Category Archives: Spiral Notebook

21 columns to go

The backlog has grown stout again, and now I have 21 columns to upload. I would like to make Newsstand current, in the hope (likely vain) that with the backlog cleared I can really start blogging again. Wishful thinking, but who knows?

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Batik-inspired Good Samaritan

This unusual rendering of the central event of the Good Samaritan parable, a color lithograph by the Dutch artist Lion Cachet, from 1896, caught my eye when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last September. It took me some time to figure out why. Finally, I read the explanatory text. Turns out the piece was inspired by Indonesian batik – a modest example of the colonial periphery making an impact on the center, and a nice inversion that parallels what happened on that road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

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Demolition job

So (six weeks late to the show), turns out the final episode of Burn Notice is set in an abandoned newspaper building. Ouch.

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A year in a week (or so)

Here we go again — another attempt to bring this blog, if not to some semblance of life, then at least up to date. That means, at a minimum, uploading my Newsstand columns, about a year’s worth, in (I hope) about a week’s time. Here goes nothing.

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150x a day? Seems more spin than science

BANGKOK–At the 2013 World Newspaper Congress and in its parallel conferences, the World Editors Forum and the World Advertising Forum, the ascendancy of the mobile space is a recurring theme. The one idea that sums up this compelling vision of the present-sliding-into-the-future is the “150 times a day” meme:

According to research, people are checking smartphones on average 150 times a day @iRowan #editors13 #wnc13

That tweet, from the conference organizers’ official account, is representative. Of the hundreds of tweets and dozens of links I followed, many versions of the meme follow the same three-fold form: the attribution to “research,” the extension of the scope to “smartphones,” and the assertion of the frequency, “150 times a day.”

But is this statistic for real? Continue reading

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Idea for a book

I am not all that interested in collecting the columns I have written, but there is something I would love to do: publish a selection of my columns in which I engaged with certain personalities, and whose responses ran in my column space or in the neighboring letters page. The introduction for each exchange could include an overview of the issue at stake and an attempt to bring the matter up to date. And after the columns and responses, we could have a last word of sorts — with columnist and correspondent alternating. I hope to use this unusual format to drive home a point: that public discourse, in itself, is important. Possible title: Arguments at the Newsstand.

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I took a break from column-writing

from mid-August 2011 to mid-July 2012—an 11-month stretch required, more or less, by the terms of the Nieman Fellowship. To be more precise, I was asked (and when I thought I saw a scheduling loophole, gently reminded) to avoid regular work (that meant columns and editorials) during the academic year. I had the privilege of auditing a total of nine courses, although I did serious study only in six (the rest were classes where, as a new friend told me, you simply come in and “let it wash over you”). Acting on the advice of another, older friend, I took advantage of the amazing number of conferences, forums, seminars, and readings available at the university; by the time I went home, I had gone to a total of 106.

It was the right call, then; I would have had great difficulty meeting my deadlines–and I would have had to steal time away from study. I missed writing, but was consoled by the thought that the break was only temporary.

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David’s The Holy Family

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Hands down, the most affecting portrait of the Holy Family I’ve ever seen. “The Holy Family,” by the Netherlandish master Gerard David, hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — or at least it was there the last time I visited, and when I took this close-up. I was drawn first by the color and the small scale of the work; according to the museum’s notes, it was first used for private prayers, some 500 years ago. And then the mood of the painting struck me: It is a portrait of anxiety, of a recognizably ordinary family consumed by worry or rumors of an incomprehensible fate; poor Joseph did not even have time or chance to clean his fingernails.

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Updated About, or About Update

I have revamped my Newsstand blog, choosing a new Twitter-friendly layout in yet another attempt to make the blog both current (I hope to post more new stuff) and complete (I hope to finish archiving all columns, etc in the next few weeks). I even updated the About page! If you have time, maybe you can take a look.

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UP Rizal 150 conference program

UP Rizal 150 The international conference on the Rizal sesquicentennary organized by the University of the Philippines, scheduled for June 22 to 24 at the newest building on the Diliman campus, has all sorts of treats for the Rizal student. The program (please click on the link to the PDF file) is a doozy.

