Qwertyman No. 5: A Rhetorical Question

Qwertyman for September 5, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

TEACHER LENLEN’S chest swelled with pride when she opened the door to her 8th grade classroom in Gen. Pupu Noknok Elementary School in the town of Bugbugan, province of Kalamias, in the People’s Democratic Republic of Kawefo. Freshly painted in the fluorescent green that seemed to be in favor since President Ongong’s election, the cavernous classroom held exactly 100 chairs, and was reputed to be the largest elementary-school classroom in the archipelago. It was so huge that Teacher Lenlen had to use a microphone hooked up to two loudspeakers in the back of the room to reach the farthest students, from Wutwut to Zygzyg. 

“Good morning, class!” she shouted on the first day of school, oblivious to the idea that she didn’t need to scream because she already held a microphone. “My name is Mrs. Lenlen Fayfay, but you can call me Teacher Lenlen, and I will be your homeroom teacher. Now, what is a homeroom teacher? According to Wikipedia, a homeroom teacher ‘is responsible for almost everything concerning a homeroom period and classroom. At the start of the school year, it is the homeroom teacher’s responsibility to make sure that each student gets relevant textbooks and materials, which are supplied by the government. The teacher is also responsible for the attendance.’ Is that understood? Did I make myself clear? If yes, then answer ‘Yes, Teacher Lenlen!’ If you did not understand what I just said, raise your hand and approach the microphone when I recognize you. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Teacher Lenlen!” The answer, magnified by the three standing microphones set up at key points along the central divide between left and right, reached Teacher Lenlen like a towering tsunami, forcing her to cover her ears.

“You don’t have to shout!” she shouted back. “Just speak in your natural voice! Okay, class?”

“Okay, Teacher Lenlen!” Another wave rolled over her, drowning her shriek of protest.

“Teacher Lenlen! Teacher Lenlen!” A boy’s hand shot up from the middle of the room.

“Yes? Who are you and what is it?” Secretly, Lenlen felt relieved to be dealing with just one student, whose solitary voice she could easily overpower. “To the microphone!”

The boy scurried to the nearest mike, giving high fives along the way to his giggling classmates. “My name is Marmar Pwepwe, and I have a question.”

Teacher Lenlen raised her hand to stop him before he could speak, seizing upon the moment as a teaching opportunity. “Before you answer me, let me make this clear, this being our first day of class. Because there are one hundred of you, we have to make sure that every question you ask is important, all right? Wait, wait, wait! Don’t answer me! If you want to say ‘Yes, Teacher Lenlen!’, just nod your head—quietly, like this.” She nodded her head, keeping her lips sealed. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Teacher Lenlen!” came the bone-jarring reply.

“Eeeek, stop! Stop it! I told you to nod your heads! How hard is that? Didn’t your parents teach you to nod your heads? Okay, everybody, let’s nod our heads together—up, down, up down! That’s good, do it again, up, down, up down! See? A nation that can nod together can be great again!”

“Teacher Lenlen! May I ask my question now?” said the boy Marmar.

“Oh, all right! What is it?”

“Well—I googled what you said about homeroom teachers, and I discovered that it’s the definition of a homeroom teacher in Afghanistan. Teacher Lenlen—are we in Afghanistan?”

A roar of laughter erupted. His classmates had known Marmar to be a smart aleck since the lower grades, for which he had been sent to the guidance counsellor’s office more than once.

Teacher Lenlen’s cheeks turned red. It was true—there was a long list of definitions in Wikipedia for “homeroom teacher,” and she had conveniently picked out the topmost one, for Afghanistan. So what? How different could Afghanistan—wherever that was—be from Kawefo? 

“Before I answer you, don’t you know that cellphones are prohibited in this school during class time? And how could you google anything, when even I can’t get a decent wi-fi signal in this room?”

“I didn’t use a cellphone, Teacher Lenlen! It was a tablet with cellular data, which my mother gave me for my tenth birthday, for Zoom!”

“Oh, so your mother gave it to you! Maybe I should talk to your mother about using tablets in class, when we’re no longer using Zoom, but meeting face-to-face. Class, are we still on Zoom, or meeting face-to-face? DON’T ANSWER! That’s what’s called a ‘rhetorical question’—a question you already know the answer to, so you don’t even need to answer it. Everybody write this down!” She went to the blackboard and wrote “R-H-E-T-O-R-I-C-A-L!”

“What does ‘rhetorical’ mean, Teacher Lenlen?” asked a little girl in the front row. Lenlen was glad that nobody else seemed to have heard her, because, come to think of it, she didn’t know, except that when you added “question” to it, it meant exactly what she had just said. She went up to the girl and whispered, “I’ll tell you tomorrow. That’s tomorrow’s lesson.”

Marmar was still standing at the mike, and said, “If you want to talk to my mother, Teacher Lenlen, I’ll give you her phone number.” 

