Qwertyman No. 24: Barangay Magulang

Qwertyman for January 16, 2023

(“Smishing: the fraudulent practice of sending text messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers; a form of phishing.”)

MANG KANOR had a problem. He was a contractor for a scamming operation that involved using 50 burner phones to ferret out people’s personal details with, which he ran from the basement of his house in Bgy. Magulang. It was all going well, thanks to his wife Fely, who also happened to be the barangay kapitana, and who could guarantee the peace and quiet his business needed. No one really understood exactly what the boys and girls hired by Kanor were doing—and to be honest, neither did Kanor, who could barely text a message to Fely, let alone spell “phishing” or explain what it meant. But the barangay loved them, because they employed Mang Tining’s son and Tita Ruby’s daughter, and even Sgt. Choy’s handicapped nephew.

It was their teenage son Boogie who had everything figured out, who had introduced the scheme to his parents for them to finance. He had dropped out of the novitiate, realizing that his true calling lay elsewhere, in the world of Dota, Tiktok, and Instagram. When Mr. X offered him a smishing franchise after seeing how adept he was at computers, he jumped at the opportunity. He would harvest personal data and turn it over to Mr. X, who mined it for money.

But he needed capital, and only his mother—who had a steady revenue stream from jueteng—could provide that. She bankrolled him for the 50 phones, three computers, and the ten high-school graduates he needed to man them, plus their snacks of bottomless iced tea and banana cue. His father Kanor provided the muscle—building the cubicles, laying out the wiring, and fronting as the shop’s manager.

The money poured in—Mama Fely was immensely proud of her baby’s entrepreneurial bent—until Kanor ran in one way, panting and waving a newspaper in Fely’s face.. “Boogie! Fely! Have you heard? They’re now requiring all SIM cards to be registered! They want the names and addresses of all SIM card owners. No registration, no activation!”

“Whatever for?” cried Fely. 

“It says here that they want to weed out scammers—people who use prepaid phones to get into other users’ accounts and take their money—I think they mean us!”

“But we just get their information, someone else takes their money, it’s not fair! We’re not subversives, we have privacy rights—”

Boogie didn’t seem bothered. “I’ve been telling you, if we expanded, we could do both, end-to-end—get data and make money. Then we wouldn’t need Mr. X anymore.”

“Are you crazy?” shrieked Fely. “That’s asking for trouble! You’d need protection all the way to the top, which we can’t afford. We’re only good for this barangay.”

“That’s the problem with us, Ma! We think too small. If we go bigger, you could become the mayor!”

“Wait, let’s solve this SIM problem first!” said Kanor, who was easily rattled by things he couldn’t understand.

“Leave it to me, Pa. I’ll look into it. From what I’ve seen on TV, there isn’t a law in this country without a loophole! You can even get away with murder if what they call the ‘chain of evidence’ is broken!”

“Oh, you’re such a smart boy,” gushed Fely. “If you’d gone on to become a priest you could be the Pope! But I’m glad you didn’t because we need grandchildren to continue the proud family tradition—”

“Ma, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m gay!”

“Oh, you’ll get over it, don’t worry. I’m setting you up next week with Mareng Siony’s daughter Olive. She’s sweet and sexy.”

“Wait, what will we do with this SIM law?” Mang Kanor screamed.

A few days later, Boogie had an answer. “I tried the system, and it’s pretty simple. You go to your provider’s website, and they ask for your name, address, official ID, and photo. That’s it, your SIM is registered to you.”

“So they’ll know it’s us who are running this racket? That’s not a solution, that’s the end of our business! Son, you have to do something. I don’t want to have to go back to chopping up cars—this is my first decent job!”

“Don’t worry, Pa, I have it all figured out. We can get around the system.”

“Really? How?” asked Fely.

“What else? By registering.”

“You mean, we go honest?” Kanor couldn’t believe it.

“Of course not, Pa. If they want names, addresses, IDs, and photos, we’ll give it to them.”

“And risk being caught? I’m a respected and responsible public official, son, I can’t afford the scandal!” said Fely.

“They’d be chasing ghosts. Can’t you see, Ma, Pa? All we need to do is to fake everything! There’s nothing in the system that checks to see if what you’re saying is true. So we just fill in the blanks, and we’re done.”

Kanor tried to wrap his head around the plan. “Do you mean we cheat the system?”

Boogie laughed. “Is it cheating if we give it what it’s asking for?”

“But how and where do we get the names and the pictures and so on? What about the IDs?” asked Fely.

“Ma! We’ll make up the names of people. Who was that councilor who called you a crook? We’ll use his family’s names. And which barangay was it that dumped their garbage here? We’ll use addresses there.”

“Oooh, that sounds like fun! But what about the IDs and the selfies?”

“What’s the computer for? We can copy any school, office, or senior ID you want. As for pictures, we can scan yearbooks, wedding albums, Facebook profiles—we can even create a whole new person through artificial intelligence! We can do anything, Ma!”

Doubts persisted in Kanor’s mind. “Surely they’ll verify the entries? What if they find out?”

“Find out when, Pa? Let me ask you—you and Ma applied for your National IDs, right?”

“Yes. Three months ago.”

“Well, do you have them?”

“No, not yet.”

“There you go. Everything in this place takes at least three months to happen. In three months, we buy new SIMs, and do the same thing all over again.”

“Why, if we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for others, for a fee—tell Mr. X!” said Kanor.

“You’re a genius, son! Oh, I love this family. I can’t wait for you to meet Olive! She’s studying accounting—your kids will be so cute and so smart!”

Qwertyman No. 21: AI in the House

Qwertyman for Monday, December 26, 2022

I’D BEEN wanting to write about this for a long time, since last year when my artist-friends first alerted me to the amazing new possibilities being opened by artificial intelligence (AI) in such traditional fields as painting. Before that, like many people, I’d thought of AI in terms of subjects like warfare, medicine, and gaming. It had to be only a matter of time before the technology was ported over to the arts—not just to painting, but to creative writing and music, among other pursuits.

