Saturday, November 27, 2010

To friend or unfriend

TO be poor used to be unfortunate.

Now to be friendless is the new unfortunate.

That’s the fate threatening Facebook if it does not “unfriend” coal.

The leading social networking site, which drew 500 million members by July 2010, attracts through features that include how to “friend” or “unfriend” contacts.

According to the New York Times’ Kate Ross in its Nov. 4, 2010 issue, environmental advocate Greenpeace International has attracted 600,000 supporters since it launched in February 2010 “The So Coal Network” campaign to get Facebook to “Unfriend Coal”.

Greenpeace targets Facebook for choosing to run its data center in Prineville, Oregon with power generated by PacificCorp, a company whose fuel mix for its generators is derived from 10 percent each of hydro and renewable energy, about 20 percent of natural gas, and 58 percent of coal power.

The Greenpeace campaign includes an animated, two-minute long video uploaded on Youtube.

“Facebook: Unfriend Coal” is narrated by a tart, smart kid whose stick drawings and quirky pronunciation of the name of Facebook chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg (“Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg”) thinly disguises the derision and ringing challenge hurled by a seasoned eco-warrior.

According to her, the story begins when a “clever” boy named Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg, who was shut out of Harvard social circles for being a nerd, invented Facebook, which invented “lots of friends”—actually 500 million friends on Facebook “so no one could bully him”.

Portraying Facebook as a computer that copies and pastes the faces of people on a monitor, the child later shows how Marrrk’s creation becomes a jolly blue giant relaxing in a “box where pictures are stored”. The giant relies on “special food called elektrisity”.

Electricity can be created through a “good way,” such as “making cheeky clouds with lips blow windmills round and round”.

Instead of using renewable kinetic wind energy, though, “silly Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg” chose “dirty old coal”.

What’s coal? That’s a loaded question to ask Capitol and Cebu environmental groups, antagonists confronting each other over Baliligate and power issues, not all coal-related.

The preternaturally wise underaged narrator of the Greenpeace video says coal is made from “rotten dinosaur food,” which, when burned, “dirties the air and makes our world hotter (the world becomes an instant desert), meltier (ice cap disappears under a clueless polar bear) and floodier (people in boats fish out other people and pets from the rising waters)”.

The video’s climax has poor Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg, with his pants blown away by wind energy, quivering between the black wiles of coal and the jolly blue giant and the cheeky clouds blowing the winds of change for energy generation and consumption.

Will Marrrk friend or unfriend coal?

More important, will we? The New York Times article quotes Environmental Protection Agency findings that “data centers now account for 1.5 percent of all electricity consumption in the U.S.".

By 2020, data centers’ carbon emissions will quadruple to 680 million tons per year. That’s more than the consumption of the aviation industry of the U.S. By 2020, Facebook’s electricity consumption will be more than the current electricity consumption of Brazil, Canada, France and Germany combined.

After converting to the New Technology, we comfort ourselves with the thought that by going paperless, we’re greener. “Think before you print!”

Yet, we are also part of an efficiency-mad sector that is “increasingly thirsty for energy”. Will we settle for “dirty fuels” and dream on in our paperless worlds?

In its online campaign, accessible through coalfacebook, the international non-government organization (NGOs) presses a five-point plan for Facebook and other data centers, which includes phasing out coal and choosing entirely clean, renewable energy sources.

“I know which one I would choose,” confidently declares the young storyteller/warrior of the Greenpeace video. ““If you let your friends down, you let yourself down.”

Now leaving “poor Marrrrk Suckaaabergggg” to make up his mind, I wonder how the question will be answered by Capitol and Cebu NGOs: to friend or unfriend coal?

And will their answers tell us who their friends are?

( 09173226131)

* To be published by Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 28, 2010 issue of the Sunday column, “Matamata”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here comes the titan

I RECEIVED a letter.

When my son handed to me the long white envelope along with the newspapers he picked up from the newsroom, I guessed by the sloping handwriting on the envelope that it was neither an invitation nor a machine-regurgitated notification asking to be disregarded in case of irrelevance.

I eyed the letter askance.

Among journalists, a white envelope is portentous. It may hold a press release, a presscon invitation, cash, gift certificates or a bullet. The first two are work necessities; the third and fourth, traps; and the last, an early retirement plan.

My face must have betrayed this quick review of options because my son asked if he could open the envelope. I broke the seal and after reading, passed to him the four handwritten sheets of plain paper.

