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. 9: Only the Stupid

Hindsight for Monday, March 14, 2022

(Image from the diplomat.com)

MY BELATED foray into Facebook and the whole FB notion of “friends” led me to ask myself if—in these contentious times—it would be wise to apply a political filter to the many “friend requests” I receive every day, 90% of which come from total strangers.

My simple, old-fashioned liberalism said no. Keep it open. If I were confident in my beliefs, values, and principles, then I shouldn’t fear the presence of contrary ideas, which could be a springboard for a lively and high-minded discussion of alternative futures. 

Maybe I could even make fast friends from the other side, people who were equally concerned about our country’s situation and the need for capable leadership. Maybe we could even meet sometime for coffee or a few beers, engage in playful joshing about other’s politics, and end the day with a soulful rendition of “Kumbaya” around a bonfire. We could show the world the true meaning of unity, love, compassion, and all those nice words politicians can’t resist mouthing every five seconds.

It sounded good—at least in theory. Agree to disagree, turn the other cheek, and all that. Embrace the enemy, and the burrs, bumps, and other imperfections of democracy. Celebrate political diversity as a strength. Accept whatever happens in May as the sovereign will of the people, and yield gracefully to the new president’s wisdom. 

I wish I could say that that I took that high road—but I didn’t; I couldn’t. I did leave the door wide open on my first month on FB, during which I said yes to practically every request that came my way, and kept all my posts public. Soon enough, as my political preferences became obvious, I began to be cursed and trolled. Okay, par for the course—you express an opinion, you expect blowback. I tolerated it for a while, and then I asked myself—do I really want or need this, in my personal space? Were these silly comments enlightening me in any way, except to prove how much savagery you can draw from the tiniest scrap of brain? 

And so I learned the other side of Facebook that everyone else seemed to be adept at: delete, block, mute, unfriend. I began screening every “friend” request to reject dubious characters outright, including and especially those openly campaigning for candidates perpetually too busy to attend public debates. Now, I realize I’m being politically suicidal that way, by hunkering down in my hermit’s cave and refusing to participate in the time-critical mission of conversion. So please don’t do what I did, and be nice. 

But forget the trolls—that’s like talking to your toilet. So far, my toilet’s been telling me this: “Our guy will win. Look at the polls. It’s over. Only the stupid think otherwise.” I flush it all down, but it keeps floating back up. 

Seriously, going beyond paid-by-the-click trolls, I want to find an intelligent, articulate supporter of He Who Will Not Debate and ask just one question: “Why?” 

Do such people exist? They certainly do—I’ve personally known quite a few. Brilliant, eloquent, educated in the world’s best schools, well-traveled, at the top of their professions. They will claim to have been there, done that; some may even have been torchbearers and ideologues for the Left. Somewhere along the way, for reasons known only to them, they make a complete about-face, declare liberal causes dead, and cast their lot with the same people they once found repugnant. They become the gurus of the Right, the stylists of a fashionable authoritarianism they try to invest with narrative inevitability. 

Odd as it may seem, like Franco and his fascists, they will profess to be servants of God, and can be judged only by Him. They are not in it for the money, they will insist, although they live very comfortably. They affect a carapace of cynicism—they support He Who Will Not Debate, not out of love nor confidence in his admittedly mediocre talents, but because he will win, like it or not, so they are already thinking ahead to how he can be manipulated by his No. 2, their real horse. They are in it for the long game.

Sure, they’re smart, or seem to be. The only problem is, they’ve lost a fundamental sense of right and wrong. They’re beyond outrage. Proficient at turning fiction into “fact,” and inflated by their proximity to power, they mistake cleverness for conviction, and survival for salvation. In the end, they believe in nothing but themselves; they are their own echo chambers. “I don’t care what people think about what I think,” one such pundit told me, and it told me enough. 

So if and when I ask these people “Why him?”, I don’t expect a gush of praises for the fellow’s virtues, but rather a PowerPoint lecture on why he will win, regardless of everything. “Only the stupid,” they will remind me, “look at elections in terms of good and evil.” 

