The Philippine FSO Exam and Five Golden Tips to Help Pass It

So, you want to be a diplomat? The Philippine Foreign Service Officers Examination, or “FSO Exam” for short, is the exam you have to pass if you want to be a Philippine foreign service officer, or what in layman’s terms can be called a diplomat. The FSO Exam touted by many as the most difficult exam in the entire Philippine bureaucracy. The passing rate is much lower than the lawyer’s bar or any engineer or medical board exams. The exam is said to be so difficult that it is rumored that there was even one year where no one passed.

Over the years I’ve been in the foreign service, I’ve had my fair share of friends and friends of friends who’ve approached me asking me for tips and to share experiences on the FSO Exam. Some have even gone out on a limb to ask me to help them prepare for the exam. Being a naturally helpful fellow, I’ve always tried my best to help. And after all, I consider myself lucky that I am in the foreign service at all, and helping others get through this grueling exam is my way of paying it forward.

So if it’s so hard, what is the passing rate of the exam?

I’d guesstimate that the exam typically has a passing rate of around 1-3%. I don’t have a large data set to present so let’s go by some rough numbers. The FSO exam is given yearly. In a typical year you’d usually have a thousand takers, give or take a few hundred.  From this number it is not out of the ordinary to have less than 10 people who make it until the end. Though it seems now-a-days more than 10 to around 20 passers a year is more common. As I mentioned, it is rumored that there was even a year where no one passed. Whether this is true or not, it just shows the exam’s fearsome reputation.

(I think what happened is that there indeed was a year no one passed, so the board [Board of Foreign Service Examinations] decided to lower the score so at least there would be a few passers for that year – again this is what I heard, word of mouth.)

Such a fearsome reputation for an exam is all in all not that bad. For one, for those who did pass, it puts a higher value on their achievement. And on the flip-side, for those who did not pass, it helps soothe hurt feelings.

Let’s use some numbers to get a more detailed look into the FSO exam’s passing rate. While all of this is public record, let me trawl the internet for statistics for you. According to this news report, in 2012 there were 9 successful examinees out of an batch of initial 534, that means the passing rate that year was 1.7%. In 2011 according to this successful taker, out of 628 examinees only 9 passed, putting the passing rate that year at 1.4%. It’s also a know fact that there was a year where out of a couple of hundred takers there were only three passers, one of whom was the daughter of former President Macapagal-Arroyo.

Of course this 1-3% passing rate is just my flimsy guess. It can go lower or higher. In my own batch of exam takers in 2007, we had an anomalously large batch of 31 passers (we were the second largest ever at the time) out of more than 800 takers (I forget the exact figures now), giving us a passing rate of around 3.7%. Meanwhile, this successful taker notes that during his year (around 2004) out of around 1,250 takers only 12 passed giving his year’s passing rate as around 0.96% or less than 1%.

Why are you having such a hard time giving me a passing rate?

The FSO exam is a long-drawn out selection process given in five different stages or tests. These stages are given out in the course of a full year, or sometimes even longer (in my batch it took 2 years). And whenever the results of each stage are published, they usually just list down the names of examinees who were able crawl through to the other end of that particular stage, without mention on how many overall takers there were at the start.

Thus, I have to rely on what little data I can scrape up online and on my own too fallible memory.

Philippine Foreign Service Officer Exam
A poster released by the DFA featuring new members of the multitalented Philippine foreign service corps, highlighting their multidisciplinary aspect.

Don’t I have to be a lawyer or be something like an International Relations graduate before I can take the FSO Exam?

You do not have to be a lawyer or have any kind of fancy degree. In fact, any four year college degree course satisfies the minimum required educational background. Whether it be a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, Music, Engineering, or Zoology, it’s all good.

Aside from having a Bachelor’s Degree, you are also required to have at least two years of combined work experience or further studies. So, if you worked for two years after college, or took up your Master’s for two years, or did one year of work and one year of studies you’re eligible.

Of course, you must be a Filipino citizen if you want to a Filipino diplomat. And, you should not be more than 35 years of age on the first day of the first exam (Qualifying Test).

For a couple of years now, applicants have also been required to be “permanent residents” of the Philippines. This is debatable, because it is a bit tricky to define what constitutes permanent residency in the Philippines for a Filipino national. While what I’m saying is by no mean definite, as the last say on matters related to the exam fall upon the DFA’s Board of Foreign Service Examinations, it can be interpreted that as long as you do not have long-term or legal permanent residence status in another country, such as for example US permanent residence, you should be eligible to take the exam. For the majority of aspirants who live and work in the Philippines though, this “permanent residency” thing is a non-issue, of course.

So, is it normal for me to take the FSO Exam even if the college course I took is unrelated?

Yes. The poster above this article was made by DFA to help it recruit FSO Exam examinees. As you can see, in the foreign service corps there are nurses, ballet dancers, soldiers, and radio hosts. I know that there are even priests, musicians, computer engineers, and competitive pistol shooters.

I remember fondly that during the oath-taking ceremony of my batch just after we had passed the exams and were being sworn in as foreign service officers, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs said in his keynote remarks “The foreign service corps is increasingly multidisciplinary. In fact, this batch has a Doctor in Chemistry. Can you believe that? And why… this batch even has a… Bachelor in Physical Education” (there was an audible gasp from the audience).

And I smiled to myself “Yeah, that’s me alright.” while I leaned against the two crutches I’ve been using as a support after ligaments in one of my knees were ripped by a wily Japanese grappler who caught me in a nasty leglock in an underground MMA competition a couple of weeks back.

Rambo meme to help break the monotony of this article.
Here’s a Rambo meme to help break up the long blocks of text of this article.

How long is the exam?

The exam is made out of five test given over one year. You have to pass to make it to the next part; if you fail one test you are no longer allowed to continue. They are given in this order: Qualifying Test, Preliminary Interview, Written Test, Psychological Test, Oral Test.

Let’s examine each part a little more up close.

I. Qualifying Test

This exam is made by the Civil Service Commission and is said to be like the civil service exam but only on steroids… lots of steroids. It contains mathematics (oh no, not again!), reading comprehension, grammar, logic, and lots of other high-school and basic college education stuff. This very lengthy half-day exam (usually 8am – 12nn) seems to be designed not to be finished and you’ll be under tremendous time pressure. A lot of people I know, myself included, had to rely on the old “shotgun” method for quite of number questions since there wasn’t enough time to answer them all. It seems to be as much of a test of mental tenacity as it is ability.

By the way, I haven’t taken the civil service exam. You don’t need to take the civil service exam to be a foreign service officer.

