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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Harnessing the Anger of Trolls

"If you want to do something evil, put it in something boring."- John Oliver

John Oliver, host of the HBO comedy show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” made one of the most brilliant rants in the history of internet. Not only was it funny and made people laugh, but it also made them outraged about something a great majority are clueless and apathetic about: net neutrality

The rant was directed against the US Federal Communications Commission’s proposed net neutrality regulations, which was deemed so egregious it forced activists and corporations to be on the same side. The FCC, however, invited the public to post their comments on their website.
And this made Mr. Oliver appeal directly to the trolls and lurkers and other internet commenters out there to “seize their moment” and let their outrage show using their most potent weapon: the keyboard.
   "For once in your life, we need you to channel that anger, that badly spelled bile that you normally reserve for unforgivable attacks on actresses you seem to think have put on weight...or politicians that you disagree with...or photos of your ex-girlfriends getting on with their lives...or non-white actors getting the part of fictional characters... We need you to get out there and for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls. Turn on caps lock and fly my pretties, fly! Fly! Fly!"
Is John Oliver’s call on internet commenters as rousing as Theoden’s speech to the Rohirrim, as stirring as Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech to the British? Well, I wouldn't go that far, but it apparently worked. FCC’s website “experienced technical problems” after thousands upon thousands of faceless commenters flooded the website with their outraged comments. Website's up now, but the point was made.
They heard you, John Oliver.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nothing To Lose

I was reading this article about a so-called “healing priest” and it struck me that even in the 21st century, people are still gullible enough to trust “faith healers.”
There are a lot of reasons for this (poverty and miseducation among them), but in this day and ageyou’d think that people would think twice about trusting those who claim to heal all kinds of diseases through prayers and faith alone. Mind you, the “healers” would make it clear that their healing powers did not come from them, but from a “higher power.” These mysterious power source would range from the Baby Jesus (or the adult one), “Mama Mary,” from a magical dwarf (I’m not kidding), a mysterious hermit, or even from an old lady who claims to be a reincarnation of Jesus.
Filipinos lap these up. Even today, there are many people in the country's rural areas that still believe in anting-anting (amulets). It’s not a coincidence that people in areas that are mired in poverty and with low literacy rates are the ones that have the most superstitious beliefs. But even those who are supposed to be college-educated also believe in all sorts of anting-antings and in the supernatural and the paranormal. 
Like these faith healers. Although many had been revealed as nothing but con men and charlatans, they are still flourishing in this country. What's more, they do not lack for patrons, even from those who are "educated," and from the middle class.
Maybe it’s also a cultural thing? The inhabitants of the Philippines after all practiced a form of animism and other indigenous beliefs during pre-colonial times. Believing in magic healers is not that too great a leap for a people who, until now, believe in kulam
There are also those who turn to faith healers as a result of desperation. "What have we get to lose?" is often what they tell themselves to justify their decision to trust these sleazy purveyors of false hopes. But it is this attitude, this desperation, that these con men count on.
And, it pains me to admit this, our inherent gullibility. 

Reading about this healing priest reminded me of James Randi’s Paranormal Challenge, where a million dollars is offered “to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.” 
James Randi, a stage magician, enemy of charlatans, and a "debunker" of fantastic claims, had said: 
"There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized."

The challenge was first offered in 1964, and so far, no one has won the prize.

The article I linked above is about the aborted deal between one of the country’s top corporations and the foundation headed by a certain Father Fernando Suarez, a “healing priest.” The deal was about a 33 hectare land in Cavite (a province a few kilometers south of Manila) to be donated to Fr. Suarez’s foundation.
A Catholic priest, Fr. Suarez had planned to build a giant statue of Mary on the donated land, a statue that, if built, will rival Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer in terms of size. This giant statue would reportedly cost about a billion Philippine Pesos (around 22 million USD).
The Philippines is among the poorest countries in the world, and is often ravaged by typhoons and other natural disasters. A statue that would cost this much to build in a country like ours is nothing short of obscene.
This is not just your run-of-the-mill religious devotion; this is fanaticism of the nauseating kind. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Writing Tips From Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut, and Neil Gaiman

Authors have different writing styles. To somebody who is halfway literate, Hemingway’s works are as different from Dan Brown’s as Mozart’s music is from Kenny G’s.
It’s not surprising then that different authors have different writing advice.
Compare the different advice given by these three great authors:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  1. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
  1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …
…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  1. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  1. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short storiesClose Range.
  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
And finally:
  1. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

  1. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  2. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  3. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  4. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  5. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  6. Laugh at your own jokes.
  7. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

86-Year Old Man Tells His Life Story

Sometimes, we find something in the internet that makes us smile, something that touches us, and makes us feel happy, even for a brief and fleeting moment.
Whoever this old man is, his account of his life throughout the years, told in rage comic, made me shed a few manly tears.

And as this is November, he reminds of my own father. 
Click here for a larger image: 86 years old...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Of Loneliness and Unheard Songs

Whales, like many mammals, are social animals. Some travel in groups, called “pods,” while some travel alone. Some whale species, like the blue whale and the humpback, are also known to communicate with each other by making vocalizations, called “whale songs.” Although researchers have yet to fully understand the hows and whys of whale songs, they do notice that whales’ karaoke night frequently happens during mating seasons, which suggests that whales use some sort of cetaceous pickup lines—or perhaps “love songs,” that invite the females to mate. Their songs are heard by other whales for thousands of kilometers.

These whales either sing alone, or in a group. They may sing together, in tune with one another. (A choir made up of humpbacks is awesome. I am picturing them in my head right now—with their mouths open, of course.)
Some researchers even suggest that whales recognize each other by the song they are singing, even those coming from a different pod. Of course, different researchers have different ideas on what these songs mean. But many agree that the sounds produced by these majestic creatures are often beautiful, sad, and haunting.
But what happens if a whale’s song is unheard by other whales? Whale songs are sung in a particular frequency, so that other whales can hear them. What if a whale sings in a different frequency?      
For years, a whale has been doing this, singing a song that no other whales can hear. It has been roaming the world’s oceans, alone. The whale belongs to no pod—it has no family, no friends, no partner. It doesn’t even follow the usual whale migration route.

The whale first caught the attention of the U. S. Navy in 1989 when their instruments (hydrophones built to track submarine movements) picked up an unusual frequency coming from the whale. It had all the characteristics of a whale song, but the whale has been singing a song at a frequency that no other whales can hear. Whales usually sing between 15 and 25 hertz; the forever alone whale, on the other hand, sings at 52 hertz. The whale might as well have been speaking in Klingon to a group of Hmongs. Members of the team that track down this whale say that “all signs are that the sounds come from a single animal, whose movements ‘appear to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species.’”

They recorded that distinctive whale song again in 1990 and 1991.  

Nobody knows for sure what species this whale is, but with its unique call, scientists can easily track the whale. They call this whale The Loneliest Whale in the World. The whale swims on, year after year, singing its own beautiful, mournful and haunting song, unheard and unanswered.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, scientists stated that the whale’s voice has since deepened, compared to its voice in 1992. The whale may have grown up since then.
They speculated that the whale might be a hybrid between a blue whale and another species, or else a malformed whale. The research team was even contacted by deaf people who suggest that the whale might be deaf. Or maybe it is the last surviving member of an extinct species, in which case it truly is the world’s loneliest whale.
It has been tracked as far north as Aleutian and Kodiak Islands, and as far south as the coast of California. The whale swims about 30 to 70 kilometers each day, and the longest distance it traveled in one season was reported to be more than 11,000 kilometers, recorded in 2002-2003.
In the whale’s case, loneliness does not seem to affect its health. It has survived for all these years being alone, singing its own song. What do you suppose it's thinking? Maybe it gets puzzled sometimes? 
“I keep calling out to them, why wouldn’t anybody out there answer me? Hello? Hello!”

Then again, the whale might be the cetacean equivalent of an antisocial geek, who shuns other whales. But I don't think so. 
Whatever he is, I hope he doesn't give up; I hope someday he would find another who can hear him sing. He is still out there, swimming by himself, singing his heart out, his voice reverberating in the cold waters of the North Pacific. 
And who knows? Maybe someday another whale will hear his song at 52 hertz.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Keith Richards and The Search For The Lost Chord

For someone who was in the Top Ten Rock Stars Most Likely To Die for ten straight years, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones shows remarkable resilience, considering his rock-star lifestyle.
The music magazine New Musical Express (NME) put Keith Richards (or “Keef”) on this list way back in 1973. They finally removed his name when, after ten years, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist showed no signs of slowing down, either in his music, or in his work-hard-live-hard way of life.
1973 is forty years ago; it’s 2013, and he’s still about, and had just finished a 50th year anniversary (!) tour with his band, The Rolling Stones—arguably the greatest rock and roll band there is today.

Keith Richards may be among rock and roll’s greatest guitarists, and the undisputed King of the Guitar Riffs, but he (and the rest of his band) did not start out at the top.
In his memoir Life (written in collaboration with James Fox, published 2010), Keith Richards recounts that he started out as a blues fan, trying to emulate the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, and other old time blues legends. The Stones were among the first true “rock stars” (with all that title implies), but they also put in a lot of hard work to hone their skills, scrounging around for what gigs they could find, and to learn, learn, and learn some more. Talent and desire helped Keith Richards get started, but hard work carried him the rest of the way—along with all the drugs and alcohol he can ingest. Which was the reason why he was in that list, for ten years—apparently, the amount of drugs and alcohol that passed through his system was enough to kill any other mortal; but of course, Keith Richards is not an ordinary mortal.  
Keith Richards (2006)
When the Stones get to tour in the USA (their first, in 1964), and get to meet their idols, Keith Richards have this to say:
“We’d been playing this music, and it had all been very respectful, but then we were actually there sniffing it. You want to be a blues player, the next minute you fucking well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast that you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you. It comes later on, the flashbacks, because it’s all so much. It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”
The Stones’ music is deeply rooted in the blues. The band was initially formed by the members’ mutual passion for the blues in its purest and rawest form. Keith Richards lived and breathed the blues; he listened to every blues record he could find, him and Mick Jagger, until he absorbed their mighty teachings. Adding his own, he created something new and wondrous. This is what makes the Stones’ music distinct—Keith’s guitar riffs, along with Mick Jaggers’ vocals.
Keith Richards in his early years tried to emulate the playing style of one his blues heroes, Jimmy Reed. His description of how he tried to emulate his hero sounds very much like hard work:
"But to dissect how he played, Jesus. It took me years to find out how he actually played the 5 chord, in the key of E—the B chord, the last of the three chords before you go home, the resolver in a twelve-bar blues—the dominant chord, as it’s called. When he gets to it, Jimmy Reed produces a haunting refrain, a melancholy dissonance. Even for non–guitar players, it’s worth trying to describe what he does. At the 5 chord, instead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn’t bother with the B at all. He’d leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. And there’s the haunting note, resonating against the open A. So you’re not using root notes, but letting it fall against a 7th. Believe me, it’s (a) the laziest, sloppiest single thing you can do in that situation, and (b) one of the most brilliant musical inventions of all time."
The book also recounts the bands’ touring days, from touring in a van to a major commercial endeavor, a massive corporate machine involving private jets, a small army of roadies, technicians, engineers, lawyers, reporters, hangers on and other personnel.
And groupies, as well as all sorts of drugs and booze to cope with the demands of being on the road. To hear Keith tells it, it is extremely difficult for a band on a tour with just coffee or soda and enthusiasm powering them up.
Johnny Depp, a long-time fan of Keith Richards, has stated in interviews that he modeled Captain Jack Sparrow after the Stones’ legendary guitarist. 

Keith Richards as Captain Teague Sparrow, Captain Jack Sparrow's father in the film franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean"
He counts Keith Richards as a friend.

