Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Roots of corruption: From Cacique Democracy to Juan Bacnang


Two books, one of fairly recent vintage using the novel as allegory, and the other, using a historical perspective as political commentary, have sought to make sense of the complex roots of our corruption.

National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s allegorical novel, The Feet of Juan Bacnang, published in 2011, is as current as today’s headlines, as relevant as the pork-barrel scam.

Feet of clay

Juan Bacnang could be your everyday politician. His life reflects many elements we find in our politicians today. In Sionil Jose’s deft hands, he becomes the epitome of the worst and the darkest of the breed we have produced.

Bacnang is the illegitimate product of the rape by a powerful politician of a poor barrio maiden from a small town in the Ilocos Region. After killing his friend over a girl he flees to Manila to find his rich mestizo father, Sen. Juan de la Cruz III.

The senator has sired many children with many women but has not produced a male heir. Reluctantly he accepts Juan as his son. Now John Bacnang de la Cruz IV, he finishes law at the State University and places third in the bar exams.

Rise to power

Juan ascends to power and wealth through corruption, murder and generous rewards to his private army. His father tutors him.

Reflecting on his life, Bacnang exposes a soul absolutely corrupted by unbridled power: “It was all so simple -- how things worked when one had power, when one knew how to make doors open... (l)ike taking candy from children, for that was what Filipinos were -- so easy to please, and to beguile.”  

In an encounter with an Ilocano journalist named Narciso Tured, a critic he plans to kill, Bacnang toys with his tormentor: “Are you implying, sir, that all of us who are rich, or who are in politics are scoundrels? That there is absolutely no good will among us and no sympathy for the lowly and the poor?” 

Tured replies, “It is not for me to make such a deduction, Mr. De la Cruz. You should … look into yourself…. And if you have a conscience … you will know the answer.” 

Bacnang rages, “What are you then, sir? The conscience of this country?” 

Tured replies, “How can I even assume that role? And who am I to be that conscience when I am myself a sinner? … Everyone knows what is happening in this country, the blatant hypocrisies, the crimes committed every day against the people. These criminals are not punished….” 

‘Hypnotic ignorance’

Bacnang ponders their conversation through the distorted prism of his perverted morality: “All through history, in the ancient world, today -- the artists, the philosophers delude themselves thinking that it is their art, their pompous words which move men and mountains.... Ha! And one thing more, we know, but the people who gave us power through the vote do not. The ignorant masses, let them cavort in their hypnotic ignorance.”

Bacnang disdains the people he has plundered, dismissing them as “accursed by the paucity of memory, smallness and shallowness of thought.”

In the end, Tured writes in his journal what could be our complicit guilt: “Knowing the truth, and spreading it is not enough. I am sorry, very sorry that I have grown this old and have not really served the truth because I am a coward. Although I did struggle, I merely survived. This is my shame. And now, the very least I can say for myself to justify this empty life is this: I have lived honestly with not one stolen morsel in my belly, although I did dine with those who did.”

We all did. And now the pork we ate has turned into the fetid poison of our nation’s corruption.

It’s time for a little history lesson.

Corruption history

IN THE BOOK WHY NATIONS FAIL: THE ORIGINS OF POWER, PROSPERITY AND POVERTY,  co-authors Daron Acemoglu, professor of developmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James A. Robinson, professor of political science at nearby Harvard, explored the nature of power, poverty and corruption through the lens of political economics.   

Reflecting on our situation in an article on “Cacique Democracy,” the co-authors examined our colonial history to determine how it shaped our political and economic institutions. They wrote:

“One of the most influential analyses of this is due to the political scientist Benedict Anderson, whose 1988 article in the New Left Review ‘Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams' laid out a theory of the political economy of the Philippines.  Like Fallows’s article (James Fallows, “A Damaged Culture”), Anderson’s was written in the wake of the People’s Power Movement that had ousted Ferdinand Marcos (in 1986).”

Acemoglu and Anderson wrote: “Everyone was trying to come up with forecasts for where the Philippines was going. Fallows’s answer was: nowhere, because, he argued, the real problem was not Marcos but Filipino culture. Anderson’s answer was also nowhere, but from a very different perspective.

“As we noted in our first post on the Philippines, though the country was a Spanish colony and even shared the same specific institutions as Spain’s American colonies, there were important differences. There was little settlement by Spaniards, and as a result the Church essentially ran the colony. They invested little in education, and at the time of US occupation probably no more than 5% of the population spoke Spanish. 

The new oligarchy

“In the 19th-century after the collapse of the Spanish empire in the Americas, commercial restrictions were gradually lifted on the Philippines and a non-Spanish economic elite, often of Chinese descent, emerged. They gradually acquired education and spearheaded the nationalist movement that ousted the Spanish shortly before the US invasion. Yet the behavior of the US administration was to turn this elite into a real oligarchy.

“First, they expropriated about 400,000 acres of land that had been church estates and auctioned it off. It was the elite that had money to buy this land.

“Second, right from the beginning they staffed the administration with locals, but these were positions that the educated elite was best placed to fill….

Political dynasties

“… as Anderson puts it: Here is the origin of the ‘political dynasties’ … which make Filipino politics so spectacularly different from those of any other country in Southeast Asia.

“Third, they introduced elections first at the local level for provincial governors in 1902, then for the lower house of the legislature in 1907, then a bicameral assembly in 1916, and finally for the executive in 1935. Though this sequencing of elections, with local ones coming first, appears like a good idea in the abstract, in practice it allowed the newly entrenched oligarchy to dominate local politics and then … to capture the successive democratic institutions that were opened up….

“As a result of all of this, from the start the Philippines was a captured democracy … they owed their power more to the way the US had structured their colony.... After independence in 1945 they maintained this dominance.” 

Not your usual aseptic view of Philippine history, perhaps, but one worth reading contemporaneously. Anderson’s historical insights put in context why Juan Bacnang contemplates suicide in the end. 


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lifestyles of the rich and famous in Provence


Early into his term, President Aquino stirred a hornets’ nest when he announced that he had bought a Porsche 911 for a cool P4.5 million of his personal money.

Unable to defend his action before the bar of public opinion, the President announced six months later that he had sold the sports car for the same price he had bought it.   

The Aquino presidency certainly knows the power of symbols.  “You are my boss,” Aquino proclaimed upon taking office.  “No more wang-wang (sirens to clear traffic)!”  Powerful symbols now    
lost in the vroom, vroom of a pretty little sports car.
So what allure did this little sports car have to make a President cast his fate to the wind?

Strategic Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang came up with something that could be worse than buying a Porsche. 

South of France

“The Porsche was perhaps an exception to what is generally simple lifestyle,” he said. “It’s a simple lifestyle. He doesn’t vacation in the South of France or something like that.”

What might a South of France holiday offer by way of a lifestyle of the rich and famous that would beat the allure of a Porsche?

But first we have to understand what could provoke a President to buy a Porsche against his better judgment.

Living on the edge

The motoring writer James Deakin, quoting reliable sources, reported what could be considered the only redeeming factor in this insensitive episode. He wrote that the President had a spin at the Subic Speedway under the guidance of a German instructor especially flown in for such special customers. 

It is standard operating procedure in Porsche to teach first-time customers the finer things about driving such finely tuned racing machines.

The Porsche 911 Turbo is built for racing on the road on a whim. In fact, you could take it to the racetrack on any given day, with just a tank-full of gasoline, and give racing drivers a run for their money.  

But it’s a tricky little car to drive, especially for amateurs. Like a scorpion, its sting lies in its tail: Because of the car’s inherent engineering geometry, its tail always seems to wander ahead of its front end.

Modern computer electronics have tamed all that, but the Porsche has been known to deliver a lethal bite. Viewed in this light, the President showed prudent judgment in having professional help before throwing caution to the spoiler-tamed turbulence of the Porsche.  

The President was reported to have been cautious, but he learned fast and, as he mastered the delicate art of hanging out the Porsche’s tail, he really had a good time. 

Sen. Chiz Escudero, whose taste for cars comes close to the President’s, was a front-seat rider for one spin.  He was out of there faster than a Porsche.  This car was not built for faint hearts and delicate stomachs.

The spin brought a smile to the President’s face, which could explain why he should be allowed to have fun once in a while: It helps him relax, and that should make for better decisions. 

Now, what might a vacation in the South of France offer?  

Romance in Provence

“Nothing says romance like a South of France honeymoon,” writes Cynthia Blair in a travel site. 

“This truly unique part of the world makes the perfect backdrop for lingering over leisurely dinners in extraordinary restaurants, exploring picture-perfect villages and vibrant cities with surprises at every turn, and basking in the finest flavors and scents offered by the country that practically invented romance. 

“The most remarkable aspect of a South of France honeymoon is that it provides a romantic getaway with two very different feelings: 

“1) The inland region of Provence delights the eye with the pastoral views that inspired great artists like Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, and Vincent van Gogh. 

“Vineyards covered with even rows of plump grapes form a patchwork with endless fields of radiant sunflowers or fragrant lavender. Nestled throughout are picturesque medieval towns that spill over the region’s hillsides, their cobblestone roads twisting and turning between imposing stone buildings that still serve as homes and shops today. 

“2) By contrast, the surrounding coast– the legendary Cote d’Azur, or French Riviera – is a luxurious resort area. This world-renowned playground has lured visitors for decades, inviting them to splash in the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, loll on its pebbly white beaches, and savor local wines or café au lait in its offbeat bistros while admiring views of yacht-filled ports…. 

“Provence’s famed lavender fields are in bloom from late June through July, while sunflowers turn the landscape golden in August. September is harvest season at the vineyards….

Rich, famous and beautiful

“Nice, Cannes, St-Tropez … for decades, the picturesque seaside towns of the Mediterranean have lured the rich, the famous, and the beautiful to the French Riviera….  

“The ultimate Cote d’Azur destination is Monaco. This tiny, bustling, cosmopolitan country, which hosts the famous Grand Prix auto race every May, also boasts sophisticated restaurants, clubs, and of course the famous casinos of Monte Carlo, Monaco’s capital…. 

“Perhaps the best-known medieval walled city is Avignon. During the 14th century, Avignon was the home of seven popes, and the huge stone Palace of the Popes still stands…. 

                                           Le Pont du Gard                                                 

Intoxicating sights, scents

“Many fine artists found inspiration in the beauty of Provence and the Cote d’Azur. The region is home to three art museums, each one a tribute to a genius who created some of his most impressive work in the area: Picasso, Chagall and van Gogh. 

 “Since this region is the perfume capital of the world, every South of France trip should include a stop in Grasse, the home of two perfume factories. Parfumerie Fragonard offers tours that demonstrate the magical process by which flowers are turned into perfume, soaps, and other scented products…. 
“And because of its proximity to Italy, this region has been widely influenced by Italian cuisine. Pasta is a specialty, often served with the basil and pine nut sauce called pistou, or pesto. Gelato in a dizzying number of flavors is available even in small towns,” Blair concludes.

The best way to explore the delights of the South of France is to rent a car. The road signs are very tourist-friendly. It is as Cynthia Blair describes it – a truly unforgettable experience. But I would have enjoyed it better tooling around in the car of my dreams … a Porsche 911 Turbo.


Photos: Lavender field in bloom, an old farmhouse, a Cezanne landscape, a Roman ruin.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sights, sounds and scents of the US East Coast *

*(We offer these happy memories to the residents of the East Coast, who are suffering one of their worst winter chills.  Cheerrrrrs!)

Pacita Abad, the international artist from Batanes, was living a quiet life in Boston with spouse Jack Garrity when we stormed into their solitude.  Pacita and my wife, Noreen, school mates at the University of the Philippines, had a lot of catching up to do.

Pacita insisted that no less than a weekend would suffice.  So when in Boston, we did what proper Bostonians do: a walking tour of Boston Common, a side trip to the museums, and, of course, an obligatory visit to the Kennedy Library, which was a delightful surprise for a bookworm like me.

By this time, Pacita had established a name in the art world with themes dictated by wherever her spouse’s bank-employer assigned him as an economist, in Asia and Africa.  

                                                        Old haunts

She was right; we had a lot of catching up to do.  But wherever in the world Pacita might be, her thoughts always turned to her favorite place: her home province of Batanes.

The Ivatan stone houses were Pacita's favorite topic, especially their restoration and preservation as historical sites.  She would have been glad to know that the Ivatan stone houses have been designated cultural heritage sites.

Pacita not only sought but celebrated the indigenous cultures of Africa and Asia in her Matisse-like paintings.  She would have been pleased with the effort to preserve the Ivatan heritage she loved so dearly, had she not passed away so soon.

Clam chowder
Our whirlwind weekend with Pacita was capped by a Sunday brunch at Boston Harbor for the mandatory clam chowder.  You have not tasted clam chowder until you have tasted the original in Boston.  

To make room for heaping servings of the chowder, we opted for a light salad and softshell crab, which was in season.  Our Bostonian friends said there is only a 48-hour window when these crabs molt (shed their shell to grow bigger) and the new one hardens.  We were lucky to have a taste of this seasonal New England delicacy.

What is Boston without its famous clam chowder?

Whenever we have Boston clam chowder, our thoughts turn to Pacita. We never forget that weekend in Boston, her immense talent, and her enduring friendship.  We will never forget Pacita's Boston, her home away from home. 
Redford's Gatsby

Less than two hours' drive from the Kennedy Library in Boston are the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, which evoke memories of the Gilded Age in American history.

Robert Redford's film, “The Great Gatsby,” was shot in one of those mansions, and a visit to the movie setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel is a welcome highlight to a weekend crammed with Ernest Hemingway.

How these three remarkable characters intertwined – John F. Kennedy, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald – is one of those happy historical coincidences that hardly seem to have occurred by happenstance.

The Kennedy Library houses the Hemingway Collection because Hemingway was the late President's favorite author.  JFK particularly loved Hemingway's definition of courage, “Grace under pressure.”  He used this quotation to introduce his Pulilzer Prize-winning historical book, Profiles in Courage.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald were contemporaries, and this curious conversation is recorded to have happened:

FITZGERALD:  “You know, Ernest, the rich are different from us.”

HEMINGWAY:  “Yes, I know. They have more money than we do.”

Age of opulence

Many critics consider The Great Gatsby the closest thing to the Great American Novel.  First published in 1925, it is the story of Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan. The love of money as the root of evil is a pervading theme. 

Gilded Age: Newport Mansions in Rhode Island
Emblematic of the Gilded Age, the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island were used as summer cottages by the original residents and owners.  The mansions provided summer homes to many of the country's leading families. Many of these historic properties serve as tourist destinations today and offer visitors glimpses of a bygone age. 

Leading families of this period preferred Newport as the summer social capital and built opulent summer houses spanning a wide range of architectural styles. 

In addition to the exterior architecture, these mansions exhibit extraordinary interior styles and designs reflective of the opulence of the Gilded Age. 

Extensive art collections, an incredible variety of outside garden designs, and multiple other unique displays give visitors a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous of an opulent past.  

Leonardo di Caprio is doing a remake of Robert Redford's cinematic Gatsby. That should set many Daisy Buchanan hearts aflutter again. 

The Big Apple

From Newport, we meandered on the East Coast, dropping by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.   We hit New York at the best time of year, autumn.  As the Frank Sinatra song goes: 

Autumn in New York
Why does it seem so inviting?
Shimmering clouds and glimmering crowds
In canyons of steel...

The toughest part of touring New York is figuring out where to begin.  Happily, New York is a walking city – within reason.  So you can begin anywhere and end up everywhere.

Did not Liza Minnelli sing?:

These vagabond shoes
Are longing to stray
Right through the heart of it
New York. New York...

On this trip, our travel agent could not find a place suitable to our means, so we ended up at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Upper East Side with a grand view of Central Park.  One of those serendipitous things that happen to tourists, I mused. 

Jackie's suite

Jackie Kennedy had not passed on to the Great Beyond and lived in one of the residential suites.  The gravel-voiced elevator man (The Four Seasons, like the Waldorf-Astoria, still employed them!) humored us by saying, “If you're lucky, folks, you might end up in the same elevator with her.”

I could not believe my ears, so I checked it out with the concierge.  “Oh, those folks have their own private elevators,” he said, casting an amused sideward glance at the elevator man. 

So much for serendipity.  Luckily, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli were belting away at the pipe-in speakers: 

If I can make it there
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you 
New York, New York!

I couldn’t get my mind off being an expatriate writer in New York, living at the Four Seasons, and bumping into Jackie at the elevators.  

It was autumn in New York, and it was good to live it again.

(The author is CEO of an international business management consultancy; e-mail  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Getting filthy rich in the Pacific Northwest*


Photo courtesy of virgothepoet
(UPDATED JAN. 4) - The snow-covered slopes of Mt. St. Helens flooded our portholes as the pilot hospitably banked the DC-10 to give us a breathtaking bird's eye-view of the tallest peak in North America.

“Welcome to Bill Gates country and Microsoft,” the chief steward announced.

“Starbucks!” a bleary-eyed jock bellowed from the back of the plane.

Laughter shook the cabin as my classmates and I stowed our laptops into our carry-on bags.  We were on a field study tour of Corporate America as part of a postgraduate course, and there were obviously still a few individualists in the plane who had not joined the Microsoft bandwagon.  So let's talk about the most individualistic of products, coffee, before Starbucks transformed it to a highly sociable one.

Stopping occasionally to smell the coffee may seem trivial, but it was the key to the Starbucks success story.  It was the key to why Howard Schultz got interested in coffee in the first place.

A native New Yorker, Schultz was working for a house-ware company in 1981 when he first travelled to Seattle.  He was drawn into a small store selling coffee beans. The aroma aroused such a sense of romance and adventure in him that he applied for a job, landing in marketing.  A trip to Italy two years later brought him back with visions of la dolce vita and café society life.  

Schultz talked to the founders of Starbucks to start opening espresso bars. Staunch traditionalists, the founders would have none of his wild ideas from Europe.  Schultz left to start his own company, Il Gornale.  He went back to Seattle in 1987 with $3.8 million to buy the company of his dreams.

It’s all in the smell

Within five years, Starbucks was growing at a frenetic pace, increasing stores at an average of 50 percent a year.  Soon, Starbucks had to get professional management help. 

In 2000, Schultz became chairman of the board and Orin Smith moved up from president to CEO.  Professional management maintained the blinding growth pace but succumbed to investors' demands for more efficiency and higher rates of return.

Automated espresso machines were installed to enable baristas to serve customers faster by 40 percent.  Drive-through service became standard and they introduced breakfast sandwiches. 

Share prices plummeted 40 percent in 12 months and the value of Schultz’s stock collapsed by some $400 million!  

This is what happens when bean counters (pun intended!) mindlessly tinker with business models without seeking to understand first the complex relationships that bind loyal customers to product concepts. 

The board recalled Schultz to run Starbucks again.

'The experience'

Schultz brought back “the coffee experience.”  Baristas started grinding coffee again to bring back the signature coffee aroma.  Breakfast sandwiches, which drowned out the coffee smell, were removed.  

Lower-standing espresso machines were restored to allow customers to talk to the barista again and exchange pleasantries. Nothing earthshaking, just the day’s headlines perhaps, the stock market, or the earthquake in Haiti or Chile. 

Schultz himself went back to the original store in Seattle to bring back the memory of how he felt that first time he smelled the coffee aroma that sent him on an adventure of a lifetime.

Foot loose

Photo courtesy of Wolfram Burner
Properly pumped up by the spirit of adventure, we drove south from Washington State to visit the home of Nike in neighboring Oregon.  Nike has always believed it was not just in the business of selling shoes:  “Nike has always known the truth – it’s not so much the shoes – but where they take you.”

Nike assaults the mind with the power of the brand -- the ubiquitous “swoosh” logo, its classic “Just do it” campaign, and its multi-million dollar endorsement contracts with sports superstars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras, and Lance Armstrong.  Nike is definitely all this – but more.  For beyond the marketing hype lies an intrinsic character that endears it to its customers.

Nike built its initial success on the technical superiority of its shoes, which appealed to runners and basketball players. But it has consistently built a strong relationship with its customers based on the values that matter to them.  

Running roots

Nike was founded by the legendary track-and-field coach Bill Bowerman and University of Oregon middle-distance runner Phil Knight in 1962.  The shoe grew out of a basic need, a well-engineered running shoe.   

But the sheer number of Nike products does not begin to describe what it is. More than your usual staid corporate headquarters, the 16 buildings on its Oregon “campus” are veritable shrines to the competitive spirit.  

Giant blowups of Nike heroes plaster the walls. Bronze statues of Nike athletes dot the running track that encircles the buildings named for superstars like Michael Jordan and John McEnroe.  

Nike employees are sports fans who use the fields and gyms found on the 176-acre property.  Here Nike employees daily drink the elixir of youth to imbibe the competitive spirit and ferocity to crush Adidas and Reebok.

To experience the thrill of competition, the exhilaration of victory, the joy of crushing competitors – this is the spirit that Nike gives its customers.  
Corn on the cob

After a busy day, a light dinner at one of Portland’s fine restaurants seemed in order.  But it had to be a healthy kind of dinner befitting sports fans like us.

We were lucky.  The sidewalk cafe we choose that afternoon featured corn on the cob drizzled with butter.  To keep the healthy theme, we ordered a crisp green salad with slices of juicy chicken deep-fried in corn oil.

