Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for January, 2015

Six Million?

Posted by butalidnl on 24 January 2015

The MMDA and news reports say that 6 million people attended Pope Francis’ open-air mass in Luneta on 18 January 2014 . If one was to ask the MMDA or the media how they came up with that figure – they would refer to the 1995 Papal mass of Pope John Paul II in 1995, which is supposed to have been attended by 4 million people, and say that the recent mass was bigger than that. While this may indeed be the case (that the recent papal mass was  bigger than the 1995 mass), the question is still: how did the officials then come up with the figure of 4 million for the 1995 papal mass in the first place?


It is extremely difficult to estimate crowd sizes simply by looking at a picture. After all, we couldn’t count the people one by one.
I had learned that a more objective way to estimate crowd sizes is first to establish the maximum capacity of a place, and then to estimate what percentage of the maximum is filled. If we take the example of an auditorium (where everyone is seated), we simply count the seats (number of seats across x number of rows) to get the maximum amount, and then estimate how full it is.
For open-air crowds, things are a bit more complicated; after all, there are no seats to count. Maximum capacity can still be established by measuring the dimensions of the place, and then assuming a maximum crowd density ( 4 to 5 people per square meter is probably an upper limit). Then, it is a matter of estimating what percentage of that is occupied.

Luneta mass
Now, let us go to the Pope’s mass in Luneta. The area of the whole Luneta – from the Quirino granstand up to Taft (excluding the streets) is 16.24 hectares. I got this figure from the text of Proclamation 234 by President Magsaysay creating Rizal Park. Presidential Proclamation Number 234 (of 1955) . A hectare has 10,000 square meters; thus the total for Rizal park will be 162,400 square meters (more or less). If we assume 5 persons/square meter to be the maximum, we come up with 813,000 people as the maximum capacity of Luneta.
Because of sensible crowd-control considerations, the area of Luneta was divided into sections, with spaces in between, so that emergency services etc can easily evacuate people if necessary, and it would be easier to go into and out of the area. But this decreases the area with people. And there are other areas with structures, trees, or enclosed e.g. the ‘gardens’ which would be less full.
The overflow to other areas outside Luneta, e.g. the sides of adjacent streets, would be barely enough to make the crowd reach 1 million. Thus, the maximum capacity of Luneta (plus overflow) would be  a little less than one million. And to be generous, let us say that Luneta was filled to the maximum, and thus that 1 million people did attend the papal mass.
When I stated this point in Facebook, I got a lot of angry reactions – a lot of them pointing out that I was being disrespectful of Pope Francis. I found this extremely strange, and quite unfair.
In the first place, I deeply respect and admire Pope Francis; I feel that he is doing a lot of things that will make Catholicism more attuned with the 21st Century. In the second place, I do not see how someone who makes an objective count of the crowd be expressing disrespect. The only ones I may be ‘disrespectful’ to would be the MMDA and the media, who were the ones to declare the wrong 6 million estimate.  Even then,  pointing out their factual mistakes is not a sign of disrespect to them.
The 6 million figure should have raised eyebrows of right-thinking people in Manila. It would mean that one in two Metro Manila residents were there – was that true of their circle of friends? of their neighborhood? A million people is a lot of people, and 6 million is six times more than one million.

In the same light, people should also question the 4 to 5 estimated participation in the Black Nazarene procession. Did more than 1/3 of all Metro Manila residents attend it? Did they notice that about 1/3 of their neighborhoods attended?

Filipinos should strive to be more accurate in estimating crowd numbers. Proclaming grossly exaggerated numbers actually detract from the very impressive fact that a million people did attend the papal mass. A million people is an extremely impressive figure in itself, there is no need to inflate it.

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Oil Price will settle at around $35/barrel

Posted by butalidnl on 13 January 2015

The price of Brent Crude has crossed $50/barrel, and it still has some way to fall. This is not a temporary short term drop in the price; it is the middle of a long-term price movement.There are huge reasons to think that the low price of oil is here to stay – at least for the next few years.

