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. 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. 136: Back to the BlackBerry (Sort of)

IMG_6926Penman for Monday, February 16, 2015

 

THIS MONDAY, I’m going to take a break (and give my readers one as well) from my ponderous ruminations on Philippine culture and politics and revert from PenMan to GadgetBoy, that now-overaged fancier of technotoys who still nurses a naïve faith in technology as the savior of humanity, or at least the bringer of boxed delights.

One of those boxes (in matte black, natch) came my way last month on my US trip, when—shortly before my departure—I discovered that the LG clamshell that I had been using as my US Verizon phone had finally died, refusing to boot up after four years of faithful employment. I’m in the US at least once a year to visit family and attend conferences, so a dedicated US phone has been good to have, which I simply load with prepaid credit when I go there.

Like human life itself, the eventual death of anything digital is a foregone conclusion, but in the case of these gadgets, it’s a passing not necessarily met with lamentation; rather, it’s cause for relief and release, making possible that word that brings joy and profit to every technotoy maker’s heart, “Upgrade!” I was frankly glad to see the little LG go; it was SIM-less and locked to Verizon, and I wanted a US phone that I could use somewhere else. (My iPhone 6 is unlocked, but as my local mainstay, I can’t afford to switch it over to another network while I’m away. Note to Apple: how about a dual-SIM iPhone?)

Enter—or rather re-enter—the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry? Remember, that once-upon-a-time smartphone market leader and innovator, the darling of the business and political crowd? For those born around the time when the world worried not about ISIS but Y2K, the emergence of the BlackBerry and its kickass keypad tore us away from our beloved Palm Pilots and Treos… until the iPhone came along in 2007 and rendered everything else instantly obsolete. (Of course, the iPhone itself has since been periodically upstaged by some Android upstart or other—until the new iPhoneX is announced.)

So the BlackBerry and its shares of stock have languished in the dumps, experiencing a momentary spike only when rumors of a buyout (recently, supposedly by Samsung) skitter through the Web. Which brings up the obvious question: why would anyone still want to get a BB?

That was No. 1 on the mind of BlackBerry CEO John Chen, who in mid-December boldly announced the release of the company’s latest model, the BlackBerry Classic—or I should say, latest but not quite. The BB Classic is premised on the idea that the BlackBerry got to where it did because it stuck true to its most prominent design feature—the physical keypad—and that people still long for solid keys to punch rather than pecking away like mad chickens on a flat screen.

It’s a bold gamble, an appeal to our deepest retro urges, and the design of the Classic revives and reinforces everything we felt about the BlackBerry of old. The Classic, said John Chen, would bring back the old BB faithful who had deserted the platform for the iPhone and Android, typically the more mature business user who felt more comfortable with the tactile keypad, who didn’t mind if their phone came only in black, and who valued security in communications (note that Sony executives hit hard by the Interview hack resorted to BlackBerrys for their fallback). I listened to Chen saying all this to CNN’s Richard Quest and found myself mesmerized—yes, that business user was me, I’d been away from the BB too long, and I missed that keypad like my first serious girlfriend.

Convinced that I needed a new US phone anyway, I ordered an unlocked Classic off Amazon, and had it delivered to my daughter in California in time for my arrival in the US in mid-January. I got a T-Mobile prepaid nanoSIM and a 128GB SanDisk microSD card to complete the package, and was back in BlackBerry heaven.

Sort of. As a phone, the Classic is everything Chen touted it to be—rock-solid, a delight to use, and by far the best in its class (given that it’s a class that graduated six or seven years ago). Externally, it’s the bigger brother of the old BB Bold 9XXX, with the familiar belt, trackpad, and keypad, the square screen, and the rounded corners. It’s a bit heavier than the iPhone, but I don’t mind—my one complaint about the IP6 was that it was so thin I kept panicking to think it was lost. It’s perfect for one-handed operation. The screen is sharp and crisp, the sound is good, and with System 10, you don’t need to go through the old BIS provisioning routine—it’s plug and play.

The downside? As I’d been forewarned, apps are sparse, although the BB can now use many Android apps through Amazon’s AppStore, MobiMarket, and Snap. I was able to get decent versions of many of my favorite iOS apps (WorldMate is BlackBerry Travel, for example); Skype and Viber work just fine, and a free program called Navigation provides useful and accurate street-level guidance. I wanted to give it every chance to become my main phone in lieu of the IP6—but in the end, I just couldn’t do it, on two accounts: the BlackBerry still has no true equivalent for FaceTime, which for those of us with daughters and mothers in the US is the iPhone’s real killer app, and its camera can’t hold a candle to the iPhone’s, which I and many others use semi-professionally, forsaking our bulky DSLRs.

