POSTSCRIPT / December 30, 2004 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Piatco case a warning to scheming foreigners

SCARING INVESTORS: One argument being used to assail the government takeover of Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia-3) is that it would scare away foreign investors.

This is a valid point, considering that a major partner of the Filipino group in the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (Piatco) that holds the contract to build and manage Naia-3 is the German state firm Fraport AG.

Fraport has sought arbitration outside the country. Same thing with Piatco and its Asian shareholders who went to Singapore for similar arbitration apart from the legal process ongoing in Philippine courts.

That foreign investors and their coterie would side with Fraport and the Singaporeans and for them to say that government mishandling of the Piatco case would scare away foreign investments is to be expected.

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RESPECT FOR LAW: On the other hand, if a contract is shot through with patently illegal provisions and is grossly disadvantageous to the government, do we just let it pass so as not to displease foreign businessmen?

We need foreign investors all right, but do we spread our, huh, the welcome mat at any cost?

I have said here that in its handling of the Piatco case the government did not go to court with clean hands. Still, this does not mean that we should close our eyes to the greed of some investors who take advantage of the culture of corruption in government.

The Piatco case should serve a stern notice to everybody, especially aliens, that they should not trifle with Philippine laws. They must abide by legal processes, whatever they think of our courts, and not resort to bribery and corruption to clear away obstacles in their quest for profits.

The Piatco case is a warning to all investors that when they sign a contract with the government, they must do so with an honest intention to obey the laws and respect the sensibilities of the people they intend to exploit.

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CONFUSING TERMS: I have discussed this subject before, but with the embarrassing confusion in media over terms used to measure such natural phenomena as earthquakes, I feel compelled to repeat myself.

Many of us are appalled by the seeming ignorance in media, for instance, that “intensity” is not the same as “magnitude” with reference to earthquakes. The terms are not to be used interchangeably.

Some media have reported that the last earthquake triggering tsunamis that have taken at least 60,000 lives in South Asia was of “INTENSITY 9.” Wrong. That should have been a “MAGNITUDE 9.0.” To be more precise, it was a “moment magnitude of 9.0.”

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INTENSITY: As for “intensity,” this term is a subjective measurement of the effects of a quake — like how people and animals reacted, if structures swayed or were damaged, if objects fell from their perch, or cracks were seen in the ground, et cetera.

Depending on the gravity of these observable effects in a specific area, the quake is then given an intensity rating FOR THAT PLACE. It follows that the farther the observer is from the epicenter, the lower is the intensity felt or observed.

Whenever we report the intensity, we have to say where that intensity was felt or observed. Another detail: Intensity is preferably written in Roman numerals so as not to confuse it with magnitude that is written in Arabic numbers.

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LOCAL SCALE: The old intensity scale being used in the country had been found to be not that appropriate. For instance, when we say, as westerners do, that when chimneys collapse or that brick break off from walls or glass windows shatter at a certain intensity, provincial folk who are in the majority may not catch on easily.

For this reason, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has adopted its own scale of I to X (1 to 10) for assessing and reporting intensity in this quake-prone archipelago. Some countries use their own scales and standards, but their deviation from the Philippine scale is not significant.

When the quake starts being destructive in a certain locality — like toppling objects, cracking walls and inflicting such damage — its intensity rating for that place climbs to VII (7) and higher.

Generally, when the intensity is VI and lower, there is only vigorous shaking and people getting scared, but no physical destruction or damage to structures. It is usually safe to go back to sleep after one inspects his house and finds everything intact.

In contrast, “magnitude” is not subjective or dependent or colored by varying human perception. It is computed using a formula from objective data collected by such devices as seismographs.

Intensity is based on subjective reports of human observers in the areas affected, but magnitude is a cold measurement by machines.

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AN ANALOGY: A common analogy is a light bulb. A 100-watt bulb is always 100 watts from whatever position or distance you look at it. Even when you do not look at the lighted bulb, it is still and always 100 watts.

The bulb’s wattage is like the quake’s “magnitude.” It is constant.

But your perception of the effects of the lighted bulb changes as you change your position or distance from it. If you’re near the bulb, you get more illumination, and this gradually fades as you walk farther away from it, until you reach a distant point where you hardly see the lighted bulb although it is constantly 100 watts.

This subjective perception of the bulb’s brightness is like a quake’s intensity. An earthquake’s intensity changes depending on many factors, including the observer’s distance from the epicenter.

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NEW SCALE: “Moment magnitude” (abbreviated as Mw) is the newest system gaining universal usage because of the shortcomings of the other systems — including the “Richter scale” — used in many places. For very large earthquakes, “moment magnitude” gives the most reliable estimate of earthquake size.

Some media carelessly said that the quake, whose epicenter was some 100 kms west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, had a magnitude of 9.0 “on the Richter scale….” Wrong.

The Richter scale, developed by Charles Richter in the 1930s, is good enough for local area use and only up to its maximum of magnitude 6. So where did “a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale” come from except from the reporter’s imagination?

To play safe, media better just say “magnitude 9.0” and not attempt to sound technically complete by qualifying it as Richter, “moment,” or whatever.

There have been news photographers sent by their editors to Phivolcs to bring back pictures of the Richter scale thinking it is something like a weighing scale or a bathroom scale.

(Btw, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 releases energy equivalent to the explosion of 31,800,000,000 tons of TNT or trinitrotoluene. The atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki had a destructive force equivalent to only 20,000 tons of TNT.)

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CATCHING UP: In fairness, there have been local TV channels that supplemented their news reports with materials explaining in clear, animated graphics and maps the origin of an earthquake and the destructive movements emanating from it.

Some newspapers have published similar graphics on calamities to beef up news reports and feature articles.

Still, newspapers and other major media who have not done so should assign and train science writers and editors who would concentrate on studying the technical areas assigned to them. That way we can have more technically correct and enlightening reports.

We have seen, for instance, green reporters being pulled out from the police beat to rush to the Phivolcs to get the latest technical data on a big earthquake. In many cases, they are not prepared to understand and interpret the data being given them.

The misinformation, unlike the intensity of earthquakes, is then magnified as it travels farther away from the news epicenter.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 30, 2004)

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