Monday, June 29, 2009

The death of innocence

This is my column today.

I was too young to comprehend the outpouring of grief when Elvis Presley, Bruce Lee, and John F. Kennedy died. I never really understood what it meant when people, perhaps in an effort to articulate inexplicable grief, made big bold statements such as how the deaths represented the “passing of an era” or about how the deaths marked “the end of innocence.” How can the death of someone so far removed from their daily existence affect people in such a profound way that it becomes a metaphor for a life-defining moment?

The sudden death of Michael Jackson last week made me come to terms with those big bold statements again.

I was—am—a fan of the guy, but he really was more than just a celebrity I admired. He was someone who simply was part of my life’s journey. I practically grew up with him. Not in the literal sense, of course. But he was a large part of my childhood, my adolescence, and even my maturity process. As I wrote in my Web log last Friday, I could actually track my own development as a person using his music as some kind of soundtrack for each of the major events of my life.

Some of my fondest memories of childhood involved listening to vinyl records of the Jackson Five. “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” were songs that my friends and I sang at every occasion. This is indulging in maudlin sentimentality but “One Day In Your Life” was a song that will always hold a special meaning because it was the song that sort of got me through my first heartbreak.

And really, the Christmases of my childhood were characterized mainly by the endless playing of “Give Love On Christmas Day.” The Jackson Five Christmas Album and that Ray Conniff Christmas album were the only Christmas albums played in my house during the holidays up until I was in high school.

I could go on and on to write about how his songs accompanied my growing-up years. I was in college when he shot to global fame courtesy of “Thriller” (my friends and I actually aped his dance moves down to the last gyration). I graduated from college in 1985, a turbulent but exciting period in the history of the Philippines on account of the holding of the snap elections that would eventually lead to People Power. The hope and optimism of the period was made more palpable by “We Are The World,” which as we all know, inspired “Handog Ng Pilipino Sa Mundo” the song that would become the anthem of that period. All the Christmas parties I went to that year inevitably showcased a group performing “We Are The World.”

What happened next was that we all grew up. Everyone, except Michael Jackson, it seemed and it looked like we made him pay for that. That’s when all the weirdness crept in. There is a lot of psychological babble about how Jackson’s whole life revolved around efforts to recapture his supposed lost—or nonexistent—childhood. But through it all, there was always the music. Jackson was a lot of things but there was always no doubt about one thing—he was a musical genius.

Those of us who grew up in the seventies and the eighties could be forgiven for feeling a profound sense of loss. It’s like a large part of our lives has suddenly lost a large part of its raw essence. In this context, Michael Jackson’s passing can really be viewed as the end of innocence. To a large extent, it’s like we’re finally saying goodbye to childhood.

I think that there’s another reason why Michael Jackson’s death is affecting people in profound ways. All the cable news networks—from CNN to Fox—has been devoting almost 80 percent of their programming to the global reaction to the death of the King of Pop. An interesting tidbit: The thousands of Cebu inmates who gained global fame because of their performance of Jackson’s Thriller is one of the “tributes” that is enjoying repeated telecast on CNN. There’s a long list of celebrities and global figures that are now spewing platitudes on Michael Jackson and his contributions to the world.

I was a bit surprised to see noted guru and author Deepak Chopra being interviewed by Larry King on CNN—it turns out he was some kind of a spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson. Even US President Barack Obama has issued a statement. What all these people have to say is interesting. Michael Jackson broke a lot of barriers. The man was a musical genius. We already knew that.

I get the sense however that we’re all grappling with something that has so far remained unarticulated. We’re grieving, yes. We’re all feeling a sense of loss, yes. But deep down, we’re also struggling with a certain measure of guilt. His sudden death deprived us with a sense of closure. There is no such thing as happy ever after. The man never got to redeem himself in the eyes of the world.

In the last decade, Michael Jackson was reduced to being fodder for weirdness and outlandishness. Media projection of the man was that of a freak—some kind of an aberration, almost like a modern day Frankenstein. He was ridiculed, vilified, made a laughing stock for his supposed excesses. Very few actually bothered to separate the myths from the facts, the real from the fantasy; and many were quite content with making hasty judgments and gross generalizations about the man. In short, he was misunderstood up to the very end.

There were those who couldn’t understand his obsession with plastic surgery mainly because they couldn’t empathize with an artist’s decision to use his own body as his own art medium. The idea of an artist re-sculpting himself, offering his own body as sacrifice for the sake of art, is incomprehensible to many the way people vilified Vincent Van Gogh for mutilating himself or the way lots of people shun those who transform their own bodies into canvasses by covering every inch of skin with tattoos.

Many couldn’t understand his predilection for touching his groin, his standard dance move. To many, that represented the ultimate symbol of perversion as if putting one’s hand on one’s groin is automatically synonymous with depravity. Of course people will dismiss my interpretation of the dance move as an expression of a fan’s blind idolatry, but really, body parts are just body parts. A breast is just a breast, a natural part of everyone’s body; there is nothing dirty or perverse about it unless we associate it with something carnal.

It’s really sad that the world lost a musical genius too soon, particularly since it seems he was on the cusp of making a comeback. There is no doubt that a musical genius like Michael Jackson still had a lot to offer to the world. Sadder perhaps is the fact that to this day, many, many years since Van Gogh died impoverished and alone, the fate of artists who courageously strove to be understood for what and who he is remains the same —tragic. As the song written about Vincent Van Gogh says, “this world was never meant for one as beautiful….”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Heal the world

I didn't realize Michael Jackson was older until today.  I always thought we were the same age because, well, we sort of grew up together (okay, for the record, I am 45).  

I could actually chart my own maturity using his songs as some kind of soundtrack.  Let me see.  "Ben" was a song my playmates and I would sing with such gusto when I was in the primary grades.  "One Day In Your Life" was the sort of theme song (yeah, go ahead snicker) of my puppy love.  

My friends and I discovered musical instruments in high school (I studied piano, but lugged around a guitar to school and to our tambayan) and we would sing "Rock with You" and "She's Out of My Life" over and over again.

I was in College when Thriller shot to global fame.  Our class performed "Beat It" during one of those convocations.  

My first official job after graduation was with the US Peace Corps as Language and Culture Resource Person.  This was the time when MTVs were the rage and at Tagbilaran Bohol where we spent six months doing training for US Peace Corps volunteers, night life meant going to a restaurant that served beer and featured giant video walls showing music videos.  "We Are The World" was the most popular video and we also performed that at the closing ceremony of the training program.

