Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary Aids Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) Victims

There's been an outpouring of concern and aid from many people in the US and elsewhere to help victims of the flooding caused by Typhoon Ondoy in the Philippines.

One place to send aid--an organization that's not as well-known as it should be--is the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The Auxiliary is not part of the Philippine government. Rather, it is a group of seaworthy, dedicated volunteers who assist the Philippine Coast Guard in many areas: search and rescue, public education, environmental protection, and several other civic-minded functions.

I spent several years with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and got to know many people around the world who volunteer for similar organizations in their countries.

One of the great people I met along the way is Commodore Harold Wolf of the Philippine auxiliary. I've just been in touch with him, and he said that the group is accepting donations, which are being used solely for food, blankets, and fuel for rescue missions.

Donations can be sent to:
Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Mandaluyong Branch, Greenfield Bldg. 750 Shaw Blvd. Nandaluyong City
RCBC Acct. #0-275-80165-8
Name of account: PCGA National- International Affairs.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Julius Akinyemi: MIT Resident Entrepreneur

If you've been reading my blog, you can see I have trouble coming up with good headlines.

I don't like the aspect of the Google Age that has eliminated creative headline writing by demanding a focus on keywords. So my cutesy skills have atrophied, and I usually just try to pinpoint people with something straightforward.

But I had real trouble with writing the headline for Julius Akinyemi. He has such a breadth of experience that I couldn't decide how to pinpoint him. He's been an exec at PepsiCo and Wells Fargo. He's done work with the UN. He's done work throughout the world. Then I realized that you can't pinpoint him. So I went with his current position at MIT and left it at that.

The real story is what Julius is doing right now at the MIT Media Lab. He aims to bring true empowerment--not the feel-good kind we have in the US, but the real kind that lifts people out of poverty--to millions of people throughout the world, particularly in Africa.

His idea is to create an eRegistry of everything from names of people to lists of the land and the cows they own, and create markets for them that are easily accessible, fair, and efficient. It's hard to explain in 100 words or fewer, so here's the full article/interview, just posted on the NOW Mag syndication site:

Here's Ross Turk, Director of Community, SourceForge

I managed to meet up with SourceForge's Ross Turk at OSCON in San Jose several weeks ago. I finally managed to transcribe and edit our discussion, and just posted it at the NOW Magazine syndication site:

As I wrote in the article, "Ross could have certainly talked to me about a million different things, but I tried to focus on a small amount of the big stuff that drives him. I started with a really dull question, then tried to improve as things went on...

NOW Magazine: As Director of Community, what are your main responsibilities?

Ross Turk: In a sentence: my job is to understand how people use our services, represent SourceForge, and keep my company from doing dumb things."

You can find the rest of the interview at the NOW Magazine URL that I listed above.

Thanks, Ross!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lars Kurth, Community Manager at Symbian

I've now posted my interview with Symbian Contributing Community Manager Lars Kurth. I met him at OSCON, and then followed up with some specific questions for him.

One nice quote: "Becoming a 'rock star' in our community is about what individuals do for the community and whether they build their own communities around them."

Here's the full interview:

Lars is yet another smart, interesting character in this industry. Whenever I get depressed about the state of the world (which is often), I remember all the great and dedicated people in the IT industry worldwide, and I cheer up a bit.

Hope this interview provides a little cheer for you!

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Interview with Bluenog's Sastry Taruvai

Even though I had mean things to say about OSCON's location in San Jose this year (see earlier post), it was convenient enough for me to head over to the convention center and interview some key people in the industry.

One of those people was Bluenog co-founder and CIO Sastry Taruvai. He's an engaging guy who worked for BEA for awhile, then recently plunged into the open-source enterprise software waters with two other like-minded execs.

