating? Well, singer slash actress Rachel Alejandro and her equally talented sister Barni would.

Since 2004, the sisters from the famous Alejandro clan are running a health food delivery business called The Sexy Chef. And while it may seem puzzling to see some of your favorite pasta, rice dishes and even pastries among its regular menu, these ladies are giving the assurance that these usual “guilty pleasures” are really nothing to feel guilty about.

“Based on the South Beach Diet developed by Dr. Athur Agatston of Miami, Florida, the Sexy Chef caters to the diet’s first two phases,” says Barni. “Phase One is designed around ample servings of lean protein, beneficial fats and a healthy amount of vegetables while Phase Two re-introduces healthy carbohydrates in the form of whole grains and fruits.”

As “the sexy chef” in The Sexy Chef, Barni knows exactly what she’s talking about, says sister Rachel. “For more than 10 years, Barni has been cooking special meals for me,” the popular chanteuse enthuses. “Packed in Tupperware, I would take these meals with me for my concerts and tapings.”

“As terrific cooks go, Barni is right up there with mom and my lola. I just can’t get enough of her dishes,” Rachel continues. “You know, I’ve been singing for more than 20 years and as a creative person, I also want to try other things. I always believe in going after something you love and I know this is something that Barni would always do even if she wasn’t paid for it. So I decided to invest in her talent

Barni, who was a pre-school teacher for seven years, has always enjoyed cooking, initially as a mere hobby, and eventually, as a venture worth pursuing seriously after going to culinary school. Learning about the South Beach Diet made Barni realize that “with a little research and creativity, healthy cooking can result in really, really tasty dishes.”

The secret is really no secret. Using low-fat ingredients, sugar and salt substitutes like Splenda and PanSalt and leaner portions of meat that effectively trims off the fat, Barni has come up with a menu that is both delicious and nutritious at the same time.

And unlike most other so-called health food that is hardly flavorful and often costs an arm and a leg a pop, The Sexy Chef’s offering are surprisingly affordable. “Our two week South Beach Premiere Package only costs P875 a day inclusive of breakfast, lunch, dinner, two snacks and dessert,” says Barni. “For those who are unable to commit to an entire two-week program, we offer daily affordable Fit Meals for only P140 consisting of lean meat, a vegetable siding and brown rice.”

These affordable “Fit Meals” or “healthy fastfood” as the sisters are wont to call them, include the aforementioned Pasta Bolognese, Beef Steak with Sauteed Chayote and Chicken Barbeque with Thai Papaya Salad. There’s also Korean Beef Barbeque with Sesame Kangkong, Tuna Salpicao with Mixed Vegetables, Chicken Burgers with Coleslaw, Tausi Fish Fillet with Bokchoy in Oyster Sauce and Chicken Yakitori with Stir-Fry Snowpeas.

While The Sexy Chef initially started as a food delivery service, Rachel says the growing demand for healthy food has encouraged them to open The Sexy Chef Café, which is now the official food partner of Gold’s Gym and has kiosks located at the gym’s Robinson’s Galleria and Glorietta branches.

"When we first opened in Robinson’s Galleria, our wraps, which are made from whole wheat tortilla are all sold out right away,” she beams. “We also have whole wheat pasta dishes, crisp salads and our low-fat, sugar-free desserts like our very popular Food For The Gods that is so delectable, I don’t think you can tell it apart from its full fat, high sugar version.”

Barni notes that among their wraps, the Tuna French Kiss enhanced by olives, green beans and greens is very popular among the gym’s regulars. Their California Wrap, a variation of the Japanese favorite sushi roll, California Maki, with nori, brown rice and mango is also another bestseller. “In addition to our menu, we also serve sandwiches, refreshing fruit shakes and whey protein shakes.”

So does The Sexy Chef approach to healthy eating actually work? Rachel is proud of the fact that they are partly instrumental in helping a good friend, namely former child actor and now TV director, Ricky Rivera (recently appearing lean and trim as a lawyer in the teleserye Kambal Sa Uma) lose a sizeable amount of his weight.

“Ricky was 334 pounds before, and now he has lost 165 pounds, ever since he started not focusing too much on dieting,” Rachel recalls. “He just started eating enough to nourish him. He focused on a combination of sensible eating and working out, just smaller portions of grilled fish, fresh fruit and fiber. And now, you can see how good he looks without all that extra weight.”

Inspired by Ricky’s experience and encouraged by the very good customer feedback and increasing word of mouth on The Sexy Chef, Barni and Rachel are already excited about their little venture’s future prospects.

“We have so many ideas for expansion but we’re taking things one step at a time,” Rachel declares. “For now, we intend to keep our food accessible and affordable for everyone. We do hope to see one of our café’s in a beach location someday so it would readily be accessible for people who want to look good in the beach.”

For inquiries and orders for The Sexy Chef, visit their website at www.thesexychefcafe.com.

And here's one of Rachel and Barni's winning recipes: