Sunday, March 31, 2013

What I Didn't Do on Good Friday

I had thought about going to see a crucifixion on Good Friday -- it's something the Philippines is noted for, and I'm here in part to experience the culture, right?

Devotees in villages in the northern Philippines took part in a bloody annual ritual to mark Good Friday, a celebration that mixes Roman Catholic devotion and Filipino folk beliefs and sees some reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The crucified devotees spent several minutes nailed to crosses in Pampanga province while thousands of tourists watched and took photos of the spectacle, which the church discourages. Earlier in the day, hooded male penitents trudged through the province's villages under the blazing sun while flagellating their bleeding backs with makeshift whips. Others carried wooden crosses to dramatize Christ's sacrifice.

Not just in the north -- it's done a good bit here in Cebu as well.Here is a video of a guy who does it here every year (this one is from a few years ago).

As I was watching the video Thursday night, I realized that it just wasn't for me. The whole thing seems a bit ... weird. Yeah, I know what you're asking ... since when did Bob back off from weirdness? But this isn't my kind of weird, I guess.

Anyway, I went to the Basilica de Santo Nino instead and lit a few candles for family and friends -- I hope you felt the goodness flowing your way.

Walking there took me through the ever-weird Colon district. It was different to see it (relatively) deserted. Usually the sidewalks are literally overflowing into the streets. Friday it seemed like just an ordinary busy neighborhood.

Fewer hookers than usual, even. I was wondering if some took the day off for religious reasons, or because there were fewer potential customers.

I'm Easily Amused

To get this, you need to know that in the UK they use the word 'biscuit' to describe what Americans call a cookie. With that prolog out of the way, I will let you know that a popular brand, Penguin Biscuits, has this notice at the top of their webpage:
"United Biscuits (UK) Limited uses cookies on this website..."

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Too Darned Hot!

A favorite dance number by Ann Miller from Kiss Me, Kate.

This came to mind because the always oppressive weather conditions here are getting worse. This chart shows the monthly average for highs and lows here in Cebu City:


You wouldn't think a few degrees would make a difference -- the daily highs are only up about five degrees or so from January -- but with the high humidity, it really does matter. And there's another several degrees to look forward to, according to this chart, before it begins to moderate again.

I arrived in the Philippines on June 1 last year and here in Cebu at mid-month, so this is new to me. Which leads me to want to sing along with Ann Miller.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Maundy Thursday

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the slightest bit about the Philippines and Filipinos that this is a very religious country, with the vast majority (82.9%, according to the CIA Factbook) being Roman Catholic. (Only 0.1% have no religion).

Therefore it will not surprise anyone that Holy Week is taken rather more seriously here than it is in the US.

To the extent that Holy Week is celebrated in the US, only Easter Sunday is really observed, with some attention to Good Friday. Many people go to church on Easter Sunday who don't go otherwise, and a great many families have special dinners. Otherwise it's all about the Easter Bunny. Some, not many, go to special services on Good Friday. Even for the religiously inclined, that's about it.

Few businesses close at all -- those that close on Easter Sunday are those that close all Sundays. The limit of Good Friday observance is that many businesses (most that I worked at) will allow those few employees who request it to take Good Friday off without any penalty (other than using up a vacation or sick day).

It's rather different here, and not just in the fact that Holy Week is widely observed -- one would expect that a deeply religious society would be more public in its observance than a mostly secular one -- but also that the emphasis in terms of which days matter is different.

I got my first clue when I saw a sign on a mall store saying, "We will be closed on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday." Friday didn't surprise me much, but Thursday

Then I found out that that was not at all uncommon here. The laundry where I take my clothes is closed on Thursday and Friday, but open Saturday and Sunday. My gym, which is normally closed Sunday, is closed all four days (I'm assuming the guy who runs it is taking advantage of an opportunity for a four day holiday, beside seeing no point in closing two days, opening one, then closing again). Almost all businesses that are normally open Sundays will be open Easter Sunday, but most are closed Thursday and Friday.

An exception that perhaps makes my point: the most popular expat place in my neighborhood (Marshall's Irish Pub), which is owned and run by an American, has a sign out front saying, "We will be open every day during Holy Week."

I still haven't figured out why Maundy Thursday is considered a big enough deal to justify closing, when Easter Sunday isn't.

Nor have a figured out why Filipinos call it Maundy Thursday. In my experience, it is almost always Holy Thursday, and the occasional uses of Maundy are from Protestants. Just another couple Philippine mysteries, I guess.

Bonus oddity: The day after Good Friday is 'Black Saturday' here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Addendum to the Infrastructure Post

I meant to include this picture in the post about Philippine infrastructure.

I took it a few days ago at the Banco de Oro (my bank) branch at Fuente Osmena, a very busy location. As you can see, people are lined up to use the ATM. You can see the reason they are lined up if you look closely -- two of the four ATMs are non-operational. This is not at all unusual.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Philippine Infrastructure Is Really, Really Bad

If you want to save some time, you can skip the rest of this post, because the headline says it all. The rest is just examples.