When I joined the corporate world, "Heal The World" and "Have You Seen My Childhood" were staple training songs.  


Being such a huge fan of the guy, I think I can be forgiven for believing that the guy was a genius.  Even at the height of the controversies, I never really gave up on the guy.  This was why my first reaction this morning when I learned about his death was "I am sure the people who vilified him would be the first to eulogize him now that he is dead and extol his genius."

Anyway.  Good night Michael.  Rest in peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Leave her alone

I'm really swamped.  As in.  I'm up to my armpits with work.  This explains the late posts in this blog and the fact that I seemed to have been simply filling space in my column last Monday and Wednesday.  Yup.  There are days when writing a column feels like an obligation rather than a pleasurable experience.

I expect my workload to be a little more bearable next week so hopefully things will be little less hectic.  

But I feel an overwhelming need to blog about the Maricar Reyes reappearance now.

If there's a real victim in that whole sordid sex video episode, it's her.  We haven't really heard from her. No hysterics, no caterwauling, no hair-tearing appearances on TV.

But last Sunday, there she was on ASAP, looking as regal and as composed as a swan.  I am sure that little TV appearance was a nerve-wracking experience for her.  But she didn't show it.  And I admired her for it.

I wish people would simply leave her alone and stop this effort to pin her down for some exclusive interview about those horrible sex videos.  If we truly want to help her, let's just leave things as they are now.  Let's stop hounding her about her version of the story.  Let's help put that whole ugly episode behind her by not making halukay the whole ugly thing.  Enough na.

And that's all I wanted to say.

Father's Day

This was my column yesterday. 

Last Sunday was Father’s Day. It was difficult to ignore the supposed significance of the day because as can be expected, people who were poised to profit by turning the day into a commercial event went to town with all kinds of not-so-subtle reminders for everyone to spend money in order to make his father happy. There’s something seriously wrong with the premise, but what can we do? There is a price tag attached to everything nowadays.

Most of the popular restaurants and fast-food chains had various promotions designed to entice people to celebrate Father’s Day by spending money in their restaurants. Malls, bookstores, specialty shops all had the same idea. Even cable television networks adjusted their programming to show movies about fathers and their relationships with their children. Why do movies about father-son relationships (think Dad or Frequency) tend to be more melodramatic than movies about mother-daughters (think Terms of Endearment or Postcards from the Edge) ?

A friend who was persuaded by his kids to celebrate the day with dinner at a posh restaurant Sunday evening couldn’t help but remind everyone at the table— jokingly, of course—that even if his wife and kids were paying for the dinner with their allowances, it was still money coming out of his own pocket. When my own kids suggested that we have dinner out, I also told them pretty much the same thing. I was sure they would have found a way to charge the expense to me eventually in some form or another.

Which is not to say that I didn’t or do not appreciate the celebration of Father’s Day. I am still a little unsure about the wisdom of setting aside just one special day to honor certain people in our lives especially if it means forgetting about them for the rest of the year. But then again, at least we get one day out of 365. Now that I am older, I have learned to appreciate the little things.

It has been said that the families that we are born to are special because, well, they are family. But the families that we choose to belong to, the people we freely elect to become part of our lives through friendships and other bonds are probably just as special, perhaps even more so.

Thus, of the many greetings that I received last Sunday, the ones that held more profound meaning for me were the ones from people who have taken to calling me “dad” not out of obligation but out of genuine respect and affection. These were a number of former students who have remained close friends to this day; kids who listened more attentively in class than the rest and therefore were more appreciative not only of the lessons imparted inside the classroom but also of the effort that went into the preparation of lessons.

These were kids who saw their professors not just as teachers but as mentors, not just as facilitators of learning but as sources of wisdom as well. These were kids who saw their professors not just as elders inside a classroom but as some sort of a parental figure they could look up to.

I am proud to have known quite a number of these students. Many of them proudly referred to themselves as my groupies, but eventually settled into considering themselves “anak sa labas” (illegitimate children). They were students who made me an important part of their lives by trusting me with their confusions, their doubts, their plans and aspirations. Needless to say, many of these students would eventually invite me to stand as sponsors in their weddings or in the baptism of their children.

Being a teacher is most often a thankless job. Thus, one of the greatest satisfaction a teacher can get is when students become receptive and responsive not just to the learning process, but to professors as individuals as well. It always gives me a thrill as a professor when students’ eyes light up during a lecture signaling comprehension of a difficult concept. But it gives me more happiness when students begin to linger after class for counseling, to see advice on career options, or even just to talk or pursue a discussion started in class.

Maybe it is as much an indication of my own maturity process (I’ve probably become more paternal now both in outlook and in my physical appearance) but I have noticed the growing number of students who seem in search of parental figures in their lives. They perform better when they are given special attention in class. I’ve come across a number of students whose performance in class improved dramatically after being given counseling after class. In short, I have noted that many students respond better when professors assume the role of a “parent” inside a classroom.

Another professor in the school where I teach in the evenings validated my observations. We hypothesized that this was probably on account of the fact that many of our students have absentee parents. I did a quick check in my classes and realized that indeed, almost half of my students had one or two parents who were overseas Filipino workers. It is difficult to make generalizations, but it seems that we are really seeing a generation of kids who hunger for some kind of parenting and they are searching for it somewhere else—perhaps in classrooms, perhaps in the company of friends and peers.

If we come to think about it, that’s probably another explanation for the sudden popularity of family occasions such as Father’s Day. It seems there really is a need to allot a special day to remind everyone of the special role fathers play in the lives of their children even if they are not physically present.

As I prepared to go to sleep Sunday evening, I thought about the real significance of occasions like Father’s Day. I guess in the end it’s really about being grateful.

Hoaxes and fly swatters

This was my column last Monday, June 22.  Sorry, late post.

Two e-mails that furiously made the rounds last week illustrated just how easy it is for people to get “excited” even over far-fetched ideas and non-issues.

I am not talking about the hyperventilating that’s been happening over the supposed indications that the President is preparing to run as representative of her district in her home province of Pampanga, supposedly as part of a larger scheme to eventually become Prime Minister of this country. It’s not a non-issue, of course; it’s a potentially explosive issue but the type that can only blow up on the faces of those pushing it.