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And speaking of filters…

I still cannot remember whether it was Roel Landingin or Exie Abola, or perhaps another friend, who told me, many years ago, to check out Arts & Letters Daily. The tip proved to be invaluable. I still read Arts & Letters Daily almost every day; it is the home page of my office computer.

It is true, though, that in many ways we read what we are inclined to read, even (or especially) on the Web. My own links these days (just to so-called mainstream media) include the following:

The New York Times (something I need to read off several computers, since I haven’t gotten around to subscribing). Still the indispensable first (and often final) source.

The Washington Post (something I’ve been reading closely again, after the New York Times put up its pay wall).

The Boston Globe (some very interesting finds, every now and then).

Washington Monthly, main for Steve Benen’s partisan but rigorous and fair take on US politics, in Political Animal.

Huffington Post (although I must say this reads better off the iPad than off the Web). A glorious mix of the must-read and must-avoid, but already a center of gravity for political junkies like me.

The New Republic, especially The Book and the political commentary of Jonathan Chait.

The Guardian (the best coverage of environmental issues, plus a thriving community of commenters and terrific photos — the last a very nice treat to indulge in on the iPad).

For Philippine news, the menu remains basically the same: the Inquirer, Newsbreak, ABS-CBN, GMA, occasionally the Star. I tried to add TV 5′s Interaksyon, but had to drop it because it takes too long to load.

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The Filter Bubble

“Most of us are aware that our web experience is somewhat customized by our browsing history, social graph and other factors. But this sort of information-tailoring takes place on a much more sophisticated, deeper and far-reaching level than we dare suspect. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results your searched for?)”

Who better than peerless Internet content curator Maria Popova to introduce us to Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble — and to raise questions about the overcustomization of our web experience?

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View from a Surabaya becak

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Grand Old Men

In researching Rizal’s influence in Southeast Asia, I have relied on the generosity of scholars and the good will of fellow journalists, but above all I have come to depend on the work and wisdom of “grand old men.”

Father Jack Schumacher (here autographing a book for me, at a conference room in “JR” — the Jesuit Residence inside the sprawling Loyola Heights campus) is in my view the most learned, most lucid historian of 19th-century Filipino nationalism. I take my bearings on Rizal — a revolutionary spirit with an essentially Catholic sensibility who strove to create a secular, national community –  first from Rizal’s own writings (marked, I have since learned, by crucial “turns”)  and second from Father Jack’s deeply documented work. Continue reading

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A dinner host

After studiously avoiding the Inquirer for several years, President Arroyo visited the newspaper again on February 2. As was her preference, and our custom, she brought dinner too. In the beginning, she was seated between Sandy P. Romualdez and Marixi R. Prieto, president and board chair respectively, but over the course of the 90-minute dinner Sandy gave up her seat for Letty J. Magsanoc, the editor in chief, and MRP (as she is known in the newspaper) insisted on offering her seat to Joey D. Nolasco, the managing editor. Hence, this shot.  Note the improvised nameplate for Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Favila, who sat to my left. He said he happened to be working overtime at the Palace, when the President saw him and asked him to join her for dinner at the Inquirer. (He didn’t seem put out, and indeed proved to be an engaging dinner companion.) To my right sat the formidable Medy Poblador, now accoutered with the rank of cabinet secretary. At the start, Sandy welcomed the President, and said she understood the terms of the discussion to be “no-holds-barred but off the record.” GMA immediately cut in, eyebrows raised: “I didn’t say no-holds-barred!” That night, we kept it light.

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“This unbearable distance between us”

Courtesy of good friend Exie Abola, a lovely, literate ode to the possibilities of reading.

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Another, more evocative term for “short cuts”

Was just talking to someone about this. Desire lines: a wonderfully resonant phrase from urban planning.

