Monthly Archives: December 2007

Between Deadlines: Christmas in the Senate

The December 22 issue featured Leila Salaverria on Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s late night monitoring the non-release of convicted child rapist Romy Jalosjos; Dona Pazzibugan’s revealing round-up of politically aligned Christmas parties in the Senate; Jocelyn Uy on Joseph Estrada’s complaint against Inquirer coverage; and Abigail Ho on PSALM’s attempt at a transparent bidding.

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Column: Between hope and despair

Published on December 25, 2007

The news from the provinces was late but bracing. On Dec. 15, the Man from Subic and the Woman from Cebu met–unexpectedly–at the launch of a new ship. They ended up launching another, decidedly more vulnerable, vessel: a trial balloon.

As trial balloons go, however, this was a blimp. "Sen. Richard Gordon and Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia have stoked rumors of a potential administration-backed tandem in the 2010 polls after both politicians flirted with the idea of running together," Inquirer reporter Gil Cabacungan Jr. began his front-page story the other day.

To hear the principals speak, the idea was spur-of-the-moment. "That came out spontaneously," Gordon told me. "I nearly fell out of my seat."

A modest Garcia downplayed the form without denying the substance. "That’s all there is to it, really," she said in a text message. "A teaser."

But spontaneous or not, there was definitely something combustible in the idea. Two capable executives (Subic Bay remains a template of development), two proven vote-getters (Garcia’s margin in the last election was almost half a million votes, about twice the number of Pampanga voters who elected Among Ed Panlilio).

"We have the same political philosophy," Gordon noted. "It’s always ‘Can do.’ It’s always ‘Nothing is impossible.’ It’s always ‘Depend on your own.’"

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he hails from Luzon and can ignite a crowd, while Garcia speaks Visayan and sings like a star.

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The view from the window

This photo may help explain the absence of new posts, both here and in Inquirer Current, the last couple of weeks. We moved house. A complicated affair at the best of times, moving during the Christmas season is a logistical nightmare. But the view from my window makes it all worthwhile. Our bungalow is on a small rise, and from our windows we look out into the neighbor’s un-English garden of plants and trees. It is a riot of greens, and I love it. There is almost always a breeze, or at least a welcome hint of it, and most of the day and throughout the night we leave the biggest window open. I wake up with a smile on my face — and that’s no metaphor. To think that we live in the middle of the metropolis. Moving may be a grind, but waking up with the window open is literally a breeze.

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Column: The uses of error

Published on December 18, 2007

A couple of days after the poll group Pulse Asia released additional results of its October 2007 “Ulat ng Bayan” survey, I rang up Ana Maria Tabunda, its executive director. She confirmed my initial guess that the three questions on “corruption-related issues” (as she described them in the cover letter to the second release) were “riders” — that is, additional questions proposed by survey subscribers. (The use of the term, if I am not mistaken, is borrowed from legislative practice.)

The use of riders is standard, of course, as even those in Malacañang who now deny the very possibility of science (a denial Randy David warned us about last Saturday), would have to agree. Riders help make opinion polling a little more cost-effective; at the same time, because the main survey is completely its responsibility, Pulse Asia can claim, as it does, that it “undertakes Ulat ng Bayan surveys on its own without any party singularly commissioning the research effort.”

But even riders are subjected to the same strict standards of survey design and analysis. Dr. Tabunda was emphatic on this point. The questions from ex-senator and regular survey subscriber Serge Osmeña could not be included in their original form, she said. It was only after Osmeña signed off on Pulse Asia’s revised version that the questions (available online, as footnotes in the tables of findings) were included in the October poll. As I hope all reporters learn in their first few months on the job, there is a science even in the phrasing of questions.

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That *&!@# survey

The ubiquitous Cerge Remonde, chief of the Presidential Management Staff, had the catchiest official reaction to Pulse Asia’s "most corrupt President in history" survey. He called it "unfair, unkind, and un-Christian."

Catchy, but thrice untrue.