"Enterprise software cannot be built in a vacuum," he told me in our interview. In short, he gets it. You can find the interview at NOW Magazine online:

My interview with Sastry is just the first of several from OSCON that I'll be posting over the next week or so. Happy reading!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Asian G20 Countries Want More Say

The Associated Press ran a story this morning, picked up and run prominently in Manila and elsewhere, about how the big Asian countries who belong to the G20 want "more input" into how the world is run.

Based on GDP, China is at the forefront of this group, with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia also in the group. Everyone will have a chance to make their voices heard in the upcoming G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

Australia is a Western country located near Asia, and twins with Canada a low-population, resource-rich member of the British Commonwealth. As the world once again re-focuses on scarce resources and the impact of their use, Australia does have the opportunity to be influential despite having an economy that can seem anachronistic in the hip, 21st century Internet Age.

And not for nothing, Australia and Canada are two nations that don't generally mind welcoming immigrants and integrating them into their societies.

I throw this out there because Japan is among the more exclusive societies in the world, traditionally even loathing as gaijin the nisei/sansei/yonsei (children of Japanese parents and grandparents) who visit Japan.

Anyone who's visited Japan knows that the word "gaijin" is often pronounced in a guttural way that makes it sound like an English equivalent of "turdface" or something of that nature.

A recent seismic shift in Japanese politics is the first serious threat in years to end the two-decade economic stagnation here, caused by the rigid, iron-gripped stranglehold of government bureaucrats and big business on society.

But the political shift was accomplished by an appeal to the day in/day out cares of ordinary Japanese, rather than some vision of global integration.

South Korea, still getting a grip on its recent economic success and how to use it most effectively on the world stage, has fought hard over many centuries to prevent being dominated by its neighbors. Koreans are justifiably proud of their "scientific" writing system, which has brought an ease of literacy in a difficult language.

Pronunciation remains a problem. Koreans are on a par with the French in their trouble in making themselves understood in English. On the flipside, even a simple word such as "Seoul" is confounding to non-Koreans; it sounds more like "czar" when pronounced properly than the "soul" of its English transliteration.

Koreans work tremendously hard to overcome the language barrier. The people are bracingly direct, more like Westerners than most in Asia. The country has a stable democracy, and has shown much patience with the continuing misery of being a divided nation and insanity of the North Korean government.

It encourages foreign invesment, and works hard to be a reliable trading partner, whether selling integrated circuits, cars, or animation. It vies with the U.S. to have the world's greatest computer-game players. It's hard to imagine South Korea some day being a pluralistic society, but you never know. The country wants to host a G20 summit. It wants to do something about the gap between rich and poor nations. It does seem ready to assume a louder voice in global affairs.

The desires of China and India to have a larger role are driven primarily by population, of course.

China already exerts a large geopolitical role; its efforts in the next several years will likely be related to trade and preserving the wealth it has earned through exports and floating the never-ending debt of the U.S. The elephant in the room remains the country's terrifically undervalued currency, and the economic disruption that might ensue should anyone get serious about addressing the issue.

India remains frustrated in not being taken seriously enough. But the country is best-known in recent years as a place where outsourcing has not been successful. The financial crash in the U.S. hurt Indian outsourcing tremendously. The disappointments routinely experienced by Silicon Valley companies in locating offices throughout India have created a climate of mutual distrust, whether high-level executives acknowledge this or not.

India did have its own U.S.-style thievery scandal when the CEO of upcoming outsourcer Satyam allegedly ran off with a billion or so dollars. Should the Indian outsourcing industry hold steady through the economic crisis and this particular scandal, the country may be ready to move upstream and become a leader in future years.

That leaves Indonesia, the largest country in my favorite region of Southeast Asia. A recent terrorist attack on a hotel there was a terrible thing, but is unlikely to scare off big investors.

The country remains a laggard in its use and development of IT, but has created a stable democracy for 240 million people out of the ashes of decades of totalitarian rule. As the world's largest Muslim country, it is sensitive about portraying itself as a reliable, conservative place rather than a hateful, radical one.

