Friday, July 31, 2009

Willing Stupidity

From a recent poll:
Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?
Not Sure12

YesNoNot sure

America has the best-educated, well-informed stupid people on the planet.

It really is one of my favorite fascinations: How otherwise sane people can believe completely ridiculous things.

Daily Report: Even Eagles Should Wear Helmets

Tyson ate our motorcycle helmets. Well... he chewed all the padding out of them. I guess he was lonely one night (he stays outside at night) and found comfort in gnawing something soaked in my head sweat and Epril's hair spray.

Epril's helmet was completely unusable, as all the padding was almost completely gone and the inside now smelled like Tyson's breath after a huge bowl of rice and pig liver. My helmet was a bit torn but without the stink and could still be worn. (We weren't too upset since the helmets were older and needed to be replaced anyway.)

So it was off to Cagayan De Oro tonight with the plan to buy some new helmets. We took my helmet along, and I let Epril wear it while I went without.

As we came into Puerto, the last town on the highway before entering CDO proper, two police officers standing duty on the side of the road saw me coming and pulled me over for not wearing a helmet. I explained the situation, explained that I gave my wife my helmet out of concern for her safety, and how we were on our way to buy new helmets. They still told me to pull over to the side of the road, basically indicating that it was ticket time.

It was at this point that I realized that I had taken the envelope containing all of the motorcycle's registration information out from under the seat during the last bit of repairs, and hadn't put it back.

"Please kuya, we're on our way to buy new helmets right now," I said.

Kuya means older brother in Tagalog, but it is also the honorific that members of The Philippine Eagles fraternity (mostly composed of police officers, of which I became a member last month) use to address each other. The police officer looked a little confused. I said, "Don't I always see you at The Eagles meetings?" He looked thoughtful for a second and then said, "Do you mean Kuya Reynaldo? I look like him." From the back of the motorcycle, Epril said, "Yes... that's him."

The police officer and his friend then let us continue on our way.

I did feel a little guilty after the fact about "name dropping" like that to get out of a ticket. In all honesty, if I hadn't been faced with the prospect of leaving my bike parked in Puerto (or having it impounded), or if my traffic infraction had been more willful or serious, I might have tried a little more talking first, or just taken the ticket. But (based on the fact that Epril was obviously wearing my helmet, and we had fancy rain ponchos on, and I was wearing nice driving gloves, the police could see that I am the kind of guy who would normally be wearing a helmet if I could) the officers could see that I was most likely telling the truth that we were really going to buy helmets, and that also helped. I think they also appreciated the fact that I put Epril's safety before my own, and that generated a little compassion too. They even said as much when, as we were getting ready to pull away, as I asked Epril to give me back my helmet, the officers told me to let Epril keep it. "We love our wives too. We understand," they said. Nice guys, in the end.

Anyway, Epril and I did go straight to Limketkai mall, and after a nice dinner of sushi, we went and bought two new helmets. After that, it was off to Spooks to hang out with everyone.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Daily Report: Ladies Lunch

I'm getting a little nervous about the rain lately, with my birthday coming up. Normally around here it always rains usually right at, or just after sundown... usually for about 30 to 45 minutes. Lately though it's been raining at all different times of the day, which means that it might rain during my birthday party. Well, it still only rains for about 30 or 45 minutes... but it sure is cold when it does.

Epril invited her friends (mostly members of the Expatriates' Ladies Charity) out to the house today for lunch. They were given a ride by my friend Mike Farrell (one of the most seasoned expatriates in the State of Misamis Oriental), and the ladies were also accompanied by an old expatriate acquaintance of mine, a fellow named Oliver. I got to work really early and then took the afternoon off from work and chatted with the guys and everybody ate a bunch.

After that, the girls drove off to see where my birthday party is going to be. (They all seem to be more excited about the party than I am.) Mike, Oliver, and myself sat on the front porch and talked about Jasaan being a nice place to live, and about marriage in The Philippines.

Tyson kept us all company. His new teeth are coming in and he has to be hurting. His behavior is definitely improving though, and he is learning things like "sit" and "get down" and "shake".

Monday, July 27, 2009

Daily Report: The Jolly Baker

We got the oven fixed. My call to the La Germania corporation in Manila yielded no results as expected, but a stop by the Desmark store where we bought the range brought the repairman to our door the next morning. Nice.

With our oven now working, Epril immediately wanted to bake the second of two instant cake mixes that we bought for Inday's birthday the weekend before last.

As a rule, Epril doesn't cook, so she entered into the cake baking endeavor a little meekly, sending up text messages to my jungle perch ("Do I add the oil now?") in a quest for confidence. However, as the afternoon wore on, her text messages became more jubilant and triumphant, ending with, "I can bake a cake!" Obviously the poor child's early life was lacking an Easy Bake Oven, hence these breakthroughs today.

There is something I've figured out about Filipino people: They take an intense interest in other people. They want to know about others' lives... and share their own. Epril, Susan, and Ednil are all addicted to Friendster, which seems to be an activity of primarily looking at other people's family photos... and sharing their own. They spend hours every day looking at some girl's vacation to a beach in Bohol, or photos of some complete stranger's nephew's birthday party.

I didn't figure out how pervasive this curiosity about others was though until today when I was watching the TV show, "Wo-Wo-Wee". It's a variety show with a live audience, from which the host draws contestants to play games. I realized that the host spent about 15 minutes getting to know two contestants — asking them about their love life, asking them to tell a happy or sad story (shedding tears gets bonus points), asking them to sing — before playing a name-that-tune game that lasts only 2 minutes. Amazingly, everyone in this country finds the mundane-yet-tragic love life of a housewife from Quezon City interesting... and they really (really) want to hear this lady sing an off-key rendition of a 1970's Tagalog love song.

Perhaps Filipinos are looking for pieces of their own lives in others. Maybe they want to compare. Maybe they're just overly nosy. I don't know... but it's educational, these little differences between cultures. Often times, you learn more about a people by examining small things like I described, rather than the big differences (language, tradition, religion) which everybody notes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Thoughts On That Gates Guy's Arrest

I think there are 2 universal rules when it comes to dealing with police who are doing their jobs: Number one, accommodate them in their duty and comply with whatever requests they have to the best of your ability, and number two, don't be a dick about it.

A police officer responds to a call that a house is being broken into. He gets to the house he has never been to and finds somebody he has never seen before standing in the front hallway: It's perfectly reasonable to request identification. Give it to him. This Gates guy apparently didn't at first.

Once Gates did show his ID, and the police officer was comfortable that there was no break-in, that should have been the end of it... and probably would have been. Instead, this Gates fellow had to keep talking.

I don't care who you are or what color your skin is: If you insult the police and get argumentative and berate them for doing their job, then you are choosing to tread a line between merely voicing your disagreement and displeasure and verbal assault. I don't know exactly what Gates said, but it was obviously more than the police officer was willing to tolerate.

The discussion here is not about whether police should be able to arrest people who disrepsect them past a certain limit (although I do agree with it), but it is a fact that that is what police do. This Gates guy knew it. He nonetheless harrangued a cop for doing his job, and he got cuffed for it, and it serves him right.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Daily Report: Cooking With Gas

I'm starting to take an interest in cooking. One of the things I didn't count on when I moved out to Jasaan would be the difficulty in keeping myself gastronomically entertained: The local market has few ingredients, and the local grocer has an incredibly poor selection. The few restaurants in town have almost-acceptable menus, but it seems that most days (or rather, always) they are "sold out" of the majority of things I would order.

Of course, one can drive into Cagayan de Oro to purchase things, but that is a fair trip and while bringing back takeout is a nice event, doing it more than a couple of times per week is tedious.

So, I've taken an interest in cooking my own food. After conquering my mother's BBQ chicken recipe, I leapt with both feet straight on to pizza. From scratch.

So, on Friday night Epril and I went to CDO and bought flour, yeast, tomatoes, spices, and mozzarella cheese, and on Saturday I made enough dough for 2 pizzas and a nice batch of pizza sauce.