The results finding President Arroyo the "most corrupt" cannot be found on the Pulse Asia website —- for good reason. The three questions commissioned by ex-Sen. Sergio Osmena III of the opposition and that led to the "most corrupt" finding were "riders." They were not meant for general consumption. But when the (inevitable) leak occurred, Pulse Asia deemed it best to belatedly release the results to the media. For a look at these results, including the three tables Pulse Asia prepared, see Inquirer Current

(What can be found on the Pulse Asia website is actually quite as interesting: the "main" corruption-related findings, including the data on how many voting-age Filipinos are actually willing to take to the streets, or do everything necessary, to force the resignation of a president "linked" to corruption.)

It is important to remember the context of the survey. Pulse Asia, in introducing both the "main" and the "additional" findings, drew a sketch (as it always does) of the news environment at the time (from October 20 to 31) that the survey was conducted:

At the time the interviews for this survey were being conducted, reports on the following developments dominated the news headlines: the cash handed out to selected local government officials and legislators in Malacañang, renewed calls for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation and the planned revival of impeachment complaints against her, the blast in a Makati shopping mall that killed several people, the rift between President Arroyo and House Speaker Jose C. de Venecia over the ZTE and cash handout controversies, the continuing Senate investigation on the ZTE contract, the granting of pardon to former President Joseph Estrada, the holding of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, and the increasing price of oil in the global market as well as the steady appreciation of the Philippine peso.

Pulse Asia also included a reminder, as it always does, of the non-partisan nature of its work.

The survey’s sampling design and questionnaire are the full responsibility of Pulse Asia’s pool of academic experts and no religious, political, economic or any other form of partisanship has been allowed to influence the survey design, the findings generated by the actual surveys or the  subsequent analyses of survey findings.

Was the October survey, and the riders on "most corrupt president," in fact "unfair, unkind, and un-Christian"? Only if Pulse Asia violated the science of opinion polling.

I have written seat-of-the-pants analyses of survey results before (see, for example, here and here). A column I wrote for Inquirer.net early this year tried to offer five rules of thumb for understanding surveys. (To be sure, these were election-related surveys; but polling organizations put a premium on election surveys because they are high-profile tests that verify —- or falsify, depending on which theory of scientific discovery you subscribe to —- the polling methods used.)

Many guides to conducting or understanding opinion surveys are also available online. The World Association for Public Opinion Research (where Social Weather Stations is a member, incidentally) is a good start. It offers the Esomar guide to opinion polling. If scrolling through a PDF file does not excite you, consider the FAQs available on the Esomar website (Esomar, I found out with some difficulty, used to stand for the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research). Take note especially of the category on Opinion Polling.

Over at Inquirer Current, many readers have questioned the size (not even the randomness) of the survey sample. Two Cabinet secretaries have also raised the same question. Can 1,200 survey respondents actually speak for millions of Filipinos?

They do so all the time.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a quick and dirty guide to sampling, but I prefer the one available under the Esomar FAQs. It includes this common-sensical explanation of representative sampling.

In much the same way that a chef can judge a large vat of soup by tasting just one spoonful. Providing that the soup has been well stirred, so that the spoonful is properly “representative”, one spoonful is sufficient. Polls operate on the same principle: achieving representative samples is broadly akin to stirring the soup. A non-scientific survey is like an unstirred vat of soup. A chef could drink a large amount from the top of the vat, and still obtain a misleading view if some of the ingredients have sunk to the bottom. Just as the trick in checking soup is to stir well, rather than to drink lots, so the essence of a scientific poll is to secure a representative sample, rather than a vast one.

In the soup kitchen that is Philippine politics, however, sometimes a spoonful is enough to cause indigestion.

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That *&!@# survey

The ubiquitous Cerge Remonde, chief of the Presidential Management Staff, had the catchiest official reaction to Pulse Asia’s "most corrupt President in history" survey. He called it "unfair, unkind, and un-Christian."