So I say welcome back to the BlackBerry, and the Classic does live up to its name; it’ll be a great backup phone, for a second or a US line. Buying one in 2015 is a bit like choosing a new car with manual transmission, but oldtimers like me know what fun that can be—sometimes.

(The BlackBerry Classic is now available in the Philippines from MemoXpress.)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 32: An Ode to My iPen 5s

I’M CALLING it my “iPen,” but yes, it’s the new iPhone 5s (the 32gb “slate gray” version) that this incorrigible Apple fanboy couldn’t resist during a recent sortie to Bangkok’s MBK shopping mall, which had loads of these gray-market goodies coming out a few days or even weeks ahead of its scheduled launch in most parts of the world. It came at a considerable premium, of course, but if you factor in US sales taxes and shipping (plus how much you would pay for that ineffable factor called instant gratification), it all evens out, or at least I convinced myself so. What does the 5s have over the 5 (mine’s not even a year old, picked up in the US last October)? Not much—they’re the exact same size, so I just slipped the new phone into the old, custom saddle-leather case—but it does have this cool fingerprint-ID technology that saves you a lot of passcode and password keystrokes, and the camera is blazingly fast and sharp. Worth all the extra bucks? I guess. Do I really need it? Very probably not. Do I really want it? Absolutely. Here’s a visual ode to what I’ll be signing with as my “iPen”:






Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

Penman for Monday, August 5, 2013

FROM INDIA, last week, came the news that the company that handles that subcontinent’s telegram service had sent out its last telegram, ending a facility that had been available to Indians since 1850. It was also from India that, two years ago, we received word of the demise of the last operating manufacturer of typewriters in the world, a company called Godrej and Boyce, which was still making up to 12,000 typewriters a year until 2009.

It might seem then that the horizon of obsolete technologies lies somewhere between Srinagar and Chennai, but of course we Pinoys know differently. For even in this age of Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and FaceTime, many Filipinos—the oldest and the poorest of us, that is—still have one foot firmly planted in the 20th century, and it will be a while before we’ll learn to let go, at least in our minds, of the things that made our life easier back in 1963.

A surprisingly comprehensive history of the Philippine telecommunications industry, written and published online by Federico and Rafael Oquindo, says that the Spanish began laying out a telegraphic service in the Philippines in 1867.

I’m not sure if we can actually still send paper telegrams to one another, since the old telegraphic companies have either died out or been taken over by telecoms giants more interested in moving money than messages. Your relatives would surely be more interested in receiving a MoneyGram from you, anyway, than your telegraphic best wishes. If you’re feeling wacky, you could also send them a singing telegram, which—for around P2,000—will include a box of chocolates to go with the guitarist and singer, and your favorite song.

But where has the old-fashioned, STOP-punctuated slip of paper gone? Gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the steam engine and the carrier pigeon, it would seem, replaced by faster, sexier, and maybe even cheaper ways of getting a message from A to B. In the US, Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

To be perfectly dry-eyed about it, few 21st-century citizens will miss and mourn the telegram. To send one, you had to go to an office and scrawl your message on a pad of paper—a message that, depending on your agent’s sharpness of eye and adequacy of mind, could come out garbled on the other end. The cost of the telegram was computed by the word, and how fast it traveled depended on how much of a premium you were willing to pay; I remember that “NLT”, or night letter, was the cheapest option, because you had to wait for some night clerk to attend to your message after everything else went out for the day. And then your telegram, encased in a flimsy plastic envelope, had to ride along with a bagful of others in the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to cross rivers and mountains to get to its recipient, two or three days after pushed your message across the counter.

It all seems too cumbersome and too quaint now, but there was a reason for the telegram’s popularity in its day. Very often, it went out to people and places without telephones (yes, there was such a country and such a time), and it was much faster than a regular letter, albeit more tight-lipped. Arguably, the telegram was unique in the power it conveyed and the significance it implied, for only the most important—both the saddest and the happiest—of messages merited a telegram.

Unlike SMS, or even the pager (remember EasyCall?) that preceded the cellular phone, the telegram was too slow for casual banter, too terse for courtship or argument. It worked best at bringing you the good news and the bad news: prizes won, loved ones lost, congratulations, condolences, reminders, pleadings.

