Sunday, May 25, 2014

BOOK REVIEW | The Fault in Our Stars

In sickness and in health: this is probably the motto of the relationship between Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, protagonists of what could be John Green's greatest work so far, "The Fault in Our Stars". The book has had a tremendous following worldwide that it now has a movie out this summer 2014.

TFIOS follows the lives of cancer patients Hazel Grace and Augustus who each have their own unique struggles with the disease. Hazel Grace had to live her whole teen life pulling an oxygen tank. Augustus had to live a life with a prosthetic leg. They are drawn together by their mutual disgust for the stereotypical treatment society has of cancer patients and their love for the author Peter van Houten, author of the fictional work, "An Imperial Affliction".

The couple prove that despite their depressing condition, they can live extraordinary lives and do what most people want at their age: make friends, travel, conquer fears, and fall in love. Hazel and Augustus goes to Amsterdam to visit Van Houten after the latter uses his wish from the Make-A-Wish foundation, in order to find out what happened to the characters whose lives Van Houten abruptly ended mid-sentence in his novel.

Instead of what they hoped for, they meet a grouchy, overbearing, alcoholic writer who cannot quite get a grip on his fame after writing a novel inspired by his daughter's death from cancer. They leave in disgust, unable to get the answers they were looking for. Before leaving Amsterdam, Augustus reveals to Hazel Grace that his cancer made a come back and has now spread throughout his body.

With this revelation, Hazel Grace's life turns into somewhat a real-life "An Imperial Affliction", as Augustus slowly turns to worse. Her affections for him faces the ultimate test: to love someone in the most miserable of conditions. Eventually, Augustus dies, much like the characters so untimely ended in Van Houten's novel. To Hazel Grace's surprise, the author shows up at Augustus' funeral and reveals to her the motivation behind the novel, but she is no longer interested in what he has to say.

A few days later, Hazel Grace finds out about several pages Augustus sent to Van Houten before he died. It is revealed that Augustus sent these so the author can write a fitting eulogy to Hazel. The novel ends with Augustus stating in his letter that "getting hurt in this world is inevitable, but we do get to choose who we allow to hurt us and that he is happy with his choice". He asks her if she is happy with his choice, and Hazel Grace aptly responds, "I do."

The greatness of this body of work by John Green lies in his ability to humanize the sick and to emphasize the potential and power of youth through his clever use and creative mix of comedy, tragedy, romance, and philosophy. We often view the physically disabled and the terminally ill with pity, as if they are beyond help. Green's strong and compelling characters break such stereotype along with the common misconception that teens aren't smart, critical, and make mature decisions.

Just like cooking rice, Green manages to bring our emotions and misconceptions to a boil leaving only a whiter, purer, softer, and tender understanding of the issues of sickness and adolescence: that we are not devoid of our humanity in the most dire of circumstances, that life is for us to have a noble death, that death is for the living, and that youth doesn't always mean immature.

"The Fault In Our Stars" film stars Shailene Woodley, Ansel Goort, and Willem Dafoe, and directed by Josh Boone using a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, writers of "(500) Days of Summer". It opens in theaters in the Philippines, June 5.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


By the end of this blog post, I am certain that my blog will be hacked by Anonymous Philippines.

Here’s why: Anonymous Philippines and its cohorts recently defaced Chinese websites—again! In its Facebook page, the group claims to have hacked and defaced 195 Chinese government and civilian websites. The group came to notoriety in 2012 after it defaced several Philippine government websites following the passage of the Anti-Cybercrime Law. The group has previously defaced Chinese websites, also in 2012, after the tense standoff between Manila and Beijing at the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal in maritime parlance) which resulted to Manila’s retreat of its frigate and Beijing asserting control over the reef.