Catchy, but thrice untrue.

The results finding President Arroyo the "most corrupt" cannot be found on the Pulse Asia website —- for good reason. The three questions commissioned by ex-Sen. Sergio Osmena III of the opposition and that led to the "most corrupt" finding were "riders." They were not meant for general consumption. But when the (inevitable) leak occurred, Pulse Asia deemed it best to belatedly release the results to the media. For a look at these results, including the three tables Pulse Asia prepared, see Inquirer Current

(What can be found on the Pulse Asia website is actually quite as interesting: the "main" corruption-related findings, including the data on how many voting-age Filipinos are actually willing to take to the streets, or do everything necessary, to force the resignation of a president "linked" to corruption.)

It is important to remember the context of the survey. Pulse Asia, in introducing both the "main" and the "additional" findings, drew a sketch (as it always does) of the news environment at the time (from October 20 to 31) that the survey was conducted:

At the time the interviews for this survey were being conducted, reports on the following developments dominated the news headlines: the cash handed out to selected local government officials and legislators in Malacañang, renewed calls for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation and the planned revival of impeachment complaints against her, the blast in a Makati shopping mall that killed several people, the rift between President Arroyo and House Speaker Jose C. de Venecia over the ZTE and cash handout controversies, the continuing Senate investigation on the ZTE contract, the granting of pardon to former President Joseph Estrada, the holding of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, and the increasing price of oil in the global market as well as the steady appreciation of the Philippine peso.

Pulse Asia also included a reminder, as it always does, of the non-partisan nature of its work.

The survey’s sampling design and questionnaire are the full responsibility of Pulse Asia’s pool of academic experts and no religious, political, economic or any other form of partisanship has been allowed to influence the survey design, the findings generated by the actual surveys or the  subsequent analyses of survey findings.

Was the October survey, and the riders on "most corrupt president," in fact "unfair, unkind, and un-Christian"? Only if Pulse Asia violated the science of opinion polling.

I have written seat-of-the-pants analyses of survey results before (see, for example, here and here). A column I wrote for Inquirer.net early this year tried to offer five rules of thumb for understanding surveys. (To be sure, these were election-related surveys; but polling organizations put a premium on election surveys because they are high-profile tests that verify —- or falsify, depending on which theory of scientific discovery you subscribe to —- the polling methods used.)

Many guides to conducting or understanding opinion surveys are also available online. The World Association for Public Opinion Research (where Social Weather Stations is a member, incidentally) is a good start. It offers the Esomar guide to opinion polling. If scrolling through a PDF file does not excite you, consider the FAQs available on the Esomar website (Esomar, I found out with some difficulty, used to stand for the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research). Take note especially of the category on Opinion Polling.

Over at Inquirer Current, many readers have questioned the size (not even the randomness) of the survey sample. Two Cabinet secretaries have also raised the same question. Can 1,200 survey respondents actually speak for millions of Filipinos?

They do so all the time.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a quick and dirty guide to sampling, but I prefer the one available under the Esomar FAQs. It includes this common-sensical explanation of representative sampling.

In much the same way that a chef can judge a large vat of soup by tasting just one spoonful. Providing that the soup has been well stirred, so that the spoonful is properly “representative”, one spoonful is sufficient. Polls operate on the same principle: achieving representative samples is broadly akin to stirring the soup. A non-scientific survey is like an unstirred vat of soup. A chef could drink a large amount from the top of the vat, and still obtain a misleading view if some of the ingredients have sunk to the bottom. Just as the trick in checking soup is to stir well, rather than to drink lots, so the essence of a scientific poll is to secure a representative sample, rather than a vast one.

In the soup kitchen that is Philippine politics, however, sometimes a spoonful is enough to cause indigestion.

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The most corrupt

Just a hunch. The Pulse Asia survey conducted last October (which I had already referred to in remarks before the Rotary Club of Manila and in a column that followed) will be the topic of discussion tomorrow. The survey found that, to voting-age Filipinos, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is the "most corrupt President in history." (The email I got from Pulse Asia was charmingly titled "Additional Findings on Graft and Corruption.")

