#21: Statistical Sense-Making: Playing “The Numbers Game” (A Philippine Star Article)

This short piece began as a 500-word book review assignment for an online course Writing in the Sciences. Then. after some revisions, I raised the word count to a little more than a thousand. I thought that time: because I had 500 words already, why not chip in about 500 more and take a shot? And this is the result of my earnest effort emanating from a split-second resolve to write. This was published last Sunday, on The Philippine Star, at the Sunday Lifestyle Section.

This is the article: Playing ‘The Numbers Game’. I reviewed this book:

This book kept my thinking going even while on dizzying cab rides and steamy jeepney commutes. That there are no formulas and almost no technical terms in this book – except of course the perennial mean, median, mode, which aren’t really technical but which I believe absent (statistically!) in the working vocabulary of Filipinos. So I’d recommend this book to anyone who has time to spare and want to go to the essence of basic Statistics without having to contend with numbers and symbols, but I bought this from the SALE section of a National Bookstore (in Harrison Plaza) and from all my other visits at other branches I think no customer will sniff out this book for a long time – not maybe in five years.

Here is the article, so read on.

There are questions and questions about numbers. How did we arrive at the “average income” the popular media always trumpets? Is a positive medical test result a good indicator for having a disease? How can we make sense of international rankings in soccer, health, and education?

With data bombarding us every moment of our waking lives, we urgently need a book that can explain the nuances of statistics to the layperson. The book The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot grants us the mental agility to analyze everyday numbers and penetrate their significance.

The statistical enlightenment that the two authors brings us is amazing, despite the fact that neither are professional statisticians. Blastland, a broadcaster, created “More or Less”, a BBC radio show that became a pop hit in the United Kingdom because of its no-nonsense exposition of statistical foibles in the media. Dilnot, a principal of a college in Oxford, was once the show’s host and a fiscal officer.

Fear nothing; the book’s presentation is far from that being done in a traditional statistics class. Expect no statistical formulas in the book – it aims for clarity above technical precision. Even statistics classrooms can benefit from numerous examples and lively explanations.

Once you have set fear aside, expect surprise at statistical facts you may have heard before but without any clue on what they really meant. Note the subtlety in the language often used to express statistics. The book gives you the mental toughness to carefully read numerical findings in the media, between the lines, while deciphering what’s not really there.

For instance, you may have heard already that if you frequently use a mobile phone, your risk of getting brain cancer will double. Taken aback? In the book’s section “Risk”, once you know the proper context behind the risk increase, which is from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000 (a measly increase), you will have nothing to worry about.

Another example, from the “Shock Figures” section, alarms you by stating that the global warming temperature increase can be “up to 11 degrees Celsius”, until you know later that the average increase is just 4 degrees Celsius, a less jarring but more representative finding.

Still another, from the “Causation” section, where you will find out that a direct relationship between hand size and reading ability exists (so if I have extra fingers, I can read better?). But not because bigger hands enhance reading ability – it’s because as you age, both increase.

The lessons learned will stick for a lifetime, and you will feel that your mind gets “reconfigured” after reading. No longer will you accept numbers at their face values; you will begin demanding more information on how those numbers came to be. No more you will be dazed – or intimidated – by official claims; you can start seeing through them for what they really are, and not for what they are cloaked on.

As Blastland and Dilnot state in the Introduction to the book’s United States edition: “The alignment of power and abuse is not unique to numbers, but it is just possible that it could be uniquely challenged, and the powerless becomes powerful.” Let’s admit it; this book implicitly explains how to exploit others with numbers (while giving us the needed ammunition for a counterattack), but you won’t feel inclined to do so. In your quest for steadfastness in dealing with data, you will also want other folks to be vigilant too.

We can go beyond classifying the book as a common reader’s average statistics book. It is also a book of clear thinking. It teaches the fine art of definition. What does “bullying” mean? What does being “unemployed” mean? If we say that some number is a “big” number, what does the “big” mean? It demands that we be critical because the explanation of any finding frequently conceals something. How many samples are there? How are the data obtained? Are there other variables that can affect the relationship between any two given qualities? It allows us to practice a querulous mindset – it makes us see numbers with question marks at their end, with the invitation to probe them further.

The Numbers Game is an easy read. You can finish it in one sitting if you want to – thus making it ideal as a bedside book that can make us all sleep with clear heads and wake up with sharp eyes. Reading it is a deserved respite to the barrage of data all around us. At the very least you’ll be able to answer with candidness the “relevance question”, so often asked in Mathematics classrooms but so often ending there too: “What is the relevance of Math in our daily lives?”

The vista of settings described in the book – from hospitals to highways to workplaces – is more than enough as an answer. Whatever the questions you feel provoked to ask about the data in the book, you will also make a habit to frequently ask when dealing with numbers in local situations: political survey results, school grades, children’s allowance, and salaries, to name a few. They mean more than you think. Probing their deeper meanings brings Math close to your doorstep

In general, we learn how to detect our knowledge gaps about numbers – thus making us powerful in what we know, humble in what we don’t know, active in filling the gaps up, and able to help others make sense of their own numerical realities.

Thought-widening, grand, and clear, The Numbers Game will leave an indelible mark on its readers’ view on all sorts of numbers. In most fields of endeavor, and in the TV and Internet, statistics is an often-used currency of communication today. To be credible, one almost always needs to back up serious claims with facts and figures. Numbers are clear-cut from the outset; according to the authors, they’re “tidy; life isn’t”. But the vast number of numbers creates a sea, and in the midst of that reality the last thing we want to happen is for that sea to drown us.

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#20: Taking Its Toll

Since I began this blog I felt as if I am under internal compulsion to write something. This is mainly due to the two-posts-a-week commitment that I made (well, I narrowly missed the deadline last week, but it was OK as I was occupying my mind back then by learning new stuff online). An implicit premise for my activity is that I write about assorted topics, or I write about a topic that I may have dealt with before but with new twists. After all, as I said before, ’tis better to write something than to write nothing. Let’s call that Rule #0: the rule that separates a writer from a non-writer, and from those pseudo-writers who clutter their heads with ideas from coast to coast, without writing, just like pouring water into a pitcher and then never drinking from it at all.

This self-determined compulsion to write takes its toll in the midst of swarms of other routines on my schedule. However, this has a positive virtue, at least. It requires me to have something to write about, so I have to pay attention to the outside world every time. Everything around has to be a ready subject for exposition, analysis, synthesis, or just plain contemplation. If nothing outdoors seems fitting to write about, then there are always the inner workings of my mind, or anyone else’s mind. There’s my blog – or any random Internet article or any hitherto unread book. Anyway, I have to write or else my commitment takes a blow and a rift opens allowing a discordant voice to strike me (“Hey, isn’t it that you broke your rule last time? What’s wrong with breaking one again, if it needs be?”)

If it needs be – we frame all rationalizations as needs, and in the end the distinction between them disappears. For instance, we fancy a car that we can’t afford, but sometimes we buy it on the grounds that our work requires us to wander from place to place, that everyone else in our field of work has a car, because commuting is tiring, and so on, without assessing whether these are the real reasons. As long as they linger in our heads, there is the danger that these bogus reasons may evolve into real reasons – and we may pass them to the next generation, thereby perpetuating errors. Thus it is imperative to block all back alleys for rationalizations to penetrate our ears. We have tips for resisting temptation, but it’s quite hard to counterattack rationalizations.

There’s an additional bonus that forcing myself to write can give. What if everything looks dreary – as if peering at anything outside can make you more bored than you are right now? What if the sight of blank paper or a blank Notepad page, far from instilling a motivational sense of dread, despair, sadness, angst, fury, or fright at the nothingness in front of you – emotions that can drive you to clear out the white from any field where words and signs should be – what if the sight of blankness makes you fall asleep instead? In this extreme case, the problem isn’t my senses; the problem may be the current social, economic, political, or educational systems that bore people and then provide us with a shell to withstand the boredom, all without helping us find out why boredom has to be there, and suppressing our native childlike ability to ask why such is the case and what if another case is possible all the while.

Writing helps us clear our thinking to realize all these. Remember these two asking prompts for all time: “Why?” and “What if?” “Why” stimulates precise thought while “What if” gives a wide berth to imagination, and both are effective against general stultification bombarding us all over the place and the willing but uncritical obedience so characteristic of the way most adults – and most of their children – live with today. Who knows, most of your creative ventures will revolve around these two questions.

If all we have are a bunch of dull ideas and perceptions, then there are two simple tricks that can ease the boredom and may actually help generate useful ideas. One is to think of the opposite – a “What If?” variant. “What if I assume that the opposite of an idea is true?” The opposite need not be an antonym; something starkly different is enough. The minimal logic behind this is that the opposite of dullness is richness, so we will do well to train our minds to consider opposites. The second is to combine any number of ideas to form new ones, and then think about the newly formed ideas. If thinking about a pencil bores you, think of a pencil with wheels. Ridiculous, but if it helps you think better, then so be it.

To stay in action you have to be in action. A tautology, but true nevertheless.

In passing, I want to say something about a possible congruence between the notion of “writing something is better than writing nothing” and the “puwede na iyan” mentality, a thought process common for Filipinos who want to take a break after finishing something instead of improving a concept in increments. The two notions are different. “Writing something is better than writing nothing” serves as an idea-cooker; it’s more like writing in a journal to keep you practiced and to keep you loaded with ideas that may be useful for any future writing project. In that case, there’s no “puwede na iyan” involved because there is constant improvement, unless you find out that you write badly but take no steps to improving the way you think and scribble. “Puwede na iyan” suggests a definite stop, an aversion to “What if?” thoughts about the future; in contrast, our notion of writing just to fill blanks, while fine in itself, clearly has future value.

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#19: Practice Teaching Questions

Next week, I will begin my student teaching at a high school, a time when students take on a multiplicity of roles and may have to choose which ones to adapt and to reject. The numerous variables interacting inside a classroom can make the typical layman – who is often never inside a classroom – wonder: How can learning take place in such a place? Dealing with 30+ people at once and with a teacher who also serves as an adjudicator (not yet a peer) can seem daunting, but not for me.

Moreover, I’ve always been fascinated in how people’s minds tick ever since I graduated, and what better way to explore that than inside a classroom where everything is within plain view of anyone else?

I want to infuse the habit of questioning onto my students; the last thing I want for them is for someone else to take the rudder on their learning, whether for the noble goal of learning what they have to if they are to survive in today’s occupational and social landscape, or whether for manipulating the students’ learning for their own ends or for someone else’s will which the students won’t consent to if they knew what was going on the whole time

The best way that I have in my hands, and an affordable one, is to teach children the lesson along with questioning habits that will enable them to link their lesson with the real world. And if they don’t find any connection, that’s okay too; at least they can have the knowledge stuffed in their mind for further contemplation or if there is really no connection, then they can encourage schools to chuck out the lesson the moment they start raising children

Now, as I do my practice teaching, here are questions that I want running in my mind. You’ll notice that one question may logically precede another, so this can really keep you busy. I will stop each chain to three questions, to save space, although the chains might well as be perpetual:

1. What am I teaching? Should I teach this stuff, if at all? Why am I teaching this stuff?

2. Do the students find value in what I am teaching? Do I myself find value in what I am teaching? What values do we derive?

3. How am I teaching? Is there a better way to teach a certain lesson, after I taught it? How can I adapt my teaching methods to the cultural backgrounds of the students so that all of us are comfortable with the teaching?

