Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

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Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 222: An Education for the Well-Rounded Filipino

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Penman for Monday, October 24, 2016

 

IN A few weeks’ time, several hundred professors at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus will gather together for an important vote on UP Diliman’s General Education program—long seen to be the hallmark of a UP education. It’s important because what happens there will determine, to a great extent, what “tatak UP” will mean for the next generation or two, and what being “the national university,” as its charter defines it, entails as far as the quality and the breadth of its offerings are concerned.

The raging battle seems to be over how many units (or class-hours a week) to allot to General Education subjects, which have traditionally covered basic and compulsory courses in such areas as language (English and Filipino), history, math, science, and philosophy.

There’s a menu of options on the table, ranging from a formidable 45 units to a scant 21, and an emerging compromise of 30-36 units in between; the mix of courses in these totals is also under negotiation. Those who want more want to ensure that every UP undergraduate—whether he or she plans to become a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a painter—can talk intelligently as a well-rounded citizen about the Katipunan and mitosis and perspective and Sophocles and interstellar travel. Those who prefer less want students to graduate from their programs sooner, for UP to remain competitive with other schools, and suggest that students can imbibe some GE skills both from their K-12 add-ons and from their higher-level classes.

I don’t mind saying that I put myself squarely on the 30+ side. We can’t keep complaining that young Filipinos can’t write or speak in proper sentences or don’t know who Apolinario Mabini was—without doing enough to fix the problem, given the chance. Sure, some of these learning points can be addressed in senior high; but subjects like History, English, and Philosophy will still be different when taught in UP’s staunchly secular context and pitched as adult concerns.

But never mind me—let’s give a listen to one of our most accomplished writers, the Leyte-born but now New York-based Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the 2013 PEN America/Open Book Award and National Book Awards in the Philippines. Some time ago, Gina wrote UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan to plead for the strengthening of UP’s GE program, and I got her permission to quote from that letter here:

I am writing as a graduate of the UP English department, 1980-1984, a former teacher at the department, and as a novelist whose work has been indelibly shaped by my education at UP—in particular, by its General Education program, to which I look back daily in my own work as a teacher and a writer.

My three published novels owe their genesis to that program. My current novel, William McKinley’s World, about the Philippine American War, began in a PI 101 class in a classroom at Palma Hall Annex, where my professor taught me about a war I never knew about.

In those first two years at UP, I learned to think. The General Education program made me into a writer. I went to a private high school in Leyte that certainly taught me well (arguably just as rounded as the current K-12 program); but I needed the General Education program at UP to make me whole—a critical consumer, a nationalist thinker, a global reader, and finally, it gave me ground to think honestly and seriously about what education means, it gave breadth of thought to allow me to become who I am—a novelist whose work is absolutely grounded in the questions that UP had asked of me in my first two years at the school.

It is my misfortune (though some call it luck) that I have ended up teaching in the States, living among an extremely lucky group of students: the wealthy enclave of Manhattan’s private schools. But every day, teaching my very privileged, very wealthy students who can enroll in any school they want, I can compare what they have to my education at Diliman, and I am daily impressed by the foundational, long view of knowledge grounded in the breadth of UP’s General Education curriculum.

My experience as an educator and an artist here in America is that the education I gained at the University of the Philippines is equal to and (given the state of America) too often exceeds the quality of education abroad. This is true of my fellow alumni who come to America: we understand how well we were prepared.

I cannot underline this enough: I know that UP provided me with an incalculable, a priceless education. I am writing to state emphatically that the General Education program at UP should be enriched, not reduced.

Even today, having been to and taught at several schools considered the best of their kind in America—so acculturated and mired in the world of the privileged as I am here in America—every day, in my classroom, I still marvel at the amazing comprehensive education I got at the University of the Philippines.

Here in Manhattan, these kids are killing themselves to get into colleges with the kind of education I got at UP. My own daughter went to the University of Chicago, and I will say that I was proud (and fascinated) to know my education as a freshman and sophomore was equal to her own rigorous coursework in the General Education program of the University of Chicago, where highly able freshmen have to go through the GE program. As you know, Chicago’s program still stands as a beacon of higher education in America today.

At UP, as my daughter was at Chicago, I was required to take philosophy, maths, history, sciences, and four rigorous courses in English that made me read across cultures (the stories of Akutagawa and D.H. Lawrence, Marquez and Achebe)—to read across time (Machiavelli and Madariaga, Rizal and Homer)—and to read across disciplines. I noted that just as at the UP in my time, the University of Chicago does not stint its students—my daughter was required to do the full two years of humanities reading before she did her majors, reading Hegel and Homer as a freshman and sophomore, as I was asked to do in Diliman. In my case, much of the knowledge that has stayed with me came in one packet (Dadufalza’s primer). The way UP taught its students to think then remains an incalculable benefit, equal to the best in America.

