POSTSCRIPT / May 23, 2000 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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LuvBug aside, demand for Pinoy techies rising

HEY, the Abu Sayyaf may have inadvertently shown us how to play power politics with impertinent neighbors!

After listening to the Malaysian ambassador anxiously plead for the release of some Malaysians held hostage by the terrorists, the Abu Sayyaf dropped on his lap some choice bargaining points.

The grizzled brigand told the sweating envoy that his government could set the ball rolling by creating a commission to look into the plight of some 500,000 Filipinos in Sabah who are being harassed by Malaysia.

* * *

WE wonder if our own ambassador to Kuala Lumpur, who is known to tiptoe whenever he calls on the Malaysian foreign ministry, has ever tried talking half as tough.

For a while there, we caught ourselves fantasizing that the Abu Sayyaf could be secretly recruited by President Estrada to infiltrate Borneo and grab back Sabah for us. We can even cut a deal: They take back Sabah and we give it back to them as a federal state!

When you hear us entertaining such wild ideas, then you begin to realize just how seemingly hopeless the Mindanao mess has become.

* * *

ON the Abu Sayyaf issue, we add our voice to those insisting that in dealing with them and the other wild beasts in Muslim Mindanao, the tackling and talking should be done only by one man.

If it’s Robert Aventajado, then it’s him only. Anybody else who meddles or speaks out of turn, even if he is foreign secretary and a former classmate from the Ateneo, should be fired after his mouth is taped shut.

Even President Estrada may find it a good idea (or a good excuse?) to refuse to respond to media questions on the subject and then toss the questions to Aventajado.

That is, if it’s Aventajado who is chosen as the negotiator plenipotentiary and sole spokesman. If.

* * *

SOME 30 variants of the ILOVEYOU email virus unleashed early this month allegedly by Filipino youths have been reported worldwide.

You may be properly alerted when you see a suspicious attachment whose subject includes the now discredited word “LOVE,” but the sneaky variants now use any word as subject to avoid being spotted easily.

Some of the new LuvBugs mutate and pick any convenient subject or word from the mail it has infected and distributed to everybody in the email address book. The virus thus comes in various guises.

* * *

TO catch these elusive new bugs with Love-less subjects, watch out for two things in email with attachments:

  1. The subject begins with “FW:” This means that the file is not an original message but is just being forwarded to you. Sample: “FW: More Erap jokes.” In this sample, somebody had received the mail “More Erap jokes” and is forwarding the file to you. If it comes with an attachment, watch out.
  2. The attachment has a “vbs” extension. Sample: “bombings.doc.vbs” with an icon beside it indicating it’s an attachment. It should strike you as odd that in addition to the usual “doc” extension, it also has the suspicious “vbs” appended. Don’t just click and open it.

* * *

WE’RE not saying that all forwarded matter is infected. But the “FW:” should tell you to look at the incoming file or attachment more closely.

As for the “vbs” extension, this tells you that the forwarded file was created or renamed using Visual Basic, which happens to be the LuvBug creator’s favorite tool. The virus renames files it has infected before sending them out.

Laymen should not be intimidated by such terms as “extension.” To simplify, you can regard the so-called “extension” as the “family name” of the file – much like your having a family name.

In the sample “bombings.doc,” you can say that “bombings” is the first name of the original file and “doc” its family name.

If you see another file, say, “sayyaf.doc” you can say that this is a file belonging to the “doc” family (documents created by MS Word). Its first name is “sayyaf” which gives a hint that the piece is probably about the Abu Sayyaf. But if it has a “vbs” extension, the “sayyaf” may just be a false name.

Most email software indicate in their mailbox displays if a message has an attachment. I promptly delete such attachments without bothering to open them. But other users whose work involves sending and receiving attachments may hesitate to do this.

* * *

ALL is not bad and black for Filipino programmers and techies. A feature in the New York Times by Wayne Arnold carried this subhead: “Technologically Literate People Service and Supply US Business.”