Since the exam is made by the Civil Service Commission and is said to be like the civil service exam, it would be logical to prepare for the Qualifying Test the same you would prepare for the civil service exam. There are lots of excellent civil service reviewers available in bookstores and online so I suggest getting a whole lot of them and trying them all out.

Most people get hacked away (fail) during this part of the FSO exam so prepare for it well. More on this later.

 

II. Preliminary Interview

As a disclaimer, I did not take the Preliminary Interview part of the FSO Exam since it was introduced just very shortly after I had taken the exam at 2007. But I of course went through all the other parts of the FSO Exam.

This is what I hear from people who’ve been through the interview and from colleagues who themselves have been panelists. The panelists in the interview will be active officers in the foreign service corps. Three panelists will conduct the interview and will ask you questions to get a better sense of your background, what you know and what skills or knowledge you can contribute to the foreign service. Being essentially a job interview, the panelists will try determine whether or not you’re good fit for the work that lies ahead. And just like any job interview, they may ask your personal life, your professional life, and everything in between. Sans waiting time, the interview is said to take around 20 minutes or less.

Be ready to answer questions like: “What do you do in your current job?” or  “What can you contribute to the DFA?” But you can also be asked stumpers like “What can be done to ensure a meritocracy in DFA?”

III. Written Test

The Written Test is a three day essay-type exam, with each day lasting from 8am – 4pm. If the Qualifying Test is made by the Civil Service Commission, and the Preliminary Interview is done by officers in the foreign service corps, the Written Test is made by the academe.

And indeed the questions can get very academic, such as “Define and discuss the relevance to the Philippines of the following: AFTA, NAFTA, LAFTA, EU, APEC, and EAEC.” or “Define Realpolitik and describe how this principle is evident in the strategies of Otto Von Bismarck and Camillo di Cavour.” 

Over the three days, the Written Test will test your mettle on the following: English (20%), Filipino (5%), Philippine Political, Economic and Cultural Conditions (30%), International Affairs (20%), World History (20%), Foreign Language (5%).

Here is a bunch of the questions that came out in a previous Written Test that someone posted on Scribd a few years back.

As we can see from the sample questions, it is virtually impossible to cover everything that might be taken up in the Written Exam, so learn how to answer in the best way possible using what knowledge you do have. And be prepared for cramped up hands by the end of the three days.

Three days of non-stop essay writing! Hurray!!!

A: Psst... Hey buddy, what's the answer to number 23? B: You do realize this in an essay type exam right?
A: Pssst… Hey buddy, what’s the answer to number 23?
B: You do realize this in an essay-type exam, right?

IV. Psychological Test

This test is done at the Philippine Mental Health Association, usually in small batches or pairs in one day from 8 am to 3 pm. You’ll be evaluated both on your mental abilities and your psychiatric health. If you’ve made it this far, I assume your mental abilities would be up to par. The assessment your psychiatric health however is another matter. This test is meant to weed out those who are not psychologically fit to endure the pressures of serving abroad in high-profile situations.

You’ll be put through a battery of psychiatric tests, which may be familiar to many of you. For example, you have to complete sentences that go something like “When I am upset about a situation I have no control over  ________” or ask you’ll be asked to draw a picture of a person.

In the last part, you have a brief talk with a psychiatrist.

While not everyone will take this test seriously, let it be known that there are people who get axed at this point. In one batch, it was reported that 12 out of 24 people didn’t pass the psychological test.

Now how do you prepare for such an test? I had a colleague who said one shouldn’t worry about the Psychological Test so much. All you have to do is just answer the questions of the psychiatrist as any normal person would. For example, if asked to fill in the blanks “My father is ______.” just say what a normal, rational man would. Something like “My father is a good man” or “My father loved us very much”.

But then I retorted “But what if you have the urge to say something crazy like ‘My father is a monkey.’ or ‘My father is an alien from outer space.’?”

She said “Well, if you really are crazy, then you wouldn’t know ‘My father is a monkey’ is something crazy to say.”

So in short, don’t worry, be yourself and be natural (or at least try your best to suppress those voices in your head and/or feelings of infinite, consuming despair on that day… hehe, kidding).

Bonobos (Pan paniscus)
If you can, find yourself a good mentor to keep you on track.

V. Oral Test

This test is divided into three main parts given over two or three days. The panel interview, group dynamics, and the formal dinner. The Oral Test is where you finally face the big bosses of the metaphorical video game. The panelists in the Oral Test will mostly likely be a mix of retired ambassadors, top-level officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, big time officials from other branches of the Philippine bureaucracy, such as the Department of Trade and Industry and Department of Education, and other top honchos.

Before the Oral Test, you would have been asked to submit an answer sheet in so many copies where your fill out your basic information, educational and work background, awards and honors, and other such stuff you’d put in a curriculum vitae. You’ll also be asked to write essays on your current employment, greatest achievement, your weaknesses, problem resolution methods, and so on. But remember the Miranda rights – that thing what the cops on TV say when they go busting down doors to arrest the bad guys, “anything you say can and will be used against you”, except when test time comes around you will not have the right to remain silent.

During the panel interview you will be interviewed by perhaps 8-10 panelists for anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes. Entering the interview room with the entire panel staring you down with there serious-looking, grizzled faces, like ravenous wolves sizing you up for dinner, can be very intimidating. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, and though it might just last a few minutes, it can feel like it lasted for hours.

Be prepared for no-holds-barred, all hell breaks loose kinds of questions. “Are you married?” “Why not?” “Are you gay?” “Are you be willing to sacrifice being with your family for your career?” They may ask you about your work experiences. They may ask you about current international affairs. They will test your knowledge. They may talk to you about politics. Anything goes. Some of the panelists may intentionally try to belittle and unnerve you. Keep your calm.

They’ll try poke holes in the curriculum vitae and essays which you submitted. For example, if you wrote down you spoke French, be prepared in case one of the retired ambassadors in the panel who was once assigned to a Francophone country starts talking to you in French.

Not all is dark and dreary. I found out that the panelists can also save you. I entered my panel interview planning to highlight my work in the corporate world since I noticed that very few of my fellow examinees had corporate jobs or experience. However, just as I expected my Physical Education degree stood out too well and it was attacked by the panelist. They threw in the customary jokes on how martial arts can be used when things go wrong in diplomacy. Somewhere along the way, because the panelists started asking me about Judo (I’m a two-time collegiate [UAAP] Judo champion), the name Vladimir Putin tumbled out of my mouth as an example of statesman that was also very good in Judo. And as you can imagine, that didn’t go so well. I tried my best to stand my ground but I was met with disapproving looks and more condescending questions. However, one of the panelists, who I found out later on was a DFA Undersecretary, perhaps seeing I was being picked on, suddenly made a pivot and addressed the panel in my defense. He gave a short talk on “Sports Diplomacy” and gave the example of the Ping-pong Diplomacy between the US and China during the height of the Cold War. God bless his soul.