I repeat: I learned to think at UP, and the General Education curriculum made me into a novelist. It made me into a writer who can hold her own anywhere. It distresses me to think that the university will fail even one child, one student from the provinces, like me, who arrives at the university not knowing exactly who she could be—but now without the bulwark of its tough and extended humanities curriculum to point her to the myriad possibilities that creates not only engineers but also artists, not only scientists but also philosophers. The rigorous General Education program of UP is a boon to the country.

UP should strengthen its GE curriculum, not reduce it.

Please let me know how we, alumni across the world, can help to strengthen our alma mater. We love UP, we love our education, we would love to help.

Gina Apostol, AB English 1984

 

 

Penman No. 217: We Were Young Together

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2016

 

I HAD the honor of being asked to speak at the 50th anniversary reunion of my Philippine Science High School batch (we chose to celebrate our entrance year, 1966, fearing that there’d be fewer of us to gather in five years). It was, I joked, the valedictory I never got to deliver, for reasons that will be shortly obvious. You’ll forgive the chest-thumping; every high school has a right to think it’s the best on the planet—perhaps some more so than others. Herewith, an excerpt:

I’ll begin with a shameless boast, and the boast is that over these past four decades, I’ve won quite a few awards and prizes for my work as a writer and teacher. But none of them has given me as much pride and pleasure as the knowledge that once upon a time in 1966, for one brief shining moment and for some miraculous reason, I topped the entrance exam to the Philippine Science High School.

It was a fleeting glory, and if I ever imagined myself a real genius I would be quickly disabused, because as you all know, after our first year, my grade in English was 1.0 and my grade in Math was 5.0. Only the kindness or perhaps the embarrassment of our administrators persuaded them that I was worth giving another chance and putting on probation, a break I’m forever thankful for.

I have never felt in more distinguished company than yours. Individually and collectively, you are the smartest people I have ever known, and it has nothing to do with PhDs or awards or high positions in government and business or least of all material wealth—although I’m sure we could all use a little more money. I know that I can sit with anyone of you and have an intelligent and funny conversation about anything from interstellar travel and Dutertean diplomacy to hugot lines and Pokémon—well, maybe not Pokémon.

Long before buzzwords like “world-class” and “globally competitive” came into fashion, there were smart kids who passed an entrance exam that decimated whole regiments of lesser beings, leaving a few good boys and girls standing after the slaughter, calmly noting the distinction between cousins and cosines, avocados and Avogadro, halitosis and mitosis.

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Hey, these kids were us—gangly, smelly (after a good day’s work at the biology garden, or the agawan-base arena), cocksure in the classroom, and curious as hell about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, boy-girl questions dominated the school’s philosophical life.

“What Is a PSHS Boy?” asked the Science Scholar ca. 1969, and the soul-searching answer came (courtesy of someone who should have known—a PSHS girl): “A PSHS boy is a new sociological specimen of the human race… a hardworking nekti achiever [who keeps] a well-tended garden near the bio pond…. a longhaired mod swinger around the campus [who] wears kooky sunglasses, stylish baggy pants, and necklaces… He crams love letters in his notebooks. When Mr. Mozrah asks him ‘What is social interaction?’, he recites his lovelorn adventures with Jennifer, Corrine, Paulette, etc….”

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This penetrating study naturally occasioned a companion piece, published a year later under the thought-provoking title of “What Is a PSHS Girl?”, written by an expert on the subject, a PSHS boy.

“A PSHS girl,” this savant said, “is a rare biological specimen… She is only emotional, temperamental and irrational sometimes (well, half of the time… would you believe almost always?). Anger is not a word in her dictionary. You see, her dictionary starts with ‘boy’… A PSHS girl is the reading type. She reads Emily Loring and the like.”

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It didn’t take too long for a PSHS girl—uhm, PSHS young woman activist—to trash that silly, bourgeois, sexist view. “Now is the time for awakening,” this budding feminist would write in the same Science Scholar just a year later. “Do you realize that today you are a mere tool of the man?… Our bourgeois-oriented society adds insult to injury by picking up things for you and opening doors for you—reminders of sexual disparity—the very chains you should set out to break.”

We don’t know how many chains were broken; some precious objects certainly were (er, windows, petri dishes, innocence, and rules). Talk about rules! A famous one—dated September 29, 1970, and issued by the PSHS Board of Trustees—decreed that PSHS scholars “remain single and be discreet about their boy-girl relationships in order to continue their studies at the PSHS.”

Perhaps another topic of passionate discussion—“Should Smut Movies Be Allowed?”—had something to do with this heated  state of affairs.

The guidance counselor warned: “If they only display the human body for art’s sake, then there’s nothing wrong.  But if what they show are the acts sacred to man and woman, and those which arouse man’s sexual instincts and cause him to do something about it, then definitely, smut movies should be banned!”