Still, in response to those who have been egging me to say something on the matter, my thoughts hew closely to the Supreme Court’s position on the constituent assembly—let’s wait for more concrete indications. Put more picturesquely, I would rather wait for those people pushing the inconceivable to tighten the noose some more around their necks; the better to hang them with when the appropriate time comes. In the meantime, I am of the belief that what the bright boys at the Palace are doing is building and reinforcing scenarios that would translate into better bargaining points. They know she can’t. The people will not willingly bend over backwards; not this time around.

I am talking about that e-mail about how we, earthlings, will be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle next month— two moons of more or less the same sizes. The other e-mail was about that famous murder at the White House involving United States President Barack Obama and a hapless, pitiful housefly that got some people so riled up.

According to the hoax that’s being forwarded by people who were probably asleep in their astronomy classes, planet Mars will be closest to Earth next month. The three e-mails I received even had a picture of Mars and the moon magnified to the same size and positioned perilously close to each other. A friend whom I wanted to bop on the head gushed at the possibility until I reminded him of the cataclysmic repercussions of such a celestial event. The gravitational pull that would be created by having two moons side-by-side would be disastrous, not to mention the kind of havoc that would result on the tides of this planet!

The sad thing is that this hoax is actually a result of someone’s careless interpretation of an old fact. Mars did come closest to Earth in 2003 and an official and factual news report said that the planet, when viewed “at a modest 75-power magnification will look as large as the moon.” Someone with an overactive imagination and nothing better to do conveniently dropped the reference to “75-power magnification,” threw in magnified pictures of both Mars and the Moon and then forwarded the baloney to the rest of the world.

I can understand how a number of people fell for the hoax. The solar system and the universe beyond are realms that remain mysterious and captivating to most of us. I, for one, have always had this fascination with astronomical events, thanks to my grandmother who had a profound interest in the stars and the planets and would wake us up in the middle of the night to witness whatever celestial phenomenon was on, such as when a comet was visible or when an eclipse was occurring. For the most part, however, many of the information she passed on to us were breathtaking but I discovered much later on, were quite erroneous.

Like everyone else, I spent quite a number of my elementary years gazing at a mock up of the solar system at the ceiling of our science room where the planets stood quite close to each other. It was only about a decade ago while reading Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything when I actually learned that even if the earth were reduced to the size of an ordinary pea, a realistic rendition of the solar system drawn to scale would have Jupiter situated about 300 meters away from earth and Pluto would be about two-and-a-half kilometers away.

The other e-mail that I received that I found quite amusing was that bit about how people belonging to the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals chided Obama for what they thought was inhumane attitude towards a fly. The President of the most powerful nation on earth was being interviewed on television when a fly intruded. He smacked it dead. PETA sent Obama a bug catcher that he can use to trap a housefly next time around and taught him the proper way to treat flies—which according to them, is to catch it in a humane way and then release it outside.

I understand that the protest was done more for political reasons than anything else. We all have our own causes and advocacies. But really, taking up the cudgels for houseflies and their rights and chiding a President for swatting a fly? I am not sure such a move advanced the cause of political correctness in a proactive way.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The social cost of technology

This is my column today.

When people talk about how technology is reshaping the world and the way we live, the discussion most often centers on how technology has dramatically obliterated barriers of time and space. People talk about how technology has enabled us to communicate faster, process volumes of information quicker, even store, retrieve, and forward data in far more convenient ways than ever before.

The impact of technology on people and social structures is often glossed over.

For example, the emergence of e-mails and the widespread use of the Internet have spawned relational concepts such as e-mail etiquette and netizenship. Although most people have overcome the learning curve on appropriate use of emails, there are still those who annoy everyone else by continuing to forward all kinds of scams and chain e-mails, or using upper case letters, or generally displaying the virtual equivalent of boorish behavior.

One of my professional e-mail groups is both virtually and literally dead after it became victimized by flamebaiters who hijacked the forum and succeeded in sowing discord among its members. To this day, many members of the forum still havent been able to comprehend exactly what happened or have been able to accept that there are indeed many people in this world who use the Internet as outlet for their neurosis.

Technology will continue to redefine the way people relate and interact with each other and pave the way for even more complications. Thus, there is now a whole taxonomy of online behaviors complete with the appropriate labels and descriptions, from cyberbullying, to phishing, to flamebaiting, to trolling, etc.

New technology also gives way to hybrid behaviors, which require new rules and new theories. It has been argued that there shouldnt be any differences in the way people relate to each other whether in person or online; that technology is simply a tool that we bend and adjust according to our needs and preferences. But like all other ideals, this is easier said than done. The reality is that technology is pushing the frontiers of ethics, ethical behavior, and even simple good manners and were really inventing the rules as we move along. There are no ready manuals to govern our conduct.

For example, one of the more contentious issues that people are still grappling with is the issue of privacy when using technology such as emails, the Internet, and even in social networking sites. Some companies have put in place what seem like comprehensive policies that seek to provide guidelines on employees use of company-sponsored technology. But even the most ironclad guidelines cannot legislate behavior and are therefore puny to the complexities of the human condition.

Theoretically, employees are not supposed to use company email or Internet facilities for personal purposes. However, the line that separate personal and business has always been inchoate. Everyone knows that everyone else uses company email and Internet facilities for personal purposes although admittedly in varying degrees and levels.

Is it okay for companies to use information and data culled from an employee's email account for disciplinary procedures against the employee? Can companies pick information from an employee's or for that matter, a job applicant's social networking site and use it in the employee discipline or in screening processes? Is it ethical to do so?

As someone whose day job includes screening candidates for certain critical positions in the bank that I work for, I have certain reservations about using information on an employees or candidates Friendster or Facebook accounts for employment purposes. But I am aware that these sites are considered public domain. So theoretically, any information including the state of ones current emotional entanglement can be used for or against him or her.

One celebrated case involved an employee (not in the Philippines, though) who was fired from her job allegedly because she was caught logged on to and updating her Facebook account on days when she was supposed to be home sick. The company insisted that she feigned sickness and used her Facebook account history as proof. The employee sought redress in court and the whole thing is now one of those management cases dissected in various human resource management fora.