After the panel interview is the Group Dynamics part. The examinees are divided into small groups and are given topics which they are suppose to discuss or debate on. During my time, one of the topics given to us was how to improve the Philippine Education system, which was tricky considering a high-ranking Department of Education official was in the panel. I remember one of the panelist telling us how much he hated lawyers in the DFA since “they’re nitpickers and nothing gets done” and he wanted us to discuss whether or not lawyers should be allowed in the foreign service. I later found out he was a lawyer himself. At another time, a panelist asked me out of the blue “Do you jog?”

Once the Panel Interview and the Group Dynamics are done, it’s time for the Formal Dinner. Ah! Attending a classy party, the quintessential work of a diplomat! (Aside from from writing reports and other humdrum stuff which most diplomats/foreign service officers do 98% of the time.)

This exciting part is the culmination of the FSO Exam. The Formal Dinner is usually held in a five star hotel, such as the Diamond Hotel in Manila. The whole exercise is meant to be a field test on how you will do in a super formal social event and so they try to make everything as close as possible to a real thing, but only perhaps the pressure on the examinees to put a good impression on people is a million times over than what you’ll normally feel. Everyone will be dressed up in their best barongs and Filipiniana gowns and you will feel the pageantry in the air. You’ll be graded on how well you make small talk and hold conversations, your table etiquette including the proper use of silverware, how well you ‘win friends and influence people’ and other diplomaty things diplomats do.

I’ll share my experience with the formal dinner. Like in a real life formal event, it started with a reception. The examinees filed into the reception room for cocktails. The panelists were there waiting for us. The examinees, perhaps the panelists too, tried their best to look relaxed. Some examinees immediately pounced on the opportunity to cozy up to the panelists and began engaging them in conversation meant to display their intellect. I felt it was too early in the evening and tried to keep a low profile.

Then, it was announced dinner was ready to be served and we were led to the dining room where we had assigned seats. Each table had panelists/examiners mixed in. Reviewing your table etiquette, such as which utensil to use and when, will save you a lot of stress and imitating people who seem to know what they are doing. Put your best foot forward when chatting with your tablemates.

And finally towards the end part of the dinner, the coup de grâce, the dreaded impromptu speech. When your turn comes, you have to randomly pick out a topic from the fishbowl/receptacle. You’re given a minute or two to prepare, then you’re thrust onstage to give an impromptu speech. It may vary, but expect being given a five-minute time limit.

You might be asked to make a speech promoting of Philippine soap operas overseas. You might be asked to give a speech on Piracy and Maritime Security. In many of the of the topics you will be asked to play the role of a diplomat in a certain situation and you are asked to deliver a speech appropriate to it. For example, you are asked to pretend your are the Philippine Ambassador to Japan and you will address the business community on JPEPA.  Some of topics will just blow your mind. “Discuss track two and track three diplomacy.” or “Discuss repercussions of LAFTA on the Philippines.” Be prepared in case you end up a fish out of water, for example you are asked to discuss the life and works of a national artist you’ve never heard of before.

The topic I randomly picked out of the fish bowl was something like “You are the Philippine Ambassador in Stockholm hosting a reception celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Give a short speech.”

I mentioned that Sweden and the Philippines are vastly different countries with very different economies, geographies and cultures. One is landlocked and mountainous, with a cold, temperate climate. Meanwhile, the other is a lush archipelago in the warm tropical seas. This makes both countries complementary. To make a good marriage opposites are need. The relationship between Sweden and the Philippines is like a marriage between a man and a woman. Because both countries have very different strengths, weaknesses and products, there is much potential for trade and cooperation. I ended with a joke “I hope that this marriage between the Philippines and Sweden will produce many children.” The audience laughed. Ding! I felt I struck my mark.

A pure gold bar... because I'll be giving you golden tips. Hehe, okay that was cheesy, but finding royalty-free images isn't really that easy, y' know.
A pure gold bar… because I’ll be giving you golden tips.
Hehe, okay that was kinda cheesy, but finding royalty-free images isn’t really that easy, y’ know.

Duke’s Five Golden Tips to Help You Pass the FSO Exam

Here it is, my golden tips to help you pass the FSO Exam. Of course, you are probably asking yourself “Will they really help me pass the FSO Exam?” I don’t want to say they will but some of what I’ll suggest is counter-intuitive and goes against the conventional grain of advice given to FSO hopefuls. So, I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide whether they will work for you or not.

Who knows, maybe out of the five tips one of them is totally incorrect and misleading. (haha, got you there, just kidding, they’re all from the bottom of my heart)

And also, just so I won’t get a sternly worded memorandum from our Human Resources office, let me state these tips are totally my own and do not reflect the DFA or me in an official capacity in any way. These tips are just what I’d say to you if I bumped into you at a coffeeshop and you asked for my personal take on how to pass the FSO exam.

TIP # 1: The most important part of the exam is the written qualifying exam.

I think this is where most people get screwed flummoxed.

What happens to the majority of FSO Exam takers? They don’t fail in the written or oral exam. Why? Because they simply don’t get there.  It is during the Qualifying Test where you get from 900 hopefuls to 90. 80-90% percent of examinees are axed at the Qualifying Test, and going by this statistic, you can deduce that the most strategic thing to do is prepare for the Qualifying Test.

I know some really brilliant minds who totally outclass me intellectually but did not pass the Qualifying Test, perhaps because there were out of practice answering really long school-type exams or made a misjudgment in their time management.

You might go to a review center or be a member of a review group and you’ll spend all day and night focusing on the heavy stuff, like international relations, economics, history and other mind-bending topics. This is all good. But be sure you also allot time focused on preparing for the Qualifying Test.

Of course, once you pass the Qualifying Test start focusing on the Preliminary Interview and the Written Test and go full speed ahead studying all this mind-bending fancy diplomat stuff.

TIP # 2: Read the News Everyday NOT!

Instead of ‘following the news’, study current events.

An often repeated piece of advice given to FSO hopefuls is that you should read the news to keep in touch with current events. I think however following the news is different from studying current events. Yes, keeping abreast of the news is important to be fully-functioning, responsible member of society, but there is no need to doggedly follow each news story that newspapers fill their pages with. Newspapers make money filling out their space with whatever catchy tidbits their reporters can scrape up.