“I was speaking rhetorically!” Lenlen retorted. “I’m talking to you, not to her!” Marmar’s confederates snickered in their seats. “What’s so funny?”

Another boy piped up. “Teacher Lenlen, Marmar’s mother is the governor!”

Marmar Pwepe… Governor Pompom Pwepwe—of course, she should have made the connection! The governor was known for her fiery temper, punching sheriffs and other public officials who crossed her path. Beads of sweat began to form on Teacher Lenlen’s forehead.

Just then, a squadron of policemen appeared at the door, discombobulating Teacher Lenlen further. Had she been reported so quickly? What was going to happen to her pension, to the trip to Bangkok she had been planning for so long?

“Ma’am Lenlen Fayfay?” asked their commanding officer. “I’m Captain Shushu. We have been deputized by the regional office of the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency—” 

“Oh, no—you have the wrong person. I’m Mrs. Fayfay, yes, but I swear to God, I’m not a subversive! I never said anything bad about President Ongong or… or Governor Pwepwe….” She stared at Marmar, begging for mercy.

“We’re not here to arrest you or anyone, Mrs. Fayfay. We’re here to requisition thirty chairs for the regional office, which needs more furniture to properly perform its solemn duties. I trust you agree?” Captain Shushu turned to the students, counting heads. “The first three rows, get up!” His men took their chairs out into the corridor. Lenlen could hear a similar commotion happening in the other classrooms.

The students sat forlorn on the floor, clutching their bags. Teacher Lenlen wondered if she needed the governor’s phone number, after all.

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. 24: All Content and Settings

Hindsight for June 27, 2022

CHARLIE COULDN’T tell exactly what the phone was until he slid it out of its case and, even then, its other specifications—model and memory size, which would determine its price—could be known only once he turned the phone on and made it work. The problem, of course, was that it was locked with a passcode, and if you didn’t know your way around, it was easy to turn next month’s rent into a brick. 

There were other, more elaborate ways that involved cables, computers, and words like “jailbreaking,” “DFU mode,” and “GPP,” but they were Nick’s specialty, for which he had a stall in Greenhills. Charlie was smart enough to know what he was good at, which was thievery, and to stick to it. Had he gone past second year in Koronadal, he might have become a Nick, or even better, a Mr. Garcia, who bought whatever Charlie could sell with cold cash and then disposed of them online through aliases like “Triciababy” or “Sweet Loreen.” 

Charlie had spotted a Samsung Galaxy Note on FB Marketplace that was being sold by Triciababy with the story that she needed a kidney transplant, and he knew that it was one of his pickups because it had a tiny chip on the top right of its screen. Mr. Garcia had paid him 3K for it and was now posting it for 8.5, which seemed unfair but then he didn’t even know how to describe the phone, let alone make up a story. He scanned FB Marketplace to get some idea of what to ask Mr. Garcia for, but it always came down to what the man was willing to pay, because he could come up with reasons like “obsolete” and “digitizer,” which simply meant that Charlie could have chosen better if he wanted to get enough to buy a new bike with. It was easier to steal a bike than to get something past Mr. Garcia, which probably wasn’t even his real name. 

He could have told Mr. Garcia to try it himself to find out how difficult it was to pick a specific model—on most days. You had to be in the right place, with the right kind of people, to score something high-end, like an iPhone 13 or a Galaxy S21. You didn’t find those in the malls and markets Charlie felt comfortable in, in the shirt and sneakers that made him look like a college student waiting for a date or shopping for jeans on sale, especially when he carried a book or two. 

But the Kakampink rallies changed all that. It was a pickpocket’s dream—tens of thousands of people massed on the street, all wearing pink, which meant that all he had to do was invest in a pink T-shirt to lose himself in the crowd, going along with the chants and finger signs. Many of these people looked and even smelled like they had stepped out of a shower. Charlie didn’t pay much attention to the simpler folk who could have been his uncles or cousins, seeking out the clusters of privilege.

Charlie already knew who held which phone, and where they put them away when their hands were otherwise occupied. He had spotted the woman and her iPhone at least fifteen minutes before he moved in; her phone had rung and she tried to take the call but put it back in her shoulder bag when the noise made all talk impossible. Thirtyish and plain-looking, she didn’t seem particularly rich, but with the pink T-shirts you never knew.

It was during the candidate’s speech that everyone seemed most distracted. People cheered and raised their arms. Charlie had no interest in what they were all excited or angry about—like “martial law,” when terrible things supposedly happened, well before his time: killings, torture, rape, like some war movie, of which he had seen and enjoyed a few. None of that had anything to do with him. And if it was so bad, why did they keep coming back to it? 