4. What are my students doing during their spare time? What is the extent of my influence toward their spare time? And how should I influence the way they spend their spare time, or should I wholly stay out of it?

5. How should I deal with the other teachers and other school personnel? What can I learn from them and what can they learn from me? And how can I help them in every way I can?

Notice that they are very generic. Many more questions can sprout, depending on the circumstances. Some of them may increase or decrease in relevancy. But it’s better to keep your mind working rather than churning out the same run-on-the-mill education that students often receive. It’s better to challenge yourself when teaching – and to challenge the underlying precepts of work – rather than stagnate and regret that you should have done 20 years earlier what you want to do today.

Finally, the questioning habit is contagious, more so for people who want to retain or renew their childlike curiosities.

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#18: Booksale Observations

For my latest post this week I won’t make a conventional post. Rather, I will just post my assignment answers for an online course A Crash Course on Creativity at Venture-Lab. Enjoy, and may the book-buying bug sting you and make you more observant and reflective.

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#17: On English Teachers and Writing, Speed Drafts, Creation, and Perception

Dr. Isagani Cruz, a Palanca Hall of Famer and a renowned educator, remarked once that English teachers very rarely write books (unless they are textbooks). He stated the need for meticulousness as the chief reason. English teachers, according to him, have a boatload of grammar rules in their heads. In the rare instances they do begin to write, questions like “Is it more appropriate to use a semicolon compared to a comma in this instance?” or “Should this paragraph come before or after the next, or should it be knocked off entirely?” take precedence over “What else can I add to what I’m writing?”

Even if they have the requisite ideas and are flexible enough in changing from teaching gear to writing gear, their training prompts them think longer than necessary when writing, so they almost always lag over their projects. That’s only a general impression I have, though. But given the dearth of Filipino writers nowadays, I believe that young Filipinos will finally love writing once they see English teachers love writing and actually do some writing themselves.

***

So here in this blog, to avoid over-thinking technicalities, I am free to pen down ideas without considering whether they hang together or not. No stopping. I will just make them hang together when some major project involving writing arrives (which may or may not come). I will fill this blog with nothing more than first drafts, from now on. Never mind the grammar; the goal is to solidify and develop any given idea into a medium before it dashes away irretrievably from my mind.

What I have to do for every post is to concentrate upon a single idea for a protracted amount of time (which in our attention standard is 10 minutes or more), while stopping only for short breaks as needed to replenish my senses and thoughts. With stimuli thrown all over us while we sit or lie awake, solid concentration is becoming rare, but such is the art needed most when writing. When you have an idea for writing, you can brainstorm with yourself for ideas to write about, but in the end you have to take a single one and take it as far as you want to go.

***

Also, the goal here for my blogging is to stimulate creation and perception. Are they innate or can they be practiced? It’s often insensible to decide which actually the case is. But one can bet on either and live with it. If I think that both creativity and stark perception are inborn, then there is certainly no need for me to develop new ways to recombine ideas in my head or to find them out there in the wilds. That sort of thinking can lead to laziness.

So I am going to bet on the other: that both can be developed. The notion that the more you do something, the better you become at it, is already a truism; its clearest and most popular exposition in literature is the “10,000 hour” rule by Malcolm Gladwell. The two are also complementary in my view. Creation aids perception, because what you create is something new that can refresh your senses from commonplace things, and as the need for you to create strengthens, your senses will suddenly itch for stuff to observe, so even mundane matters turn to opportunities. Perception also aids creation by providing your mind with raw materials from the outside world which your creativity will then process.

Betting that both creation and perception can be strengthened, moreover, removes all cheap rationalizations for shirking off writing or putting off thinking. That also keeps me going in numerous directions so I wouldn’t be as resentful as someone else whose mind gets stuck in one-way traffic and then blames the world for it.

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#16: A Few Scattered Drafts on Learning How to Learn

What should schools be good at? The quick answer: learning – and teaching students to learn. It is almost an educational truism that students in schools should “learn how to learn” and to sharpen the mindsets that would help them to do such. I’ve always assumed, pragmatically, that students just forget whatever they learn after they are tested for that knowledge, so unless they are particularly turned on with such information, then they should at least be able to graduate with something of value: ways to learn how to learn plus the mental acuity for such.

***

In the Philippines, what is school’s function? There always goes the familiar chorus: “So that children will grow up and be able to get jobs.” That underscores most of serious schooling talk in the Philippines aside from grades, tests, and schedules. It’s a constant grind: parents remind children to study hard to get high scores in tests to get good grades, and there’s no letting down because the schedules are tight. At the base of all these is the hope that all graduates would somehow be able to get good jobs, mostly abroad, where plenty of money is to be earned. Diplomas, moreover, serve as social signals that someone is educated; just notice how they are conspicuously displayed at every home, along with some medals and certificates.

***

I’m not saying that education should stray as far as it can from industrial demand. Of course, schools need to produce a mass of graduates able to take on high-level technical work. But we can’t just manufacture students who can “do” without building up their thinking. Many technical procedures today might become outdated later on, and many new ones will emerge. Graduates are in a better position to learn those new techniques if they know how to learn – thus saving themselves from becoming what Alvin Toffler called the “illiterates of the 21st century”. And, oh, many professionals today insist that most of the stuff they know came from the job itself.

***

A strong proposal: Leave the expertise to the jobs; while at school, teach students to learn how to learn, with the subjects as vehicles to that end. Ideally, I want every last student in the Philippines to learn Math. It’s a highly rewarding discipline; it has the dual benefit of having lots of industry applications and its being hospitable to play. One can do Math with a definite purpose or without one. However, Math teachers know well that with a few exceptions, most of the Math (content) that students learn goes down the drain. So while teachers should still teach Math, they should do so in such a way that students will become curious with every discussion, not feel trapped with the knowledge they have (couldn’t it be possible that sometimes knowledge can be trap – we’d rather be inside it than confront the outside world where wolves sometimes thrive?)

***

Curiosity is important in “learning how to learn”, and such a trait manifests in constant questioning. Schools should certainly encourage this attitude; when a teacher declares “Any questions?”, he or she better be sincere. Connected to this is the purpose of questioning; is its main (perhaps for some, only) purpose to assess what students already know? What if teachers began asking questions without needing students to answer, with just the remark that these questions are good questions but they need not be answered right away? After all, the best questions always stick in the minds of interested thinkers for hundreds or even thousands of years.

***

Many of us still assume, naively, that doing is what happens when learning is finished. That is the notion behind the “study well so that you’ll get a good job”. Curiosity can eradicate that notion: when you do something, you learn from it; you constantly reflect; you find better ways to do it; you can find creative twists to it. Curiosity surely helps anyone explore all that is contained within an action, from participants to stakeholders to methods of improvement to “whether it deserves to be done at all”, and such exploration is learning, and it mostly involves asking the right questions and chasing down partial or total answers to them. With this, learning is already doing; the two are not any more distinct.

Do teachers think similarly? Is learning to them a part of doing, or something that should happen before doing? The teacher’s way of teaching will show her orientation toward both learning and doing, and students will absorb what they see.

***

One of my friends just remarked that he wanted to be freed from the pressure of books and he doesn’t want to hold any more books forever. I wonder what has happened exactly to him, but it could be this: Books are not something to be read, but “pressed” upon him. Reading, for him, has become a passive activity in which he becomes a receiver, not an active one in which he is deliberate. Reading can’t always be “You have to” from without if it is to be sustainable; it has to be often an “I will” from within.

There could be a Pyrrhic victory behind his situation – he got what he wanted from his education, but I wish he didn’t get an aversion to further learning, especially from books which give not only information but also ways on mobilizing and organizing them with due thoughtfulness.

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#15: Something is Better than Nothing

Even in the darkest of times, I still commit myself to maintaining the two-post-a-week rule for this blog. If any bloggers’ muse won’t come to me, then I’ll always have to make one, especially during midnight. I support this dogged persistence by a pet theory of writing. A truism, but worth posting in one’s bedside in my opinion:

It’s always better to write something than to write nothing.

Bad writers are still called writers even if they write badly. Those who fail to write, however, can be called anything else, but they’re not writers. Writing is a verb before it becomes a noun. The action of writing precedes the title, in contrast to many job-holders today who get the title first before they partake in the action.

Established writers always suggest that we carry a journal where we can record scattered thoughts. (The practice has trickled down on English class, but I don’t believe students take it seriously unless they can get away with a decent grade by doing it.) They need not be organized or grammatical; the main purpose of the journal is to record observations and thoughts in a flash. Although writers who do this do not necessarily improve the way they construct sentences, pen down figurative expressions, and organize paragraphs, they sharpen their perceptive powers. They improve the way they see the essences of commonplace things. They learn how to classify, analyze, and compare stimuli more quickly. Best of all, they learn how to treat no situation as mundane, no action as arid.

Even bits of writing that are hardly publishable for now can still have value. They can serve as inspiration for future writing, especially at the unfortunate day when Nature seems to have run out of gifts. (Don’t worry, Nature never does, but we sometimes feel a sort of respite for claiming that we can’t write because Nature has dried up.) With some tweaking, they can serve as the beginning, middle, or end of a written work. You need not start from nothing every time you do your main-course writing – think of the journal or blog as one of your take-off points.

Journal writing or blog writing solely for the sake of writing something than nothing is analogous to running. Think of a journal or blog entry as a practice race for a big race. When you are in an actual race already, you need not cherish the memory of any particular practice session, but you’ll look back to the practice as a whole and figure that they’ve strengthened your muscles, improved your stamina, and raised your normal confidence level. The same goes for writing. There are some practice effects going on.

Upon reading the biographies of many writers, it is easy to notice that their works we remember today may be a small fraction of their total published output. The total published output, again, may be a small fraction of all the words they have written. Certainly it is possible to improve the odds of becoming a published writer by writing more words than anyone else out there. Somewhere on the mass of your accumulated writings, there will be something that can garner an audience who will get wildly interested, and you will get readers.

That recalls the Garbage Can theory of organizations, a theory involving “choices looking for problems” instead of the conventional problem-identifying and solution-posing. Here, it is the writing seeking out an audience, although as a writer you always need a feel for your ideal reader. At the times when you know your audience in advance, you can churn out written work smoothly, and you will be thankful for your continuous practice that somehow strengthened your mind and prevented the rusting of your writing prowess.

What do all these boil down into? As Henry Miller wrote: “I am a writing machine.” It’s good that writing machines can self-oil themselves – by writing more.

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#14: Post About a Post About a University

Somewhere on the Netwaves, there is a blog post whose title is “The Perks of Being a/an X Graduate” where X is the name of a university. You may want to read the original post to find out what X is, but I’ll request that you skip that until the end. For now, treat X as a generic school – it may very well be your own school, or a school of someone you know – and you will lay bare your assumptions regarding higher education in this country.

I’m going to swing my bat right off the bat with an analysis of the opening lines:

These are just based on what I heard from people so puh-lease DO NOT CRITICIZE mehhhh! K here we go:

I’m going to criticize these “people” instead along with their faulty notions, and here I go too:

There is often a “Wow Factor” when people find out that you’re a graduate from the said university which makes you feel like you’re superior to any other universities. Well, admit it. You do feel this, don’t you?

Setting aside the faulty grammar involving the comparison of a person to “other universities”, this misses the question: superior at what qualities? And are these qualities obtainable only from university X? Also, I feel that a “Wow” often ends any discussion, and when it doesn’t, only more “Wow’s” and similar-sounding cheering squad jargon (“ooooh”, “aaaaah”, “oolala”) follow.