Even academics can over-analyze things and ignore or forget the basic question: Is it the right and the good thing to do? “Realpolitik”—a pet word of cynics—is no excuse for resignation and acceptance. 

All the scholarly explanations for Vladimir Putin’s Russo-centric world view can’t justify Russian aggression. Putin may have a right to feel threatened by a pro-NATO Ukraine, but he still doesn’t have a right to invade it and shell it to pieces. And we need to say so. As so often happens, to pose as “neutral” in this case (ostensibly because we have no dog in this fight) is to support the oppressor. We do have a dog, and it isn’t so much Ukraine itself but justice. 

So when I choose my Facebook friends, I choose people who still believe passionately in truth, freedom, and such things as the strategists of the Dark Side find foolish and irrelevant. I choose people who will restore and reinforce my faith in humanity, and who will remind me that we, too, are in this for the long fight, way beyond May 9.

“Only the stupid” may refuse to surrender in the face of looming annihilation, but I’ll take the Zelenskys of the world anytime over its Putins. 

Hindsight No. 7: Disinformation and Democracy

Hindsight for Monday, February 28, 2022

(Image from designtaxi.com)

LAST FRIDAY—the 36th anniversary of EDSA 1—I spoke to a group of university students who wanted to know what I thought of Filipino democracy. 

I told them that at EDSA, along with millions of other Filipinos, I jumped for joy at the news that Ferdinand Marcos had fled with his family. We did not know—and might not have cared too much then—that they had brought two planeloads of gold and cash with them to Hawaii. All we wanted to hear was that they were gone, presumably for good, and that we were off to a fresh start at peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity. The darkness of the past twenty years would lift, and a new Philippines would emerge, truly democratic and firmly opposed to any form of despotism.

Today we realize what a fantasy that was, what a temporary reprieve. Under Rodrigo Duterte, if the polls are right, most of our people have once again embraced authoritarian rule, implicitly accepting its attendant excesses. The dictator’s son is back, and may even become our next President—to the delight of his supporters for whom martial law never happened; or if it did, then it was a golden age to which we will soon be returning, an age of new roads and bridges, clean streets, industrial peace, Miss Universe pageants, and eternal sunshine. 

Indeed it would be as if the past half-century between 1972 and 2022 were a confused and hazy dream, and now we were waking up where we had left off yesterday, when Ferdinand E. Marcos was poised to “save the Republic and build a New Society.” His son is making sure that we don’t miss the connection by heralding his entrance at his campaign rallies with the anthem of martial law, “May Bagong Silang.” Most of his followers today have never heard that song, or understand its chilling context, or the price we paid—in blood and in billion-dollar loans—for that “new dawn.” To them, it is a catchy jingle, in marching tempo. It comes with the smell of money and power in the air, the promise of a shower of gold for the hopeful masses. 

This, of course, is also a fantasy, but a powerful one—and I think I will be correct to surmise that many of the students I addressed, and even their teachers, fully believe it. And why not? They were never taught in school about the horrors of martial law. Instead, they were told that those were good times, that the Marcoses were good leaders who were deposed by their enemies and the CIA, that rich people don’t steal, and that the Marcos billions came from the gods, Yamashita, and anywhere but the Philippine treasury. That diet of lies has now become a catered banquet. 

The biggest enemy of democracy today—more than at any other time in our or even the world’s history—is disinformation: the willful distortion or fabrication of information to create false beliefs or impressions in the minds of people, turning bad to good, wrong to right, and vice versa. 

This is happening not only here in the Philippines, but in many other places around the world—including America, where Donald Trump has been pushing the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, despite the lack of any credible evidence. Even earlier, in what has by now become a cliché, Josef Goebbels thundered that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. 

During and after WWII, military experts engaged in what was called “psywar” or psychological warfare to weaken the enemy’s mental defenses, lower morale, and make people switch sides. This was done through radio, leaflets, newspapers, and other media available at the time.

