Friday, September 29, 2006

Storms

Let science say what it will, deep down inside anyone who's ever been caught in the middle of a storm knows that storms are supernatural.

Of this I was reminded when I woke up yesterday to a persistent whistling. With the morning still dark and grey, I searched around the apartment groggily for the culprit. It sounded like a child who had been given a pipe, and excited as he was, he played it tunelessly and tirelessly. Finally, I traced it to the door.

I put my hand to the doorknob and pulled. It held fast, as if someone was pulling at the other end, desperate to keep some secret. I pulled harder and the door came free. There was no one there.

Ignoring the overcast skies, I proceeded with my morning routine. By half past seven I was out of the building, on my way to class. The strong winds gave me pause. I looked up, saw the billowing clouds fleeing ominously from some invisible pursuer. I have never seen clouds move so fast before. When the Apocalypse comes, I am sure it would look eerily the way it did.

Wisely, I went back into the shelter of the condo. In the hallway, the invisible piper kept up his whistling, and poltergeists disharmoniously competed, clanging at the pipes. All day it would be like this, but the cacophony seemed a small price to pay for safety.

As it turned out, the rushing clouds and mischievous ghosts were merely harbingers for what was to come. By ten o'clock, the storm had built up in force. I simply stared out the window as it sent banshees of wind and rain to embrace everything in its path. In the distance, I saw spectral horses gallop down the side of the building.

Trees bowed. Lampposts knelt. Buildings swayed in tune. Dissatisfied with this worship, The Storm flung bits and pieces of siding about. I saw them flying at the same level from my perch on the 24th floor.

Perhaps I should have been afraid, but I was transfixed, at moments even gleeful. It's easy to be so when you're dry and cloaked in the illusion for safety. "Look at that!" I said to my sister as another sheet of plastic passed flew by. We both laughed, amused. We were lucky our window was parallel to the path of the wind, instead of full in its path.

What about those less fortunate? By day's end, the storm would leave many a work-a-day hero stranded. Some people would lose their homes. Some people, their lives. Yet that could I do? When a storm comes, it comes. One hides in the best place one can think of. That's it.

As it turns out, the storm was equally merciless to the rich. Travelling down the length of EDSA today, I found no Kris Aquino or Heart Evangelista or Claudine Barretto or Cindy Kurleto to assault my senses. There were no cellphones and notebooks to tease me, there were no lean and svelte models to seduce me. Where once their symbols demanded attention, only skeletons remained.

The Storm is a jealous god. It brooks no lesser idols. It tore through their symbols and broke their altars. I could only approve. Stripped of billboards, EDSA never looked so clean and appealing.

A storm, science tells us, is the confluence of many factors. It's combination of the spin of the earth, the pull of the moon, the turn of the tides, the humidity of the air, and the temperature of ocean waters, in short the play of high pressure areas against low pressure areas. My modern self tells me this.

But in the heart of the storm, I revert to a primeval self, fearful and wondering. There I see the storm for what it is.

An act of God.

Email from One Candle Schoolhouse: Teaching Humanity

By now, Martha Nussbaum's essay "Teaching Humanity" ought to have circulated in blogs and emails worldwide. If not, then I think it certainly should. It touches on cultural aspects increasingly lost in a world driven by economic and technological lust. Nussbaum's essay begins:
I have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I don't wish to suggest that nations should stop trying to improve it. But I worry that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry. The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both to the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. These include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach international problems as a "citizen of the world."

I got this essay this morning via email, courtesy of Diane Pool of One Candle Schoolhouse. One Candle Schoolhouse is a fine example of what Ms. Nussbaum is talking about and what endeavors directed towards culture can do.

Diane's email gave me a short update on what she and her kids had been up to after I gave them some Mango Jam comics. The digital painting above was done by one of her students as part of their effort to make their own comic.
You know the parlour game where someone starts with a sentence, the next one adds something, and on and on it goes around the room until you have a story? Well, I was thinking about a book that was done that way. I don't quite remember the title, but it was chapters instead of sentences that four or five published authors did. Dave Barry was the only one I remember, and obviously it wasn't a truly memorable story.

I've already started using this system with the kids as a means of pushing them to consider their own stories in terms of a comic strip. John Mark has 2-1/2 panels already, which I will attach for you to see--work in progress, remember--but I am so pleased with his willingness to try. He's using Paint for almost the first time. I think some of his other drawings will be in next week's MetroPost.

This is in response to the comic books you sent home with me. I'm still not sure how they've taken to them because, at first, they weren't interested. Now, slowly, I find they are starting to spend more time studying them, but I've not discussed anything more. Initially, the illustrations were just too 'townie'--fancy clothes,
hairstyles, situations--not anything like their rural world. So that's why I told them we need to produce our own strip. Do one on what it's like out here. When I
mentioned to John Mark (who is an only child from Mindanao, living here with an aunt because the school at home was too far away to attend) that his experience was something he could offer to other kids whose parents might be sending them away to school, he GOT IT.

So that's what's in the works, thanks to YOU!!!


And thanks, too, Diane!

In case you're wondering, I believe the little story that John Mark did here was of their visit to the Silliman University marine laboratory. At least, that's what I think it is because of the whales in the picture.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Presentation: Customizing SLAX

This is the presentation I gave today at the Philippine Open Source Conference.

From the session description: SLAX is a small, fast, and flexible distribution that lets you run Linux completely from CD-ROM or USB pen drive without installation to hard drive. As such it is ideal for distributing small Linux software applications: companies could use SLAX to send out demo packages to customers; teachers could use it to give out educational software to students. This session introduces SLAX and gives the steps to customize the look of the distribution as well as to load it with customized applications.

The important points in this presentation were:

1) Putting together a customized SLAX CD is a four-step process: copy SLAX CD contents to hard disk; add modules (applications) to the /modules or /optional directory; write the ISO using make_iso.sh; burn the ISO to CD.

2) Modules are simply compressed directories. You can create a module out of a directory using dir2mod.

3) For small changes, use the /rootcopy directory. /rootcopy will recreate whatever directory structure you have there into the root directory of the live SLAX file system.

4) Modify the SLAX bootup sequence by making changes to isolinux.cfg. Recommended behavior is to add "autoexec=xconf;startx" to boot directly to graphical mode.

5) The presentation highlights the locations of various files for customization.

Not one of my better performances, unfortunately, but now that I don't do this professionally, I can shrug it all off without feeling too bad.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Difficulties in idiom and mood

I've posted some of my short stories and novel excerpts up at the Cre-W website of Mensa Philippines. I'm not a member of Mensa, mind you. I'd probably flunk the IQ exam. But they asked me to be a member of the Creative Writing special interest group.

Cre-W member Steve Ladan was kind enough to post a short critique of my short story, Ricochet. His comments:
I just read your short story, Ricochet. It was really nice! I liked the message and the theme. However, I would just like to comment that your choice of words at the beginning is a tad disconcerting. The phrase "punch to the gut" probably wasn't used back in Biblical times (which I infer, is your setting). I also found some words like faculty and speediest too technical and modern and it somewhat broke the mood of the narration. Sometimes, it is better to use the plainer words in order to create the right atmosphere.


Steve's comments were right on the mark, and those are the first things I'll fix if (when!) I rewrite the story. But his comments also brought to mind some of the difficulties of idiom, especially when one is writing across cultures.

I think the problem happens on two levels: 1) whether the dialogue is actually representative of the setting; and 2) on the perception of the reader as to (1). Now, I don't speak Aramaic and I'm guessing that not too many people do, either. So there's no way for us to verify (1). Then
again, that's immaterial because I messed up on (2). I suppose the safe answer is to always write a piece so that it satisfies (2).

If Aramaic seems a bit too distant, then we can try something closer: English stories in the Filipino setting which gives us some confidence as to (1). Some questions for consideration:

1) How do you handle Filipino idioms in an English-language story? Do you translate literally? Or do you use an equivalent English-language idiom?

2) How can you use Filipino expressions in the dialogue effectively, without making it look like a crutch that shouts "this is a Filipino story!" (I particularly dislike dialogue that adds "iho" and "iha" gratuitously. It just sounds pretentious.)

3) Can you still safely use English idioms without the story sounding too foreign?

Anyway, just some thoughts.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Modern myth-making

"Are we still a myth-making culture? I mean, from how I understand it, the ancients used myths to explain the phenomena around them, but in this day and age, we think we've already explained everything. Do we still make myths? Or are we doomed to rehash the myths that our ancestors made?"

That was me posing a question in the class that I sat in yesterday. I'd like to think that it was an earnest question, though I won't deny that I was trying to impress the folks around me with such a seemingly deep thought.

"Yes, we are," Dr. Garcia answered. "Up to now there are still areas which science and philosophy fail to answer adequately, and this is the area where myth-making comes in. And, you might note that many of the modern myths already become intergalactic in nature."

In hindsight, it seemed like a silly question to which I already knew the answer. Fiction is my hobby, and I have one leg firmly planted in the realm of fantasy and science-fiction. Of course we still make myths! Star Wars, for example, is our modern fairy tale; in fact, just one among many. All you need to do is take your pick from among the multitudes of choices in fandom.

On the other hand, the modern myths of this category do not really satisfy my criteria for myths of the order that the ancients seemed to hold. No one really looks to Star Wars as a real story, except perhaps in the lunatic fringe of geekdom. The myths of old at least seemed to be wrapped in the essence of reality and were widely believed and accepted by a large number of ordinary people.

Ordinary people. That's one of the keys of a myth of the first order, that it has to be accepted as the truth by ordinary people. Some myths may spring from the imagination of priests and poets, but it takes the mass of ordinary people to give life to them. A very democratic process, we might say.

Perhaps Dr. Garcia was referring in part to the cult of UFOs when she pointed out to the intergalactic nature of modern myths. Some folks, notably in the United States, seem to have made a new religion out of this, sometimes with disastrous results, e.g., Heaven's Gate. But UFOs are too far out in the fringes of society to be considered part of the lore of ordinary people.

To be continued....

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dalliance with Temptation

The curve of her neck was a dead giveaway to her past life as a ballet dancer. The way she carried herself was evidence of terpsichorean grace still in abundance. All this would be confirmed when she would pull out a pair of castanets much later on. A few years ago, I might have easily pleaded guilty to a schoolboy crush. But the performing arts were furthest from my mind as I hung on her every word:

"What is the relationship of myth and philosophy...? Eastern mythology, just like its philosophy, tends towards the cyclic, whereas Western mythology, just like its philosophy, is linear, with a cataclysmic end.... Why do you think the Greek philosophers distanced themselves from poetry above any of the other arts?"

At the same time, I was quietly asking myself why I was having this experience in Manila and not in Dumaguete. And why only now instead of three years ago when I still held residence in the Big City?

Before I lead you on any further, I should clarify that this isn't about a sudden torrid love affair into which I've entangled myself here in Manila. It might as well be, though.

This afternoon I found myself in De La Salle University, sitting in a graduate class on Philosophy and Myth conducted by Dr. Leni Garcia -- she of the dancer's grace. That was the scene of the very engaging lecture on the various aspects of myth. Earlier in the day, my friend Lola and I were attending Dr. Marj Evasco's book launch in DLSU. It turned out that Lola and Leni were very good friends, and so we got an impromptu invite to sit in her class. I hadn't intended to spend my afternoon this way, but it was time well spent if only for the engaging discourse.

Sitting in on Dr. Garcia's class was a great way to cap the end of my second week in Manila. The past two weeks have not been lacking in social interaction and intellectual activity. My weekdays are spent in a software engineering course in which I'm reacquainting myself with the mainstream of IT; thus far, my weeknights have been spent playing badminton, dinner and conversation with friends, movies with my sister, gatecrashing a TV party, movie marathons with sci-fi geeks, open source conferences, and several detours to bookstores and toy shops.

In short, I've been very happy. And that's why I feel a little guilty. This is my dalliance with temptation.

During my first few days back in Manila, I was thinking of writing about the many inconveniences of the city: squeezing in the jam-packed morning rush MRT, the endless assault of sound and smell on the highway, and the rushing and unfriendly faces of workaday Manilans. I wanted to compare it with the relative peace and quiet and unhurried pace of Dumaguete. No, I don't want to stay in Manila, I said to myself...last week.

To my horror, I've learned to adapt to those little nettles. They don't bother me as much, no, especially not when I find that life is suddenly abloom.

It's not that I have been lacking for things to do in Dumaguete. There are, after all, the biking jaunts to Valencia or the morning jog along the boulevard. There's the pharmacy and the apartments to take care of. There's the occasional community building activity with Jong and the DTI gang, or the invite to a performance at the Luce.

But somehow, my life in Dumaguete seems to pale so much in comparison with what Manila seems to offer now.

It's the range of activities available to me here, whether it's sneaking into class or attending moviethons or book launches or get-togethers over dinner.

It's the bookstores and toy shops with their wide range of selections that I can walk into at any time for hours of endless browsing.

It's the restaurants which, though somewhat pricey, assure me that I won't run out of variety before the middle of the week.

Above all, it's the various friends that I have here, friends with whom I share common interests and tastes in literature and movies and games. Sadly, friends like these are sorely lacking in Dumaguete. Dumaguete folk seem to be narrower, more limited, and -- gasp! -- much more crass and materialistic.

The three hours in Dr. Garcia's philosophy class went by quickly. Lola and I spent another hour chatting away about the mundane and the angelic. And then she was off to her flamenco class.

"If you're free next Saturday, you can sit in again," she offered to Lola. "You, too, Dom."

I am sorely, sorely tempted to come back.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Transforming Power of Vision

Lest we become dismissive of the power of vision, it behooves us to remember that the Dumaguete that we know today is the product of a visionary enterprise.

Over a hundred years ago, David and Laura Hibbard wife established the Silliman Institute in Dumaguete, choosing it over Manila, Cebu, Zamboanga, and Iloilo. That decision set off a chain reaction that was to establish Dumaguete as a center for learning in the Visayas. This is a story that we already know well.

Hibbard might not have explicitly written a vision statement but it's hard to imagine that he did not hold one close to his heart. The Dumaguete of that time was a small town, a poor cousin to Bacolod, a land of sugar farmers and fishermen. Of what significance would a school in that town be, except perhaps as an act of foolishness or Christian charity?

Without a vision, that small class would have ambled along on the languid pace of Dumaguete, perhaps growing by a few students a year. Without a vision, the Hibbards might have been satisfied that they were performing their simple Christian duty. Yet in a little less than forty years' time, Silliman had become a university.

Not to overvalue the impact of Silliman nor to disregard the contributions of other institutions, but imagine what Dumaguete would be now if Hibbard had passed it over for another town? Or imagine what it would be if Hibbard had been merely been content with a pusillanimous dream for his school? Perhaps we might just be another quaint colonial town in the shadow of Bacolod, content with the measly scraps from sugar dreams. One only need to look at wayside towns along the coast struggling to make their mark in the world.

Complacency is anathema to greatness, but that's the trap into which we fall when we say that the city has already reached its ideal state, when we say that no more need be done. Without a vision, there is nothing to transform ourselves into, and Dumaguete will remain the Dumaguete that it is now.

So then, the question: what dream do we follow? Among that multiplicity of possibilities, which do we want to become? A center for tourism? A capital for business process outsourcing? A beacon for education? If so, how should that education be different from the education that our schools are offering now? Or is it something else entirely? It's not so much of a problem to have many conflicting visions than to have no vision at all.

Like Hibbard, the adopted son of the city, we native sons and daughters need to dream.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Blog Anniversary

It's the second anniversary of this blog.