If you don’t know how AI works, just think of it this way (which is the way a lot of people, many of them not even artists, are having fun these days). You download a software program called an “AI generator” (such as starryai for painting, Rytr for creative writing, and AIVA for music), then put it to work by demanding that it produce “a portrait of Jose Rizal in the style of Van Gogh.” Minutes later (or just seconds if you pay), you’ll get what you asked for. What your computer (or in fact, many other computers working together) just did was to run a search for all the images of “Jose Rizal” it could find, then establish what “the style of Van Gogh” means in terms of brush strokes, colors, and so on, and apply one to the other. It’s all about “algorithms” or instruction sets that get sent out and executed until the desired outcome pops up.

That sounds like harmless entertainment, and much of AI is or appears to be, but it isn’t hard to see how even a touch of mischief (not to mention loads of malice) can quickly change the complexion of things. Driven by a fear of computing or what we might call Faustian science, popular culture is replete with examples of AI gone berserk, from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the master kidnapper Sark in Tron. But positive applications such as those employed in medicine, where AI helps analyze CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays with a sharper eye than a human radiologist sees with, continue to push AI research forward. IBM itself declares that “At this point, there is little doubt that AI will become a core part of the digital health systems that shape and support modern medicine.”

My own first brush with AI happened last week when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times titled “A New Chat Bot Is a ‘Code Red’ for Google’s Search Business.” Intrigued, I read on and found out about ChatGPT, one of many new programs that are threatening to replace Google’s famous search engine. We all know how Google works: you enter a search term, you get a long list of links to possible answers. Chat bots cut through that mess and give you a short, clear, grammatically correct answer (although nobody can guarantee that the answer itself is correct). That’s good if you want a quick reply to a question, but I can just imagine the epidemic of college term papers cutting and pasting unsourced chat-bot answers with gay abandon. 

All this led me to wonder how chat bots would respond to truly important questions, so I decided to download ChatGPT to my iPhone, and to ask it some test questions that would tell me about itself as much as what I was asking about. Below are my questions and the answers that artificial intelligence produced, verbatim (I purposely asked the first question to see if AI was capable of some kind of self-awareness):

1. Q. What are the dangers of artificial intelligence? A. 1. Unintended Consequences – Algorithms designed to reach specific goals could have unintended consequences that produce unforeseen results. 2. Job Loss – AI could displace workers by automating jobs, leading to severe economic disruption in the near future if nobody is trained to take over for the machines. 3. Black Box AI – AI systems are often difficult to understand, making it hard to debug the system when something goes wrong. 4. Over-Reliance on AI – Dependency on AI could lead to cognitive laziness, where humans rely too heavily on algorithms for decision-making and problem-solving. 5. AI Biases – AI systems trained on biased data and algorithms can end up replicating the same flawed assumptions and stereotypes. 6. Security Breaches – Malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in AI systems to commit cyber-attacks, data breaches and fraud.

2. Q. What’s wrong with the Philippines? A. The Philippines faces a wide range of problems that must be addressed in order to progress forward. These issues include corruption, overpopulation, environmental destruction, poverty, inequality, and unequal access to education. Additionally, Filipino infrastructure and public services are in dire need of improvement in order to create a more livable and equitable society. Other issues such as illegal drugs, crime, and terrorism also remain major problems facing the Philippines.

3. Q. When should a country have a sovereign wealth fund? A. A country should have a sovereign wealth fund when it has a large amount of assets (such as revenues from oil exports) that can be used for investments and for stabilizing government finances during economic downturns.

4. A. How can we reduce corruption in government? A. The best way to reduce corruption in government is to increase transparency and accountability. This could include strengthening laws and regulations to ensure that government officials are held to high standards, creating independent oversight and auditing systems, and engaging civil society and community members in governance processes. Additionally, investing in training for government officials on ethics, anti-corruption policies and procedures, and proper financial management can help to reduce corruption. Finally, engaging the public to report and discuss any allegations of corruption can help to both curb and address existing instances of corruption.

5. Q. Can volcanoes be punctured? A. No, volcanoes cannot be punctured. Volcanoes are made of molten rock, known as magma, that is too hot and too deep to be pierced with any known tool.

Now, you tell me if those answers sound any worse than the malarkey we’ve been hearing from some of our esteemed senators and congressmen, who cost billions to maintain, feel unbound by the rules of logic and grammar, and can take forever to give you a straight answer. Of course, they can well afford to buy a program like ChatGPT in aid of legislation (it’s free for three days, then P499/mo.). But then, why resort to chat bots when there’s already so much artificial intelligence going around in both august chambers?

Qwertyman No. 11: Good-Better-Best

Qwertyman for Monday, October 17, 2022

DOLANDS COULDN’T believe his good fortune; he had received his third SMS message that day offering him a bonus for playing pusoy online. Pusoy—also known as “good-better-best” to its players—was Dolands’ game of choice, allowing him to exercise what he believed was his sharply analytical mind. Dolands was one of those people who felt that life kept dealing him the wrong cards, obscuring his true potential, and he kept waiting for the opportunity to prove himself—to his Papang, to his friends, and to that snooty waitress Letty, who wouldn’t give him the time of day—that he was an achiever.

Today Dolands worked as a troll—a “social media specialist”—in an operation run by the famous Madame Venus, and while the pay was good, the job itself felt mechanical, involving nothing but the methodical execution of orders from the managers in the loft upstairs. Dolands wanted to turn “good” into “better” by becoming one of those necktied managers himself; but “best” was to be his own man, enriched by nothing but his talent, and the online gambling offers he kept receiving seemed to open that door. Sometimes Dolands suspected that his supervisors thought he was stupid, by the way they frowned at his haircut and at his fake Crocs shoes. 