As always, political and religious leaders foment dissent and violence among people who really just want to build decent lives for themselves and their children, as is the case throughout the world, including in the "secular" U.S.

The globalization cat is out of the bag. The cat will remain free, despite a rash of recent protectionist barriers quickly slapped together in the recent recession, as pointed out by Global Trade Alert. The cat may have lost a life or two in the decade since the first big anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999.

But it has many lives left, and is being fed by the newly-wealthy countries in the G20 and a second group of about 30 countries that aspire for more wealth and influence.

Government leaders in these places have seen that their governments become stronger as their people become less miserable. The old tirades of how colonialization by the West ruined everything are being replaced by efforts to sell things to the West, and increasingly, to one another.

It seems to be generally agreed that the days of the post-WWII old-boys' club running the world are over. Even most of the old boys agree with this. But there's more to leadership than making money. The upcoming G20 meeting will show how well the aspiring leaders understand this, and to what degree the old guard believes them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Asian Innovation -- Economic Echelons

As we all know, there are five countries that stand above the rest in Asia: China, India, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

China and India are the twin colossi of growth right now.

Japan and Korea are the finished products, having produced their own economic miracles (Japan after WWII until the 70s and Korea from the 70s until today. Korea's Incheon Bridge, pictured left, is but one little example).

Taiwan has quietly produced its own miracle in the past 30 years, accomplishing a look-and-feel that is starting to approach that of Japan and Korea. Its amazing subway system, pictured left, is but one little example.

Each of these five countries deserves to have many more books written about them. Each has a complex of issues and more than enough angst to go around. More later.

But I want to focus on Southeast Asia, which forms the second Asian economic echelon and is an incredibly vibrant region of the globe.

If you're selling IT, you probably want to be there. The governments there all make noise about improving the lot of their people through IT innovation. Open-source is a hot topic, of course. But so are netbooks, and the increasing array of handheld devices.

And if you're looking for innovation, you might want to do some pioneer work there, particularly in social networking and social media, as this is a very community-based part of the world. The cultures there are born to do social networking!

Five Southeast Asian countries--Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia--have a combined population of about 560 million and a combined GDP in PPP terms of around $2.5 billion.

The region's population will soon exceed 600 million and be more than twice that of the US by 2013. Its GDP is greater than that of France or the UK now. Unless you're selling snow shovels or 3XL t-shirts, this region is somewhere your business probably wants to be.

One report I read ranked IT use and innovation in SE Asia in the order I mentioned above: Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia.

(I'm leaving the city-state of Singapore out of the discussion. And Cambodia, Laos, and the former Burma remain mired to a large degree; the first two never having recovered from celebrity-seeking war criminal Henry Kissinger's ideas about war, and the latter in the grip of an infamous totalitarian regime.)

Indonesia (its capital Jakarta, is pictured left) has the largest GDP in the region--a function of its immense population of 240 million people--and has now achieved G20 status.

Many westerners are unaware of how stable it has become since the bad old days of Sukarno and Suharto--The Year of Living Dangerously remains a great movie, but it does not describe the country today.

Yet the other four countries seem more heavily bent on improving their use of IT (or ICT as it's called in some places) and developing reputations for innovation.

Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) is a prime example. I've been chasing someone from there for a long time now, and will nail them down for an interview some day, I'm sure.

The Philippines is building a very-high-speed IT corridor of its own, running down the spine of this complex archipelago. I interviewed government ICT head Ray Roxas-Chua a year ago about some of the government's activity.

Thailand has seen a couple of solid decades of growth. The kingdom sees itself as better in some respects to all of its neighbors, as it's never been conquered by a foreign power. It has been successful in promoting its second city, Chiang Mai, located in its slightly more pleasant northern climes.

Vietnam, while still run by a Communist government, is following a version of China's economic liberalization policies to great effect. Its entrepreneurial hordes (pictured left) have upgraded their bikes and slow down for no one.

