Category: Manila Times Columns

Weeping for Stephanie

The Manila Times, January 20, 2013

Remember Stephanie Nicole Ella, the sweet 7-year old girl killed by a bullet that hit her in the head from a gun fired into the air to celebrate New Year’s Eve?

What were the odds for Stephanie to be at the wrong time and the wrong place for that bullet to end her life? Put in another way:  What are the chances for something 1 centimeter in diameter (a 45 caliber bullet) randomly propelled upwards to fall down to hit a particular small circle of 7 centimeters in radius (the top of Stephanie head) located in an area probably a million square centimeters?

What happened to Stephanie was a reverse, macabre lotto. Chances of winning in that game of choosing right six out of 45numbers  – or variables – have been computed by mathematicians to be 13 million to one.   For Stephanie though, the variables both in time and space would be billions. If the shooter had just pointed his gun a degree higher, if Stephanie had decided to wait a few seconds more before stepping out of her house, if she had just moved her head a few inches.. and so  on and so forth,  the bullet wouldn’t have hit her.  Yet it did.

The young girl’s tragedy bolsters the philosopher David Hume’s famous argument, derived from such a very old source as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, which we paraphrase in tragic girl’s case:

Did God want to stop the bullet from hitting the beautiful innocent girl, but couldn’t? Then he is a powerless god, and therefore not really a God. Could he have stopped the bullet, but wouldn’t? Then he is a wicked, sadistic Deity.  If He is a powerful God that he could stop the bullet from hitting the innocent girl — by just deviating its flight by a centimeter, for example — and if He is All-Good that he was willing do so, then why did Stephanie get killed?  Clerics would jump up to respond: Because there is free will God gave to man. But in this case, the shooter didn’t certainly will to kill Stephanie.

I’d bet you’d get some goose pimples with this:

On the same New Year’s eve another young girl just three years older than Stephanie, Aaliyah Boyer in a quiet town of Elkton, Maryland was also hit in the head by a bullet fired into the air, termed in the US as “celebratory gunfire.”   Like Stephanie, Aaliya was watching fireworks when she suddenly slumped.  Like Stephanie, she died two days later.  On the same New Year’s Eve, in Florida, a boy three years older than Aaliyah, Diego Duran, was also hit in the head by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve. Like Stephanie and Aaliyah he was just while watching fireworks until he suddenly fell to the ground.  Unlike the girls though, he survived, although with his brain damaged, one would wonder if he was luckier than the girls who died.

The Jaime Licaocos in our country  — the so-called paranormal experts and New Agers — would perhaps see Carl Jung’s idea of “synchronicity” there, or some other karmic mumbo jumbo that the three kids were together in their past lives, and he’d find some mystical explanation for the three-year difference in age of the three kids. “God moves in mysterious ways,” clerics would of course say and have said so often. What is the mystery in a life that could have been filled with many years of laughter and love yet was not?

In this age of rationality, we know that Stephanie, Aaliya, and Diego were hit in the head by bullets not because out of some mystical design, but out of pure chance.

(Of course there is also the fact that these kinds of tragedy happens only in societies with gun-cultures in which “celebratory firing” is not frowned upon.  Instances of such deaths occur only in countries with strong gun-cultures, such as, other than the US and the Philippines, Pakistan, several Middle Eastern nations, Paraguay, and Macedonia.)

“Shit happens”  — a conceptual cousin of Murphy’s Law — is probably the biggest insight of the second half of the last century.

It was once widely believed, because myths of a small desert tribe were preposterously decreed to be the words of God, that homo sapiens was created from dirt by a Deity. Most rational people now believe we are really products of chance – random changes first in a complex carbon-based molecule and then in what became DNA strings, undertaken through four billion years.

We are the best testament to the power of chance, the very unlikely convergence of so many variables.   One scientist estimated mathematically and using concrete data that chances of intelligent life like ours emerging in the universe is a very minuscule .01 percent (100 percent being certainty). Scientists have even made up a term for it:  The Goldilocks Theory, derived from that fairy tale girl’s preferred soup being “not too warm, not too cold”.  The theory – actually a conclusion – is that the factors that led to the emergence of life were so precisely right, that if just one thing were changed, we wouldn’t be here.   Just a few kilometers deviation of the earth’s 149.6 million distance from the sun, and we would have been frozen or fried”.

What were the chances of a big meteor from the vastness of space entering the solar system and hitting the earth, a very macro version of the bullet fired many kilometers away hitting Stephanie? Probably billions to one.  Yet astronomers have recently concluded that a large meteor had hit the earth five billion years ago –- to form the moon, which was nudged to such a precise distance away from the earth that the gravitational dynamics between the two bodies created crucial elements for the emergence of life, such as sea-tides and just the right speed of the earth’s rotation.

But “chance” is such a very cold idea it is horrifying.  We call it fate, if chance results in tragedy, as in Stephanie case.   We call it destiny if chance leads to some victory, as when the Corazon Aquino’s death less than a year before the 2010 elections catapulted his mediocre son to the presidency.

The ancient Greeks had brilliant insights, expressed in their mythology.  Every god in their vast pantheon was powerless before the Fates (Moirai), even the greatest of the gods Zeus, although he is portrayed as the incarnation of the Moirai.  It is not the gods nor even Zeus (which got to be the Latin Deus, the Spanish Dios and finally our Filipino “Diyos”) who really rule over men.  It is three Morai who determined from one’s birth the kind of life you’d live, its length and the manner of its ending.

Religion is in many ways humans’ coping behavior in the face of a haphazard, unfeeling universe:  That there is a Deity who would control Chance to satisfy our desires – but only if we worship it.  We pray to God to intervene in the random movement of lotto balls shaken in a container, so they’ll rest in positions representing the numbers we bet on.  Chance is transformed into Christianity’s   “God’s will”, and in Islam, “Insha’Allah” – the latter evolving, after several centuries of Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula, into the Spanish ojala, and then into Filipino “Bahala na.”  The Greeks’ three Fates have been transmogrified into the Holy Trinity, with the tweak that in this new improved version, the Trinity can be convinced to change their minds for our wishes, just as long as we pay obeisance to them.

The uniqueness of man is not that we are intentional creatures, but that we are aware of our intentionality. We intend to do things, and we often succeed in doing things.   But those many successes create the illusion of us being the masters of our entire universe, until an equivalent of Stephanie’s bullet hits.   Her tragedy is what the very universe and our lives are about, and we tremble in that realization. To radically paraphrase the last line in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem: We weep for Stephanie, but it is also ourselves we mourn for.



Filed under: Culture, Manila Times Columns, Philosophy

What really happened at Aquino’s P49-million Davos dud

Contrary to the reports of a servile mainstream press, President Aquino’s trip to the World Economic Forum 2013  (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland was a dud, with even the most important invest-in-the-Philippines aspect of his trip—a meeting with Volkswagen officials purportedly to announce a major investment in the Philippines—unceremoniously cancelled.

Aquino’ performance in the sole WEF session he was invited to participate in—a panel discussion on  “Resilience in Diversity” by five Asean leaders—was mediocre, and he was totally outclassed in that session by the articulate Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.Continue reading

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Filipinos worse off under Aquino

The Philippines has become worse off under President Benigno Aquino 3rd, according to the analysis of a respected London-based research organization, the Legatum Institute, a unit of one of the world’s biggest investment conglomerae.

In its 2012 “Prosperity Index,” the Legatum Institute put the Philippines in the 67th slot in its 144-nation list, in which rank 1 would be the most prosperous (Norway). The Philippines’ rank is the lowest in Southeast Asia, below Indonesia at 63 and Vietnam at 53.

From 2009 when it was in the 61st slot, the Philippines’ ranking has continuously slipped under Aquino’s watch to 66 in 2011 and 67 in 2012. Indonesia overtook the Philippines only this year, improving its “prosperity index” from 70 to 63. The index reflects not just a nation’s wealth but also the main factors reflecting the well-being, quality of life and life-satisfaction of its citizens.

According to the rankings, Filipinos would be worse off in these categories now than people in such countries as Mongolia, Romania, Uzbekistan and even in Greece, which has plunged into a near economic collapse so bad that suicide rates in Athens have alarmingly risen.

This prosperity index, since its start in 2008, have put the Scandinavian countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in its top 10 “prosperous countries.” This has bolstered its accuracy, as these findings are consistent with those of more recent quality-of-life indices such as Columbia University Earth Institute’s Happiness Index and the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

While the number of countries included in its list have increased, it did not affect the rankings of the upper- and middle-ranked nations (where the Philippines is) because these new entrants are very low-ranked countries such as Haiti, Chad, and Afghanistan.

While not too well known, the institute’s Prosperity Index is a highly respected metric for determining the well-being and quality of life of a nation’s people. It incorporates not just economic or social data but such important aspects of a citizen’s condition in a particular county such as the quality of his government, access to education and health facilities, his personal safety, even his report how satisfied he is with his life.

The prosperity index is based on 89 different variables, with its source data including Gallup World Polls, World Development Indicators, GDP, UN Human Development Report, World Bank, OECD, World Values Survey. Legatum’s “prosperity index” is respected by academicians because of its rigorous (and transparent_ econometric analysis undertaken by renowned scholars).

“The index offers a unique insight into how prosperity is forming and changing across the world,” according to the institute’s report available at its website. “The Prosperity Index is distinctive in that it is the only global measurement of prosperity based on both wealth and wellbeing.”

It explained: “Traditionally, a nation’s prosperity has been measured by macroeconomic indicators such as a country’s income, represented either by Gross Domestic Product or by average income per person (GDP per capita).” “However, most people would agree that prosperity is more than just the accumulation of material wealth, it is also the joy of everyday life and the prospect of being able to build a better life in the future.”

The analysis generates its overall index and rankings by determining a country’s situation in terms of eight sub-indices, equally weighed, which determine the level of well-being of a people in a particular country.

The Philippines improved its rankings from 2010 in only two of the eight sub-indices that make up the prosperity index.

Reflecting our free, if rambunctious press as well as the near-anarchy of our version of our democracy, our ranking on “Personal Freedom” freedom rose, though only slightly, from 56 in 2010 to 55 last year. The sub-index on the economy likewise improved, from 52 in 2010 to 47 last year. The 2012 index was a decline though from the 2011 ranking of 43.

Our rankings worsened though in six other sub-indices (see table) including he encouragement or non-encouragement of entrepreneurship, access to education, health of citizens, and strength of social networks (“social capital”).

Bolstering widely held perceptions over the country’s worsening crime rate, the Philippines slipped steeply, from 86 in 2010 to 112 in 2012, in the category “Personal Safety of Citizens and National Security of the Nation”.

Contradicting this administration’s continued boasting over its “daang matuwid” governance, the Philippines’ ranking in this category worsened from 55 in 2012 to 63 last year.

In its special section on Asia, the Legatum Institute even left out the Philippines as a rising country in the region:

“While the highly developed and globally competitive Asian Tigers continue to excel, it is also worth considering the ‘Tiger Cubs’—the rising Asian countries nipping at the heels of the regional leaders. In the Prosperity Index we observe these to be Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.”

“One metric that can shed light on why these Asian nations are rising is the level of FDI flowing into each country. This is because FDI, when managed appropriately, can be a source of economic growth. Among the ‘Tiger Cubs’, Thailand and Indonesia are the biggest recipients of FDI. In terms of FDI as a share of GDP, however, Vietnam outperforms the other ‘Tiger Cubs’ as FDI net inflows constitute almost 8% of its GDP.” In the accompanying graph, the Philippines was shown as having the smallest FDI flows.

As in the 2012 prosperity index, other assessments by international organizations aren’t just supporting Mr. Aquino’s fanfaronades on his governance, which mainstream media has been blindly repeating. Among such assessments are the World Bank’s ranking of nations on the basis of ease of doing business in which the Philippines’ rank slid from 134th in 2011 to 136th in 2012. In the recently-released index on transparency in government spending,” the country’s grade fell from 55% in 2010 to 48% in 2012. Even Aquino’s biggest boast recently, of a 7.1 percent year-on-year growth rate in the third quarter last year, has been questioned by the World Bank which has estimated that the actual figure would likely be 5.7 percent.

Aquino’s rosy picture of the country during his watch is in fact being torn apart by both objective and subjective data:

• Some 900,000 jobs WERE lost in the six months to October 2012, according to National Statistics Office data. This is one of highest recorded loss of jobs in one month, more than the previous record of 168,000 jobs lost in the fourth quarter of 2008, when the world moved into recession, hitting swiftly our export industries.

• That has been reflected subjectively in the Social Weather Survey’s report that 10.9 million families considered themselves poor in its December survey, 1.4 million more than the 9.5 million who said they were destitute in August.

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‘Aquino addresses Davos’?

P-Noy to speak in Davos,” was a major newspaper’s headline last Sunday, put in screaming fonts across the front page, as if Aquino joins the big league of European leaders who have addressed that prestigious meeting.

“Davos” refers to the conference held in the same Swiss Alpine town annually called the “World Economic Forum,” which has grown since its founding in 1971 to become the largest gathering (2,600 this year) of the planet’s big names in the high fields of human endeavor.

The banner’s subtitle was “Daang Matuwid goes to the World Economic Forum” (WEF), as if President Aquino will be teaching the world a thing or two in governance. Wow!

That would mean that Daang Matuwid has become among Davos’ “big ideas” to be discussed just like other WEF topics this year such as “China’s Next Global Agenda,” “Is Religion outdated in the 21st Century?,” and “The Eurozone Crisis.”

It would certainly be a momentous achievement for our President. The only Asian to address the WEF has been China’s Premiere Wen Jibao last year, but that was the so-called “Summer Davos”—and held in Tianjin, China. Indeed, only European leaders have addressed the conference so far, as opening or keynote speakers such as Russia’s Putin in 2009 and Medvedev in 2010, France’s Sarkosy in 2010, and Germany’s Merkel last year.

You mean it would be Aquino in Davos 2013?

Only if you believe everything you read in the newspapers. That however was what the deputy presidential spokesperson, Abigail Valte pathetically tried to portray, helped tremendously by that newspaper which fell for that spin. Other newspapers headlines didn’t buy the spin though, and simply reported it as minor story: “Aquino to attend Davos Forum,” “Noynoy goes to Davos,” and even just “President Aquino going to Switzerland.”

So will Aquino be speaking at all at Davos? Well he is—as one of the 280 panelists in the conference’s 79 back-to-back sessions lasting 15 minutes each over five days. The session he’ll be joining has six panelists, which gives him 2.5 minutes to talk, if he’s aggressive enough to assert his allotted time.

Credit Aquino’s people for scrambling to get him into the WEF, one way or another. Until January 21, Aquino wasn’t listed among the 280 session panel members in the WEF 2013 website. But Valte had claimed on January 20 Aquino was to be the keynote speaker in the “WEF ‘Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI).”

But PACI is not Davos. PACI is the name about two dozen CEOs of global European companies gave to the meetings they agreed in 2004 to regularly convene to share and document experiences in dealing with corporate corruption. Because they met in the Davos meeting in 2004 and are regular WEF participants, they were allowed to carry the Forum’s trademark in the group’s reports.

Valte claimed corruption is a topic in the WEF meet. It is not. She qualifies her statement that Aquino will speak in the “anticorruption forum on the sidelines of the Davos meeting.” Sidelines? Sidelines of the Davos meeting which has 79 15-minute consecutive sessions? Did Aquino’s people ask some PACI members to meet at a coffee shop (or the bar) during the breaks, for him to give them his “keynote address”?

Whatever, there has been no PACI announcement that it would meet “at the sidelines” or wherever for Aquino to address its members. It appears that the initial plan to get Aquino into Davos had been aborted.

So they managed to execute Plan B. They managed to squeeze Aquino as one of six speakers in the session “Resiliency in Diversity,” which, according to the program, will discuss Asean economies’ next wave of growth with special focus on Myanmar and Laos.

The term “speakers” as used by the WEF is often a misnomer. Except for the welcoming and keynote speakers, as well as few discussing specialized topics, most are actually members of a panel of four to six people discussing a particular issue in one of the WEF’s sessions (Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a panelist in 2007 in the session “Asean’s 40 Years: A New Future” and in 2009 on the topic “Rebooting the Global Economy.”)

In the WEF’s original program, the session “Resiliency in Diversity,” the “speakers” consisted solely of CNN Asia-Pacific Managing Editor Ellana Lee, the Myanmar vice president as well as the deputy prime ministers of Thailand and Laos. It was revised only yesterday to include Aquino and Malaysia Prime Minister Abdul Razak. The Malaysian leader was originally scheduled in three other sessions.
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Army disgraced with its ‘Special Massacre Forces’

The Philippine Army has be come another institution among many that has been debased—wittingly or unwittingly—under President Aquino’s administration.

International media, from the Washington Post to carried the following headline over the killing of 13 people in a checkpoint in Atimonan on January 6: “Philippine army, police kill 13 suspects in clash”.
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The Atimonan massacre should worry us all

The massacre of 13 people by the police and army troopers at a checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon on January 6 should worry us all. Consider the following scenario:
You’re traveling with a group on the road in some province. You made it a point to travel in daylight, just to be safe. Then at about 3 p.m., you see a police checkpoint, but you’re not worried at all.

Why, your vehicle even has a Philippine National Police Academy commemorative license plate and a genuine decal of the “Office of the President, Malacañan Palace.” And of course the brand-new Mitsubishi Montero you’re riding in should send the signal to the police manning the checkpoints that you’re respectable well-to-do citizens, not some criminal gang who’d likely be using an old FX or even a beat up Safari. A policeman gestures for your SUV to stop, and as it slows down, there’s a volley of gunfire, and you fall into oblivion.Continue reading

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Gun business booms under Aquino

It’s certainly admirable that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has shown so much concern over the death of Nicole Ella that he even raised to P2 million the bounty for the capture of the shooter who fired the bullet that killed the sweet 7-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t help shuddering a bit though: Mr. Aquino is the poster boy for the Philippines’ gun culture. It is this subculture, which has made brandishing, and using the deadliest hand weapon invented by mankind into a sport just like tennis and golf, a hobby just like gardening. It is that overarching gun culture that led Nicole’s shooter to think that firing his gun up in the air was an innocuous way of celebrating the New Year.Continue reading

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World Bank 7.1% 3rd Quarter GDP rate could be wrong

The reported 7.1 percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate the Aquino administration and its cheering squads have been euphoric over may in fact be an over-estimation, and the actual figure could be as low as 5.7 percent.

This conclusion is based on the World Bank’s December 2012 “Philippine Economic Update”. After mentioning the 7.1 percent growth rate in the third quarter, the Bank qualified in its seemingly trivial but really significant footnote:

“Growth in the third quarter must be tempered by the fact that statistical discrepancy explains 1.4 ppt of the 7.1 percent growth. This suggests that either third quarter growth will be revised downwards or fourth quarter growth will be lower by around two percentage points as statistical discrepancy is zeroed out in the full year growth statistic.”Continue reading

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