Not too definitely, a freshman objected: “In European countries, especially in Scandinavia, sex movies have become so ordinary that they now seem to be part of the people’s lives.  In the Philippines, there is indifference towards these movies.  The Board of Censors should allow more of them and let us see what the attitude of the public toward them will be in the future.” [Brilliantly said, young man, an answer truly worthy of a science scholar—we’re not watching smut movies, here, we’re watching popular attitudes!]

Ah, the times, they were a-changing.  “The opening of the intramurals ushered in a new sight on our campus,” reported a sports columnist (a distraught boy) in the Science Scholar in 1970.  “Where once only boys were seen, girls have materialized…. The girls’ presence cannot be ignored…. In so short a period, many can be said to equal the boys at their own game. Complaints have been heard from the girls that the boys have been monopolizing both the basketball court and the ping-pong tables.”

That should’ve told us that the days of the Young Gentlemen’s Club and the Girls’ Club—no one had the gumption then to set up a Young Gay and Lesbian Club—were coming to an end. Some brazen soul in our freshman class organized the UBAG (United Boys Against Girls), but that didn’t last too long. Biology would teach boys that uniting with girls instead of fighting them was the more natural and pleasurable thing to do.

For a few of us after high school, life may have been a breeze, but for most, I’m sure it’s been an uphill climb, full of rough patches, and you were just as astonished as I was to find that a high IQ did not guarantee happiness or prosperity or success and may even have made things worse because of our more acute awareness of the meaning of things. We learned that the smartest people can make the dumbest mistakes in love, money, and politics, and that sometimes we just don’t know squay about the things that truly matter. I even learned that you could be happily married to someone from UP High.

Most important of all lessons and legacies, we learned to serve the people. Whether we grew up to be NPA cadres or CEOs or lab rats or barrio doctors, we knew that our high school scholarship had to be repaid in faithful service to community and humanity, employing the scientific, rationalist outlook that even those of us who strayed from S&T never quite lost.

We were young together, and we will grow old together. As we’ve all learned from life, it isn’t who leads at the start of the race but who finishes first at the end who wins—although again I suspect that in the race of life, we’d rather finish last.

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Penman No. 207: The Best Student Speech Ever

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Penman for Monday, July 11, 2016

 

 

I THOUGHT that the commencement speech I recently gave before the University of the Philippines’ College of Science graduates (excerpted here last week) was pretty good, but it was the student response given by Isaiah Paolo Lee (BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, summa cum laude)—known to his friends and teachers as “Pao”—that blew my socks off. I later emailed Pao to say that it was the best student speech I’d ever heard, and asked him for a copy to share with my readers, so here it is, and I hope this goes viral. (Pao acknowledges that his sister Jillian helped him along with the speech—hurray for sisters!)

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee, and I am not your valedictorian. I am not the best, I am not the brightest, and I am here speaking to you right now because all the other summas backed out. I’m somehow supposed to talk to you about honor and excellence, so let me start with my story.

When I was in first year, I almost got kicked out because of Chem 16. I wasn’t even bad at the class. I just had a habit of scribbling on my forearm during exams, which was—in hindsight, understandably—interpreted as cheating. After an unchecked exam and a lot of stress, I ended up with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. On the whole, it was a less than ideal way to get psychological support and an 1.00 in Chem 16, but I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t get dismissed from UP, and I didn’t jump off a bridge. I could have, but I didn’t. That might not sound a lot like honor and excellence to you, but that’s the point.

The College of Science is made up of brilliant people. We can’t deny that. The College of Science is also made up of people who pretend to be engineering majors when questioned about their student numbers and people who tasted their Chem 16 unknown analysis samples out of desperation. We can’t deny that either. And we all answered our exams on bluebooks that might have varied in paper quality and might have shown different scores, but they all had the same message printed on the front: University of the Philippines, 1908, Bird, Honor, Excellence.

Our valedictorian is Mao Leung. He has a weighted average of 1.0375 and a girlfriend. I do not have a weighted average of 1.0375, and most of you won’t either. I’m not going to talk about who doesn’t have a girlfriend, because this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Mao Leung is a great guy, but we can’t all be like him, and that’s okay.

Prodigies are a curse for those who need a curve on the exam to pass and a blessing for the general public; as a whole, people tend to look at the people with the best averages and pin all the country’s hopes on them, leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’re supposed to do. The truth people have difficulty wrangling with is that not only do we not need a messiah, messiahs cannot solve our problems. This country just needs honor and excellence from every single one of us, every single day. Whatever it is you do, do it well, and do it for the people.