Today the prevalence of the Internet and social media has magnified the means for disinformation by a magnitude of millions. And this is scary, because according to a recent survey, every other Pinoy can’t tell real news from fake. How can a society so prone to disinformation—to fake news—function well as a democracy?

Last month, the Akademyang Filipino (on whose Board of Trustees I serve) sponsored a forum on the topic of “Can Democracy Win in May 2022?” Most such questions are meant to be rhetorical, with obvious answers. But this time, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by its actual complexity. The problem, I realized, is that we no longer have a clear and common idea of what “democracy” means.

There are as many definitions of democracy as there are politicians eager to appropriate it. “Democracy” has to have been one of the most ambiguous and most abused words of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When a brutal totalitarian state like North Korea styles itself as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” you know something somewhere has gone awfully wrong. Dictators will call their actions democratic—as Ferdinand Marcos and Muammar Ghaddafi did—by asserting that they are acting on behalf of the people, a responsibility that presumably entitles them to extraordinary powers and compensations.

In my layman’s understanding, democracy is the rule and exercise of power by the people through representatives they choose by a free and fair election. It seems simple, but immediately we can see how vulnerable this definition of democracy is to interpretation and manipulation. What is a “free and fair” election? Does it simply mean an election free of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud?

If a candidate wins more than 51% of the vote without obvious coercion or cheating, then will that candidate have won a democratic election? But what if those voters had been fed provably false information? What if they willingly believed that information to be true, and voted on the basis of it? Would this still be democracy at work? 

Arguably, yes, because democracy never promised only intelligent outcomes. Elections are emotional, not rational, exercises. This disturbs me deeply, but again I have to ask myself, am I idealizing democracy as something that can be perfected? Or should I just accept that democracy, like society itself, is inherently messy, mercurial, and manipulable? 

What kind of democracy do we Filipinos have, and what kind of democracy do we want? The vote this May will help provide the answer. 

Penman No. 435: A Dying Swan at Midnight

Penman for Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU’VE BEEN reading about some of my book-buying adventures and the most unlikely places I’ve found some of my most valuable books—like a 1551 book of English essays under a lamppost in Cubao, a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart at Jollibee on Commonwealth Avenue, and an 1868 two-volume facsimile of Don Quixote at a McDonald’s on that same road.

Now here’s an incredible story that happened to me one night a couple of weeks ago—very late that night, just as I was about to go to bed. Beng had just finished another episode of another interminable K-drama, and I was too sleepy to switch to my own program (typically some violent crime show, which gives me a good night’s sleep). And then as I always do, I checked my messages on my laptop before moving from the La-Z-Boy to the bed, and I saw something that instantly woke me up again.

Let’s backtrack a few days earlier to another idle moment when I was poking around the usual FB sites for garage-sale and Japan-surplus flotsam and jetsam—the “antique” Coke trays (probably China-made), the Ambassador furniture sets, the bobblehead figurines, the wooden fruit bowls, etc. And then I came across a rack of paintings being sold for just P1,000 each—most of them quite awful and not even worth the price, even to a bottom-feeder like me.

But then I spotted a painting that had rather intriguing lines and colors, one that was clearly different in theme and treatment from the nipa huts and carabaos that populated the other canvases. 

In the foreground was a young woman in a white dress—a dancer immediately came to my mind—set against what first seemed to me a backdrop of the sea, a huge curling wave threatening to envelop her. But there was another element, aside from the strange shape of the “water”, that didn’t make sense: an orange something near the woman’s face.

And then it all snapped into place: the background figure was a swan with one wing outstretched and the other practically smothering the woman, and the orange thing was its beak. What sprang to my mind was Leda and the Swan, the old Greek myth that has been one of art and literature’s most reinterpreted and most referenced stories (where Zeus, in the guise of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda, and has two children by her). 

This could not have been done by a naif painter; it took some education and sophistication to take on a subject like that, and to represent it with both grace and power. This painting could not have been a recent work; its strokes and colors belonged to another age. It felt old, in a good way. I thought that it had to be decades old, possibly even pre-war.

