Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Armchair Columnist

Sorry for the absence in the past couple of months. I was in other realms of the Intarwebz, pursuing some rekindled interests. Meanwhile, the country has again treaded upon interesting times.

I've been active again in the Philstar feedback section and have been engaging in debates with posters who either are sympathetic to the MILF, unwarily bought their propaganda, or simply unaware of history. One such debate brought up a series of good posts from me, which I would like to quote here:

You seem to be hung up with the 1996 peace pact with the MNLF which has obviously failed. Accept it, with what is happening now, the peace pact with the MNLF failed to achieve peace in Mindanao. You put the blame of its failures with Erap's all-out war with the breakaway MILF group and this is where I point out to you that the problem existed even before that all-out war. The peace agreement itself was flawed, and I list here some of the reasons:

1. It did not cover the other existing armed groups most notably the MILF and the Abu Sayaff.
2. There was no provision for disarmament of the MNLF.
3. There was no guarantee that it will lead to the development of ARMM, which would have prevented discontent.
4. There was no guarantee that MNLF has total control of its members, especially Nur Misuari, such that all would fulfill their end of the bargain.

I agree that I have the benefit of history when I give my analysis. But that's what history is for, so let's learn from it for a change, shall we?

You quoted FVR's speech proclaiming himself a peacemaker and according to Scripture, peacemakers are worthy to be a son of God. I'm sorry for FVR but I have a higher standard before I would call one a peacemaker, especially a peacemaker worthy to be a son of God.

I say a peacemaker is one who has created peace and sustains that peace.

First we have to be clear of my idea of peace. It is not simply a truce or an absence of battles. People may not fight, but if there is enmity between them, there is no peace. Peace should at least be a condition that discourages conflict to thrive in the first place.

So you see for me, being a peacemaker is more than creating peace pacts, but in making them last.

As for Erap's all-out war, it was another chance to negotiate correctly from a position of strength. We could insist that they (MILF, NPA, Abu Sayaff) disarm and cease from supporting terrorism and submit to authority or else be annihilated. With the removal of armed conflict with as a distraction, we could finally build infrastructure, provide education, boost agriculture and other social services in Mindanao

This was actually done before by Magsaysay against the Huks. All-out war or all-out friendship, he offered and also delivered. The Huks were defeated and rendered irrelevant. Unfortunately, he can't sustain it. The government can't sustain it. The festering problems causing discontent remained, and it was not that long after when discontent again reached a boiling point and the NPA and the MNLF were born.

They say poverty and conflict is a chicken and egg problem. The way to solve it is to break the cycle by choosing to decisively tackle on one first and then leverage on the gains to tackle the other. Erap and Magsaysay chose to tackle the conflict first and got favorable results. Well and good. Now tackling poverty proved to be more challenging and it wasn't helped that both were cut short in doing so. For Erap, it's also his fault--the irony! Gloria seems to want to tackle the poverty first, and as expected is also having difficulties. It also didn't help that her negotiators don't know how to negotiate (I assume they were hoping to prevent further hostilities from the MILF so as not to interfere with the ever so slow economic development) and there are foreign meddlers all around. Also, just as the MILF leadership is having credibility problems by having lost commands, Gloria's scandals have also lessened her and the government's credibility in striking a deal she will keep.

If I would add, FVR, to his credit, also focused on economic development first and did better than Gloria. It's just that he could still have done better. And then there's the problem on continuity that has been plaguing not just the peace process but other development projects. Does that mean a term extension is needed? Not necessarily. But with the inconsistency I'm getting from Malacañang, I am seriously considering the conspiracy theory that the President is seeking agitation that would be enough to justify martial law and a term extension, although the usual government-bashing will also never be of help in peace-building.

Actually, I'm not surprised with this administration's incompetence in negotiation. I could mention many instances, most of which have been in the news. Instead, let me share a more personal anecdote. This happened when I was still in college. Our Political Science instructor also worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). One time, in explaining her lengthy absence, she mentioned having been part of simulation exercises in negotiating with the MILF. I asked her if they simulated the scenario wherein foreign terrorist organizations are aiding the MILF. She said they only considered the ideal setting to show their good faith. My jaw dropped. Why call it a simulation in the first place? Besides, why should the MILF know about it? In fact, I would've been more comforting for me if she merely stated that details of the simulation were confidential.

For more in-depth analysis, I'd rather refer to Dean Jorge Bocobo (DJB) at Philippine-American Commentary. Though I may not agree with him all the time, especially when he goes hard-line, I appreciate his courage to openly voice out unpopular and non-PC (politically correct) opinions that I myself would rather be subtle or diplomatic or even silent about, especially in this blog. The political pundits in the Philippines could be quite vicious, and I'm not looking for trouble. Good thing for DJB, he has superior research skills, and actually go deep into the root of every contention more efficiently than I could. For instance, he's been questioning the legitimacy of the "ancestral domain" claim and showing the danger of its mere suggestion. He also brings to light the feeling of guilt for one's predecessors' mistakes that he says explains why some people would be fine with appeasement. His views are complementary to my predominantly problem-solving approach.