Dolands was amazed that whoever texted him knew his full name and had used it in the message: “Rolando Quibuyen, now’s your chance! Here’s a P500 bonus for joining our 24-hour game of Cyber Pusoy at bahaybaraha.com. More prizes await you, including a 2023 Riva Riviera 2.0 in our grand raffle draw. Sali na!” Now, being a troll, Doland of course knew how it easy it was to get hold of mega-lists of people’s names, phone numbers, and email addresses; he knew that Madame Ventura even kept a special roster of influencers’ data for personalized messages, including death threats masked as hypothetical questions. But as lonely and lowly as he felt, Dolands wanted to believe that someone had actually taken the trouble of getting to know him and his penchant for pusoy, to craft a special message for him, and to throw him a lifeline across the water. Never mind that it was probably a bot, a faceless algorithm racing through a library of names and numbers; someone or something out there thought him worthwhile enough to bait; he existed.

He was itching to respond to the text and to click the link on his phone to start playing, but his shift wouldn’t be over for another four hours and any private use of his office computer was strictly prohibited. The managers upstairs not only had a birds’ eye view of the floor, but they could and did tap into any terminal to see what was going on. It was no different from the BPO outfit Dolands had been recruited from, except that that other job was more tedious because you had to talk people into buying this and that, which involved reason, whereas trolling played to the imagination, to what people believed and feared in their deepest of hearts. Everyone wanted to feel a sizzle of power, to say something outrageous without facing the consequences, and the trolls gave them the words for that. It was a lot more fun during the pre-election campaign when Dolands and his gang could attack a candidate’s daughters or the candidate herself with gleeful malice; today, defending the winner’s son or the winner himself when they did or said something incredibly stupid was boring and dulling. Doland looked forward to more challenging assignments where he could prove his mettle, and now he was about to get a taste of that.

“Quibuyen!” said his supervisor on the headphones. “Come up to the loft for a minute. Madame Ventura wants to talk to you.”

Dolands felt a lightning bolt shoot up his spine. He had never gone up to the loft before, nor had the madame ever spoken to him. He wondered what they needed him for, but today was truly his day to shine (although it was just past midnight, so his days were always dark). Things just got better.

Dolands fidgeted as Madame Ventura assessed him from behind her trademark dark glasses and wisp of smoke. He wished he had worn something other than the Nirvana T-shirt a US cousin had bequeathed him, to project a more professional vibe, but it was too late for that. They had to take him for what he was.

“They say you worked for the card verification and security service of a bank? You can spot fake numbers and accounts?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did, but—but I was just testing some software when—when they said, when they claimed, that I was misusing numbers—” Dolands began to sweat, amazed that they had found that sordid detail about his past that he had tried to bury and forget. 

“You mean you didn’t actually steal anything?” Madame Ventura sounded disappointed.

“No, ma’am—I mean, I just wanted to prove it could be done, so I did it.” He stole enough to buy a new car with, but he had to give it all back to escape prison, plus plugging all the digital holes he had punched into the system.

She blew another cloud of smoke into his face. “Can you still do it? Work with numbers and fake identities? Are you still that good?”

“Well—if you put it that way—”

“Let me tell you why, Mr., uh, Quibuyen. They just passed a new law requiring all SIM cards to be registered, to be attached to names of people with official IDs. We need SIMs—but we don’t want to bother real people to line up for us. So we need an official-ID generator to go with names, birthdates, addresses, maybe even pictures. Is this something you find interesting?”

“Uhm—yes—at least as proof of concept—”

“Forget concept. I want you to produce IDs for 100,000 SIM cards, just for starters. I know many people who will need this service. You do it and do it well, and I’ll make you a manager in charge of your own division. I think it’s about time we branched out from calling ugly people pretty, and vice-versa.”

Multicolored starbursts popped in Dolands’ mind—shiny shoes, flowery neckties, citrusy colognes. It was like he had been dealt 13 cards that broke down into a straight flush, a full house, and a high pair. I can’t believe I almost fell for those effing scammers, Dolands thought. This was good-better-best in real life.

Qwertyman No. 10: Monkey Poo

(Image from deviant art.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, October 10, 2022

THE WATER was still dripping from a leak in the ceiling of the office, caught in a pink plastic pail behind his swivel chair, when Gov. Tingting got the call from the Office of the President on the satellite phone. It was only a secretary on the line, but Tingting stood at attention as if he were speaking to the man himself, mumbling “Yessir, yessir” although it was a “ma’am” giving him instructions. 

He felt immensely relieved to have taken, at his aide Atty. Noknok’s pleading, the call which he had first presumed to be a prank, because he couldn’t imagine why President Ongong would be interested in him or his humble dominion. Well, of course there was that supertyphoon Digoy, which ravaged Suluk-sulukan among other provinces in Kawefo’s benighted southeast, but hundreds routinely died in Suluk-sulukan’s annual floods without getting more than a passing mention from the capital media, much less a call from the Palace.

Suluk-sulukan was a province best known for not being known. It occupied an island of the same name, and was reachable by a two-hour flight from Metro Kabugaw to the adjacent province of Lagunsoy, followed by a three-hour ride by pumpboat, and then another hour by bumpy tricycle from the pier to the capital town of Maunggoy. Its chief industry should have been tourism, given the abundance of its forests, nature trails, and beaches, but it came with one huge disincentive: the mountains of monkey poo that lined the roads and clogged the waterways, raising an infernal, ammoniac stink that the locals had gotten used to and barely noticed but which repelled tourists, invaders, and potential investors alike. The floods drained some of it out into the ocean but it was back as soon as the sun shone. 

Even the free face masks given out at the pier, imprinted with Gov. Tingting’s smiling face and the slogan “Beauty right under your nose” did little to encourage the intrepid to stay. Political dynasties had risen and fallen on the monkey-poo crisis, and Tingting—who had won on a promise to exterminate the monkeys—was surviving only because the bales of face masks they had airdropped on the island in the midst of the pandemic offered a temporary reprieve.