The growing popularity of BlackBerries and cellular phones that allow people to access the Internet anywhere has now added further complication. A Reuters report written by Ellen Wulfhorst and released last week narrated how a political coup in New York statehouse was instigated by billionaire businessman Tom Golisano because he was peeved that Democratic majority leader Malcolm Smith paid more attention to his BlackBerry than to him during a meeting. An entry in a blog summed up the moral of the story thus: One should not play with ones BlackBerry when billionaires who have helped elect you have traveled to your office to talk to you. Of course it is possible that the billionaire in question simply had another bad day more than he could handle.

However, the whole fracas illustrated just how hand-held devices are getting in the way of relationships and productive work; or to be more specific, how technology is redefining the norms of proper conduct. The Reuters report cited one study where a third of more than 5,000 respondents said they often check their e-mails during meetings and yet another study that showed nearly a fifth of respondents said they had been reprimanded for showing bad manners with a wireless device. Totally believable when we consider just how many among us couldnt resist sending and receiving text messages, answering a call, or even downloading emails through BlackBerries or cellphones even when in the middle of important meetings or events. Why, many among us cannot even resist not answering cellphones in church.

The Reuters report also provided a counter-argument against the much vaunted benefits and advantages of technology offered by hand-held devices. For example it shot down the myth of multi-tasking (can take more time and result in more errors than focusing on a single task at a time). When we come to think about it, its a little ironic that many experts are now saying that certain technological gadgets impede rather help companies attain optimum productivity when these gadgets were designed primarily as productivity tools.

But like I said, we're not even talking about the so-called soft issues yet the social costs associated with technology. Are people guilty of bad manners now in short, more rude and inconsiderate or have the rules of etiquette been redefined to adjust to the demands of new technology? The debate is just starting to heat up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Instant products and new gizmos

This is my column today.

In this age of consumerism, most of the things we need can now be bought from a store. There’s probably a product for anything and everything, both imaginable and unimaginable.

Who would have thought, for example, that cooking something as basic as sinigang could be reduced to a few very uncomplicated steps, thanks to the wonders of pre-packed ready-to-cook concoctions that come in cubes or sachets? Thus, all one has to do today is boil some water, dump in some cubes or pour the contents of a sachet, put in the rest of the ingredients meat, fish or vegetables—into the boiling mass and then presto! sinigang is served.

I used to agree with the advertising yarn that these pre-packed ingredients were the next best things that happened to culinary arts after fire was discovered. I am sure any working drone that has experienced a sudden hankering for sinigang sa sampalok in the middle of the night will agree with me on this. But when they started mass -producing concoctions for basic ginisa (sauté), I decided that the people behind the idea were already pandering to people’s inherent laziness. After all, how difficult is it to sauté garlic, onions and tomatos?

I am told that there is now a whole range of products that include ready mixes for menudo, caldereta, etc. As can be expected, my yaya scoffs at the whole idea; she thinks these new products take away the art from cooking. There’s a large part of me that agrees with her. Cooking after all is not just about the taste of the final product it’s also about the preparation. It’s sad that we seem to be nurturing a whole new generation of Filipinos who have not experienced the multi-sensory pleasure of witnessing leche flan, or arroz valenciana, being made from scratch. Our kids are missing out on a number of social and cultural experiences that help develop a strong sense of who they are as Filipinos.

But there’s also a part of me that, in the now famous words of Senator Ping Lacson, “bows down to the reality” that we live in a world that puts a premium on products that make the complicated simple. I empathize with the multitudes of harassed people housewives, working moms, single parents, even working drones who simply do not have the time nor the energy to slave in the kitchen in order to produce a bowl of pancit canton from scratch and therefore have to rely on ready-to-cook packets that one simply tosses on a skillet.

We live in an age where there seems to be a race to come up with more of these products. The mantra of those who are cashing in on the phenomenon seems to be: “If we can sell it, there will be some sucker out there who will buy it.” The market positioning is simple make people believe that they need the product. Thus, we now have a long list of products of dubious value but are nevertheless being packaged as necessities.

Why, just last week, I discovered a tiny gadget that was being sold at a bookstore called a thumber a device one wears on one’s thumb while reading. No, it did not claim to work wonders on one’s comprehension abilities. It’s a device that comes with plastic “wings” that firmly keep the pages of the book one is reading spread wide open. It’s supposed to offer some form of convenience although for someone like me who loses things, particularly small gadgets, easily, trying to find the darn thing every single time I opened a book would probably pose more inconvenience.

One wonders of course if such a device is really necessary; after all, many generations of bookworms managed to survive without it simply relying on what nature provided as handy tool for doing what the device is supposed to do one’s fingers.

But as if to spite my inherent cynicism, I also found in the same bookstore a new product that did make me wonder: “How come no one thought about that much earlier?” There are now small plastic gadgets called chalk holders that pretty much look like in fact, probably inspired by lipstick holders. The device holds a piece of chalk and one twists the small canister to coax the piece of chalk out or stuff it in. Is the device really necessary? I’m sure teachers out there can continue to survive without it but it sure takes away the aggravation of having to wash constantly to get rid of chalk residue on one’s body and clothes. With the chalk holders, teachers can now also keep chalk in their pockets or bags.

Next to cellular telephones, the most popular gadget today is the flash drive. I came face-to-face with this realization recently when, after I did a lecture for a group of public school teachers and principals, I was mobbed by flash drive-wielding participants for copies of my powerpoint presentation. Again, they weren’t yuppies or college students but grandmothers and aunts all requesting for the chance of being allowed to insert their flash drives into my MacBook. I am told even schoolchildren are now required to own a flash drive or two.

Flash drives used to be nondescript, no-nonsense gadgets; but as can be expected, they have now evolved into something else. I’ve seen flash drives built as part of a Swiss knife, flash drives encased in ballpens, keychains, even lighters and stopwatches. The latest designs I came across were flash drives that also functioned as fashion accessories. I remember a time when a meeting I was attending ground to a halt because everyone watched one of our friends take off her gem-encrusted brooch and use it as a flash drive.

The range of gadgets that all of us are supposed to have is now mind-boggling. As a result, I now carry a small pouch inside my bag containing an assortment of tiny gadgets. There’s a card reader, which reads data from the memory cards of my cell phones and from my digital camera and uploads them directly to my notebook. There’s a multi-port which enables me to double the number of ports of my notebook the Mac I am using only has two ports and that’s often not enough when I have to use a mouse, a flash drive, a card reader, etc. I also have to carry with me all kinds of chargers one for my cell phones, another one for my ipod, and another one for the batteries of the digital camera. Do we really need all these things? It’s ironic that the marketing pitch of these products hues closely along the lines of “you can’t survive without it” which, if we come to think about it, is pretty hilarious because we’ve been able to survive without it for quite some time, thank you very much.

Even our politicians seemed to have jumped into the bandwagon and have started packaging themselves as products complete with their respective taglines and marketing pitches. Their marketing ploy is to remind all of us of just how wretched our lives are, just how unlucky and how unhappy we all are and then propose themselves as the panacea that will make everything go away.

Like the magic cubes and the other gadgets that we’ve learned to embrace and make part of our lives, the truth is that we can do very well without them, actually.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Hell on air

I am writing this while on official business in Butuan City.  The last time I was here, Martial Law was still in effect and I was still wearing short pants so I really didn't have any memory of the place.  But Butuan City (and Agusan, for that matter) has always intrigued me because of its rich archaelogical sites.  In case you don't know, they were able to excavate balangays (boats) that date back to pre-Spanish times, which further proves that the Philippines had its own civilization and culture even before Magellan came to the country.  

I intend to write about my Butuan experience in another post.  Right now, I will rant about one of the worst traveling experiences I've ever had: my flight coming here aboard PAL. Fortunately, it was a relatively short trip - 1 hour 15 minutes.

As required by company policy, we had to take PAL to Butuan.  I really don't have major issues with PAL - in fact, I've only flown Cebu Pacific a couple of times and only because there wasn't a PAL flight available then.  

I had the misfortune of being seated next to a guy who was reeking of alcohol and vomit - clearly, he went straight to the airport from an overnight drunken revelry.  His body was draped like a crumpled rug on the plane seat and many parts of his appendages were encroaching on my space.  I don't know if there is a rule against allowing drunk people to board planes, but there really should be.  

And behind me was a gang of Japanese macaws.  They must have been in a real hurry and didn't have time to meet prior to boarding because it looked like they were conducting a very contentious meeting 25,000 feet above sea level.  The guys kept on talking the whole time.  In Niponggo!  I didn't know which was worse, the fact that I couldn't understand a word they were saying or the fact that I couldn't understand what they were saying. 

Worse, there was a low pressure area in the Visayas and the flight was a little bumpy. My right ear was stuffed and I was in pain.

Fortunately, I had an audio novel stored in my ipod so I decided to practice diverting the pain by concentrating on something else.  

Twenty minutes into the flight, they started serving food- or what passed for it:  A small packet of nuts the size of those Happy peanuts packs that cost one peso per pack and a packet containing two biscuits.  When the cabin attendant serving drinks reached my seat, I automatically looked up and quipped "juice, please."  I fly PAL almost every other week so I knew they served funny tasting orange juice in plastic packs.  The guy (Michael John something) heaved an impatient sigh and said something which I couldn't hear because I was wearing ear plugs.  When I noticed that he was still standing there, I took my earplugs off and heard him say "Just coffee, tea or water only, sir" in an annoyed way.  

"Uh, okay, coffee then," I told him.  Thereupon he plunked down black liquid in a styropor cup on the panel in front of me.  The cup didn't even contain half a cup of coffee.  I checked those of the other passengers nearby and noted that they also didn't get a full cup of coffee.  I was seated towards the back of the plane so it was obvious that he was rationing what seemed like the last kettle of coffee among the passengers.  In short, tinamad kumuha ng bagong kettle of coffee at pinagkasya na lang kami sa natirang coffee.

That cabin attendant was really surly.  He should have taken the day off instead of inflicting bad mood on everyone else.  When the passenger in front of me asked for a newspaper, he actually had the nerve to tell the passenger that there were "no newspapers available anymore." It was probably true, there were no newspapers available anymore, but he could have said it in a more courteous way. 

To cap it all, 30 minutes prior to landing he came around and told me to turn off my ipod.  I checked my watch and wondered why we were descending earlier than scheduled.  Ten minutes later, the pilot announce the descent and that's when he asked that all electronic gadgets be turned off.  In short, the cabin attendant just seemed intent on annoying passengers.

Rain was beginning to pour when we got off the plane and guess what, there were no umbrellas available for those of us disembarking from the rear side of the plane.  We had to stage an impromptu one hundred meter dash competition.  

As if things couldn't get any worst, there were a swarm of porters that got in our way at the very cramped baggage collection area.  They didn't turn on the baggage conveyor belt - obviously that would have deprived the porters of the opportunity to fleece money from passengers.  So this meant that passengers had to pick up their bags right where they unloaded them.

Fortunately, our welcoming party turned out to be such a gracious host.  Right after lunch, he brought us to the Butuan Museum.  That lifted the dark clouds that seemed to hound us on the way there. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What I think Lacson really wanted to say

This was my column yesterday and today.  It was too long so it had to run for two days.  

I still haven’t been able to figure out what exactly the point of Senator Ping Lacson’s withdrawal from the presidential race last week was. I am not talking about why he withdrew, he spewed a sob story about how being virtuous can be a disadvantage in this country. What I am perplexed about is: How can someone withdraw from a race that has not officially started? The withdrawal would have made perfect sense if the period for the filing of candidacies was already upon us and he had already filed his candidacy. But the period is still several months away! And it’s not as if he was already picked by a party.

I know that by writing about his withdrawal from the race, I am raising more awareness about it. Quite frankly, there is a part of me that thinks a Lacson Presidency is not the worst thing that could happen to this country—the man does have strong traits. However, I still didn’t see the point of that withdrawal and in making that statement. Here’s what I think he wanted to say, though. Lacson’s withdrawal statement follows; my take on his statement are in italics.

Thank you for this invitation to the second ANC Leadership Forum. (Since you insist on having me despite the fact that I already stood you up at the first forum, I will use this forum for some personal agenda.) 

Up until I made a decision last Sunday to retire myself from a race that would matter most in the lives of our beloved countrymen, I had every intention to share with our people my vision of what the Philippines ought to be in a Ping Lacson presidency. (Let’s cut the crap, this forum is not about leadership but presidential ambitions and I really wanted to tell you why I am the best person to become president but my enemies have been relentless in throwing all kinds of obstacles in my way.)

Marahil sa huling pagkakataon, sa isang pagpupulong na tulad nito, nais kong ipabatid sa aking mga minamahal na kababayan na ang kahirapan at kawalan ng mga serbisyong pangkalusugan, edukasyon at seguridad ng mamamayan ay hindi mabibigyang lunas ng pamumudmod ng tulong mula sa mga pulitiko tuwing papalapit ang halalan; tulong na magaan at madaling ipamigay dahil madaling kinikita sa pamamagitan ng pagsasamantala sa kaban ng bayan. (My rivals have illusions of being The Messiah who will be able to solve the country’s problems but I will tell you this: What they will be saying will all be crap— they can’t solve the country’s problems and their pre-election antics are all for show.)

My vision is clear as it is simple—the country’s problem is government, bad government. (It’s time to get that devilish woman and her minions out of the Palace.) 

The solution stares us right in the face of the problem itself. I believe that we need to discipline 1.5 million members of the civilian and military bureaucracy and imbue them with the right motivation and a sense of genuine public service. (All our problems could have been solved a long time ago if only the people in government stopped supporting that woman and my brothers in the military staged a coup to topple this government and installed me in power instead.)

In short, if we hope to solve the problems of most of the 90 million Filipinos, we must set government right. This is the only way we can move forward as a country, and as a people. (Need I say it again? That blasted woman simply has to go.)

But correcting government will not come easy if it does not start with the leader himself. One cannot discipline if one is unable to discipline oneself. One cannot preach clean government if one is himself on the take, or his relatives and cronies are themselves the thieves. If a president cannot lead by the power of good example, then governance will always be bad. (As I have been insisting for the longest time now—I am the best person to lead this country. No one else has the iron resolve to do what is necessary, even what is ugly and unpopular. Without me, there cannot be good government.) 

My vision for the Philippines is one where basic services are guaranteed, where health and education and public safety are prioritized, and no-nonsense government is instituted in all levels of the polity. (My program of government will be the same as everyone else's, but that woman has to go. Get her out before she succeeds in nailing me for murder.)

Sadly, what we have today is a feudal set-up foolishly labeled as democracy, where transactional politics is entrenched both in the bureaucracy and local government units; and where the poor are deluded into believing that throwing candies or giving instant noodles or occasional help in distress is the be-all and end-all of public service. In the grind for survival, the poor forget all too often that the occasional goodies they get are mere scraps from the tables of the immoderately greedy powerful who plunder public coffers, or abuse power for self-profit. (The leftists in Congress don’t have the monopoly of pro-poor rhetoric. I can also dish out seemingly profound statements that appeal to the masses but don’t really mean anything.)

I have always maintained that if we doggedly and purposively set government right, the rest will follow. When people respect government, they pay the correct taxes and follow even the simplest of traffic rules. Equal opportunity. Level playing field. To each a fair, fighting chance.  Patas na laban, para sa lahat. (Again, that woman has to go. Now. And did I tell you already about my campaign messages before people started jumping the ship and taking up with the enemy? They were in my television ads, which I had no qualms airing prior to today.)

But reaching out to the voters, particularly those in the D and E income levels, which altogether comprise some four-fifths of the population, does not come easy. It is most expensive in a political system which has neither strong institutions nor correct procedures. (I wish I still have the support of my financial backers; I could have produced more ads and bought more airtime to catch up with Mar Roxas and Manny Villar in this game called “Let’s see who can fool the poorest of the poor.” Darn it, even that Gibo Teodoro seemed to have access to more resources. It’s not fair! But since I now have neither the support nor the resources and I don’t want to spend my own money, I will join the chorus of people who lambast what they do as wrong even if like them I also had my own political ads before money ran out.)

Minsan ay sumagi na rin sa aking isipan na tanggapin na ang 200 milyong pisong pork barrel bawat taon para sa isang senador upang magamit at makasabay man lang sa isang magastos na pangangampanya. Nguni’t, at mabuti na lamang, nanaig pa rin sa aking isipan na ipagpatuloy ang isang adhikain at paniniwala na higit sa ano pa mang bagay, mas mahalaga ang integridad sa isang tulad kong inihalal ng bayan upang maglingkod nang tapat at walang halong pag-iimbot. (I will remind you once again that I’m the only senator who has not deigned to accept crumbs masquerading as pork barrel from Malacañang. Why hasn’t anyone commended my virtuous act? I deserve public commendation, I should be held up as the example of an ideal public servant.)

The great Charles de Gaulle of France, who put order back in a land wracked by anarchy, once remarked that “in order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant”. Like his forebear Nostradamus, he might have foreseen the Philippine political scene of this generation. (Eat your heart out Richard Gordon, I am also capable of dropping names of great men and sounding profound in the process).

 But I refuse to lie. And I refuse to purvey make-believe storyboards and saturate the airwaves with fairy tales. (Those padyakitos ads of Mar Roxas? Crap. Those slick “I was once poor like you” soap operas of Manny Villar? Crap, too. Binay’s tall tales about Makati? Crap as well. My political ads were better, but I can’t afford airtime anymore).

Even if I tried to communicate the truth to our people given the extremely limited resources that I could raise from well-meaning friends who have kept the faith, and believe as I do in my central advocacy of good governance and national discipline, the time has come to face the reality that the intent to lead in this land in order to do good, has become an enterprise only for those who have access to unlimited funds. (I would have wanted to continue my presidential ambitions, but my supporters and backers deserted me when it became apparent that there was no way of stopping Mancao’s return to the country). 

I bow to that reality, which is why I have chosen not to participate any more in this laudable forum of those who seek the presidency of the land. And I beg your favor that you read this message that springs from my heart. (I have no choice at this point. I will have to prepare for my defense. But please spare me a few precious seconds of expensive airtime to exit from the race kicking and screaming).

To my loyal supporters and those who appreciated the kind of work ethic and purposive leadership I have demonstrated as a soldier, as the chief of the Philippine National Police, and share the advocacies I have been fighting for as senator of the Republic—beyond expression of my undying gratitude, I now pledge that I will continue my relentless battle for good governance; lonely and difficult this may be. (I don’t know what lies ahead of me now that Mancao is poised to testify. But I swear you haven’t heard the last of me).

Rest assured that in time, we will all join together to support a leader who could best deliver our people from the bondage they now suffer. That leader must have both the competence and character that are the preconditions to purposive leadership so imperative in these crossroads of the nation’s life. (I will now look around for someone whom I can support and who will support me in turn. Perhaps I should ask my loyal supporter Jamby to run for President? Judy Ann Santos is even more popular today, perhaps Jamby can buy her name and image again.)