Ironically, bloggers there have been arrested recently for criticizing China, a country that has often tried to dominate the Viets over the millenia and which started a nasty little border war in 1979.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, to be sure. Business makes one indifferent as to who or what's in the bed.

I don't want to be in total cheerleader mode about this region. It's hot and steamy, and there are a wide variety of governments and religious beliefs.

Vietnam has Buddhists and Catholics, as well as a syncretic local faith so precisely described by Graham Greene in his 1950s novel, The Quiet American.

Indonesians and Malaysians are primarily Sunni muslims, except for the Christians in the former breakaway province of East Timor that is now the country of Timor-Leste.

Thais are mostly Theravada Buddhists (with Muslims in the south). I am sure there is more complexity here than I currently know.

Meanwhile, above you can see pix I took of the Quiapo Catholic church in Manila, and of a mosque that is just a 10-minute walk from the church.

The Philippines also has its own homegrown, tagalog-speaking "Church of Christ," founded by a nationalist leader almost a century ago. The recent death of his son, who assumed leadership 50 years ago, was a traumatic event, not least of all to the politicians who curry favor with an 8-million-strong membership that is very strongly encouraged to vote as a single bloc.

And on it goes.

Charges of corruption also resound throughout the region. In this area, I don't want to sound cavalier...but hey, I grew up in Illinois, one of the most corrupt places on earth, and the lifestyle there has always been at least the equal of the supposedly cleaner states that surround it! (I provide a picture, left, of Richard J. and Richard M. Daley circa 1968 for your amusement.)

What strikes one in visiting Southeast Asia is how all politics is local all over the world. In the Philippines, for example, when local presidential candidates are not accusing each other of murder, they're obsessing about the economic challenge that Vietnam presents.

Vietnam, for its part, keeps thrumming along blithely, hoping to sell more and more to China as Western markets remain weak.

Indonesia distrusts Malaysia, its closest neighbor, and Manila wonders if Malaysia can be neutral in talks with Muslim groups in the southern reaches of the Philippines.

Thailand sometimes seems at the brink of civil war, and wearing the wrong color on the streets of Bangkok might be as dangerous as doing so in south LA.

You probably can ignore Southeast Asia without peril. But I choose not to. The future of our world lies here, I believe, and someday I'll get around to that book that explains why.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to report on the region, with looks at some of the companies, initiatitves, and people who are making things happen.

Asian Innovation -- China and India

During a recent trip to Asia I read many reports about relative competitiveness. Even though I want to focus most of my efforts on Southeast Asia, I'm compelled to rant a bit about China and India as well.

I have no answers here, just some initial impressions based on recent travel and having working relationships and friends in both countries.

China and India stand as the twin colossi of innovation-fueled growth, of course. Both have made astonishing progress in the past 30 years, to be sure.

But both are beset by internal challenges that would make American policymakers tremble, cry, and start shouting at everybody they see, not just their head-of-state.

China can fool the first-time visitor with its fantastic new airports, nice roads, and mile after mile of modern office complexes and high-rises.

Shanghai feels to me like the new New York, with the added advantage of my being able to stare directly into the mid-day sun without fear of damaging my eyes.

Beijing feels like a cross between Washington DC and Dallas. Clearly a government capital, and on a scale that might humble JR Ewing.

India is capable of no such sleight of hand. It's a miserable slog from the time you land until the time you depart. The heat in most places is pernicious and merciless. As a splendidly raucous, messy democracy, the country is unable to sweep its problems under the rug (or out into the nether provinces) as the totalitarians in China can.

Yet both countries still have hundreds of millions of poor people, are gobbling increasingly large shares of oil and other natural resources, and if anyone is really sincere about making the connection between carbon-based emissions and global warming they would start to address the situation in these two countries before going after the US or Western Europe.

