Archive for August, 2010

How people underestimate the improbable

Posted in book review/summary, philosophy on August 27, 2010 by gohelpyourself

I've never seen a black swan, but this one looks beautiful. (Photo courtesy of

“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 366 pages, Random House, 2007

by Anthony O. Alcantara

Imagine that you are a chicken. Since you were born, you had all the comforts you could ask for—warm cage, cool companions, flavored water and, of course, overflowing food.

Everyday life was like heaven. And since it was like heaven day after day, there was no reason at all for you to think that tomorrow wouldn’t be as great as today. One day, the cage opened, and you, along with some of your feathery friends, were taken out for a trip. Little did you know that you’ll end up in the dinner table of some “cruel” human beings.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book “The Black Swan,” used the turkey to illustrate the problem of how we think about risk in our lives. I just used the chicken because that’s more familiar to us Filipinos.

Absence of proof is not proof of absence. That’s the message. Too many times, we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do, according to Taleb.

He argues that most of us are not prepared for the black swan. The black swan has three distinct characteristics: it is very rare, it has a huge impact on society, and it is subject to retrospective predictability, which is reflected in our tendency to explain why events occurred as if they were all too obvious and predictable.

Remember 9/11? How about the current global financial crisis? Many pundits seem to have very intelligent explanations for these events.

Aside from what Taleb deems as the mathematical folly of the bell curve, other psychological and philosophical biases and falsehoods such as the error of confirmation, Ludic fallacy and the dangers of Plato’s pure “forms” were discussed.

It’s not an easy book to read. But it will leave you thinking about how poor we are in assessing risk and opportunities, how we foolishly simplify and categorize events in our lives. It will leave you thinking that you’ve also succumbed to some of these biases and falsehoods in the past.

Because our world is dominated by extreme and unexpected events, Taleb says we should use these black swans as the starting point in our thinking and not just sweep them under the rug of oblivion. It could save us from a lot of pain in the future.



Pareto’s Disciple

Posted in book review/summary on August 20, 2010 by gohelpyourself

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch, 2008 Doubleday

By Anthony O. Alcantara

If it weren’t for economist Vilfredo Pareto, Richard Koch would likely not be as popular as he is today.    

In his book The 80/20 Principle, Koch says St. Paul was a great marketing genius who helped spread Jesus’s ideas, and thereby turned Christianity into a behemoth of more than 2 billion souls today. In the same way, Koch is a great marketing genius for Pareto’s ideas.    

Pareto, an Italian economist who made a hobby out of asking how much people earn, discovered in 1897 some intriguing patterns in wealth and income in England. He discovered a consistent mathematical relationship where a certain proportion of people earned a certain percentage of income and wealth.    

For example, 20 percent of the population earned 80 percent of the wealth, and 10 percent of the population had 65 percent of the wealth, and so on. Pareto discovered that the same pattern holds true in different time periods and countries.    

That’s the germ of the idea in The 80/20 Principle. Koch defines it as a pattern where “a minority of causes, inputs or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.”    


It is based on an assumption that “there is an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and effort and reward.”    

The idea is simple enough. But the applications in most areas in life and business have interesting and useful ramifications.    

For instance, reading books. You can get 80 percent of the value of the book from only 20 percent of the pages or words. Of course, you only read everything for pleasure. But for most books, it may be a good idea to look for the 20 percent that gives 80 percent of the value.    

In work, you produce 80 percent of your output from only 20 percent of the hours worked. In selling products, you get 80 percent of your revenues from only 20 percent of your customers. In investments, you get 80 percent of your wealth from only 20 percent of your portfolio. In your relationships with people, you get 80 percent of your enjoyment from 20 percent of your friends.    

Think 80/20    

The proportion may not always be 80/20 but the imbalance is there. That’s the reality for most people. Koch tells us about 80/20 Analysis and 80/20 Thinking, two ways of coping with this imbalance.    

He also has a few chapters on the application of his 80/20 principle in business that may be useful to the corporate types. But you can actually skip this part and still get 80 percent of the value of the book.    

From investments, relationships, career success and even happiness, Koch applies the 80/20 principle with gusto. His idea is to even out this built-in imbalance in our lives and in society.    

I believe the idea of relentless focus is relevant here, too. So it’s a skewed world we live in. We see this in our superstars in business, sports, arts, sciences, etc. Ever wonder why a singer who is only marginally better than another diva counts four more place numerical values in her paycheck?    

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages, Ecclesiastes 9:11: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”    

Koch’s book may help us adapt to this reality better.    


