Saturday, December 28, 2019


THE VERB for my year in 2019 is “share”. I hope to make “reflect” my choice in the coming 2020.

The digital portal leaves nothing unchanged, not even a Luddite like me. A Luddite is a technophobe in contemporary times. The term was first used for early 19th-century British workers protesting their displacement by labor-saving industrial machines and shortcuts in safety procedures.

According to a Mar. 2011 “Smithsonian Magazine” article by Richard Conniff, Ned Ludd was an apprentice in Leicester who, after he was reprimanded for producing shoddy textile on a weaving machine, chose to bludgeon the equipment.

From this act of rebellion was born a mythical leader known as Captain, General or King Ludd, who supposedly rallied workers clashing with capitalists and government troops to protest against machines causing widespread poverty and hunger among working families.

What does a more than 200-year-old failed protest have to do with my choice of Verb of the Year, an idiosyncratic practice I intend to shape the next 365 days?

As Conniff points out, Luddism endures because it symbolizes less a romanticized ideal of pretechnological life than an inducement to reflect on technology’s effects. From Thomas Carlyle’s essay in 1829 on the mechanical age, Conniff quotes how technology causes a “mighty change” in our “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”

Instead of content or the “message,” circulation is the real driver of online dissemination. Political and media theorist Jodi Dean argues that only the “addition to the pool” matters in communicative capitalism, with everything else being “irrelevant”: what it is all about, who sends it, who responds.

In the digital stream of data commodities, ready to be harvested and traded, the electronic act of “sharing” captures the hardening of minds and hearts. Do I recall the messages liked and shared in the year that was? In the neverending streaming, swiping and clicking replaces the human reflexes of pausing and reflecting.

Ironically, in the age where everyone leaves digital cookies for tracking and tracing, the extent and depth of digital engagement is a somber, anemic harvest.

So my choice to focus on the analog stems from this frustration that the ephemerality of digital engagement is embedded in my failure to sift, reflect, and write—activities that come spontaneously with the predigital activities of experiencing, relating face-to-face, even turning a physical page in a physical book and writing by hand in a journal.

Unlike “share,” “verb” is a word not yet co-opted by or transliterated in the digital platform. So is “reflect”.

Photo source:

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 29, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 21, 2019


This is a true story: a traveler picked up two postcards, about 100 years old. The seller at the flea market in Mallorca advertised the postcards’ messages as being written in Esperanto.

The traveler contacted JM, a friend, who consulted the Language Log, a website frequented by language geeks. Began by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum of the University of Pennsylvania, the Language Log has built an online community of lovers of language, puzzles, and irreverence.

Many readers speculated whether the postcard sender was writing in one of the organic languages existing around 1912-1913, when the postcards were mailed from Mallorca.

According to Ethnologue, a “research center for language intelligence,” there are 7,111 “living languages” spoken around the globe in 2019. Yet, about 40 percent of these languages are “endangered,” with less than a thousand persons still speaking in these tongues.

In the online “communal cipher-solving” of the Mallorca mystery postcards, what I found riveting was the seriousness with which many readers of Language Log pondered the postcard writer’s possible use of conlang, jargon for “constructed languages”.

One does not have to be a linguist or a polyglot to invent language. Two persons can create a code so that no one else can read the endearments written in an open postcard.

Few though can surpass J. R. R. Tolkien, the “godfather of modern conlangs,” according to a essay posted by Nicole Chardenet of Yappn, an “enhanced machine translation company”.

Tolkien created “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as the narrative backdrop for the Middle Earth languages he created for 63 of his 81 years in this world. An example is the conlang of Elvish, which emerged from Primitive Quendain and branched off to Common Eldarin, Quendain, Goldogrin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin, and Avarin.

Tolkien argued that this absence of myths to explain its origin made the conlang Esperanto “far deader than ancient unused languages”. Esperanto (meaning "one who hopes") was created in the 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist who desired a language to unify his community where Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies”.

Zamenhof wrote a book of Esperanto grammar, translated works in Esperanto, and created original works of Esperanto in prose and poetry. Today, Esperanto is spoken by two million persons around the globe, the most widely spoken modern conlang uniting a stateless, diasporic community.

Languages are fragile, dying when no one speaks the tongue and thriving among those who love words, dream in it. Natural or constructed, language exists for the same end: to communicate.

Photo source: Language Log

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 22, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 14, 2019


A CHARACTER whose surname sounds like the conjunction “or” is bound to be invisible. Just as a reader ponders alternatives but disregards that which connects—“coffee or tea,” “you or me”—George Orr is bland to the point of inoffensively blending with the background.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” Orr is caught illegally exceeding his personal allotment of medicine to buy dream suppressants.

Fortunately, borrowing someone’s Pharm Card is a misdemeanor akin to loaning books in someone else’s name. The state sends him to a dream specialist to rechannel.

Dr. Haber, assigned to the Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment of the oneirophobe (a patient afraid to dream), initially suspects that drugs addled Orr’s brains as the poor man does not even distinguish between good or bad dreams.

“I dreamed something, and it came true,” confesses Orr.

In Orr, Le Guin inverts the concept of alterity—the state of being other or different—from something feared or distrusted into something approaching perfection. Haber learns that Orr is truthful in claiming that his dreaming not only changes the present but backtracks interminably to alter the past to seamlessly blend with the “improved” present.