While China’s incursion in these contested waters based on their myopic nine-dash line view is indeed deplorable, “The Philippines has very few cards to play…” as geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan said in his new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Kaplan notes how the Philippine Navy was, for a long time, in a neglected state brought on by inept and corrupt administrations which made the Philippines “a near failed state”. It would never stand a chance in countering Chinese intrusion and successfully asserting sovereignty in the Kalayaan Islands or Panatag Shoal with such weak capability. Neither can it play the economic card, since China is the Philippines’ third biggest market for Filipino exports and second biggest source of imports. Declaring war on China or halting bilateral trade relations will only obliterate the Philippines’ recent economic gains.

The Philippines used the UN card by filing a case in the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration, urging it compel China to respect the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of claimant nations—a confusing and complex series of overlapping lines and territorial possessions. Kaplan sees this move as “the Philippines’ highest display of weakness”. Out of desperation, the Philippines would appeal not just to the UN, but also the ASEAN to support its actions in securing a conduct agreement between claimant nations. This move ultimately failed in the past meetings of the ASEAN in Cambodia (2012), Brunei (2013), and Myanmar (2014), since after all, China is one of the region’s biggest trade partners. Chinese investments in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, in particular are preventing the regional association from achieving a consensus on a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.

While the Philippines signed a security deal with staunch ally United States prior to President Barack Obama’s state visit last April, Obama fell short of categorically expressing support for the Philippines in its fight against China. The limited amount of US help through information-sharing and capability enhancement exercises only proves how indecisive the superpower is in this territorial row because of its economic interests and obligations with China. It also proves the Philippines as a pushover, willing to set aside its national interests in favor of America’s Pivot to Asia—a move which Filipinos cannot solely rely on.

There’s not much the Philippines can do. And hacking Chinese websites of little or no significance won’t do anything as well. While Anonymous Philippines had succeeded defacing the websites, it also proves how novice their hacking activities, which are limited to denial-of-service attacks and defacement. They are yet to be at par with state-sponsored cyberespionage units in China, America, Russia, or Israel, which can steal sensitive commercial and government information, and cripple important systems and networks crucial to government, military, and economic operations.

We, Filipinos, think that defacing Chinese websites or arresting few, unsuspecting Chinese fishermen are acts of heroism comparable to David vs. Goliath. However, our “ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements” [quoting Kaplan], do little to paralyze China’s creeping invasion of the West Philippine Sea, and only serves to antagonize the Philippines even more in the eyes of the Chinese government and public, pushing us closer to the brink of regional war. It’s like slinging a tiny pebble against a goliath wearing full body armor. War mongering Filipinos have even called for the extreme—torching Chinese businesses nationwide, arresting more Chinese fishermen, and even clamping down on illegal Chinese activities elsewhere in the Philippines. Yes, these will send China the message that we are mad, that we can mess with them, but we won’t be able to stand by the image we are trying to portray. We are not capable of shoving off China militarily nor economically. At least, not this time.

These hackers should better back off and leave the job to our diplomats and the military. While defacing Chinese websites is a good exercise in sharpening cyberespionage skills, it’s better if they leave this territorial dispute out of their “trainings”. Instead of wasting their skills on passive-aggressive actions, they should turn their anger into productive endeavors such as helping the government protect our important government, military, economic, and transportation facilities from a possible retaliatory cyberattack from China.

In the end, the Philippines cannot afford to be equally belligerent like China. We could follow the example of Malaysia, which was described by Kaplan as “lying low”, or Indonesia, “which has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject”. We could support Vietnam, described by Kaplan, as “ASEAN’s fighting chance”, or restart bilateral diplomatic talks with Beijing over the subject, but both actions will neither prevent China’s continuous encroachment nor promote our national interests.

Let us tone down the rhetoric and reserve our criticism and anger on China where it is due. This is while we hold the line we’ve already used to mark our place in the West Philippine Sea by improving our military facilities in Philippine-controlled islands and reefs, spending further on military equipment and capability enhancement, expanding our efforts to tap the natural resources present in Philippine-held waters, maintaining good PH-China relations in other matters unrelated to the WPS dispute (cultural exchanges, trade relations, tourism, among others), and most importantly, working to continue the Philippines’ stellar economic performance in Asia!