Then we had the catch of the day: crispy calamari deep-fried to a golden brown.  With our appetites perked up, we had a side order of crispy, deep-fried shrimps.

I told my classmates that we had a widely held belief that Filipinos raised in the corn-growing regions of the Visayas and Mindanao were a hardy breed and made for better athletes. They raised their eyebrows as high as the corn stalks in a Kansas farm. 

The American farmer had had a good harvest.  As we munched on the corn on the cob, we all felt – as the Broadway song goes – “as corny as Kansas in August.”

The next step was to get ourselves into the Pacific Northwest state of mind. But the American dream is elusive and not for the faint of heart. We had to bulk up on more corn, so we bought one more cob for the road.

Thus properly armed -- munching on corn on the cob with Starbucks caffeine pulsing through our veins and our feet suitably shod in Nikes -- we set out to conquer the Pacific Northwest.  Looking at us, only a fool would have believed we might ... just do it.

*A Fantasy Impromptu


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Where in the world is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden?*


John Steinbeck ‘s classic East of Eden was inspired by this passage from Genesis:  “So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”  One day I found it – not the Biblical place, but Steinbeck’s.

Driving south of San Francisco on a sunny weekend becomes its own reward if you take the scenic route down Highway 1 along the picturesque California coast.  It becomes doubly rewarding if you take a side trip to Salinas Valley, setting of Steinbeck’s masterpiece East of Eden

How waves of Filipino immigrants ended up in the vegetable farms of Salinas County is an interesting historical side trip by itself.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

On this weekend drive down Highway 1, we made it a point to rent a Porsche 911 to put us in the proper frame of mind.  We were on our way to the annual classic car show in Monterey, reputedly the best in the world.

Ralph Lauren is a regular exhibitor together with other celebrity collectors like comedian Jay Leno. Their private collections alone, still growing and full of annual surprises, will make the two-hour drive from San Francisco worth it.  But when you are driving a Porsche, the destination becomes irrelevant -- it’s the journey that counts.  

The Porsche takes to the winding scenic road like fish to water.  Its gear ratios are so perfectly mated to its engine that shifting becomes instinctive.  You hardly look at the tachometer to count the engine revs – all you have to do is listen to the sonorous engine note resonating off the California cliffs and you’d know what to do.  Sometimes you feel the itch to shift gears just to hear the engine sing.

East of Eden

The views along the California coast are like nothing else in this part of the West.  The almost obligatory side trip to the vegetable gardens of Salinas County will bring back memories of Filipino migrant workers who worked the fields in an earlier century.  Many Filipino immigrants still live there, with heroic tales of bravery at sea now part of their oral history.

Interestingly, the rugged California coastline all the way down to the Monterey Peninsula, and onward to Mexico, was once part of the historic Galleon Trade routes between Manila and Acapulco.

In the years of the Galleon Trade (1565-1815), the voyage took all of 200 days, more or less, depending on wind, storms, occasional pirates, and brief stopovers for rest and supplies.

At a certain time of year, the prevailing trade winds of the Pacific would blow the galleons higher up north to the coast of California, from where they would sail southward to Acapulco, hugging the treacherous coastline.  Violent storms caught many of those ships, and today the California coast is graveyard to many galleons.

South to Clint Eastwood

Many stories of heroism at sea survive in the cultural history of small Filipino communities along the California coast, and farther inland at the vegetable farms of Salinas Valley.  

Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, preserved many of those heroic tales of rescue at sea by brave Filipino sailors in a breathtaking book, Down to a Soundless Sea.  One story tells of a Filipino sailor who swam in heavy seas towing a lifeboat full of survivors tied to his waist with abaca rope.

But growling stomachs cut short our musings about Philippine-American cultural history.   Today we were driving down the coast on the way to the Monterey classic car show, but that was just an excuse.  Our real destination was Carmel, a quaint little town which Clint Eastwood has made famous through his many years as mayor.

We had planned for a quick pit stop, but lunch in any of Carmel's gorgeous little restaurants lingers in the mind as well as on the palate.  The catch of the day were prawns and salmon.  We could not make up our minds, so we ordered both together with two Napa Valley wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Blanc.  Like Porsche’s engine and gearbox, the wines mated perfectly with the entree.

North to Napa 

For the next side trip on the California Coast, we decided to drive a Volkswagen Beetle to recall our first visit in the 80s when we were penniless graduate students on a lark from the East Coast.

Our venerable Prof. Jack Enright of the Harvard Business School had delighted in teaching us the resurgent California wines and how they were giving the French wines stiff competition. It was a case study in matching quality with price and giving customers good value for their money.

“Don’t forget to check out Napa,” he reminded those of us who were flying home via the West Coast.

In the heady days of the 80s, California wines were beginning to give the more expensive European labels a run for their money.  In marketing class, we had studied the wizardry of the California vintners in audaciously taking on the private labels from the Old Country and getting away with it.  

And so, driving a Volkswagen Beetle borrowed from a classmate's friend in San Francisco, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to explore Napa's wineries and California's delicate cuisine, a perfect pair for a weekend of gustatory frenzy.

We arrived in Napa at 11 a.m. and, armed with a tourist map, proceeded to follow the recommended trek to the wineries.  They were all very hospitable.

Pleasantly inebriated after three stops, we decided it was time to savor California's seafood recipes.  Fish it had to be to preserve our delicate palates for more wine-tasting in the afternoon.

