Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I just submitted an entry to a contest jointly sponsored by the Technology Credit Union and the Singularity University ( The prize: a full scholarship to participate in one of the Singularity University's programs, something I have coveted ever since the University opened, but couldn't afford. I got interested in the concept of the technological singularity after reading Ray Kurzweil's book "The Singularity is Near."

One of the requirements of the contest was to write an essay of 500 words or less on "how exponential technologies could revamp the U.S. public school system over the next decade, and how these technologies could change the delivery of education worldwide."  It was really difficult to fit such a complex idea into 500 words, but the deadline is very close, so I sent in my essay anyway. Wish me luck!

Here is what I sent:

A technological singularity is the point when technology advances so rapidly that the future after that point becomes qualitatively different and harder to predict. Because of this, the most important goal of education is to develop in the students the ability to adapt to rapid change. This would require equipping students with basic language, mathematics, and science skills; but more than that, it would require developing strong observational and analytical skills.

Constant, life-long learning is no longer optional. This attitude has to be developed early in our youth. As the exponential growth of knowledge means the content of knowledge is not static, children need to learn at an early age how to do research. Most research now cannot be done without collaboration, and children need to be taught early how to collaborate on projects and use the various collaboration tools.

A technological singularity would have disruptive social implications. In some ways, the singularity is here. The accelerated rate of technological change has disrupted job markets, creating tremendous opportunities for a technologically savvy elite but making other skills obsolete. It has made outsourcing of certain jobs inevitable. It has created opportunities for other countries to compete.

The good news is that same accelerated pace of technological change has vastly enlarged the sources of knowledge and allows us call up that vast store of knowledge with the tap of a finger. It has given us the ability to network resources and collaborate to solve the big problems that our society and the world face.

Learning has to be connected to real life situations that the children can relate to and need. Botany, soil chemistry, nutrition, biomimetics, physical activity, etc., can be integrated in a school garden. In teaching computer use, we can touch on encryption, imaging, signal detection. Lessons can grow in complexity as age-appropriate. If it takes a YouTube video to get kids excited about chemistry, encourage it.

Businesses must pair up with schools not only to provide mentors, but to ensure a steady supply of future talent, as well as keep in touch with the needs and to harness the imagination of the next generation. (My son wished for a tapewriter before personal computers were invented; now we have voice-activated computers.)

Online education needs to be encouraged, especially free sites like, Tinkering should be encouraged (see Every school should have a lab, preferably with a 3D printer. The school itself should be a learning tool, with labels and videos everywhere showing how things work, etc.

We also need to find ways to get our youth to learn about the rest of the world because the impact of the singularity is global.  Social networks can be used. With Google Translate, we can now look at Websites written in other languages.

Libraries need to be universally digitized and access expanded. Internet access must be ubiquitous and affordable.  While the internet is not the be-all and end-all, it is as basic an educational need as the three Rs. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Next 100 Years

I promised to tell you more about "The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman, so here it is.

George Friedman is a geopolitical analyst, founder of Stratfor, a private intelligence and forecasting company. In "The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, " he has some interesting predictions on the dust cover of the book :
* In 2020, China fragments
* In 2050, there will be a global war between US, Turkey, Poland, and Japan -- the new great superpowers
* In 2080, space-based energy powers earth
* In 2100, Mexico challenges U.S.

Intriguing, isn't it? I asked an officemate who is from China if the prediction was possible, and the answer was yes, as Chinese history shows.

Friedman's  predictions are based on the premise that in a globally interconnected world, geography plays a very important role in determining political and economic power. In particular, easy access to and control of the seas are very important. Control of space will eventually be important, too, but will not obviate the need for control of the sea for any country that wishes to be in power.

He believes that the 21st century will be the American century, contrary to other people's assertions.

Friedman acknowledges that no one can really predict the future with any certainty, but he believes, given the geopolitical, historical analysis he has done, that he has the general trends right. I thought it interesting that, after I read the book (which was published in 2009), Turkey was in the news asserting some leadership in the region. As for space-based energy, try googling it. Here's one result:

 It is certainly worth reading this book to find out more.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Gender Roles

I was listening to a news report on NPR about an incident concerning a female sports reporter in a locker room (see and recalled a guest column I had written for the Manila Chronicle. I'm not telling you when :-)  The column was called Gender and was a forum for different people to post their views.