The population bulk is so obvious as to be unremarkable, but I'll remark anyway: the two countries hold more than a third of the world's people. (Add another 600 million or so in Southeast Asia, 130 million from Japan, and 50 million from South Korea, and you are nearing half of the world's population.)

Many of us remember the Malthusian-based "population bomb" thinking from the 70s. The premise was that hundreds of millions would starve soon because the planet could not provide enough food for them. This was when the globe's population stood at around 4 billion, compared to today's 6.7 billion.

A revolution in crop hybrids, which dramatically increased yields, arrived just in time. (The best-known leader of that movement, Dr. Norman Borlaug, died just recently.) Starvation became more a function of war than food shortages, and the population continued to grow.

Yet the pressures of population are way apparent to me when I visit either of these two countries. I always have to check my American mindset at the exit gate, and try to see what I'm seeing with unbiased eyes (if that is possible).

Just as many visitors to the US, conditioned by American TV shows and movies, think we have numerous gunfights in all of our streets every day--oh wait, sometimes we do--we Americans almost uniformly become uncomfortable when confronted by the masses, say, outside of Mumbai International Airport or rush-hour in Shanghai.

So I try to be the earnest guy. Hey, I'm a regular Rick Steves when I'm in foreign lands.

That said, I can't get away from the numbers in China and India.

Let's shift gears for a second, and look at the counter-example of Ireland.

Visitors to the Emerald Isle in the 70s found a beautiful place that was noticeably poor. Ireland's per-capita income in 1975 was sandwiched among Spain, Greece, and Puerto Rico, and was less than 40% of that of the US.

Today, Ireland's per-capita GDP ranks as high as fifth in the world (according to the World Bank), just behind the US and just ahead of Switzerland.

Why? A series of smart (in retrospect) government initiatives, including a friendly tax policy for investors, kicked off a "Celtic Tiger" renaissance in the 90s that brought Ireland into the world's elite economies. Adopting the Euro as its currency (a move most likely made more to spite hated England than anything) confirmed to the outside world that Ireland was a serious regional and global player.

But it had to help that there are only 3 million people in the republic. Add a couple hundred thousand good jobs in Ireland, and you've transformed a country's economy. But add a couple hundred thousand good jobs in India, and you haven't made much progress in improving any city, let alone the entire country. Boiling the ocean.

This is relevant because we live in an era of nations. The empires of old have (almost) vanished and the kingdoms of today are either democratic or tiny. This would seem like progress and a devolution of power among the peoples of the earth.

But thanks to our terrible weapons of war and a centralization of capital, a few nations today have a global presence that would be the envy of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

The United States, of course, leads this pack, and Americans are taught (or were taught until recently) that this is the way things should be. Yet the nations of China and India are two places that challenge this assertion today.

When India was a collection of hundreds of states under the British Raj, it had no real power. As an enormous, independent country--even shed of modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh--and the world's largest democracy, it does.

India, to me, is a place of insatiable demand and really crappy roads. This sounds harsh and will no doubt anger my Indian friends. I am trying to ameliorate this opinion by working with a friend of mine there on a book about the complexity of India and its still-new relationship with the US.

China, to me, has a yin and yang aspect to it: terrifying from a distance, but resolutely benign when you're there. The striving folks I know there have no grandiose illusions about leading the world, but just want stable, comfortable lives.

One friend of mine in China is utterly perplexed at US criticism of Chinese imports. "We do all this work for you, we make all of your products at a really cheap price, and then you complain. We do not want to own your country, we want to own ours."

Asian Innovation -- First, the Cultural Barriers

I had trouble with my phone on a recent trip to Asia. Made the rookie's mistake of not knowing my bb was CDMA only, when you have to have GPS in that part of the world.

I was able to squeeze off a few emails, texts, and tweets in Korea. This was ironic in that many US/Canada/Australia travelers have trouble there, but there must have been an old CDMA tower somewhere in the neighborhood.