Books for Donation

Posted in Uncategorized on August 14, 2010 by gohelpyourself

Books shouldn't go to waste. (Photo courtesy of

By Anthony O. Alcantara

I love books, but I really need more space at home. I’m offering these for sale at P50 each. All the money I collect will go to the funds of our children’s choir at Sitio Pajo in Project 8, Quezon City. Please see also the books I listed in my previous post, Free Books. The suggested donation is now P50 for each book.

Please send me a message if you’re interested. The deadline is August 20, Friday. After that date, I will be donating the books to a school.

  1. The Motley Fool’s You Have More Than You Think by David and Tom Gardner
  2. Beach Music by Pat Conroy
  3. A Taste for Death by P.D. James
  4. Open World: The Truth About Globalisation by Philippe Legrain
  5. Poetry: A Test for English 14 by Dr. Susan P. Evangelista and Ms. Agnes Colette Condon
  6. I’m not at risk, am I? by Joy and Ray Thomas
  7. The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom
  8. Your Past Does Not Define Your Future by Bo Sanchez
  9. Contact by Carl Sagan
  10. A Short History of Everything by Bill Bryson
  11. Winning by Jack Welch with Suzy Welch
  12. The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L. Friedman
  13. The Seven Minute Difference by Allyson Lewis
  14. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
  15. Patriot Games by Tom Clancy
  16. World Government: The United Nations Reborn by Salvador Araneta
  17. French Kiss by Eric V. Lustbader
  18. The World of Rafael Salas by Nick Joaquin
  19. Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan
  20. Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan
  21. Ibsen: Four Major Plays
  22. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  23. Henry VI Part II by William Shakespeare
  24. Candide by Voltaire
  25. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  26. The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren
  27. What (Really) Works by William Joyce, Nitin Nohria and Bruce Roberson
  28. Asia’s Digital Dividends by David C. Michael and Greg Sutherland
  29. Management Accounting, 2nd edition, by Anthony A. Atkinson, Rajiv D. Banker, etc.
  30. Marketing, 7th edition, by Kerin, Berkowitz, etc.
  31. Microtrends by Mark J. Penn


Cultural Center of the Philippines: A fitness center for all

Posted in health and fitness, travel on August 7, 2010 by gohelpyourself

It's a different kind of show at the CCP in the morning.

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Emil Alvarez executes a lunge-like move and bends his torso, making it parallel to the ground. At the same time, he stretches out his arms in front of him, like Superman flying.

He then curls his fingers, forms two fists and pulls his hands toward his body. He tucks his chin towards his chest and then gradually looks up to the sky, his back arching and stretching upwards.

“This is the turtle move,” he says. I almost expect his eyeballs to pop out as he holds his pose. Then I finally see it. He does look like a turtle looking up.

“Interesting,” I reply. “I really want to learn Tai Chi.”

“No. That’s Wa Teng Kong,” he says. “It’s not Tai Chi but it’s also good for you.”

Emil goes on to lecture me about Wa Teng Kong and Tai Chi and turtles and how it all involves deep breathing and curling up your tongue when you do all the movements.

He is one of those who have found a perfect spot at the 88-hectare Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) complex, a spot with verdant trees and chirping birds, a spot where he can exercise in peace, except when there’s the occasional nosy guy who can’t recognize a human turtle right in front of his nose.

Mecca for the Arts

CCP is indeed a very different place in the morning. Opened in 1969 during the heydays of President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, CCP aimed to be the consummate impresario for everything beautiful and edifying.

Its vision? To become a mecca for Asian arts and culture.

World-renowned performers such as those from the Bolshoi, Kirov and Royal Danish ballets, and actors and singers in musicals such as Miss Saigon and Cats, and other revered musicians and visual artists have showcased their world-class talents there.

The Tanghalang Pambansa, or CCP Main Building, a colossal and stark edifice with a grand fountain in front, has been a witness to all of them.

Every morning, however, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, the CCP Main Building turns into a public gym. The majestic driveway becomes a running oval where people of all weight classes, body shapes, income brackets and nationalities run or walk.

The marble steps in front of the main doors of the CCP Main Building is where people like to do push-ups, sit-ups, squats and lunges. And on the wide spaces to the left and right of the building, some do stretching and shadow-boxing.

Dogs frolic there

Even dogs–from pugs, dobermans, chihuahuas and Labradors, to name a few–find the manicured-grass area in front of the building an ideal place for sniffing around, marking their territory, and catching Frisbees.