“So what did the President say, Gov?” Atty. Noknok asked, eager to absorb every snippet of political gossip, to affirm his status as “the little gov.”

“He asked me to come to the capital!” said Tingting, his eyes still glazed over with disbelief.

“Really? Will he hand you a check for disaster relief? I can take the picture, Gov! I’ll make sure it comes out in the papers.” Suluk-sulukan had exactly one paper, The Maunggoy Times, published by Tingting’s sister Mingming; there had been two, until the other paper’s editor was shot by a pair of motorcycle-riding gunmen whom witnesses could not identify because they looked too much like the governor’s bodyguards.

“What disaster relief are you talking about?” said the governor. “This is something much bigger! He’s inviting me to watch the Presidential Cup race with him, in the presidential box, at the Santa Mama racetrack! It’s the biggest race and social event of the year—remind me to get the missus one of those big, floppy, feathery hats. Imagine me, the governor of an obscure and godforsaken province, sitting beside the President!”

“What does he want—aside from, uh, the pleasure of your company?” Atty. Noknok didn’t get to where he was by being stupid. He was astute enough to know that every conversation in politics was a transaction. The President already had Suluk-sulukan’s 150,000 votes—there were more monkeys in the place than registered voters, and there was no shortage of simians willing to vote—so that wasn’t the issue. 

And then Noknok remembered: a delegation of businessmen and engineers from the great country of Wannamia had come to visit the President to talk about Suluk-sulukan’s deposits of mahalikite, reputedly the next big thing in semiconductors. Mahalikite was found in impacted monkey poo and was still a very rare mineral, but the Wannamese implied that they had found the technology to extract it from the raw stuff. Noknok had brought it up with his boss at one meeting, but Tingting was an old-school warlord whose interest in technology didn’t go far beyond guns and calibers, and so he dismissed the report as just so much chatter. 

“Nothing,” said the Gov. “He says he just wants me to have some fun, knowing how difficult it’s been for me and my family. We lost two houses and three SUVs to Digoy! Oh my God, I still shiver when I think about it. The pain of watching that Cayenne go under the bridge….”

“So you’re bringing your family?”

“Of course. I think it’s about time my boys inhaled the fine, industrial air of Metro Kabugaw, to prepare them for the challenges of urbanization.”

“Uhm, Gov—I hate to bring this up, but—won’t it look bad for you to be out there in the capital, betting on the horses, while thousands of Suluk-sukeños still don’t have enough food and are living in makeshift tents?”

“Are you my adviser or my enemy’s? That’s why I’m also taking you along—to provide PR cover and to find something good to say about my trip.”

“You are? Well—why didn’t you say so, haha, thanks! Of course, Gov, that’s elementary. We can always say that the real business in Kawefo takes place in the presidential box of the President’s Cup, and obviously, President Ongong has serious matters to discuss with you.”

“He does?” The gov sounded rather disappointed.

“Sure! I wouldn’t be surprised if he also invited the Wannamese to talk to us about large-scale exports of monkey poo for mahalikite extraction. I talked to you last month about it, but—you were too busy—”

“Of course I was! I’m always busy looking after the welfare of every Suluk-sukeño. So what were you telling me?”

“Well—we bring in the Wannamese, they take out our monkey poo, and for every metric ton, we impose a small tax, part of which will go to your, uhm, intelligence fund, which I’ll administer. It’s a win-win deal for all.”

“I like that—for the first time in our history, we can breathe poo-free air! They’ll build statues of me as the Great Liberator! What about the President? What’s in it for him?”

“He gets the bigger chunk, of course, for his intelligence fund. No worries—there’s a lot of poo to go around.”

A drop of rainwater fell on the gov’s brow, which he took to be a sign. “Forget extermination. I want you to think of a monkey-feeding program!”

Qwertyman No. 8: The Secret

(Photo from dreamstime.com)

Qwertyman for Monday, September 26, 2022

“LOLO, LOLO, was martial law really bad? We took it up in class today!”

“Bad? Said who?”

“Our teacher, Ms. Landicho. She said that awful things happened back then that people have forgotten about.”

“How old is this—Ms. Landicho?”

“Oh, maybe in her thirties? She’s just about to be married—to Mr. Arnaldo, our Physics teacher! We’d been teasing her about it for months!”

“In her thirties? Then how would she know what the heck happened under martial law? She wasn’t even born then.”

“Were you around then, Lolo?”

“Of course I was. I’m seventy-three now, so fifty years ago I was a young man. I had just left my first job because my boss was a tyrant! So I moved to another bank and that’s where I met your Lola Auring, whom I would marry two years later. If I hadn’t made that move, you wouldn’t be here!”

“Was that the bank you now own?”

“The bank we own, hijo! That’s why I want you to go to Wharton after college. I’ll be there for your graduation, and then I’ll give you the keys to that Mercedes G you’ve always wanted—”

“Really, Lolo? But that’s at least ten years away! Golly, a Mercedes G….”

“I remember, my first car was a used and beat-up Datsun Bluebird that your Lola Auring wouldn’t even step into until I got it fixed, because the door kept opening on her side, hahaha! I spent half-a-month’s salary just replacing that door. Oh, the things we went through….”

“Ms. Landicho said her lolo died under martial law….”

“So? So did a lot of people. People die all the time—of heart attacks, diabetes, even slipping in the bathroom can kill you, like my friend Pepito—”

“She said her lolo was arrested by the soldiers, and then they tortured him and dumped his body under the mango trees in Cavite.”

“Well—he must have done something to deserve that. You go against the government, what do you expect? There was a war with the communists going on. War is ugly, wherever you go. Was that was your teacher said about martial law being bad? Did she also say how many crimes and strikes were averted, how clean, peaceful, and orderly everything was, with people following the law?”

“She said her lolo did nothing wrong—”

“Of course she’d say that. Nobody’s lolo does anything wrong—right, hijo? Haha.”

“Yes, Lolo!”