Pretty much every bit of infrastructure that Americans take for granted – roads, sidewalks, internet, electricity, telephones, etc – is in the Philippines either inadequate, shoddily made, poorly maintained, or all of the above. Herewith a few examples.

No electrical or telephone wires are buried – all are strung from pole to pole as they were in the US when I was a kid. At the left is what it looks like on the major street running near my home.

You’ll also enjoy seeing how these wires are worked on. Below, these guys are adding a new strand to the ridiculous mess that already exists.

As you can imagine, having all these wires above ground contributes to the frequency of power outages. Given that we are in a typhoon-prone location, the consequences of a typhoon (or any good-sized storm) are magnified by the power outages that result, and recovery from a storm will take longer because there will be no power for a considerable length of time.

Even aside from lines going down, power supplies in many areas are inadequate (when I was in Zamboanga a couple weeks ago, the power went out six to eight times a day and the city had turned off almost all street lights to conserve power) and very expensive (my electricity bill this month was 4070 pesos -- $100 -- for a small one-bedroom apartment (about 550-600 square feet).

Internet is unreliable and very, very slow when it is working. I recommend to people who need internet (e.g., for work) that they have two providers in order to have a back-up. I have a wired DSL that occasionally gets me as much as 2mbps (for comparative purposes, my cable service in Chicago was 12-15mbps), but is usually under 1mbps. It goes out at least once a week (never any explanation), sometimes all day. When it goes out I use my USB plug-in wifi. The last time I had to use this, a couple days ago, the speed was 0.3mbps.

Traffic is a monumental mess. Cebu City, the second biggest metro area in the Philippines, with a population of 2.5 million, has no freeways and no mass transit system. Ponder that for a moment. What do you think it is like to try to get around in a city of two and a half million people that has no mass transit and no freeways?

And it’s actually worse than that, because the whole island is as densely populated as most American metros, and traffic is horrible even outside the city.

Here’s some perspective. The province of Cebu (basically the island, plus a few small neighboring islands) has a population of 4.2 million in a land area of 2200 square miles. Metro Chicago has over double the population (9.7 mil), but covers a land area more than five times larger (10,856 square miles). So the entire province is more than twice as densely populated as one of America’s biggest metros.

The effect is that moving about is very difficult. As an example, last month when Kathleen and Jeff were here, we decided to go swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, a town at the south end of the island, a bit under sixty miles from Cebu City. Getting there and back took three hours each way. Sixty miles took three hours because the entire trip was through populated areas, with houses and businesses on the edges of the narrow two-lane road and all sorts of vehicles – motorized and not – sharing that road.

Manila, with a population of over twenty million, has even worse traffic. Although it does have a rudimentary mass transit system and a few miles of freeway, these are totally inadequate to deal with the enormous population.

What roads there are generally are poorly maintained. A tunnel project built in Cebu a few years ago has begun to leak, so the city had a structural engineer take a look at it. The part of the article I found most interesting was this sentence:
“Maintenance should be considered on a regular basis,” said his report to Mayor Michael Rama.
Can you imagine how bad things are, that he even needed to make such a suggestion? Shouldn't the need for maintenance be assumed? But practically nothing is maintained here. And when things inevitably break down, they aren’t fixed.

Here’s an example that has particular meaning to me, a bit of broken sidewalk that I stepped into, and damn near broke my leg, a few days after arriving here.

After this I learned that one always watches where one steps, and should never assume anything. I recently walked by that spot, and nine months later, it hasn’t been repaired. It probably never will be.

There often are no sidewalks, even on busy streets – or businesses build on what used to be sidewalk, or squatters are living there. So people frequently have to walk on the street, contributing to the traffic snarl.

Given these problems, you can understand, I’m sure, why few international companies are interested in investing here. The Philippines lags far behind other countries in the region in attracting foreign investment.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Latest Price Quote on Hostages

An Australian who had been held hostage on Basilan (just off the coast of Zamboanga) by Abu Sayyef (the local Al Quaeda franchisee) was released after a ransom of 4 million pesos was paid.
Islamic militants in the lawless southern Philippines were paid US$97,750 for the release of Warren Rodwell, a negotiator said after the Australian survived 15 months in captivity before rowing to safety.

Al Rashid Sakalahul, vice governor of the strife-torn island province of Basilan, said late Saturday he acted as the negotiator for Rodwell's freedom with a feared leader of an extremist group, known for beheading his victims.

An emaciated Rodwell, a former soldier, 54, was released at Pagadian, a port city on Mindanao island, Saturday, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of where he was kidnapped on December 5, 2011.

Police who picked up Rodwell quoted him as saying he was left in a boat by his captors in the waters between Basilan and Pagadian and told to row to safety.
It's good to find out that the going rate on old white guys is 4mil PHP. I like knowing my market value, but does anyone know if this is up or down compared to recent transactions?

Oops ...

In this article about a new TV show depicting P. G. Wodehouse during World War II, we are told that

He was interred in Silesia ...

Lucky for him they are mistaken, since he didn't die for another thirty-some years.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

ASU Loses to Baylor in NIT (If Anybody Cares)

Arizona State lost 89-86 to Baylor Friday night in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. This would have been a tough game for me to watch (if I had known about it and if it were televised here), because these are my two favorite schools.