Here’s Table 2 of those additional findings.

Pulse_most_corrupt  (Again, and as in the Katrina photo below, click on the image to enlarge it. This table, however, is considerably less fetching. A word to the wise.)

While the question is asked against a considerably longer horizon ("sa kasaysayan ng Pilipinas"), note that the options are limited to the last five presidents: Marcos, Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, and Arroyo.

Under such limits, Arroyo is a clear "winner" over Guinness-record-holder Marcos (the national numbers have the standard margin of error of plus or minus 3). Definitely not good news for Malacanang.

But before we wave copies of the latest Pulse Asia survey in the streets, remember that this very survey found that only a quarter of voting-age Filipinos were willing to take to the streets to force the resignation of a corrupt president. The limits of outrage, indeed.

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Column: SM Nation

Published on December 11, 2007

I  took part in the 1st Business Education-Industry Summit last week, a dialogue hosted by the Philippine Council of Deans and Educators in Business. PCDEB is an extraordinarily active consortium, achieving in six years (three awards competitions, a complete accreditation process, regular study tours, and so on) what other professional associations take decades to do. My role was simple enough: to give a journalist’s perspective on business education, which is currently in the throes of modernization.

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Katrina (considerably off-topic)

At the Inquirer’s anniversary party last Saturday, many guests arrived (many are happy to visit at anniversary time) —- to sing (Ogie Alcasid, for instance), draw raffle prizes (Iwa Moto), or just plain hang out with the employees and have their pictures taken (Michael V, eminently). But I’m betting most employees would remember this guest best:

Katrina_pdi_2 (Thanks, Jun, for the photo.) Note the waiters in the wings, looking mesmerized. Katrina Halili arrived just to draw a handful of winning raffle tickets, but —- at least to the men drinking free-flowing beer at the back of the hall (actually, our indoor parking area, converted) —- her appearance was the unmistakable highight of the evening.

I didn’t drink any beer, but I’d have to say I agree. No wonder (the consensus among the men went) she topped FHM’s sexiest survey two years running. There’s some science in them thar polls. And she was actually quite gracious too.

Now back to the murky world of politics.

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The Short History of Texting: Chapter 1

This came out in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune: a charming and at the same time candid look at that pivotal moment 15 years ago (who knew?) when the very first "text" message was sent. That SMS greeting (sent from a computer, as it happens) was meant to make pagers more useful, but ended up starting a cultural revolution. (Who knew?)

I remember the first time somebody told me about texting: it was either late 1996 or early 1997, and a brilliant cousin who was marketing director at one of the major telcos at the time was telling me about a trip he had made to Camiguin island, and how he kept in touch with his family by using his phone to send text messages. It took me a while to wrap my head around the idea. (Who knew?)

Victoria Shannon’s piece in IHT is a classic feature (I mean, it follows the structure of the classic feature story, leading off with a compelling quote and ending with a terrific anecdotal conclusion); it is also a very good read.

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A new medium

I know what you’re thinking. Not another blogging vis-a-vis journalism post! But the question keeps cropping up, like recalcitrant weeds. A college freshman asked me for my thoughts last Thursday, and today it was a high school senior’s junior’s turn. Term paper season, I guess.

This is what I wrote earlier this afternoon:

We’re comparing apples and oranges here, I’m afraid.

Blogging is a (new) medium of information, in the same way that novels are a medium, or letters or diaries or movies or plays or poetry. Journalism is a particular use of information, whose essence is verification.

Thus, blogs can be journalistic —- but they don’t have to be. In the same way, some movies can be journalistic (think of documentaries, for example) but don’t have to be.

Much of the excitement over blogging has to do with the empowering sense it gives "ordinary people" —- that is, non-professionals —- when information technology and the new culture being created allows them to take an even more active part in the public discourse, in the shaping of public opinion. And I say, good for them! And good for all of us. Let a thousand blogs bloom.