And I appeal to the learned and the highly educated in our society to share their thoughts and help guide the vulnerable 80 percent of the Filipino electorate to vote wisely and conscientiously, not for their day-to-day personal needs, but for a country that we all love and care for. (Please help me convince more people that Villar is lying to them. Help me make people see that I am still the best candidate so that I can return to the political arena with a vengeance.)

Magkaisa po tayong tumulong sa isang taong batay sa karanasan at sa ugali, ay alam nating hindi magnanakaw at hindi gagamitin ang kapangyarihang hiram para magpasasa sa sariling interes. (Please kick that woman out of office now before she does more harm to me. And please do not support Manny Villar in 2010. I will look around for a more suitable candidate instead; of course I am still hoping that that candidate will be someone who looks like me, thinks like me, and is preferably me).

Monday, June 08, 2009

Risk and responsibility

This is my column today.

Traffic along Taft Avenue was particularly heavier than usual Wednesday afternoon last week. There was an unusually big volume of pedestrians around the area between Qurino Avenue and Vito Cruz street and a gazillion of private cars seemed to be desperately trying to get into the area all at the same time.

The reason: De La Salle-Manila (more popularly referred to as De La Salle University; actually, the De La Salle schools have long instituted a branding mechanism that required each school to be known simply by its location thus, De La Salle-Manila, De La Salle-Greenhills, etc.) closed down the Manila campus for 10 days and sent everyone home. Even the La Salle brothers had to pack up and evacuate to the De La Salle-Greenhills campus.

Students spilled all over the adjoining streets. Parents and drivers scrambled to pick students up pronto. As most everyone knows by now, one De La Salle-Manila foreign student was confirmed to have had AH1N1. Two other students another foreign student who was the dorm-mate of the first student and another Filipino student were subsequently confirmed to have been infected with the H1N1 virus.

Classes at the nearby College where I teach in the evenings were not suspended, though. This was because the College did not have a confirmed case of H1N1 infection. But as can be expected, this did not stop students from being absent. On the same day that De La Salle-Manila suspended classes, my students were fidgeting in their seats, complaining that their parents were sending them endless text messages urging them to go home. I had to tell my students that if they wanted to go home to assuage their parents’ anxiety, they could be excused from my class. We also had to give way to a quick discussion on facts and fallacies about the H1N1 virus.

I found it quite exasperating to note that many parents were panicking over unverified reports of an outbreak in certain schools (including at the College where I teach, which was totally false) while conveniently forgetting to practice responsible behavior themselves. A quick check among my students revealed that quite a number of them spent summer vacation abroad with their parents. Parents were worrying about exposing their children to the H1N1 virus here in the country where there has only been a few confirmed cases of H1N1 infection while they just brought their children to countries where the infections were in far greater numbers? Go figure.

Just as exasperating was the realization that many among my students also had one or both parents who just got back from traveling abroad, all of whom did not subject themselves to self-quarantine. In short, people were worrying about having their children exposed to the H1N1 virus at school while conveniently forgetting that they themselves just got exposed to the virus abroad and therefore posed a greater risk of spreading the infection themselves.

Such is the nature of panic. It often robs people of the capacity for rational thinking.

I recognize though that the risks of H1N1 infections in academic communities are greater. This is because close social contacts are unavoidable in schools, the learning process being predominantly characterized by active social interactions. The H1N1 virus also happens to be particularly contagious as it can be spread through social contact. In this context, closing down schools where there is a confirmed case of H1N1 makes sense.

However, simply and unilaterally closing down schools cannot be the sole extent of our collective response. We can’t possibly keep on doing the same thing for every single time there is a confirmed case of H1N1. Postponing classes by a few weeks this time around seems like a good precautionary measure. But what happens in a worse case scenario where subsequent cases of H1N1 infection are confirmed? Do we close down schools every single time this happens?

And what about offices, churches, malls, restaurants, gyms, etc? There are many other venues where social interactions do happen. We can’t possibly shut all of these down.
The obvious solution is to promote responsible behavior among the citizenry so that further infections are reduced significantly. Just as self-control is the best form of control, being personally responsible for one’s well being is the best way to reduce vulnerability to H1N1 infection. This translates into two main courses of actions.

First, everyone should make it a personal responsibility to protect themselves from being infected. This means taking all the necessary precautions such as constant washing of hands, avoiding social contacts that comprise high risk to infection such as holding hands or social kissing, etc. The second one is to promote the concept of social responsibility. Citizens who have been potentially exposed to the H1N1 virus, such as those who have just traveled abroad or had social contact with someone infected with the virus, should be duty-bound to undergo self- quarantine.

But to make this happen, we need to put in place mechanisms that empower citizens to be able to practice responsible behaviors. Government must put in place guidelines that enable and ennoble citizens to do this. It is not enough to tell people that they should stay home we must make sure that doing so does not penalize them.

For example, education officials must issue guidelines that compel school authorities to lift penalties against absenteeism committed by faculty members, students, and even administrative staff of educational institutions who take it upon themselves to undergo self-quarantine.

The appropriate government agencies and the private sector must come together to craft guidelines that allow employees and workers who are undergoing self-quarantine to continue being paid during the period. I know this translates into additional expenses, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a small price we have to pay for ensuring that we are able to contain infections. Surely, paying the wages of someone who is on self-quarantine is wiser course of action compared to the threat of having widespread infections in the workplace. I am aware that such a mechanism is open to abuse, but we can always put in place the appropriate guidelines.

It is also time to pursue a more aggressive, comprehensive, and empowering information and education campaign on H1N1. The problem is that most of the media coverage on the H1N1 pandemic has been focused on the statistics covering confirmed cases of infections, which either lull people into a false sense of security (the numbers are still low) or sow panic and fear (it’s here!).

And quite unfortunately, some companies have capitalized on H1N1 pandemic by promoting products that supposedly protect people from getting infected. For example, one drug company has been promoting a vaccine, which supposedly protects people from flu strains that are similar to H1N1.

Friday, June 05, 2009


There are "small" places in the Metro that one knows is there - because they have been there forever - but which one ignores because, well, there are bigger, more publicized, and in some cases, more controversial and therefore interesting places.  