In the altered new reality, no one remembers the “bad old days”. Orr’s dreams wipe everything and create the slate anew: time, history, memories.

A man of science, Haber sees the opportunities in Orr’s power to do good without relying on evolution or choice.

Under a state-sanctioned experiment, Orr is directed by Haber to dream into reality for Orr a nicer apartment and a better job; for his shrink, a research directorship and unlimited funds to study how dreaming can be retooled for a better society.

The only fly in the ointment greasing the slippery road to perfection is the meek, conflicted Orr. The purpose of a life is not to “run things” for a “better world,” grapples Orr. “What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field.”

After Orr dreams six billion people out of existence by configuring a plague in the past to explain the sudden silence of the streets, unsnarling of traffic, end of starvation, abundance of apartments, and the general improvement of the quality of air, Orr cries for the murders he has committed.

Is it murder if these people were erased by a dream as numbers are on a slate? Haber shrugs and toasts a “better” world.

In someone’s utopia, someone else bears the costs. Le Guin, in an essay introducing another novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” disagrees that science fiction has a “depressing” view of the future: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”

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*First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 15, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Light trip

IF you should buy a book, let it be Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”.

For the price of a book, you will get 20 stories, which is the number of chapters in this novel. Through this novel, you gain entry to two strange new lands: the planets Gethen and the Ekumen, about 20 years away from Gethen through timejumping on board a ship speeding “almost as fast as starlight between the stars” to ease intergalactic commuting a bit.

Reader, even before you finish reading the first line in the novel, you will recognize a third terrain: our world.

First published in 1969, the novel opens with a character uttering, “Truth is a matter of the imagination.” As Le Guin observes in her introduction, “A novelist’s business is lying… Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

The 20 stories arranged as chapters break away from the convention of storytelling that sequences narration in chronology, as recounted by one narrator. As we have been amply warned by the novelist, Reader, do not stick to one storyteller, one version.

The “one story” is told as a mishmash of different ways of storytelling (report, myth, journal entry, field notes, play for a traveling troupe, soliloquy, Q-&-A) in the voices of many storytellers (known, unknown, living, dead, speculatively divine).

All these accounts confuse. Can a story continue if the listeners are lost? Le Guin knows the human weakness for stories and the way we circumvent confusion: we choose what to believe.

Take sex, for instance. Gethenians sexually mature every cycle of 28 days or so; during the period of estrus (“kemmer” in Gethen), a person chooses the gender most dominant in its hormones at that period. The kemmering partner adjusts and takes on the complementary gender. Thus, it happens that in Gethen, “the mother of several children may be the father of several more”.

For a society preoccupied with sex for only a few days per cycle, the Ekumen’s fixed genders and lack of choice in sexuality affront the norm. Finding distasteful a lifetime of “permanent kemmer,” the Gethenians regard one so afflicted as a “pervert”.

Can Gethen be convinced to open itself to the Ekumen? Despite telling differences, there are many commonalities. In any dimension, the sole engine that keeps politicians running is personal interest: “His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”

Love, betrayal, alienation, belief—only the terrain of Le Guin’s world-building is strange. After you close the novel and blink in reality, the light cast by the imaginary will help you see better: fiction and truth are often partners in kemmer.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 8, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Stacks of sin

EDEN would be banal without the snake. The library, with its hermetic quiet, watchful librarians, and bookish air of order and sanity, inspired my first transgressions.

The library card in my grade school years permitted two books to be taken out for two weeks. I could read a novel overnight, exams be damned.

My dilemma was waiting for books I coveted to be returned. Every card owner could renew for one more week. And borrowing privileges fell only on one weekday per grade level.

Once, the library acquired a series on the lives of saints. Each book narrated in luminous text and illustration the ordinary life and extraordinary sacrifices of a girl who later became a saint.

Borrowing the books about Saints Agatha and Bertille, I stashed St. Monica behind references on science, which I couldn’t imagine anyone giving up their bedtime for. A week later, I felt around the hollow space behind the tomes. The patroness of musicians had evaporated behind rocks and minerals!

Librarian friends told me years later how shelving work is usually split among books that are returned to the circulation desk, left after use on the tables, and squirreled away behind other books in other sections. Blind then to the irony of violating honesty and fairness with a saint’s storybook, I imagined ecclesiastical music playing sorrowfully while I turned out science in search of St. Monica.

This youthful transgression surfaced while I read Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”. When the Los Angeles Public Library opened in a modern edifice on July 15, 1926, criminality shot up among the staid stacks:

“At the end of the year, library security reported they had apprehended 57 ‘mutilators of books’; 105 people who had written in books; 73 who engaged in general bad behavior; 23 forgers; 8 people who were caught hiding books; and 10 who had switched their books’ due dates.”

Of the offenders, 63 were prosecuted while “six were ‘judged to have diseased brains’ and sent for psychiatric treatment.”

Criminality wasn’t the only weed sprouting among the stacks. Orlean writes that when this library first opened in January 1873, the rules were “schoolmarmish and scoldy”: no reading of “too many novels” lest one become a “fiction fiend;” books judged to be “dubious,” “trashy,” “ill-written” or “flabby” were excluded; no woman or child was allowed inside the library; and “ladies” went to a special room to read only magazines.

Despite this chronicle of misses, Orlean captures why a library is transformative as reading: ambling along, one can chance unexpectedly, if not always pleasantly, on oneself.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s December 1, 2019 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”