Here it  is:


My Boys Don't Buy the Margarine Ad

Would anyone believe, when I stride along in a short skirt and high heels with my face made up and my nails painted, that I am a staunch advocate of equal opportunities for women and men?

Would anyone believe that my friend, an activist in the women's movement, would wait up till 2 a.m. to serve her husband a hot meal after he had been out drinking with the boys?

Yet neither my friend nor I am out to deceive anyone. It's just that this whole gender issue is a complex thing that can (and for me, must) be approached at different levels.

Is a certain standard of dress a correlate of sexual equality? Where does one draw the line between acts of subservience and expressions of love?

We are, after all,each in a trap, which is sometimes of our own making.

Over drinks with some friends, talk turned to relationships between men and women. (One (a career woman) started complaining about her husband not doing his share of house work. Trying to defuse what I had sensed could turn into an embarrassing situation (the husband was around), I remarked that before they go into a slanging match, couples who are having conflicts over sex roles should consider that a great part of the conflict cannot be resolved at an interpersonal level.

Who should take care of the children, for example, when both parents have careers? Internal arrangements between husband and wife are only a stopgap measure. A real solution, I argued, would require societal adjustments such as day care centers and job-sharing alternatives.

My friend retorted, "That's easy for you to say, you don't have to live with a man." And that shut me up (I'm divorced) but not for long.

My two children are boys in their teens and one of the things I would dearly like to equip them with is the ability to look at women as persons first and female only second. That task can sometimes be an awesome thing.

Only half-jokingly have I often remarked to my frineds that one of my worst fears is that I would raise a couple of mama's boys or male chauvinists. After all, quite a number of them have agreed with me that there seems to be something in Filipino child-rearing practices that spoils the boys. (And many women complete the process by spoiling their men.)

When a margarine ad claiming that growing children needed the energy the product provided showed a boy in various play situations and a girl doing chores, I wondered if the ad were influencing or merely reflecting social reality.

Knowing how much I was up against, I took my children's sexual education very seriously. One of the things I decided early on was to demystify sex.

As early as three years old (that's when he  got curious) my first-born learned the clinical description of procreation and childbirth together with the purpose of the condom. Where may parents would say "You'll learn that when you're older," I attempted to answer as matter-of-factly as I could. (Sometimes it's hard to keep a straight face, though.)

Part of this campaign was putting them in coeducational schools. The schools helped somehow in that home economics lessons were the same for boys and girls, which was not the case when I was studying.

As they grew older, I would try, without pontificating, to discuss the issue with them. My gripes against the margarine ad was one such occasion.

But to avoid the fate of the emperor who was unmasked by the boy, I had most of all to try to live by what I believed.

While I like cooking and don't hate washing dishes, I see to it that they take a hand in these things too. (It is often easire, believe me, to do te housework yourself than to convince and train boys whose consciousness is being hammered by such things as the margarine ad to do chores.)

The other side of this coin is that I can't afford to be dumb about simple electrical repairs or wait for a man to clean the drainage system.

While it may be too early to tell how they would really turn out, I think my boys got the message that women are not inferior beings to be bullied or patronized.

How can I tell?

Well, one of the women my 17-year-old admires is model Gina Leviste, who, he always points out, is a summa cum laude graduate of economics and is the marketing manager of the firm she models for.

As for my 12-going-on-13-yer-old, just a few weeks ago when we were kidding around and he was taunting me with a twinkle in his eye that men were superior, I asked him, "Now, seriously speaking, son, do you really believe that?"

And he answered, "No, I think they are equal."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mother of the Believers

The title caught my eye-- Mother of the Believers. It is the story of the birth of Islam,  told as the memoir of Aisha, a  Mother of the Believers, as the prophet Muhammad's wives were called.  If you want to learn about the history of Islam from the point of view of a Muslim, this book is a very enjoyable way of doing so. I was describing the story to a Muslim friend, and he told me that I probably now know more about the birth of Islam than some people born and raised in Muslim countries. He also told me that this book was written from the Sunni perspective. (He was raised in the Shia or Shiite traditions.) The different branches of Islam arose after the death of Muhammad, a result of conflict on the question of succession. The conflict is touched on in the novel.