I've been ensconced inside Aloha Hotel for two Fridays now for marathon CBA negotiations.   I know the hotel existed - it happens to be situated strategically along Roxas Boulevard (right on the corner of Quirino Avenue), but up until now, I've not been inside the hotel.  Actually, to be honest about it, I didn't really think the hotel had anything interesting to offer.

Well, what do you know, it's actually a functional quaint hotel - a bit frayed at the edges, yes - but quite interesting.  The hotel's main attraction is its chinese restaurant fronting Roxas Boulevard at ground level.  What I liked about the hotel is the collection of antiques displayed in its lobby.  The antiques - from porcelain figurines, to Chinese brass warrior figures, to wooden sculptures - are displayed inside antique Chinese cabinets.  Obviously these comprise someone's collection.  And it is quite a collection!

The service is not bad, either.  The staff are courteous and solicitous.  Their lunch buffet (Php416 I think) is quite a steal considering the spread.

I didn't get to check the rooms though.  But hopefully soon.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Villar's intransigence

This is my column today.

There are always many sides to an issue and it is a given that the proponents or advocates of one side of an issue would insist vociferously that their side is the correct one. In fact, very often in this country, proponents are not happy with just claiming to be correct, they insist on being the only correct one.

We are in a democracy and everyone is entitled to espouse and defend a point of view regardless of how illogical, improbable, or even incomprehensible that point of view may be to others.

Thus, we often find ourselves arguing and debating the finer points of a sticky issue until everyone gets tired of it, or until something providential happens such as when another issue of greater importance or urgency comes along. At which point, the issues are conveniently dropped in favor of the new issues.

In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that in certain instances, that’s exactly the game plan at play—people simply stick to their guns and quibble endlessly in the hope that something bigger, something more explosive will eventually come along anyway and they don’t need to concede their respective points of views. And this is why many issues in this country do not really get resolved at all. Unfortunately, unresolved issues do tend to resurface later on and sometimes in uglier forms.

The allegations of unethical conduct leveled against Senator Manny Villar has been festering under the surface for quite some time now. The issue was sidetracked by a number of other seemingly more urgent issues—such as the sex video scandals—but perhaps as an indicator of the gravity of the accusations or the tenacity of the senators pushing the issue, the issue is back in the headlines.

As I said, there are many sides to an issue. If we are to believe the accusers— Senators Jajajajamby Madrigal and Ping Lacson—Villar is culpable of a number of violations of ethical conduct as senator. The gist of the accusations is simply that Villar used his influence and stature as senator for personal or business gains.

Villar and his defenders, on the other hand, insist that the charges are politically motivated. They insist that the fact that Villar’s accusers are his rivals for the Presidency in 2010 should be enough ground to dismiss the issues.

As can be expected, a number of people have already weighed in with their own takes on the issues, either for or against. I won’t go into what I think are the merits or demerits of the various arguments already presented. Quite frankly, I want to keep an open mind on the matter and would therefore be interested in a more detailed, perhaps less emotional, and therefore more logical presentation and rebuttal of the accusations, preferably presented in a duly constituted forum or authority. Given the fact that Villar is bent on becoming the next President of the Republic of the Philippines, settling the issues in a court of law is no longer a viable option. The case would drag on for years and he can’t be tried in court anyway in the event that he wins as president. But I think the issues are relevant today precisely because the man is gunning for the highest seat in the land. The issues are a clear test of the man’s integrity and credibility.

The Senate has finally convened itself as committee of the whole after a series of acrimonious debates on technicalities, legalities, and propriety—the last one of which become very personal and unpleasant. Senator Madrigal presented her case against Villar and showed various documents and evidence supporting her accusations last Monday.

It would have been a good opportunity for Villar to debunk Madrigal’s accusations. Based on what I’ve read from whatever transcripts that were readily available, and based on what I heard on radio and seen on television, the accusations are not as airtight as originally presumed or claimed to be. The evidence seemed credible but only because Madrigal acted with more conviction than warranted. But if we really come down to it, all those supposed pieces of evidence could easily be refuted; it would have boiled down to a case of one document simply debunking another document.

In interviews conducted after the hearing, Villar pretty much said the same thing. All those documents presented could be easily debunked by documents that he had in his possession. He even went as far as to ridicule Madrigal’s penchant for being victimized by kuryente (bum steer). Simple, huh? Then why the heck doesn’t he present them?

Unfortunately, Villar and the minority senators supporting him have been boycotting the hearings. It is their contention that the Senate hearings are a farce and that the senators comprising the majority faction have already made up their minds to convict Villar anyway. They have expressed their belief that Villar cannot expect a fair trial in the Senate – the very same institution that Villar is a part of and whose role in Philippine society he extolled to high heaves just a few months ago when he was still Senate President. In short, they cast doubts on the capability of the other senators to become impartial and objective.

In plain English: They are insulting the other senators and the whole Senate as an institution.
The Senate, particularly during Villar’s term as Senate President, is renowned for its hard-line stance against people who do not cooperate in the various hearings that it has convened. The Senate has detained a number of people for refusing to testify. And now, you have a senator himself openly defying the senate as an institution. If Villar is allowed to do this, what does it say of the Senate as an institution? That it affords an entirely different set of privileges to senators compared to ordinary citizens?

Villar’s allegation that the other senators are not capable of impartiality in this particular case is not an excuse because he is being selective in the application of his bias. He cannot praise his fellow senators in the exercise of other functions that he stands to benefit from and then turn around and condemn them when the odds are stacked against him. Besides, openly accusing other senators of impartiality smacks of unparliamentary behavior and he, more than anyone else should be in a position to know this having been Speaker of the House and Senate President in the past.

Besides, it is not as if Villar does not have the resources to defend himself. He is the richest man in both houses of Congress, for crying out loud. He can hire the best lawyers. If he can afford those slick television ads that run several times a day including at primetime, he can very well afford a public relations campaign to exculpate himself.

By deliberately ignoring the Senate proceedings and choosing instead to go straight to the press; by not answering the charges, or refuting the accusations directly at the Senate where he is being tried and where he is a member in good standing, Villar is sending mixed messages. People cannot be faulted for entertaining thoughts that Villar is a coward who can’t face his peers and look them straight in the eye while he defends himself; or that he is a man who thinks he deserves to be measured against a different set of rules and standards not readily available to ordinary people.