But I doubt anyone else cares. Why do they keep playing the NIT? A question I have often had about the NIT is this: Since the NCAA tournament takes 68 teams, do the winners of the NCAA tournament dance around the arena chanting "We're #69!!"?

Good thing I don't care about basketball. Of course, not caring about basketball is a good idea for ASU fans.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

USA Beats Costa Rica 1-0 in the Snow

Sepp Blatter is the buffoon who runs FIFA (after the revolution, we have a position lined up for him selling peanuts at the stadium -- a much better fit for his talents).

One of Sepp's ideas is that MLS should have a winter season to match Europe's. I hope he was watching today's USA-Costa Rica game.

The referee considered stopping the game early in the second half -- games would have to be stopped often in a winter league.

Anyway -- the important thing -- the good guys won!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Wedding Reception

I had a great time at the wedding reception (the posts about the wedding are here and here) last Saturday night (yeah, I know I’m running way behind – what’s new?). For the benefit of American readers, I’ll focus on the things that are different from an American reception.

The things that are the same: Lots of good food (though different sorts of food, of course), speeches and toasts, intros of family, watching the bridal couple dance. Also, games with the garter and bouquet (though the games differed a bit), and cutting the wedding cake.

Different: They didn’t do the bit of the bride dancing with her father and the groom cutting in. Also very different, there was no dancing after dinner and the whole thing was over by about 10pm. That was fine with me, of course, because I‘m an old fart and I had a fairly early plane back to Cebu on Sunday, and I was dreading being there until well after midnight as at a typical American reception; but it was a bit of a surprise to me. It may fit in with my previous mention that Zambo seems to not be a late-night town.

They also had videos about the bridal couple. It’s been a few years since my last American wedding, so maybe that has become a feature there, too.

There was excellent entertainment. There was a live band that was quite good, doing a couple of long sets. I apologize for not getting a better picture of the girl singing, since she was quite nice looking, but from where I was sitting the podium was in the way.

They also brought in a dance troupe. They were really good, but I was rather surprised by the number they performed. It was “Cell Block Tango” (aka, “He Had It Coming”) from Chicago. I really like this song, and the dancers were excellent, but the song (for those not familiar with it) is about killing an unfaithful husband, which seemed a bit inappropriate for the occasion.

Not that I’m complaining. I like stuff from musical theatre, and if it has pretty girls in sexy costumes -- so much the better.

Here are Lorna and I with the bride and groom. I'm the guy in the yellow shirt, for any of those who have forgotten what I look like.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Big Boy in Zamboanga

My niece Jossah posted this picture of the sign outside a restaurant in Zamboanga City where she had eaten.

It immediately rang all sorts of bells for me because of the similarity of the character pictured to Big Boy -- the fat kid whose statue was a landmark for Phoenix teenagers at the corner of Central and Thomas, outside Bob's Big Boy restaurant.

For comparison purposes, here are the two side-by-side:

Satti, by the way, is a food-on-a-stick thing (similar to satay in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) that is very popular in Zamboanga (which isn't far from Malaysia and Indonesia). Notice that what Andy is holding instead of a hamburger is labeled 'Halal', which means it's fit for Muslims to eat, an important marketing point in Zambo.

I doubt that the many burgers I had at Big Boy were halal, but I would love to have one right now. Writing this made me hungry.

Addendum to: Wedding in Zamboanga

I inadvertently left these pics out of the preceding post. I meant to include them, not only because a post about a wedding should obviously include a pic or three of the bride walking up the aisle, but also because I wanted readers to see how long her veil was.

This one will make clear that it was long:

This pic makes one begin to think that maybe it's really long:

And this one settles the matter:

Wedding in Zamboanga

Last week I attended a wedding in Zamboanga City – my niece Jossah Serrano married a very nice young man named Boone Dulla. Congratulations to them both.

My stay in Zambo lasted several days and it will probably take me just as long to get the pictures posted on Facebook and described here. So this is the first of several, and I’ll start with the wedding pics.

There were several flower girls, who were adorable. Here are a couple of them:

Throughout the wedding ceremony and Mass, the flower girls were wandering randomly around the church and outside.

The maid of honor.

Here are part of the wedding party (I think it's all Jossah's family). You’ll note that the groom is significantly taller than everybody else – he is one-fourth American, his grandfather being a WW2 GI who was in the liberation landings.

There were several photographers present. While the post-wedding pics were being shot, the wedding coordinator made an announcement that free-lance photogs were present because they cannot be excluded, and that attendees were free to buy pics from the free-lancers, though there was also an official photographer.

This was something new to me. I wondered if free-lancers just hang out outside upscale churches on Saturday hoping to get lucky. Here’s one of them selling his pics in the back of the church.

The bridesmaids waiting outside the church for the newlyweds. I never miss a chance to take pics of pretty girls.

And, finally, Jossah and Boone.

Coming soon: The Reception.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Government Is Going to Seize Your Savings Account. (You Don't Mind, Do You?)