For the historical perspective, a newspaper archive is your friend. Below are some interesting links mainly due to the sense of deja vu:

A 2002 editorial entitled Bare the Details
Soliven ranting about a 2002 appeasement deal



Monday, June 09, 2008

May Nostalgia (Part 2)

Oh great, an entry that's about topics from the previous month was only finished now. Anyway, hope the delay would not hinder your enjoyment. Part 1 is here.

Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo

Most people equate Santacruzan with the Reyna Elena, but at least for us (the community elders to be exact), it is mostly about the novena on the Holy Cross itself. While the elders are the ones who lead the prayers, provide guidance and ensure the attendees' best behavior, it is an ad-hoc youth committee that took care of the organizing of activities and soliciting of funds. As for the children, they are there to have fun while avoiding the scolding. Our Santacruzan being focused on the prayer and festivities sounds more boring than those which had the lovely ladies, but read on and discover that our experience ironically did have its share of the sexy (more naughty and scandalous, I dare say).

My first experience with Santacruzan was being given snack tokens while peering from the house to check out the flimsy-built chaplet filled with people at night. I was too young to join then, but for the children a few years older than I was, they were unable to grasp the concept of "blessing" that one would receive for participating, so they were given material blessing in the form of night snacks after the novena. At first these were simple tokens like sandwiches, chips, fruits and kakanin (rice-based gelatinous snacks). There may also be champorado (choco rice porridge), arroz caldo and inulog-ulog (sticky bite-sized balls made from ginger). Drinks consisted of fruit juices or chocolate. Kids would line up with their bowls and cups. For stricter sanitary reasons, I would prefer the packed ones that I could store and consume the next day. Later on, ice cream was included in the giveaways; that was a luxurious treat already. I wonder what sophisticated confections they would serve nowadays.

By the time I was ten, I would join the prayers. Unlike the other children, I had no problem with the long, repetitive and monotonous utterances since we had longer evening family prayers. In fact, I considered the Santacruzan a more enjoyable alternative. For me who had a curfew by about six and seven in the evening, there was the novelty of being with my playmates at night and participating in those nighttime activities I was usually deprived of. (Usually, these are just the same games we played at daytime, just that darkness could give different playing conditions as well as a different mood: Hide-and-Seek, Tag and, later on, Truth or Consequence. There might be others, but too bad I have forgotten.) The last part of the novena was sung, and this would liven up the children. The singing would indicate that the giveaways would be a few minutes away. We also got a kick with one song that had Spanish lyrics and a weird melody.

The last day of the novena was the fun-filled day for the kids. Events would start early in the morning with the blaring of the mobile sound system. (Actually the fun would start the night before with the preparations, which usually was the hanging of banderitas, while a karaoke machine provides the music.) As soon as the sound system is up and running, parlor and folk games would commence. There would be statue and paper dances1, the piñata, palo sebo, lemon race2, water relay, bring me, basagan ng palayok3, musical chairs4, eating and drinking contests, pahabaan ng gamit5 and the rough Coconut Football.6 Developments in the TV variety shows gave us Pera O Bayong, among others. We even had a literal peeing contest!7 Aside from joining the scramble for candy and coins, I never really participated in the games, until I discovered our tomato variation of the Easter Egg hunt, which fits well with my hide-and-seek prowess. The games go on all day and only takes a break in the early evening to give way to the last novena. Afterwards, we would dance until the dawn (well, they actually, I was forced to retire by midnight). I was fascinated by the disco lights and the dance music back in the 90s was fun, even though I hardly knew the steps.

I remember one scandalous incident that happened amidst the merrymaking in the last night of the Santacruzan. I think I was eleven years old then. In the afternoon lull between the games, I stumbled upon the neighborhood young men unrolling cigarettes and replacing the tobacco with something else. It drew my curiosity, and the lads offered in jest that I join them. Even if they claimed it was different than smoking, I declined, sensing they were still up to no good. Days later I got to know of the smoldering gossip that the same group of youths had successfully enticed one comely household help who was new to our place. It turned out the cigarettes were laced with marijuana and they had a trip by the darker part of the neighborhood while the flashing disco lights enhanced their psychedelic experience. One thing led to another and the maid found herself gang-banged while the loudspeakers drowned out their moans. No charges were filed, and the maid simply left our neighborhood. That's the Philippines for you, despite histrionics in media, your life and your purity are still cheap in reality.

As a side religious celebration to the Santacruzan, at every three o' clock in the afternoon, the children would gather in the chaplet to do the offering of flowers to Mama Mary. This is called the Flores de Mayo, and was supposed to coincide with the blossoming of the flowers in May. The limited appeal it had for me back then was when we would line up with our flower offerings, boys and girls would be paired. I thought it was a good chance to be with my childhood crush, but it never happened. Consequently, aside from helping my friends gather flowers, I had never participated in it anymore. I don't know if they continue with this tradition since, aside from the one in family compound, there's not much flora in the neighborhood now. Besides, I don't think my relatives would allow the flowers to be plucked from their precious plants, which I think are for sale.