“I did all the right things. I stayed out of trouble, focused on getting my life and my future together, on raising my family and raising my income. And then I went into business for myself, so nobody could boss me around. I showed everyone what I was capable of. I didn’t care about what everybody else was doing. You listen well, hijo. In this world, you take care of yourself first, and then your family next. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your family.”

“You’ve always taken good care of us, Lolo. Papa always tells me, if not for you, I’d be taking the bus or the jeep to a public school—”

“Like I had to, at your age! We were poor as rats and sometimes I went to school with nothing but gas in my stomach. I made sure your papa never went through that. That’s why I had to succeed.”

“Mama also says that if not for the President, you wouldn’t have succeeded. She says that you worked for people who worked for the President—”

“Is that what she said? I have to talk to your mother one of these days. There’s a lot that woman will never understand. There’s a lot that women will never understand. What you have to do to keep yourself and your family afloat. Instead of gratitude, you get questions, questions, questions—”

“What did you do for the President, Lolo? I want to know! Was it a big job, a secret mission, something nobody else could do?”

“Well, I guess you could say, all of the above! Remember, I was still a very young man. But I realized—and my bosses did, too—that I was very good with numbers. And secrets! They could trust me with their lives. But shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!”

“Like what kind of secrets, Lolo?”

“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”

“Awww, Lolo, I promise not to tell anyone! You can trust me—like they trusted you!”

“Well…. All right. Since it’s been a long time and since the President himself is gone, I suppose I can share a secret with you—but just one secret, okay? And this will remain a secret between the two of us—never tell your mama or papa.”

“Okay! Cross my heart and hope to die! What’s the secret, Lolo?”

“I… took… care… of… the… President’s… money. There was a lot of it. I had to collect it and send it safely abroad.”

“Why you? Did you carry it in a bag? Couldn’t the Air Force or the Navy do that?”

“Hahaha, it’s not that simple, hijo, a 747 wouldn’t have been enough to carry everything! He had to keep it abroad because—there were bad people here who were after it. So I was sent on secret missions to make sure everything was okay…. I went to Hong Kong, to the United States, to Switzerland. I loved Switzerland most of all—oh, to be in my thirties again and to watch the fountain at Lake Geneva at sunset. Le Jet d’Eau est tres beau!”

“So that’s where you learned French!”

Juste un peu, mon garçon! If she were still here, I would have loved to take your Lola Auring there again. You must go to Geneva—after Wharton!”

“Lolo—Ms. Landicho said—she said the President stole a lot of money—”

“Wha—I pay so much for that school and they tell you this? Your teacher keeps saying things she knows nothing about! I was there! I saw no stealing! And let me tell you something—even if I did, presuming I did, it was none of my business. Making money was his business, keeping it safe was mine. That’s called compartmentalization. Remember that word—compartmentalization! You put everything in its box, just worry about the things you should worry about, and you’ll be all right. Understood? Comprenez vous?”

“Yes, Lolo…. So I’ll put the lolo I know in one box, and then my secret lolo in another box….”

“They’re one and the same person.”

“That, Lolo, will be my secret.”

Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Hindsight No. 28: The Queen of Trolls

Hindsight for July 25, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

FROM THE street, the building still looked like the bank it had once been, with fluted columns crowned by precast acanthus leaves, but the paint and even the cement cladding had chipped off to reveal the pedestrian concrete underneath. It had been a branch of the old Fidelity Bank & Trust Co., which had gone under in the 1980s after its owner had fled to Southern Spain with P600 million in debts, and the building had served various lessees and uses—once, even, as a shoe emporium on its ground floor, with a restaurant in the mezzanine. But with the building of the LRT, the whole district was literally benighted, occupied by aging tenants with nowhere else to go, pitted with all kinds of booby traps for the unwary.

The former bank’s windows had all been shuttered or painted over, but a steady procession of young people still went in and out of the place through a side door at all hours of the day and night. The locals were made to understand that it had been converted to a call center, although a sign that said “Far Eastern Institute of Homeopathic Medicine” still hung beside the old entrance. Security guards—always two at a time—were posted at the side door, and they ran everyone’s ID through a screening device before letting them in.

The one exception to this routine was the woman they called Ma’am Ventura, a smallish, gray-haired lady in her late sixties who was always accompanied by her driver-bodyguard Bulag, so-called because he never took off his wraparound shades. Ma’am Ventura always wore a dark jacket, matching skirt, white blouse, and flat shoes, like a bank teller—which she had been, in this very same branch, which explained why she had chosen to lease it for her operation. 

She had had the mezzanine converted to an office with a window overlooking the cubicles below, and with a long table around which her floor managers assembled at 10 p.m. to assess the day’s metrics and discuss tomorrow’s messages. The dress code for the trolls below—the “social media specialists”—was strictly informal, the easier for them to vanish into the crowd, but for her managers, Ma’am Ventura insisted on ties, socks, skirts, and heels, so they could understand that they were professionals, as worthy of respect as any college instructor or law clerk. “Transforming society through democratic discourse” was the outfit’s pitch to its recruits.

But tonight, Ma’am Ventura was in a typically foul mood, reviewing some scripts that a new hire had prepared. “Puñeta! I’m not asking you to write an essay that will get a 1.0 from Professor Dadufalza! I want you to say, in 280 characters or less, and in words Bulag will understand, why historians lie! Can someone please show poor Ms.—uhm—Ms. Morales here how she needs to think if she wants to stay in this job?”

Ever eager to please, Nico raised his pencil from his seat on Ma’am Ventura’s right. “They’re people. Just like us. They make mistakes. We don’t even need to prove they’re wrong. We just need to show they could be.”

“Wasn’t the Code of Kalantiaw fake news? Someone just made it up,” came a voice from the far end. Nico winced, knowing it was coming. Angela never missed an opportunity to upstage him at these sessions, flaunting her UP degree—which she knew Ma’am Ventura had as well—like she was standing on a three-foot stool, spreading her arms wide. “Even historians can be fooled.” 