Analysts say that the Saudis are out to get the shale oil producers by keeping the oil price lower than their production costs. Sounds logical. But let’s take a look at the actual production prices.The production cost of oil shale is between $35 and $50/barrel – and this is the average production cost. But the bulk of the production cost is up front – when the well is being set up. The marginal production cost (i.e. the additional cost for prducing every additional barrel of oil) is lower – perhaps as low as $10/barrel. This means that shale oil wells that are already producing will continue producing as long as the oil price does not dip below $10/barrel. However, new wells will not be opened if the price of oil is less than $35/barrel (because investment decisions are made based on marginal production cost).

Offshore oil wells produce oil at $50/barrel. There are a lot of these wells in operation, e.g. in the Gulf south of the US. Their marginal cost of production is a mere $10/barrel, and will thus continue to produce inspite of the low price. However, it costs a lot to sink them ($40/barrel of the cost is from the exploration and development of wells). A price below $50/barrel will mean that new offshore wells will not be developed.

Oil from oil sands costs from $50 to $80/barrel to produce, and most of this is in everyday production cost. This means that this kind of oil will probably be frozen (figuratively and literally), if the price remains below $50/barrel. And there are other marginal producers, e.g. US small-scale drillers (e.g. producing less than 10 barrels/day) which may close down because production has stopped being profitable.

A price below $50/barrel means that offshore and shale oil will thus continue production in existing wells and even sink new wells. Specific economics will determine which wells will be sunk, and which will be deferred. As the price goes further below $50/barrel, fewer new wells will be started, and then not enough will go online to replace older wells that get depleted.

At the same time, oil continues to come from ‘traditional’ sources. Neither OPEC nor the other oil-producing countries are willing to reduce their production. Some are actually increasing production, e.g. Russia and Iraq; while some OPEC countries may also increase theirs e.g. Venezuela and Nigeria.

In the short term, the oil price will continue to drop because there is a lot more oil produced than is needed. The price will go even lower than $30/barrel. It will settle somewhere around $35/barrel.Below this point, it would not be profitable to open new shale oil wells.
In the next 3 to 5 years, the price will range between $30 and $40. After this, economic growth will push up the demand for oil to the point that the price will gradually rise again.

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Living with Supertyphoons

Posted by butalidnl on 10 January 2015

The Philippines has to accept the fact that a supertyphoon will hit the country every year, sometime between November and mid-December. It also has to prepare for it.

In the last 4 years, a supertyphoon has hit the country:
2011 – Sendong – December 15 -17
2012 – Pablo      – December 2 – 9
2013 – Yolanda – November 7 – 8
2014 – Ruby      – December 6 – 10

We might also count Ondoy (September 23-30, 2009) as a supertyphoon. It didn’t have supertyphoon winds, but dumped lots of rain. It did come rather early.

This is unlikely to be a coincidence, or a case of bad luck. There is a reason why supertyphoons happen at this time. It has something to do with the huge amount of heat stored in the Pacific Ocean. In the earlier part of the rainy season, typhoons form in the Pacific Ocean, but they mostly skirt the Philippines, and some of them hit northern Luzon.  Towards the end of the year, a high pressure area forms over China, which is also the source of the amihan (the northwest monsoon).  But there is still heat left over in the Pacific which could still form storms. A typhoon would then form just north of the equator (typhoons forming south of the equator go southwards) using this reservoir of heat. The combination of this excess heat, the low lattitude in which the storm starts, and the amihan blowing from China, combine to form this typhoon.. The typhoon then heads west northwest towards the Philippines; rapidly gains strength, and becomes a supertyphoon. The amihan winds prevents it from heading north, and thus it makes its way to Samar or Mindanao.
Ruby hit too far north and moved too slow over the country when compared to the other supertyphoons. This meant that the amihan winds, and Luzon’s mountains (e.g. Sierra Madre) were able to slow it down and promptly degrade it..