Things got different when it was our generation's turn to be in the youth committee. Being part of the committee meant soliciting funds or donations in kind (basically going around begging in the neighborhood), facilitating the construction of the chaplet, grouping the families that will sponsor the chaplet decors and the food tokens for a particular night of novena (requires a good grasp on the latest neighborhood squabbling), and organizing the games and dance for the final day. I had been offered the top position, but I declined. My excuse was that I had summer classes, but was just being lazy. Later on, I learned that being the president meant doing all the work because the other officials suddenly made themselves scarce; thus, I more vigorously declined any nominations.

We were never able to replicate the awesome experiences of the previous final days of Santacruzan of our younger times.8 It was either we never had the contacts that would offer us the really awesome lights and sounds for free, or we never had adequate funds when collecting from the neighbors. For our excuse, it was the time of the Asian Economic Crisis back then. Fortunately, things had returned to the level of the good old times. However, our generation had outgrown all these, and it would be up to the next generation of children to find the Santacruzan an enjoyable tradition, hopefully minus the scandals.


1 For additional challenge, candies and coins were thrown around, and the spectators to scramble to get their share. The player who moves to join the scramble loses the game.
2 Players gyrate to make the spoon stringed to their hips propel the calamansi (the local substitute for lemon) and be the first to make it reach the finish line.
3 We even had the variation where a tomato would be squashed. Hilarity ensued when the blindfolded player veered off course and started hitting spectators.
4 We call it "Trip to Jerusalem," a curious name.
5 Teams lay their stuff and themselves on the ground to determine which team made the longest queue. Some go all the way and strip down to their undies for the win. Of course everyone starts the game wearing layers of clothing and numerous accessories.
6 An unripe coconut husk is carved with niches for money and the husk is covered in grease. Men scramble for the slippery loot and the one holding on to it when the time expires wins.
7 The older ones would heckle the uncut, yet there was one uncut boy who used his prepuce to spray out his pee farther than normal using the Bernoulli's Principle.
8 I mean, Christmas lights instead of at least the discotheque? It was that pathetic!



Monday, May 26, 2008

May Nostalgia (Part 1)

Back when I was a kid back in Naga City, the month of May marked the second half of summer vacation. Suddenly there was the realization that my playmates and I should be making the most of our freedom before school resumes. It's no wonder then that we would have most of the traditional activities scheduled in this month. Most places in the country would celebrate their feast day during this month. As for me, I recall three things that I associate with this month and inspire me to indulge in nostalgia.

Agua de Mayo

As a grown-up, I have come to hate the rain due to the inconvenience it deals me while commuting to and from work (maybe I should just blame the corporate world for insisting that we wear fancy and impractical clothing). Then there would be the dark and gloomy atmosphere that dampens the spirits (though it could be good for writing). However, back then, when we really didn't have any work to do, and the summer heat punished us every languid afternoon, we would welcome precipitation and allowed ourselves to be bathed as we played in wild abandon.

Of course, there is some occasional rainfall during April, but the month of May has the heavier and more frequent downpours. In fact, the first heavy and prolonged rainfall of this month is called the Agua de Mayo, and bathing in it carries a certain good providence, particularly in terms of health. We do know, of course, that we might instead weaken our immune system and catch a cold, skin infection or electrocution if we do not take precautions like soaping, rinsing and drying immediately upon signs of either the rain abating, the wind strengthening or lightning flashing. But where's the fun in that?

As for this year, the rainy season has come real early with tropical storms already forming. It would be good to recall that May 2006 also got its share of tropical storms, and we all know that that year's typhoons were strong. Consequently this year's rainy season might end up with its own share of destructive typhoons.

May Beetle / Salagubang / Amamanggi

Basic information can be found in Wikipedia. I'm not sure of the particular species prevalent in this country though. The adult May Beetle actually goes out of its underground cocoon as early as March and stays aboveground to feed and mate as late as July. It is also known as "Salagubang" in Tagalog and "Amamanggi" in Bicol. (The latter due to the fact that the bug is more active in the evening--banggi or banggui in Bicol--and one could see them flying, eating and mating as soon as the sun has set.)

The May Beetle has been a childhood curiousity for us, just as dragonflies and grasshoppers are. What makes it acquire more novelty is its seasonal appearance. Other characteristics that make it appealing to us are its being more docile and less flighty than the other insects; thus, the May Beetle can be kept as pets by simply supplying it with leaves (particularly mango leaves), until it decides to fly away (especially when evening comes) or when the mess made by their droppings becomes unbearable.

The usual way to get the beetles is to shake them off the trees as they sleep during the day. In our neighborhood, they favor staying in mango, tiyesa and chico trees, although they can feed on any tree actually. Some trees are too sturdy for kids to shake, so an adult is asked to give them a more vigorous shakedown. The bugs fall off and assume their defensive or sleeping posture, which is to keep their legs and antennae glued to their bodies, stay perfectly still and rely on their relatively hard exoskeleton for protection. However, we can coax them out of that posture by simply blowing on them (we make them return to sleeping mode by enclosing them within our cupped hands while we clap). Later on, as I get to be more knowledgeable of the beetles, I can even spot them high up the trees. A big clue is the presence of freshly-eaten leaves. Having them on sight leads to a more targeted capture. Another way to catch them is to pester them as they fly around by evening. Then again, my obsession in collecting a virtual swarm of the beetles quickly waned after that summer when I crammed them all in a Star Margarine container. As I mentioned above, it was an unsightly and smelly mess.