Two years ago, I wrote:
I haven't really shown the drive to maintain blogs, with the possible exception of my weekly column on Rational Technology, published in Dumaguete and on my own web site. Well, there's also the moblog at TextAmerica but that's a slightly different story.


Some 720 posts later, I think I can say that I've disproven any doubt of my ability to run a blog. That's been roughly one post a day, which isn't such a bad record.

According to Sitemeter, I get anywhere from 80 to 150 unique hits per day. Technorati says that 78 blogs link to me, placing me at the breathtaking rank of 34,318th most popular blog on the Net. Not bad at all, in my estimation, considering that I don't ask for links or engage in self-promotion.

Thanks to all who visit this site regularly and to those who've linked to me gratuitously. Do let me know if I haven't reciprocated.

But it's not so much about the statistics as it is about friendship. This blog was written initially with a special someone in mind, but it's grown to include real-world friends who blog, and lurkers and bloggers who've since become real-world friends. Thanks, friends.

(The relationship with that special someone has hit a rough spot, as I've hinted elsewhere in this blog. It's the unfortunate result of distance, pride, philosophical differences, and a bit of hurt. I have no doubt we'll be friends again, owing to inherent nature of our characters, but those wounds will take time to heal.)

As much as it's been about keeping touch with friends, it's also been about expression. My early blog entries were a mishmash of technology, art, commentary, and personal events, many of largely juvenile quality. I'd like to think that over the past year I've taken a leap in the maturity of my thoughts and my posts. I've found that the questions I'm tackling more and more are the ones about personal, cultural, and national identity.

And let's not forget Dumaguete of whom I write about much.

Finally, this blog has been a faithful companion through some highlights over the past year: my Dad's operation, solo biking, the writers workshop, and my first (and I hope, last) breakup. In a way, this blog has also been a prompt for not a few of my adventures (and misadventures) as I sometimes wonder, "what am I going to write about today?" With this blog, I can recapture those memories at a glance.

Someday, when I'm old and wrinkly, I'm going to have something to point out to my grandkids. I'm going to say smugly: "Yup, that's me. That's how I was before."

I'm glad I blog.

About me: a mindmap

"About Me" is just about one of the hardest descriptions to write. After all, how can you adequately capture the essence of your identity? Usually, the answers to that question devolve into one's job description, or where one comes from. Always, something is missing.

Recently, I discovered mindmaps by way of the Software Engineering class I'm taking up. It's a great tool for breaking down an idea into its constituent components. And what is identity if not an idea?

So this is Dominique Cimafranca, mindmapped into the different parts which make him what he is.The mindmap doesn't spell it out in so many words, but I think this provides a reasonably complete picture of me. It helps that no one aspect of personality or character takes precedence.

So who am I? I'm a reader, writer, technogeek, advocate, leader, artist, adventurer (ha!), and friend whose life has spanned four cities. I have had some funny past ambitions, one of which has already come true. Most of all, I am still a kid.

But you knew that already.

If you want to make your own mindmap, try VYM (View Your Mind) or Freemind.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Vision (or the lack of it)

"Dumaguete City, a city of Gentle People, envisions to become an ecologically-balanced and peaceful city, a center of sustainable development and quality wholistic education with self-reliant, socially responsible, morally upright, and highly empowered people by 2015."

Thus goes the vision statement of Dumaguete. If you didn't know we had one, you can thank the Institute for Solidarity in Asia (ISA) for prompting it from the local government and Philippine City Competitiveness Ranking Project (PCCRP) for coaxing it out of its chest of secrets. Still, questions probably remain as to its provenance. Who crafted the vision, and more importantly, does it have the buy-in of the population at large?

In the first place, one might ask if a vision statement is of any relevance to a city of Dumaguete. Years of badly written corporate vision statements, skewered in countless Dilbert cartoons, have turned vision statements into a joke. So how much more for a city with a reputation, deserved or not, that does not seem to care?

Yet underneath all this cynicism, there's still the wisp of hope, of longings for a better tomorrow. For this reason, articulating a vision that resonates with the community becomes an imperative. If the vision statement is a joke, it's because it was a joke to begin with, a slapdash piece of work cobbled together to fill the requirements of a workshop.

So now the question for the reader: as a Dumagueteno, how do you feel about this vision statement?

A vision statement, according to one definition, describes in graphic terms where the goal-setters see themselves in the future. It's the ideal state, as it were. As such, it has to be something grand and inspiring. At the same time, it must be clear as to its purpose and objective.

So another question: does the vision statement above have those characteristics?

Let's dissect the main points of the vision statement.

"...a city of Gentle People..." really describes nothing new about Dumaguete. It's been the city's tagline for the longest time, a distinction bestowed supposedly by Jose Rizal during his overnight stay on these shores. I'm willing to forgive its presence in the statement if only as an assertion of our present identity.

"...envisions to become an ecologically-balanced...city..." Here I begin to have a problem. We all know of the passionate environmental dedication of the city at large, and I can understand why the crafters of the statement want to pay homage to it. But what exactly do you mean by ecological balance?

Ecological balance is defined as "a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession." By definition, a vision of ecological balance is incompatible with any human expansion. It's a perfectly acceptable objective to set for a nature preserve, but it reaches a point of absurdity when applied as a measure to a city. On the other hand, if the vision crafters want to create a nature preserve out of Dumaguete, they should just say so.

"...a peaceful city..." has a negative connotation. It somehow brings to mind the picture that Dumaguete has become a war zone of sorts. If it is our vision to become a peaceful city, it somehow implies that we are not now a peaceful city. While we may complain about the rising incidents of criminality in the city, we are not, objectively speaking, a hotbed of lawless violence.

"...a center of sustainable development..." Sustainable development, wonderful as it sounds, is one of the new cliches that have sprung from the new environmental politics. Sustainable development is "the process of developing land, cities, business, and communities, so as to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." It's a laudable guideline, but it does not constitute a vision for the simple reason that it is too vague. Developing into...what? What do we want to be? That is the question that a vision statement is supposed to answer.

"...center of...quality wholistic education..." Finally! we reach some level of specificity! Becoming a center for quality wholistic education is a concrete objective, worthwhile and inspiring. But holding that for a vision is a hundred years too late, isn't it? It simply describes what Dumaguete already is.

"...with self-reliant, socially responsible, morally upright, and highly empowered people..." We want to become in the future what we are not today. Does this mean, then, that Dumaguetenos are dependent, irresponsible, immoral, and lazy?

The problem with the vision statement as given above is that it is not a vision statement. It is a statement of what we are now, or to put it a little more bluntly, the illusions of what we think we are now. It is meant not so much to set a direction for the city as it is a pat on the back.

It says, "we are comfortable with the status quo." And that, merely shows a lack of ambition and a lack of imagination.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Whatever happened to computer science?

Over a span of two pages, the ICT roadmap talks about ICT competency and standard development. Mention is made of the National ICT Competency Standards which would gauge the skills according to Basic and Advanced Categories. There will also be an ICT Competency Assurance Body that would accredit and certify professionals. Finally, there's an ICT for Education plan that covers a range of programs.

And yet it's never really clear what types of standards we are measuring ourselves against. This vagueness is a major failing in itself. However, as I read through the program descriptions, I can't help but think that the ICT roadmap is gearing itself for the lowest common denominator in ICT capabilites in an effort to reach the widest possible audience, but at the expense of nurturing higher levels of expertise.

Most notable is the absence of any mention of computer science as a skill set to develop among its audience. Granted, not everyone can become a computer scientist, but even then it's not a field that can be ignored. We need researchers in the field of computer science if we are to move up the value chain of ICT.

Computer science is not about putting together business applications. Computer science is not about web design. Computer science is not, God forbid, about typing up documents in MS Word. Computer science deals with the thought processes behind the theoretical foundations of computer systems. Computer science is abstract and theoretical, and because of this, computer science is hard.