Are you going into a career in science? There might be days when you have to run PCRs from 7 to 12. That’s 7 in the morning to 12 midnight, by the way. Do it. There might be times that your graphs would be publication-worthy if only you could get rid of one annoying data point. Don’t do it. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going into medicine despite your teachers’ laments? You might end up spending most of your nights running on adrenaline and Dunkin’ Donuts because you have to stay in the hospital. Stay. There might be an occasional addict suffering from a shabu overdose that you have to tie down to a stretcher because he won’t stop kicking you. Treat him, and treat him again when he comes back. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to get a girlfriend because studies first no longer applies? She might be angry at you for no easily identifiable reason. Stay calm, listen, and talk things out rationally. After an argument about taking relationship advice from some guy who was supposed to give a valedictory address, you might see a book she would like. Buy it for her. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to be a full-time parent because you had a successful relationship? You might proudly send your child to UP only to learn that your precious iskolar ng bayan has turned into a class-cutting, DRP collecting, tuition-burning machine despite your warnings. Wake them up in the morning, give them their allowance, and support them without nagging. See to it that they march and that you get to be with them. That is honor and excellence.

Are you just thinking of going to UPTown Center for a celebratory dinner after this is done? You might have a hard time parking because, wow, that is a lot of people. Don’t hog the disabled parking spaces. You might be hungry because the ceremony was too long and parking was nigh impossible because you left the wheelchair spots alone. Be nice to your waiters. They have names. Address them by name, follow up your orders without snapping at them, and say thank you the way you would like to be thanked for doing a good job. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to do anything at all in your life? Whatever it is, do it well, and do it for the people. Do it well if doing it well is clocking in 70 hours a week at a world-class research institution. Do it well even if doing it well is just staying awake for five more minutes to finish a chapter or a boring lecture. Do it well when it matters, and do it well even when it doesn’t. And do it for the people. Do it for the people even if you don’t like the people. Do it for the marginalized even when they don’t appreciate it. Do it for the privileged even when they cause Katipunan traffic. Do it for the people whether the person in question is a drug addict in the emergency room or your waiter at UPTown Center or a stranger on the internet or even just yourself, because it’s not about the gratitude, or the credit, or the reward, but about the people, and the work. That is honor and excellence.

The unphotogenic, non-headline-grabbing, narratively-unsupported fact is that large-scale change happens in fits and bursts and stops, and often on a scale you can’t see with an electron microscope. We hold ourselves up to unreasonable standards and are subsequently disappointed most of the time, when what matters is the work we do in increments, the lab hours that we log, and the people we encounter.

You might not make your own transgenic crops, but you can disabuse your family of any erroneous notions they may have about Bt talong. You might not eradicate crime in 3 to 6 months, but you can avoid catcalling. You might not make it to the newspaper’s front page, but you can make it to your mom’s proud parent Facebook post.

We often look to larger-than-life figures to celebrate honor and excellence, from Miss Universe to near-perfect-GWA graduates. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so, but I believe the first place to seek it is within ourselves.

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee. I am not the best, but I am good enough, I am not the brightest, but I am a UP graduate, and I am not your valedictorian, but I am going to tell you all to go out there and show the world what we’ve got.

[Photo from the UP Diliman Information Office]

 

Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

Penman No. 198: Mind-blowers and Eye-openers

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Penman for Monday, May 2, 2016

 

THE FIRST-EVER Knowledge Festival held by the University of the Philippines in Tagaytay City a couple of weekends ago proved true to its promise and offered mind-blowing, eye-opening discoveries galore, shoring up not only UP’s reputation as the country’s leading university but also that of the Filipino genius as a whole.

Part academic conference and part science fair, the festival brought together over 200 of UP’s top scientists and artists from the university’s many campuses all over the country to showcase the best and most promising products of their ongoing research. The festival also featured talks by experts on key academic and research issues (I excerpted my own keynote here last week), and presented the university’s expansion plans and the latest publications of the UP Press. A roundtable with members of the media had UP President Alfredo E. Pascual exchanging views with some of the country’s top journalists on future directions in Philippine higher education.

But it was the exhibits themselves that formed the living heart of the festival. Most were focused on science and technology, but UP’s most advanced endeavors in the arts, education, and mass communications were on display as well. What unified them was the element of interdisciplinarity, of crossing traditional academic turfs and boundaries to arrive at better solutions to age-old problems, or better products for the 21st century. Most of the projects were being financed by the university’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research fund (EIDR), an ambitious program which has funneled many hundreds of millions of pesos into projects cutting across disciplines and with a positive impact on the government’s Key Result Areas (KRAs).

(I know—I get fidgety myself whenever I step on the road to Acronymia, but like I said in the open forum after my talk, artists—especially those in public life—have to learn to speak bureaucratese and to do the math if they want to engage outside their comfort zones, which is also key to getting grants.)

The exhibits were organized into six clusters: (1) agri/aquaculture, food, and nutrition; (2) health and wellness; (3) disaster risk management and climate change; (4) energy, environment and ecotourism; (5) technology, new materials and other products; and (6) progressive teaching and learning.