I immediately messaged the seller to reserve the painting for me. For P1,000, it was a no-brainer. Usually the seller would respond within minutes, and we would do the GCash and Lalamove song-and-dance within the hour. But the day passed with no response. I messaged him again that night, and next morning I still heard nothing back. Another day passed; I had saved the picture of the painting on my phone and returned to it now and then, stewing inside, increasingly annoyed by the seller’s silence.

And then I got the message: did I want it? Of course, I messaged back quickly. It will cost you P1,000, he said. Sure, I said, give me your GCash number. I hope you can book it for pickup now, he said, because I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning—unless you want to get it in the afternoon. No, no, I said—I’ll book it right now. It was 11:30 pm, and Beng was sound asleep. 

And so it happened that just past midnight, a Lalamove rider roared up to my gate to deliver the painting, which I examined immediately. It had been very badly framed, with ragged edges of the painted canvas hanging over the back. Since the edges had been pulled over, I could find no signature. Still it was every bit as powerful as I had thought it to be, the colors laid on in a thick impasto. 

So the mystery was, who painted it, and when? I posted it on FB the next morning, and immediately the writers and artists in my group identified it with Leda and the Swan. I felt vindicated. And then my Toronto-based friend, the poet Patty Rivera (whose husband Joe also paints), posted a link to a story from South Africa, where a painting by a Russian-born artist named Vladimir Tretchikoff was up for auction. It was titled “The Dying Swan,” from the ballet by Mikhail Fokine; Tretchikoff had even persuaded the great ballerina Alicia Markova to pose for him in 1949, when he began the work (one of two he gave that title).

So my midnight acquisition was a copy done by a local painter in the 1950s, possibly by an amateur or even a student. Was I disappointed? How could I be, especially for the price I paid? Tretchikoff’s original was clearly much finer and more radiant; but my rougher copy, in Patty’s words, showed more “torment and despair.” When Beng restores this and we have it reframed, it will have its own life and energy, and the swan will die, over and over again, which means it never will.

Hindsight No. 2: Myth over Matter

Hindsight for Monday, January 24, 2022

(Image from indiatimes.com)

THERE’S HARDLY a week that goes by without me receiving a Viber notice from a friend warning me about another incoming message containing some innocuous line like “Let’s go to Latvia” or “Your mother will love this,” clicking which will trigger a dizzying spiral into digital damnation: your phone will freeze, all your passwords will be stolen, your half-naked selfies will be posted to your Village Association chat group, and whatever gender you declared will be reversed in all your official records. 

It’s all well-meant, of course; some friends will even add “Sharing, just in case”—meaning, they also suspect it’s fake, but meaning further, they’ll pass final judgment on to you, a privilege you should be thankful for—on the one-percent chance that it’s true.

I’ve taken it as my civic duty to look up the particular hoax online (easy: just add “hoax” or “scam” to whatever the key words are, and Google away) and to inform the senders of their mistake. Many will reply with a terse “Thank you.” Some will protest: “It wasn’t me—it was my silly sister-in-law who swore it was true, so I passed it on!” A few (some of these senders have PhDs) will even argue back: “Now, how sure are you that snopes.com is a real fact-checker? Who’s funding them? What’s their angle?” (Makes you wonder: if they were going to be that investigative, why didn’t they ask it about the hoaxer in the first place?)

Living in the age of fake news (or “alternative truths” as Donald Trump’s aide so nicely put it), we can’t be surprised any longer by the seemingly infinite pliability of the truth, which can be warped and twisted to the point of being barely recognizable. But as it turns out, that “barely recognizable” element is key. 

An article in WIRED from 2019 on “Why People Keep Falling for Viral Hoaxes” points this out: “The narrative that Big Bad Instagram is going to take all of your most intimate personal data points and use them for nefarious secret purposes is the sort of story that is primed to appeal to the average person… because it contains a kernel of truth: You have all this data out there on the internet, and God knows who has access to it.”