My main bone of contention with watching the news or reading the papers is that is that it’s too easy for it to become a time vacuum. It’s too easy to be muddled by all the facts and twists of the storyline. Believe me, I’ve done my share of following the news when I was preparing for the FSO Exam. I used to go the call center I worked in with a folder full of newspaper articles pasted on bond paper which I’d pin on the walls of my cubicle so I could study them during my breaks. (Yeah prehistoric, I know, but this was just right before the smart phone era.) I realized soon enough that it wasn’t a good return for my time.

Your time is better spend time reading quality articles that analyse and go in depth on current issues. Go for articles from reputable sources that see the forest instead of the trees. Focus on major international and domestic issues and know enough about each that you can explain each issue in a good 8-10 sentence paragraph.

TIP # 3: Mock Exams

Mock exams are a great way to simulate as close as possible what you think the exam will be like. Practice makes perfect, whether you’re talking about ballroom dancing, shooting pistols, parenting, raising dogs or singing karaoke. Taking an exam is no different. Try make your mock tests as realistic as practically possible. Try put in place the conditions that will help you get used to the stress levels and feelings of hopelessness and utter despair you might feel on exam day itself.

It’s not enough to read. Write. You maybe quite surprised to find out that even for subjects that you think you know well, you will have a hard time putting what you actually know in a concise, coherent manner.

For the Qualifying Test you might want to consider buying civil service exam reviewers and other kinds of general education reviewers (like UPCAT reviewers) and practice answering them as fast as you can against a running clock. If you’re preparing for the Written Test take time to actually write everyday. Even the difficulty of writing with a pen for several hours straight is very easily underestimated, and towards the final hours of the day, cramped hands can be a factor. If you’re practicing for the Preliminary Interview or the Oral Test, get someone to assign you topics and speak to them. You get my gist.

Tip # 4: Learn to answer questions you don’t know how to answer

Focus on what you don’t know.

It sounds like a no-brainer tip but when you come to think about it, we like to focus on the parts where studying is enjoyable or not as boring as parts we don’t like. For those preparing for the Qualifying Test, you have to learn those skill you don’t know. Do you suck at math? Get over it. Study math. The passing score of the Qualifying Test is 80%. That means that four out of five questions must be correct. So every question does count. If you want a good chance at passing, you have to leave a few as possible to the proverbial “shotgun”.

Practice writing essays to questions you absolutely have no idea what they are talking about. Ask a trusted friend to give you some really difficult questions on topics you are unfamiliar with.

TIP # 5: The Foreign Language part is only 5%

This tip is for those who are preparing for the Written Test. The Foreign Language part of the Written Test is 5%. As you can see I struck out the word only. Why? Because you can think about the Foreign Language part in two ways.

One way to think about it is because it’s only 5% there isn’t any need to focus on it, and your energies are better spent going after the big topics like History or International Relations. This is correct if you have a firm grounding on the foreign language you signed up for.

The other way to think about it is to consider it a good opportunity to do well in 5% of the exam, because this is one of the few parts of the FSO Exam which you will be able to more or less predict what they’ll ask. For sure you know you will be tested on basic grammar rules, without speaking or listening comprehension. This greatly narrows the scope of what you have to learn.

Being a language geek, it pains me a lot to say this but be careful how you use your time studying a foreign language if your sole aim in learning it is to help you pass the FSO Exam. Focus on learning the basic grammar and practical vocabulary. Have the ability to write a short paragraph about yourself or everyday topics. Studying other aspects of the language, such as listening comprehension and actual speech, can also be a huge sink for your precious time.

You will be asked to choose beforehand one language: Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Japanese, or Spanish. If you don’t have a background in any of these foreign languages and don’t have a particular inclination towards any of them either, you might want to go with Spanish. This way you’ll have a whole lot of loan words from Tagalog which you can lean on, and there’s no need to learn a new script or set of characters. With one good condensed text book you can cover a lot of grammatical rules in a relatively short period of time.

In conclusion…

So do you think you have a chance? After all, I am a Bachelor in Physical Education graduate but I passed. I had a friend who once joked my major was in Wrestling and my minor in Fencing. Wrestling and Fencing aren’t in any of the FSO Exam parts the last time I checked. I’m sure many of you are much more well-grounded than I when it comes to the kind of knowledge one needs to pass the FSO Exam. What is important is preparing for the exam in strategic manner to make the most of your limited time and energy.

And, if you fail… hey so what? It’s just a stuffy old exam after all and being a diplomat is just one of the many jobs that are available for bright minds like yours. And in fact, if you do take it and you do fail, that’s the best preparation you can do for next year’s exam. Kick your ego in the nads and go like Nike and “Just do it.”

As a bonus, let me throw in my Golden Tip # 6: Take the the FSO Exam this year. Waaaayyyy too many people aspiring to be foreign service officers think “This year, I’m not ready.” and “Next year I can do better. I’ll take it next year.” Hey, look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll never be ready for an exam like this. If being a foreign service officer is really what’s in your heart, take the darn exam. Life is too short. Learn from it. And, if you have to, take it again.

Fall off your horse seven times, get back up eight.

In the end, if I can inspire at least one person reading this article to take the FSO exam, where he or she succeeds or not, I would have met my goal.

consul chongqing duke villanueva
“You can do it!”

P.S. I have to give a shout out to my mom to thank her for encouraging me to take FSO Exam and believing I could pass it since day one. It was the second best career advice I ever got in my life. (The best career advice I ever got was also from my mom who said “If you really aren’t happy anymore just leave.” but more on that another time.)

 

Interview on being a Philippine Consul

I was just sent an e-mail interview by a first year law student from Ateneo de Manila University which asked about my work as a Philippine consul. Since I have already spend a good bit of time writing my reply, I decided that I should publish it online for the benefit of Foreign Service students or other people who are curious about life in the Philippine Foreign Service. So here it is, slightly modified for my blog:

Q: Why did you choose to become a consul?

Before I joined the foreign service, I worked in the private sector in the marketing arm of a medical and pharmaceutical supplies company. Back then, I felt that my end goal was to increase profits for the company in hopes of advancing my own career. I thought that as a foreign service officer I would be able to serve the country instead of a corporation. I felt it was a noble thing. I felt it was prestigious work.

I graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Physical Education, so entering a career as a foreign service officer, the career path that makes you a consul, is something that is distant from my educational background. But it just so happened that one day my mother told me to take the Philippine Foreign Service Exam after she had read a government-placed advertisement for it in the papers. The advertisement described the exam as being about International Relations, Economics, History, foreign languages and other topics. After all, this was subject matter I liked reading about on my own. I decided it was something I had a chance at, so I gave the exam a shot. I luckily passed on my first try. I’m quite thankful to my mother for that.

Q: Did you choose the country where you will be assigned to? If yes, why did you choose the country that you are assigned to right now?

No, I did not get to chose to be assigned here in China. You are assigned a “Post” based on wherever the head office thinks you are needed most. There are currently around 60 countries where you can possible be assigned, and with all of our embassies and consulates that need people to run them, it is difficult to take into account whether there is one country that you have a preference over.

Q: What does a consul do?

The work of consul typically refers to consular work which can roughly be divided into: the issuance of visas for foreign nationals; issuance of travel documents, such as passports for your own countrymen; authentication and notarization of documents issued in the host country for use in the consul’s home country; and registration of vital events of your countrymen, such as, birth, death and marriage. Consuls are also in charge of assisting their countrymen in distress abroad, meaning you have help them out when they get into serious trouble while overseas, like when they get seriously ill or injured and have no one else to turn to, or are thrown in jail.

A consul may also be in charge of other functions where he represents his country, such as promoting trade and investment or promoting his country’s culture. A consul may also serve as a political or diplomatic link between his government and the host government.

I’ll note though that “consul” and similar titles, such as deputy consul general, vice consul, and consul general, are what are called “consular” titles which are distinct from “diplomatic” titles or ranks. Examples of diplomatic titles are: first secretary, second secretary, third secretary and minister. These officials with diplomatic titles are typically found in embassies.

Just for clarity, embassies are only located in the political capital of a host country, as opposed to consulates, which are found in cities outside the political capital. Consuls will also be found in embassies though, as embassies will usually have consular functions attached to them, such as issuing visas. Officials with diplomatic titles however will usually not be found in consulates.

There is no difference in terms of training and responsibilities between those who have consular titles and those who have diplomatic titles in the Philippine Foreign Service. In fact, a foreign officer of the right rank assigned to a Philippine embassy will have both a consular and an equivalent diplomatic rank, for example an officer can have a calling card that reads ‘Third secretary and Vice Consul’. This may not be true in other countries which have distinct and separate consular and diplomatic career paths.

Q: How long is your term? Do you have a contract? Can it be renewed?

I am projected to have a 6 year stay here in Chongqing, China. It would be wrong to call it a contract because my stay here is not governed by an agreement between two people or parties. Instead, the legal basis of my stay, just like many important aspects of my work, is the governed by Philippine Foreign Service Act of 1991.

It would be more accurate to call my stay here as a tour-of-duty or “posting”. While the Philippine Foreign Service Act prescribes a 6 year stay, with the possibility of a cross-posting or being transferred to another country or foreign service post once in the middle of the 6 year tour-of-duty. However, I serve at the pleasure of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and my stay here can be shortened or lengthened on his prerogative, or depending on ‘exigencies in the service’ which can be any urgent or great need.

The length of stay and terms a consul or diplomat spends in his county of assignment or tour-of-duty will depend on the sending country with two to three year being a norm.

Q: How many hours do you work in a day? How many days in a week?

My work hours are covered by rules of the Philippine Civil Service Commission, so we are expected to work eight hours a day excluding lunching break. But when you are assigned abroad you are expected to be on call 24-7. You basically have to spend whatever time is needed to get your job done.

Philippine government employees assigned abroad are not entitled to collect overtime fees.

Q: What perks do you get from being a consul?

If there is a perk, if you could call it one, which which is quickly associated with work as a consul it is that some people will regard you as having high social status. If and how you use this will depend on you.

I guess one small perk which is easy to talk about with other people is that you get a diplomatic passport which sometimes means you to get to line up at an immigration counter with a shorter queue at international airports, if they have an available counter for that.

Of course, there is what you call the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations of 1963 which gives you certain immunities that are mean to prevent harassment when you do your duties as a consul.

I’ll note that there is also what you call the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations of 1961. Diplomatic immunity covers the person or diplomat more broadly, such immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, as compared to consular immunity. Consular immunities are meant more for covering you during your work.

An interesting thing to add, is that these conventions were made not just to give diplomats and consular officials protection, but also to prevent abuse by defining the limits of the protection a host government is obliged to give them.

Of course, while there are established international practices on the application of these two conventions, it is still up to the host government on precisely how to apply them.

Q: Do you live with your family abroad? If yes, is this one of the perks you enjoy as a consul? How do you balance your work and family?

I live with my family abroad. You are allowed to bring your family along with you and there are allowances to help those who do.

I try balance work and family just like any other working man would, I guess. At the end of the day, a job is job.

Q: Are there disadvantages of being a consul? If yes, what are those?

Being a consul, am also a civil servant, so the job comes with all the benefits and disadvantages that any other Philippine government employee would have.

For example, one particular disadvantage which annoys me is that if a Philippine government employee while in the Philippines wishes to go on a personal travel abroad he should first get a clearance from his department or bureau, or the Bureau of Immigration is not suppose to let him through. This kind of paperwork seems unnecessary, especially if you just want to spend a weekend in Hong Kong or have a short get-away in Thailand in this era of budget airfares and budget hotels.

I guess what bears heavily in the minds many consuls and other foreign service officers is that as someone representing their country, whether they are actually exercising an function of work or just at an informal gathering, they are expected to always tow the official line, meaning they should reflect the views of their government, rather than their personal views. Also, whether someone who meets you does it consciously or not, your behavior will reflect on your country, as it would with any foreigner, but this is all the more so if you are a consul. So it does good to always take pains to also put your best foot forward wherever you are.

-Duke Villanueva, 03 November 2016

consul chongqing duke villanueva
Me chilling out on a regular day in the office

Holy Smokes! It Works! How connecting to my wifi network with my iPhone 5 taught me a life lesson

Finally connected!
Finally connected!
HOLY SMOKES!!! It works!!!! Out of desperation I googled “why can’t I find my wifi network on my iPhone?” The top result was a forum which suggested I just try removing the case. To me it seemed like a ludicrous idea but after having fiddled with my phone the past two days I decided to give it a shot. And just like that, I could detect the office wifi signal which I haven’t been able to for days. It beats me why wifi signals which can pass through walls can be blocked by a plastic case. Maybe someone familiar with the physics of wifi waves can explain it? Lead in the plastic or paints used on the plastic case maybe? Maybe because the iPhone case I bought was mirrorized?
img_42191
The culprit case
Moral of the story: Sometimes what are to you the silliest solutions to a problem are the right ones.