Westward home

We chose a family-run restaurant with a Michelin star, proof of solid credentials. We ordered our food and selected the wine.  Both the chef and the cellar expert were on hand to guide us expertly through the complex task of matching wine to food. 

As it turned, it was more like matching food to wine.  The vintners made sure we got our priorities right.  Pleasing tourists, I noted in my travel diary, has become an art form in Napa, together with selecting the wine, and then the food.

We devoured the three complete courses suggested by the chef in a lunch that lasted till 3 p.m., much to our delight: Breaded prawns fried golden brown, Seared Chilean sea bass, and Yellow Fin Tuna Cajun-style.  

And then we were off to two more wineries before the drive back to our hotel on Geary and Taylor streets in the heart of San Francisco.  True to the Tony Bennett signature song, we left our hearts in San Francisco.  

We had to – because, with our chest cavities filled to the brim with all the wine and food from Napa, there was no room left for our heart. 

*Republished .

Photo: Salinas Valley vegetable farm, where Filipino immigrants toiled.

(The author is CEO of an international business management consultancy; e-mail  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Senators roam the Solar System, cyberspace and space between the ears


Trying to grab a solid handle in dealing with the controversial Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, senators roamed the Solar System, social media and cyberspace for answers.  

In the end, they found where everything begins and ends in this country: the doorstep of the President.  But they had to circumnavigate the cosmos to get there.

If this were a perfect world and she had her druthers, freshman Sen. Grace Poe would rewrite the laws that govern the Solar System and fast-break the approval of the decade-old FOI bill.

But the Solar System is a tough nut to crack – so she promises to do only the second part: rush the approval of the FOI bill.

At the end of the public hearings on the FOI bill last September, Senator Poe’s committee on public information combined the 11 versions into one bill. Then she said the Senate should approve the bill within the year.

Her optimism is infectious because it seems rooted in reality.  At one point during the public hearings, she let loose this metaphorical and metaphysical observation about the workings of the Solar System and the Internet: "You can't regulate the Internet.  It's like regulating the Solar System."

That said, it seemed that the FOI bill was headed for smooth sailing. Apparently not so: It would take Heaven and Earth moving together to budge the Lower House to pass the FOI bill they have sat on for a decade.  But there could be hope.

‘A new dawn’ 

Drawing strength from a marching citizenry enraged over the massive thievery of pork-barrel funds intended to help the poor, media organizations stood their ground on the FOI bill as a necessary step to rid government of corruption.

"Nothing will herald a new dawn more clearly than passing a law that tells Filipinos, 'Here is government. We have nothing to hide,'" Interaksyon Editor in Chief Roby Alampay told the Poe committee. Interaksyon is the online news portal of TV5.

Alampay was referring to the growing public clamor against a web of corruption involving senators, congressmen and a host of government agencies and fake non-government organizations (NGO). Cases have been filed in the anti-graft court by the Ombudsman.

The pork-barrel scam has triggered spontaneous citizen protest movements called the #MillionPeopeMarch and #ScrapPork network. The social media had a lot to do with mobilizing citizen protest almost overnight.

Senator Poe’s committee hearings focused on refinements needed to make the bill responsive to the changing social and political norms in the age of the Internet.

'A lifetime!'

The FOI bill defines the procedures intended to implement the right to know and the policy of public disclosure enshrined in the 1987 Constitution passed after the People Power Revolution of President Corazon Aquino.  It provides a system for ordinary citizens to access government documents.

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa said the 15-day period for granting FOI requests is a lifetime for online news.  In the last Google survey, Rappler ranked as the third online news source, after and ABS-CBN.

Ressa said, “Fifteen days in the time of online news is a generation, a lifetime. We suggest that journalists and news organizations not be subjected to the 15-day waiting period.”

New urgency

At the first committee hearing, Sen. Sonny Angara, one of the authors, laid the FOI bill squarely at the doorstep of President Aquino when he said, "Kung walang FOI, lumalago ang korap." (If there is no FOI, corruption broadens.)

Angara was paraphrasing Mr. Aquino’s campaign line, “Kung walang korap walang mahirap” (Where there are no corrupt officials, there are no poor people), credited for his massive win in 2010.

Mr. Aquino has drawn fire for his lukewarm support of the bill after making a campaign promise to push for its passage.

Presidential concerns

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Undersecretary Manolo Quezon told the committee he was confident the Senate bill now sufficiently addresses the President’s concerns.  Among these are: The bill might harm business transactions, violate privacy and executive privilege, and compromise national security and national defense. These form part of the exceptions to FOI requests.

Advocates expect a swift passage in the Senate, which approved the measure in past Congresses. Senate President Franklin Drilon, suspected of complicity in the pork-barrel scam, has said that the bill is a priority and must be passed soon.

Rough sailing is expected in the House of Representatives, where some congressmen expect equal time and space in the in the right-of-reply provision.

President holds key

Displaying uncanny insight on how Congress works, Sen. JV Ejercito, a former congressman and one of the authors of the bill, said the President could do more to push the bill, especially in the House of Representatives where it has met strong opposition.

“I know this will be the battleground, the House. If the President certifies this bill as urgent or one of their measures in their wish list, I don’t think we will have a problem in passing [it].”

Poe had a different opinion on asking the President to certify the bill as urgent. “I will defer to the judgment of the President. He sees the whole view of what's happening in the country,” Rappler reported.