The author, Kamran Pasha, is described in the book covers as "an acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter and television producer" who was born in Pakistan and moved to the US at the age of three and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When I saw his next book, "Shadow of the Swords" there was no question -- I had to have it. This second novel is the story of the Crusades --Richard the Lionheart battles Saladin.

A question and answer portion at the end of the book sheds light on the writing of this book.  Pasha wrote this novel in light of the current conflict between the Western and Muslim worlds. He says, "the Third Crusade represents in my view the closest analogy to the events of today, with one crucial difference-- the 'heroes' and the 'villains' are reversed." This novel is written in the third person because, Kamran Pasha says, "I wanted to be fair and true to the varying points of view about faith, politics, and warfare presented in the book."

While keeping true to historical facts about major events, Pasha adds fictional characters to bring across what he feels are important perspectives. The heroine of the story is Miriam, a fictional niece of the real Jewish scholar Maimonides who was court physician to Saladin. Pasha created Miriam, he said, "to give a woman's point of view as well as a Jewish perspective on both Christian and Muslim actions." Another important fictional character, Sir William Chinon, was added "because he represents what I believe is the true face of Christianity, a religion like Islam that at its best is about love, humility, and service."

Pasha is an excellent writer who makes you believe in his characters. I can't wait to see what he will write next.

Check out his Website

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I just finished reading Stieg Larsson's Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), thank goodness! I can't afford another sleepless night!

The trilogy traces the mysterious Lisbeth Salander, tattooed social misfit crime solver par excellence, as she partners with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist to expose criminals within the establishment. The last mystery to be solved is the mystery of Slander's life, revealing her incredible story of survival.

I brought the third book to my doctor's appointment yesterday as I was almost at the end, and the nurse noticed it and said she was reading the same thing. She was as enthused about it as I was. She said she even brought one of the books to her daughter's recital and was sneaking in some reading while waiting for her daughter to come on, and another Mom in the audience noticed her and said she was also reading the trilogy and loved it.

Definitely a must-read, but before you start make sure you do not have any pressing deadlines for work or you will be seriously conflicted!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Margaret Atwood

I've read two Margaret Atwood novels and thoroughly enjoyed them both.

The Handmaid's Tale is a frighteningly convincing story of a woman trapped in a fictional North American republic of the future, the Republic of Gilead, where religion is used by a group of Christians to reduce women to a few subservient roles stratified by class but limited in all cases to the function of procreation or domestic tasks. Dissenters, including people of other religious persuasions, were tortured and killed.

The Year of the Flood is set in a different fictional future after most of humankind has been wiped out by a"waterless flood" -- actually a pandemic-- predicted by Adam One, leader of a religious group called God's Gardeners who preached oneness with nature and taught its member survival skills to prepare them for the coming disaster. It is told mostly from the point of view of two survivors from God's Gardeners. Again, Margaret Atwood imagines convincing scenarios -- of genetic experiments gone awry and unchecked corporate power gone amuck.

In both stories, however, there is redemption. In The Handmaid's Tale, an underground resistance, a FemaleRoad, eventually rescues the woman. Not all Christians succumbed to the madness that was the Republic of Gilead. The Year of the Flood is ultimately a tale of survival by a few of God's Gardeners, helped along by unlikely friendships.

I highly recommend both books to encourage people to think about possible futures, especially possible horrible futures, so that we may try to avoid them! However, if you don't want to think of serious things, just read the books anyway, for entertainment.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


At some point in my life I thought I wanted to be an anthropologist. I actually finished the coursework for an M.A. in anthropology, but I did not finish my thesis. I rationalized it at the time thinking it was difficult to do fieldwork while trying to earn a living, raising two kids. Looking back now, I realize it was really because I did not have a passion for doing it; I only loved reading about it!

Here is a book review I did as part of the coursework.


The Study of Prehistoric Change: A Review

Fred Plog's The Study of Prehistoric Change is a veritable invitation to archaeology, dispelling the common reader's notion that archaeology is just poking around in caves and burial grounds looking for interesting stuff to be displayed in museums and rich men's houses.