One of my tweets referred to the '"second echelon" of innovation among Southeast Asian countries.

Using a pompous, manly word like "echelon" implies one has something important to say. The military loves the word. I like it because it helps me get a grip on the frenzied acitivity in Asia right now.

Beehives are calmer places than many Asian countries today. And once I'm able to wrap my dim, linear Western mind around Asian culture, the hyper-organization found in beehives makes itself apparent in Asia as well. (More on that in a later post.)

Asian culture, as in singular culture, do you say? Yes, to invoke Danny Quayle, I do realize that it's like there are really a bunch of different countries in Asia. Yet there is a certain indirectness, or obliqueness, that one encounters everywhere. In more racist times, what Westerners referred to as "inscrutability."

Put Korea at the top of the list in directness and either India or the Philippines at the bottom, and you've made a start. Raising one's voice, making intractable demands, and generally huffing and puffing will get you nowhere. As so many have noted, "yes" doesn't necessarily mean "yes."

But I can tell you that "no" means "no," so you can get that Asian businesspeople are as flummoxed by the Westerner's sales-y "selling starts at no" mentality as Westerners are confounded by constantly hearing "it's up to you" or hearing nothing when seeking affirmation.

The trick is not getting to "no." If I do business in Asia for another 300 years I won't understand all the aspects of "face," having it, saving it, losing it, etc. So many times the notion of "saving face" seems no different than the Western idea of achieving "win-win."

But maybe it's the word "achieve" that causes the trouble. When you've been taught your entire life to strive, to be outstanding (ie, to stand out), to speak up, to say what you mean and mean what you say, and to rack up as many achievements as you can, then plunging yourself into ancient, community-centric mileau is the most confusing situation imaginable.

The language barrier can be overcome to some degree; the cultural barriers not so much.


I've been trying to get a grip on organizing things. No, not personal things; my place will remain a catastrophic mess until I'm no longer around to ignore it.

But I'm getting all the NOW Magazine stuff better-organized. The plan is to treat this blog as, well, a blog. You know none of us can really define a "true blog," but we know one when we see it. My hope is that you'll see this one frequently.

I have several very nice interviews backed into my editing queue. I am working on getting them published real soon now. They will be published at the NOW Magazine site:

The domain at this site is a CMS environment that lets me post my stories easily and which gets fairly good google-search traction. Ads will show up there per the CMS owners' sales efforts. I have nothing to do with it.

I'll publish future NOW Magazine Thought Leadership features there as well. Plans now call for a new print edition of NOW to come out in Q2 2010.

So here's the hierarchy:

Unfocused, short, asinine thoughts:

Slightly focused, middle-length, self-important rants:

Focused, sharp, tremendous interviews/features:

Happy reading!

Real Conferences Are Much Better Than Virtual

Saw the latest puffpiece on why virtual conferences are so cool in today's SF Chronicle. The story had a cute lead and everything.

The topic doesn't merit a true rant, but I'll only say that whenever things hit the fan, you'll read numerous articles about telecommuting, teleconferences, and virtual conferences.

We're social animals. Yet we like to get away from the office now and then.

Telecommuting coops people up in their homes. They forget to dress nice, they get lazy, and they soon despair of missing all the gossip, nice printers, and fast networks they get in their offices.

Teleconferencing is slow torture. Sure, it beats the dreaded conference call if the signal is good, but most teleconferences are either log-rolling exercises or a way around a company being too cheap to either hire US employees or put them on a plane so they can meet their colleagues face to face.

Virtual conferences, as the Chronicle article mentioned, can be great add-ons to real conferences. They do provide value for those years that a company doesn't want to fork out millions for a real conference. But they have always been, and will always be, a stopgap measure. When the good economic times return, the good times return as well. Viva Las Vegas!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Flying Asiana to Asia

Long-time travelers to Asia learn to master the travel options to that region, because it's a long haul, it can be an expensive one, and Asian travel oftens means landing in a crowded steambath. The energy levels in Asian cities can be enervating as well, so you need to have your A-game with you when you land.