But computer science is also necessity. You need computer science in order to be able to get into the fields of cryptography, programming language design, operating system design, network hardware and software design, computer graphics, robotics, image processing, and bioinformatics. These are the high value work that brings in the investments, the international partnerships, and most importantly, national prestige.

Of course, there's the very old argument: we don't have those kinds of jobs here in the Philippines, so why bother? Ultimately, that's just a short-sighted perspective that leads to the vicious cycle of stagnation and defeatism. There's no point in developing computer science because there are no jobs of that sort here; and those jobs will never come here because we don't have computer scientists to fill those positions. Really, which is it going to be?

Given this environment, there are two imperatives in the ICT roadmap with regard to computer science:

1) Define a national program for computer science that the top schools in the country must implement. Different areas of expertise can be distributed across the different universities. The national program must include a target number of computer scientists within a certain time frame, categorized at undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels.

2) Establish an ecosystem by which an industry that is supported by computer science can thrive. In the first few years, this will mean linkages with multinational corporations. So be it, but only with the view towards our own local industry of advanced design. In the first few years, this might mean losing our computer scientists to other countries. So be it, so long as they understand that they must come back to the motherland.

On Community e-Centers

On the surface these community e-centers sound suspiciously like government-run Internet cafes. Is there anything underneath this program that differentiates it from your friendly neighborhood cybercafe? Please, I hope the answer isn't "free Internet access."

Internet cafes are already a fact of life in many communities. Where there is broadband access, there is likely to be an Internet cafe. Likely as not, access prices are dirt cheap, going for as low as P10 per hour. The market has, in this case, clearly and decisively stepped up to the job where government has been too slow in its response.

In the first place, community e-Centers should not compete with Internet cafes. Such a move goes against free enterprise and is quite possibly illegal. Clearly, the e-Centers differentiate have to offer services that Internet cafes do not.

Some general differentiators:

-e-Centers should focus on skills development, at the same time not limiting the scope to technical skills. e-Centers should offer programs of study that include literacy, entrepreneurship, and art. Programs could either be short entry-level familiarization seminars or long-term projects that have specific objectives on top of the skills development component.

-e-Centers should be cornerstones for local content development. A fundamental project for each eCenter should be the documentation of community life through blogs, podcasts, and vcasts.

-e-Centers should act as a spur for e-commerce, in particular, as a means of promotion for the community's products.

These are just general guidelines to what services e-Centers will offer. Ultimately, each e-Center would have to decide what projects best fit the communities that they serve.

They key to making an e-Center work would be to attract and train leaders who can organize these activities. These community leaders do not necessarily have to be government employees. They could well be volunteers coming from civil society willing to contribute their time and skills. A critical component of the e-Center project would then be the establishment of this network of leaders. These leaders must be provided with training, planning assistance, progress monitoring for their projects, and a continuity plan for when a change of personnel is required.

This PDF presentation by Kenji Saga provides some good perspectives on how e-Centers can work.

On teaching office productivity suites

Reproducing an email from Randy Bandiola of COSCA, adding to our mailing list exchange of Linux teaching experiences. This note touches on issues regarding the conduct of office productivity classes. Note also the direction of diocesan schools in Negros Oriental to go with open source software.
Dom, one problem I see with introducing students to software particularly the office productivity suite is that most teachers do it in a more "traditional" way: click on file, then click on save, then enter filename, etc.

Most of the students are in one way or the other already familiar with the software. They just find the lectures boring. What Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong did and what I've replicated here in COSCA with much success is to integrate it with other subjects - say theme writing in English using OO.org Word Processor. We allow them to explore (with a little
guidance) the nitty gritty of saving files and formatting.

In a way, we don't compare MS Office with OO.org so everything is transparent. They use it as a tool and grading them based on the output. I believe that a little creativity on the part of the teacher will go a long way in making OO.org an accepted contender for MS Office. But we'll have to sell this idea to the teachers first. Right now, my team in COSCA is already preparing the final touches to our OO.org textbook and exercise booklet, in preparation for transition to Open Source of all Diocesan Catholic Schools next school year. We are planning to conduct training tentatively this coming October for all computer teachers.


And my additional comments:

This is going to sound extreme, but my personal preference is to not teach people how to use MS Word or even OO.o Writer. The number of features interferes with the writing process. Students end up substituting good content with fonts and formatting. I would rather start them off with Gedit (or Wordpad) so they can write without any distractions, and transfer it to a more full-featured word processor for the final formatting. But that's just me.

Positioning Digital Content on the ICT Roadmap

"CICT will promote the development digital content that is relevant and meaningful to Filipinos."

This is one of the more meaningful principles that the CICT has set out in its roadmap, but it needs some more elaboration and a reorientation. As written, the thinking behind treats the citizens as mere consumers of digital content, thereby severely limiting the scope of what materials can be delivered.
The goal is to make available online the Philippines' stock of content and provide all citizens with easy access to the information that is important to their lives.


So who decides what content is relevant and timely? This is a recurring pattern of intellectual dictatorship, one that stunts the avenues of growth and expression.

Digital content is broadly defined as encompassing educational materials, national heritage collections, government information, research databases, literature, history and entertainment and resources in the various Philippine
languages – particularly the 8 major Philippine languages.


How could we make this digital content more compelling? There's no guarantee that once educational materials are online, citizens will willingly take to it. Government information and research databases are quite possibly the worst leaders for content. Nothing turns off an ordinary user than to be presented with dry information like statistics. This is not to say that the types of content proposed here are not important; but a lot more thought has to go into packaging the software so that it is relevant and meaningful.

Beyond this, the ICT roadmap has to go through a paradigm shift on its views of the constituents. Filipinos should not be treated as mere consumers of information, but instead as producers and participants in the transformation of information. Filipinos should be able to decide what content is important to them; only then can government properly respond to those informational needs.

But first they need to arrive at that mindset where they can make those decisions. This, to me, should be the overarching principle behind the ICT roadmap. Rather than giving people web browsers, they should be given HTML editors, and more importantly, the drive to put together something meaningful with those tools.

A plan like this will not be easy to execute. Most likely, it will go beyond the capabilities of the CICT as an agency alone. And yet to address the fundamental deficiencies in the Filipinos' appreciation for content, information, and culture, this is necessary.

Another Software Freedom Day celebration: medical informatics

And here's another note about Software Freedom Day, this time from Dr. Eloy Marcelo.

SFD 2006 sa UP Manila care of the National Telehealth Center, UP Medical Students Informatics Society, and Society of Computer Science Students (SOCOMSCI)

UP College of Medicine Basic Science Lecture Room Sept 15 5-7pm

We have Dr Raoul Kamedjeu from Centers for Disease Control Atlanta to talk about EpiSPIDER, an open source hack of YahooMaps and GoogleMaps for public health and disaster management

Other speakers are Mr. Alison Perez for Community Health Information Tracking System (CHITS), Marvin Yoingco for Introduction to the PHP CAKE framework, myself for the Philippine Malaria Information System and Pam Patdu for DrBlog (a LAMP project that won best student paper in Ireland).

Other presenters (not yet confirmed): Miguel Vega from UPSTRAT on RubyonRails.

Software Freedom Day in Manila

September 16 is Software Freedom Day. In Manila, the Philippine Linux Users Group is celebrating the event, coinciding with the 3rd Quarter Technical Seminar, with a series of lectures and demos at the UP College of Engineering Theater, running from 9AM till 6PM. Details here.