We sort of knew that already—the best lies have a little truth in them, encouraging our gullibility. When Ferdinand Marcos claimed to be a war hero with 33 medals to his name—only two of which were actually given in 1945, and both contested by his superiors—all the fellow basically had to show for proof was his picture in a uniform, surrounded by pretty hardware that you can buy today on eBay, and that was enough to make many believe that he had to be a hero.

What’s more breath-taking—and possibly more dangerous—are the outright fabrications, the brazen claims to this and that outrageous deed or achievement. You’d think that they’re too absurd to be swallowed by even the most credulous, but think again.

The story of the Tallano gold, now being trotted out on social media as the source of the Marcos fortune, is a case in point. The story that went around on Facebook is that the Tallano family—the descendants of the rulers of a pre-Hispanic, pan-Pacific kingdom called Maharlika—had paid the young lawyer Marcos 192,000 tons of gold. With one kilo of gold today at around P3 million, I don’t have enough zeroes on this line to tell you what that’s worth. And for what lawyerly labor, one wonders—a gazillion affidavits and deeds of sale? 

Never mind that Imee Marcos herself has denied this story, and even the “Yamashita gold” that her mother claimed in 1992 to have found its way to Ferdie. The late Bob Couttie had been exposing the Tallano claims as a fraud even in 2018. But the story has legs. You just have to go online to find testimonials like this from a “BQ”: “It’s true but they’re burying the truth. I myself held those documents—three reams of A4-sized paper, including the mother title of all the land here in the Philippines, which came from Great Britain!”

Never mind, too, that it’s clearly a minority of believers. It’s how and why they believe kooky fantasies like this that’s more intriguing. The WIRED article again points to a reason: that, for many people, mythmaking provides a coherent narrative, a story easier and more convenient to believe than the truth, which is often too messy and complicated to figure out.

In my fiction writing class, I often bring up my favorite quote from Mark Twain, paraphrased: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Like myth, traditional fiction has a familiar beginning, middle, and end—and even a “lesson” to clarify the haze in which we stagger through daily life.

As I said in a lecture sometime ago, “The most daring kind of fiction today is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference.”

Today’s savviest political operators know this: spin a tale, make it sound appealing, trust ignorance over knowledge, and make them feel part of the story. “Babangon muli?” Well, who the heck who dropped us into this pit? It doesn’t matter. Burnish the past as some lost Eden, when streets were clean, people were disciplined, and hair was cut short—or else. Never mind the cost—“P175 billion recovered in ill-gotten wealth” is incomprehensible; “a mountain of gold to solve your problems” sparkles like magic.

Imagination is more powerful than reason—myth over matter. I hope the forces of the good and right can work with that.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

My Lifestyle column in the Philippine STAR, “Penman,” has now been moved to every other Sunday, to avoid the awkwardness (and extravagance) of having two of my columns appear in the paper on Mondays. My takeover of F. Sionil Jose’s “Hindsight” on the Op-Ed page debuts tomorrow.

I WAS sixteen years late to the party, but I finally gave in and opened a Facebook account last June under my name, initially just for family. A few weeks ago I began accepting “friends,” of which I now have about 600, and I don’t intend to add too many more, although time and tolerance could change that reticence as well.

I resisted joining Facebook all those years for all the reasons some of my real-life friends remain staunch holdouts. Foremostly, it seemed to diminish and commodify the idea of friendship, replacing what should have been forged over conversation, coffee, and even conflict with a few keystrokes. Even now, looking at the roster of my newfound “friends,” I know—and do not really regret—that less than half of them are people I have actually broken bread or raised a toast with.

Honest to God, not being a politician, I don’t need 5,000 friends; I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1,000 of them. If they all pledged to buy my next book, then maybe I’d reconsider and lower the bar by a foot or two, in the cause of promoting literacy and my Fountain Pen Rescue Fund.

And then of course Facebook is a total timesuck, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the void that gets created by engaging in an activity that seems like it will be short but ends up taking up huge amounts of time.” It’s just not human not to read and then not to respond to comments on your posts, and then not to read the posts of others and not to react to them.