I've had a good experience with Asiana Airlines on a few recent trips. This is South Korea's other major airline, and it's rated as one of the very few "five-star airlines" in the world (see

I'll give it 4.5 stars, I guess. I don't get to travel Singapore Airlines business class like the Thom Friedmans of the world, so I can't compare my experience with those who've raved about Singapore for years. I have traveled on Cathay Pacific (in economy), and found it to be the most pleasant experience one can have for 12+ hours in a metal tube.

Back to Asiana. Nice legroom, personal entertainment systems (although the "city info" is laughable), a neutral-colored color scheme that (no kidding) helps me sleep, and efficient service make it a nice experience.

Nice, but not overwhelmingly so. Remember, Koreans are hardly the shrinking violets of the Asian world, so don't expect anyone to grovel for you in the way flight attendants are depicted in ads for many Asian airlines.

Korean culture is very direct, like that of the US. So, think United Airlines, but without the overt, deliberate nastiness that's invariably found in the happy employees of the Friendly Skies.

If you're connecting to Southeast Asia, it may seem you've wasted time flying past Tokyo for an hour to reach Seoul, only to track back on your connecting flight. But the schedules out of Narita can have longer connecting times, and this airport can have delays that one rarely sees at the spacious new Incheon airport in Korea.

You get hearty Korean food on these flights as well--much less strange to the US palate than anything you might encounter from a Japanese airline, and much less bad than the crap United et al still like to serve to the unfortunates trapped on their planes.

And here's the fun thing. One of the routes I take has a 12-hour layover on the return to the US. I do this because Asiana's fares are often several hundred dollars less than that of its competitors. But if you call the airline beforehand, you'll get a very nice hotel room for the day, free of charge, so you can sleep and not be a total waste upon arrival back home. Alternatively, you can take a city tour, which I've been told is a lot of fun. For me, I take the room and the sleep every time! Be sure to call ahead, because you won't get this without a reservation.

Asiana is part of the Star Alliance. Most flights receive 70% mileage credit on United, but if you just go ahead and join Asiana, you'll get upgraded into the frequent-flyer hierarchy much more quickly.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In the Philippines, the Heat is Always On

(This is the first of a series of articles about the Philippines, what it's like to be there, its political scene, and its potential as a global outsourcing destination and technology innovator. I start with the most obvious thing a Westerner notices upon arrival there: the heat.)

Arrival at Benigno Aquino International Airport in Manila has always gone smoothly for me. Despite Westerners’ fears of the Asian masses—and there will be 100 million people residing within the Philippines’ 100,000 or so square miles by the end of 2013—the reality is that international travel is a true luxury here. Not many locals can afford it.

The zoos one finds at SFO and most airports in North America and Western Europe are not in evidence in Asia. In the past year, I’ve been struck by the sheer emptiness of the ultra-modern, massive glass edifices in Beijing, Shanghai, even Seoul, as well as at the slightly less grand International Terminal here in Manila.

Immigration and customs moves quickly. The Philippines is inclined to let us rich Americans into their country; the main concern seems to be that I’m aware that I’ll need to come up with a few hundred pesos should I wish to overstay my initial 21-day visa.

Absent here in Manila are the insulting slow pace, the skeptical, even paranoid eyes, and the hectoring tone one finds when returning through US immigration. This country has a real, ongoing terror problem in many of its provinces, a problem that is taken seriously and often addressed severely. But there is no spillover paranoia toward me, the aging white guy from the US, there to visit friends and further destroy his health with spaghetti for breakfast, fried foods for lunch and dinner, and halo halo for dessert.

The heat is apparent the instant I step off the plane and into the jetway. It returns, full-force, as I stroll through the exit doors and into the night air. The heat is such an apparent, omnipresent feature of the Philippines that to complain about it is to belabor it. I’ll throw out some statistics about it, make a few observations about it, then try to move on before I put you to sleep.