Saturday, 16 September 2006
9am - 6pm
UP College of Engineering Theater
UP Diliman Campus, Diliman, QC

ITINERARY
9:00AM - 9:30AM Opening Remarks and Introductions
9:30AM - 10:00AM Recorded Video Presentation, from Richard Stallman
10:00AM - 12:00PM Installfest and Software Demos; BUKAS Open Source Advocacy Meeting
12:00PM - 1:00PM LUNCH
1:00PM - 2:00PM Remote Deployment of Windows Clients using Linux-based Remote Installation Services, by Peter Santiago
2:00PM - 3:00PM Pervasive Linux Devices, by Rowell Atienza
3:00PM - 4:00PM Migrating to Postgresql, by Charlie Lopez
4:00PM - 5:00PM The Halalan Open Source Voting System by Diwa del Mundo
5:00PM - 6:00PM Birds-of-a-feather Sessions


A writer-friend who's not a techie asked me why we software needs freedom. Here's my answer:
Software is a tool for creative expression. As such, people need to be free to use it.

Can you imagine if one single company owned all the rights to writing materials: pens, pencils, typewriters, paper, notebooks, etc.? They would still sell you the writing materials but at the price they decide (most likely exorbitant). Furthermore, they would be able to decide what you write and how you write it. Not a pretty picture for writers, eh?

Well, that's pretty much how it is with software today. Most of personal software, for example, is owned by one company. If you care to read their licensing agreements, you'll realize that THEY own the software, and you're just given the privilege of using it. They can abrogate those rights at any time.

So that's why there's SFD, to let people know that there are free alternatives to expensive non-free software.

Dumaguete-Kuwait Linux Connection

The letter below is from a friend and fellow Dumagueteno who's working in Kuwait. I thought I'd reproduce it to show commonalities in how Linux advocacy organizations form. As one can see, they usually start out as underground organizations. See also Romance of Subversion.

I want to share this with the group, I just happen to know the Linux group founders and organizers of Kuwait Linux Users Group better known as the "Kuwait Linux". The funny thing is that we are working in the same company and never knew that they were Linux advocates until this week.

Keith and James are both retired US military men but are now working in a private company where I also work. But both are in the Contracting division and not in IT. I have known them for 9 months now but never expected them to know anything about Linux until this week. It all started when we were talking about Mozilla Firefox and Open Source then I asked them if they heard of the Linux OS, you could see from their faces that they were so proud to say, "sure we do"!

Kuwait Linux started in 1997 when James, a retired US Navy, received his first Red Hat Linux 2.0 Installer from the states and started to install it on his PC. He was impressed with the new OS and called up 2 other friends, Keith and Russel, and told them about Linux. The 3 of them got their PCs together, rented out an apartment and built a mini computer lab. They spent whole day and night experimenting on other stuff like printing and networking. Keith at that time did not have any knowledge about computers but because his friends were so hyped with Linux, he learned to assemble his first PC and learned his first OS which was Red Hat Linux.

In 1998 the group grew and was mostly composed of young IT enthusiasts or others may call it "IT Undergrounds". Some of the young members were also involved in hacking activities. Kuwait Linux managed to get support from Mandrake and SuSE at that time and proposed various projects to the government. The group grew big and were involved in different activities in promoting Linux. The young Kuwaiti's took over the group and is now composed of Kuwaiti's and expats.

Today, both government and the private sector are doing their transactions online, some of them use UNIX/Linux for the backend servers.

This story just tells me that you don't have to be a geek to learn Linux, only interest and hard work.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Linux with Dumaguete Science High School

This is an excerpt from my email to the ONeLUG mailing list. Not much time to blog for now, so excuse the raw, unedited version you'll read below:

Thought I might also share what I've been doing with Dumaguete Science High. RTP-DSHS was the recipient of PCPS, or PCs for Public Schools. Very nice IBM machines, too, running Fedora Core 4 (which, incidentally, originally came from me!) But you know how it is: the machines got dumped on them with training "to follow."

So I've been spending Fridays with the teachers and the lab admin there, getting things up and running.

Summary of what I did:

1) Introduced them to KDE Edutainment package. This was a big hit among the chemistry and math teachers because of Kalzium, Kig, and Kbruch.

2) Introduced them to SLAX. The idea here was for them to be able to redistribute applications to their students. Very excited at first, but ultimately, some hitches getting it to run on other machines, esp. with X. (I fixing this with a customized SLAX CD that automatically boots to X. But later when I get back).

3) Intro do OpenOffice.org. Here is where I have a real problem. Invariably, you get comparisons with Microsoft Office. And OpenOffice.org has some quirks, enough to make it different. Still, it's an essential. But I'm thinking from now on we should teach computers without starting with Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org.

4) Intro to Wikipedia. The PCPS machines come with a local copy of Wikipedia, without the Mediawiki component, just static HTML files. (Incidentally, I've learned how to create a local copy of Wikipedia with Mediawiki running.)

5) Got their PCPS lab connected to the Internet.

Of course, there's more work to come. I realized that this has to be a long-term commitment, that a one-day familiarization session simply will not suffice.

Onward!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Goodbye for now, Dumaguete

Yesterday I bade goodbye to Dumaguete. I'm feeling a little sad because it will be a while before I see her again. Thankfully, it's not a permanent departure but it is long enough to give me pause.

It's six weeks away from home that I'm looking at.

What's so important that I have to away for that length of time? PhilNITS is offering a class on Software Design and Development and I've signed up for it. Amazingly, it's free, one of the many benefits provided by Japanese funding.

Do I still need to go through a class like this, given my experience? Actually, yes. By training I'm an electronics and communications engineer, not a software developer. What I do know about software development has been learned on the job, and like many people I know, I've been "winging it."

Which has been fine, so far. Most of the things I've been working on have tended to be on the hardware and system administration side. If I have done any software, it's mostly been customization.

Now I'm looking at software design and development. That's the direction I want to take Dumaguete in. This couldn't have come at a better time.

And, hey, never too old to learn.

See you, soon, old girl.

Friday, September 08, 2006

On the government's role in ICT Development

Of government's role in ICT development, the Philippine ICT Roadmap has this to say:
CICT believes that the Government’s primary role in ICT development is to provide an enabling policy, legal and regulatory environment. An enabling environment for ICT development requires good governance at all levels, and a supportive, transparent and pro-competitive policy and regulatory framework.
As far as mission statements go, it's utterly unambitious and remarkable only in its passivity. In essence, the CICT is washing its hands of direct responsibility for spurring development of ICT in the country, preferring instead to let market forces take their course. The CICT justifies this approach by pointing to the liberalized structure of the local IT industry and citing its inability to adequately fund large initiatives.
But in view of the present liberalized stature of the ICT industry which resulted to the entry of numerous players in the past, the government’s role on ICT infrastructure roll-out should have to be limited. Relatively, with government’s prevailing financial woes, where programs on education, agriculture, health, debt servicing among others needs to be prioritized, it should instead play the role of an “enabler”.
Government policies are ultimately fluid. It's a position which works when it adapts to the common needs of its citizens; but the underside to this is the influence of lobbies which favors the interests of one sector over others. Particularly in the case of ICT, government cannot be merely an enabler. Government is itself one of the biggest customers of ICT, financial woes notwithstanding, and therefore has to make purchasing decisions which best reflect the interests of its people.

Furthermore, the CICT roadmap displays an utter lack of confidence in government to be an effective agent of change. Later in the document:
Initiatives and projects to develop the ICT sector will have a higher chance of success and sustainability if these are market-led, rather than government-led.
A liberal environment does not guarantee that market forces will fairly address the needs of the country, either. Market forces follow economic opportunities. Where demand far outstrips supply, market forces will cater first to high-profit, high-margin, fast-turnover sectors. This does not bode well for sectors currently underserved by ICT; it is these sectors that government must pay special attention to if it is to realize its goal of a “people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society."

ICT projects need not be costly. Througout the country there are several success stories of local government adopting simple but effective ICT solutions. In Siquijor, farmers are improving their knowledge of modern agricultural techniques by means of the Farmers IT System. In Manila, CHITS is improving the delivery of health care at the barangay level. Neither do they have to be cost centers: a barangay in Pardo, Cebu, for example, achieved high realty tax revenue collection by remote connection to the Cebu city hall system; its value proposition was simple: make it easier for citizens to pay.