Journalism is a tough profession in a tough turf. It’s a mantra I repeat to justify the skepticism and suspicion, questioning and probing, checking and cross-checking that goes before committing to print a fact, inference or opinion.

Yet, a decade or so of this information-sifting has ruined me for the unalloyed pleasure of receiving and reading a letter.

The letter was written by a reader reacting to something I wrote. In my experience, readers who disagreed with my articles always fired away a chain of SMSs or emails to express their scorching assessment of my sanity, soul or lack of both. Only one paused long enough to first post a reaction in her blog before sending me a link.

The letter-writers, though, are invariably—there is no equivalent for this in journalese— nice.

What is it about writing a letter that makes the pleasure mutual, for both sender and recipient?

First, the penmanship is no small source of delight. I don’t mean only narcissists write by hand for the reflected pleasure of admiring their every curve and curlicue.

One’s handwriting is sole and revealing. Rounded and generous or spiky and impatient, a penmanship lets slip a writer’s true state, if his words won’t. While sustaining me through years of writing and rewriting, my editor made her critiques in the form of a letter written in her inimitable hand, recalling the teachers of old who trained with a gimlet eye so many young hands holding a pencil. When I failed to meet too many deadlines, my editor—you guessed it—sent me an email.

In newsrooms, editors encourage readers to email reactions or contributions. Yet some editors will personally encode or have an encoder convert into soft copy a handwritten letter. Sometimes the content justifies the time and effort. I’m sentimental about the journey that makes a thought transform a blank sheet of paper that finds its way into an envelope passed from hand to hand, or from postal bin to postman’s bag, finally resting beside the workstation of an editor in a publication that may send these words out across the globe.

So why not just email? Why be picky about form if substance is the essence?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team have been working for 15 months to unify email, instant messaging, text messaging and the social network into one “social inbox”.

The new message system that’s known as “Project Titan” is not intended to end the dominion of the email giants: Microsoft’s Hotmail, with its 361 million users; Yahoo! Mail’s 273 million users; and Google Gmail’s 193 million users. I’m not an email killer, clarified Zuckerberg.

According to Mike Swift’s article in the San Jose Mercury News, Facebook’s coming Titan just wants to free people to communicate, without the bother of choosing IM, SMS or email.

I can just taste the flavor of conversations in a future dominated by Facebook or even journalism. Reply now! Hit a button before you even finish a thought. Doubt first; verify later.

Before the titan takes over, I’m rereading the sheaf this reader wrote by hand.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 21, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Age of Twitter*

BEFORE Twitter came along, a “twitter” meant either a bird chirping or, in imitation of a chirrup, people tittering over something that’s agitating them.

By late 2009, when Twitter became the third most popular social networking site, next to Facebook and Windows Live Profile, a Tweet, which is a message of not more than 140 characters that you encode and send through the Internet, does not just have the capacity to stir up a sender’s circle of friends but a limitless public that the sender may not have known was out there.

In 2009, the market research firm, Pear Analytics, studied 2,000 Tweets sent from the United States. Pear researchers found that Tweets about news content and spam were identical at four percent each. Self-promotion represented six percent; Tweets with pass-along value, nine percent. Thirty-eight percent of the Tweets was conversational.

The most number of Tweets, representing 40 percent, was classified by the Pear researchers as “pointless babble”.

According to Wikipedia, social networking researcher Dana Boyd argued with Pear Analytics’ interpretation. “Pointless babble,” according to Boyd, is more meaningful when viewed in terms of Internet socialization.

She claimed that through “social grooming” and “peripheral awareness,” Netizens find out what other people whose “co-presence is not viable” are thinking or doing, as well as let others know what they are up to.

“Only connect!” exhorted E. M. Forster in “Howards End”.

Though the novelist was writing about class and gender differences in turn-of-the-20th-century England, his classic phrase captures the eternal chasm bedeviling humans. “Only connect!” is less a prescription than a challenge in the Age of Computers, where not just co-presence but intimacy and empathy are at risk.

Like many Twitter users expressing a random or candid thought, Maria Carmen “Mai “ Mislang Tweeted about what she claimed to be Vietnam’s bad wine, lack of handsome men, and dangerous streets.

Unfortunately, Mislang is the speechwriter of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III. Worse, the assistant secretary for communications was part of the Philippine delegation when she sent those Tweets about her hosts.