Asked why he’s at the CCP on a Saturday morning, Jojo, who’s in his late 20s, simply says it has become a habit.

“I came from Makati, Dian Street. I run from my house to this place to exercise,” he says as he wipes the sweat off his face.

“Have you ever watched a show here at CCP?” I ask.

“No, I haven’t ever been into that building.”

Indeed many people who go to CCP in the morning don’t even know what goes on inside this mecca for the arts.

And while some people look for peace and quiet among trees, or a good place to run and do push-ups, others like loud music and frenetic exercise moves. I’ve seen the perfect place for that.


The area to the right of the CCP Main Building, where an iridescent glass, stainless steel and concrete sculpture by Ramon Orlina stands, is a small park for people who seem to worship the artist’s masterpiece every Saturday and Sunday morning.

Instead of sipping wine and munching canapés as they marvel at Orlina’s eight-meter high sculpture called Oneness, the folks there sip from their water bottles in between sessions of vigorous aerobics accompanied by loud dance music.

It is there, too, that I discover that aerobics is a spectator sport. I see a line of people, mostly men, ogle at some 200 weekend aerobics enthusiasts, many of them lithe young women, as they sweat it out. They seem to be enjoying the show so much that I feel like buying them popcorn and giving them some comfortable chairs.

Further along the park behind Orlina’s work of art, are three more aerobics classes. While most of these aerobics classes charge P20 per person, one class collects monthly fees, and they all wear a certain color for the day’s session.

Something fishy

Walking along the quay, you’ll also find fishing enthusiasts with their colorful fishing rods and cans of worms.

“I started fishing two years ago,” says Jose while hooking two small squirming worms into two separate hooks on his line. “I just got bored with running and thought of using the fishing rod someone gave me.”

After flinging his line toward the murky waters of Manila Bay and waiting two minutes, he feels a tug and quickly reels in his line to see if his worms are okay.

One is still there helpless and bored, but the other has been gulped by a small tilapia, who’s now struggling to get off the fishing hook. Jose unhooks the fish and places it in a small cage with a net covering.

He says he will give it to his friend who makes daing, or dried fish, out of their catch.

“Sometimes I catch three kilos of fish on a good day,” says Jose, who usually goes for his weekend fishing trips at 5am and goes home at noon. He sometimes catches bangus, or milkfish, as big as his leg.

Fishing at the quay is free. You just bring your own fishing rod, which, according to Jose, you can get for as cheap as P300 or as expensive as P30,000. Worms, which you can buy from peddlers nearby, cost P10 per small cup.

Rackets for rent

In the parking lots all over the CCP complex, you’ll also find people playing badminton, tennis, and Frisbee. Some bring their own gear, but some prefer to rent. Enterprising homeless people there have made it a stable and thriving business.

So you see a lot of people hitting tennis balls and shuttle cocks and catching Frisbees.

Further along the quay are the rowers. Most have their body suits on and toting their paddle bags. You see them doing warm-up stretching early in the morning. I’ve never seen their boats, though.

Near the Folk Arts Theater, where religious groups usually worship in the morning, are the swimmers. Despite the often-murky waters and the noisome smell of decay, some people attest to its curative powers.

Ernesto, one of the habitués there, brings his family to the area to bathe and swim. Sometimes he hires a boat for a short trip near SM Mall of Asia and Baseco, where they can enjoy cleaner air and calm their fraught nerves with the gentle waves of the sea.

Biggest public toilet

One part of the quay, though, is slowly crumbling as waves wash away the rocks and concrete beneath.

“That’s where some (homeless) people do their thing. They’ve turned it into their toilet,” says Ernesto. Bathing, fresh air, good health, an open bathroom, and people happily swimming nearby. It doesn’t make sense to me, but Ernesto doesn’t pause to explain.

These folks will surely make very interesting subjects on the study of cognitive dissonance.

We continue to watch the bathers. Babies and children clinging to their parents are dipped into the water. Ernesto says they rarely get sick.

There are other areas for other sports, too. Cyclists whiz past the CCP Main Theater, Folk Arts Theater, Philippine International Convention Center, Star City, and the Coconut Palace as they travel along the CCP complex’s wide streets.

Some runners and walkers who find the CCP main building oval too crowded find these streets inviting, too. With the increasing popularity of running, the CCP complex has become an even busier venue for many marathons.

Everybody seems to be fit and happy at the CCP complex. I’m sure you can find your own suitable spot there. And perhaps, like me, you’ll learn something about turtles, too.