And yet note: in none of these environments would existing market forces find any interest. If market forces had their way, the farmers, the health centers, and the barangays would be playing Ragnarok.

There are several projects such as these happening throughout the country through the initiative of local governments and non-government organizations. Already the reality runs counter to the principle espoused in the roadmap.

As a counterproposal, I say that government should make use of its organizational muscle to recognize, formalize, and replicate existing successful initiatives. At the same time, it should provide avenues by which innovative projects can see the light of day. Finally, an agency like the CICT should ensure that the purchasing and implementation decisions of local governments are sensible, efficient, effective, and above-board.

See also Value creation through the transformation of information

Disturbing news

Grisly news from the Philippine Daily Inquirer:
Delia Gutierrez, 51, the president and chief executive of Media G8way Corp., which publishes the country's leading IT magazines, was found lying in a pool of blood at the company's offices in the Makati financial district late Wednesday, police said.


I never knew Mrs. Gutierrez very well. We've met briefly once or twice, and that's about it. Still, the news comes as a bit of the shock. The Philippine IT industry is a very small community, so something like this -- especially something like this -- sends a shock.

I find two portions of the news puzzling:
Gutierrez had been stabbed five times in the chest; her throat had also been slashed, homicide chief senior inspector Gary Reyes told reporters.

And yet:
"...thinks the stab wounds were self-inflicted, but we do not discount the possibility of foul play."


As in: huh?

Dumaguete's Public Governance Scorecard

It's heartening to see Dumaguete's local government taking those first small steps to promoting awareness of its roadmap for city development. A month ago, at the Philippine City Competitiveness Ranking Project (PCCRP) workshop in Silliman, transparency came out as the primary deficiency of this administration. In answer to that, the city administration published its scorecard in the Metro Post. Last week's issue carried a renewed call by Engr. Josie Antonio, our Planning and Development Officer, for feedback to the roadmap. Consider this as the first in a series of responses.

Some background is in order. What's been presented as Dumaguete's roadmap is the output of a workshop with the Institute for Solidarity in Asia, an independent non-government non-profit institution headed by former Finance Secretary Jess Estanislao. Last year, the ISA invited mayors from across the country to join in their Public Governance System (PGS) and Dream Cities Programs. ISA has been running regular checkpoint workshops with its participants. In its last meeting, eight cities -- San Fernando (La Union), Tagbilaran, Calbayog, Iloilo, Naga, Samal, Cebu and Marikina -- were selected as showcases of the program.

Central to the PGS is the Balanced Scorecard (BSC), a planning tool developed in Harvard, and originally intended for companies. The scorecard measures a company's activities in terms of its vision and strategies. It is supposed to give managers a comprehensive view of the performance of a business. The scorecard is used foremost to translate a vision into operational goals.

There are 14 strategic objectives in Dumaguete's scorecard: improved peace and order, promotion as educational center, government employee morale, values education for government employees, improved fund collection, improved fund management, additional sources of revenue, skills and entrepreneurship training programs, promotion of broadband capabilities, improved services to constituency, environmental protection, reduction of poverty, improved dialogue among the different sectors, and high quality of life.

Snap! Snap! Are you still with me? I don't blame you if you've zoned out momentarily while reading through Dumaguete's scorecard criteria. Individually, the goals are laudable, even noble, but taken together, they do not a city vision make. In this case, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Here are my complaints against this scorecard:

1) There are far too many strategic objectives, many of them redundant and trivial.

2) There is no focus to the scorecard, no central idea to what the city is. This is one of the results of having too many objectives.

3) The scorecard mixes up operational issues with strategic visions. Yes, several aspects of city administration need improvement, even a complete overhaul; yes, it is central to the development of the city; but resolution of these issues should become a matter of course in achieving the strategic vision.

4) Many of the goals seem to be no more than motherhood statements. Take "reduced poverty incidence", for example.

5) Not covered in great detail here, but apparent from a reading of the actual presentation: it reduces performance metrics to a series of percentages, e.g., 100% increase in educational and sports tourism. What is the baseline number to this 100%?

6) The scorecard assumes a 10-year timeframe in which to meet its strategic objectives, hence the target year of 2015. Ten years is a long time, but that's an acceptable working period given the nature of cities. The problem is that the scorecard does not break down this timeframe into manageable chunks. For example, the city aims to have one policeman to every 500 citizens by 2015: how will that happen? If 500 policemen suddenly descend into our city in 2015, shall we say that the goal has been accomplished, even though for the intervening nine years we've been making do with 20 police officers?

7) It does not take into consideration the role that the neighboring towns and municipalities will play in the development of Dumaguete.


Some suggestions for revising this scorecard:

1) Establish the areas where we are strong or where we can be strong and use those as the primary strategic objectives: education, tourism, and business process outsourcing. There are already hints of that in the scorecard, so this can be done with some rearrangement.

2) Group together related objectives. Collapse operational issues into these objectives. Peace and order, livelihood, and environment can fall under "quality of life." Government employee morale, values education, and services to constituency can fall under "streamlined administration." A similar process can be done for revenue-related objectives.

3) Remove trivial objectives. Promotion of broadband capabilities is not a strategic objective. It is a capability that is tied to business process outsourcing and education. Similarly, "regular interaction between sectors" is a means to achieving strategic objectives, and should not be an objective in itself.

4) Establish hard numbers instead of percentages. This will allow better visualization of the data.

5) Break down the ten-year targets into quarterly targets, and measure at those intervals.

6) Involve neighboring towns and municipalities in the planning. Make use of their resources and share our own.

These suggestions are not to say that the scorecard we have is useless, merely that it could stand for a lot of improvement. That's really part of the feedback process. As I have no monopoly on good ideas and a vision for the city, I hope other folks will come out with their own suggestions to the roadmap. We need to learn to start making our own beds.

With thanks to Willy Priles, Jr. for his coverage of Naga's PGS scorecard.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Value creation through the transformation of information

Chin Wong and Fatima Lasay have already weighed in on the Philippine ICT Roadmap in their respective blogs. I thought I might do the same here. The June 5, 2006 version of the roadmap is available in PDF form.

Chin Wong calls the document unininspired, and I tend to agree. It's banal in its use of by-the-numbers government-speak and motherhood statements. It's really not something soaring or inspiring, and that's what we need right now.

Its main deficiency, as I see it, is that it was written with a 1990s mindset when business and governments were scrambling for access. Access is, as the roadmap admits, at the heart of the program. However, the market and the opportunities have already shifted to a different level. Yes, access is still an issue that must be addressed, but to be truly visionary and landscape-changing, the roadmap cannot have that as its heart anymore. Access has become merely a secondary instrument.

Instead, I would suggest a guiding principle that centers around the creation of value through the transformation of information. I know that sounds like consultant-speak but that's actually the principle by which business process outsourcing (BPO) outfits and contemporary Internet services operate. The value comes from the transformation of information into something more useful and more meaningful.

Some examples to support my case:
  • Medical transcription agents convert audio recordings of medical records into text suitable for storage into a database. By effecting this transformation, they create value.
  • Contact center agents act as an interface between clients and database information. Agents also transform abstract, often complex, information into bits that their customers can understand. Hence, they create value.
  • Social networking sites aggregate personal information and establish links between subscribers based on common criteria. They provide value by defining and showing those links. A twist to the concept, common to the so-called Web 2.0 services, is that the user becomes the manager of his information.


  • In all these cases, value is created from the transformation of information into something more meaningful. The power is not in the access; the power comes from the context of information, from its meaning.

    In the same way, this is where the power of computers come through. It is in their ability to transform information quickly, programmatically, and automatically and output that in myriad ways.