10% Human: How Microbes Your Body’s Microbes Hold The Key to Health and Happiness

I picked this book 10% Human: How Microbes Your Body’s Microbes Hold The Key to Health and Happiness by Alanna Collen a science writer with a master’s degree in biology and a PhD in evolutionary biology, up on a shelf by chance in the Hong Kong airport during a long wait for my flight back to Manila. I was suppose to buy another book (I think it was “What Makes Us Human”) but on browsing a few pages of this book I immediately knew I could not let this book leave my hands. Don’t be turned off by the clickbait-like sounding title, I initially was too before I went beyond the cover, it’s full of the latest scientific research. It will fill your mind with ideas that may sound unconventional at first, but may be the start of the next major advances in medicine.

The book is entitled 10% Human since the author points out that for every 1 human cell in our bodies there are 9 other cells of other organisms on our body, mostly in the microorganisms in one’s gut. And while there is much understanding of how the human body and its cells work, there is not much understanding on the other 9 cells. Some of the concepts she discussed in this book are absolutely groundbreaking, such as the link between obesity and antibiotics, and the links autism and antibiotics. While these ideas are not yet mainstream, she presents the facts and very latest research, which is hard to refute.

It makes further sense to think that our gut microbiota are so beneficial to us since they have been evolving with us long before we were humans (maybe even before we were mammals, or even amphibians). This reminds me of the Selfish Gene by Dawkins, and  in the context of this book, it makes perfect sense.

Doctors Prescribe Antibiotics Way Too Often, Unintentionally Harming Us

In this book the author makes arguments against the the indiscriminate and unnecessary way today’s doctors prescribe antibiotics. In most cases, antibiotics are not necessary. As we know, cold, fevers and flus are viral, and antibiotics in most cases will not do anything in most cases to help. In fact, the the antibiotics will do more harm than good because it will kill off species in your gut, including beneficial ones. I felt good reading this, as for most of my life I steered away from taking antibiotics, as my mother advised me this same thing.

Obesity and Antibiotics

The links she raised between gut microbiota and obesity are extremely interesting. The author tells us that one of the reasons for this ‘obesity epidemic’ is not just the fat, sugar and an overall excess of calories, but the use of antibiotics that has . While this shatters some of the most fundamental ideas on what is causing this obesity epidemic, the facts speak for themselves. After all, agriculturists have been using antibiotics to fatten our livestock for decades (without precisely knowing why). It makes sense that antibiotics make us fat too.

It is comforting also to know, the author notes, that is not merely man’s own sloth and greed paired with the abundance of cheap and accessible calories that has made him so fat, but the unstudied effects of antibiotics on weight.

Autism and Antibiotics

I very highly recommend also reading the book for its discussion on the links of autism and antibiotics. This part itself is invaluable information which any parent should read. Apparently many cases of autism are caused when toxins that leak from the gut because of an imbalance in the gut microbiota because of antibiotics.  The precise mechanisms of this are not fully understood by science (at the time of writing of this book) but the links are strong and clear. If I hadn’t read this book, I’d think this would be scientific mumbo-jumbo. But I have learned to admire the times when I change my minds despite my feelings when presented y facts.

What is lacking in modern man’s diet?

This book also taught me something about diet. The problem with most modern people for the health of their microbiota is that their diet just lacks fiber, and this fiber is best supplied by green leafy vegetables, beans and whole grain. That sounds like a perfect complement on other ideas on how to diet properly.

What is a fecal transplant?

There is much talk in the book about the benefits of fecal transplants, a treatment that recently is starting to be accepted because of its proven benefits. A fecal transplant is when you get the poop of someone who has a healthy gut microbiota, usually someone who has had little or no exposure to antibiotics, put it in a fancy blender and shoot that blended poop into the gut of someone who is sick and has a lot less strains of the good bacteria. This introduced poop, which by the way is mostly bacteria in weight, would help populate your gut with beneficial strains of bacteria which it are lacking. It seems that the measure of health of your gut microbiota is how many species of bacteria there are in in. While some groups like American Indians or Malawi  in Africa would have around 1,600 and 1,400 species of bacteria living in their gut, the average American would have around 1,200 species.

One thing I suspect reading the book though is that at least for some parts she used may ghost writers since there are a some parts where the phrases are oddly repeated or sound a bit mechanical, a bit away from what I perceive to be the author’s voice. There are times when Wikipedia-ish facts on a topic are just rattled off, much like how it would sound if you paid someone to help finish part of the book, and they just culled of the facts from webpage rather than spoke with natural flow. This of course is a guess. And in no way do I think this detracts from the immense value you can get from reading this book.

You can check out a lot more reviews of this book on Amazon here.

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The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal


How different is man from our closest ancestors? How  much do we have in common? Is man really no more than hairless primate that has learned to walk on two legs? Or have we evolved some more peculiar innate traits that distinguish us from the apes?

Further questions beckon. Why did such a great imbalance of wealth and power in human societies come about, with much of it centered in Eurasia? Will man destroy itself in the end?

These questions are squarely tackled by the book The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond.

This is an easy to read book that brings together a wide range of disciples, such as genetics, anthropology, evolutionary biology. It also covers both our evolutionary past, our current behaviors and situations, and our future as a species. Covering such a wide range of topics, it’s written with a conversational tone that makes a pleasure to read.

The title The Third Chimpanzee refers to fact that if we base it on genetic similarities it would be more appropriate to classify ourselves as a  third species of Chimpanzee, the other two being the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. There is only a 1.6% difference between chimps and human, in contrast, chimps and gorillas differ by 2.3%. Thus the chimp’s closest relatives are not other apes with which they are categorized, but humans.

The Common Chimpanzee
The Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)

In the first part. he author takes time comparing and contrasting ourselves with other chimps and other primates and seeing ourselves in the same lens a zoologist would study an animal.

The author places a lot of emphasis in the development of language as a catalyst for the meteoric progress of humankind. He also takes the readers on a fascinating discussion relating human sexuality, mate selection and reproduction to our lives as primates or our evolutionary past.

In the last part of the book he delves into the ability of human to destroy ourselves with nuclear warfare or induce a catastrophic collapse of civilization with irreversible environmental degradation.

The book you’ll buy will be updated versions which contain latest studies on genetics and other insights which were not available when the book was written in 1991.