As a frustrated scientist (I entered UP as an Industrial Engineering major fresh out of Philippine Science High), I’m always fascinated by what goes on in S&T, and touring the science booths gave me an overview of the research and development in the field within UP. Among the dozens of projects on show, I lingered longest on a few: an analysis of the use of Twitter to keep track of typhoon events; the development of the Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (better known as Diwata-1, which is now in orbit) for disaster risk reduction; an ecosystem assessment of Laguna de Bay, a study aimed at finding ways to revive a dying lake; and a study on the use of microbes from shipworms (tamilok) as potential sources of enzymes for biofuel production. (I’ve had tamilok wriggling down my gullet on a dare during trips to Palawan, where they’re a delicacy, and I’d happily give them up to biofuels.)

In the health and wellness cluster were a flurry of projects ranging from a dengue detection kit to the development of best-practice guidelines for the better management of prevalent community diseases and the use of social media for promoting healthcare. In agriculture, a product called BioN promised to replace 30-50% of chemical fertilizers while increasing yields by 11%, keeping plants “healthy and green even in drought and in the presence of pests.”

Although it was a tucked away in a corner of the learning cluster, what especially caught my eye was a little black box called VISSER—short for “Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research,” a highly portable science kit which can do over 120 experiments in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and environmental science. As it turned out, VISSER had been developed by a team headed by a fraternity brother of mine, physicist Dr. Giovanni Tapang, originally with some support from the University of Maryland. The argument for VISSER is compelling: more than a third of the country’s 13,000 high schools—catering to about 7 million students—have no labs, and of those that do, only 2,800 have access to digital tools. The VISSER kit isn’t cheap at over P40,000 per unit—about the price of a laptop—but its potentials are huge, with a total market value estimated at almost P60 billion. It isn’t just good science, but good business as well for technopreneurs.

And speaking of technopreneurship, few Pinoys can be more inspiring than Dr. Gonzalo “Al” Serafica, a much sought-after consultant on technology commercialization who also spoke in Tagaytay on how he developed new uses for microbial cellulose—known to most of us as the lowly nata de coco—for the global medical market as brain patches and artificial skin. A chemical engineer and also a PSHS alumnus like Dr. Tapang, Al Serafica holds 10 US and 20 international patents and co-founded Xylos Corporation in 1996, proving that crossing over from the lab to the boardroom isn’t only possible but, in many cases, necessary.

On the whole, the Knowledge Festival offered ample proof that with the right support and incentives, Filipino scientists, artists, and researchers can be right up there with their international counterparts, but we have a lot of catching up to do. As a UP study notes, we spend about half of what our ASEAN neighbors spend on education, and even less on R&D. But just showing ourselves what’s possible is a good start, and UP will soon be touring key exhibits not just around the UP system but to other universities as well.

And UP itself will keep growing, as I was mighty impressed to see in the display that featured ongoing and upcoming expansion projects: the UP Clark Green City that will include, among others, a new College of the Natural Environment and College of Designed Environments; the soon-to-open UP Bonifacio Global City that will host classes in law, engineering, business, architecture, labor and industrial relations, urban and regional planning, statistics, and distance education; the UP Professional Schools-South Road Properties in Cebu; the Philippine Genome Center in Diliman; the new UP Diliman Sports Complex rising out of the rubble of the old track oval; and an upcoming UP Cavite incubator campus.

If we can shoot satellites up into the cosmos and turn a coconut dessert into brain implants, you’d have to believe that the sky’s the limit for the Filipino genius—as long as we don’t get sidetracked by personality politics and medieval mindsets.

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[Diwata-1 photo courtesy of ESA/Tim Peake]

Penman No. 193: Knowledge as Capital

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Penman for Monday, March 28, 2016

 

 

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines (UP) campus in Cebu City hosted the second presidential debate a couple of Sundays ago, and with education on the debate agenda, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. UP—so far, our only “national university” so designated—may be more than a hundred years old, but it continues to grow, particularly in places like the Visayas, Mindanao, and Central Luzon, where the demand for quality higher education is as great as ever.

Not too many people may have been aware of it, but in preparation for the debate—and indeed for the next national administration—UP President Alfredo E. Pascual commissioned a study by the university’s think tank, the Center for Integrative Development Studies (CIDS), to look into where we are in the regional scheme of things and how we can expect to catch up and compete with our more advanced neighbors.

Copies of the paper—titled “Knowledge-Based Development and Governance: Challenges and Recommendations to the 2016 Presidential Candidates”—were provided by UP to the staffs of the presidential candidates in advance of the Cebu debate. But knowing most politicians’ propensity to go for the sound bite and dwell on the personal, I tend to doubt if more than one or two of the candidates or their staffs found the time and the focus to read it.

It would be a pity if that indeed were the case, not only because of all the work that UP put into the paper (CIDS was backstopped by the offices of the President and the Vice President for Academic Affairs), but because of all the opportunities for development that we will likely miss, again, if our political leaders don’t heed what our top academic minds are saying.