    So how does this apply as an ICT roadmap? All initiatives should be geared towards the creation of value. The core of ICT, after all, is primarily about the transfer and transformation of information so it would be redundant to claim access as the goal. The value ICT provides emanates from the various levels of meaning one achieves from that transfer and transformation that is enabled by technology.

    The objective then becomes one of helping citizens access, create, and transform information into something that is meaningful to them. This transformation either results in more information that feeds back into the system, or a guide for action in the real world.

    In lieu of the original goal of creating a
    "people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life"


    I would suggest
    "people-centered, inclusive, and value-oriented Information Society where everyone can access and utilize information and knowledge that is meaningful to them and in like manner transform and share that information which is meaningful to others. This Information Society enables individuals, communities, and peoples to first of all define their identities and map out their roles in the globally interconnected world, and in so doing help them achieve their full potential."

    It's not perfect, and it seems a trivial thing to spend time on, but I think we have to begin with that principle in mind.

    Hacking a voting machine

    Of relevance to the vote counting machines that the COMELEC purchased and which the Supreme Court subsequently junked is this bit of news from Slashdot: how to hack a voting machine in 4 minutes with $12 worth of equipment. The full article, with photos, is here.

    Take note that the machine involved is a Diebold, the same company that the COMELEC purchased from.

    The exploit apparently involves tampering with the memory card of the vote-counting machine. As I understand it, you could tamper with the contents of the card while, say, the machine is in transit. From there, you either tamper with the results or modify the code to favor a particular candidate.

    More from the article:
    "The demo is particularly relevant in light of the recent experience in Ohio in which there were large discrepancies between the electronic record and the paper trail, and also since many counties still permit the machines to be taken home by individuals before voting day (as a means of distributing them to precincts). These 'sleepover' machines were involved in the contentious narrow-margin San Diego Election, and are in continued practice in many states. Moreover, it's common practice for counties to contract out deliveries to third parties, such as in New Mexico where in one election, unlicensed delivery drivers took the machines on an unauthorized field trip and only got caught when they crashed the delivery truck after a stop at Hooters. The good news here is that the penetrated Diebold system in the photo essay is an optical scan system. It's not a touchscreen electronic voting system, so there is a paper trail. What hack really shows is that without mandatory random spot checks on the paper ballots, these may be as potentially vulnerable as the touchscreen direct recording electronic voting systems. It's perhaps worth noting that the open source voting system being developed by the Open Voting Consortium features a 100% reconciliation of every single paper ballot with an independent electronic record."


    The Verified Voting New Mexico web site has several essays worth reading. Still, I'm sure they can learn a thing or two more from our bright boys in the COMELEC.

    Suicide bomber scare

    Over the past few days news headlines have been buzzing over reports of a so-called security expert who claims to have brought aboard bomb components on a plane from Davao to Manila. He even claims to have assembled the bomb while in-flight. As per this so-called security expert, he only did it to highlight the inadequacy of screening measures in Philippine airports.

    I don't know about you but this stunt upsets me to no end.

    First of all, let's dispense with any hint of noble intentions on the part of this so-called security expert and his local government sponsor. Publicity is what this shill was after, plain and simple. That much he got but at the expense of the peace of mind of thousands of air travellers in the country. Security checks at the airport are a hassle enough, and now he makes it worse by acting so coy about his methods.

    Even now there are conflicting reports of his accomplishment. Did he actually smuggle in bomb components into the plane, or didn't he? Did he actually assemble the bomb in the plane, or didn't he?

    If he did bring aboard and assemble a fully working bomb on the plane, then he needlessly endangered the lives of hundreds of passengers. Bomb expert or not, there is significant risk in actually transporting the components in flight, more so if he actually put it together.

    On the other hand, this morning's TV interview with the head of Task Force Davao -- which appears to have had a hand in this publicity stunt -- claims that the so-called security expert only brought aboard certain components but not the C4 explosive compound necessary to complete the bomb. So what exactly did he bring aboard? Can we be sure that those were bomb components? Even a cellphone can be part of a working bomb: could he have meant that he brought his cellphone aboard?

    Is it necessary to perform security tests of this nature? Arguably, yes, if only to see if screening measures are working properly. But it shouldn't have been brought to the extent in which it was carried.

    In one such case in the United States, the security expert smuggled in a pistol through a metal detector. When he had done so, he immediately announced his accomplishment and identity to the airport security personnel. That's the proper way to do it.

    But what really bothers me is the so-called security expert himself. It is said that he regularly conducts training for the Davao police. If this is true, then what kind of people are our authorities consorting with?

    Unfortunately, this scenario is far too common in Philippine government. We have an assortment of shills, charlatans, and confidence men who work their way into the system as freelance consultants, peddling this influence and that for a slice of the pie. All too often, these people are not certified and have neither a code of ethics or sense of responsibility to the public.

    It is only right that this so-called security expert be prosecuted, if not for reckless endangerment then for malicious mischief. And his backers should be prosecuted along with him.

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Meeting Dumaguete's IT underground

    In an inspired move, Jong Fortunato of DTI gathered together the ICT freelancers in the city for a short pow-wow. These fellows fall under the radar of government agencies and many local businesses because they usually work from home. At the same time, it can't be denied that they carry some expertise enough to get them some paying work. With the availability of broadband Internet in the city, they don't even have to rely on the weak local market anymore. So, voila! the Dumaguete IT underground.

    I was quite pleased with the group I met. They were young, they were hip, they were tech-savvy, and they were willing to try to make things work in Dumaguete. One guy, for example, used to work for Chow King in Makati before returning here to set up an IT company with his friends. Another guy was doing missionary work for a youth group here. Still others were fresh grads or just about to finish school.

    The profile that I got from these guys:

  • They can be classified primarily as web site developers. They're willing to do almost anything, but though they won't admit, I could tell web development was their comfort zone.
  • Following the first point, not too many of them were developing traditional applications. Only one guy came forward to say he was doing C++. All others were building PHP apps.
  • For this group, the bulk of their business came from local accounts. That's a bit of a reversal from the Dumaguete-based web development shop we've encountered in the past, which was led by a guy in Los Angeles. But it's not surprising considering that these guys are mostly new.
  • Almost all their local accounts consisted of hotels and resorts.
  • I doubt they'll stay local for long, though. They're exhibiting networking savvy and are hooking up with people who can get them business from abroad.
  • AdSense: majority are coming to rely on AdSense as revenue generators. One group is creating an AdSense farm while waiting for business to come in.


  • And speaking of Adsense, I learned that one freelance developer (not in the meeting) was earning $50 per day through her site. Incredible? Indeed! I've visited the sites -- they're not blogs -- and now I have to say I'm not surprised. I have to commend that developer for carving out a lucrative niche in the web space.

    So what did DTI have to bring to the table? I suppose there's a feeling of inherent danger that this initiative would be used for registration and tax purposes. That was an issue that we had to address. And the tentative resolution was to leave things be lest we scare off these guys from any participation at all. Rather, the approach I recommended came from the perspective of scale, that once they experienced the limits of being a small operation they should approach DTI for assistance in scaling up.

    As an added carrot, I also proposed a meeting between Dumaguete's hotel and resort owners with these young developers. This group of customers already understand the need for a web site, and at the same time, the developers have already exhibited some understanding of their requirements. It only seemed logical.

    I suppose in three weeks' time they'll set up that meeting, and it'll be something along the lines of a mini-marketing expo for the web services. Metrics for this activity will also be easy, corresponding to the number of new Dumaguete travel-oriented web sites.

    From then on, we'll see what happens.

    Blogs, books, and buddies

    Over at his blog, John Nery wrote about our serendipitous meeting at the book fair. Happy chances, indeed! Though John and I had never met before, I did see his ANC interview with Cheche Lazaro during its replay, so recognition on my part was immediate. That said, I'm flattered he recognized me; then again, I do have a cartoon face, so.... Bound by blog, John says, and I couldn't agree more.