Discussing the goals and methods of archaeology in the first two chapters, Plog puts forward the thesis that archaeology is particularly suited to the study of change, dealing as it does with enormous depths of time. He proceeds to demonstrate this by attempting to explain the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition.

Here we happily note that Plog does not assume that his readers are all archaeologists (or archaeologists familiar with his field, for that matter). He give sufficient but not overwhelming background on things he discusses so that the reader does not feel something of an eavesdropper at a secret club's meeting.

Plog explains that the Baskemaker-Pueblo concept, systematized by Kidder, refers to stages in the development of Anasazi culture in the American Southwest.

The research design discussed and used by Plog consists of the following steps:
1. Formulation of the problem
2. Formulation of hypothesis
3. Operationalization of hypothesis
4. Acquisition of data
5. Testing of hypothesis
6. Evaluation of research.

Plog contends that "the search for laws to render predictable a specific set of events, the appearance of Pueblo culture, can best be sought at the level of the set of events of which the Southwestern transition is one example, at the level of understanding the nature of change during transformations."

He proposes to use a model of growth focused on four dimensions: population, differentiation, integration, and energy. Miller's definition is utilized: "Population is the size of the system, differentiation is the number of parts, differentiation is the strength of the ties between parts, and energy is the quantity of resources the system is processing." Since the existing definition of the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition is stated in technological terms, Plog concentrates on specifying the relationships between technological change and change in each of the dimensions.

He hypothesizes as follows: All of the dimensions may have an impact on technological change, but we should expect changes in the dimension of differentiation to have the greatest impact. Similarly, to the extent that exogenous technological changes may have an impact on the other dimensions, we should expect such changes to be reflected in a change in differentiation."

From this hypothesis he derives some test implications.

The site selected was the Upper Little Colorado area, specifically in the Hay Hollow Valley.

Answering his own question of "How representative is this area of the Anasazi region as a whole," Plog cites several studies to support his conclusion that "ecologically and culturally, the area is appropriate for studying the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition" and that "it is ecologically identified with the area inhabited by representatives of the Anasazi tradition and the sequence of artifactual and settlement changes is in accord with Kidder's definition."

Plog draws the data in his analysis of the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition from three sources:
1. surveys and excavations done by the Southwest Archaeological Expeditions for the Field Museum of Natural History in the summers of 1967 and 1968
2. surveys and excavations done by the expedition during 15 years of research in the Upper Little Colorado region
3. the literature of southwestern prehistory.
The most critical data used in testing the hypothesis came from the first.

Fieldwork was carried out first by surveying the valley to learn more about it, enough to determine what kind of samplig was appropriate, since the project did not have the time and resources to cover the entire area intensively.

Plog describes the sample used as stratified, systematic, unaligned design. Each step in the smapling procedure is described and the reasons for the decision given. I am not sufficiently well-versed with statistical techniques to comment on the suitability of the procedures and sample sizes chosen. The most I can say on this is that (it at least gives me the impression that) I can go back and check on it later should I feel competent and interested enough to do so. At any rate, I am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt on this point since he is most concerned here with demonstrating a method which he hopes will be replicable and will lend itself to predictability, and not with re-creating a scenario for the area under study.

As indicated in the research design he presented, Plog's last step is the evaluation of the research. He focuses on two questions: "(1) Did the research provide new information concerning the phenomenon under consideration? (2) Did the research provide a basis for understanding and explaining the phenomenon?"

In answer to the first question, Plog says "the discussion of the transistion in terms of (these) four phenomena constituted new information, expecially insofar as patterns of cgange that seem to underly (sic) the transition were identified." More explicitly, he states: "this analysis in terms of identified patterns of cultural variability represents an addition to Kidder's analysis which focused principally on traits and trait complexes. It has identified the processual context on which these trait changes occurred."

Answering the second question, Plog hastens to clarify that he does "not claim to have offered a complete explanation of the transition, only to have made a first step in that direction."

In testing his model of change, Plog found that during the transition from Basketmaker to Pueblo, population and population density increased, processes of differentiation were shown to be operating, the emergence of a redistributive system and of status differentiation indicated emerging integrative functions, evidence of increasing efficiency in tool-making and more developed storage facilities appeared.