While Mislang apologized and the Palace vowed to come up with guidelines for staff using the social media, the traffic of comments on the blogosphere and even traditional media show that an online indiscretion, no matter how brief, lives a long, long time.

Briton Paul J. Chambers was fired from two jobs and remains unemployed after he was convicted of “sending a ‘menacing message’ over a public telecommunications network under the Communications Act of 2003,” reported

His crime? He Tweeted that he would blow up an airport after a snowstorm led to the cancellation of his flight. He was on his way to Ireland to meet for the first time a woman he befriended online.

An airport manager searching online for materials about the airport read and reported Chambers’ message. Chambers was arrested, interrogated for eight hours, and fined $4,800. The judge who convicted him deplored the irresponsibility of his Tweet in the “present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports.”

Chambers is unrepentant. A Twitter regular who sent 14,000 Tweets in the 11 months before his Tweet to “(blow) the airport sky high!”, Chambers told the judge that Tweeting was just like “bantering” with friends.

Many Tweeters and bloggers have rallied behind Chambers. They claim he is a victim of Britain’s “erosion of civil liberties,” particularly free speech.

They accuse law enforcers of not understanding and knowing how to respond to the “anarchic culture” of social media. One person asked if adding “lol” (which means, in Internet parlance, “laugh out loud”) after a satirical comment will shield a person from possible prosecution.

Was the question serious or mock-serious? First, connect.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 14, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Brothers only in a rent-free world*

HOW do you kill news coverage?

Raise the rent of a journalist’s office.

A press association covering the United Nations (UN) said that if the international organization charges the media rent for their headquarters, the news coverage will become a trickle and the UN will be “just another international organization that only makes headlines when bedbugs are found there.”

According to a report filed by the Inter Press Service’s (IPS) Thalif Deen, the United Nations Correspondents’ Association (Unca) protested that even a “symbolic rent” will “drive most members of the press out of the United Nations”.

The Unca represents 200 full-time members of the UN press corps. For the past 60 years, the UN press corps occupied rent-free offices in the UN Secretariat headquarters in New York.

While the Unca said that the UN press is “not here on a free ride,” it said that rent would be an “unjustifiable expenditure given the severe financial stress” of the industry.

According to the Unca letter sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the “severe financial stress” cited by the press corps includes the salaries for reporters covering the UN full-time, equipment and infrastructure for multimedia global broadcast.

The UN press corps also complained that after the $1.8-billion renovation of the NY headquarters, the offices for media will be narrower and open—features they view as detrimental for “serious journalist work”.

The Unca wants their offices to be “closed, soundproofed, adequately wired and adequately sized”—and still rent-free.

I remember the sound of children singing as October drew to a close. Students of a nearby preschool, they were singing songs from other lands, as well as those about brotherhood and peace.

In the Philippines and other nations, UN Day and UN Week are observed in many schools during October.

Remembering that young chorus after reading the IPS report, I wonder how minutiae like rent will affect the singing.

In a world leery of good intentions, the UN endures—because, if we believe the Unca, the body hosts journalists that never blink in covering this beat in exchange for free rent.

As a news consumer, I’m at a quandary deciding which is more alarming: that the UN’s good press was influenced by favors to the media, or that without this preferential treatment for journalists, the UN beat is not fit covering unless hit by a minor disaster, like bedbugs piercing diplomatic immunity?

According to the IPS report, the journalists that may have to vacate offices they can no longer afford will be going home to developing nations. These are reporters writing for either domestic news agencies or dailies published in the Third World.

I’m not privy to the “severe financial stress” of running a multimedia outfit from NY and transmitting to the world. Surely, a media company won’t enter this arena equipped only with cojones.

Or is that a Third World affliction to be graceless about giving up what used to come for free?

UN officials say that collecting rent from journalists was proposed because of the “tens of millions of dollars” spent to rent outside office space for UN staffers displaced by the UN correspondents.

The Fourth Estate is important, affirms the UN. However, in commercial market terms, the freedom to cover and report cannot be subsidized forever.

Focused on the unhappy journalists, the IPS report is not as forthcoming about the other side. Are UN executives just unhappy about the lost income or the sparse gains bought by the rent subsidies?

Completing this triad of discontent is the public. Reading the IPS report alters for me the singing that always caps my October.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 7, 2010 issue of the “Matamata”, a Sunday column