In the book, the Stones’ guitarist says that Johnny Depp was just this timid, quiet friend of his son, Marlon, who always hangs around their house. He mistook him for a drug dealer. When his son explained things to him, he exclaimed to the famous actor, when he next saw him, “Edward Scissorhands!”
It turns out that Johnny Depp has always been in awe, and has always idolized, Keith Richards. He had just finished a documentary about the life of his idol, a film four years in the making.
Speaking of Marlon Richards, it is quite remarkable that the son of a rock and roll god and a famous model, brought up in a household with two heroin-addicted parents with an unorthodox lifestyle, could grow up as normal as he did. While other people in similar situations self-destructed, Marlon Richards grew up with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Growing up, he was often left alone, which he did not mind, “…because it was exhausting with Anita [Pallenberg, his mother] and Keith.” Marlon, a father of three, is a gallery curator, graphic artist, and a photographer. He lives quietly in a farmhouse with his family, a life vastly different from the days when he, as a six-year-old kid, accompanied his father on tours.   
Keith Richards is for many years now sober, and has given up hard drugs. He is grandfather to four kids, a rock legend, with a body of work that would be remembered for as long as humanity listens to music.
Wih wife and two daughters

The autobiography is extremely entertaining, with enough anecdotes and vignettes from various stages of Keith’s life to make rock fans happy. 
The tone of the book makes you feel as if you are right there with him, drinking beer, you listening slack jawed, while Keith Richards, strumming absent-mindedly on his guitar, rambles on about his life, his music, his band, the people he loves (and has loved), and what it means to be Keith Richards.

“It is impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were,” he says.

Now go read the book.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

So You Think Evolution Is Just A Theory?

Many people have been told that evolution is just a theory, and that it is, at most, a hypothesis, or even a guess.

A scientific theory, however, is different from the theory the general public is familiar with. Many of us equates theory with hypothesis, which is erroneous. To a scientist, a theory is an explanation of a phenomenon. A scientific law, on the other hand, is a description of a phenomenon, and can be proven by a mathematical equation.

To illustrate: Newton’s law of gravity describes how gravity works, which basically means that things fall down if you let go of them. His theory of gravity, on the other hand, is an attempt to explain why this happens (although modern scientists accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a better explanation of gravity). Newton’s and Einstein’s theories will always remain theories, because they are explanations, and different from a law, which describes things. 

A scientific theory therefore does not graduate into a scientific law, as many misinformed people seem to believe. A scientific theory meets these three requirements: it should be supported by evidence, is testable and falsifiable, and can be used to make predictions.
It is common to hear people say, “Oh, it’s just a theory. I’ll believe it if it becomes into a law.” They think that a scientific theory, if backed by further evidence, “graduates” into a law. This is not the case. To reiterate, a scientific theory does not become a law. It never does.

(Read: 10 Scientific Laws And Theories You Should Know About.)

Moreover, a theory should not be confused with hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess made by scientists as an attempt to explain the cause of an event or phenomenon. They then rigorously test this hypothesis through experiment and observation, and if enough evidence is found to support it, and it repeatedly passes various tests it is subjected to, then it graduates into a theory. The theory of evolution, in more than a hundred and fifty years of study, experimentation, and observation, passes these tests with flying colors. It has never failed any crucial test. It has never been seriously challenged, only refined, and an overwhelming amount of evidence has been found that supports it. Evolution, in fact, is the basis for biology, without which biology and medicine wouldn’t make sense.
Someone who dismisses evolution as just a theory probably is just confused, and is unaware of what a scientific theory means. But if this someone is a figure of authority, like a pastor, or a teacher, they probably mean to confuse you, or even mislead you, and are letting their beliefs and prejudices cloud their judgment.

Many Christians (and other religionists) think that evolution is anti-God. This is not true. The Catholic Church, in fact, accepts evolution as a valid scientific inquiry.
Read this quote from Pope John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Science (1996), in which he reaffirms the Church's position regarding evolution:
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.... Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
Pope Benedict, in fact, calls the conflict between "creationism" and evolution absurd:
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

As the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it,Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.

Unfortunately, most of those who deny evolution have already made up their minds, not because of some scientific reasons, but because their faith would not let them have the idea of a universe not put in order by some Creator.

“The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”

--Benjamin Franklin
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