Every “tag” might as well be a distress call; somewhere out there you’re being praised or reviled, and you just have to pause that report you’re drafting for the Board of Regents or that article you’re refereeing for the Journal of Linguistics to see what Cookie has been saying about that encounter in Boracay or Chef Dodo’s opinion of your dinuguan recipe.

As it is, even deciding who gets to be your Facebook “friend” or not raises all kinds of vexing and time-consuming moral dilemmas. I don’t know how others do it, but I review nearly every request I receive, going through that person’s profile—and not just our common “friends”—to see who and what’s behind the name. My rule of thumb is, if I really know you—and like you—then you’re in; if I know you by reputation, I might even feel honored, and click “confirm.” If I’ve never met or heard about you at all—which isn’t your fault or any fault for that matter—then I evaluate your application for virtual “friendship” using my shamelessly subjective criteria.

First, I check to see if you’re a real person, or that you are who you say you are. Early on in this “friendship” game, I received a slew of requests from impossibly pretty and shapely ladies, which made me wonder why I had waited sixteen years to enter paradise. (They all seemed to have one or two common “friends” with me, always the same persons, so I know who’s been extraordinarily amiable out there.) Out of curiosity (I swear!), I accepted one such request, and almost instantly got a private message that invited me to become her digital pen pal, because she was lonely and unoccupied in some far-off country. I wanted to tell her to buy my book of funny essays, or even my short stories, to relieve her boredom, but I had an inkling that creative nonfiction wasn’t going to be the bridge between us.

I checked out her posts—all of them suggestive of her good health and weight maintenance, and of her preference for clothes that did not consume too much fabric (kudos for sustainability)—only to notice that they had all been posted on the same day! My wonderment quickly turned to dismay, realizing that I, among other papas of the world, was being suckered into hell by this honeypot, who was very likely some ugly fellow like me named George or Brando. And so I sadly punched “delete,” as I did for the many others who would follow in Ms. Lonely’s wake.

Second, I check to see if you’re interesting and if we’ll get along. If all you can show me are endless updates of your profile picture—here’s me on the beach, here’s me with my dog, here’s me with a balloon, here’s me lifting weights—then we really don’t need each other, thank you. I have a soft spot for all kinds of artists, and I don’t necessarily just go for the famous or abundantly talented ones; I’ve signed in struggling young people because I admire honest effort.

If you’re a benign plantita proud of your grandkids, your succulents, and your muffins, you’re in—the world needs you! If you became my friend just to sell me something, you’re out (unless you buy my book first). Now here’s a killer: if I see even the slightest sign of you supporting dictatorship, book-banning, EJK, and fake news, you’re out. (I know we’re supposed to make friends across the political divide, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya,” but I didn’t join Facebook to get my daily dose of aggravation.)

Penman No. 394: Zoom-time

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2020

 

IF THERE’S anything that this Covid pandemic will leave in its wake—aside from a long, deep trail of sorrow and suffering—it will be Zoom, the app that’s become the boon and bane of billions of people worldwide. All at once, it’s become the default alternative to air travel, the telephone, even email and Skype, because it means you can talk to a roomful (or more) of people wherever they may be on the planet in real time, see if they’re listening to you (maybe), make everyone shut up if you’re the host, and pretend to be there if you’re not.

A few months ago, as it just began to be clear that the world as we knew it was never going to be the same again, the word “Zoom” (both noun and verb) entered our vocabulary. Upon learning that it was a “Chinese” invention, many friends loudly declared that they were not going to use the app, because all conversations were going to be routed through servers on the mainland, and who knew what those Red imperialists were going to do with your chit-chat about your 50th high-school reunion and your mom’s recipe for buko pie? Had they stood their ground since, those friends would now probably be, well, friendless, because the rest of humanity has apparently gone on to embrace Zoom, or be embraced by it. (My take on the security issue—Zoom has said that it won’t be routing traffic through China—is that if it’s good enough for our cyber folks at UP, then it’s good enough for me; and frankly I don’t think my dog-face or my desultory comments on Zoom will be of much strategic interest to Beijing.)