The full text of the paper can be found here: http://www.up.edu.ph/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20160315-UP-Knowledge-Paper-Final.pdf. For the benefit of our readers (and maybe the odd politician who will read this), I’ll unpack the technical jargon and get to the core of what the paper says and proposes.

It opens with an indisputable premise: Education is indispensable for economic development. More education means less poverty and income inequality, because it drives innovation and productivity, and helps people adjust to new challenges and opportunities.

But of course we already knew that. In a society like ours, we all look to education as the way out and the way forward, which is why our people slave for years overseas to put their kids through college. So sacred is education to the Filipino family that every candidate for public office, especially the Presidency, feels duty-bound to extol its virtues.

To be fair to the present administration, it’s put its money where its mouth is, for the most part. The study notes that “Since Benigno S. Aquino III assumed the presidency, government expenditure on public education has enjoyed annual increases. Out of the education sector‘s PHP364.9 billion budget for 2015, PHP43.3 billion was given to state universities and colleges—a 13.8 percent increase over the 2014 allotment…. Over PHP3 billion was made available for scholarships under SUCs and more than PHP2 billion for scholarships administered by the Commission on Higher Education. A total of PHP316 million (roughly 0.09 percent) was earmarked to fund research.”

That sounds good, but sadly it’s still not enough. The rest of our ASEAN neighbors spend an average of 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on education, but we try to make do with 3 percent. That’s why even our best universities lag behind their global and regional counterparts. The study notes that “In 2014, the University of the Philippines ranked only 8th out of the top 10 universities in ASEAN. In 2010, the Philippines ranked 89th in the global Knowledge Economy Index, far behind Singapore, which placed 19th.”

With all the new phones, computers, and call centers we see around us, we might be led to believe that the Philippines has become a high-tech haven, but that just isn’t so. (“We may be No. 1 in voice operations,” I once heard President Pascual say in relation to BPOs, “but were just around No. 9 in non-voice, which is where there’s more value-added. We need not just call center agents, but software engineers!”)

In its summary, the study observes that “Our level of technology remains low in quality and scale, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. To catch up and move ahead faster, we need to raise our scientific and technological skills, which only better and more focused education can achieve.

“This calls for massive government investments in high-level knowledge capital—the so-called ‘suprastructure’ of economic growth. This human capital will create a knowledge-based economy driven not just by brawn but brains, tapping into one of our richest but least developed resources.”

In other words, and to put it plainly, we need more brainpower—more nerds, if you will—of the kind who can innovate, produce, do trailblazing research, and network with their global peers. That kind of knowledge can reap sizeable benefits for our economy, as it’s done for Singapore, China, Korea, and a host of other countries who’ve invested in their “suprastructure.”

But PhDs don’t come easy and don’t come cheap. UP argues that our government should have a plan to produce them systematically. The object of our educational system shouldn’t just be producing hordes of college graduates who can’t find good jobs, but graduates in fields and with skills that the economy actually needs. The best of them should be sent abroad for advanced degrees, and then brought home with sufficient incentives and an environment conducive to research. The UP paper goes even farther and recommends that in areas where we lack expertise, world-class professors and researchers should be enticed to teach here and work with their local counterparts, in the same way that Singapore was able to considerably shorten its learning curve.

While much of this will occur in science and technology, the paper wisely notes that “Because values are important in setting the right path to growth, the promotion of science and engineering should be closely integrated with the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to ensure the holistic development of the Filipino.”

To spread the work and its benefits, the UP paper envisions a hubs-and-spokes model of development anchored on regional centers of excellence in certain fields—possibly even other national universities beyond UP.

There’s a lot more to be found in the study that was UP’s gift to the candidates—and thereby to the nation—but whether any practical good comes out of it will depend on the political leaders who govern our fortunes, and, ultimately, on us who vote them into office.

(Kindly note that as a “think paper” subject to further discussion, the study mentioned here does not necessarily reflect the position of the UP academic community as a whole, but rather of the researchers and offices involved.)

 

Penman No. 186: What the Fax?

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Penman for Monday, February 1, 2016

 

A CASUALTY of the recent upgrade in my home-office setup, which I reported on last week, turned out to be something I hadn’t given much thought to in a very long time—my fax machine, or rather the fax part of my multi-function printer. Moving to a new Internet service provider also happened to mean giving up my old telephone line—one which was practically dedicated to faxing—and I realized, while plugging this line in and unplugging that one, that I really didn’t need a fax machine anymore. Who still sends faxes these days, anyway?

I tried to think of the last time I’d received a truly useful fax message, and I honestly couldn’t remember when that happened. A few years ago, my wife Beng would still receive faxed invitations to bid on certain government contracts for her art restoration business, until I told her to tell her senders that they were better off just emailing the invitations to her, which I suppose they did, because the faxes stopped. I even used to get spam faxes advertising car loans and real estate deals, which was the most annoying thing, because unlike junk email, faxes ate up your paper and your ink.