Like what I heard, you can easily apply for a job even if you’re not experienced. The name of your school affects your employment these days. And again, just like what they told me, you don’t have to go looking for job because the job will find you.

Setting aside the utter impossibility of a person being “not experienced”, the proposition may be true, but only to a point. Beyond a certain amount of time, experience (whatever it means) will matter more than education. Also, this reflects what people may want more than any other from a university: the name. What about the learning? As the great German Goethe said, “a name is but noise and smoke”.

People would be impressed and think you’re a smart ass and all but some people might get intimidated.

Just because someone came from university X doesn’t mean that the person is already a “smart ass”. While the entire population of X can be justly described as intelligent, there are the “smarts”, the “smart asses”, and the “asses”.

They would think you’re an activist (This is actually a wrong connotation for [X] students. This can’t be called a benefit. Why did I even include this in the first place? K sorreehh..)

I don’t think it’s a bad connotation, unless you want a world full of yes-sayers, trained during childhood to say “Yes” to every teacher’s request so in the future a “Yes” will more easily come than a “No”. To paraphrase educator John Holt, the more you obey, the more likely you will spread evil.

Lastly, you would gain confidence.

Does the confidence gained come with carrying the name of X or is it ingrained?

These do not always happen though but in some circumstances, they do.

Why do they happen, anyway? Whose mind has lingering questions about why they happen?

Forgive me for posting this. I’m so sabaw tonight

Me too, though on a cooler day this would be thrice as long. This post is just to meet my quota of two blog posts per week.

The post I referred to is this: The post

P.S. At least I got some good practice in conciseness and post-cutting.

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#13: Loose Analysis of Questioning in Philippine Education with Geert Hofstede’s 5-D Cultural Model

Most schools in the Philippines, I intuit, have the habit of giving us answers while leaving us in the dark about the right questions. At once it is easy to find out some contributing factors to this. When we recall our childhoods, it’s more likely that our elders suppressed our impulse to ask questions – an honorable impulse brought about by curiosity. We also have a derisive term for a constant questioner: the pilosopo.

It is said that education (especially the public sort) can affect all the citizens of any nation. Therefore the culture of any country is a good enough indicator of the education taking place there. To analyze culture we use Geert Hofstede’s 5-D model, with the 5-D standing for five cultural dimensions: (1) power distance, (2) individualism, (3) masculinity and femininity, (4) uncertainty avoidance, and (5) long-term orientation. Here is a summary of how the Philippines fared:

(1) Power distance – 94. A very high score (the highest is 100); Filipinos generally accept the existence of unequal distribution of power in the society.

(2) Individualism – 32. A low score; Filipinos prefer to commit themselves to a group in various settings, especially school and work, instead of fending off for themselves

(3) Masculinity/Femininity – 64. This score is skewed in favor of masculinity; Filipinos, therefore, are highly achievement-oriented, have an assertive stance to daily living and conflict resolution. Femininity, on the other hand, indicates greater emphasis on “quality of life” rather than trophies.

(4) Uncertainty avoidance – 44. This score is somewhat skewed in favor of less uncertainty avoidance. Filipinos are more welcome to deviations from established norms; the manana habit and the breaking off from company protocols are some instances.

(5) Long-term orientation – 19. This score is very low; Filipinos prefer the quick “jackpot” instead of being like the ant that, during the summer, saves for the winter bit by bit.

Now what does all of these have to do with the culture of questioning in Philippine schools? Using these results can make us form a coherent picture:

(1) High power distance places teachers on a virtually unquestionable position. More often than not, students ask questions to clarify what teachers said, not to offer a challenge or to add to the lesson. Offering a challenge threatens the teacher’s sense of position in the school hierarchy. Adding something to the lesson displaces a teacher’s lesson plan and thus shakes her sense of authority. And too often we forget to ask or demand the value of the lessons we’re learning in schools. What did we learn the Binomial Theorem or the different types of algae for? Such innocuous questions, which permit gentle responses, are surprisingly unasked.

(2) Loosely, low individualism can be disabling in asking questions. Suppose you are a naturally inquisitive student surrounded by mostly “contented” classmates. If you’ll be the only one asking questions, then others will perceive you as a nonconformist and sooner you will be contented like them. It is also low individualism that causes students to do in groups what they would be willing to do as individuals, such as collective cheating and frat wars, and there is little questioning going on regarding these phenomena involving the “madness of crowds”.

(3) The masculine orientation allows Filipinos to accept scores, grades, trophies, certificates and the like as untainted marks of education. The fetish for college degrees also falls on this orientation. Unless they get lucky and someone teaches them the fine art of iconoclasm, they won’t ever ask questions like “What do grades really measure?” “What does having a diploma really imply, and what should it imply?” “Is there a correlation between grades and real-life success?” Hardly anyone of us wonders about the “quality of learning” even if we’re left in the dark as to its “quantity”.

(4) Less uncertainty avoidance should be welcome. Asking questions makes us throw off our cloak of “certain” learning invincibility and allows others to know that there are still incomplete aspects to our learning. However, by my experience, less uncertainty avoidance manifests itself by rule-breaking of sorts. In schools in the Philippines, it is a titanic struggle to be certain about one’s values (while refining them daily), especially honesty. “If you see others cheating at exams, then why shouldn’t I”? And we justify similar practices in the name of survival as we grow older.

(5) Our short-term orientation reflects our attitude towards exams and grades. Should you study for the test? Of course you should, because doing so makes you respect “practice effects”, but you should not let your studying get in the way of your learning. Short-term orientation allows students to ask “What will come out in the test?” and thus fixate them to getting good test scores. And then the students forget their learning right after the exams, after the grades, and after school. I also think that many teachers are to blame for this – instead of giving facts for the sake of rattling them again during exams, they should give facts while sharpening the minds of students (using their subject matter) so the pupils can get training on how to make sense of the facts. That training can very well persist throughout life.

Be reminded that Hofstede’s 5-D framework, when applied to education, is in no way limited to analyzing the questioning habits of students. 5-D can lend coherence to many other educational facets in the Philippines.

However, I chose questioning because it’s a valuable skill useful not only in intellectual and artistic work, but increasingly at all sorts of work. We can attribute the dearth of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and book writers to the failure of graduates to learn the right questions to ask, but we’ve lived with that for long already. But we can’t live with that any longer once we find out that questioning is a valuable work skill and many employers around the globe are asking for their employees to have it (and I’s daresay too that employers who do otherwise are becoming extinct).

Here is education innovator and consultant Tony Wagner’s take on the issue. In his book The Global Achievement Gap, he recalls the answer to his question on “what qualities he most wants in a potential new employee”:

First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions… Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.

Education in the Philippines has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to improving the questioning skills of the students. To accomplish that, however, requires a massive shift in cultural priorities. We can start asking a few questions, and you can add more of yours (now here is a chance to practice those questioning skills): Would teachers be willing to give up some of their authoritarianism in a possibly risky exchange for more discussion in class? Will students get used to that setup? In a culture used to having parents who reward children getting grades over the roof, how can we explain the real significance of those grades? How can we ensure that students don’t leave our classrooms with stuff they may have forgotten before exiting the door? Does God exist, and how do we treat those who believe otherwise?

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#12: A Review of Recent Cases of Philippine School Violence

Have you just intuited that our schools are becoming the breeding grounds of strife nowadays?

First, we review the case of the Colegio de San Agustin student Jaime Garcia. His name became famous because some CSA students bullied him, then he retaliated by stabbing one of the bullies with a ballpoint pen. Then the father of the stabbed bully, Allan Bantiles, allegedly slapped Jaime and even allegedly pointed a gun at him:

http://www.interaksyon.com/article/43937/csa-teen-on-bullys-gun-toting-dad-i-really-thought-hed-shoot-my-brains-out

We remember the Math teacher who forced her students to eat paper and also threw a chair toward someone who had the sense to defy her order:

http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=851790&publicationSubCategoryId=49

There are even instances of students getting the upper hand against teachers. Here is one such case of students robbing their teacher:

http://www.journal.com.ph/index.php/news/provincial/38136-guro-ninakawan-tinangkang-patayin-ng-3-estudyante

We also recall the alleged child molestation by a PE teacher:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/video/136696/24oras/pe-teacher-inireklamo-ng-pangmomolestya-ng-16-na-estudyante-sa-elementarya

Even a school paper of a renowned university has suddenly grown fangs on this attack against other two prestigious universities:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/277346/news/nation/ust-student-paper-attacks-ateneo-la-salle-on-rh-stands

There are also two school bomb scares just this last week:

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/video/nation/metro-manila/10/10/12/lyceum-suspends-classes-after-bomb-scare

http://www.philstar.com/nation/article.aspx?publicationsubcategoryid=63&articleid=858735

And just hours ago, a stabbing took place at Adamson University.

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/metro-manila/10/13/12/adamson-university-student-stabbed-inside-campus

Men, women, children, elderly, rich, poor, even school buildings – no one is safe.

At least credit me for having a curious memory for oddities. George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I know you may have heard this for a hundred times already in your lifetime. (But you don’t remember hearing it, so you’ll just repeat hearing it, thus proving the truth of Santayana’s proposition. A more orderly world would have no need for a quote like this.)

Let me emphasize, however, that I am in no way generalizing about the rampant violence that has happened in our school campuses nowadays. After all, there are tens of thousands of schools all over the country. There is no way we can cover all the violence that’s happening in the schools. The increased coverage of violent acts taking place inside campus can be attributed to just that – increased coverage. But it’s tempting to wonder: Couldn’t it be that it has always been this way inside the majority of educational institutions in the Philippines, and we’re starting to get vigilant only recently, when deaths and bizarre activities began emerging in rapid-fire pace?

However, I am quite generous in examining the succession of violent in-campus activities. Perhaps they just clustered together by chance, or as I mentioned, perhaps it’s just increased media coverage of the usual stuff.

Copycats Galore

Or perhaps this explanation can also apply. Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor from the Arizona State University, describes a probable explanation for the one-after-another occurrence of detestable acts inside our schools. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he explains the occurrence of copycat events, or events that follow the publicizing of a similar event. He cites David Phillips’ research on copycat suicides:

(1) Copycat events take place only on places where the events are publicized: “He found that within two months after every front-page suicide story, an average of fifty-eight more people than usual killed themselves. In a sense, each suicide story killed fifty-eight people who otherwise would have gone on living.”

(2) Copycat events are done in a similar manner as the publicized events: “Thus when the newspaper detailed the suicide of a young person, it was young drivers who then piled their cars into trees, poles, and embankments with fatal results; but when the news story concerned an older person’s suicide, older drivers died in such crashes”

According to Cialdini, these two insights add up: “Upon learning of another’s suicide, an uncomfortably large number of people decide that suicide is an appropriate action for themselves as well.”

That insight may apply to acts of school violence. Although we can’t ascertain how many such acts took place during the whole of September and the first two weeks of October, imitation of prior publicized acts of school violence can be a trigger, if we are to follow Cialdini’s logic.

It’s like this: more trouble begets more coverage, and more coverage may beget more trouble. It’s a vicious circle that may engulf the educational establishment if left unchecked. At least the increased exposure should make us aware of what’s really happening in our schools, given that inside schools, pupils are away from their families and are practically left to fend off for themselves.