The remark indicated that the freshman legislator was still adjusting to her new role as a senator of the realm.  She used to be part of the President’s office (as MTRCB chairman) and was naturally deferential to him.  Now she has her own independent mandate earned from direct vote of the people in the last elections in May. 

The people are interested to know what she thinks -- the President is entitled to know what she thinks – and she is duty-bound to let the people know where she stands.  She should speak out her mind out as a member of an independent branch of government.  

It’s time for a little history lesson.

The Fourth Estate

The term “Fourth Estate” commonly refers to the news media, especially    print journalism,  or "The Press," says Wikipedia.  The term is attributed to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the proposed opening up of Press reporting of the House of Commons in Great Britain.  

In current usage the term is applied to the Press, as described by Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In Burke's time (1787) he would have been referring to the traditional three estates of Parliament: The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons. 

The remark may have been in the back of Carlyle's mind when he wrote in his French Revolution (1837): "A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable."  In this context, the other three estates are those of the French States-General: the Church, the Nobility, and the Townsmen.

The networked Press

Yochai Benkler, the author of the 2006 book The Wealth of Networks on the Networked Information Economy, described in a May 2011 paper published in the Harvard Civil Liberties Review the Networked Fourth Estate.  He outlined the growth of non-traditional journalistic media on the Internet and how it affected the traditional press.  He used Wikileaks as an example of an online news source that eventually ends up in traditional media. 

He later described the Networked Fourth Estate as the set of practices, organizing models, and technologies that are associated with the free press and provide a public check on the branches of government. 

It differs from the traditional press in that it has a diverse set of actors instead of a small number of major presses, Benkler said. These actors include small for-profit media organizations, non-profit media organizations, academic centers, and distributed networks of individuals participating in the media process with the larger traditional organizations. 

In other words, the citizen journalists who inhabit the social networking sites.

This is theevolving media that the Congress will be grappling with in the months to come.  The media know where they stand – and are clear about standing their ground.

FOI law or no law, the media seem to be doing quite well in exposing government corruption by just using what they have plenty of traditionally – dogged determination and true grit.

In any case, the law is merely the legal expression of social norms of conduct. It must be responsive to the changing times – for it becomes irrelevant when it becomes unresponsive. That’s when the people march, rewrite the rules of the game, and render the existing system moot and academic.  They have done it before – in 1896 and 1986.

(The author is chief executive of a management consultancy specializing in public policy and business strategy; e-mail

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Voyager’s star trek sparks meditations on creation


Boldly going where no human-built device has ever gone before, the US space agency’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system, is traversing the vast expanse of space between the stars, and is likely to keep going indefinitely across time and space, US scientists have announced. 

The spacecraft was launched in 1977 on a limited mission to explore planets in our solar system.

Voyager is about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our Sun in a cold, dark part of the cosmos that is between the stars, Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist, told the French news agency Agence France Presse.

"This historic step is even more exciting because it marks the beginning of a new era of exploration for Voyager, the exploration of the space between the stars," said Stone.

The spacecraft will keep cruising, although the radioisotope thermo-electric generators that power it are beginning to run down. Its instruments will shut down permanently in 2025, the journal Science reported. But experts believe the spacecraft may keep traveling indefinitely.

"I think the Voyager mission is a much grander voyage of humankind than anyone had dreamed," said Bill Kurth, of the University of Iowa.

Voyage of discovery

Mankind’s greatest voyage of discovery began in 1977 when the US space agency NASA launched two spacecraft on an unprecedented journey to explore our Solar System's giant outer planets.

Today, 36 years later, Voyager 1 has become the first man-made object to venture into the vast expanse of space between the stars.  

Like its sister Voyager 2, also heading to the boundaries of the Solar System on a different trajectory, the 722-kilo (1,500-pound) Voyager 1 carries a time capsule -- a gold-plated disk providing images and sounds of life on Earth in 1977 for any intelligent alien it may encounter.

Rosine Lallement of the Paris Observatory told AFP, "For the first time, a probe is an environment that has never been experienced before by a man-made object. It will be intriguing to see what happens next," she said.

The Voyagers were originally designed to conduct close-up studies of the giant planets Saturn and Jupiter, Saturn's rings, and the larger moons of the two planets. The space probes were then ordered to carry out ambitious flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune.

After this feat, the spacecraft were sent on the ultimate trip: to the edge of the Solar System and interstellar space.


A key moment came in 2004 when Voyager 1, then about 14 billion kilometers (8.7 billion miles) away, crossed the "termination shock." This is the place where the particles spewed out from the Sun, called the solar wind, start to interact with cosmic rays from interstellar space.

In 2010, Voyager reached a kind of no man’s land where the solar wind dies out. Two years later, a surge in high-energy particles detected by its cosmic-ray sensor indicated it had reached the heliopause, where the Sun's zone of influence dissipates into interstellar space.

That Voyager has entered the heliopause has taken a long time to figure out, Voyager project scientist Ed Stone told AFP, but now it is confirmed.

Data sent back by the two probes has already redrawn textbook depictions of the Solar System as being spherical. Instead, the Sun's neighborhood, the heliosphere, is egg-shaped, scientists said.

The "bottom" of the egg is flattened by the collision between the solar wind and the blast of particles from other stars.

Lallement said astrophysicists were now eager to know if Voyager 1 will confirm their theories about the space between the stars.
"If one day we send out probes to neighboring stars, what kind of environment can we expect for them?" she asked.

"Until now, all of our theories are based on computer models, not on observed data."