Aside from merely collecting these bugs, kids also use them for amusement. The most common is to tie them on a thread and make them fly around like mini, self-propelled kites. Tying the beetle up requires skill and patience, all the while repeatedly making use of the wake-up and sleep routines described above (which aren't foolproof, by the way). Meanwhile, as the bug version of wrestling, other kids stick two bugs back to back with a bubble gum and see which is the stronger one who regains its upright position, in the process lifting the weaker one back side up with legs flailing around helplessly. To complete the gladiatorial exploits of these beetles, they are also made to race in various ways. The straightforward one, walking towards a finish line, is fraught by the risk of some of the bugs flying away. The less flight-prone races involve them digging either into or out of a pile of dirt. The digging races simulate what the bugs do naturally: they dig out to mate and later dig in to lay their eggs.

The beetles do have a practical use aside from being playthings: being food. I hear that they are fried to edible perfection in some places, though I have yet to encounter such dish and try it myself. On the other hand, I did feed the bugs to our poultry and pet birds for their special dose of protein.

Indeed it was quite a hard life for the May Beetle back when we were the rulers of the playground. Nowadays, most of the beetles have gone elsewhere since most of the ground has been covered in cement and the fallen trees have not been replaced in our childhood neighborhood.

(Part 2)



Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fantasia (Part 10)

Months had passed since the practice tournament, and Daniel, Romulus, Gorgo and their Masters Dionysus and Wilbur were once again in Legacy City for the Final Tournament of the Challenge of the Intellects, the most prestigious competition of its kind in EveAlone. Their entry to the finals by itself was actually through a stroke of luck: they had actually lost in their penultimate round, but a new rule stated that the best performer among the losers of the penultimate round will be allowed to participate in the finals. The Masters had ruminated that perhaps the confidence gained from winning the practice tournament might actually mislead, and it was better that they come in the finals as underdogs with nothing to lose. Of course for a proud Knight, competing as an underdog would already be shameful, but at that point what mattered to Daniel was another chance to go to Legacy, another chance to see Helen.

The need to go to Legacy was somewhat driven by a rekindled rivalry between Mervin and Daniel. The former was the first to have gone to Helen's city and even to her home, mere days after she and the other guests had left Ceres. The devastation of the storm was still evident throughout EveAlone, yet for Mervin and the other visitors, having the company of their lovely hosts made the City of Legacy such a radiant paradise.

It took another month for Daniel to have his chance to return to Legacy, and it was through a Codix tournament to determine the champions of EveAlone who would be sent to the Imperial Codix Tournament in Manille. The tournament itself proved to be a failing venture for the Knights, and Daniel had resigned himself to the fact that his Codix skills were not meant for showing off in competitions. What Daniel would like to fulfill though was to drop by Helen's class and behold her beauty once again, as well as to do a little favor for Dominic.

The good acolyte had brushed aside his disastrous episode with Angela and had resumed his two-year-old correspondence with Kirsten. He had sagaciously remarked how he had allowed himself to be enchanted by a fleeting angelic sight when all along was a girl in Legacy whom he had been sharing thoughts and dreams with ever since he was in Second Group R. Daniel and Mervin had ribbed him on his old-fashioned exchange of letters with Kirsten. The two, on the other hand, had embraced the speed and convenience of the Message Jewel for keeping in touch with Helen.

The Message Jewel proved useful indeed for Daniel when he successfully made arrangements to meet Helen and Kirsten after the tournament. Overcast skies above Legacy had hastened the arrival of evening as Daniel entered the Citadel of Aqueaon. The other Codix champions of the Pillars had tagged along to also see their friends at the Citadel. Daniel's previous visit to the place had been deeply impressed upon his memory; thus, he found his way quickly. The sight of the Aqueaonians' moss-green vestments had never been a more welcome view. Unlike the Fourth Group of the Pillars, which had more than a hundred wards, the Fourth Group of Aqueaonians numbered to a little more than three dozens. Consequently, it simplified Daniel's search for the two young ladies.

He found Helen first, and her presence made him feel like he won the Codix tournament or maybe even higher stakes, like bragging rights against Mervin. After some small talk, she helped Daniel look for Kirsten. Dominic's pen pal was all perky when they found her. She was of course eyeing the covered cage Daniel was carrying. "Kirsten, behold a special delivery from Dominic," Dominic announced as he uncovered the cage with a flourish. Kirsten was expecting something, but her eyes still widened when she saw the puppy inside. It was of a kind bred in the Empire of Qin, where her roots originated.

Daniel noted Kirsten's reaction then remarked within earshot of Helen, "hard to top that."

"Oh, it's alright" was her automatic reply.

The fun times was ended when the Masters announced that the dark clouds were from another storm. They should better leave immediately else they would end up stranded like the last time. When they had boarded the ferry, a fellow Codix champion said to Daniel, "dude, you could've at least matched Dominic's gesture to Kirsten for Helen."

"Well, I did tell her--"

"I heard that. No excuses. She wasn't expecting anything, but that's the point." An exaggerated sigh, "you may have been good in Codix..." Daniel left the conversation to save his ego from further damage. Instead, he joined the main talk aboard the ferry about the Emperor being put to trial for excesses that had scandalized the nobles.

This talk was still prevalent later on when they were traveling to Legacy for the Finals of the Challenge of the Intellects. At that time, people were discussing the recent ouster of the said Emperor.

At the tournament itself, the champions of the Pillars realized that the creators of the tournament, however, were wise enough not to include such a recent and hot topic in the questions in their competition. Daniel and Romulus were instead struggling to keep their measly lead. Daniel's numerous blocking spells were easily dismantled by their opponents, while the latter's own spells have caused more trouble than expected. The Codix puzzles were also impossible to break. Then there was also the factor of the unfamiliar terrain, wherein the local champions were actually receiving help from not-so-innocent bystanders. The only things that seem to play to the Knight's advantages were the unpredictable challenges themselves, with some of them requiring knowledge not usually taught in the academies, and these fringe breakthroughs were the key factor for their small lead.

The Final Tournament was down to its last few minutes. The champions of three other academies had found the last few challenges, which if surpassed would take the lead from the Knights. Daniel and Romulus, on the other hand, had not yet found their last challenge. "Maybe there isn't any challenge left," Daniel said to Romulus, who was consulting one of the scattered Heraldic Mirrors for their status.

His fellow champion nodded. "I think that's what the mirror says... Shit! Someone's got our lead!"

That made Daniel rush to have a look too. "That means we have to grab the other two teams' challenges before they could surpass it, but we'd have to split and take on both teams at the same time. Tough."

"Not if they're distracted by their challenges."

Romulus quickly overwhelmed one team by throwing them aside with his sheer size and strength. He looked at the challenge and realized that it involved something about Magic.

Meanwhile, for the other team, Daniel was about to do something uncharacteristic and unprecedented of him in all the tournaments he had competed: use an offensive spell.

"Fumoffu! Second Raid!"

A strong gust blew away the other team. Daniel got a challenge that involved Literature. It would have been better if Romulus got it this one, and Daniel hoped that Romulus didn't get a challenge in Magic or Codix. Upon closer inspection, the opponent was almost finished with the verse about love that was required of them; one line was just one syllable short from the proper meter. Daniel grabbed the quill and replaced the word "her" with "Helen." Challenge surpassed. Even if Romulus failed, they had a chance for a tie-break.

It turned out there was no need for tie-breaking. The Magic challenge Romulus encountered had been taught in the Pillars. The Masters were amused by the tactic their champions had employed, but a victory was a victory and the Knights went to Legacy's central bazaar to celebrate and check out the artifacts that they had won. However, the only prize Daniel wanted was to see Helen.

On the way to the bazaar, Daniel saw that the adjacent plaza was drowning in a sea of moss-green uniforms. It was a celebration for the successful revolution in Manille that was supported by the Aqueaonians. Sensing that this may be his only chance at that time, he dove into the crowd. A little asking around easily led him to Helen, just like before.

She was surprised by the unexpected sigh, but with the recent turn of events, she had learned to expect the unexpected. The two exchanged stories about the news for the past few days. Then Daniel told her about the good news in the Challenge of the Intellects.

"By the way, it's quite surprising that the Aqueaonians did not make it to the final tournament. Aside from having a worthy adversary, I was expecting that you'd be there too. For inspiration."

A soft giggle. "But I guess it wasn't needed anyway, right?"

"I guess so too. The mere thought of you was enough." Daniel showed his share of prizes. "Uhm, here, have these, a thank you for the inspiration."

"Oh no! Keep them. You've won them so they're for your enjoyment."

"Are you sure?" Daniel noticed that Master Wilbur was waiting for him. "Very well, I think I have to go."

Silly guy, Helen thought with an amused smile as she watched Daniel walked towards the bazaar.

(Anime screen capture from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Episode 7)



Sunday, March 30, 2008

Close Calls

It had been the week for final exams for most schools. Undeniably, it would be around this time that cramming is at its peak, but with increasing levels of difficulty and wave after wave of daunting tasks, only the best can pull it off and win the high stakes involved: pass or fail. My advice therefore, although it might be late for this school year, is to not attempt cramming in the first place.

The final exams themselves are such fine examples of torment for students. I've narrated before of one such instance to comical effect. Indeed, in the end such stressful episodes of student life do end up as memories that surfaces to the office rat who's slaving away for a crucial presentation the next day. As for myself, I recall two glistening memories of final exams that have given me a real scare.


The first was my finals in Linear Algebra in my sophomore year. For this course, our batch of math majors was split into two classes. One class was under this brilliant young man, who unfortunately was disposed to utilize scare tactics like tough homework and recitation questions. Then there was his infamous set of conceptual statements which require some amount of mathematical proof for the students to determine its veracity. (An easier approach suggested by one of our sharpest minds was to formulate a counterexample.) The other class was under this gentle lady with a motherly demeanor. She was nevertheless just as skilled with the subject and her long experience had resulted in numerous contributions (which if I'm not mistaken, includes the correction filter for signals beamed from deep-space probes). Her theoretical constructs truly boggles the simple minds who were tasked to derive from them illustrative mathematical insights.

The students in the former class had been terrified of their instructor, and this has kept them on their toes. Thankfully, most of the more adept minds were also with them, and had assisted them quite ably in their studies. I was lucky enough to be in the latter class, yet the subject itself is very challenging, giving us no room to slack off considerably.

When the finals came, I was in a precarious situation grades-wise. In the two hundred points available from more than ten items in the two-hour exam, I had to get more than a hundred to pass the course with a grade of D. I needed twenty more to pull off the average C grade. Upon receipt of the questionnaire, the first to pop up were the dreaded statements that taunted for a "true" or "false" assessment. Since they required no display of a solution or proof and provided relatively low points, I brushed them aside and went for the rest. More than an hour later, with significantly large minutes wasted wrestling with the mind-boggling constructs, my estimates showed that I was still short of the passing score. Oh boy, it was like dangling at the edge of a cliff! There were two more items to be tackled; would they be enough? Interestingly, the answer for one came after small effort and the proof for the other was routine. I barely made it to passing. Slightly relaxed now, I answered the true-or-false part by basically deluding myself of having found a counterexample or a hint of proof.

Immediately after the end of the exam, a kindred friend and I whooped it up like we just stepped off a roller coaster ride of a lifetime. Others opted for a cigarette. Surprisingly, even those whom I never saw smoking before puffed wantonly like they had just climaxed from an intense and steamy act of lust.

When the report cards were distributed, I was expecting a passing grade of D. The mortality rate of the other class was real bad: a significant number of batch mates failed the subject. Behold my surprise when I got a C+! My classmates noticed that their grades did go one notch higher as if a statistical curving was implemented. But that still did not explain why mine went two notches higher.

It was only months later when I chanced upon a pile of exam papers for disposal at the Math Department that I got to explain my grades. It turned out that I actually scored enough in the finals to get a C. How? My answers (or should I say delusional guesses) in the True or False part actually delivered enough points to get me there. Oh bless my most unexpected luck! I kept that paper to remind me that even in the direst circumstances one could still prevail. Even if years later I no longer have a clue on the meaning of the equations and figures scribbled on it, I still remember its life lesson.


The second was the finals for Statistics in my junior year. This particular Stat class we had was supposed to be a masters' subject being taught to undergrads. Twisted, wasn't it. Anyway, we had for our professor a lively one who had a quirky and colorful fashion sense. Her teaching style could somehow be reminiscent of elementary school, but it does serve some purpose considering the inherent difficulty in the course. Indeed it was a struggle throughout the semester, and long test results were agonizing. The challenging part for me was the memorization of numerous steps in some procedures, so even if formulas and charts were allowed to be seen there was still something else to worry about. Then again, maybe I was just lacking in practice exercises.

On the night before the final exams, my plan was to review my notes from the beginning. Not the best way to go about it, admittedly, but it should get me somewhere, especially on the concepts and the procedures. All was going well until a few hours before midnight, then the lights went out. Normally, our in-campus dorm would have the power back on via generator, but it must have been the wirings themselves that had the problem, meaning the generator would be of no help. The technician would only be available by morning, so we had to bear it the entire night.

Surely, it could have been worse. At least I was merely reviewing my notes. Others were actually cramming a ten-page paper, a program or their thesis and who knew what could have gotten busted in their computers. The outage appeared to be limited to the dorm building only since the other school buildings were all lit up, so the solution, aside from studying under candlelight (which I've done before, so this should be no big deal), would be to go to those places. On the other hand, some were caught up with the novelty of the prolonged darkness and silence. These people opted to hang out for a while (equivalent to a few hours) and just had a chat with dorm mates. Of course, I was with them.

Later on I resumed my studies under candlelight (to keep the time I suppose, and I wanted to study alone since the other buildings had been filled up with dormers and tend to be distracting--excuses, excuses). It turned out to be an all-night endeavor, which I was not a stranger to anyway. I'd just take breakfast and have a bath later; the exam would still be at nine. Unfortunately, by six in the morning I was drowsy and went to bed.

By some providence, I jolted awake at nine o' clock. The test was starting! There was no time for bath and breakfast, and a dormer knew what to do with this kind of situation. After fifteen minutes I was in the examination room and was answering away. There were some final exams that bored me within the two hours that I had to complete them, but I don't think this was one of them

I got the barely passing mark in Statistics. A significant number of classmates were not so fortunate, so I should be thankful. It got me thinking of other outcomes if I did not wake up on time. Waking up on time had been a problem of mine up to this day, so it must have been something that I actually got to do it back then when it mattered. What were the odds?

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Drifting Thoughts 06

Last February 23 to 25, I was in Baguio. It was my second visit to the City of Pines; the first one was 18 years ago. Eighteen years! What a loser. That's what happens when you're born last in the family, at a time when your parents have long settled down and fended off the travel bug, parents who are overprotective to the point of locking you up. (Sorry, just had to rant about that frustration of mine. Anyway, I'm on my own now so no there's point in blaming the past if I still keep myself from discovering the world.)

This particular weekend was the time for Baguio's Panagbenga (Blossoming) Festival, which is highlighted by a parade of flower-decked floats similar to the one in Pasadena, California. I actually learned of the schedule only at midday of February 23 and, with nothing1 to do on a three-day weekend, decided within minutes to join the trip that would be leaving five hours later. This was quite uncharacteristic of me, who would usually plan trips more than a week beforehand. One consequence of this would be forgetting to bring a jacket!