Since it was also Inday's 14th birthday, it was also decided to bake a cake... although we used the instant cake variety. I did buy confectioner's sugar though to make icing, as that seemed quite easy.

So after kneading and stewing and mixing and pouring, I went to turn on the oven on my new range: Nothing. No gas was getting to the oven. First time to use it, and it was already broken. I was once again the victim of the "everything I buy is a piece of shit" situation. (We called the La Germania appliance corporation, and they promised to send a repairman. We'll see, but I'm doubtful.)

Fortunately, the whole impetus for this undertaking was the fact that Mike Bird has a pizza oven that he bought back from Australia, which has been sitting forgotten at his house for 4 months. We brought that back to our house and fired it up.

The pizzas came out fantastic. Chocolate birthday cake: Oh hell no.

Anyway, what I'm actually thinking of next is to make my own mozzarella cheese. Water buffalo milk is the best milk for mozzarella cheese. There are lots of water buffalo around here, although I've never seen anybody milking one. I'll bet that I could make mozzarella cheese using water buffalo milk for a quarter of the price that I paid for the cheese ($10 per pound) I bought in CDO. (They sell mozzarella cheese-making kits here. Based on the photos, it seems that one gallon of milk makes about one pound of cheese.)

Actually, making the pizza entirely from base ingredients, I could make a 16-inch cheese pizza for 50 pisos... $1. I'll bet those would sell well at a profit. The place in town that sells this god-awful 8-inch pizza using Velveeta, pineapple, and hotdogs (but no pizza sauce) sells theirs for 120 pisos each.

Take Back A Sale? Kindle Would

My mother keeps recommending Kindle to me. I can see the appeal of being able to download books directly to my computer, and then having a hand-held tablet-style computer with which I can port those books around with me... at least as far as my bedroom, where 99% of my reading gets done.

But, as I mentioned here, Amazon -- the company that makes and sells Kindle and the books that it stores -- can switch off your Kindle and delete your books if you piss them off. Now, even more noteworthy, the New York Times reports that Amazon will just delete a title from everybody's Kindle for whatever reason they might deem worthy... with a refund, at least.

The irony of it? Last night, Amazon sent everybody's copies of 1984 and Animal Farm down the memory hole.

(Just as an aside, if I had a Kindle here in The Philippines, I don't believe I would have such a problem, since my Kindle would not actively be connected to the internet... but one never can be sure.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Daily Report: Low Expectations Exceeded

It was my usual day of work today. We made fried rice for lunch, and had the leftovers (plus roast chicken) for dinner. I took Tyson for a walk around the block as well.

Recently, the employees of my company got together and initiated a study on the effectiveness of the speech recognition system that was recently introduced (and the accuracy of the software in providing an accurate rough draft of a dictation), and provided a detailed analysis of what effect it had on work, and compared that to the compensation employees were receiving for that work. Today, my company issued a "response" to all these employees' facts and figures proving that speech recognition was not a fraction as effective as management believed it would be for use in the medical transcription industry.

Even though I predicted what the response would be ("clap louder"), I was rather shocked at the audacity of the selective belief system my company employed to justify doing nothing to remedy the huge loss of income transcriptionists have faced recently.

Basically, after hundreds of employees presented them with thousands of data points, and said, "Here is how much work we got done before the introduction of speech recognition, and here is how much we got done after the introduction of speech recognition," management's reply was, "We use our own 'industry' statistics about you and your work, and we think those statistics are more accurate than what you are actually experiencing. (Don't worry though... we'll train you some more!)"

The simple fact is, it wasn't until after the introduction of speech recognition that my company showed a profit for the first time in years. My company isn't going to go back to being in the red just to ease its employees' economic woes. I would have respected management for coming out and admitting this simple business reality, and I implicitly understand that this is the situation (and will be the reason I still have a job in the coming months)... but instead, they take this condescending tack by providing us with their own ludicrous version of reality. Sigh.