I have a soft spot for the telegram, because it figured prominently in my literary career, starting with one I received in May 1969, informing me that I—then a high school senior—had won a national essay competition. Over the next two decades, at around this time of year, I would scan the horizon for the RCPI messenger, the bearer of the only telegram that mattered to me and hundreds of other aspiring Filipino writers: one sent by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Foundation, telling us that we had won and inviting us to the September 1st awarding ceremony. (Our exuberant imagination supplied the rest of the unspoken message, which understandably would have cost the Palancas too much to tack on to their congratulations: “You’re a wizard of words, a literary lion, a paladin of prose whose works will sell a million copies, attract hordes of screaming fans, foment revolutions, and uplift human life and civilization!”) I did receive a number of those telegrams, a few of which I still keep as souvenirs, reminders of the Jobsian admonition to “stay hungry.”

There was one telegram I remember sending, sometime in the mid-1970s, from my small hometown in Romblon where I had gone on a short visit with my father and had quickly run out of cash, not having had much to bring in the first place. In desperation, I cabled my new bride Beng, whom I had to leave behind in Manila: “MISSUS I MISS US HONEY SEND MONEY.” And so she did.

And that’s all the old telegram companies do these days—send money to presumably happy recipients. Let text and Twitter take care of the bad stuff. If it’s the physical telegram itself you really want to send or to get, just so you can relive the good old days when people got inky fingers from writing long letters with fountain pens and licked postage stamps and waited for weeks to get something back in the mail, there’s hope for you. A company will still deliver a telegram to a Philippine address (and to over 200 other countries), for $24.95 plus 88 cents per word (no NLT option here); you’ll just need to go online at www.itelegram.com to avail yourself of this charming if pricey service.

SPEAKING OF other countries, it’s always good to read positive things about the Philippines when you’re abroad, even if they happen to be advertisements. In Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I beamed when I turned to the travel pages of a local newspaper and saw how many ads featured our national tourism tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” The ads offered special packages for Manila (read: the new Solaire casino) and other parts of the country (read: Boracay) via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Now, I’m one of those guys who—no matter how strongly I might criticize our foibles and follies back home—like to wave the Philippine flag when they’re on the road. Any chance I get, I invite my foreign friends to come and visit, allaying their usual fears by pointing out that they could get mugged in New York or robbed in Prague, anyway—they might as well enjoy our sunshine! Lord knows we need all the plugging we can get, with neighbors like Thailand roping in some 22 million tourists a year versus our 4 million.

I’m wondering now if it was schadenfreude—that wicked burst of pleasure you get when something nasty happens to your neighbor but not to you—that coursed through my veins when I came across an article in The Standard noted that traveling to Thailand was fraught with danger “from jet-ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion.” Hah! I thought—that’s what I’d been trying to tell my Hong Kong friends—it’s more fun in the Philippines!

Then I read on, turning the page: “Britain said Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance, behind the Philippines.” Ooops! Sounds like we need to do a little more work in the Philippines.

(Image from philippinephilatest.net)

Penman No. 27: One for the 5

Penman for Monday, Dec. 31, 2012

WITH ALL the literary reportage I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t found the time and opportunity to indulge in my favorite pastimes (aside from poker, which I really can’t promote too much in this family-friendly corner), so let me use these holidays as an excuse to talk about my preferred stocking-stuffers.

Yes, you guessed right—they have to do with gadgets both digital and analog, namely phones and pens. If these things don’t excite you even half as much as they do me, you can turn the page now—or you can forget who you are and forget who I am and just join me these next few minutes as I transform into a 58-year-old boy taking out his tractors for a spin on the living-room floor. I’ll save the pens for another time, and focus on that object of desire that my undergrad students swore they couldn’t live without (as their professor quietly agreed), the cellular phone.

The phone on my mind and in my hand is, of course, the iPhone 5, and I’m writing this piece partly to answer the question that many friends who know me as an Apple fanboy have been asking lately: “How’s the iPhone 5 and do I need to upgrade it to it now?”

Let’s answer the easy part of that question first, which is the second part, and the quick answer is “No.” To be brutally honest—something that won’t come easy to those terminally ill with gadget lust—nobody really needs to upgrade to anything now or almost anytime. Seriously. That phone or that laptop or that camera that served you so well this past year or even longer should be able to do the same thing for you for a few more years, with reasonable care.