A multivariate analysis of the model generally strengthened the findings but revealed an anomaly. In Plog's words:

"In summary, the model did adequately predict the technological changes that characterized the transition. but, apparently, some of the linkages within the model were different from those postulated. in addition, we are left in the uncomfortable position of knowing that correlations exist between the dimensions without knowing if and in what direction causality operates."

On the whole, Plog's book is a well-thought-out, well-written work whose chief value is not so much what light it has shed on the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition as the research methodology it espouses.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Culture Shock

Ok, this is another piece from my saved writings. I figure it will take a long time to rack up the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says I will need to be good what I want to become, "a writer." One of these days I'll tally up the hours from these recycled pieces to see how much further I need to go. This piece was written for a class in writing for publication. I was supposed to submit it for publication, but I never did.

Eavesdropping on the American couple at the next table at the Intercontinental Hotel restaurant in Manila, I smiled - no, smirked- to myself when I heard them order Thousand Island dressing with Ceasar's salad. I should have thought then of karma.

So you've grown up on Hollywood movies; read, written, and spoken English (aside from Tagalog, Ilongo, Pampango, Cebuano, or whatever) all your life; regularly met with friends for lunch or coffee at five-star hotel restaurants; shopped at the very best malls in Makati where you could buy products from all over the world. Do you think that means you're exempt from culture shock? Guess again!

Here are some things I wish I had known when I first set foot in California:
On language:
  • Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel are not representative of the way Americans speak. Newscasters enunciate things more clearly and speak more slowly.
  • The pronunciation you learned from Webster's will often not be the way Americans pronounce words, and they will correct you!
On social interaction:
  • People no more want to hear how you really are when they say "How are you?" than you want to know where the other guy is going in Manila when you ask him where he's going. You say "Pretty good. And you?" and the other person says "Good," and all through that interchange, both of you keep going.
  • You have to learn how to introduce yourself to people. There is so much mobility that you can't rely on finding a mutual acquaintance to do that for you.
It's the little things, however, that'll kill you! You encounter a different type of faucet, figure out how to use it, and feel great about yourself. The you encounter another, and another, and soon come upon one that you couldn't figure out. Help! And then there's the toilet flush tank in all shapes and sizes, with levers and buttons in different places.
America is the land of many choices; that's one of the things most people like about it. But to a newcomer, it makes even a simple matter of ordering a sandwich an ordeal. do you want white, wheat, rye, sourdough, croissant, or bagel, etc., etc.; with ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, lettuce, etc., etc.? Do you want hash browns, or fries, or baked potato with that? Do you want your eggs sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, or poached? Someone I know was frozen to inaction at the supermarket -- she simply wanted some hotdogs and found a whole aisle to choose from.

But take heart, pump up that good old Filipino sense of humor, and you'll soon have people exclaiming in surprise when you tell them you haven't been here very long!

Friday, July 30, 2010

You Write Like A Girl!

Looking through my trove of scribbles that I've saved through the years, I came across this short piece that I wrote in a burst of nostalgia.I showed it to a male friend, and he remarked "You write like a girl!" That somehow sounded like a bad thing to me. Reading it now, I think, "Of course I wrote like a girl; I was a girl!

Of Trees and Childhood Memories

It is a humid Friday afternoon and the sky is scowling with ill-temper. I am frowning too, as I walk along Buendia Avenue to the bus stop.

A heady scent assails my senses, and I break into a smile as I notice the narra trees in bloom. I am transported to the summers of my childhood and I see in my mind's eye that section of Taft Avenue where we used to live -- a wide band of black asphalt lined with narra trees. The trees are tall and spreading, the branches of the trees on either side reaching out to touch each other, thick with shiny green leaves. In the summer they look so glorious, bursting with a million tiny golden-yellow flowers. Soon the hot summer winds blow off the flowers and they line the sides of the street, fragrant golden rivulets against the black asphalt.

How I loved standing on that sidewalk, scruffing my feet on the thick carpet of yellow, filling my lungs to bursting with the delicious perfume!


In "The Female Brain" Louann Brizendine, M.D. writes: "In the brain centers for Language and hearing,... women have 11 percent more neurons than men. The principal hub of both emotions and memory formation -- the hippocampus --is also larger in the female brain, as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Remembering Dad

My Dad would have turned 89 on July 14, but he left us too early. I got my love of reading from both my Mom and Dad, but my Dad gave me the curiosity that gave rise to the breadth of my reading interests.

