POSTSCRIPT / August 8, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bill Gates didn’t have the PCs Erap came for

HIS advisers should not feed President Estrada wrong information and make him look stupid.

Days ago, Mr. Estrada was convinced to insert into his US itinerary a call on Microsoft boss Bill Gates in Seattle. He was apparently assured that the three Microsoft bases were loaded for a grand slam.

The President promptly told the press that he would seal an agreement for Gates to (1) donate computers to some 4,000 public high schools in the country, (2) pick Manila as the venue for next year’s conference of chiefs of leading InfoTech companies, and (3) put up a Computer University here.

It turned out, however, that Gates did not have computers to donate but only software. As for the InfoTech conference and the Computer University, it seems Mr. Estrada struck out even before he could swing the bat. When he emerged from the meeting, he said nothing about the two items on the agenda.

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SCROUNGING for some accomplishment to report out of Seattle, his media handlers pointed out that the President succeeded in making Gates wear a tie and a suit. They gleefully recalled that when President Ramos also called on Gates in 1997, the cocky software king was just in jeans, rubber shoes and shirtsleeves.

Nobody, alas, submitted a scorecard on how many times Gates smiled, how long he clasped the hand of Mr. Estrada when they shook hands, and how many minutes and how many seconds longer the two chatted compared to the meeting with Ramos.

There was also no report if Gates gave him a techie gift far more powerful than the gold-plated palm computer he gave to Ramos. The photos showed Gates handing Mr. Estrada a jacket and a baseball cap. The host should have sent his driver to get the latest play station or dance board from the nearest Radio Shack for presentation to the visitor.

* * *

AS for the thousands of computers that Mr. Estrada said Gates would donate to Philippine public schools, it turned out that it was not Gates but Japan that was donating the hardware under an entirely different deal.

It might even turn out that the software promised by Gates was not necessary. Normally, when Japan gives computers to countries in need, the units come with important software already pre-installed, particularly Windows.

Malacañang reported that Gates donated Microsoft software, particularly his popular Windows operating system. But it failed to say what version was to be delivered.

As a result of the missing detail, speculation is rife that Microsoft would dump here in the guise of a donation its stockpile of old Windows (1995 and 1998 versions) and Office (1997 version) software.

* * *

WINDOWS 98 used to sell here for only P3,000, but the price went up to around P3,400 with the deterioration of the peso.

If one gets a bulk delivery of the old Win98 for 4,000 schools at 20 units per school (and is therefore able to hold the P3,000 price, or even make tawad), total cost would be P240 million or $5.5 million.

How come the Malacañang press release says the Microsoft software coming in would cost $12 million? We hope a virus has not attacked the calculator of the PCs in the Palace.

* * *

BUT still, we would benefit from the donations from Japan and Microsoft — even assuming the computers from Japan would carry the older and slower motherboards and processors, and even if Microsoft stocked them with the older Win98 and Office97.

One important point is that the most up-to-date equipment are useless unless we have up-to-date people to use and maintain them. We can buy the hardware, or ask for them like we just did, but we have to produce the trained hands to operate them.

The advances in hardware and software design should be matched by parallel advances in the training of peopleware.

* * *

FOR this reason, we are reiterating a suggestion we made some time ago for public schools to include computer assembly and trouble-shooting in their vocational programs. All we need is some 20 hours to train a class of 20 students how to assemble PCs.

That’s just the first step. This trained group can then be enlisted to assemble generic computers for the school’s office use and for teaching other students other computer subjects.

The same class can move on to learn repair and maintenance and handle all the service requirements of the school. The trainees gain basic skills and computer literacy to launch them into good-paying jobs or small PC-related businesses.

Take my word for it. Computer assembly is fun and easy. After you secure all the parts needed, you can assemble a good PC in less than an hour. Your unit may not carry a brand, but it can do what the high-priced powerful computers in the stores can do, or even perform better.

* * *

LAST Saturday’s flash floods highlighted the sloppy work of whoever built the Metrorail (MRT) on EDSA. But it is amazing how the government has chosen to ignore the many deficiencies of the MRT.

The serious flooding at the EDSA intersection leading to White Plains, for instance, was caused or at least worsened by the clogging of the drainage as a result of the shoddy MRT construction.

Nobody foresaw that the high rail bed in the middle of EDSA would be a dam preventing water from the east side (northbound) of the tracks from flowing to the other (west) side as it seeks lower areas.

With the damming, the water level rose so high that even buses got stuck, stranding passengers and blocking traffic. Vehicle buildup went as far as Makati and commuters were stranded deep into the night.

* * *

THE neglect of drainage is just one of the stark lapses of the MRT builders. Their lack of professionalism in their work is evident even to laymen who use EDSA everyday.

As early as last year, we commented on the lack of lighting and ventilation of the underpasses beneath the MRT stations. We said the passages were similar to the suffocating parking basements of buildings.

There is no adequate lighting, so that drivers entering the tunnel-like underpasses are momentarily blinded. There are also no provisions for ventilation, so motorists and passengers with windows open must inhale the poisonous air buildup.

Why is the government allowing these very obvious deficiencies?

* * *

IN the case of the missing escalators and elevators for the tall stations that could be scaled only by climbing steep flights of stairs, it took an inspection of no less than President Estrada, who was an engineering dropout at Mapua, to spot the defect.

During the construction that dragged for years, EDSA was transformed by uncaring builders into a torture route. I was myself a victim of the railings, debris and traffic signs carelessly strewn along the road, so I know about these hazards.

The only logical explanation for the haughty attitude of the MRT owners is that some government officials who should monitor them are in their pockets.

Look at the damage caused on EDSA by the construction that made that busy artery one of the most hazardous roads in the metropolis. Did the MRT builders bother to repair the damage, and did the government force them to fix the road? No.

* * *

THE operators of the MRT must be having serious cash flow problems, although their officers keep denying it. If they had the money, they would have done the job better and faster.

But why would they try harder when the government has a solemn commitment to fill in any loss that they may suffer? This deal, you will agree, is ready-made for graft.

We taxpayers are actually paying for the MRT’s (1) careless feasibility studies, (2) faulty design, (3) inefficiency, and (4) general neglect.

We are also paying for the cost of graft that had jacked up the project costs to dizzying levels. To factor in the cost of graft, the computed fare — even just to break even — would be so high that it could spark rioting.

A solution to the problem of excessive MRT fare was found in the contract provision that the government (meaning us taxpayers) would pay for losses. Even taxpayers who do not ride MRT trains are forced to pay part of the fare of riders and the amounts shelled out to corrupt officials.

* * *

A SIMILAR cash problem has paralyzed work on the over-ambitious shopping mall planned for the MRT main terminal in the North Triangle in Quezon City.

The unfinished first level of the sprawling project is now covered by a forest of steel bars sticking out as testimony of an ill-conceived project gone awry.

Remember that the huge site, reserved as a public park, was taken over as an adjunct of the MRT in arrogant defiance of public opinion.

If after two years the fast operators who grabbed the park cannot now proceed immediately with their project — and it is clear they cannot — they should return it to the people.

Immediately, the contract for that valuable site should be rescinded or amended and the place cleared, cleaned, replanted to trees and given back to the people as a park.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 8, 2000)

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