Global Warming
Supertyphoons form because of excess heat that is left in the Western Pacific at the end of the year. This area is warmer than it used to be.
The excess heat theory may also explain why Typhoon Ruby was not as strong as expected. Scientists have noted an El Nino effect in 2014, which usually means that the Eastern Pacific (i.e. US west coast and western Latin America) will get more rain, while the Western Pacific less rain, because currents bring heat eastwards.  If this is the case, there was less excess heat to power up Typhoon Ruby, as compared to previous years. It also means that when the El Nino effect wears out, our supertyphoons may get to be as strong as Yolanda was.

But there seemed to have been some excess heat left over in the area just southeast of Mindanao even after Ruby, And this gave birth to Typhoon Seniang, which hit the country on 29 to 31 December 2014. While Seniang was a weak tropical storm (with maximum winds of 95 kilometers per hour), it brought a lot of rains, And it was deadlier than Supertyphoon Ruby; Seniang killed 65 people, while Ruby 19.

Adjustments Needed
All this means that the national government, LGUs, NGOs, even businesses need to prepare for this end-of-year supertyphoon. All of the Visayas and most of Mindanao can potentially be hit by these supertyphoons. Buildings should be made to withstand winds exceeding 300 kilometers/hour.  Of particular importance would be evacuation centers (sports stadiums, schools, churches), relief command centers (often these would be city halls), and food storage buildings. These should all be sturdy, and located away from areas vulnerable to floods, storm surges and landslides. While it may take years to strengthen all residential housing, building codes should already be upgraded.

The national government should give more powers to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) by including typhoon rehabilitation work in its tasks, in addition to typhoon mitigation. This was the recommendation of Senator Ping Lacson, head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) which was tasked to coordinate the rehabilitation work for typhoon Yolanda. Lacson suggests to fold in OPARR’s tasks into an expanded NDRRMC. This makes sense especially with the insight that supertyphoons are going to be a regular occurence.

Other adjustments should be made e.g. ‘rescheduling’ the harvest season so that it ends in October, strictly banning buildings in vulnerable areas, and upgrading LGU disaster response capabilities. Laws should be passed allowing LGUs to commandeer food stocks and other supplies in case of disaster, and to order mandatory evacuation of vulnerable areas in case a supertyphoon approaches.

There would be another supertyphoon that will hit the country in November-December 2015. While we cannot prevent it, we can prepare for it as well as we can.

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Looking Forward to 2015

Posted by butalidnl on 6 January 2015

Twice earlier, in 2008 and 2010, I wrote a blog with predictions for the year that had just started. Looking back, I didn’t do too bad. In fact, my only real mistake was predicting that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential elections in 2008.
I want to revive my practice of listing my predictions at the beginning of the year. I’m looking forward to reviewing them a year from now to see how well I did.

Both Jejomar Binay’s and Mar Roxas’ stars will fade as presidential candidates. Someone else will take their place and go on to become the leading candidate for president.

The trial of Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile and Bong Revilla will start, probably in the latter part of the year. Similarly, the long-awaited Ampatuan trial will also start.

In November or December, there will be a supertyphoon that will hit the country. It may be as powerful as Yolanda, but it will have less casualties.

The World
ISIL will no longer be growing. Both the area that it controls and the recruits that it makes will be much less than today. The entire Iraqi Kurd area (and maybe also the Syrian Kurd area) will be safe from ISIL.

Ukraine. Large areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces will be recovered from the rebels.

The ruble will drop to 100:$1 or lower. Russia’s GDP will decrease by 15% or more in 2015.

The oil price will hit $40/barrel, but will not remain at that price for long. It will adversely affect the economies of many oil producing countries. Notably, Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria. Even the US economy will be adversely affected.

The Greek Syriza party will not win the elections in February, meaning that Greece will not decide to leave the Eurozone.

Canada and the US will suffer extremely low termperatures for a large part of the winter. US economic growth in the first quarter of 2015 will suffer as a result.

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