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The proper task of the critic

Found a note I made just about 20 years ago, in which I copied the definition of “the proper task of the (social) critic,” as defined by J. Peter Euben, a university professor writing for the New York Times, in his review of “The Company of Critics,” by Michael Walzer:

exposing false appearances of his own society and pointing at the systematic abuse of power; giving expression to his people’s deepest sense of how they ought to live, using the common language which he raises to a new pitch of intensity and argumentative power; reiterating the regulative principles by which one might set things right; and insisting that there are other forms of falseness and other, equally legitimate, hopes and aspirations. Such a critic is bound but never wholly bound to the life he shares with others. He is never uncritical of those in power or of his allies whose similar complaints he often regards as wrongly directed or incompletely stated. He is at once inside and outside, a member apart, a critical patriot, civilly disobedient, committed to a democratic politics that is never democratic enough.

Something about this nuanced formulation (a response to Walzer’s idea of “connected criticism”) struck me in the gut when I first read it, years before I became a full-time journalist. Indeed, the phrase “at once inside and outside” stuck in my head, as a noble ideal of writing and a neat summing-up of the writer’s ideal life. I still think the same way today.

Of course, when I first read it, I had no idea that in 20 years’ time I would be able to find the original review online and, if only I owned a Kindle, buy the book off Amazon — “in under a minute”!

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Blurry images

from the 2nd ANC Leadership Forum, held this time at the UP School of Economics. All I had was my cellphone camera.

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A wedding

Rooting through a clutch of dusty 3.5-inch diskettes (remember those?), I chanced upon this sidebar story I wrote 10 years ago (in May 1999) for The Manila Times, about a Gokongwei wedding in Hong Kong with a President in the entourage.

HONG KONG – St. Anne’s Catholic Church on Tung Tao Wan Road in Stanley, on the southeastern side of Hong Kong island, is a chapel in the act of becoming a church. Major renovations were completed a year ago, but improvements in the 50-pew hall are continuing. The clear, new window behind the altar, for example, is stained-glass-in-the-making.

In the meantime, there are masses and baptisms and weddings to attend to. The church’s weekly newsletter is, as it says itself, full of “coming events — some old, some new.” Today’s wedding at 10 in the morning adds “something borrowed, something blue.”

Like the church itself, the wedding of Jimmy Tang and Hope Gokongwei is essentially a simple affair: boy meets girl; boy meets girl again, and again, and again; boy and girl finally fall in love.

But because Hope’s father owns The Manila Times (among many other things), and because Jimmy’s father invited the President of the Philippines, an old high school classmate, to stand as principal sponsor, their wedding has become a gatecrasher’s dream: an important event in a public place, with plenty of seats for the willing, and no gate to speak of. It is also only a 20-minute bus ride from Central, for the knowing.

The outside of the church doesn’t look like much. It looks like a school, actually, painted Rosary blue and plain white. On the main pillars of the façade, the church’s name has even been painted on, in sinful red.

Inside, the church opens out into a spacious and airy hall, made twice bigger by the absence of wall fans and loudspeakers and other essentials of communal space. (The secret, Father Elmer Wurth says, lies in the “magic boxes,” seven rectangles on each side of the church that hide the airconditioners, the fans, and the extremities of a decent public-address system.) The lines are clean and straight, the ceiling high, the walls solid. It is a good place to get married in.

In fact, it will remind the Metro Manila visitor of Mary the Queen parish church in San Juan, only smaller. It even resounds with noise that only students can make; St. Teresa’s, a Chinese elementary school, is right beside it.

Mary the Queen church was the sacred space, the no-man’s land, that divided Xavier School, where Jimmy went to school, from the Immaculate Conception Academy, where Hope studied. The two have  known each other since high school – although it may be more precise to say Jimmy did most of the knowing. Hope declined to become more than friends; my father is too strict, she said once.

They met again in college, in La Salle, which rewards the persistent with many opportunities.

Like many couples with long histories, Jimmy and Hope have had their share of trials, their portion of tribulation. Their own wedding, for instance, may turn out to be a circus, instead of a literal walk in the park.

They will do well to note the stations of the cross in St. Anne’s. Made by a banker appropriately named Fred Sturm, the stations are amazing foot-high bronze sculptures, that are at once minimalist and fully dimensional. (They also cost a pretty Peter’s pence: US$1,500 a station. Were they donated? Father Wurth makes a wry smile. “Oh, no,” he says.)

Out of adversity, art.