Anyway, I watched a good show on The Australia Network about the biography of Wehrner Von Braunn (of Nazi/rocket fame), and then re-watched the North Korea episode of "Don't Tell My Mother..." on The National Geographic Channel. Then it was off to bed, where I read my book, The Forest. The particular section I'm reading now covered the various insurrections in England against Charles I, Charles II, and James II in the 1600's.

Sign Of The Times

I'm sure we've all dreamed it: Taking such famous and sweet revenge on having been treated poorly by customer service that one of the largest companies in America publicly regrets ever having pissed you off.

Well, after a singer from Nova Scotia watched with dismay out of his airliner window as some baggage handlers tossed and broke his $3500 guitar, and the subsequent denial of that airline to reimburse him for his loss, he wrote a song about it. Now 2.5 million people (and counting) have tapped their toes to the newest viral video on YouTube, "United Breaks Guitars".

(And yes, United has seen the video; yes, they have had a change of heart about paying for the damage; and yes, the singer is still going to write two more songs — and make videos — about his experience, as promised.)

Obviously, this video will become required watching in every Marketing 101 course taught in college from this point forward.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Daily Report: Quality Walking

Today being Sunday, I worked for a couple of hours in the morning and then took the rest of the day off. Marc and Susan weeded the front yard. Fatima's family has planted some San Francisco bushes for us up on their property, and once they are grown enough, we are going to transfer them down to the front of our house to make a bit of a hedge row.

Epril had some friends over for lunch, and we all ate a dish of pork, potatoes, and green beans, cut into small pieces and served in a soy-sauce-based broth.

Late in the afternoon, Epril and I took Tyson for a walk all over town. We went through the town square (admiring the fancy new lamp posts installed there), then down to the river, then along a lovely orchard path, through town past the market, and then back home.

Along the way, Tyson met a pig for the first time (and voiced his strong disapproval of the species), was briefly attacked by somebody else's dog for the first time (and didn't care for that much either), but did smell hundreds of wonderful things like poo, litter, and plant life in various stages of life and decay.

Epril and I shared pleasantries with the dozens upon dozens of folks we passed along the way. Crowds of kids squealed and laughed and cavorted in Tyson's path and wake, believing they were risking life and limb by flirting with the perimeter of the monstrous crazy dog's leash (when in reality, they only risked a face covered with sloppy dog kisses). The local canine population (with the one exception above) came out and barked a herald of Tyson's arrival in their territory, and then shared some mutual sniffs of pertinent body parts. A tethered goat reared up on hind legs, and cocked its head at Tyson for a good battering before I pulled the hapless and friendly dog out of harm's way (though I was half tempted to find out how that confrontation would have worked out... not well for Tyson, likely).

Everything was lush, verdant, and moist from the daily dousing rain storms this time of year. The river bounced along, with it's low gurgling drowned out by the 2 karaoke stands we passed, manned by local fellows singing their epicedes to Michael Jackson. They stopped and smiled and waved while singing. They told him don't you ever come around here. Further along, women were trimming the grass around coconut trees with hand scythes, while pantless children stood in the doorways of bamboo huts and gaped wide-eyed at the rare trio of black dog and white man and brown girl passing by.

Somebody disparaged the quality of my life the other day. If one measures life's quality by the value of the things they buy, or the intensity of their entertainment, or the decadence of their meals, or the cushiness of their environment, or the ease of their earning, then I can't argue with them.

However, if one measures life's quality by the quantity of casual pleasantries received from strangers, the number of smiles and giggles of children created, the amount of foreign culture experienced, the amount of natural beauty appreciated, the amount of life being lived without modern complications witnessed, or the breadth and depth of memories accumulated... while feeling a great personal contentment of watching a highly entertained, galumphing slobber machine carouse amidst the roadside greenery on the end of his leash while you walk through your own living definition of paradise with the prettiest and most loving woman ever to step into your life, then I disagree: Life's quality is pretty good.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Future Of The Transcription Industry

Recently, my company has been trying to figure out what to do about the fact that the speech recognition software they rolled out 9 months ago has been dismally inadequate (like everyone — except management and their enablers — predicted). Management predicted a 50% increase in work production (and correspondingly cut remuneration by one third), but an employee-initiated study showed that the increase from using speech recognition was only around 15%. So far, management's response has been "clap louder". However, the workforce is definitely clamoring for a change. I doubt that they... we... will get it though; not for a while at least. Not until enough people quit and work doesn't start getting done.