It took Charlie no more than a few seconds to swipe the phone and to vanish into the monochromatic crowd. The woman never felt a thing. Charlie gave her a backward glance and saw that she looked ecstatic, swaying with both hands in the air, her eyes shut as if in prayer.

Back in his room in Paco, he turned the phone on—last among the four he had taken that day. A picture of the woman and a small girl filled the screen, typical wallpaper for people her age. It asked for a passcode. He had ten tries before it locked up for good, but Nick could take care of that, so just for fun he tried 1-2-3-4. It opened. People could be so simple. It was an XS, 64GB, a four-year-old model he could sell for, oh, 7 or 8K.

Instinctively he went for the photos. There was always something interesting to be found there, sometimes embarrassing secrets the owners would have been happy to pay for, so Charlie thought he was doing them a favor by wiping their phones clean and erasing the past. There didn’t seem to be too many pictures on this woman’s phone. One of her with a man, posing in front of a fountain, obviously shot from an old photograph. Many shots of a baby girl, the girl and mother, girl, girl, girl, mother in a bank teller’s uniform, girl in fairy costume. Here and there, office excursions, Hong Kong, Taal, Baguio. Third birthday party, then suddenly, girl in hospital bed, closeup of girl sleeping, closeup of girl’s hand, then a flower arrangement beside the girl’s framed picture. And then the girl with eyes closed, a dozen of them from different angles, because the light kept bouncing off the glass. He remembered the mother at the rally with her eyes devoutly shut; they looked alike. 

Charlie had lost his father when he was a boy and his mother was back in Koronadal grinding corn. He had not seen her in five years, but now and then he sent her pictures of himself through a cousin’s phone, posing in shades before a new car and on the Dolomite Beach. At least she knew he was alive.

He knew enough to wipe the phone; Mr. Garcia wanted them clean and usable, and doing it himself instead of Nick would save him money. But when his finger hovered over “Erase All Content and Settings,” he paused, and wished the passcode had been something other than 1-2-3-4.

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)

Hindsight No. 20: Mindfulness and Memory

Hindsight for May 30, 2022

(Photo from toolshero.com)

WHEN I I unexpectedly slipped into a black pool of anxiety and depression a couple of years ago—another unwitting casualty of the pandemic—I learned a new word from my psychiatrist: “mindfulness,” defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 

It’s a therapeutic technique to keep your mind from straying into dark forests and crevices, focusing instead on the pen in your hand or the chunk of melon you’re about to swallow. Accompanied by meditation and measured breathing, it slows and calms you down just long enough for you to understand that you’re alive, you’re safe, and you will be well. It puts you back in control of your runaway thoughts and emotions, giving you back the composure you need to face your problems for the day.

It works. Of course I still take my nightly dose of sertraline (your doctor might prescribe something else; don’t take my word for it), but even just the awareness that you can, on your own, stake out a little zone of peace and quiet around yourself is liberating. Paradoxically, it allows you to deal with the stress of the moment by putting you in the moment. It’s the anticipation of terrible things about to happen—especially bad for imaginative minds—that brings on the fear and anxiety. Mindfulness snaps you back from that bungee jump to despair.

I thought about this last week as I encountered many friends online still in shock and grief over their electoral loss, brimming with agitation over what political atrocities could be forthcoming, and eager to begin the campaign for 2028 pronto. The trolls are gleefully feeding this anguish: one prayed that VP Leni’s plane would crash, another declared all Kakampinks “enemies of the state” who deserve to be hunted down, and yet another—despite doing it herself—faulted the Robredos for the crime of taking graduation pictures. 

When I realize that this is the world we now live in, roiling with nastiness, idiocy, and barbarity, I feel like reaching for something stronger than Zoloft to ward off the bad vibes (I also have a prescription for Xanor, but haven’t touched it for a year). But then I remember the old Jedi mindfulness trick, take a few deep abdominal breaths, think about places the ogres can’t reach, and soon enough I’m functional again, capable of absorbing the absurdities and ironies of the hour.

One more thing about mindfulness: it works well with daydreaming of the positive and wishful kind. The writer Sam Brinson quotes the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman: “A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal-driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.” Kaufman argues for a balance between focusing your thoughts and letting them stray, which is relaxing, and a relaxed mind is better at making creative connections.

I don’t know if you could call it daydreaming, but lately my mind has drifted back to my own “golden era”—a time when things felt good and I felt good, when the country was in a bouncy mood and seemed to be going in the right direction: the mid- to late 1990s, the FVR years. We had a lot of problems—a rash of brownouts among them—but you could sniff the optimism in the air. (Full disclosure: I was one of FVR’s speechwriters, so it’s possible that I drank the Kool-Aid and fell for my own prose.) 

Beng and I got ourselves a decidedly downscale apartment close to West Avenue where huge rats scurried overhead at night, and we bought our food from the talipapa down the street. Having brought up that memory, I realize that we like thinking and talking about the past mainly for the fact that it’s over, it already happened, which means that whatever it was, we survived, presumably for the better. I’m sure it wasn’t as rosy as I now make it out to be, and that I’m blocking out the less pleasant parts. But that’s the way the memory works, the way it protects us from pain and provides us with some sense of certainty, some clear point of reference, in these nebulous times.

Just recalling how it was ten, eleven years ago fills me with a combination of wistfulness and regret. It was a time when despots around the world—Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Khaddafi, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—were being toppled or dying; Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were still something of a joke; China was being rocked by pro-democracy protests; and a new platform called Friendster made waves on the Internet, where there were still pockets of innocence and honesty to be found.

It was a time when people and politics still retained a modicum of civility and intelligence, when the truth was nothing but the truth, when human rights were not to be cursed or spat upon, when bad leaders got their due, and when God seemed to be awake most of the time, sending a bolt of lightning here and a swath of sunshine there. It was the world before Covid, when all our friends and loved ones were still alive and laughing over their beer and sisig, when face masks were for the sick, when people danced and even kissed and made love without fear. The future sounded like it would be a wonderful place; technology and human genius would make sure of it.

When I woke up last week to the news that 19 schoolchildren and two teachers had been massacred in Texas, I tried to imagine what a mother there must have felt, how she would have given her own life to turn back the clock just one day. I was only beginning to be inured to the savagery in Ukraine, and now I saw that it was always possible for evil to become even crueller. For a minute, the aches left by May 9 felt dull and trivial.

There are things that Zoloft will not banish, but I know that mindfulness and the memory of a saner past can give me the cool head and steady heart that I will need for the long fight. Bring it on; we will survive, if not prevail.

Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

Penman for Saturday, April 2, 2022

IT’S NOT very often that I stumble on a new source of beauty and wonder, especially not too far from where I live in Quezon City. But sometime last month my wife Beng and I drove out for just about half an hour to a place on the periphery of old Cubao and stepped back three-quarters of a century into a line of work that hasn’t changed much in all that time. What was especially delightful about this encounter was that, as a collector of all kinds of old things, this was new to me.

If you’ve ever looked around in church to see a fat little cherub on a pillar, or spent quiet time in a garden mesmerized by water cascading down a wall fountain, or walked down the stairways and corridors of old buildings appreciating the corbels and the balustrades—the fine, graceful touches of a bygone age—then you’ve seen the products of The House of Precast, the pioneer and still the leader in its field.

From the outside, its new office building along E. Rodriguez Avenue speaks of the modern efficiency with which its business is conducted, but its interiors quickly lead to the heart of the ancient art that still thrives within: the crafting and production of precast, or molded concrete, for architectural ornamentation and other uses. Behind the building can still be found the postwar home and workshop that started everything.

“This place dates back to 1948,” said Martin C. Galan, who runs The House of Precast with his lovely wife Michelle. Martin had met Michelle when they were both law students at UST. (Martin’s grandfather was the distinguished lawyer-banker Miguel Cuaderno.) How they got into the business is a story unto itself. Michelle’s dad, Conrado de Leon, was the son of master artisan Inocencio de Leon, who had worked with the renowned sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, a contemporary of Rizal’s. When the Americans came, they brought concrete, which Tampinco and his associates began to use for their commissions. 

A student of architecture, Conrado apprenticed with Don Isabelo’s son Vidal and later with Guillermo Tolentino, learning the craft and imbibing the high standards of quality and craftsmanship he would bring to his own trade. “He worked for Tolentino on the Bonifacio Monument. They used each other as models. They slapped on the clay and the old man finished it up. The statues were bronze but everything began as clay. They made a mold, which was brought to Europe for casting,” Martin explained. Another important mentor was the Italian sculptor Francisco Monti, who escaped the brownshirts in Italy and was on his way to Australia when he was enticed to go to the Philippines instead. “Monti had his own studio, but he came here to work so Conrado could make his molds for him. There were chickens here, so Monti would get six eggs and drink their contents, and start flinging mud as he sang an operatic aria.”

In 1950, Conrado opened The House of Precast where it remains today, and began filling orders for such premium clients as Malacañang Palace and the mansions of New Manila, Bacolod, and Davao. “When he did well, Conrado hired Vidal Tampinco, as a way of thanking him for his earlier mentorship, and also to learn more secrets of the trade,” said Martin. 

Conrado de Leon died in 1988, and was followed shortly after by his wife; by this time, Martin had married Michelle, and at her deathbed, Michelle’s mother implored the young couple to carry on the business. Despite coming from a very different background and knowing next to nothing about precast, the couple agreed, and have been at it ever since. “We began with a month’s capital and five old employees. We faced many challenges. No one knew us except the old architects. Internally, I had to deal with resistance to change, to modern techniques and methods of management.” 