Voyager's instruments will have to shut down permanently in 2025, the US journal Science reported. The spacecraft will keep traveling at more than 17 kilometers per second, or 38,000 miles per hour.

That may seem fast, but space is huge – far beyond we can imagine. 

In the year 40272 -- more than 38,000 years from now -- Voyager 1 will come close to the nearest star on its path.  It will be within 1.7 light years of a minor member of the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear or Little Dipper) called AC+79 3888, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration says on its website. 

What is a light-year?

The Hubble telescope—floating in space above the distorting haze of the Earth’s atmosphere—has sent back remarkable images of funnel like structures stretching across millions of light years (the distance travelled by light in a year -- that’s 300,000 km/sec x 60 seconds x 60 minutes x 24 hours x 365.25 days—you can do the math!).

One end of the funnel appears to be sucking in stellar material from exploded stars and regurgitating it out the other end millions of light years away—the stuff of which new stars are made.

Radio-telescopes like Hubble’s are able to peer into outer space, compressing billions of light years of creation into our eyes.  To get a sense of that distance, the light from our star—the sun—takes some eight minutes to reach our optic nerve.

That means that the sun we see is eight-minutes-old.  In those eight minutes it could have exploded—but we won’t know that until later.  

A radio-telescope that reaches, say, four billion light years into space, brings us light--or a picture of reality--that is four billion light-years away!

Powerful radio-telescope can now peer into the edge of the universe, the horizon of creation believed to be some 18 billion light-years away. Assuming we could stop along the way to take pictures, we would be getting snapshots of creation one, two, or three billion light-years away.

What is real time then in the vast expanse of the universe? But we are getting light-years ahead of our story, so to speak.

The American writer T.S. Eliot hopped, skipped and jumped across the universe, merging time and space. In a sense he was a time traveler -- a physical impossibility perhaps, but maybe the only way to comprehend the universe. Eliot traversed the vast distances between literature and theology, between physics and philosophy. He wrote:

 We shall not cease from exploration.
  And the end of all our exploring 
 Will be to arrive where we started 
 And know the place for the first time.

In four short lines, Eliot may have found a way to comprehend creation. 

Voyager pushed the frontiers of the human imagination far beyond the observable universe. To fully appreciate its impact, it may help to backtrack to a time when there was yet no time---to a place where there was yet no space---to shed light on a place where there was yet no light.


Our classical mental picture of the beginning is an empty space with nothing in it---no light, no matter, no energy, no time, nothing--just empty space. As cosmologists imagine it, there was not even space with nothing in it—there was simply no space, period—absolutely nothing, nada.

And then there was light.

The fire of creation ignited, sparking the Big Bang envisioned by theoretical physicists. A flash of light—pure energy—creating space as it expanded at a rate beyond human imagination. 

The universe is still expanding and accelerating at the edge, creating more space, time, energy and matter as it unfolds.

In the first milliseconds of creation, particles of matter and energy interacted in thermal equilibrium. Before four minutes were over, protons and neutrons had linked up to form atomic nuclei.

The universe was now composed of 20 percent helium nuclei and 80 percent hydrogen, the most basic element consisting of one proton, one neutron and one electron. 


Hydrogen is the fuel of the stars, which are really huge nuclear furnaces that fuse together hydrogen atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy—an ongoing hydrogen bomb—the nuclear fire that burns in the stars!

Clusters of galaxies—hundreds of millions of them, each composed of billions of stars---began to form around 17 billion years ago.

Our sun and planets congealed from a cloud of stellar gas and dust at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy around 4.5 billion years ago.  

Around 3.8 billion years ago, the Earth had cooled enough to form a crust. Around 3.5 billion years ago, microscopic living cells began to roam the planet.


Around 1.8 billion years ago, plants grew in the sea. Around 700 million years ago, rudimentary animals—jellyfish---appeared.

Life moved to dry land 425 million years ago. The first insects appeared 400 million years ago, the first land vertebrates 325 million years ago. The mammals appeared 200 million years ago, the early horses 55 million years ago, the ancestors of modern cats and dogs 35 million years ago.

Around 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus appeared in China.  Homo sapiens emerged 600,000 years ago, and learned to control fire 360,000 years ago. Humans invented complex language 40,000 years ago, and music 35,000 years ago.

Around 20,000 years ago, man learned to grow plants. The Babylonians invented the calendar 6,700 years ago. Humans learned to write 5,500 years ago, or at around 3,500 B.C.  The rest is history.


In classical physics, the view was widely held that God set in motion a universe that runs according to very precise laws. 

Responding to evidence emanating from recent findings in quantum physics and modern cosmology, theoretical physicists have leaned toward a less strict view of creation---that God allows spontaneous creativity in the unfolding of the universe. 

In such a creative (or creating) universe, God allows surprises to pop up and delight Him, as in the development of biological life as we know it today. All that God needed to do was to set things in motion as the Prime Mover.

It is perhaps this modern view of creation physics that coincides with the view that God allows creativity in the unfolding of the universe, a view of creation reflected in this Jewish folk story:

“And God said to Abraham, ‘But for me, you would not be here.’  ‘I know that Lord,’ Abraham said, ‘but were I not here there would be no one to think about You!’”

Perhaps another way to comprehend creation physics is through the 1927 poem, “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann: 

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” 

 (The author, chief executive of a management consultancy, left a course in nuclear physics for the joy of English literature and a career in business administration; e-mail: