Monthly Archives: October 2008

Paru-parong Bukid (English translation)

Butterfly from the field

English Translation by Roberto Verzola

Paru-parong Bukid

Traditional Filipino folk song

I just saw a butterfly,

flitting and floating by;

waiting by the main trail,

fluttering in the air.

Sari wrapped around her,

sleeves as wide as my palm,

Skirt’s a trifle oversized,

ends dragging on the ground.

Her hair held with a pin


Her hand twirling a comb


Decorated half-slip,

drawing others to peep.

Then she faces the stage,

ogling her own image,

She would come and tease us,

hips swaying like a duck.

Paru-parong bukid

na lilipad-lipad

Sa tabi ng daan


Isang bara ang tapis

Isang dangkal ang manggas

Ang sayang de kola

Isang piyesa ang sayad.

May payneta pa siya


May suklay pa mandin


Naguas de ojetes

ang palalabasin

Haharap sa altar

at mananalamin

At saka lalakad

nang pakendeng-kendeng.

Leron, Leron sinta (English translation)

Leron-leron my love

English translation by Roberto Verzola

Leron, Leron sinta

Traditional Filipino folk song

Leron, leron my love,

papaya seeds above.

He took a bamboo box

to keep the fruits he’d get.

Then as he neared the top,

the entire branch broke up.

“It’s not my lucky day;

I’ll find another way!”

I offer you my love,

my courage suits you fine.

I’ve got me seven knives,

I’m keeping nine more guns.

A journey, I will make

to distant parts beyond.

A plate of noodles is

the foe I will engage!

Leron, leron sinta

buto ng papaya

dala-dala’y buslo

sisidlan ng bunga

pagdating sa dulo

nabali ang sanga

kapos kapalaran

humanap ng iba!

Ako’y ibigin mo,

lalaking matapang

Ang sundang ko’y pito,

ang baril ko’y siyam.

Ang lalakarin ko’y

parte ng dinulang.

Isang pinggang pansit,

ang aking kalaban!

Electronic voting, electronic cheating?

When I was awarded a six-week research fellowship by the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, I chose to focus on electronic voting. (The term more commonly used in the Philippines is “automated elections”.) My research confirmed my initial suspicion that electronic voting and counting machines bring their own set of troubles. I realized that the COMELEC, as well as the media and the public, should therefore take extra steps to ensure the integrity of automated elections.

One of the things I did was review the experiences of countries that had earlier automated their elections. And I found well-documented cases of problems, errors and failures (download: Automated elections: voting machines have made mistakes too).

These cases included: uninitialized machines, which made ballot stuffing possible; votes not counted or lost; candidates’ votes reversed; contests not counted; ballots not counted; the wrong winner comes out; allowing voting more than once; vote totals that exceed the number of registered voters; negatives votes; unauthorized software replacement; and other problems.

I traced these troubles to deep-seated causes that were inherent with complex technologies, such as: software bugs, which are always present even in high-quality software; hardware problems such as miscalibration; environmental stresses that may worsen hardware problems; poor or flawed design; human errors; and malicious tampering. Since these factors were inherent with complex technologies, we can expect the electronic machine troubles to persist.

In my research, I also found out that insoluble problems associated with direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines have already led to their phase out in some states of the U.S.

I also compiled typical costs for DREs and optical scanners (download: The cost of automating elections), and found that DRE technology was much more expensive to implement that optical scanning. (However, because an increasing number of states are junking DREs, their prices are expected to go down, as they are dumped into the Third World.)

Halalang Marangal (HALAL), an election monitoring group that I work with, has already submitted two specific recommendations to the COMELEC as a result of my Oxford study:

1. Use double-entry accounting methods in election tabulation (download: Double-entry accounting in election tallies)to minimize the clerical errors that plague the COMELEC’s current single-entry tabulation system; and

2. Conduct a transparent post-election audit of machine results (download: Post-election audits using statistical sampling), by manually counting ballots from a random sample of precincts to confirm if the electronic voting machines are giving us correct results.

Given the reported problems in the August 2008 ARMM elections, which seem to confirm these troubles with automated elections and voting machines, I again strongly urge the COMELEC to heed our warnings and suggestions.

Sustainability through permanent agriculture

How does one design a farm so that it is environmentally-friendly and economically viable as well?

To many Filipino farmers, this question has not even occurred. Most tenants and farm workers have little say in running the farms they work in, much less in redesigning them. Even farmer-owners often simply take the existing farm set-up as given, preoccupied as they are in the day-to-day problems of keeping their farms afloat.

Yet, a farm’s design is a key factor in its survival and sustainability. In poorly-designed farms, farmers will always feel as if every day were an uphill climb, because the poor design makes the farmer work against the natural flow of matter and energy in the farm. In well-designed farms, farming will feel like a downhill joyride, as the natural forces and components in the farm themselves do most of the work that the farmer normally shoulders.

A sustainable approach to farm design called permaculture, first developed in Australia, is now proving its worth under Philippine conditions. In permaculture (from permanent agriculture), the farmer carefully lays out a system of water containment and channels within the farm, so that water naturally flows slowly, by gravity, from one containment to the next. Then, the farmer gradually “assembles”, following certain principles and guidelines, an increasing variety of plants and animals. These are laid out in a way that each additional farm component performs one or more functions or provides matter or energy which, in a conventional farm, have to be provided by the farmers themselves. After many years, a well-designed permaculture farm will look like a lush forest of food and cash crops. And this forest will essentially maintain itself. Then, the farmers’ job will consist mainly of tending the “forest” and regularly harvesting its products.

Successful permaculture farms in the Philippines include the Center for Ecozoic Living and Learning (CELL) in Silang, Cavite and Cabiokid in Cabiao, Nueva Ecija. Permaculture practitioners and advocates have set up the Philippine Permaculture Association (PPA), which conducts regular trainings and supports those who want to try permaculture in their own farms.

Why buy what you can copy for free?

Computers today have become standard equipment in government, businesses, schools and even non-government organizations.

In the past, when one bought a computer, it came with the operating system and applications software at no extra cost. Today, commercial software — Windows and MS-Office of Microsoft, for instance — cost several thousand pesos for a single copy. If you have 10 computers, you also need 10 copies of the software, and must now pay for each copy. If you don’t, you run the risk of being sued or, worse, raided by the software giant.

This makes using computers very expensive indeed.

There is an alternative. It is called free software, because you are free to copy it and to share it with others. You are even free to modify it, if you have the inclination and skills to modify software. Best of all, it gives you freedom from fear of harassment, suit or a raid by the local software police.

Free software is also called open software. The most well- known is Linux/GNU, which replaces Microsoft Windows. It is as good, and in many cases, better than Windows. To replace MS- Office, there is OpenOffice which often comes on the same CD as Linux/GNU. For every major type of commercial software, there is usually a free software counterpart.

Where do you get these free/open software? Computer shops might sell them. Shops that sell software often sell Linux CDs too. There is even a Philippine Linux Users Group. Look for it on the Web.

It is not difficult to learn how to install and use these programs. As former President Francisco Nemenzo Jr. of the University of the Philippines said, when he explained why the U.P. System was shifting to free software: we managed to shift from Wordstar to WordPerfect, and then from WordPerfect to MS-Word; we should be able to shift from MS-Office to the compatible OpenOffice will less problems.

Companies like IBM, PAL, Jollibee, Globe and Smart are already using Linux and other free software. If it is good enough for them, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

Indigenous microorganisms (IMO)

A new concoction is becoming increasingly popular among farmers. Usually called indigenous microorganisms (IMO), this concoction has been successfully tried by government agriculturists, academic researchers and non-profit foundations alike. They have found it useful in removing bad odors from animal wastes, hastening composting, and contributing to crops’ general health.

To make your own IMO, follow these simple steps:

1. Cook a kilo of rice, preferably organic. After cooling, put the cooked rice in a wooden, earthen or ceramic container. Avoid plastic or aluminum.

2. Cover the mouth of the container completely with cloth or paper, fixed in place with a rubber band, to prevent water or small insects from getting in.

3. Put the covered container, protected from possible rain, under the trees, in a bamboo grove, a forest floor, or wherever a thick mat of leaves has formed. Leave it there for three days.

4. After whitish moldy filaments have formed, transfer the entire contents of the container to a larger glass or earthen jar and add one kilo of brown sugar or molasses, preferably organic.

5. Cover the jar with clean cloth or paper, fixed with a rubber band. Keep the jar in a dark, cool place. Let it ferment for seven days, until it appears muddy. This is your IMO concoction.

To use, mix two spoonfuls of the concoction with a liter of water. Spray the diluted solution around chicken coops and pig pens to remove unpleasant odors, on your compost pile to hasten decomposition, or on your crops to improve their general health by controlling pests and serving as foliar fertilizer.

By making their own IMO, farmers can free themselves from the need to buy inputs for their farms. By reducing their costs, using IMO keeps them away from debt and improves their income.

Truly, these tiny beneficial organisms are a farmer’s friend.

Worse than colonialism

According to most estimates, some 85% of the entire Philippine national budget now goes to debt payments – principal and interest. This is often cited as the reason more taxes, such as the VAT, the E-VAT, and now the R-VAT, have to be collected.

Consider the significance of this fact: it means that 85% of any income the government collects goes to banks, mainly to international financial institutions who are our biggest lenders. Of what remains, around half is further dissipated through corruption, going into the private pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. The little that is actually spent for social services, furthermore, may go to projects of questionable benefit to the people.

This means that every time government bureaucrats invoke the need to provide basic social services as the main reason for raising taxes, they are lying. The main reason is to pay off government creditors. Most of the tax collections will go to them, automatically appropriated.

In the 18th century, Filipinos were forced to pay the Spanish king, in one year, in cash and kind, tributes totalling around 250,000 for the entire Philippines. Of this, 187,229 pesos (74.9%) went to the local Catholic hierarchy, 59,303 pesos (23.7%) went to the local bureaucracy, and 3,467 pesos (1.4%) went to the royal treasury. Even assuming that all the Church’s share went to Spain or Rome, that plus the share of the royal treasury would still be a lower percentage of the total than the 85% that the government today hands over to our creditors.

In effect, we are in a financially worse situation today than during the Spanish era. The Spanish king has been replaced by the banks and other international lending institutions. The governor-general has been replaced by a president as their principal tax collector.

We are more exploited today than anytime in the past. The colonial period has returned, with a vengeance.

(Source: Francisco Leandro de Viana, Royal Fiscal, “Financial Affairs of the Philippine Islands”, 10 July 1766, from Zaide’s Documentary Sources of Philippine History, Vol. 6, p. 98).

Where medical care is free

When people get sick, in the U.S., the Philippines and many other countries, one of their worst fears is the prospect of long-term hospitalization and medical care. Medical and hospitalization costs are so expensive nowadays that many middle-class families will suddenly find themselves impoverished if a member were to be hospitalized for more than a few days. The poor will probably find themselves so deeply indebted after the hospitalization of a family member, that some will simply opt out of the commercial health system to seek help from indigenous healers.

It is unfortunate that Philippine medical authorities have patterned our health-care system after the U.S. where medical and hospitalization costs have skyrocketed as health care became less of a calling for doctors and a duty for governments, and more of a business.

Is there a viable alternative to a highly commercialized health and medical system, where only those who have enough money get properly treated?

The documentary video on national health systems, Sicko by Michael Moore, is truly an eye-opener. Every Filipino must see this video, which compares the practices of the U.S. health system and those of the U.K., France and other countries.

The U.K. and French systems appear so superior that it is a mystery why our authorities would emulate the U.S. system.

In countries like the U.K. and France, anyone who gets sick – especially if it requires immediate attention – gets treated. It doesn’t matter if you are a local or a foreigner, young or old, millionaire or pauper. You will be treated, be operated on if necessary, and be given upon discharge all the necessary medicines you ought to continue taking. In short, you will receive the proper medical treatment, for free.

The British national health system (NHS) does have problems. There are waiting lists of sick people who need medical but not emergency attention. Those who cannot wait, or who are not satisfied with the NHS, go to private doctors or hospitals, who charge them commercial rates for medical care. Dental services are excluded from the NHS, forcing dental patients to pay the same prohibitively high fees to dentists.

But, as Moore’s documentary video Sicko clearly showed, those who are not in a hurry but still need medical attention will eventually get it. While those who need emergency attention will get it immediately.

And to us Filipinos, that is nothing short of miraculous.

Cow’s milk is for calves

A recent TV breastfeeding ad says: “Dog’s milk is for pups. Pig’s milk is for piglets. What about cow’s milk? Your baby is not a cow!”

Indeed, cow’s milk is for calves, whose main need is muscular growth. Mother’s milk is for babies, whose main need is brain development.

In fact, commercial cow’s milk is bad for children (and adults too) for several reasons:

  • Dairy cows are fed or injected with growth and other hormones to stimulate milk production way beyond their normal output (1)

  • Because the abnormally high milk production makes them susceptible to udder infections (mastitis), the cows are also fed antibiotics. (2) The antibiotics as well as pus from undetected infections then find their way into the milk.

  • The hormones in milk include estrogen, a female hormone. Lactating and pregnant cows already have high estrogen levels. Hormone can injections increase these levels further. (3)

  • Estrogen in food and environmental pollutants which are chemically-similar to estrogen are now associated with early sexual maturity in girls. Several decades ago, menstruation typically started around the age of 15. Today, the average is 12, and more and more 7-, 8- and 9-year olds are reporting their mense for the first time. Menstruation marks the onset of sexual maturity, when girls start feeling stronger physical and emotional attraction towards the opposite sex as their bodies prepare them for adulthood. (4)

  • In boys, estrogen causes physical changes like higher-pitched voice, enlarged breasts due to more fat, wider hips and smaller sex organs. Men who undergo a sex-change operation are regularly injected with estrogen. (5)

  • Some cancers are also being blamed on high intake levels of estrogen and similar substances. (6)

When our children drink commercial cows’ milk, we are exposing them to these dangers.

There are healthier and safer sources of calcium (such as spinach, okra, tomatoes, and kamote/sweet potatoes) and protein (such as munggo/mung beans, sitaw/string beans, patani/lima beans, sigadilyas/winged beans and other legumes). Even babies eventually outgrow their need for mothers’ milk, which is the only milk nature intended for them.

Given the dangers, we surely do not need cows’ milk in our diet.


  1. L.J.Machlin, “Effect of Growth Hormone on Milk Production and Feed Utilization in Dairy Cows”, Journal of Dairy Science, Vol. 56 No. 5.

  2. H.W.Barkema et al., “Incidence of Clinical Mastitis in Dairy Herds”, Journal of Dairy Science, Vol.81 No.2.

  3. K.C.Bachman, “Milk Production of Dairy Cows Treated with Estrogen at the Onset of a Short Dry Period”, Journal of Dairy Science, Vol. 85 No. 4.

  4. M.D.Lemonick, “Teens Before Their Time”, Time Reports,

  5. G.New, “Long-term estrogen therapy improves vascular function in male to female transexuals”, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Nov. 27, 2007.

  6. C.Ireland, “Hormones in milk can be dangerous”, Harvard University Gazette, Dec. 7, 2006.

Philippine environmental situationer

Although I wrote this situationer (download Philippine environmental situationer, 150kb) several years ago, much of what it says remains valid; and the situation is probably worse today.

What should be interesting about this situationer is that it reflects the unique analysis of the Philippine Greens, a political movement that I belong to. It is especially useful for its attempt to identify some of the roots of existing Philippine social and environmental problems, such as inappropriate technologies, population increase, overconsumption, historical reasons, etc.. As I often argue, a doctor that makes a wrong diagnosis is bound to prescribe the wrong treatment, one that may even worsen the disease.

Environmental and social activists should always do a deep analysis of the problems they see, and try to identify the deeper — and sometimes deeply hidden — causes of the problems they are trying to solve. Then the bulk of the efforts should be directed at the root causes, rather than the symptoms, of the problem.

I also introduce in this situationer a concept which I call the eco-pyramid. It is based on the social pyramid, but adds one layer on top (corporations) and another layer at the bottom (the rest of the living world).

Why I like Python

No, that’s not a kind of snake. Python is a programming language.

I don’t do too much programming nowadays, but when I do, Python is my programming language of choice.

I like Python for several reasons:

  • It is object-oriented, which means you can work with an abstract data type that combines data and methods in a single object. Objects foster reusability.
  • It has built in code testing facilities, which makes catching new errors easier when you modify code
  • Because it uses words instead of cryptic symbols, it is essentially self-documenting. Code that I wrote several months ago still make sense when I read them today.
  • By using indentation as part of the language to indicate program structure, it cleans up the code significantly. There is no need for curly braces or keywords like end, endif, endwhile, and other clutter.
  • Python has very good facilities for lists, tables, arrays, dictionaries, file I/O and other data structures, which can be combined to create more complex objects.
  • I probably could have used Ruby as well, but Python seemed to suit me better.

I used Python to implement the online SMS-based reporting system Halalang Marangal used in the 2007 national elections. The system was implemented in Linux/GNU with MySQL and a small but very fast Web server called FAPWS (fast asynchronous python web server), which was also written in Python. Gnokii took care of the cellphone/SMS interface. Python made it easy to put the different systems together. The whole thing was easy to maintain and quite fast too.

Python is really good.

Learning arithmetic

My attitude towards learning and education has been shaped by my own experience as well as by authors like A.S. Neill and John Holt, who represent what might be called the “free school” (“free” as in freedom) approach. Taking a cue from software, this might also be called the “free/open school” approach, an approach that basically gives students much more freedom to choose by themselves what to learn, how to learn, when to learn, and even where to learn. Teachers play a more passive role in the background as advisers. Traditional schools, in contrast, are so regimented that John Holt has called this traditional system a virtual prison for children and youth.

As an example of the free school approach, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 (And ‘Rithmetic) from the book Free At Last (The Sudbury Valley School) by Daniel Greenberg:

Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.

“You don’t really want to do this,” I said, when they first approached me.

“We do, we are sure we do,” was their answer.

“You don’t really,” I persisted. “Your neighborhood friends, your parents, your relatives probably want you to, but you yourselves would much rather be playing or doing something else.”

“We know what we want, and we want to learn arithmetic. Teach us, and we’lll prove it. We’ll do all the homework, and work as hard as we can.”

I had to yield to them, skeptically. I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was cornered.

I was in for a surprise.

My biggest problem was a textbook to use as a guide. I had been involved in developing the “new math,” and I had come to hate it. Back then when we were working on it — young academicians of the Kennedy post-sputnik era — we had few doubts. We were filled with the beauty of abstract logic, set theory, number theory, and all the other exotic games mathematicians had played for millennia. I think that if we had set out to design an agricultural course for working farmers, we would have begun with organic chemistry, genetics, and microbiology. Lucky for the world’s hungry people that we weren’t asked.

I had come to hate the pretensions and abstruseness of the “new math.” Not one in a hundred math teachers knew what it was about, not one in a thousand pupils. People need arithmetic for reckoning, they want to know how to use the tools. That’s what my students wanted now.

I found a book in our library, perfectly suited to the job at hand. It was a math primer written in 1898. small and thick, it was brimming with thousands of exercises, meant to train young minds to perform the basic tasks accurately and switfly.

Class began — on time. That was part of the deal. “You say you are serious?” I had asked, challenging them; “then I expect to see you in the room on time — 11:00AM sharp, every Tuesday and Thursday. If you are five minutes late, no class. If you blow two classes — no more teaching.” “It’s a deal,” they had said, with a glint of pleasure in their eyes.

Basic addition took two classes. They learned to add everything — long thin columns, short fat columns, long fat columns. They did dozens of exercises. Subtraction took another two classes. It might have taken one, but “borrowing” needed some extra explanation.

On to multiplication, and the tables. Everyone had to memorize the tables. Each person was quizzed again and again in class. Then the rules. Then the practice.

They were high, all of them. Sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms, they could feel the material entering their bones. Hundreds and hundreds of exercises, class quizzes, oral tests, pounded the material into their heads.

Still they continued to come, all of them. They helped each other when they had to, to keep the class moving. The twelve year olds and the nine year olds, the lions and the lambs, sat peacefully together in harmonious cooperation — no teasing, no shame.

Division — long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots.

They came at 11:00 sharp, stayed half an hour, and left with homework. They came back next time with all the homework done. All of them.

In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years’ worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.

That’s the free school approach.

A well-known school that uses this system is Summerhill School in the U.K. The school was set up by A.S. Neill, who wrote about his experiences in his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. The books How Children Fail and How Children Learn by John Holt are also illuminating.

Going nuclear

There is talk that as oil runs out, the Philippines may need to go nuclear in the future. Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes says his office is currently studying the nuclear option. More than a year ago, I wrote about this issue in a piece I presented in a round-table discussion sponsored by the business community. That discussion included the late Geronimo Velasco, Philippine energy minister when the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant was being built, during the time of President-turned-authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos.

I post the piece here, for the benefit of those who want to look at the matter further. I did not go deeply into all the reasons why I thought the nuclear option was wrong for the Philippines, but focused on some arguments which I thought were not often raised.

Nuclear power in the Philippines: a second opinion

by Roberto Verzola

All issues, especially one as complex and multi-faceted as nuclear power, have to be seen from many perspectives. I carry the perspective of an electrical engineer who had actively opposed the introduction of nuclear power in the Philippines in the 1980s and is still opposed to the idea today.

Among many arguments, I would like the share with the audience the following three:

1. Nuclear power is prone to authoritarian methods. The nature of nuclear power encourages a highly centralized, high-security, secretive bureaucracy. Nuclear power projects are by their very nature large-scale projects. In addition, they involve materials which are not only extremely harmful to human health, but can also be used for weapons of mass destruction. Two influential authors, E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) and Amory Lovins (Soft Energy Paths) have made the argument that it is the nature of nuclear power itself that makes its implementors prone to authoriarianism. A simple example: the government continues to keep secret the ten potential sites for its nuclear power program. The bureaucracy behind nuclear power is basically anti-democratic.

2. Nuclear power attracts corruption. The extremely high cost of even a single nuclear power project will attract corrupt contractors, suppliers and bureaucrats like flies to garbage. We Filipinos paid more than $5 billion for this lesson. Have things changed? Look at other government mega-projects: from election automation to international airport construction, from the mega-dikes to the Macapagal Highway. With a nuclear power plant, can you imagine the consequences of sub-standard materials and construction?

3. Nuclear power projects are highly divisive. The unresolved nuclear safety issues and the so-far insoluble problem of nuclear waste disposal will attract long-term opposition from many sectors (affected communities, environmentalists, activists of various colors, clean energy advocates, losing bidders, and perhaps even the wives and daughters of nuclear power advocates). Anti-nuclear opposition will emerge from the woodworks to block the projects at every step of the way. The nuclear power project will split the country.

A nuclear power plant, if it is successful, may have a useful life of a few decades. It will, however, create a 100,000-year waste management problem which, I will argue, is beyond human scale. Given the many alternatives, going nuclear is madness.

July 6, 2007

Learning to ride a bicycle

According to the book Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale, the most efficient form of transportation on earth is the bicycle. In terms of converting energy to motion, the book says, the bicycle is more efficient than a horse, fish, bird, mouse, car, helicopter, plane, jet, or any other animal or machine.

Given the increasing cost of gasoline, diesel, LPG, and other fossil fuels, we have all the more reason to shift to bicycles for ordinary, day-to-day transport. We should all ask our local officials to set aside road lanes specifically for bicycles, to encourage everyone to use this super-efficient transport mode for daily commuting or just for leisure.

Bicycles do not only save the rider money and the country dollars. They also reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, bicycle assembly, manufacture and repair can become a backyard industry. Best of all, a bicycle keeps the rider fit and healthy.

If you (or your children) don’t know yet how to ride a bike, here’s a painless way to learn, minus the usual bruises:

  • Get a bicycle of the right training height for you: that is, when you sit on the saddle, your heels should barely touch the ground.

  • Unscrew the two pedals and take them out, so that your feet can easily move back and forth without obstruction.

  • Find a level or very slightly inclined road with no motorized traffic that can disturb your riding practice.

  • Practice pushing yourself off with your feet, lifting your feet off the ground for as long as you can, and then extending your feet to stop your fall.

  • Try to stay in balance on the bike for as long as possible. One way to stay in balance is to steer the bike in the direction of your fall. You must learn to do this without conscious thought.

  • Keep practising, until you are confident you can keep your balance as long as possible on a slow-moving bike. Get someone to push you off, for greater momentum.

  • When you can keep your balance without conscious thought, practice how to make turns. Turning essentially involves leaning towards the direction of your turn. Again, practice until you can turn without conscious thought.

  • When you can make turns with confidence, install back the two pedals and learn to use them. You may now start enjoying your new-found riding skill!

An old comment haunts me

It turns out that I wrote two versions of the piece on the financial crisis I posted earlier. The other version, which you’ll find posted here, says basically the same thing but contains the following comment which now haunts me. I had written:

“Unfortunately, most economists appear to have little understanding of system design. (When I was in college, many of those who failed our engineering subjects shifted to economics.) Instead of following good principles of design, our economists repeat the most common mistake of amateur programmers: they rely on global variables.”

What a twist of irony! Although I did pass my electrical engineering course, I’m now an MA economics student in the same university where I learned engineering more than 25 years ago.

It is interesting, though, that many of the early founders of neoclassical economics, like Vilfredo Pareto and Leon Walras had engineering training.

An insightful historical analysis by Philip Mirowski (Against Mechanism) traces the development of neoclassical economics from 19th century physics, whose mathematical methods the early neoclassicals imported en toto and applied to the analysis of consumer utility, producer profit and market equilibrium. The methods of physics, Mirowski says, have changed radically since then, but neoclassical economics remains mired in 19th century physics methods of analysis. I am still trying to grasp the full meaning of Mirowski’s analysis, however.

In another piece (I don’t recall now if in the same book or another), Mirowski also commented that economics needs an algebra of its own, which also haunts me in a different way. It has challenged me to learn more about different algebras. (Aside from the more commonly-known high school/college algebra, there’s boolean algebra, matrix algebra, vector algebra, set algebra, etc.) When I mentioned this to an economist who was currently taking a PhD in Math, he thought about it for a while and then said, “actually, that’s true.”

Another area to explore.

The world financial crisis: a programmer’s perspective

I wrote the piece below some ten years ago, during the height of the Asian financial crisis. Because of its relevance to the current global crisis, I’m posting the piece here.

Globalization: poor design?

by Roberto Verzola

Most successful designers of complex systems follow basic rules of design.

Whether it is a spaceship that will land men on the moon, or a worldwide network of ten million computers such as the Internet, or a huge computer program with fifty million lines of code, or a tiny computer chip with two million transistors on it, the design rules are surprisingly similar.

One of the most basic rules in designing complex systems is called modularization. The rule says one should break up a complex system into smaller parts. These smaller parts – usually called modules – should be more manageable and relatively independent from each other. The modules should interact only through a few well-defined interfaces. Each module should have high internal cohesion. The coupling between modules should be minimized.

A good example is the Apollo lunar mission. One of the most complex systems ever made by human beings, it used modularization all through out, from the design of the spaceship itself, to the electronic circuitry that comprised much of its automatic intelligence. The mission’s spectacular success is a tribute to the effectiveness of modular design.

Another example is the Internet, a computer network designed to survive a nuclear attack. Again, the basic rule in the design of the Internet was modularization. The Internet implements communications through relatively independent network layers which interact with each other only through well-defined interfaces. Internet communications protocols have also been broken down into simpler protocols. There is a protocol for transferring mail, another for news, and still another for files.

In economics, modularization means that countries should try to become as self-sufficient as possible and as independent from each other as possible. It means that interaction between economies should be minimized and should occur only through well-defined regulations. Coupling among economies should be minimal.

Globalization, the current trend among economic planners, violates the design principle of modularization. By tearing down “well-defined interfaces” between economies, globalization increases the coupling among countries and makes countries more instead of less dependent on each other.

A complex system with high interaction among its parts becomes more prone to system failures. It is difficult to modify and to improve. It becomes error-prone, yet the errors are more difficult to identify and to correct. In a poorly-designed system, attempts to correct errors often introduce more errors into the system, making it even more failure-prone.

From a systems view, a globalized economy is a badly designed economy. It will be prone to errors and failures. It will be difficult to maintain and to improve. Attempts at correcting its failures will result in even worse problems.

Look at the problems of today’s globalized economy. Because of the free movement of goods, diseases spread quickly from one corner of the globe to another. CFCs produced in one country damage the ozone layer and threaten the health of the citizens of other countries. Toxic wastes produced in the North find themselves being dumped in the South. Chernobyl’s radioactive emissions threatened the dairy industry of the rest of Europe. A stock market crash in the U.S. would probably send stock prices worldwide tumbling. Because of the free movement of capital, job insecurity as well as speculation has become a global problem.

These are all the consequences of the bad design inherent in a tightly coupled global economy.

Despite this, economists often insist that globalization is inevitable, and the best we can do is to adjust to it.

For a designer’s viewpoint, of course, there is no such thing as “inevitable.” Every design is the result of a conscious or unconscious effort. Poor designs become inevitable only because the designer relaxes on his rules, and adopts an “anything goes” approach. To the economist, on the other hand, relaxing the rules is called “liberalization”, “deregulation”, or “leveling the playing field”. And “anything goes” is called “free-market competition”. A relaxation of the rules then makes it easy to violate the basic principles of good design, and makes globalization inevitable.

Who want the rules relaxed? These are mostly the global corporations, the main beneficiaries of globalization. They are the equivalent of global variables in software.

Software engineers try to eliminate global variables or turn them into local variables. Because global variables can easily cause changes behind the back of the system designer, they make the whole system unreliable and crash-prone. When global corporations use transfer pricing to maximize profits at the expense of the host country, or when they switch to highly automated equipment and minimize local employment, or when they compete with local entrepreneurs for skilled labor or for bank loans, or when they suddenly pull out liquid assets for some reason or another, we are witnessing what system designers call the “undesirable side-effects of global variables.” Thus a fundamental rule in system design is to avoid global variables.

Faced with a badly-designed, non-modular system, designers frequently find it easier and more cost-effective to simply junk the design and to start from scratch.

Perhaps, this is what we should do with globalization.

[From Chapter 22, Towards a Political Economy of Information by Roberto Verzola]

Final exams (and learning how to swim)

It’s that time of year… I just took my final exams in Mathematical Economics. One more exam to go.

The experience of taking that finals reminds me of the swimming lessons I took before my teens. (This was in the sixties, if you must know.) Every summer, the Bernardo Park in Quezon City offered formal swimming lessons for the youth. The park had a clean and well-maintained public swimming pool (25 x 50 meters, I think). Since the pool was just a walking distance from our house in Kamuning, it was very accessible and convenient. I went to swimming class with some friends in the neighborhood.

The program was run by “Sir Luna”, a swimming trainer and a real professional, who conducted it at the pool’s shallow end (4 feet deep).

We started with “bubbling”, learning to breathe in out of the water, and breathe out in the water. Exhale through the nose, inhale through the mouth. The key was in the rhythm. Exhale, inhale. You had to pace yourself. Exhale, inhale. We must have done the bubbling routine tens of thousands of times by the time we finished the course. Exhale, inhale. Note very well: exhale first, then inhale.

After bubbling, it was paddling. Standing chest-deep at the shallow end of the pool, arms stretched out in front and on the gutter, we paddled with the left arm, and then the right. Left, then right.

Then, we were introduced to the “flutter kick”. While we held on to the gutter, we started “fluttering” our feet a few inches up and down, knees kept straight. We also did the flutter kick across the width of the pool, at the shallow end, but no breathing. Just face down, arms stretched in front, and looking at the pool’s bottom as it moved slowly past us. When we ran out of breath, we stopped.

After several training days, we also did the routines two at a time: bubbling and paddling, bubbling and kicking, paddling and kicking. Then we tried all three. We held on to the gutter, facing the swimming pool edge, most of the time.

After two weeks or so of these, we got to try all three routines away from the gutter. The hardest part was the breathing. If you lost your rhythm, you breathed in at the wrong time and took water. You had to stick with the “bubbling” exercise, day after day, until the rhythm became part of you, and your muscles knew by themselves, without any conscious thought from you, when to inhale and when to exhale, just like you do out of the water.

This was, I think, the key – for one’s lungs to learn the exhale-inhale routine and to do it without conscious thought. One by one, my classmates got it, and they started to actually swim by themselves! Then, they were allowed to play at the deep end. But I still didn’t get it. My legs, arms, neck, nose, mouth and especially my lungs had not learned enough. I’d lose my rhythm and then inhale at the wrong time and take in water. I must have drank gallons from that pool.

To graduate, one was expected to dive from a diving board at the deep (9 feet) end of the pool, and swim the 50 meters to the shallow end. In full view of relatives, friends and guests. On graduation day, my friends all made that graduation dive. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t. After graduation, graduates were granted free access to the pool for the rest of summer. Sir Luna was kind enough to give me access too.

For the rest of summer, my friends and I enjoyed that pool. They played at the deep end, showing off their new swimming skills. They loved diving from the diving board. Although I stayed at the shallow end, I enjoyed it as much as they did. Then, one day, it just came. I finally got my rhythm and I started swimming too! So, before the summer ended, I also got to play and to dive at the deep end.

One of our professors in graduate school had told us, “sometimes, you learn more from the tests you fail.” How true. “But your grades won’t show it,” he added. Indeed, failures can often teach us lessons better than success. We call it learning the hard way.

By the way, I made that graduation dive the next summer.