Martin brought in new knowledge, and also began training a new generation of apprentices. “When Michelle and I went to London in the mid-‘90s, I took the opportunity to learn how to make a rubber mold. Today I use three types of rubber as well as cement, and sometimes I mix wood, rubber, and cement. It depends on the job. You can innovate—you can use glass fiber instead of jute–but the basic processes remain the same. Our advantage is that we still know how to do it the old way. I made sure of that.”

The idea of precast can be traced to as far back as the Romans, who used a form of it for their famous buildings, but its modern version really takes off in the late 1890s and early 1900s with the growing use of precast and prestressed concrete in construction and ornamentation (the first recorded use of reinforced concrete, by Joseph Monier in 1867, was for a flower pot). The larger part of the precast industry today involves the production of structural elements for bridges and other infrastructure, so Martin’s and Michelle’s corner of it—architectural ornamentation—is relatively small, but the combination of tradition and technology that it demands also allows for the kind of artisanal care and excellence that only love and practice can create.

“The basic idea behind precasting is to make the object somewhere else and then bring to the site,” explained Martin. “The architects or clients can show us their designs, and we make their vision a reality. We make molds out of concrete, plaster, or rubber. Some molds are for one-time use—the molde perdido, or lost mold. But we can do what others can’t. Today we use CAD, and we work interactively with the client in developing the project. We have references for things like columns and capitals—there are equations and formulas for these classical forms. But for things like how a leaf should turn, our people rely on direct observation. Others might use pictures, and the two-dimensionality shows. To make a good mold, your mind has to think in three dimensions. You’re doing it in reverse—you’re making a negative. So we talk about the alsa and lubog, the rise and fall of the figure. We ask, what does the leaf want to do?”

Quality is The House of Precast’s topmost consideration. “We don’t scrimp on materials, and we abide by international standards.” This quality is evident in the high-ceilinged office that also showcases some of their finest creations.

But the workshop at the back, beside the old house and garden, is the heart of the operation, where skilled hands turn plaster and water into cherubs, columns, and capitals, among dozens of other shapes, familiar adornments often taken for granted that please the eye and tease the imagination. Stepping into it, I began to understand the Galan couple’s commitment to their craft, and to sustaining it into a future more concerned with cost than culture. 

The pandemic hit the business hard—“We’re ornamental, so we’re an expendable item in the budget,” Martin said—but they’ve survived and should recover. Their son Diego—a familiar figure in the watch and pen forums online—is learning the ropes. Martin has ambitious plans for the new building, which he wants to transform into “a venue for the humanities.” He has another business as a consultant in acoustics, and swears that he can see sound moving around in space—nothing strange for a man who fusses about how leaves should curl and open in nature. As long as the Galans find wonder in the world around them, so will we.

Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

Hindsight for Monday, February 7, 2022

(Image from contemplativestudies.org)

I FIRST heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” fifty years ago in UP from my friend Jose “Oying” Rimon, then a Mass Comm major just grasping the mechanics of social behavior. Oying would go on to become a population expert and close adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates on public health, capacities in which he had many occasions to see cognitive dissonance at work in shaping people’s attitudes and responses to development policy. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to have a real one, Dr. Sam Mcleod, explain what the concept means: “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance…. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” 

The examples that usually turn up in the literature are fairly simple: you smoke, but know that smoking is bad for you; you know you need more exercise, but put it off for tomorrow, citing the workload on your desk.

Why is this relevant to our present situation? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me quote from an article by Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones in Psychology Today wondering why so many Christian Americans still voted for and supported Donald Trump despite his patently un-Christian behaviors, such as adultery. “As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?” (For that matter, why did so many conservative Fil-Ams vote for Trump on the excuse that he was supposedly “pro-life,” ignoring his many other moral infirmities?)

Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the hard facts and figures in front of them? How do they reconcile these contradictions in their minds to feel like they’re doing the right thing and to feel better about themselves? (The science suggests that we humans have a natural impulse toward feeling good.)

This is what the psychologists call reducing or resolving dissonance—accepting or acknowledging what the more logical part of your brain is saying, but then coming up with a rationalization or justification for sticking to your original belief anyway; or, with much more effort, you find a reason to cross over to the other side. Sure, smoking is bad for me, but so is anxiety; sure, maybe vaccines work for other people, but I’m not like other people—I haven’t been sick in twenty years; sure, I lied on my tax declaration—but haven’t bigger people done much worse?

Dissonance is a shade different from denial, which is the outright rejection of proven or provable fact. Holocaust deniers will insist it never happened; other neo-Nazis will say it did, but that the Jews brought it upon themselves, or that Hitler wasn’t to blame for the genocide. 

This is the stuff that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are made of—a little truth here and a little truth there, interwoven by threads of fanciful fabrications to create some semblance of alternative logic. Spun imaginatively and cast widely enough, this web of lies can begin to acquire the sheen of truth, or what passes for it among its believers.