I know some people think that India will eventually take all medical transcription work, but it won't. There may be 1 billion people in that country, but (1) how many of those people speak English at least as well as you or I do, and (2) how many of those people will choose medical transcription as their source of income instead of call center, or programming, or engineering, or teaching, or any of the other hundreds of job opportunities being brought about by our wired world? Not enough to replace tens of thousands of Americans. And, as Thomas Friedman said in his book "The World Is Flat": Indians don't want Americans to make as little money as they do; they want to make as much money as Americans do. Finally, like I said here, the number of medical facilities requiring electronic medical record services is going to skyrocket in the next 5 years, and it is going to be native English speakers (i.e. Americans) who will be meeting that massive demand... but only once it starts paying a livable wage again.

The problem, I've noted to coworkers, is with the marketing departments of the medical transcription industry: They are currently unable to explain to hospitals and other medical facilities that providing medical record services costs a certain amount... especially when those hospitals know what Indians are getting paid. They can't explain that there aren't enough talented Indians to do all the work; they can't explain that some dictation is too difficult for Indians to ever do. Since they fail to convince clients that a certain amount of money is necessary to provide this service, they go ahead and contract for a lower rate, and then look for ways to cut operating costs... speech recognition being the foremost attempt.

There really are only one of two possible outcomes (with outsourcing, as noted above, being unlikely): One, either transcription companies start charging their clients the actual value of the service they provide, and hospitals agree to pay it; or two, that hospitals start doing medical records in-house, and convince doctors to use on-the-fly voice recognition instead of transcription services, thereby increasing the time doctors spend dictating (and editing and correcting) their own medical records... something which is possible, although (as any doctor will tell you) the time doctors spend on administrative work is already a big complaint and opportunity cost among medical professionals. Physician assistants and nurses could be assigned to do this work, but again in terms of real and opportunity costs alike, this may not be any more cost effective than using a transcription service.

So, overall, I think that eventually (with (1) underpaid transcriptionists leaving the industry... at least temporarily, with (2) Indians being too few in number and likely to start demanding more equitable pay in the future, with (3) medical professionals generally being unwilling to shoulder the time and responsibility for medical record production, and with (4) the upcoming boom in demand for electronic medical records) although American medical transcriptionists are having a rough time now, the inequities currently being experienced will correct themselves.

I think that once the economy improves, and alternate and better-paying opportunities for employment begin to entice transcriptionists away from their current positions, hospitals see a better cash flow, and the work load increases... perhaps in the next 24–36 months... the transcription industry will become an employee-driven market.

Daily Report: Not Much To Report

Sorry I haven't posted much lately. Quite simply, almost nothing has been going on for the last week. Tyson is doing fine... although he is still eating and chewing everything.

We decided not to get his ears or tail done. His tail is really just not that important to me. I did want to get his ears done but there was a bit of confusion as the vet told us to wait until 3 months old, and the internet told us that ears done after 3 months old wouldn't stand up. Regardless, by the time I thought about "making the cut", I realized that Tyson's ears are adorable and really are little semiotic flags to his personality: They stick straight out at attention, go happily up and drearily down , flip back in excitement, droop in exhaustion.

Tatay, my father in law, is back from a 50-day fishing job. I told him a couple of times that he doesn't have to work anymore if he doesn't want to; but he wants to, so he does.

We hired a new security guard, and he sits outside our house at night. He's a member of some Neighborhood Watch program — I don't know the details — and I think he has just moved his post from wherever it was before to in front of our place. The $30 a month that I pay him is well worth the peace of mind.

I've just about finished the major portion of my video game, Elder Scrolls IV. After that it will be off to "The Shivering Isles" section... an add-on that was bundled with the game. I definitely got my money's worth out of this particular game.