I’ve written requiems in this corner to late, lamented technologies, especially those having to do with writing and communication. In July 2011, I wrote one for the typewriter, noting that an Indian outfit called Godrej and Boyce—the last company in the world still making typewriters—was closing shop. In August 2013 I performed the same sad ritual for the telegraph (which sent its last full stop, again, in India). For a time, the fountain pen seemed fated to be tossed to the dustbin, thanks to the advance of the ballpoint, the rollerball, and of course the computer, but it’s undergone a remarkable resurgence, although more as a fashion accessory than a writing tool. We can write odes to the newsroom telex, the rotary phone, and the pager (I still have my EasyCall beeper, and when I stuck a battery into it the other day, just to see, it still gave off a faint green glow).

But the fax? Does anyone and will anyone truly miss the fax?

Before we try to answer that question, let’s take a long step backward and recall how the fax (short for “facsimile”) was born—in 1843, from a patent applied for by Alexander Bain, a Scottish inventor who’s also credited for the electric clock. The patent was for “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces, and in electric printing, and signal telegraphs,” and one of its results was a contraption, using two pendulums, that transferred an image line-by-line from one to the other. Frederick Bakewell improved on the idea with his “image telegraph” in 1848, and in 1861, the Italian Giovanni Caselli did both men better with his “Pantelegraph,” the first commercial fax service between Paris and Lyon—more than a decade before the first working telephones! (Thank you, Wikipedia, for the factoids.)

The heyday of the fax was back in the 1980s, and that’s where many of us baby boomers will remember it from—particularly the smelly rolls of chemically impregnated paper that you needed to keep feeding the machine (and the Xerox machine in the corner, which wasn’t quite ready to take plain paper yet). Having a fax machine at home meant you were busy and important, and having a phone line dedicated to it meant you were doubly busy and doubly important. For senders, the thing to say was “Fax tone, please!” and if your listener heard you right, you got an ear-ache from the resultant screech.

We were still faxing in the 1990s, by which time I was an editorial writer and Lifestyle columnist for the newspaper TODAY. That meant I had to send my piece in by fax—email and Word attachments hadn’t quite caught on, yet. I remember what a thrill it was to pair my computer—a PowerBook 2400c, the precursor of today’s ultrathin MacBook Air—with my Nokia 6210, through the wonders of infrared. You had to line up the two devices so that their IR ports matched exactly, and in those days before Bluetooth and wi-fi, it was the coolest thing, giving you bragging rights as a “road warrior” in the “Roamin’ Empire,” as the computer and connectivity ads of the period trumpeted.

And then email and PDF happened, and suddenly all you had to do was to scan or even photograph a document—or even more simply, save it as PDF—and then to drag and drop it into your outgoing message. Like photographic film, faxing lost its reason for being in a historical instant, at least for most users.

There are, to be sure, holdouts who insist that reports of the death of fax are grossly exaggerated. There’s a piece online with exactly that title that even points out that instead of dying out, faxing has actually grown in recent times. “In 2010,” says the report, “the computer-based fax market was roughly $350 million per year, according to Business2Community.com. What’s the size of the market in 2013? The market for computer-based faxing is $620 million. Yeah, fax is still around. There are good reasons for the growth in electronic faxing, too. While e-mail has subsumed much of the role faxing used to play, fax technology still offers a number of benefits. These include the need for a paper trail, security, ease of use and business processes that are built around fax and are easier to keep alive than to replace with new processes.”

Take note, however, that the article says “computer-based” or “electronic” faxing, no longer the old method that required a special machine. It goes on to explain that “Just as phone calls have migrated to voice-over-IP (VoIP), fax has migrated to fax-over-IP. This digital version of the fax cuts out the need for paper and fax machines altogether, becoming a form of digital document that acts like e-mail but integrates more fully with older workflows and fax technology.” So FoIP (the “IP” is for “Internet protocol”) seems to be where Bain’s pendulums have gone, and its users argue that there are still things today’s fax technology can do—like provide digital receipts—that regular email can’t (a dubious argument, it seems to me).

As for myself, I’m glad to be rid of that old whine-and-screech. If you have a document for me, email it to me, or upload it to DropBox, and we’ll be saving a small stand of trees and a tub of ink in the process. I’m prone to weeping in remembrance of things past, but losing my fax machine simply leaves me radiant with the glow of digital liberation.

[Image from hlsbs.com]

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 185: Wired for Fun

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Penman for Monday, February 1, 2016

 

 

SOME INTERESTING changes took place in my home-office environment over the recent Christmas break. First, as a gift to the household, especially my movie-loving mom, I got a multi-user subscription to Netflix. Second, because of Netflix, I signed up with a lifetime Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, which, among other benefits, allows users to watch US-based offerings (like Netflix, which very recently opened a limited Philippine operation, largely dispensing with the need for VPN). Third and perhaps most importantly for the long run, I ramped up our Internet connection, from the old 5 Mbps to a whopping 100 Mbps fiber-optic line that had just become available in our Diliman neighborhood. The setup then prompted me to acquire an Apple TV unit, which streams Netflix shows, among others, from the Internet to your HDTV set, completing the home-movie experience (well, throw in some popcorn and Coke for the full effect).