Bonobos (Pan paniscus)
Bonobos or “Pygmy Chimpanzees” (Pan paniscus)

The books is divided into these different parts: the chimpanzee’s closest relatives (part one), sexual selection (parts two and three), world conquest (part four) and environmental impact and extinction. The other books Jared Diamond wrote seem correspond to books he wrote in the future. Why is Sex Fun? An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997) stems from the first three parts of his book. The part of his book on world conquest contains a lot of what he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning  Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies (1997). His book  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) naturally corresponds to the last part of the book.

Even though the other books Jared Diamond wrote after The Third Chimpanzee can be seen expansions of some his ideas in this book, I’d still buy this book mainly for his examination on humans in the eyes of a zoologist and its focus on examining man as a third species of chimp, and the great wit and pleasure you would get from reading it.
A link to the latest edition of the book on Amazon can found here.

There is one more book which Jared Diamond wrote entitled The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012).

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


The book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world, because its growing scars of environmental damage.  In his book he discusses how  environmental degradation is the underlying causes of social and political collapse of society, and uses both modern and historical examples.

He starts the book close to home in Bitterroot, Montana. There he talks about the mounting environmental pressures that have been plaguing the area. From there, he examines examples from the past: the Mayan Civilization, the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, and the different island-societies in the South Pacific.

He also includes the example of Rwanda as an example of what modern societal collapse can look like. I particularly found value in this example because it was a splash of cold water to wake me to realization that what seems to be a racial or political conflict in the truth is a mask for a conflict over resources. The example of Rwanda gives a real face to the more abstract term of societal collapse.

One of the parts of the book which I found critical were the fates of the different societies on the islands of the South Pacific. As he explains, because we cannot make scientific experiments on the collapse of societies, one good place to look at are the islands of South Pacific, as their societies closest examples of case studies in the rise and fall of a societies, and microcosm of what can happen in the world.

In examining the different societies in the pacific, he includes the example of Tikopia, a small island in the southwest Pacific, as an example of a society that managed sustainable its resources. One the other end of the spectrum, he discusses in detail the famous example of Easter Island.

The famous Moai of Easter Island
The famous Moai of Easter Island

The story of Easter Island, know for its giant statues of human heads or moai, is one that personally fascinates me, having read accounts of it as young boy. Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. It’s original Polynesian colonists who arrived in 900AD (there are earlier dates proposed of the arrivals of humans in Easter island, but Diamond suggest this to be the more accurate date), found an abundant island, but as the population grew and irreparably degraded the island’s natural resources, war, famine and cannibalism gripped the island. In 1722 when the first Europeans arrived on the island, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000 to 3,000 after a societal collapse from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.   The story of Easter island serves as a cautionary moral tale of what can happen to a society, and the planet as a whole, if we allow ourselves to blindly consume and damage our resources.

As one gets closer to the end of book one will get a dreadful feeling that it is there is no stopping the momentum mankind has built up to an eventual worldwide collapse of civilization. However, he ends the book giving a gleam of hope that if we find it within us to come together and heed the lessons from history, we can save ourselves from impending devastation.

The book end with a question. Will mankind like islanders of Easter island allow ourselves to go down a path that will plunge our world into war and famine? Or will we like the islanders of Tikopia make fundamental concerted changes in our society to protect our environment and ensure the long term survival of society?

You can choose to check out more info on this book on Amazon here.

 

Other books by Jared Diamond:

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society


I found out about this book from one of my older brothers. I think I was still in my early teen when he told me about this book and it was a couple of years after when I found a copy for myself. But I remember the moment I picked it up I was hooked.

The book cover features an artist’s depiction of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520) in 1519, where a handful of Spanish conquistadors and a small number of allies in one fell swoop massacred an Aztec decimated thousands of warriors and captured their leader. It was the start of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and the beginning of the end of the Aztec civilization. The book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World which I have a review of also recounts this historical incident.

What advantages did European civilizations have that gave  Hernán Cortés and this men such advantage that with a small number of adventurers topple and some allies the greatest empire in the Americas at the time. Did the Europeans have a natural physical and mental superiority that gave them natural advantages over the Aztecs? Why is it in the last century Europeans and those of descended from them had such great hegemony over technology, wealth and power? Why was it that throughout almost the entire history of civilization, Eurasian people led the world?

In the start of the book’s prologue, he recounts talking to a politician from Papua New Guinea who asks him why Europeans were so ahead of other civilizations, like the civilizations that rose of Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It does get you thinking. Were they any less smarter, or less industrious?

In his fascinating book, Jared Diamond argues that it was not by any innate superiority in intelligence or physical prowess that made Eurasia progress far ahead, but it was from advantages in geography that accumulated and compounded since the start of civilazation. I put the advantages Eurasian civilization had into three main broad categories that make up the title of his book.

Guns: Warfare was a constant in the Europe because geography weas conducive to allow cities and kingdoms to grow around each other and compete. Military advancements were important with many possibly belligerent immediate neighbors. Because competition was fierce, those who were practical in their methods quickly succeeded and conquered those who were not.

Germs: Though a lot of emphasis is placed on military conflict and the guns and swords of conquerors that put indigenous people to death, germs played a major role if not a bigger role in conquest.

Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)
Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)

First are the “bad” germs that hard people – Small Pox, Flu, Colds and other viruses and microscopic killers. Because European society had for much longer lived in densely-populated cities and were able to host to many infectious disease. Over time, their populations grew resistance to these diseases. Diseases were much easier to pass from one person to another in cities in places with a high-population density, and survivors of these disease or those more resistant to them were able to produce more offspring. In short, diseases which were simple colds to Europeans, were deadly killers to the American Indians. Virulence is another topic I like reading about by the way.

While it is impossible to give an accurate gauge on how many native North and South American natives were killed by disease during the Spanish colonisation, it is sure that a great majority of them died. A figure as high as 95% is attributed to disease, and possibly this may not be far from the truth. The Spaniards fought not only with their sharp steel lances and swords but the deadly viruses that were exhaled with their every breath, massacring whole populations even before they got to them.

I was quite reminded by the movie War of the Worlds wherein the initially successful invasion of aliens exterminating man failed because they could not cope with the viruses that man already had resistance to.

Also, there are the “good” germs or organisms which allow civilizations to progress, or the plants and animals which we domesticate. Here I learned about the “Anna Karenina principle” (after the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s book). There are a number qualities needed to make a good marriage, and just a lack of one of them will cause the marriage to fail. This principle states that there are a number of qualities that make an animal domesticable, but it just the lack of one will cause it to fail. A domesticable animal has to be sufficiently docile, can live in packs, does not bolt when startled, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and have a social dominance hierarchy – few animal have all these characteristics.