A Note to Teachers

Teachers, meanwhile should ask themselves these questions:

Isn’t it violence – to the mind, if not to the body – if they let their students out to the world without sufficient life skills? Have our schools taught us literacy, numeracy, critical thinking,and rapid adaptation to speedily changing circumstances? Have our schools strengthened our willpower to stand alone in the midst of tempting opportunities to follow the crowd’s blatant wrongs and innocent imbecilities, a steel heart that never worships power for its own sake, and a zest for lifelong learning and not learning that ends when school ends?

Isn’t it violence to make schools function like businesses while posing perils to their educational functions?

Isn’t it violence to scream at students when reasoned discussion is a better tack? Isn’t it violence to force-feed students with facts that they’re likely to forget after a long time, and to stress students over them?

Isn’t it violence to judge students, with no regard to the future, when their potentials haven’t fully blossomed yet? This year’s Nobel laureate for Medicine and Physiology, Sir John Gurdon (who shared the prize with Shinya Yamanaka for seminal work on stem cells) recalled what his Biology teacher told him before: “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

And I’d consider it violence too when students have to say “Good morning” every day, like busted records, when the mornings out there are mostly no good.

Shakespeare once said, “‘Tis the mind that makes the body rich”. It’s just reasonable to assume that turbulence in mind and viciousness of the body go hand-in-hand. If you corrupt the mind, you corrupt the body, and pandemonium’s going to result if you do that to participants in a crowded classroom.

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#11: In Defense of Surprise Quizzes

This post hardly contains any advice on taking surprise quizzes. This post intends to make students realize the value of these tests as well as defend teachers who give them. We will also examine some conditions that are best satisfied before dishing out these types of quizzes.

Despite how much we may dislike teachers armed with surprise quizzes all throughout the school year, these types of quizzes may provide us with the best opportunities to think. The usual test setup proceeds this way: the teacher gives out the lesson, the students study it, then the teacher gives a quiz about it, and then a new lesson. This process goes on ad nauseam, until both teachers and students are numbed by it.

Surprise quizzes can break this treadmill. With this type of quiz, students can’t resort to their usual test-taking routine. They won’t be able to regurgitate answers because they wouldn’t have been told what to swallow beforehand. They won’t be able to practice only during a convenient time – they have to keep themselves sharp at all times. Their reflex question “So what will come out in the test?” (an absolutely absurd question that should have never been asked at all) will become invalid, for a surprise test should be surprise. Eventually that question, a cause of anxiety for many students, will be weaned out.

From these surprise test benefits, it follows that some test forms are more suited to surprise tests than others. Except for the most basic facts, identification and enumeration of rote facts would be awkward, unless the testing is to ensure mastery of only the most essential facts that students are liable to forget.

The best test types for surprise tests are essay tests, multiple-choice tests that contain no identification, and problem-solving tests. Rather than test specific content knowledge, these test types test the thought processes of students. Giving surprise tests signals the need for students to think sharp all the time, not just during exam time.

If students don’t have the rote knowledge or procedural knowledge needed to deal with a surprise test, then they have to think. As Jean Piaget, a child psychologist whose areas of study are staples in Education classes, said: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” A surprise test puts students in a position where by default they don’t know what to do, so they have to think, explore, innovate, make wild conjectures, test these conjectures, and look for relevant evidence. It can make students go beyond the usual “Who?” “What?”, “Where?” and “When?” to the realm of “Why?” and “How?”.

For teachers to give effective surprise tests, they should have a respect for sharp thinking at all times. They have to be creative in cooking up questions. A teacher who wants to pass on the “think-all-throughout” frame of mind to pupils should have that same mindset too. Also, when students hand over their answers to surprise tests where answers are long, teachers should be keen in reconstructing the logical processes of the answers they get. They ought to focus on the process more than the product (provided that the questions are focused on the process more than the product).

The world is a surprising world. It’s fast-changing. There’s no stepping in the same world twice, to adapt Heraclitus’ aphorism. All the tomes of information you have mastered at school may be of little use to you later on, as many graduates insist realistically.  According to Tony Wagner, author of several education reform books, during 1990, “the half-life of knowledge in the humanities is ten years, and in math and science, it’s only two to three years”. Half-life of a certain field of knowledge is the time taken for half of the knowledge in a certain field to become obsolete. Today, given the rush of technologies and the enormous speed of spreading information, these half-lives may have become shorter already. Surprise! Has our school system taught us to resist or respect these surprises?

Thus it is imperative that schools give them something else – the art of thinking well. Schools should get their students ready for surprises, not get them used to boredom. As an afterthought, schools should equip students the mental agility and fortitude to counteract routinized responses to boredom, such as watching noontime shows or drenching oneself on telenovelas.

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#10: Book Fair Seminar Blues; Commitment in Writing; The “Pilosopo”

At the last day of the 2012 Manila International Book Fair, Dr. Isagani Cruz held a seminar Write Your Own Book. There were two questions that stood out in the discussion and that stuck in my mind the most: “Where will I write?” and “When will I write?” Space and time, in other words. The answers to the two questions are stunningly similar:

“Anywhere, as long as it is the same place.”

“Anytime, as long as it is the same time.”

The two answers are unthinkable. Why should I write at a definite time, say 9pm – 12mn, rather than write at any convenient time, when all the mundane responsibilities are dealt with? Why should I write atop the plastic table at the second floor rather than anywhere I can conveniently put my laptop on?

It is obvious that these answers will not make you become more creative, or generate more words, or recombine ideas. Rather, they are meant to keep you committed. Treat of them as your principles. Writing a book is a demanding task – Butch Dalisay describes it this way (for novels, but the same goes for all books written in the Philippines): “We sleep, eat, defecate, and fornicate with our novels perched on our shoulders.”

Writing books eats up chunks of our lives, with the confounding worry that whatever we turn out may not be so good, after all. For every book you see on the bestseller list, there are hundreds or thousands whose presence is fleeting.

So in completing a book, surviving all the countercurrents in this country that can prevent you from writing is a must. Writing should be on top of all priorities when writing – not daydreaming, doing household chores, or tending to domestic disturbances. Stick to your goal when writing a book – completing it – and dodge everything else in the way. That is easier when you are in a “safe zone” in a “safe time”, not when you are in a place where the earnest distractions of the outside world can pile up upon you. Even if you have to go into a cheap motel to finish your writing at peace. Even if you have to sneak into an attic for a few hours of near-perfect serenity allowing you to concentrate.

Also, writing at a definite place and time – and upholding your schedule with the precision of clockwork – is also sound practice in focusing. If you can’t remember the writing practices you promised you’ll do, how can you expect to remember the main point of your book? You may change your writing habits when you think they’re ineffective or when pressing circumstances require you to, or you may change the thesis of your book, but when you commit to something, hang on to it tightly.

After the seminar, I asked Dr. Cruz a single question, which I hope the right one. “If you can summarize a writer’s best practices into two bits of advice, what would they be?”

I received these answers: “The first one is to read a lot.“ “The second one is to write everyday.”

Reading a lot is easy to do everyday, for Dr. Cruz didn’t mention any specific book to read. Perhaps it’s just a fine way to reinforce a vision of the future result of your writing. Reading a lot, while planning your own book, can also pound this reminder: if you’re benefiting from the hard labor and mental struggles of writers, why not do the same?

Writing everyday is an exercise in commitment; do not think yourself as a part-time writer, but a full-time one. At least one word a day would be good, according to Dr. Cruz – the late writer Francisco Arcellana did just that. A minimum of one word a day en route to a carefully crafted short story may appear like grinding stones, but that’s commitment to the bones.

The two given answers are also keyhole insights to why Filipino writers are rare. First, Filipinos do not read a lot, to put it bluntly but accurately. As a mass, we read because required to do so in school, not really for the aesthetic and cognitive pleasures that it can bring. Second, in a poor country with more pressing needs than the urge to put thoughts on paper (and whose habitual logicians and theoreticians are derided as pilosopo; I think this is one of the few countries in which contemplators are socially derided), writing can get relegated to last place.

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#9: The Perils of the “Just This Once” Mentality

As the great Henry David Thoreau said before: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” Let us take a pause from grueling discussions of the cybercrime law and look into our own lives.

Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert of “disruptive innovation”, wrote an essay named “How Will You Measure Your Life?” (an expanded version can be bought as a book). In that essay, he mentions one of the episodes that changed his life, for better or for worse.

When he was studying at Oxford, he was a player for his varsity basketball team. His team breezed through the season without any losses, and then a few games later, the championship game arrived. The problem is Christensen vowed that he “had made a personal commitment to God at age 16 that I would never play ball on Sunday”. He continues his account of that episode:

So I went to the coach and explained my problem. He was incredulous. My teammates were, too, because I was the starting center. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule just this one time?”

I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away and prayed about what I should do. I got a very clear feeling that I shouldn’t break my commitment—so I didn’t play in the championship game.

In what ways could you have done something contrary to your principles but didn’t? Or – more commonly, what did you do that was contrary to your principles because this “just this one time” itch is tickling you – er, nagging you – on your mind? And why?

Marginal Benefits

Many of the actions that we do against our self-determined principles have marginal benefits.

Suppose you get a higher score when you cheat in an exam – you gain.

Suppose you committed a crucial mistake in a game, for example in a basketball game where you saw yourself step out of bounds but no one else saw it – you and your team gains.

Suppose a colleague invited you to falsify an expense sheet so that you can nick off a little more cash – you and your colleague gains.

Suppose you put off doing any work you have – your mind gains some short-term relief from the harsh reality of the work.

All of them are pesky “one-time” deals. On some moments we decide to to do something against our well-entrenched principles – just once. We figured out that setting our principles aside may be worth it, this one time, because we gain.

However, as Christensen shows us, all such gains are devilish bargains.

Every action against one’s own principles, whether because of your quest for some gain or because of peer pressure, ultimately makes it more likely that our mind is going to justify similar actions in the future, even if the initial action comes with a bond of “just once”.

Suppose you cheated in a test once and you found the experience of getting a higher grade a euphoric buzz. But that may also give you the impression “hey, cheating in a test isn’t so bad after all”, and from then on this voice will always seep into your ears for every test you take. This turns worse once social proof blends into the mix; if you become compelled to break your own principles because there is social pressure around you, you may begin feeling that it’s OK. After all, everyone’s doing that, too, so you can enjoy their company.

It’s always best to delineate your principles during a time where you are beginning to solidify your own values – preferably during adolescence, where you get greater social exposure and you increase your knowledge about the world. That is also a time when you can still think about your values mostly on your own before you do paid work, grind, and absorb the work culture. You may also assimilate some peer culture elements from your schoolmates, but reflect on them crucially; you wouldn’t want to adopt something under the pretext of something as unreliable as peer pressure.

Not Ever, Not at All, Never

Then be sure not to break the most crucial principles you have laid out for yourself. Along the way, you can refine them or even change them, but don’t cling to them only with the intention of letting them go because of an additional few units of comfort.

Holding on to “not playing ball on a Sunday” is particularly fickle, but it’s wise that Christensen held on to it; it showed that he is capable of staying sturdy. That can come handy in the midst of more tempting, higher-stakes ethically ambiguous situations.

He knew his own values, and you should, too.

If you cheated in today’s forgettable test, no matter how trivial it is, think of the graver acts you may commit in the future once you set your brain to “OK-ing” successive acts of dishonesty.

If you deliberately kept mum about your out-of-bounds step in a basketball game that you won, then think of the regret that may pile up once your brain starts “OK-ing” the notion that your career can be composed of such progressively serious chicaneries. You may see yourself as a competent player, but an opportunistic one who was an athlete first and a person second.

