Friday, December 29, 2006

A season for thanksgiving

I never gave much thought to the fact that Christmas falls towards the end of the year (apart from the necessity of its sentimental image "White Christmas" to take place in winter). This year, though, being a year of many firsts, I thought it wonderful and timely for Christmas to be near, or at, the climax of our thanksgiving season for all the blessings we have received in the past year.

Amidst the din that I heard about banishing religion from public space, was the propriety(!) of saying "Merry Christmas" in a multi-religious society. Obviously, if secularists (yes, the secularists, not other "co-religionists"!) feel threatened by Christmas celebration, there must be important reasons for Christians to celebrate it and to fight for the right to celebrate it (other than that it's "that time of the year", as some songs suggest). Looking back to this blog's archive during the last three Decembers, I found no post that reflected the significance of Christmas in my life... This year, I spent the whole of Advent and Christmas (and soon, New Year) away from home. Yes, I do miss the festivities that being at home entails; but most importantly I think it has been a blessing for me as there are less distractions when a reflection is in order.

What is the impact of Christmas, to us? Yesterday's Feast of the Holy Innocents reminded me that even at the beginning of His time on earth, Jesus' birth had brought so much changes. Thousands (possibly) of infants in Bethlehem were massacred: they bore witnesses to the birth of the Holy One. Christ came into our world without waiting for any invitation; these children, despite their tender age, shed their lives for Christ. In the words of St Quodvultdeus,

To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

For me, the impact of Christmas did not demand such great sacrifice as these children's; it was that of contemplating the Eternal entering time. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us." This was for me a statement of depth and mystery: why? What for? A story I heard from a priest went like this:

"A man sitting in a house in a middle of a snowstorm saw that there were birds hitting the glass of his windows, attracted blindly by the light of his fireplace. Moved by compassion, he went out to light and open the door to his barn to give them shelter. But the birds, being stupid birds, did not follow him to the barn. Frustrated, he started flapping his arms to imitate them and signal them to follow him. The birds however, still did not follow him. And then he thought, if only I could be a bird for once, they would surely follow me to safety..."

And that is what God has done when the Word Incarnate dwelt amongst us! At this awesome wonder, words fail me.

Everything, everything that had come my way this year, the "chance" encounters, the friends and not-yet-friends, the opportunities to grow and to be humble, the inspirations and affections, the aridity and the consolations, the darkness He allowed and the lights He had bestowed, were all gifts.

Just last night, I was reading from the book of Tobit. In there, some of the protagonists, Tobit and Sara, launched into a praise before asking God to end their lives! In each turn of event, all of them: Tobit, Sara, Tobias, Raguel, and the archangel Raphael, launched into beautiful prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Reading these praises in my own languange (the only bible I have with the book of Tobit being in Bahasa Indonesia) made them especially heartfelt.

O Emmanuel, He is always with us, rejoice and give thanks!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Philippines trip: a journal

It's been unusually difficult to write about my trip to the Philippines. I'm not sure why; normally I try to write within days of returning from the trip, sometimes the idea of what to write has already formed even as the trip is coming to a close... but not this time. Perhaps it was because Christmas was drawing near, perhaps because work returned with a vengeance... :)

So today, a week after arriving back from the Philippines, I'm trying to articulate the experience. Some background to the trip: it is a service project to build a library and set up some computers for an elementary school in a rural area (San Roque) of Tolosa, Leyte, a province of the Philippines.

The trip literally whipped up a storm :) On the day which we were supposed to leave for Cebu, there were no less than three alarming news about the place we were going to: first, a storm was coming to Cebu and Leyte; second, there was an undersea earthquake near Cebu; and third, there was a travel warning issued in response to the threat of terrorist activities reported in conjunction with the (canceled) ASEAN summit. My own family was dead set against me going; but we said a prayer and decided to trust God and go anyway. Six of us left that day, another two were to fly in the next day.