Are those believers stupid or crazy? Not necessarily. An interesting paper by the psychologist Andrea Kohn Maikovich argues that terrorists aren’t simply the hate-filled loonies they’re often pictured to be. Rather, recruits go through a radicalization process during which they negotiate between their personal predisposition not to commit violence and the collective pressure to do more than carry placards on the street. When the dissonance hits its peak, some leave; those who stay have found a way to convince themselves that violence is good and necessary.

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly on “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. ‘The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,’ he told us.”

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why pro-Marcos narratives can seem so compelling to many Filipinos, despite the clear and documented evidence of ill-gotten wealth (let’s say it plainly: theft), brutality, deception, and other abuses of power during the martial law years. They’re rich and powerful—which we all want to be—so they must have done something right.

People who are already rich don’t steal; it wasn’t FM Sr. who committed martial law’s excesses, but his administrators; EDSA 1 was nothing but a CIA operation; Imelda was never imprisoned, so she can’t be guilty of any charges thrown at her; the younger Marcoses knew nothing about what was going on, and so will be different from their parents; if the Marcoses were bad, the Aquinos and Lopezes are worse; et cetera. If you feel comfortable with any of these ideas, then you’ve made your own kind of sense of the past, even if you may not even have been there.

Of course, I have my own set of stubborn core beliefs and dissonances as well. I keep holding on to the idea that Filipinos are worth dying for, only to be disappointed by the way many of us choose our leaders. I believe in democracy, but I feel frustrated when it’s gamed by people who obviously don’t care much about it. 

According to cognitive dissonance theory, something has to give: your cherished notions, or the hard truth. It seems much easier just to give up hope, but there’s no real comfort nor resolution in that, either.

Penman No. 430: Rizal’s Typewriter

Penman for Monday, December 20, 2021

NOW THAT I have your attention, let me backtrack quickly and clarify that title: I’m talking about a typewriter that Jose Rizal or the Katipunan could have used, had they been tech-savvy enough and infected with 19th-century FOMO.

Early this month, a box I had been eagerly awaiting arrived from England, where I had found the machine on—where else?—eBay, selling for a reasonable price (“reasonable,” that is, to oddball collectors like me). Inside the box was a wooden case, visibly old, with a latch on each side. I undid both latches and the case opened to reveal what I expected to see: “an antique Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter with spare typewheel in original oak case,” according to the ad I saw. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t the machine itself—it was the fragrance of oak, still embedded in the wood after more than a century.

Why did I even want the Blick, as the typewriter invented by the American George Canfield Blickensderfer came to be known? By the time the first Blick was patented in 1891, the typewriter had been on the market for about 17 years (many prototypes preceded the Sholes and Glidden, but were never mass-produced, except for the sci-fi-worthy Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1870). But most were big and bulky, and—surprise—wrote on the other side of the typist, who couldn’t see what he or she was typing. 

The Blick No. 5 was the first typewriter that could truly be called a portable, with a keyboard and a front-facing platen or paper roller, much like its modern counterpart. Think of it as the MacBook Air of its time. It looked like an insect with a big head and spindly legs, and even more strikingly, it employed what its inventor called the “scientific” DHIATENSOR keyboard—those bottom-row letters supposedly figuring in 85 percent of the words in English. QWERTY had already established itself as the standard layout early on, and later Blicks would use it, but I preferred the quirkiness of DHIATENSOR.

The Blick No. 5 was given its public debut at the 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a monumental event meant to showcase such novelties as a moving walkway, AC electricity, and the Ferris wheel. The small, lightweight typewriter became a hit, helped along by the fact that it sold at a third of the 100 dollars that most other typewriters cost at the time.

So I wanted one in my collection for historical purposes; prior to this, my earliest machine was a larger and grander-looking Hammond 12 from around 1905. That Hammond got to me, also in its original wooden case and all the way from Ohio, luckily in one piece. 

That’s the trouble with collecting any machine with scores of tiny parts a hundred years old—iron corrodes, rubber shrinks, wood warps, paint fades; screws come off, joints get fused solid, whole sections vanish, and often all you have left is a rusty lump of metal better tossed into the garbage. 

Most Blicks and other old typewriters you can find on eBay will manifest at least a few of these problems. Missing parts—obscure and ancient—can be hard to find; thankfully a global network of typewriter enthusiasts exists to offer help and advice online. Reviving a machine with frozen typebars is another major chore; but again expert repairmen still remain to come to the rescue. (Among them is our own Quiapo-based Gerald Cha, whom I’ve written about, through whose hands all my machines pass for the requisite CLA—cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment.) Shipping is yet another potentially harrowing complication—fragile, valuable, and irreplaceable machines can be turned into scrap with one drop of a poorly padded box.