If you’re not too tech-savvy and if I’ve left you hopelessly confused by that exasperatingly jargon-laden paragraph, let me unpack it for you, as I’d explain it to someone like my mom. (I should add that my mother is unlike most 87-year-olds. She doesn’t have a computer, but she’s otherwise glued to four devices—her TV, her iPhone, her iPad, and her Android tablet. She loves playing vocabulary and bubble-type games, which keep her brain cells humming, on top of the 20-minute walk she takes every afternoon.)

“Home office” refers to the fact that over the past three decades, with the rise of the Internet and indeed its indispensability to modern living, more people have been able to work at home, or to bring much of their work home. I teach at the university, but most of my writing is done at home. My wife Beng also has her art-restoration studio at home. This means that we have to invest in equipment and technology that will allow us to get our work done, and done well, right where we are.

For me, that means several computers—I use a small MacBook Air as my main workhorse, portable but powerful, with a very fast processor and a large hard drive; for a backup, I have an older, larger MacBook Air, a bit slower, but good to have around just in case the main machine falters or is in repair; I also keep an iMac on another desk for when I need to see larger images, or to have fun surfing (or playing online poker) while I work. Yet another screen is almost always open at my desk: a tabletop TV, on which I keep up with the news.

All that hardware would be of little use without a fast and reliable Internet connection, and here I was lucky to be living in an area now covered by PLDTFibr, which ran a promo over the Christmas break offering a 100 Mbps service for six months (it’ll slide back down to 50 after six months, but you can’t sneeze at 50 Mbps either—and no, I’m not getting anything from the company for this plug, not even a coffee mug).

What does “100 Mbps” mean for the consumer? Webpages load in a snap, instead of crawling down the screen as some circular icon keeps spinning; you can download a 1-gigabyte software update in minutes rather than hours or overnight, as I used to be resigned to; and you can upload large files, say to DropBox or YouTube, without having to knit a doily while it loads. Is it expensive? It cost me only P500 more to level up from my old 5 Mbps service from another provider, which I had been a faithful client of for over ten years.

The best beneficiary of a fast Internet connection, however, is streaming, which is the way those who sell movies and music, like the iTunes Store and Netflix send you their material over the air—in one continuous flow, like you were watching a movie at the theater. But that’s more hopeful than achieved for most Pinoy consumers, because, as of a year ago, the Philippines had the third-slowest average Internet speed, at about 2.8 Mbps, in Asia, according to the folks at Akamai, who keep tabs on these things (No. 1 Korea averages 23.6 Mbps).

That means that your screen will very likely freeze just when things get really interesting in the movie, as your provider struggles to bring up the rest, like those guys who ran reels between theaters in the old days. (Lilia Ramos Shahani wrote a great piece on this for the Star, “Why Is Our Internet So Slow?” last August.)

And there’s nothing better to do with streaming than watch movies and TV shows from where they’re stored—the servers of US-based Netflix, for example, which we used to be able to access only through VPN. (Netflix didn’t want people in countries it didn’t serve—like the Philippines, until recently—to see Netflix shows. The Internet being what it is, some smart folks found a workaround, VPN, which tricks the Internet into thinking that you’re in Tampa, Florida instead of Tuguegarao, Cagayan.) There’s been a lot of argument over whether VPN-enabled Netflix is illegal, but it isn’t piracy—you still pay for Netflix, but are simply diverting its stream to your barong-barong. (I pay about $12 or less than P600 a month for a four-user license.)

That argument is now moot, as Netflix has officially added the Philippines to its serviced countries, albeit with a thinner menu; you’d still need to turn on your VPN to get the full US package (Netflix, however, has rethought its toleration of VPN, so that option might not last. I’m not too bothered, as I value VPN more for the PBS documentaries I like to watch on my iPhone in some traffic jam or over long, boring meetings. VPN is also good for your digital security, masking your real IP address from snoopers.)

The piece de resistance in this upgraded setup is the Apple TV, a small black box that uses wi-fi and your TV’s HDMI port to let you enjoy Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet video—even your own library of movies, music, and photos—on your big TV, instead of squinting at them on your phone or laptop. It isn’t cheap—the gadget costs a bit less than P9,000 for the basic fourth-generation model—but there are alternatives. Chromecast, a thumb-sized thingy made by Google and marketed by Globe for about P2,000, will hook you up to Google Play Movies, YouTube, Spotify, and other entertainment fare.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to think of work when you’re this wired for fun, but you can also say that this what makes all that work worth it—digital Disneyland at the click of a remote-control button.