If you agreed with your colleague that you’ll both falsify an expense sheet, then pretty soon, as both of you get higher up in the corporate rank, your brain may be “OK-ing” baser ideas such as misrepresenting ideas to the public, deceiving your business partners, and ultimately ruining a company. Think Enron. Think Worldcom.

And are you going to procrastinate “just this once”? Then you’ll probably find yourself “OK-ing” future procrastinating; that sets off a lifetime of delays, until that one decisive delay that you’ll regret to your heels.

You can think of many similar cases from your experience

Christensen tells us: “The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up.”

Think of every small act as a gateway act. Small acts of goodness lead to big acts of goodness. Small acts of wickedness work similarly. Every single act can be a small step on the stairway to heaven or an implicit pact with the devil.

Forgo the hunt for little pleasures obtained from the bending your own principles, even only for a bit. (But here is a question I want to leave open: How would you treat people who force you to forsake your own principles in exchange for convenience of whatever sort?)

***

P.S. Reviews of excerpts, such as above, will be a staple of this blog. Developing a point of view about an excerpt can turn into a blog post in a few hours. Moreover, they can lead to the reading of whole works where the excerpts came from.

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#8: Forums, Proper and Improper

Lately, there have been calls from the part of prominent officials for those who oppose the dreadful RA 10175, also known as the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, to post dissenting views at the “proper forum”. Here is an excerpt of a Sun Star Manila article that mentions “proper forum”:

But presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Thursday that these hackers are not getting any sympathy from what they are doing and it would be better if they raise their concerns to the proper venue such as the court.

“Well it won’t win them brownie points if that’s what they are doing. I think the better venue for them is to really show their protests in a proper forum rather than hacking a government website or government websites,” he said.

Lacierda said the Palace respects the rights of the individuals and groups who have filed petitions before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the new law.

Try searching for “proper forum” Philippines on Google and see the results. “Proper forum” can easily turn into a cliche if the continuous use of the terms in the media continues.

Is the Supreme Court a Good Enough Forum?

Let us explore further. How did the Palace officials define “proper forum” Indeed, they did not state a precise definition of such, and they trust us to know what it is. We can state, provisionally, that one such forum is the Supreme Court, where seven petitions have been filed already against the delicate sections of RA 10175. Such sections are sections 4 to 7, concerned with the libel clause and other similar acts, and the notorious section 19, which says: “When a computer data is prima facie found to be in violation of the provisions of this Act, the DOJ shall issue an order to restrict or block access to such computer data.”

The Palace seems to be proud of those developments. Abigail Valte, the deputy presidential spokesperson, was quoted here: “Like we have always said, there are legitimate avenues in expressing dissent.” Her definition of “legitimate avenues” counts the Supreme Court; with that,, I wish the petitioners lots of good fortune in their dealings.

The question now is: What is a proper forum, anyway?

We can count the Supreme Court as one such forum, but being a blog-hopper and a forum-hopper for years already, I know that in a forum, even if there are rules meant to preserve order and make interactions fruitful, anyone can see others post views and respond to them. At the Supreme Court, only the petitioners and their counsel know the status of their Court petitions, and very little is known about the discussions of the Supreme Court regarding the requests. Who knows what Ma. Lourdes Sereno and the other justices are thinking? In a forum, whenever you express something, it becomes transparent, and others will know about it and even speculate about your thought processes.

Thus the Supreme Court fails to have the spirit of a forum as I know it because there is no substantive interaction with the stakeholders (the Internet-using public) of the issue. It’s only between the petitioners, the justices, and the middling staff. It is no fault of the Supreme Court, though; it is simply a limitation. After all, the justices are leading busy lives, although it would be immensely better if they make their views public in a language that the cyber-public can easily understand, and far much better if the public responds intelligently and confidently. (But that takes practice, and the Supreme Court may better take the lead in enlightenment here and push the public to follow.)

Add-on: On October 2, the public will come to the Supreme Court and give it the soul of the forum. Here is the announcement:

Hacktivism

What about Anonymous Philippines, the hacktivist group that methodically defaced many government websites? Are they airing their views in the “proper forum”?

Clearly, government websites don’t really qualify as proper forums; after all, only the current agendas of the people running the sites are mentioned there. However, the Internet is itself one big forum; everything significant anyone does there is sure to be revealed by the inquisitive. People now know that government websites are being mutilated in protest against the oppressive law, and everyone knew well, to the extent that even the Palace had to respond. (Anonymous declared that it’s going to launch more attacks if the law isn’t pulled down or at least molded to sense.)

We have here the minimal elements of a forum in the true sense – a point of view (the Anonymous’ belief that the cybercrime law is bunk and “cunningly deceptive”), a means of expression (defacement of government sites), and responses (from concerned netizens to Palace officials). Call it a patched-up forum, or a forum definition that’s forcibly applied, but I’d rather call that a proper forum than call the Supreme Court as such, or Senate and Congress, or a staff meeting where the machinations of the boss bureaucrat goes unchecked.

A Greater Plea

If only our officials find out what’s going on in the minds of the people, then they will know more about how to improve their laws. If only our officials took the time to explore any of the numerous forums for Filipinos, then they will learn more about how the cybercrime law will affect the ordinary netfolk and they will adjust in return, unless they have some vested interests at the backs of their heads. They can just come to forums and blogs where heated but purposeful discussions can happen. I will consider some blogs as forums as long as there is active and strident, sometimes flaring, commenting taking place. Shielding oneself from the world, which can be positively correlated with snobbishness and partly due to insincerity, is a recipe for laws that are vexatious on paper and troublesome on application.

Now we’re noticing vibrant Internet discussions from various sectors regarding the cybercrime law. Such is the flow of untapped insights of the Philippine population of Internet users. Although there are plenty of inane views expressed in Philippine cyberspace, at least the prospect of “chit-chat” about the law is bringing out some reserved but thoughtful souls into the forefront. According to University of Michigan sociologist Scott Page, a necessary condition for discussions to yield remarkable accurate views is that the participants are smart enough (though not necessarily savants) and the views expressed be as diverse as possible. I believe that the cybercrime law will reduce the diversity of such views, thus making the Internet crowd prone to correlated mistakes (because of fear) and also prone to a vicious roundabout of more and more mistakes.

Internationally Challenged

Clearly, the law has already blasted in the international forum. A Yahoo! News article states: “Even before the Cybercrime law was passed… the UN Human Rights Committee had already called on the Philippines to decriminalize libel.” The UNHCR has already made its case; paying no heed to it will result to the substandard treatment of the government of its citizens when it comes to free speech. Right now, the Human Rights Watch, based on New York, has pitched in this warning: “When citizens face prison time for complaining about official performance, corruption, or abusive business practices, other people take notice and are less likely to draw attention to such problems themselves, undermining effective governance and civil society.”

When Filipino journalist Alexander Adonis got imprisoned because of libel last 2007, there came UNHCR’s calls for the Philippine government to remove libel from the list of criminal offenses. Hardly anyone above there listened. Did that mean that we’re a signatory on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights just on paper but not on spirit?

Finale, Including the Naked Emperor Test

The most proper forum is the world itself; if you want something close to home, the country can be next best. If you want to bring about a country that is a proper forum in the true sense of the term, then go talk to the people about their problems or at least do your intensive research while looking at people’s concerns with lens of purity, instead of bamboozling them with slogans that make them impatient with complete sentences with complete thoughts. Talk to the voting public (or at least to those willing to talk) about substantive issues related to the economy and culture, instead of hiding behind a wall of college degrees and connections while thinking that you’ve got everything figured out.

There’s the Internet anyway, where anyone can talk unless silenced out of fear that one’s going to unintentionally say something of bad taste, though that may be the truth. Here’s the naked emperor test in determining whether a free speech law is oppressive on its application even if it looks innocuous: “With that law, will I be able to say that the emperor is naked, in any medium, and allow it to be read by others, if the emperor is indeed naked? Will I be able to say similar statements with ease?”

And here’s a pithy saw, for those who persevered all the way to the end: Think before you squeak, or your squeak will bite back at you.

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#7: Views On a Campus Gun-Poking at CSA – Alleged Threatening of a Student Who Was Bullied

Shouldn’t “Under the Gun” Be Left as a Poker Term?

All of the school shootings that I knew from the news when I was growing up were all perpetrated by students, such as the Columbine school shooting and the Virginia Tech shooting. But it is the first time that I’ve heard of a near-shooting experience taking place inside a school – with the gun being held by an adult and the target being a high school student. You can read an account of the events from this link:CSA teen on bully’s gun-toting Dad: ‘I really thought he’d shoot my brains out

Let us now ask the questions that demand asking. How come that this school is terribly ineffective in sorting out bullying in that case? How come the school isn’t imposing zero-tolerance against bullies? There are creative ways to resolve bullying, such as giving the bullies something to be responsible about, involving them in situations that allow them to accentuate their positive attributes instead of negative ones, and so on.

In threatening or stressful situations, anyone should be encouraged to step in. Are the teachers even looking at their classrooms carefully to find out what’s going on with their students? Are the classmates observant enough; do they even have consciences? Any perceptive teacher would have approached Jaime and told him to bare it all; there should also have been some students who are strong enough to stand up and alert others of what’s happening.

If the school can’t even quell bullying, then we can’t really expect it to quell oppression in the parts of grown-ups, who have more physical strength – and worse, more ammunition. Because the school personnel saw crimes taking place, child abuse and a murder threat, they should have restrained the bully’s father and pinned him to the ground and then the police called. At least this is what should happen in a parallel universe where educators are more rational and more decisive in their dealings. The “banning from the premises” is not enough; the father and the bullied can still lock sights outside of school. It was inadequate, according to many news sources (such as the original article).

Parallel Universes

But let’s continue. In a parallel universe, Jaime (David) would have given Allan Bantiles (Goliath) what he deserved. He would have fought Allan; he would have given him the ballpen jujitsu that overturned his bullies and made the school safer for students. He would have punched Allan in the face with the force of a sledgehammer blasting a hollow block and bystanders would have followed suit in their defense of the little guy.

In an instant a revolution would have sparked; everyone would be tossing and turning the Bantiles’ car and declaring that the parents of bullies should better be forewarned – or else. The bullies, meanwhile, would cower in fear and get themselves out of the school with all the desperate speed of their hooves carrying them to the closest exit.

In fact, the revolution’s in place now. According to the report: “Ironically, the Facebook page has become an avenue for users to vent out their anger at Bantiles (even post his home address online) and in a way, cyberbully the father accused of gun-toting.” Here is the Facebook page: Allan Canete Bantiles: The Gun-Toting Man at Colegio San Agustin

In another parallel universe, however, the gun would have been fired – the worst that could happen.

Now what alternate universe would you want to emerge?

We’re always wishing that we’re in parallel universes which show the scenarios we want, right? But that’s not always possible. There will always be bullies and bullied – such is the truth as it stands right now in any school, unless this incident can change the whole landscape of students’ relations with each other and make all bullies hide in caves unless they reform.

The picture isn’t complete yet, though. We still have to hear from the bullies. As of now, we know that Bantiles’s son said that Jaime and him are actually best friends, but I suspect it is all PR to ensure that the masses wouldn’t think so badly of him as they are right now.

Jaime thought that Allan Bantiles was a “reasonable guy”. Perhaps he also thought the same of the bullies; that they will change their ways in due time. Perhaps that’s why he hung on for so long; after all, some bullied people even make friends with their bullies. It’s just human nature to retaliate when hurt so much every day.

Read what Jaime told News 5: “Kids everyday get terrorized, they get bullied. But there are adults who know better, who should tell kids that bullying is wrong.” Such a mature response. He believes that there is redemption for him as well as for the bullies.

This gives hope to many students, bullies and bullied altogether. The bullies will be given room to improve and become reasonable; the bullied will then be safer. I’m honestly troubled by the popular view that children fight naturally, along with the conclusion that there’s nothing we can really do to stop bullying. Children do fight, but only because they don’t know that better ways exist for them to get what they want (such as negotiating or deciding based on principles) or they don’t know yet the consequences that can detract from all the pleasure they may get from fighting.

Bullying “just being plain fun” is sheer nonsense. It isn’t no big deal as the bully claims. It’s absolutely no fun to be bullied (unless you stand up for yourself and become a hero, or unless, like the Columbine shooters, you end the no-fun situation by imploding and showering the campus with cold vengeance), or to be a bully (because you run the risk of vengeance, or it’s a sign that you have some family members whom a hardcore psychoanalyst can blame for your misfortune).

Power Structures

Here is another explanation why Allan Bantiles was so hot in pulling out a gun. Read on this link.

If we take everything mentioned here to be true, we have an additional dimension to the puzzle. A kaya pala, mayaman at may koneksyon. Ergo, he can do anything he wants with impunity. Is this the lesson we want our students to learn inside the schools?

We now know that in the Philippines, (1) anyone can beat up an MMDA enforcer with relative ease and MMDA enforcers can ask for bribes which are really “socially tolerated”, (2) schoolteachers can force students to eat paper, (3) protesters from a well-known religion can demand that anything that runs counter to their beliefs be forcibly censored by law, even if a simple injunction of not watching the movie is enough for them to soothe their egos and even if freedom of expression plus religious tolerance are in paper, and (4) undeserving clauses of well-meaning laws can sneak in and get unnoticed by government personnel whom I suspect of being non-readers.

Do we want our students to bear the costs of a society with all these in the foreground, among many other oddities and foibles?

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#6: Paper Eaters in a Math Classroom (o Mga Kumakain ng Papel sa Klase ng Math)

If you once were in a classroom, can you give me the uses of paper? You can choose from any number of the following:

A. For writing notes and answers
B. For making paper airplanes.
C. For making paper balls to throw to other students.
D. For food.

If you answered A, B, or C, then you have answered just the conventional uses of paper in classrooms. With that said, here is a report that suggests that the answer can be D. Here it is, from the ABS-CBN website:

Teacher forces students to eat paper

ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA, Philippines – A high school teacher from Mandaue City is in hot water for allegedly forcing her students to eat paper as punishment for being noisy.

The female math teacher has filed her leave of absence while the Department of Education and the Commission on Human Rights are investigating the incident.

The case stemmed from the complaint of parents of 30 graduating students from the Paknaan National High School in Mandaue City who alleged that the teacher ordered their children to get a piece of paper and then eat it.

The incident happened last September 5, but the case only came to the attention of the school principal five days later when the parents complained.

The students said to have experienced diarrhea after the incident.

Meanwhile, the teacher allegedly wrote a statement admitting the case, and has apologized to the parents and students.

Here are some additional details from an article on the same event, from the Philstar site:

Gayon pa man isa sa mga estudyanteng babae na nakapanayam sa TV, sinabi nito na inutusan sila ng guro na lunukin ang papel sa loob ng 10 minuto subalit hindi niya sinunodkaya tinangka siyang batuhin ng mono-bloc chair.

Napag-alamang pinagawa ng seatwork ang mga estudyante subalit nang duma­ting ang kanilang guro mula sa kabilang silid-aralan ay nadatnang nagkukuwentuhan lamang kaya nagalit ang guro at pinakain sila ng papel.

(Trans. One of the women students whom we talked with on TV said that her teacher told the class to swallow the paper for 10 minutes but she didn’t follow so the teacher attempted to throw a mono-bloc chair towards her.

It was known that the students were made to do some seatwork, but when the teacher returned, they were seen to be just chatting with each other, so the teacher got mad and told them to eat paper.)


Checklist

The teacher had many alternatives. She could have discussed the situation with her students further. Why were they making noise? If the students were making noise senselessly, as is the case here, then a reprimand could have been enough. She could have probed, too, and then set some rules to be followed in the future. Well, my view is, and has always been, this: if students weren’t listening then they’re bored, that’s all, and the ball is back to the teacher to make the students interested in something more than the fleeting fancies they may be talking about at the meantime.

Did the students lack mastery of the topic, which caused them to forsake their work in exchange for something that they are experts at doing – noisemaking? Then the teacher could have taught the topic again if time permits, or if not, then she could have thought more deeply of the root of their knowledge shortage – perhaps a faulty basics foundation, or perhaps the topic’s inherent difficulty. Either way, she could be on her way to find out how to make her teaching better. Students will also commend her for persistence, which may pay off more than talent alone, and that also communicates a good message to the students in the process.

Why were the students copying each other’s answers? Perhaps they lack mastery of the topic, and solutions to that are discussed above. Or because it was customary for them to copy. Then the teacher could have asserted that she saw the students “cheating”, but then brought up a discussion that can make them think about their morals. “Is it of any use to me to cheat?” “What if I do small wicked things like this in the backs of the others – would I do big devilish things in the backs of others later on? If so, what things could that be?”

Such questions like these stimulate the mind, and although they may lead to the slight tweaking of a lesson plan, they are worth asking. Maybe they will be remembered more than most high school Math content will ever be. A Math teacher who has grounding not only in numerical values but also in moral values can lead students to find out the long-term consequences of their actions – quantitatively, if possible, as is done today in decision theory and game theory. She may transform the overall orientation of students toward work and life, and she will be remembered for it. Moreover, she can finally resolve one long-standing problem of Math teachers – how to make Math relevant in daily life.

It can also be that the exams are themselves senseless, more of busy work that ought to be shirked off rather than work that deserves closer attention and sustained thought. This is more difficult, because teachers can get so attached to what they do such that by doing it all the time, they think that what they do is inherently good. Everything a teacher does, however, should pass this test: are the students learning from it?

Even if the work done at that time is not busywork, the teacher can scathingly reflect on how she conducted her classes and exams. She should have explored her teaching methods, her testing methods, and her personality. She should begin asking feedback from the students on what they learn – or whether they really learn. (Ask them; don’t just rely on papers, which are always greased to look more impressive than what they really are, so that they look pleasing.) She should be prepared to get hurt by some of the comments, as Math is always a subject anathema to most Filipino youth, if the popular talk and press are to be believed. Criticisms always pave the way to better teaching, which is always an activity in which the one doing it is always a learner too.

Mathematics is a subject that inspires plenty of reflection, even in matters non-mathematical, and for a Math teacher, these reflections should have came easy. In a jiffy (split second), I would say, for anyone with enough practice.

Instead, she resorted to a short-sighted solution that cost her reputation and possibly her career. Article 8, Section 8 of the Code of Ethics for Professional Teachers states:

Section 8. A teacher shall not inflict corporal punishment on offending learners nor make deductions from their scholastic ratings as a punishment for acts which are clearly not manifestation of poor scholarship.

Teenage Obedience and Adult Authority

What is troubling is that most of the students chose to follow the ludicrous order. If Math is a subject that demands immaculate logic that stretches and strengthens the mental capacity of students, how come they succumbed to following something they know to be absurd at best and harmful at worst (or even fatal because of the possibility for choking)? How come most of them chose to be automatically obedient in the midst of a subject that requires them to think hard?

Stanley Milgram, an American social scientist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, set out to discover the forces underlying blind obedience. His purpose was to illuminate us on why, in the Nazi regime of Hitler, many supposedly normal people set out doing atrocities, such as herding Jews in concentration camps and gassing them. Here is the scenario for his experiment:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.

What are the findings? (They were further developed in his book Obedience to Authority.)

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Although the students did not hurt others by obeying the teacher’s command to eat paper, they knew very well that they would hurt themselves, and I assume that self-interest in this case can prevent them from hastily doing something they knew to be bad for their health. At least one student has protested against it. But why didn’t all of the students adamantly refuse – or throw the teacher out of the room for such a nonsensical order? They could have saved themselves from the ordeal of eating something unsavory.

Even educated people had their guards down in Milgram’s experiment. Even common people, who have no natural spite flowing in their blood against someone else, administered the electric shocks to the maximum voltage. What chance, then, could mere adolescents have against overbearing authority in the persona of a teacher? Some degree of obedience is necessary in the smooth functioning of a society or institution, but look at the effects when it is left unchecked:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

Some decades ago this process was the Holocaust. Today it perpetuates of a system that causes us to eschew critical thinking (thus leaving us with a shortage of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and thoughtful human beings) and to be blind to the repercussions of actions mandated from above. If we are too willing to follow an incorrect heat-of-the-moment order from someone regarded as trustworthy, what more when we begin facing the more turbulent whims of incompetent authority?

With the students acquiescing to an authority they knew to be wrong, only to regret it later with sick stomachs, what chance have they in preserving their own integrity when dealing with the outside world, geared mostly in Filipino society to induce conformity, when they grow up?

The situation described in the news articles could have been remedied by simple reflection, and for teachers, the checklist above can help.

While we complain to no end about people who should have followed but haven’t, let us not forget that far worse things can stem from those who shouldn’t have followed but have. What better lesson can we teach our students than this?

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#5: Thoughts on the Libel Clause of RA 10175 or the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″, Warrantless Access, Elder Statesman Vicente Sotto, and Areopagitica

Here is what will happen to you if you happen to commit “libel” under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, also RA 10175. Read the opening salvo of this article:

MANILA, Philippines – A person found guilty of libelous comments on the Internet could spend up to 12 years in prison with no possibility of parole, a lawyer warned Wednesday.

Libel committed on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online content was made a more serious crime compared to printed libel because of to the newly approved anti-cybercrimes law or Republic Act 10175, according to Atty. Harry Roque, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Philippines.

“Three times longer imprisonment. Facebook and Twitter may lead to 12 years in jail,” he  said.  “Imprisonment for e-libel: 6 years and 1 day up to 12 years.”

“Conviction for e-libel now comes with a definite prison term. Increased prison term provided by new law makes convicts ineligible for parole,” he explained.

All of these are problematic, especially when compared with the penalties for ordinary libel. From the same article above:

In comparison, he said the penalty for printed libel set by Revised Penal Code is only 6 months and one day to 4 years and 2 months.

What justification do we have for the difference in magnitude? Maybe because it is so distressing – that information in the Net can spread far and wide, unlike information from printed sources? Is it because some posts can go “viral” in the Internet at a rate that most large publications today, with all their presses, can’t equal?

The increased penalties are extremely absurd. Any government official, indeed, ought not to touch any bill, or even let inside the government office, when inclined to act irrationally, or when one’s amor propio is pricked. The people handling the bill blasted things out of proportion. Now look online to see the wave of dissent roaring in.

What is startling is that the libel clause may be used not only to suppress legitimate Internet libel. The law may be used to scare dissenters who use online information-spreading mechanisms freely, like blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts, when they can’t find any printing press to do the dirty work for them. (Is it because the presses are sometimes infiltrated by vested interests? Perhaps, as any newspaper reader with a ken of critical reading and reasoning skills will say. Or it may be that the presses themselves are in dire monetary straits and have to make some profits, and they wouldn’t publish anything risky.)

One problem of the cybercrime law, when coupled with the propensity of the Filipino to take criticisms of action as criticisms of person, is that anyone who wants to post a legitimate grievance against an erring official may be scared to fear by the possibility of libel. After all, if you have complaints against someone, isn’t it that you should name that person for the public’s good? This is nasty, especially that elections are nearing; many candidates will be spared from criticism that they rightfully deserve (the destructive variety) or that will help them govern more properly (the constructive variety).

We lead the world in social networking; as we know, the Internet is the most non-partisan of all venues. It admits all beings with a computer and a Net connection regardless of creeds or political persuasions. While many Filipinos waste time on the Internet, the sheer volume of users ensures that there will always be intelligent users who use social networking to increase political enlightenment in the nation. Also, while I think that Filipinos don’t typically read blogs, those who do are bound together by a sense of community, for they frequently exchange views, sometimes even daily, until the usernames are just as familiar to us as nicknames are.

With the libel clause, these activities will be curbed out, mainly because of fear. A government that resorts to fear, however implied, is a government deprived of reason. Perhaps they are just uninformed – after all, not many people in our governmental offices are aware of IT. However, if that’s the case, then they ought to acknowledge that they can learn from the digitally-aware folks who have explored many dimensions of the issue and are willing to present their findings. They are still people, they speak like people in the Internet, and they still have human needs (some of which are satisfied by the Net). If this country is truly a democratic country, shouldn’t we admit that the digital folk can also help in governance?

There are also many technicalities that can make the application of the libel clause much more quirky, and many of them are examined at length by Raissa Robles in her article “Who inserted that libel clause in the Cybercrime Law at the last minute?” which has now netted 472 comments as of time of writing this blog post. All of them are quoted at length. Better read her full article because it also shows the origins of the so-called “insertion”.

1. Online, who are you going to sue for libel if for instance the one who posted the libelous material is unknown or under a false name?

2. On the Web, can someone suing for libel obtain a court order to compel an ISP (Internet Service Provider) or Facebook or Twitter to divulge the identity of the one who posted the alleged libel?

3. As a blogger, I believe in giving a wide democratic space to commenters, including those who criticize me. Can I now be sued for any comment that appears on my site? Besides, libel is in the eyes of the offended.

4. The Internet has a global reach. Can someone living in Metro Manila file a case of internet libel in Zamboanga City on the pretext that the complainant was surfing in an Internet Cafe in Zambo when he saw the offending piece?

5. If someone pretends to be me online and issues allegedly libelous material; or if someone hacks into my computer, obtains files and posts them online, can I be sued for libel? How do I defend myself on this?

6. What kind of evidence would the court accept on internet libel cases? Would screencaps suffice? How will the court determine if an of.fensive image has been manipulated? Or an offending piece was really posted by the person being sued?

7. Under Philippine libel law, truth is not a defense.

Here are some more, from a pre-Martial Law anniversary Inquirer editorial. Don’t think of this as nitpicking. Think of this as a tedious but necessary activity that ought to be done before we consider giving up even a sliver of our liberties.

When a newspaper reader e-mails a possibly libelous article to a friend, is that reader now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When an online viewer tweets a link of a possibly libelous video to a friend, is that first viewer now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When a friend “likes” or shares or comments on a possibly libelous post on Facebook, is that friend now liable for libel, too? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer is yes.

When the subject of a possibly libelous article written by a city-based reporter reads it in online form in a remote area, can the subject file a case against the reporter in that place? The unthinking extension suggests that the answer, again, is yes.

You can add a few of your own, if you so desire.  Lawyers who pride themselves on technical precision shouldn’t be at all pleased with a law that has been shown to contain lots of holes.

Well, shouldn’t all of these views be taken into account upon the upbringing of the law, especially when basic liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, and by humanity itself, are at stake? Especially when there are people to whom these liberties are so dear?

The crowd that formed and is still continuing to grow around opposition to the libel clause resulted to what James Surowiecki referred to as “the wisdom of crowds” (such is the title of his book too); he noted that “a group of people—unlike a colony of ants—is far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group are independent of each other.” Look at the different views expressed by the bloggers – they diverge, with some covering technicalities, the others covering legal implications, still others covering human rights, with one even asserting that online libel isn’t an innovation it’s thought to be, but the union of the differences results to a juggernaut.

What about the legislature? They could have been swayed by common biases that pervade the Filipino elite. They could have been simultaneously taken off their mental guards. Either way, or any other way, because they wouldn’t have been independent of each other, Surowiecki insists that they are more likely to make mistakes because none around would have corrected them. If they have taken democracy seriously, perhaps they could have harnessed the power of the Net to see what others, who spend lots of time around blogs (or forums) and thus know their dynamics very well, have in mind. They could have asked around too!

Shouldn’t Takedowns be Left in MMA?

Read this provision from RA 10175 and see how you would react:

SEC. 19. Restricting or Blocking Access to Computer Data. — When a computer data is prima facie found to be in violation of the provisions of this Act, the DOJ shall issue an order to restrict or block access to such computer data.

Here is one lawyer’s opinion about the act, as stated in the article “‘Takedown clause’ in cybercrime law ‘very dangerous,’ lawyers say”:

“[Section 19] is very dangerous,” stressed Atty. JJ Disini, professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law, in a phone interview. “It gives the DOJ the power to order the shutdown of websites at first appearance, sa unang tingin pa lang. Wala pang malinaw na violation, may order to restrict access na.”

All of this does not require that a warrant be given out.

So what happens? Even if there is no obvious violation of the law, the DOJ now has nearly unlimited power to make a website invisible to the public. While this can be applied to block sites that contain pornography, malware, and other such malfeasances, it can also be applied to shut down political opinion in opposition to whatever is deemed “official” at the moment. Because the DOJ’s power is almost unbounded, the people have practically no defense against this. They wouldn’t know when lightning will strike. Even the innocent ones won’t:

Reacting to the recently passed Cybercrime Prevention Act in the Senate, digital forensics practitioner Drexx Laggui told InterAksyon.com in an interview that prima facie evidence varies widely when applied in the physical and digital worlds.

“Prima facie evidence is great for physical evidence, because it’s something tangible. Hindi mo puwedeng ilipat-lipat ‘yan (You can’t easily interchange those),” Laggui told Interaksyon.com.

For example, Laggui said, a stolen wallet found in the possession of an individual could be considered as prima facie evidence for theft “because [that person] deprives [the owner] of the value of the money inside the wallet.”

“The problem with the electronic world is that, when you steal something, for example the personal information of an individual, you merely copy it,” Laggui stressed in Filipino.

“I still have my info, but somebody else has my identity also. So, prima facie evidence is much more nebulous in the cyber world,” he added.

Let’s not get used to this state of affairs. Let’s think this over many, many times. We can’t just let this last long and then allow mere exposure to drain the courage and the sense out of us. The Net would be a less pleasurable place to stay in if we knew that someone with searchlights has the power to mow down all that we have brought up painstakingly – websites, blogs, forums, Facebook statuses, Twitter posts, and all.

The Sotto of Liberty

The Internet is one of the last frontiers of freedom in our country. It is one of the last places in the earth where we can say what we really want, within certain constraints as dictated by an organic, not an imposed, decency. We are also used to the fact that interaction in the Internet is often passionate, and while that can result to flame wars, that guarantees that ideas will be examined, sometimes without mercy, and we will come out of discussions as more improved people than before. Purifying fire, as I would like to say. After all, wouldn’t we rather watch officials debating wildly but with sense about which laws should pass and which should not, leading to an overall improvement of the laws, rather than resting on their privileged nests and oiling the system according to their whims?

Let me reiterate something. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has already declared that the old Philippine libel laws are intensely draconian; with the enhanced penalties (which can be threefold the old penalties), the law just evolved from draconian to demented. Given that the Philippines was a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or ICCPR, how come that the topmost officials in government, those who are supposed to have relevant information they need in their work and transcendent standards of rationality that Plato demanded – how come they overlooked that one significant fact? Not even one of them showed valiant opposition to the herd.

A look back at Philippine history reveals that there exist luminaries who have defended freedoms of the press from whom we can draw inspiration today. This is a section of the 1946 Sotto Press Freedom Law, named after its writer, former Senator Vicente Sotto. (Note the irony stemming from the name.) Here is the excerpt:

2. The freedom of the press includes the right to comment on pending judicial cases and the right to criticize the public and private life of all public officers, without any exception.

Look at the outright bravery of the last statement. As long as you are public officer (Vicente Sotto himself included) you, as a private citizen, are entitled to say your views about them, even about their private lives, without exception. Scrutiny of officials, instead of scrutiny of the informed masses, should be the norm, not the blatant exception.

What do you think would be his reaction if he saw what was happening to his grandson who now holds senatorial power? The elder Sotto would have been pleased that his words have yielded fruit, although in a digital context which would not have emerged in the wildest of his fancies about the way government is ran. He would say, “It’s just the people doing their thing, practicing their powers as part of the government. If they don’t want you to do what they think is plagiarism or outright lack of originality, then better learn from them. Now get back to work and stop whining that you’ve been ‘cyber-bullied’ – they may (or may not) have elected you, so listen to them.”

The Sotto now in Senate insists that the law will make bloggers, commenters and the like “accountable for their actions”. The elder Sotto, I surmise, wouldn’t have required that – I can imply that in Sotto’s thinking, for people to rightly “criticize the public and private life of all public officers, without any exception”, they need practice to do so, and only in a free space would that be possible. What has happened to that free space now?

Just a few lines later in the elder statesman Sotto’s bill, we read the following stunning prose rare in government discourse today:

5. Courts of justice annealed to face and ever ready to deal vigorously with attempts to turn them into puppets of domineering would-be dictators are essential in maintaining the reign of law and guaranteeing the existence of an orderly society.

If you read the whole text of his act, Sotto was referring to the Supreme Court of that time. However, an analogy can be applied to our executive and legislative branches. How come our executive was unaware about the tendency of the law to unduly shift power from the common people onto a practically unbridled elite? How come the legislature has not reflected thoroughly about the mammoth tendencies of the law, as pointed out by many of our dear bloggers, journalists, lawyers, and laypeople analysts, to mutate into a monstrosity that can black the lights out of the thriving online community in the Philippines, and possibly throw some people into jail undeservedly.

Oh, the madness of crowds, especially with hobnobbing members.

And let me add: those who have barely any historical consciousness won’t only repeat their past mistakes, according to Santayana; they will also commit ones they somehow didn’t make before.

Coda

The awareness that words have power, no matter in what medium they are expressed, have led to countless oppressions on the part of those whom the words didn’t favor. With that knowledge, let us wield words with much greater vigor than ever. Let us show how words are used so that they can change the way we view the world, and let us condemn those who get in our way.

Let’s go back farther in time to John Milton’s Areopagitica, a free-speech tract which merits close reading nowadays, and read these immortal lines:

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

The Net can’t be killed, though. As of this time. But don’t wait for it to run out of air.

Because of the fear that the libel clause induces, its mere existence in RA 10175 has killed the joy out of many Internet users all over this country, to which I still give my earnest hopes to become more enlightened when it comes to the boons of the Internet. It can also kill most of reason, passion, adventure, curiosity, initiative, and everything else that humanity holds dear if left in the hands of those whose motives are suspect since government was first formed.

To date the clause has not killed any blog or website, because it is still new, unless something fishy’s already going on. So while it’s still holding a stick instead of a sword, let’s bash it into bits before it breaks us.