Arriving in the Philippines, it turned out that there was a storm; just not in Cebu, but in Leyte, where we were headed. In Cebu, while waiting for the storm to end, we spent the first day on a rosary pilgrimage with a group of children who live in the urban squatters and I ended the first day by falling asleep while attending a meditation and benediction. The next day we spent the whole day with the same group of children, who seem to have the energy of two people (each): visiting their humble and happy homes, followed by a craftsmaking session putting together a Christmas wreath and then a dance-along (who can forget "Boom tarat tarat"?), sing-along, play-along which exhausted us and showed us our true age :) What struck me was the devotion of these children who braved the chilly rain and storm warning to make the afternoon pilgrimage, the friendly trust they showed us at the end of the afternoon, and the happy countenance despite the stark poverty (which means sometimes they go hungry to school) and the humble fire-hazard homes they live in.

The storm delayed our journey by a day, but the next dawn we made our way by ferry to Ormoc (on the west coast of Leyte) and continued to cross the island to Tacloban, on its eastern coast.

In Cebu I was already impressed by the beauty of the Church buildings and altarpieces in what seem to be humble neighborhoods, and by the devotion of the Filipinos who filled up the pews attending early morning masses. In Leyte I was further impressed by the (comparative) beauty of the elaborate altar pieces in the Church where we attended another mass. If I seem a little too impressed, it's because the loving attention (and resources) paid to these altar pieces' construction (and maintenance) stood in stark contrast to the generally derelict state of other buildings in the city. In Tacloban, the Church (Sto. Nino parish) was even fuller than Cebu (if that were possible) for a weekday noon mass... don't you tell me you are not impressed!

After a pit-stop consisting of mass and then lunch hosted by the friendly Mrs Juliette Romualdez, some of us went to 'sight-see' on the way to pick up some materials for the project: paint, painting equipment, book processing and wrapping materials, computer monitors and voltage regulators (more on these later!). Everyone we met was friendly: the shop assistant where we bought these items entertained us for good half-hour while we waited for our ride, answering my mundane questions about the population size ("voting or non-voting? daytime or nighttime?") and were genuinely interested to hear about our service project, though they were slightly amused that a bunch of foreign girls chose to come to a tiny village in the Philippines to do a tiny bit of good...

We continued on to Tolosa, having stopped by a black-sand beach and dipped our feet in the Pacific Ocean :) We passed by the elementary school and dropped for a late visit (sunset, after all, marks the end of the day for most people there). Having said hello to the principal, Mrs Fe Ibanez, we left and settled into the house where we were to stay for the following one week. Mrs Mildred Cruz was our local 'co-ordinator' (but more like, our local angel) who helped us with everything from being our liaison to the neighbors, to our chief driver, to our chief translator.

The house was beautiful and accomodated us well; the sofas being the most comfortable sleeping surface :) It was also in this house that we experienced our first electrical "brownout" (a slightly misleading term because it strictly meant too-low current, versus "blackout" which means there is no voltage coming from the electrical source). The first few nights I personally enjoyed the electrical supply disruption as it gave brief respite from our loud and jovial neighbors singing their lungs out at the karaoke.

The next day started at 5, with mass starting earlier than 5:30AM, the official time for morning mass, in yet another beautiful church (St Michael). To our surprise, the mass was said in the local dialect (Waray), but sharing the Roman Missal helped us a lot. We took our first public transport journey to the school, on a long lorry with a covered cargo cart called a jeepney, met the principal on the way, and soon the real work began in the school. Some of us started painting the room that was to be the library, some of us started processing the books into a database, and some of us started setting up the computers.

I cleaned up the room that was to be the computer room, and started to hook up the electrical cables after the peripheral parts were all connected when I received an electrical shock when my elbow touched the CPU tower body. To my consternation, all the towers we brought were giving static shocks because the motherboards inside weren't insulated (these were brought from Singapore, where the electrical supply comes with Earth/Ground points, while it is not so in the Philippines). Thus began my daily electric shock experience :) Out of the three CPUs we shipped, two were working and one, unfortunately, required Windoze reinstallation! The sole monitor that we shipped from Singapore, inexplicably, refused to power up :( We said a prayer and decided that if it will not boot up, then we will leave it aside with the CPU that required installation...

After the CPUs and the laptops were set up, some teachers began wandering into the room and soon I started a short session on basic computer usage and how to use M$ Office applications: Word and Excel (yes, OSS advocates, I'm sorry :p). Some of the teachers really had not touched a computer before and I realized that for some groups, I had to show how the keyboard and the mouse are to be used. By the time the last batch arrived and went, the teachers were having fun attempting to make a poster and I was exhausted :P The first day we went home early for another meditation by a priest, followed by confessions. What struck me about the priests there was their reverend attitudes and substantial homilies!

The next few days were spent in similar way: showing the computers to the teachers and during the breaks, I plastic-wrapped of the books to be put in the library. I must have wrapped between thirty to fifty books in the course of those few days!

The next day, I and Girly (of Cebu) had to go back to Tacloban to pick up more materials because we were running out of wrapping plastics and groceries and some more parts for the computers. In this short trip, I learned a few more things about Mrs Cruz—Tita ("Aunty") Mildred: looking perhaps a few days above forty-five, she is actually closer to sixty-five and is a widow, a mother of five, and a grandmother of two! She runs a water-refilling business in Tacloban and supplied us hungry camels with water daily, and sells spiritual books cheaper than what we can get in Singapore! (My biggest expense in this trip was spent on books...)

I must admit there were afternoons with frequent blackouts when a sense of despair crept in: when I realized that the electrical supply would not be consistent and several voltage regulators we brought might not be sufficient to protect the computer hardware from current surges (there was already a burning smell in the little computer room!). There were days when some teachers did not seem to be interested in what the computers can do to assist the learning of their students, and then I began to question the relevance of our "mission." But I was reminded that God's ways are not mine, His thoughts are not mine to fathom, so I resolved to not lose hope and stay faithful to the project despite its possibly bleak outcome...

The evenings were spent mostly on dinner, dishwashing (for dinners were my turn to wash dishes :p) and quiet reading time before I fell asleep soon after 9PM. There was one memorable evening when we had picnic dinner by the beach, when everyone had a turn to sing at the karaoke magic mic and enjoyed the beautiful stars, more in numbers and clarity than what you can ever hope to see in an urban setting like Singapore!

After more days wrapping books (on my part), we finally came to the last days when we had to rush the processing of books (it is really no small feat inventorizing 700+ books: try accessioning, cataloguing, labeling and wrapping them!). Some of us spent this time teaching & discussing with the teachers and student librarians on the library policies and on how to best run a library of this scale. We also had to prepare a little number to entertain our friendly hosts: the principal, the teachers and the children. Soon "Charlie" (of the Chocolate Factory fame) was put to life on a humble stage next to the school compound and our objective was to entice the students to find out what happened to our little hero friend by borrowing the book from the library.

On Friday, we started the day very early, as Missa de Gallo (novena mass before Christmas) have begun at 4AM (actually, earlier than that, depending on the priest!). It was a solemn mass, again in Waray (in which Aunty Mildred and her English missal came to our rescue); more solemn than most masses I have participated in, and the choir of few singers sang beautifully! When we arrived at 3:30AM, the church building was already packed and some parishioners were seen carrying plastic chairs to the church!

The day of "handover", was unexpectedly moving for me. Apart from starting with the Missa de Gallo, we started the day putting finishing touches to the library: finding missing books, drawing & putting up a few more posters, and making sure the computer worked. A priest was invited to bless the computers and the library in a small solemn ceremony, and then a feast ensued :)

The short program that the school prepared for us and the handover ceremony was beautiful and sincere. Despite the fact that the invited village (barangay) chief did not come, a group of students proceeded to dance beautifully. When a blackout happened, a little boy continued with his turn to sing a beautiful and sincere rendition of a Christmas hymn. The principal touched me with her humble thanks, and then "Charlie" was performed on stage. Needless to say, the children enjoyed it immensely and then the feast continued :) This time the school bought for us Lechon, a roasted whole suckling pig to celebrate the occasion.

We met Mrs Romualdez and her husband again in the afternoon and her campaigning son, Martin. They threw a Christmas beach party at San Roque beach and to my surprise, nearly everyone (even college students!) 'hid' in the wooden huts away from the bright sun. Nearly everyone in our group wilted after just one hour in the beach. We spent the evening walking about Tacloban and its market, and again I marveled how crowded the Church and the Adoration Room always seemed to be, no matter what time of the day!

On Sunday, we spent the morning at the beach, followed by a sightseeing trip to the local seminary (ha!) during its Family Day, to the Palo Cathedral, to the General MacArthur Landing Site and then to the San Juanico bridge (connecting the islands of Leyte and Samar). It was heartening to see so many young boys and men studying and discerning a vocation to the priesthood! This day's trip was made more memorable because of the rickety lorry we took: it smelled as if the cart had been used to carry fish, and there were holes on its floor and ceiling (which leaked as it rained)... oh well, we had fun there!

We woke up at 2:30AM the next day to prepare our journey back to Tacloban, to Cebu and then to Singapore. It was amazing how we could wake up and managed to stay awake for another Missa de Gallo in Tacloban.. After saying good-bye (and God-speed) to Aunty Mildred, we took a bus to Ormoc—another eventful drive in which the driver was nearly constantly in the wrong lane, to overtake, and tried to honk and scare away everybody traveling in the other direction—and then the ferry ride took us back to Cebu. In Cebu, our friendly host Mirzi took us shopping for local Pasalubong and sightseeing to the Magellan Cross and the Basilica of Sto. Nino. It was a Monday, but it was very crowded with peddlers trying to sell us handicrafts, devout pilgrims praying in the Basilica and a score of pilgrims queueing to kiss the glass case that encased the Sto. Nino statue. I got a bit of history lesson from gazing at the paintings around the Basilica that showed the arrival of the Spaniards and the following evangelization of the Philippines islands. In the evening, we left for Singapore. Part of me wished I could stay there longer, or not have to return here... ;)

Well, that's about all I can remember about the journey... as for reflection, it will have to wait another day :)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Et verbum caro factum est...

Merry Christmas to all of you, and may the joy of Christ our savior be with you and your family always!

After many years, this year is my first Christmas in Singapore! Amongst many firsts, this year is the first time I attended a Christmas (almost) Midnight mass. And this year's Christmas is the first time we (my housemates & I) ever attempt to put up our own humble Belen; the process of preparing which had been a source of unexpected contemplation :)

(As you can see, it is a very humble Belen on 4 pieces of A4 paper sheets. We'll try to do better next year...)

"Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!"

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

O Antiphons

From around the blogosphere, I found for the first time, the seven beautiful antiphons before Christmas. This is from the Church bulletin:

Beginning tonight, those who pray Vespers will sing in the opening phrase a beautiful title of Christ. These titles belong to a collection of opening phrases called the "O Antiphons" after the awe-inspired "O" sung on the first note. There are seven short verses sung before the Magnificat during Evening Prayer of the Church on the seven days before the vigil of Christmas. They each begin with the exclamation "O". Each of them ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes more urgent.

The antiphons were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich mosaic of scriptural images. These seven verses, or antiphons as they are called, appear to be the originals although from time to time other texts were used. They became very popular in the Middle Ages. While the monastic choirs sang the antiphons the great bells of the church were rung.

There's a playful code in the titles: When you take their Latin names: Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, and so on-the titles form an acrostic when you read them backwards: "ERO CRAS." that is translated as "I will be there tomorrow!"

A curious feature of these antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation: O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dawn, O Ruler, O Emmanuel when taken in their Latin names, form an acrostic in reverse.

So the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel, provide the Latin words: "ERO CRAS". In Latin, the phrase spells out the response of Christ himself to the heartfelt prayer of his people: "Tomorrow I will be there". It's as if Christ were answering the prayers of the waiting people in the words of the prayers themselves.

A reflection on these words provides a good preparation for Christmas day by day:
December 17th:
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth.
December 18th:
O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the Law on Sinai. O come and save us with your mighty power.
December 19th:
O stock of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us, and do not delay.
December 20th:
O key of David and scepter of Israel, what you open no one else can close again; what you close no one can open. O come to lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
December 21st:
O Rising Sun, you are the splendor of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
December 22nd:
O King whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one. O come and save man whom you made from clay.
December 23rd:
O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Savior. O come and save us, Lord, our God.

Friday, December 08, 2006

EXIF extraction for J2ME

I've been struggling with creating thumbnails in J2ME—not that it's hard to do—but given the limited heapsize and mobile handsets' processor capability, the traditional Java (J2SE) thumbnail-generation process fails when the picture whose thumbnail about to be generated is HUGE (eg. those created by >2 megapixel cameraphones).