What we might call “upgraditis” is a terrible affliction that makes old useful objects—once sparkling with charm and oozing with sex appeal—suddenly look dumpy and inutile, leaving you with little option but to dig into your meager savings or even go into credit-card debt for something newer and shinier. Solid-state hard drives? More gigabytes. Digital cameras? More megapixels. Batteries? More mAh (milliampere-hours to the uninitiated). Upgraditis also leads to a state of mind that equates “want” with “need,” and makes a P35,000 phone or P70,000 laptop look not only a reasonable but an irresistible buy.

So, knowing all these nuggets of wisdom so well and dispensing them so liberally, why did I upgrade my iPhone 4S, barely a year old, to the IP5? To be honest (I make that sound easy), because I’m 58—59 in a couple of weeks—and I don’t need an excuse to get anything new, with my profound awareness that I don’t have too many more sentient years ahead of me to enjoy all the wonderful gadgets that they’ll design in Cupertino and manufacture in Shenzen; I’d be lucky to be around when the iPhone 12 rolls out of the factory, so I’ll take the 5 right now, thank you.

That was actually easier said than done, given the traditional lag time between a product rollout in the US and its appearance on Philippine shelves. The IP5 was released in the US, with the usual fanfare, last September 21, and it didn’t have an official Philippine launch until two weeks ago, on December 14, when Globe and Smart released their stocks (Smart slightly ahead of Globe, at a midnight bash). I couldn’t wait that long, and like a few hardcore Pinoy techies, I got mine in the US when I was there last October for a conference. Other members of our Apple users group (www.philmug.ph) got theirs in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, Australia, and even France. Why these countries? Because iPhones are sold factory-unlocked (often by law) in these places, so you can use them with any GSM network worldwide, unlike in the Philippines, where most network-supplied cellphones will require a touch of Greenhills magic to set free.

The US iPhones come in several varieties (Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint), and to spare you a long discussion about 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks and what will work here, let me tell you that the most compatible, factory-unlocked iPhone 5 version to get in the US for Philippine use is the Verizon one (yes, it’s a CDMA phone, but has a GSM capability as well) that you can now get contract-free from places like Best Buy. That’s what I got off eBay last October, and at the December 14 Philippine launch I got Beng a white IP5 for not too much under a retention plan, so now her iPhone 4 goes to my mom, who’d been using an iPod Touch. Why are we all on iPhones—us here, and my mom, daughter, sister, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law in the US? Because of what I think is the iPhone’s true killer feature, for binational Pinoy families: FaceTime, the free, limitless videoconferencing app that’s even easier to use than Skype and virtually pays for the cost of the phone over time.

So what’s so great about the IP5? Frankly, for me, nothing too earth-shaking; it’s just nice to have if you can cough up the cash. If I wanted to rationalize the hit on my Amex card (minimized by the quick sale of my 4S to my happy sister), I’d say that the IP5 is narrower, thinner, and lighter in the hand; the screen is bigger because of the phone’s extended length, the already-good camera is even sharper, the processor is faster, and the phone is LTE/4G capable, meaning that it’s good to go for the faster networks our telcos have promised to build. (I tested LTE on Verizon in New York, and it was blazingly fast.)

On the downside, the iPhone’s uninspiring battery life hasn’t really improved, at least in my own field tests, so that I’ve taken to carrying a power bank—a rechargeable battery—in my bag or glove compartment just to get through the day and my all-night poker binges. (I use my phone as a business machine rather than a toy—I check my email, surf, and even do school work and write articles like this on it—so I can’t afford to employ battery-saving tricks like turning 3G or Wi-Fi off.) Also, unlike the hard glass and tough plastic of the 4/4S, the anodized aluminum back and sides of the IP5 have been reportedly prone to scuffing in both the black and white models. (Another problem may be network-related; what’s the use of a 4G capability if your network is so slow, even on 3G?)

So what’s my bottomline on the IP5? Five million people apparently felt that they just had to have it within three days of its first release, but if you’re happy with your iPhone 4/4S or even your Samsung (and if you’re not 58 and bothered by your mortality), stick with what you have; it should serve you well for another year or so.

Otherwise, bite the bullet, sell the farm, and queue up for the iPhone 5 at your nearest Globe or Smart branch. Remember all the tedious routines and forms you’re going to have to fill out (there was much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth at the December 14 launch over the four-hour queues, messed-up reservations, and unactivated nano-SIMs). Why? Because I’ll bet you my black 32-gig iPhone 5 that—for all the moaning and groaning and the buyer’s remorse that you’ll be going through now—you’ll be doing it all over again for the iPhone 5S, 6, 7, and 8.