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Checkout; check-in

Good friend Gigi has a post up on a friend’s ghastly encounter with the checkout lady from hell. It reminded me of Michael Totten’s week-long run-in with “The Worst Airline Company in the World,” which I had wanted to inflict on other readers since I first read it a couple of weeks ago. Read Gigi’s “Customer service … redefined?” to be incensed; its story of a random act of unkindness is out of Shirley Jackson.  And then (if you have some serious amount of spare time; the Alitalia piece is very long) read Totten’s report; it’s a tale out of Kafka.

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Best backdrop for a book launch

I was at the launch of Jess Estanislao’s latest book, “Breaking Through,” at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza the other week. It was held at the “bayside,” and came with a view.

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Apologies for the grainy images; I used my phone’s 2.0-megapixel camera.

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Bernad’s benediction

When I heard the news that the great Miguel Bernad, SJ had passed away, I remembered that he had written the Inquirer a letter to the editor that was as unusual as it was short. It was out of the ordinary because when he wrote it he was still a weekly columnist for the Star, and because it was unreserved praise. It took me some time to find the letter; I hadn’t yet been detailed to the Opinion desk when it was published, and my desktop’s archive search function was, well, dysfunctional. Last Sunday, though, I finally found both the editorial he praised, and the letter the newspaper published, back in September 2002.

I remember thinking then, when I first read the letter: Perhaps there really is a role for editorials-that-ask-questions. Bernad had given it his imprimi potest. It can be printed!

Editorial: September 9, 2002

Bottom-line questions

The controversy over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3 project illustrates the physics of publicity: too much heat, not enough light. The flurry of press releases and paid advertisements from almost all sides in the hundred-million-dollar dispute has buried the issues under the use of blatantly selective facts, masterful innuendo and extensive name-calling.

The dispute is an old one. It was partly the reason why Transportation Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez resigned earlier this year. But last week the controversy found its way back to the front page, when Secretary Gloria Tan Climaco, the presidential adviser for strategic projects, told the Senate she was negotiating a buyout of the German partners in Philippine International Air Terminals Co., the project concessionaire. The trickle of press statements then turned into a flood.

(A piece of advice for press agents: Errors of fact are also mistakes in strategy. They give the game away. Last Thursday, for instance, press releases from at least two of the vocal anti-takeover congressmen and one from Piatco itself made reference to the “five-man” Cabinet review committee. This is wrong, of course; the top-level panel consists of seven Cabinet secretaries, including its chair Justice Secretary Hernando Perez. But while the same facts may appear in independent statements, the same error of fact can only appear in statements written by the same hand, or sharing the same mis-information. Two releases with the exact same error of fact may be coincidence; three is a conspiracy.)

Continue reading

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Most-read online

The year ended with some good news for this particular “hack-in-law.” Inquirer.net’s compilation of the most-read op-ed pieces of 2008 online placed four of my columns in the Top 15: a complete surprise to me, and of course an absolute encouragement.

The four, as it happens, dealt with two of the biggest stories of the year: the NBN-ZTE scandal, and the triumphs of the best boxer in the world:

3. “Pacman’s English” (July 1, 2008 )
8. “How NOT to read Lozada’s testimony” (February 12, 2008 )
9. “Manny Pacquiao’s lesson in legitimacy” (March 18, 2008 )
14. “Why Neri refuses to talk” (February 19, 2008 )

Tracing the links just now, I realized one more thing these four columns have in common: They were all uploaded to this blog posthaste, within a day or two of publication. (Yes, I can take a hint.)

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(Formerly) No. 12

On the most helpful site JoseRizal.info (The Life and Writings of Dr. Jose Rizal), the letter marked as No. 12 in the anthology “Letters between Rizal and Family Members 1876-1896″ is filed under the year 1882. This perpetuates the mistake in dating which–in all likelihood–Rizal himself made. As I sought to point out in this column, it should have been dated 1883.

It begins:

I received your letter of 23 December and I’m informed of its content. I thank you for your perseverance in writing me, but I wish you to know that I’ve already answered your two letters, which I appreciate very much. I guess you have not yet received my reply on account of the great distance separating us.

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