He always said books should always be accessible. That's how I got hold of "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck when I was eight, and had read it before my parents noticed. My Mom saw me holding it and said it was too mature for me, but it was too late!

Dad had a book, "The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science" that I'd like to reread. At the time the book was written, man hadn't reached the moon and there was no television. I'd like to see what had come true of the author's predictions. I could not get hold of a copy of that book, so I bought George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years" out of nostalgia and curiosity. (More on that book later.)

He made math fun, writing "Q. E. D." with a flourish at the end after he'd shown me how to solve a problem, exclaiming, "Quod erat demonstrandum; quite easily demonstrated!" I got nostalgic about QED, too, when I bought Richard Feynman's "QED, " which turned out to be Feynman's attempt at explaining quantum electrodynamics to non-physicists.

His encouraging me to go to the college library to borrow "A Tale of Two Cities" which was not available in our elementary school library was a lesson in not letting artificial social boundaries limit you.

Other things he did, though not directly related to reading, developed my curiosity about the world that ultimately led to widening the range of my reading interests.

Making guava jelly became like a science experiment when we measured the pectin content of the guava in a test tube.

An art project to make a replica of a Greek temple became a geometry lesson as he showed me how to make the three-dimensional figure from one flat piece of art paper.

Cleaning cuts and scrapes with hydrogen peroxide became a chemistry lesson as he explained that hydrogen peroxide was H2O2 - water with an added oxygen molecule.

When I wanted to buy a bubble gum machine from the Sear's catalog, he suggested that we design one ourselves (because we could not afford to buy it) and I had so much fun that I forgot about not being able to buy one.

I cannot count the times I've said,"Guess where I learned that from? My Dad!"

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why are we so fascinated with invisibility?

Cloaking devices are standard fare in science fiction stories, most notably, Star Trek. Harry Potter has a cloak of invisibility, although he is not the first fictional character to have one.

There is also serious scientific research into invisibility. Imagine the military uses -- you would not need a Trojan Horse to infiltrate enemy territory.

I got started on this train of thought because of my mother. She recently retired, and I suggested that she write down stories of her life. Her story on invisibility had me laughing hard. When she was about 12, a cousin who was her constant playmate said he heard that holding a dog bone would make you invisible. His dog had died the year before, so they dug up its bones. He held up the bones one at a time, asking her, "Can you see me now?" They were so angry after checking out all the bones and finding out it wasn't true.

But there is a flip-side to this issue. Some societies use shunning or ostracism to punish non-conforming members, rendering the punished one "invisible" because no one acknowledges his or her existence. This can be very painful and unsettling for the "invisible" one.

Fiction also deals with the unwanted side of invisibility (see The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells, for example).

Bottom line- invisibility is cool only if it is under our control.
When will they ever learn?

I was listening to NPR recently and I heard an interview with author S.C. Gwynne. "Could it be the same S.C. Gwynne who wrote "Selling Money," I wondered. So I googled him and it was, indeed the same person.

When I was working for the Manila Chronicle, my editor I plunked a book at my desk and said, "Here, read this and write about it. Fill up a page today." The book was "Selling Money" by S. C. Gwynne. I checked my files and found my article. Rereading it, I was struck by how relevant it seems today - just think credit derivatives instead of Third World country loans. Banks chasing profits without fully understanding what they were dealing with caused a financial crisis.

So here is the article:

The Debt Crisis Through a Banker's Eyes
by Edith Sangalang-Atienza
Manila Chronicle, 1987