In general, there are few approaches:

1. generate your own thumbnail (good for smaller JPEG pictures & PNG formats)
2. read (hidden?) thumbnail directories that some handsets create
3. try to extract thumbnail inside EXIF header of some JPEG pictures

The 2nd & 3rd options don't always work for all phones. Problem with #2 is that only on some handsets is the picture thumbnail generated into predetermined directories. For #3, some developers claim Nokia cameraphones do not generate JPEG formats with EXIF headers in it. Sony-Ericsson phones do, however!

So this is the original Java library that I used to extract the EXIF header and obtain the thumbnail offset, length and the thumbnail data itself. It needs porting, however, to be able to run on J2ME. I've ported it into J2ME and the (crude!) source for the test midlet is here. Some sample pictures can be found at the original site.

More information about EXIF tags can be found here, in case you'd like to tinker with more exciting information! If anyone comes to this blog by searching for this, please feel free to download it & use as you like. Original code is copyrighted and it belongs to Drew Noakes.

I hope this helps some people out there.

UPDATE! (Apr 1 '2009):
The domain where the source is hosted has expired ;) I have updated the link to point here:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Story of Three Ducats (and you & me!)

December's been a busy month, between Asian Games 2006, my house moving and the Philippines trip, I find it increasingly difficult to write; for time to reflect becomes ever shorter. Today I found a beautiful parable about us and our Lady, hence a Marian plug in the middle of novena to the Immaculate Conception:

The Three Ducats

He was a man like you or me, neither better nor worse, a poor wretch of a sinner. What had he done? I have no idea. A crime more grievous than the others, a sin more serious than the others, committed, no doubt, on a day when God had left him to himself for too long. And he was being led to the gibbet in the good city of Toulouse, with the executioner on one side and the Consuls on the other, in the midst of a crowd of naughty, inquisitive boys, who had no doubt come running to see what awaited them on the morrow.

Now King René was making his entrance into Toulouse that day, with the fair Aude, whom he had just married in a nearby land. As she passed by the gibbet, the Queen saw the condemned man already perched on the steps, his head in the noose. A cry escaped from her and she hid her head in her hands.

The King halted all of his train, made a signal to the executioner to stay his hand and, turning to the Consuls, said, “My Lords , the Queen asks whether, as a token of the warmth of your welcome, you would be pleased to grant mercy on this man.”

But the Consuls replied, “Sire, this man has committed a crime for which there is no pardon, and however much we may wish to please our Lady the Queen, the law requires that he should be hanged.”

“Is there then a crime so great in the world that it cannot be pardoned?” the fair Aude asked, shyly.

“Certainly not,” replied one of the King’s Councelors, pointing out that according to the custom of the land of Toulouse, any condemned person could redeem himself for the sum of a thousand ducats.

“This is true,”replied the Consuls. “But where would you expect this rascal to find a thousand ducats ?”

The King opened his money bag and took out eight hundred ducats. But the Queen, who in vain rummaged in her purse, could only find fifty ducats.

“My Lords,” she said, “are not eight hundred and fifty ducats enough for this poor man?”

“The law demands a thousand,” replied the councillors, unyieldingly.

Then all the lords that made up the retinue of the King and Queen collected what they had with them to offer it in their turn, and the sum was counted.

“Nine hundred and ninety-seven ducats,” the Consuls announced. “Three ducats more are needed.”

“Is this man to be hung for the sake of three ducats!” exclaimed the Queen, indignantly.

“It is not we who demand it”, replied the Consuls, “but no-one can change the law.”

And they signalled to the executioner.

“Wait,” cried the Queen. “Search the pockets of this reprobate. Perhaps he has three ducats on him.”

The executioner obeyed, searched the condemned man... and in the pocket of the poor wretch they discovered ... three gold pieces!

Good people! The man whom you saw in this tale, in grave danger of being hung, is you, it is I, it is man’s sinful nature! On the day of the last Judgement, nothing shall save us, neither the mercy of God, nor the intercession of Our Lady, nor the merits of the Saints, unless we have about us ....three ducats of goodwill!

——Excerpt from “Contes de la Vierge” written in the 12th century by Gauter de Coincy

For more moments with Mary, click here.