But it is important to recognize that blogs don’t need to be journalistic to become an important part of the opinion-shaping process. In fact, it is precisely the non-journalistic, indeed non-traditional, aspects of blogging that recommends it in the first place.

Having said that, we must also recognize that some bloggers have written journalism of a very high order. Michael Totten has reported from Iraq and Lebanon, filing matchless dispatches that will put the work of the largest news organizations to shame. Willy Prilles of Naga City has posted many entries about Bicol politics and culture that both surpass any newspaper’s standards and meet his loyal readers’ expectations. We can multiply these examples any number of times.

We must also note that even avowedly "personal" blogs can produce journalistic work at times (that is to say, posts that can be subjected to verification). In the aftermath of the Glorietta 2 explosion, for example, many "personal" blogs hosted eyewitness reports or on-site photos —- making them truly the "first draft of history."

Can journalists blog too? Of course they can, but they do so —- we do so —- conscious of the credibility risk we take. If we publish news-oriented blogs, but do not follow the same standards we keep in the newsroom (verifiability, fairness, accuracy, and so on), readers may in time find our actual work less credible, less believable.

Can bloggers and journalists co-exist? They can, and they should. Indeed, bloggers have helped to keep journalism honest, by applying a collective and real-time fact-checking process to some controversial stories. A story by Dan Rather of CBS News on George W. Bush’s military record (or lack thereof) is an infamous example. At the same time, bloggers feed on the news reports and opinion pieces published by the media; for many bloggers, the work of media is the starting point, the point of departure.

Can blogging replace journalism? No, or at least not if we take our civil liberties and the democratic space seriously. Journalism, as an institution, is privileged in the Constitution precisely because of the role it plays in keeping the public informed or, more accurately, in informing the consent of the governed. This role is not easy; because of what is at stake, journalists come under pressure all the time. Journalism as an institution helps protect journalists as individuals from that pressure, something unorganized bloggers can’t do —- at least not yet.

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Between Deadlines: Unthinking AFP officials

The December 8, 2007 column features Fe Zamora on a supposedly secret Armed Forces document, Dona Pazzibugan on Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s iron-handed steering of the budget deliberations, and Leila Salaverria on a government solicitor (Amparo Tang) going up against her former boss (Frank Chavez).

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At home in the world

Another speech.

That (apart from the usual and full-time Op-Ed related responsibilities) is how I’ve been spending most of my time these days: writing speeches and preparing presentations, and then imposing my thoughts on captive audiences. (That explains why four of the last five posts, and seven of the last 10, were columns. My apologies.)

After hosting the 3rd Inquirer Briefing on November 27, three engagements came in quick succession: first the Rotary Club of Manila (the so-called "mother club" not only of the Philippines but of all Asia), then the Philippine College of Surgeons and then,  just this morning, the First Business Education – Industry Summit, at the AIM.

If the 170 deans and educators who paid some serious loose change to attend the day-long summit (theme: "Developing the Global Filipino")  remember only one thing from my 25 minutes behind the rostrum, I hope it’s the looming possibility of "SM Nation."

The parts in italics are the parts I skipped; I also omitted the first two (introductory) paragraphs.

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Column: The limits of outrage

Published on December 4, 2007

Not content with the damage Antonio Trillanes et al. caused last Thursday, Malacañang issued orders to detain some (but, crucially, not all) of the journalists who covered the caper. The resulting controversy was like ramming a tank into the country’s various newsrooms; it invited public outrage and international condemnation, at the exact moment the administration found itself in a position to claim an unusual, because unalloyed, victory.

But the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo overreacted in cuffing journalists and imposing a curfew — forcing the President, on the eve of her departure for Europe, to remind her alter egos “not [to] unnecessarily rile the media at this point in time.”

To be sure, there is logic to the paranoia. The administration is testing the limits of the people’s capacity for resistance. It is essential that we push back.

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