SELLING MONEY by S.C. Gwynne, Penguin Books ©1986

An insider guides you through the otherwise intimidating, confusing world of international banking during the lending boom of the 1970s and the debt crisis years in the '80s. S.C. Gwynne, international loan officer of the Cleveland Trust Company at age 25, paints a fantastic picture of banks swept along by a confluence of events to banking imprudence on a global scale.
The tale begins, appropriately, with the event that brought to the world's consciousness the term debt crisis. In August 1982, then current finance minister of Mexico Jesus Silva Herzog told the US Treasury Department that his country was bankrupt and therefore had to default on $80 billion that it owed to one thousand four hundred foreign banks.
"Loans to Third World nations barely even existed prior to 1970. Now a single country had been able to borrow a massive percentage of the capital and reserves of the world's largest banks," Gwynne states.
The more horrifying realization that had been brought home to the bankers by Mexico's announcement, however, was the fact that the creditor banks had been caught unaware by it: they were ignorant of the real state of Mexico's finances.
How could such a thing have happened? Gwynne tells of his own experience with the Cleveland Trust Company to show the reader how. Cleveland Trust Company (renamed Ameritrust in 1979) was, by Gwynne's account, "a conservative Midwestern bank with no international division to speak of," but towards the mid-70s was feverishly staffing up, as other banks were, to cash in on the enormously profitable business of lending to developing countries.
The lending boom, Gwynne says, began with the oil crisis of 1973: "...between enriching itself and impoverishing the third world, Opec created the most dangerous economic disequilibrium in history: the unnaturally large surplus on Opec's books became unnaturally large deficits on the books of poor countries of the world. And that surplus had to move, or else the world financial establishment would come tumbling down with a crash not heard of since 1929."
Whether or not one agrees with Gwynne's analysis of the imperatives created by the situation, the fact remains that there were huge funds deposited in the large (and not so large) banks of the world which, in the logic of banking, had to be invested somewhere (or rather, lent to be invested).
American banks, however, were in a bind. American banking law prohibited international bank branching, thus limiting banks' potentials for growth. But the banks soon discovered that the law did not limit where corporate clients could come from, so the banks turned to corporate financing as they grew. One thing leads to another. The big corporate clients had significant overseas operations, and when the oil crisis hit developing countries, their capacity to pay for imports (whether raw materials or finished products) was severely impaired. Banks were persuaded by their big corporate clients to finance developing country imports. For Cleveland Trust Co., at least, this was the route "into the money vortex."
So who cares about the Cleveland Trust Co.? How many people have even heard of it? Banks whose names people the world over recognize and associate with foreign debt are Citicorp, Bank of America, Chase Manhattan, Manufacturers Hanover, Morgan Guaranty, and Chemical bank, the big banks with branches around the world.
Gwynne points out: "Although they dominate banking in the US, the top ten banks still constitute less than 25 percent of the system's assets. The next fifty banks down the ladder control $557 billion in assets, and viewed in aggregate they constitute a powerful presence in international banking."
Lending to Third World firms and governments need not necessarily have led to a debt crisis. The crux of the matter is, "the banks seemed to have learned nothing from history."
Young bankers with impressive MBAs and even more impressive expense accounts jetted around the world "selling money," looking for firms, whether private or state-owned, to lend money to. The pace of growth of foreign lending was so fast, however, that these loan officers were sent on field with hardly any knowledge of the culture and inner workings of the sociopolitical milieu of the potential borrowers' countries. Some were even sent to countries whose language they hardly understood. Assiduously, they compiled data and filed reports on which banks calculated the risks involved. (Citibank invented country risk analysis in 1974, Gwynne informs us.) But statistics were often dated and sometimes even falsified, and the banks' bright boys were ill-equipped to detect this.
Worse, "what was inexplicably overlooked by Cleveland Trust and by many other US banks was that a foreign borrower was only as solvent as its country of domicile...This is 'convertibility risk': the possibility that a foreign company might not be able to convert local currency to dollars to repay foreign debt."
Despite avowed awareness of convertibility risk, banks went on their lending spree and compounded their error, Gwynne relates, "with a far more serious breach of their traditional credit policies: They placed no upper limit on the amount any country or company could borrow from a banking system... ."
The system itself made this difficult to do. There were thousands of banks competing with each other to lend to the Third World, and many loans were short-term borrowings from the Eurodollar market (which were frequently rolled over and ended up in effect as long-term loans).