WE read you the first part and you can imagine the rest of the favorable writeup:

Maybe it was a couple of 20-something Filipinos who created the rogue email program that disabled computer systems on May 4. Maybe it wasn’t. But there is no doubt that a couple of other young Filipinos played a big part in rubbing the bug out.

The two-Richard Cheng, 24, and Maricel Soriano, 23 — were on duty at the Manila office of an antivirus software company, Trend Micro Inc., when the company was first notified of the problem shortly after lunch that day. As the scourge spread across time zones from Australia to Europe, Mr. Cheng was already writing an antidote, and by the end of the day, Ms. Soriano was disseminating instructions to afflicted Trend Micro customers around the world on how to apply it.

“My parents told me I was a hero,” said Ms. Soriano, who joined Trend Micro after earning her computer engineering degree from a local college.

Granted, the Philippines’ image has not been helped much by its failure to charge any suspects for the destruction or, indeed, to pass a law against what they did. But the “Love Bug” episode may have a positive side.

“This virus, if anything, brings a necessary spotlight to the tech scene in the Philippines,” said Pindar Wong, chairman of the Asia Pacific Internet Association in Hong Kong.

Mr. Cheng and Ms. Soriano are part of a growing pool of high-technology Philippine talent that is attractive to employers in Europe and the United States, and is increasingly drawing multinationals like Trend Micro, America Online and Motorola to move some of their operations here.

That same computer-literate population is now feeding a surprisingly lively Internet start-up scene, in a country where many annual incomes are typically around $1,000 and less than 1 percent of the population uses the Internet.

“The Philippines may be a poor country, but part of it is English-speaking and educated,” said Fernando D. Contreras, vice president-elect of the Philippine Internet Service Organization. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize for the Internet.”

“That is a big part of why Trend Micro decided to open an office here two years ago. Founded on Taiwan but based in Japan, the company now has 124 employees in Manila, all of them Filipinos. Some, like Richard Cheng (no relation to Max Cheng) and Ms. Soriano, are engineers who dissect new computer viruses-most of which originate in the United States-and write solutions. Others field questions by email from customers worldwide.

By October, the company plans to make the Philippines its global call center. Trend Micro customers in the United States who phone the company’s toll-free help line may find themselves talking not to a technician in America, but to one here in Manila.

The Philippines long ago attracted its fair share of high-technology hardware makers: Intel, Acer, Texas Instruments, NEC and Toshiba have all established production here.

But as new networking technologies made it possible to create corporate telephone networks around the world, more and more companies began moving their software development and behind-the-scenes processes like accounting, data entry and payrolls to nations like the Philippines and India, whose own English heritage makes it a leading competitor for business and investment.

The battle of these two has been going on since the late 1980’s, but the Internet is turning up the tempo and the Philippines appears to be keeping pace.

Andersen Consulting, which first set up a data center in the Philippines in 1986, now has 450 employees in the country developing software and offering 24-hour customer support. Fujitsu develops software here. Citibank does its Southeast Asian accounting here.

And on the former United States air base north of Manila, America Online operates a nondescript installation where 830 employees field questions from the company’s American clients. Even Motorola plans to begin routing some inquiries from the United States to the Philippines later this year.

Of course, cheap labor is a big part of this country’s attractiveness to corporations abroad. But in high-technology industries, labor is only part of the cost of doing business. The Philippines’ real advantage, Mr. Cheng of Trend Micro says, is in the quality and dedication of its people.

Despite a seemingly ample supply-there are more than 200,000 students enrolled in computer-related courses at Philippine universities-Mr. Cheng said that finding engineers is getting tougher as more and more companies move in.

The allure of living in the affluent West is another source of competition-and a persistent drain of Philippine talent. President Clinton’s recent moves to raise immigration limits on skilled foreign workers, for instance, could make talent here even scarcer. This country already provides some 3,200 such employees to the United States each year.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 23, 2000)

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