“How many Pinoys out there today even know about the Code of Kalantiaw?” said Bruce, Nico’s ally and Angela’s spurned suitor. “That might be good for TV or Kuya Obet’s column but it’s useless for us.”

“So what can we use? Ms. Morales, any ideas? Redeem yourself.” Ma’am Ventura lit up her first cigarette of the evening; smoking was forbidden on the shop floor but up here they would all reek of it by midnight. This was the part of the work Ma’am Ventura enjoyed the most. The business side of the meeting—impressions, reach, audience growth, engagement rate, etc.—just harvested stats for the client. The Q&A reminded her of the time, after the bank closed down, when she had to take on a teaching job at the college in her provincial hometown. She had begun by teaching Accounting, which she had studied for, but as often happened in these places, she was soon made to teach English and even History. 

At first she tried her best to keep a few chapters ahead of her students, reading the textbooks late at night and figuring out exercises to keep them busy and from asking questions she couldn’t answer. But then the load just became too heavy and she began resorting to what she told herself was just conjecture—that, for example, Josephine Bracken agreed to become Jose Rizal’s wife to escape a scandal in her family—and she soon found it so pleasurable that even her exams posed questions like “What if Japan had won the Second World War? What would you be eating and watching on TV today?” She graded them based on their inventiveness, which she took as another form of intelligence. They began with a set of known facts, and then embellished them, building speculation upon speculation. It was much more fun that just memorizing names and dates. History was a record of settled arguments—until you gave it a kick.

Ms. Morales struggled. “Well—ma’am—can we say that historians lie because—because they don’t really know what happened, so—so they may not even know they’re lying? I mean—they’re not bad people, just—”

“Historians lie because they get paid to lie—by the left-wing universities that buy their books, even by the priests who are always looking for somebody else to blame,” Nico interjected, holding his pencil like he was about to snap it. “We just have to show they’re no saints.”

Angela added, “Let’s dig up some dirt, surely there’s—”

Ma’am Ventura rapped the table. “So what’s the line, boys and girls, what are we going to feed the sharks?” Below them, the monitors from dozens of computer screens glowed like votive candles to a hungry god.

A little hand went up from Ms. Morales. Everyone stopped. A snicker escaped Bruce’s airways. Ms. Morales fidgeted with her Hello Kitty purse. “Kung—kung manghuhula binabayaran, historian pa kaya? I mean… they’re also fortune-tellers, right? Just looking backwards.” She zipped and unzipped her purse. No one spoke until Ma’am Ventura began clapping.

Hija, that’s brilliant! I want you all to write scripts around that punchline! Ms. Morales, I don’t know what you had for dinner, but I’m calling Grab to order it for everyone! Welcome aboard!” Ma’am Ventura blew a cloud of smoke so for a moment no one could see her face, but they could imagine her flashing that sweetest of smiles.

Hindsight No. 27: The Truthifier

Hindsight for July 18, 2022

IT HAD been a nightmare to create, but was—save for the occasional brownout—a dream to operate. The “Truthifier,” as the machine was called, occupied almost the entire fourth floor of the old Doña Salvacion Building on the northwest corner of Plaza Regina in the city’s warehouse district. Most other people would have insisted on a sleek, postmodern structure—or perhaps even an underground vault—somewhere in BGC, among the banks and condos that tried to outdo each other in smartness and attitude, but Arsenio would have none of that. He was a brilliant engineer who understood algorithms, quantum computing, event horizons, The Singularity, and all the other buzzwords that sci-fi junkies more than the scientists themselves loved to spout. But Arsenio was firmly old-school, with a prewar Pelikan 100 in his breast pocket and oxford brogues that he made sure were polished every day, even if he was headed nowhere else but the Factory.

The Factory was where he had built the Truthifier over seven years from the ground up, scrutinizing the assembly of every panel, bolt, nut, wheel, gear, vacuum tube, insulator, switch, dial, and the thousands of other parts that went into the machine, some of them turned out on a lathe by Arsenio himself, following his own blueprints. Arsenio was well aware that he could have programmed a computer the size of a pizza box to do his bidding, but Arsenio disdained software, which could be hacked. He believed in finely designed and intricately crafted machines that made noises like “ding!” and “zzzt!,” whose diodes glowed orange in intense concentration, then spat out text from a teletype printer at the far end.

The Truthifier had one basic purpose: to turn ugly statements, even lies, into something that sounded like the velvety truth, better than most people could. There were probably a few professors out there who could do the same thing, but like all people, professors could be distracted, they could forget, they could be bought, and they could refuse. They also lied. And they died. The Truthifier, being made of brass, wood, glass, ceramic, and copper wire, could do none of that. Arsenio had to acknowledge that he did recruit his old friend Dr. Lucas Tagbanua, retired Professor of Linguistics and Philology at the University of Wurzburg and most recently Chief Librarian at Dagupan City College, to assist him in setting up the tree of linguistic arguments which he would convert to mechanical and electronic pathways. They made history when, in their fifth year, Arsenio typed this carefully on the front-end keyboard: “I murdered my father.” After a few minutes of gears turning and bulbs flickering, Lucas received a message on the other end: “I sent my father to a better place.” It was all still very simple and unsophisticated, but the two men cheered and celebrated. And then, four months later, Dr. Tagbanua died after being hit by a truck delivering action-figure toys.

That, Arsenio sighed, was the problem with humans; they were organic. But he had gotten the fundamental logic down, and he pursued the project to the point that he now had a dial that offered Simple, Moderate, and Extreme options, where “I sent my father to a better place” (Simple) became “I relieved my father of the unbearable burden of life” (Moderate) and then “Against all my filial instincts, I decided to return my father—he of my own flesh and blood—to the source and the end of all human aspirations, to the trackless void of eternal peace and silence” (Extreme). 

“Does it bother you,” Dr. Tagbanua had asked just a week before he died, and after they had achieved success to the Moderate level, “that the Truthifier isn’t really saying the truth, but something that just sounds like it—maybe even a lie?”