The Eurodollar market, the "invisible bank," explains Gwynne, placed much of international lending outside sovereign control. He called the practice of interbank lending in the Euromarket "the most radical and dangerous innovation in banking in the post-war world," because it became possible for banks to operate on very high leverage ratios. It was the Eurodollar market which made it possible for the banks to lend astronomical sums beyond their capitalization.
Using the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), the banks found a way for the borrowing countries to assume the risks involved in the loans. Creditor banks arranged long-term loans for Third World firms, borrowed on short-term from the Euromarket, tacked on the Libor plus their own fees/interest, and for as long as the borrowers kept paying, raked in a lot of money.
The banks' confidence in the soundness of this enterprise was bolstered by its discovery in 1978 that "the International Monetary Fund (IMF)...could be used to police the banks' credits, enforce their loan covenants, and-here was the real genius-underwrite foreign risk with taxpayers' money."
One more significant thing that the banks overlooked was the phenomenon of capital flight. As fast as loan dollars were coming into the Third World countries, the affluent classes among them would be acquiring properties abroad instead of putting them into productive enterprises that would have generated the means for their ultimate repayment.
Cleveland Trust's $10 billion loan to the Construction and Development Corporation of the Philippines (CDCP) in 1980 provides the perfect example. Gwynne was involved in the loan as a calling officer (something like a glorified Euroclean man).
The loan was to finance exports of an American firm to CDCP. The firm had an unhealthy debt-equity ratio, but its president, Rodolfo Cuenca, was a close friend of Marcos, and he was "leaned on to persuade the Philippine National Bank to issue a 'standby letter of credit,' a form of conditional guarantee of payment of principal and interest." But Cleveland Trust's ironclad loan quickly turned sour. They were wrong about the company's financial health and they were unaware that the country was surviving on short-term loans.
The debt crisis, then, as Gwynne paints it for us, is a complicated picture. He also cites cases where clearly, loans were given because they were in the political interest of the United States.
Despite his initial indictment of the role of the IMF as the creditors' policeman, Gwynne argues for the need for some sort of disciplinarian/coordinator, but this time to regulate the banks.
In his discussion of the Philippine example, Gwynne observed:
"...the crisis itself could probably have been avoided had the IMF been enlisted earlier, and in a better cause. Sovereigns, like private sector borrowers, should have had strict, IMF-monitored limits on their ability to take on new debt-limits that would have protected the banks from their own aggressive instincts. Such a debt formula would have to be complex-involving debt service ratios, average loan life and maturity analysis, and continuous monitoring of a country's foreign exchange and short-term debt positions-but it would be no more complex than the current austerity programs and reschedulings. It would be built into all foreign loans, both public and private, since from the perspective of sovereign risk the two are ultimately the same. Once a country hits its upper limit, it would trigger what amounted to default clauses and be forced to retrench, to adopt austerity measures such as currency devaluations and foreign exchange controls. Such a formula would have undoubtedly led to a series of minidefaults and minicrises. But the scale would have been much smaller and more manageable.”
In the final chapter he recommends: "There is no easy solution to the debt crisis. Too much money is involved to simply wipe the slate clean, and anything short of that necessarily involves thousands of principals with much at stake. But there is a logical first step, and that is for the banks to give up as quickly as possible the misguided notion that they can earn market interest on this debt. They should be prohibited from lending money to pay themselves interest. Instead, they should be required to use these loans-and the restructuring fees they receive-to amortize the principal... ."
He ends with a warning to the big money center banks like Citibank that the regional banks may yet decide to write off their loans, in which case regional banks can survive but the big banks may not.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lessons From Ludlum

I've been on a reading Robert Ludlum binge recently, and thought it would be interesting to summarize the tools and techniques of survival mentioned or used in them. It turns out that some of the books I read are not written by Ludlum himself but by others as continuations of series started by Ludlum. I don't know where some of my Ludlum books are (I have books at home, some at my Mom's home, some in my office cubicle, some lent to friends -- you get the picture), so I reread the 3 books (The Prometheus Deception, Ambler Warning, and The Arctic Event) that I found at home to extract these nuggets:

- always be physically fit
- training and practice are important
- know when to call in old favors
- hide in plain sight
- be on the lookout for physical traits that seem at odds w/ stated profession
- do not panic
- always be aware of your surroundings
- be alert to departure from normality
- appearances can be deceiving
- there is opportunity in every mishap
- exploit human nature
- confidence is convincing
- foment dissension and suspicion
- establish authority
- pay attention to detail
- nothing ever goes according to plan-revise and improvise
- we don't see what we don't want to see
- know how to use your team

You don't have to be a spy to make use of some of these ideas!