Aside from my failure to bring a jacket, the trip was riddled with bloopers. There was this two-hour delay when a rendezvous that supposed to take place in Trinoma ended somewhere in Balintawak.2 Then there were a series of wrong turns along the highway as well as driving in circles in Baguio City itself.3 These extended the usual six-hour trip into eight, and at three in the morning hotels were fully booked, of course, so we opted to sleep in the car in Burnham Park. This had given us a good chance to acquire a great vantage point for picture-taking, which we eventually got at the overpass of Abanao Square. The series of unfortunate events continued after the parade: a lost wallet, a corrupted memory card, allergy-induced colds and a vehicular parking mishap. Nothing to worry about, I keep mentioning in my mind like a Zen mantra, I'd experienced worse,4 it could have been worse.5

Indeed there was not much to worry about. Baguio's temperature at that time was a little higher than 20 degrees Celsius, which incidentally puts it in the same temperature range at the office. I felt like a native when walking around in a T-shirt. The coldness only bothered me twice: the first was when it rained on the parade, which is easily solved with an umbrella purchase, the second was when it got windy at night when I was in the cathedral, oh how I wished to huddle up with that cute lady sitting beside me at Mass.6

My sightseeing was partly an attempt to relive some obscure childhood memories. This time I got to enjoy the view at Camp John Hay and posing on horseback at Mines View Park while back then my childhood fear of heights actually got me agitated. Some childhood memories can't be relieved, though, not during Panagbenga anyway. The influx of tourists practically filled up Burnham Park, and shops crowded Mines View.7 If I want to enjoy the place, I'd have to visit some other time, when there would be not that many people from where I come from (the "lowlands"). The swollen number of vistors actually amplifies the fact that the city is overpopulated. Going through downtown, I had this impression that this supposedly tourist city is no different from a congested, dilapidated urban area in the lowlands. Then there's the pollution. Old vehicles contribute much to it; thus, it's a spark of hope that the electric jeepney was introduced to the city and featured in the Panagbenga Parade.8

1Actually, I could've written a blog entry.
2What do you expect from people unfamiliar with the place?
3Substandard road signs disappear at night. Add to that the observation that most drivers in the North keep their headlights at "high" for maximum glare. Drivers in the Bicol area would be courteous enough to switch to "low" upon meeting oncoming vehicles.
4I was thinking of my three-day trip to Catanduanes ten years ago, where I got badly seasick (but didn't puke, hah!) and, being another trip taken on a whim, I brought no luggage whatsoever.
5Like falling down the mountain range.
6Virtuous maiden, please comfort your shivering brethren.
7Not unlike what happened to the view of the Cagsawa Ruins in Albay.
8It's interesting that the electric jeepney can actually handle the sloping streets of Baguio.


I know it's already Holy Week, but I'd just want to let it out my system. Valentine's Day just came and went last month. There should have been part 10 of Fantasia--that love story I'm writing for over a year now--released for the occasion, but inspiration became scarce. My IM status message indicated that the current unattached space was a bug in the program that is my life. 'Twas Singles Awareness Day indeed. Thankfully, by the afternoon of V-day, I had wizened up to admonish myself not to let Valentines ruin my ideals on love. The hopeless romantic lives on.

The Day of Hearts seemed to be a non-occasion this year. Some couples I know had avoided the date and its accompanying high prices and full bookings. Back then, my friends and I, made it a point to have some celebration. A simple lunch or dinner would do. The most memorable among them was what we in DS made up as a week to show our love to our organization. It was complete with an exchange gift, a Cupid courtship service and a big concluding party.

We also had some Valentines celebration in our office last year. Unbelievably, I won a dating game consisting of multiple choice questions to determine compatibility. I stayed on the conservative side, and it cracked me up to discover that the secret searchee was none other than a batchmate of mine. No romance in there, but I could've appreciated a "dinner" compliments of the company (too bad there's none).

Maybe those little distractions were all that I need to keep away from the V-day blues.


It dawned upon me that summer is here when the recent readers stumbled upon this blog when searching for Casa Remo Apartelle. They all end up to this entry of mine.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

To Kill a Crashing Bird

I was supposed to write some travel entry--significant since it had been 18 years since I last went to that place--but the photos aren't available yet.


With the nation's penchant of getting preoccupied solely on the current political circus, Filipinos might be blissfully unaware that the United States and China had started war in outer space. Of course I'm exaggerating. Or am I? Allow this writer, whose education in world politics consisted mostly of reading Tom Clancy, to comment on a recent development just above the earth's atmosphere.

More than a year ago, on December 14, 2006, a US satellite, supposedly a spy satellite (a "bird" in Clancy slang), lost communications shortly after entering orbit. It was calculated to crash back to Earth in a little more than a year.

Weeks later, on January 11, 2007, China successfully tested its anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities when it shattered its own defunct weather satellite with a ground-based ballistic missile in a kinetic strike (meaning, no explosives were used, the high-speed impact itself provided the destructive energy). The secrecy of the test and the resulting orbiting debris field that until now is a concern for space mission planners provided fodder for a US-led international criticism.