    But blogging is just one of the newer things that's bringing me in touch with other folks. Way before that, there were books. That realization hit me last night as I was chatting with my friend Mentat.

    Mentat had read my post on my book fair purchases and he gave me a virtual nudge and wink over YM: "Pahiram, ha?" Suddenly I had a flash. Darn it! I've known this guy for what? Over twenty years? He's three years my junior and when you're in high school that's an unbridgeable divide, but somehow we hit it off. And now I'm even ninong to his girl.

    That friendship has a history in books: the Robotech novels, Shannara, Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Wheel of Time, Clan of the Cave Bear, and comics. Not the most intellectual of fare, but who cares?

    Now that I think about it, I can trace many of my friendships through a history of books. I suppose time will come when that will also apply to blogs.

    Sunday, September 03, 2006

    Ten Best SF Novels

    I'm usually dubious of any claims about the ten best of anything but Orion Books' Ten Best SF Novels somehow lives up to that expectation. They made the bulk of my purchases at the book fair last week.

    At close to P300 per copy, counting the discount, they certainly didn't come cheap. But the authors were all classic: Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Matheson, Frederick Pohl, James Blish, and a few other stellar names from yesteryear. The unusual packaging also helped a great deal: each book had a plain paper hardstock cover, dominated by a single color, offset only by a small design reflecting the story. Curiously, the corners were rounded, but it was still really classy. I just had to get them.

    And I wasn't disappointed. In a span of three days, I had already consumed two novels, Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" (formerly "Tiger! Tiger!") and Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." They were that good.

    Despite having been first published in the late 1950's, these two stories have lost none of their punch nor their inventiveness. Without peeking at the copyright information, you wouldn't even know they were written in another era.

    "The Stars My Destination" presages the cyberpunk genre and still manages to outdo the best of the recent work. Would you believe it even incorporates the Matrix's bullet-time? It has everything: corporate chicanery, espionage, class war, teleportation, space travel, time travel, and mental telepathy all strung together in a story that's partly "Count of Monte Cristo" and partly "Crime and Punishment." A lesser writer would have collapsed under all this weight, but in Bester's hands it all comes together brilliantly.

    "I Am Legend" is billed as an SF/horror story about the last remaining human survivor in a world of vampires. Yes, it sounds kitschy, but wait till you read it. It's still as gripping as ever in its exploration of human psychology. The action sequences are nothing to sneeze at, either, no doubt inspiring George Romero's zombie movies and Resident Evil.

    I can't wait to get started on the other books in the series. The complete list:
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick
  • Gateway by Frederick Pohl
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Cities in Flight by James Blish


  • All the more surprising is that the books came in by way of National Bookstore and not through Powerbooks or Fully Booked. Yup, you won't find this collection elsewhere. A lot of that is thanks to the efforts of National's new purchaser Lola Tumaneng (some Filipino sci-fi fans might recognize her as the Snow Queen from the last New Worlds conference), who's a real sci-fi/fantasy buff. She's also brought in some other Hugo award winners.

    If you're into sci-fi, take a quick look at National shelves and see what new goodies you'll find. The discount sale goes on till September 16.

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    Philippine Book Culture

    It's a bit of an extravagance to travel all the way to Manila for the sole purpose of attending a book fair, but that's exactly what I've done. The 27th Manila International Book Fair is running from August 30 to September 3 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, and it's a temptation too strong to resist. So, yes, it's going to burn a substantial hole in the pocket, and we haven't even started on the book purchases that I'm going to make; but I'm justifying it against all the time that I didn't spend in a proper bookstore in Dumaguete.

    But there's also another purpose: it's entered into my head that maybe, just maybe, it's possible to open a bookstore along my tastes in Dumaguete. This trip is as much an attempt to make contacts and understand the local bookselling industry as it is a shopping spree. Either that, or it would disabuse me of my bookstore notions before I got in too deep and spent any real money on the project.

    When you talk about opening a bookstore in Dumaguete, a little skepticism and a lot of caution is in order. Up to now, I'm still mourning the Village Bookstore which my friends the Fortunatos finally decided to close earlier this year. And like another omen, my fellow passenger on the trip to Manila was Dr. Crispin Maslog, first director of the School of Communications of Silliman University. When I mentioned my plans, his eyebrows shot up instinctively: "Do you think there's a market in Dumaguete?"

    It's an oft-repeated comment of lament and surprise that the viability of a bookstore should be in question in a university town, but there you have it.

    This is not to say that there are no bookstores in Dumaguete because there are. There's the Capitol Bookstore (formerly the Old San Francisco Bookstore) which sells used books; and there's the PCBS Christian bookstore which specializes in Bibles and Christian literature. On occasion, even Lee Plaza offers used books out of which I've picked up a gem or two. But right there and then, you have a commentary on the reading fare offered to Dumaguetenos: gossip and fashion magazines, tawdry pornography, tattered pre-owned pocketbooks, technical manuals several years out of date, and self-help and religious literature.

    What about art? What about science fiction? What about fantasy? What about crime thrillers? What about poetry? What about classics? What about philosophy? What about history? What about (gasp!) erotica?

    The situation in the rest of the country isn't so much better, either. The theme for this year's book fair is "Make it a Habit," ostensibly chosen to rectify the poor reading habits of Filipinos. Right at the entrance are banners with choice excerpts of studies done on the subject, and they're quite discouraging. Apparently, while 91% of Filipinos can read, only 9% read for for fun. The local publishing industry isn't helping much, either: 90% of local publications are textbooks.

    I'm not certain how the International Book Fair plans to achieve its lofty stated goal, either. I went into the fair with the mindset not just of a book lover but also of a prospective independent bookseller in the provinces. I found a little dismaying to learn that I was outside the demographic of a big event like this. The book fair is meant, foremost, as a venue to sell to school libraries. No, not much room for small bookstores, unfortunately; after all, it's in the libraries where the big bucks are.

    That's a bit of a shame, really. I have no doubt that librarians love books, otherwise they wouldn't be in that profession. But I feel that other people who love books just as much but are outside the confines of academe can be more active catalysts for improving the Filipinos' reading habits.

    Even the personnel in the book fair can be a little daunting. I've found that there are two kinds of people manning the stalls at the book fair. There are your jobbers who treat books just as they would any other merchandise; in other words, people out to make a simple living. And then there are the literature majors who have found employment with a major book chain or publisher. You can recognize them quickly because they're so snooty, trying to cow you with their command of English (at which point you bare your fangs and cow them with your English); you just know they'd rather be writing their poetry and their short stories, but unfortunately, it's the job at the bookstore that pays the bills. Ah, yes, the book fair can be a very lonely place.

    I’m beginning to think that the book fair is the Philippine literary world in a microcosm: too many people interested in writing their own stuff, not enough readers to sustain the market.

    Faced with this kind of general company, you just have to treasure the few people you meet who really love and care for books. I found a few bright lights myself. The purchaser for a large chain who loves fantasy and science fiction. The storyteller who joyously punctuates each and every sentence with expressive rolls of the eyes and gestures of the hands. The wonderful people from the Philippine Reading Association whose passion it is is to teach children and adolescents the love of reading. It was these people who saved the day for me.

    For all the skepticism about the lack of interest for books of the imagination in Dumaguete, I’m willing to bet that there are other kindred spirits in the city. In fact, I’ve already met quite a few of them, so the wager is that there are more.

    In a couple of days, I'll be heading back to Dumaguete with those publisher and distributor contacts. Along with that will be some serious thinking. I'll still be asking myself -- as I am right now -- whether such an idea is wise. I hear that National Bookstore is going to open in Silliman's Portal West. Though it will make its money less from books than from office supplies, I wonder if, between National and the perceived lack of a market in Dumaguete, an independent bookstore has any chance at all. Still, I'm not completely disabused of the notion yet; it's just too romantic.

    Ah, well, even if I do come to my senses, I'll still have a whole stash of new books with me.