We've been eating my mother's BBQ chicken like crazy: Three times in the last 7 days. Everybody loves it, and the BBQ sauce is relatively easy to make and vastly inexpensive compared to store-bought BBQ sauce.

Work is back to sucking again. It's the annual cycle: Nobody gets sick during the summer, so there isn't as much work to do.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Where Will The Mindanao Railway Go?

I was reading this article about the planned railway system that is going to link all the various parts of Mindanao to each other.

It's a fine idea, I think. It certainly would improve industrial possibilities in some of the poorest areas of The Philippines.

One question though: Mindanao is, essentially, nothing but mountains and beach... which makes it obvious where one would be building a railroad. Most people (especially around here in Jasaan) live within 100 meters of the beach. That's a lot of displaced people, I think. Hell: On certain spans of the coast where the only flat land is the 50 feet or so between the national highway and the water's edge, a railroad would displace pretty much everybody.

Personally, I think they should build the railway right down the middle of the national highway... right in the pavement, San Francisco trolley style. I doubt that the trains would be speeding any faster than the big trucks, and there wouldn't be so many of them, and they wouldn't be so long as to cause huge problems. Also, the National Highway occupies the flattest route around the island already. Finally, it would drop the cost of constructing the railway by a huge margin... probably to a tiny fraction of any other route being considered.

Halfway Mark: Jungle Jil's 40th Birthday Coming Up

Today marks one month until my 40th birthday. I figured I'd better have a party, or my mother would click her tongue and make that "you-let-me-down" awww sound.

So, if you're reading this, and if you can make it, you're invited to my birthday party in the jungle. Everyone is invited. Even I might show up.

Here is the jungle party website I created with directions.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Daily Report: A Recipe From My Childhood

We made barbecue chicken today. It wasn't just any barbecue chicken, it was my mother's barbecue chicken, using a recipe handed down from my grandmother, who got it out of a magazine back many decades ago. I obviously grew up on this recipe, and obviously haven't had it since moving to Asia 7 years ago.

We had to substitute a few ingredients, which I'm sure my mother would cringe at, but surprisingly it tasted damn near perfect: We used this stuff called "matam-is" (a coconut-based, sweet, brown crumbly substance) instead of brown sugar (one half as sweet as brown sugar though, so we used 2 times as much), and we used chili powder instead of mustard powder. I also had Chef Susan add in extra onion per my preference.

Here is the recipe:
  1. Simmer 3 large diced onions and 3 diced cloves of garlic in 1½ cup of oil.
  2. Make a paste of 3 teaspoon of paprika, 3 teaspoon of salt, 3 teaspoon of dry mustard, 3 tablespoon of brown sugar with 6 tablespoons of water.
  3. Combine the paste with the simmering ingredients.
  4. Add 7-1/2 cups of tomato juice.
  5. Simmer 15 minutes.
  6. After sauce is cooked, add 1 cup of lemon juice.
The bar-be-que process is the most important part:
  1. Use parboiled chicken (with skin).
  2. With the pot of sauce next to the grill, cook the chicken over an aggressive flame that nearly touches the chicken.
  3. Take each piece of chicken and dip it whole in the sauce, and put it back on the grill. Then after a minute or so, repeat the process, flipping the chicken. Do this 10 times or so. If you do it right, the chicken outside should be a bit charred and blackened, but still moist.
  4. When you serve the chicken, make sure to keep the barbecue sauce on the table to use as a gravy.

In other news, I almost hired a night watchman today to stay at the house. I wanted to pay 1,500 pisos per month for a 5-hour shift... but the guy immediately asked for 2,000 pisos... too much for a job of that type. I would have paid it, but my thought was that hiring somebody whose first display is one of greed to watch your valuables wouldn't be wise.

We also installed a light over the front of the garage, over the street. It is one of those ultra-bright 20-watt flourescent bulbs. It makes a huge difference to the nighttime out front, and really eliminates all of the shadowy places where somebody could hide from sight. Add to that the fact that Tyson (a true guard dog now in his reaction to people coming on the property) is now spending his nights outside, and the house is much more secure (knock on wood).