“No,” Arsenio said impatiently, making miniscule adjustments on a master valve that regulated adjectives, comparatives, and superlatives. “What we’re doing is giving people a version of the truth that they will want to believe. What’s the use of the truth if you can’t believe it?”

There were many, he was certain, who would pay for Extreme, which would go a long way toward recovering his R&D costs and even make him a tidy profit. He had happily spent all the money he had won from the lottery on his project, so he was beholden to no one, but now that he had accomplished proof-of-concept, he looked forward to some payback, so he could indulge other fantasies like riding a Vespa around Rome with a footloose princess.

Sometimes, just for fun, he fed the machine outrageous fibs like “Jose Rizal was bisexual,” for which he received this Extreme result: “While Jose Rizal had many recorded relationships with women, his sexual preferences were likely as broad as his mind, and his natural curiosity would have encouraged him to explore novel possibilities with his cohort of male friends.”

As soon as word of the Truthifier got around, the clients came to the Factory, in a discreet but steady stream of cars and SUVs with dark-tinted windows whose occupants slipped into a service elevator large enough for a marching band, although they always came alone. A general wanted to explain why he had so many people executed without trial; a priest wanted to introduce his three children to one another; a woman wanted to tell her sister something about her husband. But mostly they were politicians looking for better ways to say the most mundane things, like “I will serve you” or “My opponent is a pedophile.” They paid just enough to keep the Truthifier running and re-oiled every three months.

One day a Rolls-Royce drove up to the Factory and out stepped a man in a gray three-piece suit and top hat, wielding a cane. He looked like a boy who had aged all of a sudden, his long hair hanging in graying strings. 

“How can I help you?” Arsenio asked, barely looking up from a console that monitored temperature levels within the machine. 

The man took off his hat and put it beside him on the couch. “My father was a crook. For a very long time. But I’d rather forget that. And while I’m at it, I’d rather that everyone forgot, as well. I hear your machine can help.”

“That’s—complicated,” Arsenio said, after figuring out how many propositions the statement involved. “It will cost you some.”

“You must be a very busy man, so I won’t waste your time,” said the customer, glancing at his rose-gold Nemo. “How much for the Truthifier?” With a finger, he drew a horizontal circle in the air. “The whole thing.”

Stunned speechless, Arsenio sized up his visitor, who had crossed his legs and draped his arm on the backrest, like he had all the time in the world. Despite his agitation, Arsenio began thinking of Audrey Hepburn hugging his waist, her perfume curling up his nose as their scooter drove past the Colosseum. 

(Image from videohive.net)

Hindsight No. 26: The Quick Brown Fox

Hindsight for July 11, 2022

EXAMINING THE machine in front of him, Monching could understand why it had ended up in his shop. There weren’t too many people like him left in the city—or the entire country, for that matter—and he had been told he was the best of them, which he brushed off with a shy smile but happily acknowledged. At 62, he was also the oldest Manileño he knew still fixing typewriters—well, there was Mang Torio who was in his late seventies, but he had stopped five years earlier when his daughter landed a job in Dubai as a cashier in a shoe store, and besides Mang Torio really couldn’t work on anything more complicated than a 1970s Olympia Traveller or Lettera 32 when he retired. 

The older man had an encyclopedic mind, and Monching could still remember running to him when he was having problems he couldn’t sort out himself, like a Corona platen that felt too long (“Washer—washer could be too thick,” Mang Torio would say. “Or you can try filing down the carriage end bushing.”) But you needed good eyes and steady fingers to stay on the job, and Mang Torio had lost his touch when his wife died and he began drinking. At first Monching shared a few bottles with him to commiserate with his mentor, but he stepped back when he saw the old man sinking into an emotional abyss, and soon he was taking over Mang Torio’s jobs just to save his face. 

Now he was hunched over what looked like a bucket of rust, but he knew that beneath all that pockmarked paint was one of the most beautiful typewriters ever made—a mid-1950s Underwood Quiet Tab De Luxe, a two-tone model with sexy curves, like a rich man’s car. As its name suggested, it was top of the line among Underwoods of its time, and in his mind Monching could see it gleaming with new paint and chrome, after the requisite stripdown and rebuild. It had been brought in by an interior designer who was thinking of using it as a prop—she had found it among her grandfather’s effects on a visit home to Mabitac—but Monching had cleverly persuaded her to take a portable Brother 200 repainted in yellow in trade for the hulk. 

He knew what they wanted, young people who looked for “delete” buttons and giggled when they heard the bell “ping!” and who couldn’t care less if the typeface was pica or elite; they bought them for décor, an accent piece suggesting a connection to a golden age they never knew. There were years when it seemed like no one needed typewriters anymore other than the sidewalk clerks who helped make fake IDs and official-looking papers, but now they were back in fashion, and Monching knew that the Underwood could fetch a premium price once he’d fixed it up.

As he tapped the keys to see if they would even budge, he saw something unusual on the TV that was constantly on in a corner of his shop. He didn’t really care what program was showing, and just needed the tinny chatter in the background to help him concentrate on his pawls, drawbands, and adjustment screws. But today all the channels were carrying the same thing, the live broadcast of the new president being sworn into office. 

Monching had voted for the man, like his church elders had told him to do. He had no opinion of him, one way or the other, except to note the familiarity of the name and the implication that he knew more about the job than anyone else. Mang Torio, the last time they met, was all upset and kept mouthing off about how, back when the man’s father was president, he had been clubbed and dragged to jail for joining a rally protesting police corruption and extortion, so he wanted to vote for another candidate, but couldn’t leave his house. 