I've heard of some incredibly arrogant (and stupid) actions by governments, but this one goes (almost) beyond belief: The European Union is going to take up to 10% of the bank accounts of everybody in Cyprus.

Actually, the EU is ordering Cyprus to steal its citizens' money. Not sure that makes any difference.

Apparently, this is a condition of the latest bailout package in the EU.

In a radical departure from previous aid packages, euro zone finance ministers want Cyprus savers to forfeit a portion of their deposits in return for a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) bailout for the island, which has been financially crippled by its exposure to neighboring Greece.

The decision, announced on Saturday morning, stunned Cypriots and caused a run on cash points, most of which were depleted within hours. Electronic transfers were stopped.

The originally proposed levies on deposits are 9.9 percent for those exceeding 100,000 euros and 6.7 percent on anything below that.

The Cypriot government on Sunday discussed with lenders the possibility of changing the levy to 3.0 percent for deposits below 100,000 euros, and to 12.5 percent for above that sum, a source close to the consultations told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Do these buffoons have any idea of the message they're sending? -- which is: Anybody who puts money in an EU bank is a total idiot.

That will definitely help stabilize things in Europe.

Oh, but there's really nothing to worry about, because the article says, "European officials said it would not set a precedent."

Well, good. That sets my mind at ease.

Update: A further thought about this -- given that Italy and Spain are currently on the brink, what would you do if you had money in an Italian or Spanish bank? You would withdraw it, and get it out of the country, right?  If a substantial number of Italians and Spaniards do that, it will bring down the banking systems in those countries.

This is really, really stupid.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Philippine Wealth Concentration

The poorest people in the Philippines are poorer than most Americans can understand. Close to 20% live on less than fifty pesos ($1.25) per day. There are desperately poor people in the US and other developed countries, of course, but not so many and not so poor.

Meanwhile, the wealthy control an enormous portion of the nation’s wealth.

The richest person in the US is, as you know, Bill Gates, who has a fortune estimated at $66 billion, according to Forbes, which is considerably more than that of Henry Sy, the richest in the Philippines -- Sy has $9.1 billion.

But in reference to the size of their home economies, Sy is far richer. Sy’s fortune equals 3.8% of the GDP of the Philippines, while Gates is good for just under 0.5% of US GDP. In fact, relative to GDP, the top eleven fortunes in the Philippines are all bigger than Gates’.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Heading to Zamboanga

I’m off soon to spend a few days in Zamboanga City, which is at the far end of the Zamboanga Peninsula in southwest Mindanao. Here’s a map.

I’m heading there for a family wedding. This will be the first wedding I’ve ever attended in the Philippines, so it should be interesting. I will report in a few days (the wedding is Saturday).

On the downside, I just found out that Zamboanga is experiencing power outages for seven or eight hours a day. That doesn’t sound like fun. Neither does my flight, which leaves at 4:55am – it’s the only daily flight from Cebu to Zamboanaga City, so I didn’t have much choice.

Oh well -- off to discover new things.

Update, 3/13, 10pm: The power has gone out four times since noon. Just a few minutes each time, so that's not so bad. I wonder if the hotel has its own back-up generator. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reforming Sports (Part 1 of Many)

The Party has announced that, after the Revolution, I will be appointed as Commissar of Sports. I humbly accede to the will of the People, as expressed through the Party, and I think it is appropriate that I tell all of you of the changes I intend to implement.

I will start with baseball, for no particular reason.

The DH
One of the hottest topics among fans is the designated hitter. To quote Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (I hope you don’t mind that I address you as ‘my dear’). The biggest problem with the DH is that the two leagues have different rules, which creates problems for interleague play and the World Series. Also the All-Star game, but nobody cares about that.

Although I have a mild preference for doing away with the DH, as I said, I don’t care all that much. So I may allow fans to hold a referendum on the issue, or alternatively we may just flip a coin.

Speeding up the Game
That’s not really the big problem, though. The big problem is that the game is slooooow. To some extent, the speed of the game is part of its allure, but the slowness is magnified unnecessarily by batters who think they’re playing clever mind games by repeatedly stepping out of the batter’s box, and by pitchers who do the same thing by shaking off multiple signs and by throwing to first base a hundred times.

This problem will be solved by requiring players to keep the game moving.  Batters will be given three seconds to get set after entering the box (regulated by a scoreboard clock). No more spending five minutes digging a hole with his cleats (which the next batter will spend forever refilling) and adjusting his helmet and his belt several times.

If the batter is not ready after three seconds, the umpire calls a strike.

After the batter is in the box and set, the pitcher will have five seconds to pitch. No more shaking off signs or re-landscaping the mound. If there is a runner, the pitcher can interrupt the five-second clock to throw to the base three times. After the third unsuccessful throw, the base umpire will allow the runner to take a lead equal to the biggest lead he had before, and the runner cannot take off until the pitcher begins his motion.

If the pitcher does not pitch within five seconds, the umpire calls a ball.

Another thing that slows down the game is managers who need to show off what geniuses they are by repeatedly changing pitchers. The new pitcher, of course, needs to dramatically walk slowly in from the bullpen and then take warm-up pitches even though he’s been warming up for fifteen minutes already.

We will allow one pitching change per inning and a maximum of three per game.

No on-field discussions of any kind will be allowed.

Other issues
  • If we keep the World Baseball Congress going, the top players will be required to play.
  • The strike zone will be called as it is written in the rule book. If umpires fail to call strikes properly, we will replace the plate umpire with a camera. Which might be a good idea anyway.
  • The union was of course once necessary because the Commissioner represented only the owners and the players were exploited. But the union has since become a hindrance to necessary reforms (especially regarding drugs, where they apparently are more worried about the drug users than the rest of the players). The Commissar of Sports (me) will appoint a Deputy Commissar of Baseball who will see to the interests of both sides – thus there will be no need for a Commissioner or a union. 

Posts to come: Football, Soccer, Basketball, and maybe Hockey if I decide it’s worth the time – otherwise I’ll just get rid of it. Boxing will probably be outlawed, and for sure we’ll be getting rid of ‘ultimate fighting’ and similar stuff. There will also be posts on topics that involve various sports (like steroids/HGH and other drugs, salary caps, etc) and also on college sports.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Filipinos love basketball …

… but unfortunately basketball doesn’t love them back.

There is a backboard set up in the street just outside the gate of my apartment, and in virtually every neighborhood in the country, and there are usually a few boys or young men playing (never any girls – I’ve mentioned before that most Filipinas are not into sports, as participants at least). Timeout is called to let cars pass. Here are a couple kids playing in front of my place.

Ever since my first introduction to the Philippines more than thirty years ago, I have wondered why Filipinos have adopted basketball, of all sports, as their favorite. More than any other sport I can think of, it demands the thing that Filipinos most notably lack – height.

My wife was a passionate basketball fan, her favorite in the Philippines being Robert Jaworski (who would parlay his basketball fame into a seat in the Philippine senate). As one might discern from his name, he was not a pure Filipino and, at six feet, very tall by local standards.  

(In the US, she adopted the Bulls; she was not terribly happy about our move from Austin to Chicago, but the prospect of being able to see more Bulls games on TV was a point in favor. Even today, a decade after he retired, I find that mention of Chicago to a Filipino usually brings a response referencing Michael Jordan.)

But however good some Filipino players might be, they’ll never overcome their lack of height – the average height for an adult male in the Philippines is 163cm -- about 5’4” or so and about six inches less than American males (as I mentioned in a post a few days ago). Despite their passion for the sport, the Philippines has never made an impact at the Olympics (I don’t think they’ve ever medaled).

In every team sport that I know of, all else being equal, big players have an advantage (as we are told in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” Or something like that).

Soccer gives a better chance than most sports to a smaller player (assuming he/she can compensate with speed), but the sport has been far less popular here than in most Asian countries. But it’s good to see some small signs that it is belatedly gaining a foothold here.

In November, the Philippines (the team is called the Azkals -- the local term for street dogs) played Singapore here in Cebu (Azkals won) and there was a decent crowd -- enough at least to fill Cebu's tiny stadium. While at the game I bought a team t-shirt. When I flew from Manila to Cebu a couple weeks ago, I wore that t-shirt and in passing through the Manila terminal, three different people commented on the shirt – with the guard at the security line engaging me in a conversation about the team. So maybe there’s some hope.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Kudos to Rand Paul

Although I classify myself as a libertarian, I have not been a big fan of Rand Paul, and even less so of his father (whose crank persona, in my opinion, was very damaging to the libertarian cause).

But he deserves great credit for his stand against the use of drones against US citizens in the US. It is terrifying that the Attorney General could say that the president could do such a thing, and great that Paul's filibuster made him back down and 'clarify' his statement.

What is disgusting (and frightening) is that a high official such as the AG could take such a position in the first place, and that so few people other than Paul had the courage to speak out.

There is a tendency by both parties to adopt the view that the president can do any damn thing he pleases -- at least when the incumbent is a member of their party. What they forget is that the expanded powers they support will be used by the next president, and will almost certainly be further expanded. The silence of most Democrats, many of whom pose as defenders of civil liberties, was criminal; but many Republicans also kept their silence (or opposed Paul -- I'm looking at you, John McCain), and almost all supported similar expansions of presidential power during the Bush Administration.

Holder was forced to back down -- this time. But the steady advance of the Imperial Presidency will continue, I suspect.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Dynastic Politics in the Philippines (Part 2 of Many)

In Part 1, I mentioned a former mayor of Cebu City, Alvin Garcia, and said that I wasn't certain whether he was related (though it seemed likely) to the Garcia clan that holds so many other offices.

My assumption was correct -- he's the nephew of the head Garcia (Pablo: former Governor, current congressman), and cousin of Gwen (current governor, running for congress) and PJ (current congressman, running for governor), and assorted others. In addition, he and the family run Cebu's leading paper, the Sun-Star:

Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita (Cebu): owned by Jesus B. Garcia Jr. (chairman of the board) and his siblings, and Joseph Gaisano (owner of White Gold department store).

Jesus B. Garcia Jr. was the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) secretary during the Ramos administration. His brother Alvin Garcia is a former Cebu City mayor. His uncle Pablo Garcia (Cebu, second district) is the House Deputy Speaker.

Speaking of Inefficiency ...

At the end of the preceding post, I commented that Philippine businesses are inefficient -- and I was immediately provided an example.

I just received an email with a receipt from Philippine Airlines. It's a receipt for the ticket that I purchased on Feb 22 for my flight from Manila to Cebu on Feb 24.

Personal Services Are Cheap Here (and Related Observations)

Many, many years ago, on my first visit here, I was observing a construction site in Manila, fascinated by what seemed to be thousands (hyperbole alert) of workers, and very little heavy machinery – they were employing construction techniques that might have been practiced in the US before I was born. My wife-to-be wondered what I found so interesting, and I answered that I’d explain it in the US.

A few months later, we passed a building site in downtown San Francisco, and I pointed to the small number of workers – most of them operating various pieces of equipment. She was amazed that a huge building could be built by so few people.

My comment at the time was that the difference was that in the US, machines are (relatively) cheap and people are expensive; in the Philippines, machines are expensive, but people are cheap.

Which leads to the point that anything that is labor-intensive, such as personal services, is a bargain here.

I still get mailings from Groupon for hot deals in Chicago, and a couple days ago, I got one offering a one-hour massage for $28. I sneered as I deleted it, since there are probably a dozen massage parlors within an easy walk of my apartment, none of which charge over 400 pesos (ten bucks) for an hour massage

I should add, as an aside for American readers, that massage parlors here are 100% legit – no sex on sale. Given that massage parlors in many US cities are the most common venue for prostitution, it surprises an American that here, where there is so much prostitution highly visible, the massage parlors are for massage only.

But sex, of course, is also a personal service, and it too is a bargain here. In the course of the less than ten minutes it takes me to walk from my apartment to Mango Avenue (a major street) at night, I will be offered sex at least two or three times. Often there are as many as a dozen hookers. The asking price is usually about 800 pesos ($20), though as soon as I decline the offer, the price comes down to 500 ($12). In less ritzy parts of town, 500 is the starting point.   

Haircuts (which include a very pleasant shoulder, neck, and scalp massage) cost 50-70 pesos – with a generous tip maybe 100 or so (about $2.50).

When my daughter was here, she got a manicure and pedicure. She went high-end, in a salon at the posh mall on Fuente, and paid about 400 pesos with tip. She could have gotten it for less than half that.

Most expats here who have families have at least one maid and/or yaya (nanny). A law was recently passed mandating a minimum wage of 2500 pesos/month ($60) with one day off per week for domestic workers. The expats I know say they already pay that much or more, but I often hear that many domestic workers are (and will continue to be) paid far less. My wife told me once that many maids here are happy to be paid anything – they just want to have a place to live and to be fed.

Minimum wage for other jobs varies by city/region, with the highest in Manila. Here in Cebu City, it is 327 pesos/day ($8). Since wages are per day rather than per hour, many employers require a long day (10 hours or more is common) by US standards.

In any case, only foreign companies and other high-profile businesses actually comply. A person working in a run-of-the-mill store, for example, might be paid 3000-3500 pesos/month for six 10-hour days per week, which is about 125-150 pesos/day (less than half the minimum) and works out to thirty or thirty-five cents per hour.

Going back to the construction site at which we began, it’s easy to understand the thinking of Philippine construction managers: What’s the point of investing in expensive equipment (which would cost much more than in the US, because of heavy tariffs), when wages are so low? In fact the same thinking seems to permeate all businesses, not just those that might involve machinery. Most Philippine businesses that I’ve observed are incredibly inefficient, but there’s little incentive for managers to seek efficiency – if the job isn’t getting done, just hire more workers.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The World's Most Irrelevant Organization Speaks Out on the World's Most Insignificant Topic

The UN says that legalization of pot by Colorado and Washington is a violation of international treaties.

Colorado and Washington replied, "Whatever, dude."

Are Filipinos Getting Shorter?

I was curious what the average height of Filipinos is, so I googled and came up with this chart.

For those too lazy to click the link, the average Filipino is 163.5cm (5'4") and Filipinas are 151.8cm (just under five feet). This is six and four inches, respectively, shorter than their American counterparts.

But the text accompanying the chart had something that surprised me:
"In certain countries like the Philippines, younger generations are significantly shorter than those born in the 1970s and 1980s despite the economic growth and better standard of living. In Malaysia and Thailand, younger generations have experienced increased height."
If this is true, I question the "better standard of living" comment. I don’t see how declining height and improving living standards could possibly go together, since height is so closely related to the amount of protein in the diet.

I’ve read that the current generations in Japan and Korea are much taller than their parents, and also that there is a huge disparity in height between Koreans from the north and the south – in both cases the differences are generally attributed to the presence (or absence) of meat in the diet.

Stop Smoking, Dammit!

I admit it: I'm cheating, because I posted this to Facebook, too. So sue me.

Posting this will get me labelled as one of those damn reformed smokers, but there are people I love who smoke and I hope they will read this, because I want to enjoy their company for many years to come.

Some are old enough that they probably don't care about the 15-year time frame, but they should look at the short term benefits.

And there are even longer term benefits than are mentioned here -- I quit 30 years ago, and look at how handsome I am! :-)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


I mentioned in the Coke post a couple days ago that I buy my Cokes at the sari-sari store. It occurs to me that some folks reading this blog may not know what a sari-sari is, so herewith a short explanation. As nearly as it can be defined in American terms, a sari-sari is a micro-convenience store. They sell a very limited range of goods to a very small community of customers. Here are pictures of my neighborhood sari-sari, which is part of the squatter community on my street (squatters are a subject for another post).

Although you see a child inside the door in one of the pics, customers mostly don't go inside, they are served at the front counter. The store is very small, with just room for the lady who runs it to sit down between customers. It has a refrigerator for the soft drinks and beer and shelves for the other items -- mostly candy and snacks. I bought sugar once when I ran out -- it's sold in tiny packets, just enough for a few pots of tea, but that was enough to tide me over. They also sell packets of instant coffee already mixed with creamer and sugar (called 3-in-1).

They sell cigarettes individually, and provide a lighter that is tied to the counter. Their biggest business is advertised on the sign -- they sell load for prepaid cell phones (practically everybody here is on a prepay plan).

Gloria (my late wife) told me that when she was a teenager and in her early twenties, her family ran a sari-sari out of their house in Manila, and that running the store was her after-school job. 

Baseline Gym

This is Baseline, the gym I belong to. It’s pretty basic, as you can see – open-air because there is no air conditioning. You'll note it's mostly weights -- Filipinos seem to be much more into strength training than cardio-vascular; none of the gyms I've seen that cater to locals have much cardio equipment – this one has two stationary bikes and two manual treadmills (the treads are on rollers). That’s it – everything else is weights.

I should mention that the workout areas for men and women are separate. The pictures are of the men’s area – the women’s is smaller, but about equally equipped given the very small number of women I’ve seen using it. In fact, there usually is nobody there -- Filipinas (mostly) don't seem to be into fitness or sports.

The only gym I’ve seen with much cardio equipment is located in one of the high-end hotels catering to expats. I considered joining it – the cost was only about 1000-1200 pesos/month ($25-$30), as I recall, but Baseline is so close to my apartment that I joined it instead (450 pesos -- $11). Friendly people, so I’m happy there.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Coke: The Real Thing

Remember when Coke used the slogan "It's the Real Thing"? Maybe not, unless you're as old as I am (in which case, I offer my condolences). That slogan was used in the sixties and seventies, although variations on the 'real' theme have come back periodically since.

It's not bad from a product positioning standpoint, building as it does on a positive attribute of the brand: Coke is, after all, the original cola, and the slogan implies that that fact makes parvenu brands like Pepsi and RC in some way unreal.

The problem is that it isn't true, at least in my opinion. Here's a picture of the real Real Thing, hanging out on my kitchen counter:

One of the things I love about the Philippines is that Coke is still made with sugar here. Not surprising, given that sugar is a major crop here, while corn -- not so much. In a future post I may rant a bit about the politics behind the use of HFCS instead of sugar in soft drinks in the US. For the moment, it is sufficient to say that consumers are getting screwed by agribusiness and congress.

Anyway, back to the point: Coke made with cane sugar. And even better ... in glass bottles! It may be purely psychological, but soft drinks taste much better to me in bottles, rather than cans or (yuk!) plastic. To complete things, the bottles are small, as I remember Coke as a kid -- these are 200ml (about 6.7 ounces). There also are larger bottles, 350ml I think (Pepsi is available in larger bottles, too). Besides the nostalgia factor, I like the small bottles because that's about all the Coke I want most of the time.

Another thing is that I can buy them from the local sari-sari store just outside the gate of my apartment compound -- a 30-second walk, at most. The cost is eight pesos (about twenty cents) per bottle. There's supposed to be a deposit, too, but the lady who runs the store has me on the honor system -- I buy two bottles for sixteen pesos and when I return the empties, I can get two more. It feels good to be trusted.

Dynastic Politics in the Philippines (Part 1 of Many)

One of the biggest problems in the Philippines, in my opinion, is that the country is run by a few families who dominate the country's politics. These families are intermarried with each other and with the major business families and thus also control the economy, which is run under a corporatist philosophy (aka 'crony capitalism'). I'll start out by just discussing Cebu, where I live, but most other areas seem to be organized similarly, and the structure rolls up to the national scene.

In the preceding post, I mentioned Tommy Osmena, a congressman who twice before has been mayor of Cebu City, and is currently running again. He'll make a good starting point.

I live just off Juana Osmena Street (named for Tommy's grandmother), which runs next to and parallel to Osmena Boulevard, the most important street in the city, which runs through Fuente Osmena, the central point in the city (named for a fountain located there that was built by the Osmena Water Company).

Tommy's grandfather, Sergio, was the last president of the Philippine Commonwealth, prior to independence (if you've ever seen pictures of MacArthur wading ashore after the first landings here, the short guy next to him is Sergio Osmena). He was a founder of the Nacionalista Party, which dominated Philippine politics in the early years, was governor of Cebu, a senator, then VP under Manual Quezon. When Quezon died during World War II, Osmena succeeded to the presidency. Two of Sergio's sons, Sergio Jr. and John Henry, also served in the Philippine senate, and Sergio Jr. was a candidate for president (he lost to Marcos in 1969). A third son, Emilio, is a former governor of Cebu, who also served as chief economic advisor to President Fidel Ramos.

Sergio III, Tommy's older brother, is currently a senator, ran for vice-president in the last election, and is expected to be a presidential candidate next time. He's also married to a Lopez, about which family I'll tell you more on another occasion, but for now I'll just mention that they're very rich and they own some of the country's biggest media properties.

Tommy was term-limited out of the mayor's office in the last election and was replaced by Mike Rama. Rama is, by Philippine standards, only lightly connected. His grandfather was a senator, and when he first joined the city council, he took over the seat previously held by his uncle.

The current governor of Cebu province is Gwen Garcia. She took over the office when the previous governor, Pablo Garcia, was term-limited out. Pablo is her father. Gwen is now term-limited, and the leading candidate to replace her is her brother, Pablo John (PJ's opponent is Hilario Davide III, whose father is a former chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court).

PJ is currently in congress. When the father left the governorship, he took over another congressional seat (When he left congress to become governor in 1995, his seat was taken by John Osmena).. Now that PJ is running for governor, Gwen is running for his seat (so effectively, they're just trading offices).

One of their brothers, Nelson, is mayor of Dumanjug, a mid-sized city in central Cebu; another, Marlon, is vice-mayor of Barili, another mid-sized city, and seeking the mayor's job in the current election. Two other brothers hold appointed government positions.

I mentioned that Tommy Osmena had been mayor twice before. The first time he was term-limited out, he was replaced by Alvin Garcia. I can't find much info about him, but I assume he's related to the other Garcias.

The Philippines Summed up in Two Articles

I will probably have a lot of posts on the insanity of Philippine politics and Philippine public policy (and the Philippines in general), and this seems like a good starting point.

Tommy Osmena, who is currently a congressman and was formerly (twice) mayor of Cebu City, wants to build a Formula One racetrack in Cordova (a suburb) according to an article today:

Rep. Tomas OsmeƱa wants to put up a Formula 1 (F1) circuit, hotels and condominiums in Cordova, Cebu.

He admits he has not talked to municipal officials about this but he said he had shared the idea with some investors.

Don't get me wrong -- I like people who think big. One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Daniel Burnham, who is largely responsible for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the first skyscrapers (and who also planned Baguio, here in the Philippines):

Make no small plans, they have no power to move men's hearts.

As an aside, something I regret in America today is that we seem to have lost the ability to think big. Can you imagine the reaction if someone today proposed something like the Interstate Highway system or the TVA? On the left, the environmentalists would go nuts, and they'd be matched scream for scream by fiscal conservatives (like me). 

But such plans must be rooted in reality, as Burnham's (and the TVA and the Interstates) were. Is there any reason at all to believe that F1 is interested in having a race in the Philippines? If we're going in for wild ideas, let's build an NFL stadium next to the race course -- the Raiders are thinking about moving again.

But this gets even better, if you read further down in the article. After saying that he's all for the idea (but that it should be paid for by someone else, of course), the Mayor of Cordova goes on:

“If there is a tunnel or a bridge from Cebu City to Cordvoa, it can be connected by a skyway to a proposed new airport along Pilipog River,” he said.

So now we're dreaming not just of a racetrack, we've also dreamed up a bridge (or tunnel), and a 'skyway', and a new airport. But wait!, as they say in the late-night TV ads, there's more!:
If the tunnel is built, this will solve the lingering traffic problem between the cities of Lapu-Lapu and Mandaue. It will also complement the future bridge between Cordova and Jetafe, Bohol, Sitoy said.
With the Jetafe-Cordova Bridge and the Cordova-Cebu City Tunnel, Cebu can buy fresh water from Bohol by installing a water pipeline beside the Inabanga River.

We're also going to build a bridge from Cordova to Bohol (the Bohol Strait is about twenty miles wide) and throw in a pipeline while we're at it.

And now for the reality of the Philippines. Perhaps it would be better to start with replacing busted traffic lights. Here's another article about Talisay (another suburb) that also ran today:

Talisay City Hall has yet to secure funding to replace the busted traffic lights in their area ...
Vice Mayor Alan Bucao ... said only two of the five traffic lights in the SRP road from their area heading to Cebu City are functional. [...]

Bucao said he already requested Mayor Socrates Fernandez for additional traffic enforcers to make up for the busted traffic lights.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Getting Started

I keep coming up with great ways to get this blog started. But the problem is, the bigger and more elaborate the plan, the less likely it is that I'll do it. So I'm just going to start posting random things, in no particular order, and hope that eventually the sum of it all will be something worthwhile.

If not, I won't worry about it much.