And there I was looking at the bright side of the lockdown—finally, I said, I was going to have the time, the peace, and the quiet to finish all my book projects, which had been backed up for years. I was pecking happily away at them, too—until all these Zoom meetings popped up, demanding my attendance and attention: seminars or “webinars,” committee meetings, high-school get-togethers, shibashi sessions, and soon, online classes.

It takes a while, but you soon get the hang of Zoom: inputting the meeting numbers and passwords (and some people, of course, just can’t resist making “statement” or cutesy passwords like “Venceremos1234” and “HelloKittyXYZ”), testing your mike and lighting, and, more important than all the digital to-dos, choosing what to wear (at least above the waist) and what to put in the background.

There are now all kinds of “Zoom etiquette” manuals online—and I predict these guides to “a better Zoom experience” will soon be a sub-industry unto itself—and nearly all of them will say things like “Don’t wear your pajamas or tank tops” or “Don’t wear a suit and boxer shorts.” We understand the need for sartorial prudence, but in these days of work-from-home, it’s easy to get overdressed. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in months, I felt obliged to put on a blazer and even wear long pants under the table because I was going to interview a bigshot CEO in New York for a book—only to find that he was totally comfy in a tennis shirt (which of course CEOs can wear anytime).

Your choice of background can be just as compelling—especially since you have a stack of vacation photos, all just waiting for a pandemic to be inflicted on your friends. The Boracay sunset? The Eiffel Tower (nah, you need to go horizontal)? The Grant Park skating rink? Academic types like me love to default to the racks of books in the background—which I now have to review to make sure no stray copies of Sweet Valley High or 50 Shades of Gray appear on the shelves.

And what about eating, drinking, family pets, and three-year-old toddlers to liven up the show? You’ll get an earful from the guides—who, I suspect, have never really done Zoom live, every day, for interminable hours. My way of dealing with the time has been to use two computers—one dedicated to Zoom, and the other to real work, so if you catch me looking sideways or turning off my video, you know I’m working on my Nobel Prize.

Most of us didn’t even know that there was a “Zoom attendee attention tracking feature” that should’ve told you if your student was dutifully listening or taking down notes, but that feature, Zoom now says, was removed last April as part of its security and privacy update. (You can, however, report a participant for “inappropriate behavior” to Zoom—which hopefully will dispatch a SWAT team to the offending party and switch him/her off forever.)

No one’s more anxious about Zoom than my sweet wife Beng, who was all set to teach art conservation in UP, the historic first time it’s going to be taught there. All her plans were set—the hands-on assessments of artworks, the field trips to the museums, the on-the-spot discussions and practical exams. And then Covid happened, and it all now has to go online, and all theoretical, at least for the first semester. It’ll be like teaching brain surgery by looking at pictures, but with everything she knows, I know Beng will manage, and so will her lucky students, until she can actually bring them to the Manansala murals at the UP Chapel and show them how to address its pitiful crumbling. (If you want to enroll in her class, it’s SFA 192AC, Art Conservation Techniques, TTh, 8:30-10.)

Even if and when they find a vaccine for Covid, I doubt that they’ll find a cure for Zoom. Let’s just pray no prankster finds a way of spreading a virus through it.

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

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I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 245: The Devil Is in the Data

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Penman for Monday, April 3, 2017

 

 

WE’RE OFTEN told that the devil is in the details, but today, you’ll likely find it in the data—that amorphous, often opaque stream of 1’s and 0’s whose infinite permutations define, describe, and direct our daily lives from our social-security pensions to our children’s grades.

Forty years ago, all you might have needed was an ID card, a driver’s license, and a passbook for bank deposits and withdrawals. You didn’t have a mess of numbers and certainly no passwords to memorize (and to lose). A signature was something you scribbled on paper with a pen, and an ID picture—invariably ugly and smelling of the sourish chemical bath it came out of—was a black-and-white mug shot the size of a postage stamp.