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#4: Emergency Post: Philippine-Style Libel in the Internet, Sotto, and the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″

I wrote on my last post that I should write something else other than blogging. Well, this isn’t really about blogging; it’s about the superset of experience in which blogging is situated. It’s about the Internet, it’s about speech, and it’s about power. Any one of the three can be contexts in which the Section 4 of the Republic Act No. 10175, the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″, applies. This is the text of Section 4:

(4) Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

This is a troublesome, if not shaky, provision. It makes the common citizen nearly powerless in the eyes of the law. Anyone who by the power of the Net can now publish something truthful though damaging without needing mammoth publications to do it for them suddenly has that power swiped off by the inclusion of that clause. When even big presses – those to which “freedom of the press is limited” according to an A.J. Liebling quip – aren’t immune to libel suits from the powerful people running the governmental reins, what more of the ordinary people who just want to air legitimate complaints through the most accessible channel for them to do so – the Internet.

Many Filipinos right now are skilled in using the Internet, thanks to increasing awareness of technology and also to the bustle of Internet cafes around them. For redress, someone need not go to someone else much more powerful, who may not have any incentive to listen if they are themselves erring. Power tends to be corrupting, and if our culture has power as the primary measure of person or the validity of a point, then may God the omnipotent help us. But then, a blog post or a change in Facebook status is all we need.

Sotto & Plagiarism

Senator Tito Sotto was the one hot at putting that libel provision in RA 10175. The supposed intent of the law, according to him, is to make the participants in the entire space of Internet discourse responsible for their words. “Once the cybercrime bill is enacted into law, they will be accountable for what they say or write,” he was quoted in saying. This, after the debacle that took place between him and the Internet citizens who have the keenness and the nerve to write down what they really saw.

What Sotto sees as “cyber-bullying” is nothing more than the consolidated power of sensible bloggers who have their sound views about plagiarism and the medium to make known their views – blogging. As for the intemperate remarks, most of them are only hurtful opinions that happen to be in opposition with what Sotto believes. If you are a believer of the flat-earth theory and someone with a spherical-Earth theory barges into the discussion, then unless you have a thick well-oiled armor, which is unlikely if you are a Filipino who sees criticism of work as the criticism of a person according to Tomas D. Andres, you are very likely to cry that you got scourged and hurt.

In passing, if someone says that Sotto is a dork, or some of his staff are dorks, so be it; plagiarizers are dorks in the academic community, where nearly everything is theoretical or speculative or “irrelevant”, so plagiarizers are bigger dorks when outside the academe, especially in places where the policies of a nation are shaped. (Yea, children from schools who have copy-pasted assignments and aren’t taught that aspect of advanced literacy by your parents and teachers, you are not spared from this indictment.)

Who Wins?

Of course, blogging is not the only medium open to anyone with the Net and a point. There’s also Facebook – and blogging and Facebook go hand in hand because it is possible to promote blogs and get readers from Facebook. Twitter posting is, I believe, still to be perfected, but we have seen public outcries caused by single Twitter posts, so we can see how far one such post can go.

If Facebook is one of the pivotal tools that can bring a brewing revolution to its boil, then anyone who holds power – from pesky government officials to cruel CEOs to teachers who know nothing about their subject matter to aberrant traffic enforcers who deserve to be pummeled in the middle of the road – has a cause for alarm. They’d better have legitimate power, or else the wisdom of crowds, as so-called, will strip them of it.

No one from the Senate may have seen the ferocious potential of RA 10175 to evolve into an instrument of suppressing legitimate speech. According to this site: “In libel cases, the question is not what the writer of an alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean.” Now that blog posts are covered by the umbrella of libel, how can bloggers defend themselves from someone who deliberately misinterprets their words and then slaps them with libel suits?

It’s strange – and it’s worrisome – that there is no provision for truth in Philippine libel: the statement “Truth cannot be libel” isn’t applicable, anywhere, anytime, in any island of this country since it was founded. Malice is enough, so if I tell you something that is true and happens to ridicule you in the manner of Swift or Juvenal, then your well-paid lawyer can come knocking to my doorstep with a libel case in a briefcase. (But hang on; I predict that such an action toward a netizen will trigger a conflagration, leading to a wildfire, in the field of Philippine politics, and the ignorant people holding power will have their incompetence duly exposed.)

I suspect that “selected” public officials are the beneficiaries of the libel clause – a provision that can entitle them to pursue their dastardly acts without impunity. Those acts won’t get punished justly, I tell you, if the brand of Filipino culture as we know it continues, and they won’t be likely to get punished in the future. Don’t count on it for 200 years. But at least such information has to be known by the populace who deserve more than campaign jingles and nauseous slogans that are all hot air. If even established journalists cower in fear of the libel suits and the litigation bankroll that wicked public officials have, what now of the common citizen who just wants to share information?

What about opinions? “Libel”, in this case, can become inflated into anything that the lawmakers want it to be. They reflect what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “”When I use a word….it means just what I choose it to mean.” This has been the formula for many election campaigns nationwide. “Progress” is “what will take place when you vote for me”, despite the resigned protest that barely anything nice is happening right now; just perpetuation of the same old broken stuff. “Pagbabago” is a change in the names of the holders of power but not of the power structure itself. “Taong bayan” is the mass of people discussed in abstract terms, thus dehumanized, but never viewed as people with impending needs at all times. And when someone disagrees, there is a danger of that being called “Libel”.

However, time will come that all the Humpty Dumpties of this country will get cracked and then all of their underlings and their relatives can’t do anything to bring them back again.

There are also technical issues involved. One of them is stated at length in this Philstar.com column: “If the person accused of libel is a foreigner blogging from another country, will RA 10175 enable Philippine authorities to take jurisdiction over the accused and impose its processes?” Raissa Robles has also discussed her concerns, all at length, in this blog. I wonder why the senators haven’t consulted the wisdom of crowds to make the law more reasonable? They can just use the Internet, if they still know how.

The Internet

None of the lawmakers’ machinations, if they intended any, will succeed. They’re not just running against bloggers; they’re running against the Internet itself, a benevolent behemoth that has no central point that can be killed. This quote from a Borges tale captures it most: “the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”. To you, the old-timers who know of the Internet but not of its vastness, you will be chasing a quarry that runs everywhere but also runs nowhere. In other words, it’s unstoppable. Even if we agree with Sotto that any netizen should learn how to be responsible in online dealings, legislation is not the most efficient way to do it. Responsibility begins from the person, not from an indeterminate “above”.

Because the Net’s open, the world knows what we’re doing with it. Have you heard that the United Nations Human Rights Council just declared that the act of criminalizing libel is excessive and contrary to the spirit of its statures? If you haven’t, look it up; you have the United Nations as your ally just in case someone plays the “libel” game with you. This is also strange; if we are a country priding ourselves in our global proletariat, then at least our fundamental decency toward the people, especially with those of lower socioeconomic status than we are, should approach international standards.

Here is a moment for pause. The most diligent commenters during the early periods of the Internet – when it was as slow as a rice cooker – were experts in finesse when it comes to invective, which may qualify as libel in the Philippines under the law (at least for anyone who as the bank account to litigate as deep as deep can). Following is a characterization of finesse in invective by Christopher Locke, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a 2000 book describing the changes that the Internet, which was still gathering steam, will have brought at the turn of the millennium. There was no social networking back then, but look at the power that it can grant.

It was not a game, however, for the meek of heart. These engagements could be fierce. Even trying to separate the contestants could bring down a hail of sharp-tongued derision. Theories were floated and defended with extreme energy and enthusiasm, if not always with logical rigor. Opinions tended to run high on any given topic. Say you’d posted about your dog. And, look, you got a response! “Jim, you are a complete idiot. Your dog is so brain-damaged it won’t even hunt…”

…the point is not to extol flame wars, as amusing as some could be. Instead, it is to suggest a particular set of values that began to emerge in what linguists might call a well-bounded speech community. On the Net, you said what you meant and had better be ready to explain your position and how you’d arrived at it. Mouthing platitudes guaranteed that you would be challenged. Nothing was accepted at face value, or taken for granted. Everything was subject to question, revision, re-implementation, parody — whether it was an algorithm, a political philosophy or, God help you, an advertisement.

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it”, Thomas Jefferson said three centuries ago. We’re all for preventing harm, as indicated in the other clauses of RA 10175. But these measures should have been passed long ago. It needed only a darn push – a push that many observers see as politically-motivated – for it to pass. Now here is a clue about the everyday operating psychology of the people running our country. Expect that now that national elections are nearing, and names, which are ultimately nothing but sound and dust, will be on the forefront again. Perhaps the same sort of thinking process applies regarding discussions of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act, which has been on the burner for so long already.

So what is our battle cry? We can say “Keep the Net open”, but we don’t have to worry about that, because it’s always open. We can just invoke plain constitutional freedom of expression. We can also invoke the need to have an informed legislature and populace embarking on lifelong learning during a time when technologies change faster than mindsets.

Or we can just let our words loose. No more preambles are needed to do that. Just dive your fingers into your keyboard and begin blogging. Or write the old-fashioned way with ink. Words have power. That’s why those in power are wary of them and willing to ration them if they can.

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#22: Twice a Week Means Twice a Week (Only)

I realize that I haven’t made a post for a week now, but I technically still haven’t broken the “two posts a week” rule. But for this post, I will confront that rule. That rule may make me write down posts, but it’s hard to be sure if these posts are of high quality.

Just like school grades. Just because you get an A or a 95 doesn’t mean that you have gotten the learning that you deserve. It may mean a host of other factors: that you have been too much of a stickler-for-rules such that you did what was asked of you without trying out other tasks; the teacher may have been lenient, that you copied a smart-aleck’s answers off every test, and so on. Just like in managerial settings as well. Just because you reach your profit targets for this month doesn’t mean much except that you have lots of money in your hands. It doesn’t say anything about the quality of work, the personalities of the workers, or how you got that money. (Your income, frankly, doesn’t say anything about your life except your income, although people around you may have arranged your life in such a way that your income is a direct cause of a whole bunch of other things that transcendentally should have nothing to do with it, such as happiness or education.)

Targets don’t say anything much about anything else, but we act as if they’re about lots of things.

That’s why I’m close to disregarding the two-posts-a-week rule. You may have public commitment for you to mind your blog, which isn’t really necessary if you’re not pandering to a specific audience and if you’re only sharpening the way you write, blowing off steams of knowledge or experience, or just exploring writing. You may treat it as a reminder that most of writing is tiring, so you better get used to it by exercising. But if you treat writing this way, then all you get is exhaustion every time you write, not satisfactory passages.

Two posts a week, honestly, doesn’t mean much beyond the fact that you can write two posts a week. Post quality is another matter altogether. Or consider this analogy – just because a TV show promises to show itself up every Monday and Saturday doesn’t mean that the show is fine to watch as well.

But at least let me tell you what I do when I’m not writing. I’m thinking. I’m absorbing data from the environment and from reading, synthesizing them into bountiful packages, and releasing them into words. They may not be on this blog, but at least the words exist. That won’t hurt – what use is it to write about what you only dimly know? Know something first before writing. And when you know enough, write, even if it be once a day or twice every year.

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#22: Sports from Household Items

This week’s latest post, like one of my recent posts, is a Creativity assignment for Venture Lab’s A Crash Course in Creativity class. May you enjoy reading and may you get stimulated enough to think of household sports of your own, short of throwing plates to each other.

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