If every Filipino will work for the success of these suggestions, it will be the ultimate demonstration of our strength as a nation, by enduring China’s overtures without antagonizing it at the same time. Our heroism and nationalism is in question right now, but these do not always lie at the tip of a gun, the tip of the tongue, or on hackers’ fingertips. Heroism, in these crucial times, lies in actions that promote our country’s good name and interests.    


Friday, May 16, 2014

EDITORIAL | Fools Rush In

Only fools rush in.

And if there is a better example of this adage in real life, it’s the Vietnamese. These past few days, thousands of angry Vietnamese took to the streets of Binh Duong province—Vietnam’s industrial heartland—to protest China’s latest incursion in the South China Sea. [1] The China National Offshore Oil Corporation has recently installed an oil rig in the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands which is also being claimed by Vietnam. [2]

In these protests, the mobs targeted foreign factories and other business establishments reportedly owned by Chinese companies. Armed with torches and Molotov cocktails, these mobs set fire to any establishment which had Chinese characters in their names or logos. But as it turned out, the mobs also victimized unsuspecting Taiwanese, South Korean, Japanese, and even Singaporean businesses. Singapore also reported that their national flag was burned during the protest.

In the disputed waters of Paracel Islands, Vietnamese and Chinese ships continue their dangerous game of cat and mouse in an attempt by the latter to block the former’s attempt to drill and extract oil in the area. These events coincided with the recent arrest of 11 Chinese poachers in the disputed Hasa-Hasa Shoal close to Palawan Island in the Philippines [3] as well as the release of a Philippine Navy intelligence report of a possible military airstrip being built in Johnson South Reef, known in the Philippines as Mabini Reef. [4]

Observant Filipinos were quick to react to these events through social media, praising the Vietnamese for their sense of “nationalism”. Most netizens wondered when such actions will begin in the Philippines. Some wanted the Philippines to confront Chinese bullying by sending more ships and troops. A number of comments are just downright racist which reminded me of Nazi racial propaganda.

I pity these netizens for wanting to score a verbal hit against a country reported to have the largest military in the world. [5] It’s stupid how they could endorse war as a diplomatic tool without thinking of its expense and consequences. I loathe how they could equate nationalism with racism and racial purity. If only they are aware there is a fine line between these concepts.

We have become a society of cannon heads and war mongers. Just like our movie role models such as Fernando Poe Jr., Bong Revilla, and Lito Lapid, we would want to go into a fight against forces greater than us without so much preparation and forethought. Unfortunately, our conflict with China is not some movie wherein the underdog will win after a long and arduous battle. Let reality bite and remind us that we are indeed an underdog militarily and economically and that by picking a fight against this “enemy” would prove costly for our people and our resources.

Our country has been independent for more than a hundred years and has existed for an even longer time. Our ancestors have fought battles against conquistadors and imperialists both foreign and local. And while we are supposed to be a maturing democracy, bearing the marks of peaceful and effective use of diplomacy, our reaction to recent territorial disputes proves otherwise.

Nevertheless, we cannot let our false sense of nationalism bring out the worst in all of us. We should not allow our society to be dictated by our childishness and the foolishness of our neighbors. What we need are moderate voices to gauge and guide us. But most importantly, what we need to become is a moderate society that listens and considers the consequences of its decisions before it acts.

[1] - Nga Pham (14 May 2014). Vietnam anti-China protest: factories burnt. BBC News. Retrieved on 15 May 2014.
[2] - Kaiman, Jonathan (8 May 2014). China accuses Vietnam of ramming its ships in South China Sea. The Guardian. Retrieved on 15 May 2014.
[3] - Laude, Jaime (8 May, 2014). 11 Chinese poachers arrested. The Philippine Star. Retrieved on 15 May 2014.
[4] - Ramos, Marlon, and Quismundo, Tarra (15 May 2014). China building airstrip on reef in PH waters. The Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved on 15 May 2014. 
[5] - Hackett, James (ed.) (3 February 2010). The Military Balance 2010. International Institute for Strategic Studies; London: RoutledgeISBN 1857435575. 
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