Manila’s climate can be compared to Miami’s. Same rough statistical range—highs in the 80s, lows in the 70s most of the year. It rises into the 90s frequently. The temperatures would be higher were it not for the humidity, and It is oppressively humid here almost every day—dewpoints in the 73-77 range for those of you who enjoy knowing this stuff. Frequent rains during a defined wet season with numerous typhoons, then a very slight cooling around Christmas.

They name their typhoons there, just as tropical storms are named in the Americas. The distinction made in the Americas between the terms “tropical storm” and “hurricane”—the latter being used when sustained winds exceed 75 miles per hour—is not made here. Justly so, because any typhoon is capable of wreaking enormous damage on the fragile infrastructure found anywhere outside of Manila and the other cities, flooding can be catastrophic anywhere, and landslides are a feared threat during any storm.

Very few people have air-conditioning (or “aircon” as they call it here) outside of the central city. Very few people want it. It is amusing to watch people who are among the toughest on the planet go into convulsions if the aircon at the local Jollibee or internet cafĂ© is cranked too high. (It’s much less amsuing to see the medieval housing in which so many of these same people live, a topic I’ll cover in more detail later. )

The lack of aircon presents a major problem for me, as it does for most “Kano” (the shortened form of Americano that is applied to all white folks. Kano British, Kano Australian, Kano German, and Kano Dutch are among the specific indicators you’ll hear.)

Very few Kano are silly enough to try to live without aircon, because the heat is not only remorseless, but exacerbated by pollution from squadrons of the famous Jeepneys, fleets of two-stroke “trikes” (dirt bikes hooked up to tinny, covered sidecars designed perfectly for those in the 4-10 to 5-4 height range), innumerable trash fires, and pervasive slash-and-burn agriculture.

I am reasonably sure that DDT or reasonable facsimiles are also in widespread use. The eco-commitment in the Philippines reminds me of my late 50s-early 60s childhood in rural, Midwestern America. Even the young people here in the Philippines are plagued with a frequent hacking cough that comes from way down deep.

The locals walk around in this heat all day without apparent effect. There’s a certain unhurried, loose amble that I’ve learned to copy, which allows you to move efficiently through the angry sun and soupy air at a reasonable speed. Try to propel yourself with the hurried, aggressive, no-nonsense gait of the typical American city, and you’ll find yourself completely gassed and very unhappy within three minutes.

They crowd onto the Jeepneys (actually called “Jeeps” and pronounced “Jips”) with less than no room to spare. A low-ceilinged vehicle with facing bench seats that would hold about 10 people in the US, the Jeep in the Philippines provides transportation for at least 18, and if there is luggage worked into any remaining space in the aisle, so be it. The trike is ideal for one passenger, and three people (with one riding sidesaddle behind the homicidal driver) typically ride it.

Books have been written and academic careers made on the topic of the Western concept of personal space vs. the Asian concept of communitarian space. I have nothing new to add here. My unschooled, non-academic observation is to say only that if you don’t like to be crowded continuously, if you quickly grow weary of “nonconsenual rubbing” (in Paul Theroux’s phrase), then you don’t want to live as most people do in the Philippines. Additionally, if you suffer in the summertime heat of, say, Washington, DC or Orlando, then you will suffer here.

My biggest problem with the heat occurs at night. No break. No breeze. Humidity simply increases as the ambient temperature drops to the swelteringly high dewpoint. Then, at about 4am, a little relief. I am often awake at that hour, and when in the Philippines I feel a slight cooling around that time. I feel as if I’m breathing more air than water for the first time in a day.

An hour later, the comically numerous and obstreperous roosters announce the sun, the dogs start in, and the hot, damp cloth of Philippine humidity is once again wrapped around my forehead, neck, and body.