The five top animals for example – the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig are all of Eurasian origin. While there were lots of similar mammal in other continents, animal like zebras, kangaroos and bison, they were not domesticable.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow, and easier to store than American maize or tropical fruit.

Also, because of the East to West axis of the Eurasian continent, and it’s position in the right zone where agriculture does well, crops which were useful were quickly spread and exchanged between different societies, making food much more abundant.

Steel: Steel here represents technological advances. Due to surpluses of food that allowed people in Eurasia to live in cities and have more technical specialists, they were able to technologically advance much faster. Steel of course in itself is a great technological advantage that allowed modern weaponry, construction and other advances. One particular advantage discussed was the technology for fast, long distance transport which paved the way for Imperialism.

There are lots of other excellent review of the book here on Amazon. I feel I have not done this book justice just with my review. As of my last check, July 2016, the book is still number 1 in Geography. For a book written in 1997, it means not only was it groundbreaking, but masterfully written.

Back to Home or browse through more Books I’ve Read.

 

Other books by Jared Diamond:

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)

 

 

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World


How did the languages we come to speak to day evolve? Where did they come from? Why have some languages flourish, while countless other vanished with out a trace and thousands more are at the brink of extinction?

I came across a description of this book in one of the HTLAL language forums, a website for language learning enthusiasts I like hanging out in. When the I read it I asked my wife to buy it that very day (she does the shopping between us two). I usually mull over buying a book I might like for weeks or even months (unless I’m in a physical book store and something catches my eye) but this was exception. ‘I’ve been wanting to read a book just like this’ I told her.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World tells the story of the spread of the major languages in the world in recorded history. In he books he traces the rise and fall of civilizations and the languages that accompany them, such as Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit and Chinese. The author makes it clear that the scope of the book is confined to history meaning having a source in written records. The author talks about factors that have made languages of civilizations successful, and that have left languages to stay only in historical records.

The copious amount of foot notes are however distracting to read. I suggest anyone wanting to read the book primarily for pleasure not to race to the bottom of the page to check out a footnote, but only if the footnoted term is particularly interesting to you.

The book opens with the story of the meeting of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520), which at once reminded me of Jared Diamond’s well-known book Guns, Germs and Steel, and provides first-hand accounts from both sides (particularly the translation difficulties). I am particular interested in this historical incident having read a biography of Hernán Cortés when I was a kid.

The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world
The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world

One fact which thrilled the language geek in me was the revelation that all alphabets in the world stemmed from the Phoenician alphabet.

There are lots of extremely interesting stories nestled in the book, like how Dominican missionaries had to learn native languages over using Spanish.

The book ends with a prediction on the top twenty world’s major languages for the next 50 years.

There’s a lot of more very detailed reviews of the book on its Amazon page here. Some of the reviews here I could even call synopses.

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The Language Instinct


Do babies really have an innate ability to absorb language? Is language learned from blank slate or do we have a blueprint of language in our brains? Can adults learn just as well as children? These are some common questions people have about language.

As a foreign language learning enthusiast myself, and a parent trying to arm my baby daughter with the foreign language skills she can use in the future. These questions weighed very heavily in my mind.

But this book provides pure enlightenment.

My love affair with foreign language and a language learning “instinct” children started with watching this short clip many years ago about the work of Dr. Patricia Kuhl when I was in college:

This video inspires and raises many questions. The Language Instinct answers many of these questions.

How many languages can my child learn? Can I as an adult learn the same way a child learns?

In a nutshell it says that humans have an language blueprint inherited from our evolutionary past, and just as we suspect, language is built around this blueprint during a crucial window of time as as child grows.

The very first part of the book is rather academic in nature and it may be a bit off-putting for non-linguists who just want to wade through academic discussions. But it will all fit into place as you push through this part.

An crucial part of the book for me was where he takes the reader on the journey  how language is acquired by children, stage by stage. It is as if he shows you how the characteristics of a language fill up this blueprint of language which all children have.

Pinker provides lots of counter examples in the book by giving examples that test his theories, such as the case of a child of abusive parents who we deprived of any meaningful exposure to language, or hearing children of deaf parents who watch a lot of TV, and other interesting case studies.

It also explains why it feels better for us to say “billy, bow, beep” rather than “beep, bow, billy”. It has to do with the amount mental effort it takes to create the sound.

This book also enlightened me about sign language. It turns out that the same or a similar kind of instinctive blueprint for language is used by children who learn sign language.

It’s absolutely fascinating.

You can check out a lot more reviews of this book on Amazon here.

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The Selfish Gene

No book has fundamentally changed the way I see biological life more than The Self Gene by Richard Dawkins. Since I am an avid consumer of non-fiction books, I usually lean towards more recently published books, but this book first published in 1976 is book I recommend to all people interested in evolution and genetics.

In a nutshell he says that life exists because of genes ability to replicate themselves. When the book came out, he was branded as an  atheist, but his arguments are solid.  Some reported becoming despondent and suicidal. But his scientific logic cannot be refuted.

In the book the author expounds on the term “selfish gene”  to espouse a gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views that focus on organisms and groups.  It follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense it makes for them to behave selflessly towards each other, to ensure the continuity of common genes. This part of the book seems to crush those with lofty ideas on humanitarian aid.

Example of a popular meme
Example of a popular meme

Another thing that I discovered reading the book is that the author invented, yes invented, the word “meme”. This was a surprise to me since I always thought that the word meme was haphazardly coined by a millenial clicking on 9gag pictures of Jackie Chan. Apparently, it was not a millenial but an  Oxford-educated, ground-breaking academic who thought of the word, and put a lot of sophisticated thought into coining it from an Ancient Greek root word as well. He shortened word the mimeme meaning imitated thing to sound similar to the word “gene”. He argues memes, like genes are to biological life, are units for carrying of cultural transmissions.

I later found out that the book is often cited for introducing the word “meme” but it actually is only occupies a small part of the book (if I remember it right a chapter or part of a chapter), almost as an afterthought. Otherwise, the book stays on topic examining a gene-centered view of evolution.

Though I’ve come across articles on it before, he also very lucidly explains the origin of sex in organisms. And he also explains why organism developed at all. He even explains how life started in the first place. What book that explains the origin of life and sex cannot be interesting, aye?

There recently has been a 30-year anniversary edition of the 1976 published book, pictured above, which features a new cover. Though it was published so long ago, after reading it, I understand why the book has persisted, and why it can still revolutionize the views of someone who picks up book more than four decades later.

Too bad they came out with a new cover for the new edition though. I kinda’ liked the cover art of the 1978 edition as pictured below.

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