It was a miracle that the Blickensderfer turned up at my doorstep whole, complete, and needing just a bit of lubrication. When Gerald typed out its first few letters in script, it was as though a mute singer had found her voice after a century.

But one more ritual had to be performed: dating the machine to the year it was manufactured (mine was an English model, made in America but sold out of Newcastle-on-Tyne). For this, typewriter collectors have an online resource to fall back on: typewriterdatabase.com, which has been painstakingly crowdsourcing and cataloguing the serial numbers of hundreds of brands of typewriters. I first had to locate the number on my Blick; it was there on the upper right of the bottom of the frame—68403. A quick check yielded the year it was made: 1896. More than liking the Blick, I now stood in awe of it.

I’d like to fantasize that some of these machines made their way to Manila and figured, somehow or other, in the Revolution, although I do have to admit that the standard image of Rizal poised to write “Mi Ultimo Adios” with a quill pen in hand is much more appealing than him pecking away at a keyboard. 

(Image from joserizal.com)

I asked Ambeth Ocampo about it, and he said that while he hadn’t come across any connection between Rizal and a typewriter, our hero surely would have encountered it in his many travels abroad. Rio Almario seems to recall having seen a copy of the Katipunan’s Kartilya in typescript, but we can’t be certain when that was made. With the Americans came the Remingtons—and it’s no small coincidence that the same company made the firearms that subdued us and the typewriters we began writing in English on. I can only stare at my Blickensderfer No. 5 and wonder what stories sailed across its paper horizon.

Penman No. 417: From Cory to Covid: An Alternative History

for the Star’s 35th anniversary, July 2, 2021

WHEN THE Philippine STAR was founded 35 years ago, we were still enveloped in the euphoric glow of having successfully deposed a dictator peacefully and installing an icon of democracy in his place. I was one of that happy throng on EDSA celebrating what we believed was a new dawn of hope, a fresh opportunity for our people to grow in freedom and prosperity. Like many writers, I ran out of metaphors and superlatives to describe that moment, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. 

Nowadays it has become commonplace—indeed even fashionable in some quarters—to revise and reject that narrative, and to claim that it was a foolish mistake to have replaced a seasoned politician with a rank amateur. Martial law wasn’t so bad; no wanton thievery took place; only a few were hurt for the good of the many; we were never so disciplined, and our streets were never so clean.

How we came to this point—like the resurgence of Nazism in Europe and of racism in Trump’s America—is for me the great mystery of those 35 years, an arc of sorts marked by Cory on one end and by Covid on the other. There’s certainly no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, as should happen in fairyland—which we rather quickly realized, right after EDSA, was not where we were.

For some such as Jose Rizal, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Mozart, Manuel Arguilla, Bruce Lee, Eva Peron, and, yes, Jesus Christ, 35 years was a lifetime. You could have been born in a hospital while the tanks were massing at EDSA, and died this year of Covid, gasping for breath in that same place. Had that happened to me, I would have protested and pleaded, albeit inaudibly through my tubes, that it wasn’t fair, that I deserved a peek over the horizon, at least through to the May election, to see if it was worth the wait—or not, and then slink into sullen slumber. 

During that time, I grew from a young father and a writer on the verge of a teaching career to an aching retiree surrounded by old books and creaky machines, and I have to wonder if our nation fared better and learned as much. Or should I say “unlearned”? At EDSA I learned to hope, to trust in the ideal and the good again, to have positive expectations of the new century looming ahead. FVR and his “Philippines 2000” thumbs-up may have seemed hokey at the time, but there was a genuine spring in that step, a sense of things going in the right direction. And then they began falling apart, the old mistrust and suspicions returned, and we took one president down and nearly succeeded with yet another.

But it wasn’t just us. The closing decades of the 20th century were a time of sweeping changes all over the world. Soon after Marcos fell, a tide of reform and revolution washed across Eastern Europe and eventually into the Soviet Union itself; that union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like the era of dictators and despots was over, but it was not. With Hong Kong in its navel, China morphed into a commercial colossus, proving that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go together. The 1997 financial crisis shook the planet.

After 9/11, whatever remaining hopes we had of a better new century vaporized, and the new specter of terrorism now stalked the globe. Barely had ISIS retreated from the sands of Syria when a new and even more insidious plague, Covid-19, threatened to annihilate mankind. 

Others will remember this period as the age of cocaine, corporate greed, mass shootings, and, generally speaking, a culture of excess, of over-the-top indulgence on whatever floated your boat: drugs, sex, money, power, toys. Very few people had actual access to them, but the media—that’s another whole story—kept glorifying vice as virtue, until many began to believe it well enough to dream. It was Dickens’ “best of times and worst of times” all over again.

That would be the sober—and sobering—summary of what tomorrow’s history books will be saying about those decades. But of course—and thankfully—it wasn’t all politics and the misery that often comes with plays for power.