Monching would have none of that nonsense. He wanted a simple and uncomplicated life, just doing what he knew best, bringing machines that had typed their last words half a century earlier back to working condition. Most had produced office reports, term papers, affidavits, inventories, and such; others wrote love letters, or cut mimeograph stencils for anti-government propaganda. Monching didn’t think much about their past. He was happiest when, done with a reassembly, he could put a drop of 3-in-1 oil (“Never WD-40, it will dry up and stick!” said Mang Torio) between the Shift and Shift Lock keys, check that they worked, feed a fresh sheet of paper into the platen, and peck out “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It was beauty and order restored.

He watched as a column of armored vehicles rolled across the TV screen in a show of military might, and he wondered how old they were and if they had been refurbished and repainted like his machines. He found himself wishing that people were as easy to fix; Rita wasn’t, and so he left, and had led a quiet life since, sleeping on top of his shop. He had tried to train some apprentices, but no one stuck, preferring to sell dishwashers or to drive ambulances. Only the skeletons of Corona 3s, Hermes Medias, and Remington Model 5s kept him company. He kept his shop floor tidy, picking up the tiniest screw.

Mang Torio’s life, on the other hand, was messy beyond belief. Three wives, children whose names he’d forgotten, a stint on a cruise ship that sank in the Adriatic, sudden wealth, gambling, prison (where he learned typewriter repair), walking the straight and narrow, and then descent into the bottle. Over gin, the man dithered between memory and regret, and now and then, a vain hope for something different.

On the TV, a crowd of protesters struck out at the new president, like jagged letters leaping from an unadjusted keyboard. When he was done with the Underwood, Monching promised, everything would be in line, all crisp and clear.

Penman No. 439: New Looms for Old

Penman for Sunday, June 5, 2022

WHEN WE first met Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores at the University of the Philippines Baguio five years ago, she was already the director of the new and fascinating Museo Kordilyera that had just opened to showcase the culture of the northern highlands. Ikin graciously took Beng and me on a tour of the exhibits, which UPB had painstakingly put together from its own collections and from the donations of such patrons as National Artist and Baguio resident Bencab. 

But going beyond what was on display, Ikin brought us to the museum’s laboratory—research is the other important part of its mandate—to show us their growing collection of rare Philippine textiles. Some of these were a century old, retrieved and repatriated from collections abroad by Ikin herself, or donated by collectors. This, she indicated, was going to be a vital aspect of the Museo Kordilyera’s mission—to gather and preserve the threads of the past for the appreciation of new generations of Filipinos. 

Indigenous textiles have a long history in the Philippines, having been woven long before the Spanish came—indeed, more than a millennium before the Christian era. They were used for clothing and also for ceremonial purposes such as the burial of the dead. They come in a wide range of materials, designs, and uses, from the abel and Bontoc of the north to the hablon and piña of the Visayas and the Yakan and tinalak weaves of the south, among many others. Using local fibers and dyes, native weavers employ hand looms to turn their traditional designs—animals, celestial objects, humans, deities, and geometric shapes—into not just functional clothing but works of art and visual bearers of their tribe’s or community’s culture.

But these traditional weavers and their products are under threat from many factors, and unless proper and timely intervention is undertaken, cultural advocates like the Oxford-trained Dr. Salvador-Amores worry that they could decline further if not vanish in this digital century. She points to four major reasons for this decline: the advanced age of master weavers and the lack of young people willing to take their place; the scarcity of materials for weaving such as cotton; new technology, cheaper mass-produced substitutes, even fake “ethnic” fabrics; and ready-to-wear clothes and ukay-ukay, reducing demand for traditional textiles.

Enter the Cordillera Textiles Project or CordiTex, which Ikin is also directing, aimed at finding and employing new technology to revive the ancient art of weaving and train and engage a new generation of weavers. The technology comes in the form of the Universal Testing Machine that analyzes the internal and external characteristics of Cordillera textiles so they can be technically described, and the digital loom, which—with the help of software—can recreate old designs and fabrics, especially those that weavers can no longer make, and assist those weavers in doing them on their traditional backstrap or foot looms.

Before the machines come into the picture, however, much research has to be done. CordiTex is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving anthropology, ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, ethnomathematics, physics, chemistry, ergonomics, economics, and geography. (I’ll bet some of us didn’t even realize these disciplines existed. And if we wonder why “ergonomics” is important in weaving, it’s because weavers often suffer from musculoskeletal problems of the neck, shoulders and lower back; strain from incorrect posture; and chronic lower back problems.)

Ikin’s team has conducted research not just in the Cordillera region, but also in weaving collections in the US, Germany, and Austria, where samples gathered a century ago by expeditions to the Philippines are kept. In the US, for example, much material and information can be found at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Newberry Library.

Mathematical symmetry analysis figures out the math behind traditional designs so they can be rendered into formulas, followed by 3-D modeling, to take the physical properties and the weaving structures of the fibers into account. 

Now enter the digital loom—the Thread Controller 2 or TC2—a machine designed, developed and made by Digital Weaving Norway (DWN) to turn design ideas into woven fabrics. Rolled out in 2012, the TC2 is a hand-operated electronic jacquard loom, capable of producing both traditional and contemporary weaves for industrial and artistic purposes. The University of the Philippines has acquired two of these machines—one for UP Baguio, and another for the College of Home Economics in UP Diliman. Six researchers from UP led by Ikin went to DWN to study the use of the machines, and workshops have since been conducted in Baguio and Diliman, assisted by a visiting expert from DWN, to introduce the TC2 and its technology to local weavers and researchers.

Dr. Salvador-Amores is emphatic that their work in CodiTex is not aimed at replacing hand looms. “While CordiTex can now replicate and reconstruct traditional extant textiles through digitization and digital loom weaving, we are doing this so that the younger generation can re-weave these in their traditional looms,” she said. “Hopefully this will empower local weavers, engender ethnic identity, and sustain Cordillera weaving.”

The next time you visit Baguio, take a side trip to the Museo Kordilyera to see what the fuss is all about. You might get lucky and catch Ikin—or if not, then her pioneering book Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society (UP Press, 2014), yet another fascinating topic altogether.

(Photos courtesy of Analyn Salvador-Amores)