One year later, the spy satellite, known as USA-193 or NROL-21, was almost due for its fiery plunge to the ground. Around this time, the United States floated around its plan to shoot down the bird, citing the chance that the hydrazine fuel tank of the bus-sized object may survive re-entry and pose a hazard to people over an area of two football fields. While hundreds of satellites have made planned or unplanned deorbits, they all have almost empty fuel tanks. In this particular case, since the bird had no contact with controllers so early in its mission, the hydrazine was never used up in orbital maneuvers--the fuel tank was still full.

The plan was to modify the software of the ship-based AEGIS missile defense system to better recognize and track the falling satellite. The range of AEGIS could reach the edge of space, but the bird was moving faster than the ballistic missiles AEGIS was originally designed for, so tracking the falling object might be problematic. A modified SM-3 missile, the type recently used in missile defense tests, would be launched from a ship to destroy the satellite via a kinetic strike. A successful hit should destroy the fuel tank, and the satellite fragments should be too small to survive re-entry or pose significant damage. Striking at low altitude would ensure that most of the debris would fall to back to earth within weeks, compared to the Chinese high-altitude ASAT test. Three cruisers would be positioned in the Northern Pacific to provide three chances of interception.

On February 21, 2007, amidst an ongoing lunar eclipse and earlier concerns on bad weather, the shootdown pushed through with spectacular results at the first attempt and with a video to boot that showed a brilliant explosion indicating possible destruction of the tank and dissipation of the hydrazine fuel. The US government had been harping about its transparency regarding the shootdown, wherein the public had been informed before, during and after the event. In an apparent diplomatic one-upmanship, they were willing to share with China information on the strike.

Critics, however, doubted the reasons behind the shootdown. The probability that the satellite would crash on a populated area was very low (only 3 percent, if I wasn't mistaken). Cynics wonder why the United States suddenly became concerned about the potential human tragedy. Perhaps there was classified information or technology that the US would not want to be in the hands of other countries. Others pointed out the $60 million price tag. Surely it could be cheaper, although more complex, to just evacuate an entire city if things ever came to that. The shootdown could also legitimize the Chinese ASAT test and spark an arms race in outer space (as if there is currently none).

Technically speaking, the shootdown isn't good enough to be bragged around as an ASAT capability. The bird was destroyed at an altitude of only 247 km. No satellite could sustain an orbit that low because it would encounter significant atmospheric drag. The Chinese ASAT test, on the other hand, was aimed at a satellite 865 km high up there. What the activity demonstrated though is the capability of AEGIS to accomplish objectives beyond its original air and missile defense purpose. With a successful hit at first attempt, AEGIS surely works as advertised and even more! Russia indeed has valid worries that the Americans were actually flexing its missile defense muscles. No doubt valuable data for a variety of, at the very least, military purposes had been gleamed from this activity. I would also think that planning may have started a year ago, when the bird was determined to crash with a full load of hydrazine, but if the government was to be believed that planning began only in January, then the speed in implementing modifications on existing systems when the need arises could prove to be a crucial tactical factor.

What's with the suggestion of using the space shuttle to scoop out the bird? At such a low altitude, the shuttle would be in danger of encountering drag and falling back to earth earlier than scheduled. The shuttle Atlantis was actually on a mission to the International Space Station during those times, and only when it had landed back at Florida did the shootdown commence.

As for a new Cold War where outer space is the new battlefield, I've been hearing of analysis that the Chinese have noticed US dependence on satellites in warfare: reconnaisance, communication and navigation. And if Reagan's plan pushes through, the future might see orbiting defensive and offensive platforms. It does follow that China would endeavor to counter this American capability via ASAT weapons. With no direct casualties, destroying satellites seems to be a politically correct tactic in future wars. The US is also trying to be one step ahead with their research on satellite protection and even self-repairing satellites.

I think, though, that China would rather compete in economic terms, as it had done so throughout history. If I may wager, it would be a United States, in some form of desperation, which would initiate a military attack against China. This is where the Chinese ASAT capability comes in: destruction of the navigation then communication then reconnaisance satellites may stop a conventional attack. To continue the offense or to push things further with unconventional means would prove to be messy, and hopefully the Americans would come to their senses before that happens.

Maybe I've been reading too many Clancy novels, watching too many action movies or playing too many computer games to have thought of these things. After all, these are just speculations and shouldn't be taken seriously at present. If there's any mention of the jostling among the superpowers in local politics, it is again connected to the NBN scam, wherein the President is being accused of giving the Chinese territorial and economic concessions, among others, in exchange for paltry loans and projects. If the public has been numb to appeal on morals, then an appeal to nationalism might do the trick.

If it were not for a news article buried in Philstar, I wouldn't be aware of this shootdown. There was no mention of this event in the Philippine blogs I frequent save for one. Both actually connected it to an earlier fallen spacecraft, Skylab. This space station flew and fell in the '70s, the decade before I was born. Back then, the Philippines had been included among its probable crash locations, causing a stir among the population. Its remnants eventually crashed somewhere in Australia, but the stir in the Philippines must be considerable enough that people here do remember it.

(Photos from Wikipedia, which in turn must have sourced it from the US government)