There’s a part of me that wants to tell the story of these past 35 years as the rise of consumer technology toward near-total domination of our daily lives. Humor me as I recall little vignettes to show what I mean.

When the EDSA uprising broke out, we heard the news over a big black Panasonic radio-cassette player that I had picked up years earlier at the Zamboanga barter trade place (along with the obligatory sotanghon and White Rabbit candies). It was—beside our 12-inch, black-and-white, red plastic-bodied TV—our news and entertainment center in the boonies of San Mateo. It sat on our dinner table, accompanying our meals like a permanent guest, sometimes directing the conversation.

When it spewed out the news that something dramatic was taking place at EDSA, and when we heard Cardinal Sin calling on people to go, we knew we had to. Not long after, we piled into my VW Beetle, turned on its radio for updates, and headed for the trenches. For the next few days or so, radio was king, whether at home, in your car, or in your pocket (yes, boys and girls, there was pocket radio; TV was around but only the coolest people had portable versions).

I missed out on most of the Cory years because I went to America for my graduate studies, and there I became anchored to the payphone for my calls home, clutching a handful of quarters to feed the machine. I had hand-carried an Olympia typewriter to write my thesis on, but then I discovered computers, and in 1991 I lugged home a 20-pound behemoth with all of 10 megabytes to fill up. I felt like a gunslinger—I was going to write the next Noli, protect the weak, and get justice with one floppy disk after another.

Nothing would define the ‘90s more than the personal computer, and I soon equated the machine with creation, the blinking cursor with a challenge to produce. I drooled (and lost the plot) when I watched Scully and Mulder hunched over a super-sexy PowerBook 540c in the X-Files, and when I got my own, it was like Moses receiving the tablets—with a trackpad and an active-matrix display. 

Soon another gadget emerged with which we felt even more tethered to some central brain: the pager, whose insistent buzz enhanced our importance, even if it all it asked was where you were and could you please come home. Fake news had yet to be invented as a cottage industry, but a lot of it, I’m sure, went through EasyCall and PocketBell.

By the time the next EDSA happened, we had something far snappier and more personal than radio with which to undertake regime change. Yes, I was now writing speeches on a Mac, but the messages flew thick and fast on a new gadget—the cellphone. If EDSA 1 succeeded because of radio, this iteration flew on the wings of SMS, the millions of texts (the jokes, the rumors, the calls to action) whose accretion would spell the end for an inebriated presidency. 

As it happened, 2001 would be memorable for another image seared into our consciousness: the collapse of the Twin Towers, brought to us slightly delayed and in full color by satellite TV. We’d had TV before, of course, but had always seen it more as Comedy Central, a box to gather the family around. CNN changed that, and brought the world’s torments to our living rooms. Cheaper TVs, one in every room, had long fragmented the family, especially when Betamax and VHS, the precursors of Netflix, became available.

A few years later, a cellular phone call and a recorder almost took another political giant down, causing millions to gasp and laugh as the tape was replayed on TV and radio over and over. “Ang importante hindi madamay yung sa itaas,” said a female voice, which was exactly what happened. That year, 2005, was also the year a platform called YouTube was born—and thanks to YouTube, the tape can still be heard, for all digital eternity.

Indeed, video, the Internet, and social media would soon change the political and cultural landscape, not just here but the world over, although the Pinoy—perhaps in response to that elusive quest for Olympic gold—has towered over much of humanity in terms of Facebook usage (and earlier, in SMS transmissions). One way of putting it would be that we are the world’s champion usiseros and chismosos, resorting to Twitter or Instagram at the merest hint of an idea, no matter how malformed. 

Today we have an abundance of information and information sources at our disposal—and yet we seem to be as ill-informed as ever, with opinions shaped and manipulated by Sith Lords in the Dark Web. Dismissing newspapers and editors as gatekeepers of the truth—which not all of them have been—we create our own versions and peddle them instantly for a thousand “likes,” the supreme accolade of the early 21st century. Most others might prefer to be simply receivers and forwarders of whatever crosses their screens, the passive agents of mindlessness.

Thirty-five years ago, we drove to EDSA on pure conviction that it was the right thing to do. Without Twitter or even SMS, no one could tell us “Right on!” or “Me, too!” We listened for scraps of news and turned them over and over in our hushed minds; we could be killed; we could be free; would our friends be there; what else did we study for. It was a long drive from San Mateo to my in-laws’ place in Project 4, where we parked the car and walked to EDSA. It was a lot of time to think. 

Thirty-five years is a lot of time, but looking around today, with Filipinos still dying by the gun or by drowning in one’s own fluids in some alien hospital, I have to wonder how this narrative arc from Cory to Covid will end—or how much longer it will go, at least in my lifetime, which naively still yearns for a happy ending.