Speaking of which, if someone wanted to steal your “data,” they first had to steal an envelope with your name and address on it, and (if they wanted to keep the theft a secret) open the envelope gently with a cloud of steam. Postmen had to be waylaid, dogs euthanized, windows broken into, brass locks opened, and filing cabinets pried loose. Then, and only then, could the robbers get their gloved hands on your stock certificates, your paramour’s love letters, your UPCAT score, and your secret recipe for Lola Oryang’s Sinigang.

These thoughts crossed my mind last week as I sat in a committee meeting that pondered the impositions and implications of the Freedom of Information Act on government bureaucracies like our university’s. As old-guard civil libertarians, we all marched at one time or another for freedom and democracy, and have prized freedom of expression above all others, so it was probably safe to assume that we were all in support of freedom of information—the notion that citizens have the right of access to information from their governments, toward greater transparency and accountability, which presumably leads to better governance. (I’m not a lawyer, so this is my pedestrian’s appreciation of it.)

So the citizen asks a question, and the government provides the answer, right? Not so fast.  Like many good things, FOI isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially when you get down to the nitty-gritty of its implementation. This could have been why, despite calling for an FOI law for many years, Filipinos didn’t get one even under Noynoy Aquino, who promised it when he ran for president in 2009. It took President Duterte—in what I’ll hazard to be his most popular move among his opponents—to enact an FOI measure through Executive Order No. 2 shortly after he took office last year, since Congress, the keeper of many secrets, couldn’t pass an FOI bill.

The order mandated that “Every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development,” with information referring to “records, documents, papers, reports, letters, contracts, minutes and transcripts of official meetings, maps, books, photographs, data, research materials, films, sound and video recording, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data, computer stored data, any other like or similar data or materials recorded, stored or archived in whatever format, whether offline or online, which are made, received, or kept in or under the control and custody of any government office pursuant to law, executive order, and rules and regulations or in connection with the performance or transaction of official business by any government office.”

FOI is supposed to work hand in glove with another initiative called Open Data, meant to be a repository of all the data requested from and proactively disclosed by the government, working through an eFOI platform where requests can be posted and processed.

That all sounds good if you’re going after an important or interesting document like a politician’s financial records, but again it’s not that simple. EO2 is accompanied by a list of nine major classes of exemptions, including sensitive personal information, trade secrets, and certain proceedings and investigations. (For all these documents, visit www.foi.gov.ph.)

In other words, and contrary to what some people might have naively expected, FOI is by no means an absolute right, bounded as it is by considerations such as those delineated by the Data Privacy Act of 2012. The DPA was designed to bring the Philippines and its booming BPO industry, which handles loads of personal data, in line with international privacy standards.

Between freedom of information and data privacy is a wide gray swath that’s still being demarcated by lawyers, ethicists, and the administrators who have to implement whatever the final rules are going to be.

In the university, we routinely receive scores of requests from, say, alumni looking for their old classmates and asking for their current addresses; unfortunately, even if we had them (which we often don’t), we can’t and won’t give them out. We can give you your transcript of records, but not someone else’s. These are the easier questions to deal with.

But what do you do when someone asks for the results of a publicly funded research project that could have commercial applications? How do you respond to a patently frivolous request for information (which, if properly framed and presented, the law still requires you to answer in some form within 15 days), like “How many blades of grass are there in UP Diliman?”

It’ll take a while to sort these issues out, which lie on the periphery of a larger and thornier ideological debate. We authors may believe our copyright to be sacrosanct, but there’s a whole “freedom of knowledge” school of thought out there (and even within academia) opposed to the idea of intellectual property and copyright, supported by groups that also advocate electronic civil disobedience.

“Is ‘We don’t know’ a valid answer to an FOI request?” I had to ask the people at our meeting, but I couldn’t get a categorical yes or no. Strangely enough, I found that ambiguity comforting, because it assured me that we still had a lot of thinking to do. Data is one thing, information another, and wisdom beyond legislation to establish.

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(Image from techcrunch.com)