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College Algebra - Paul K. Rees, Charles Sparks Rees, Fred W. Sparks

I did not like math. When I was in high school, algebra nearly became an obstacle to my graduation. Then in college, it was again an onus. I failed my Algebra 101 class in the first term of my first year. Thus, I did not just like it; I hated it.

But, I think those subjects that make life difficult for you can eventually teach you a lot. They teach you to have more discipline. They teach you to study more. They teach you the value of perseverance.

When I took the class again the following year, I was really determined to get it right this time. I sat in front of the class. I listened intently. And I read this textbook.

I read the principles, studied the formulae, and assiduously did the exercises. And to my amazement, what was once erudite was now lucid; I now understand! Fuzzy math was not fuzzy anymore. I grasped the beauty of special products and synthetic division. I realized the usefulness of linear and quadratic equations. And I gained the satisfaction of cracking a seemingly thorny problem with the use of the principles I learned.

I passed all the exams and when course card day came, it was not a surprise: I earned a grade of 4.0, the highest grade in the De La Salle University system and effectively removing the failure I once had. And when I took the next required math course, statistics, I again passed with flying colors.

I still have this textbook with me in my bookshelf, and every time I see it, it reminds me that with the right attitude, almost any problem can be solved. It is also a reminder that one can turn failure into opportunity to learn, and to succeed.

The Best Tintin Book

Tintin in Tibet - Hergé
Arguably the best Tintin book, Herge reportedly wrote it when he was going through a deep, personal crisis with his wife.

This time, the story does not involve an intricate and complex conspiracy, but a personal struggle, as Tintin and Captain Haddock go on an odyssey to Tibet to save a friend who was in a plane crash in the Himalayas. The book has great artwork and plot: the Himalayas are almost realistically drawn, as well as the buildings, statues and monks of Tibet. Herge was also said to have identified with the Yeti, the creature in the story. Herge succeeds in showing that the Yeti is not the Abominable Snowman that it is called, but one of almost human-like characters, one who is compassionate and more humane than some humans. Moving, personal, Herge at his best. A great read.

The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale - Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk

I first read Moby Dick as a child with an Illustrated Classics Edition, that series of small, pocketsize versions with pencil sketches on every other page. What made me read the book again in its unabridged form arose from watching this tv series on Animal Planet, "Whale Wars", which chronicles the efforts of global NGO Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to stop Japanese whaling disguised as "research" off the waters of Antarctica.

I admit the unabridged version is quite a hard-read. There were many instances of archaic language and whaling terminologies used and Melville had this penchant for warbling on and on about details which do not have relevance to the story.

But the jewels of the book are the spirit of adventure and the quest for destiny. Religious allusions abound with Biblical names such as Bildad, Peleg, Ahab, Ishmael. Ahab's maniacal fury in his hunt for the White Whale was sometimes amusing and the Whale almost had the same conviction in not only eluding his pursuer but actually taunting him to apoplexy.

I've always been an animal lover and this book reinforced my conviction that it is wrong to equate bad human behavior with animals. Some Filipinos have this saying when describing atrocious human deeds, "masahol pa sa hayop" ("baser than animals"). That is CRAP. Unlike some humans, animals don't kill just for the sheer pleasure of it. But humans can -and sometimes did- kill thousands and millions of their own brethren. Fellow human beings, think about that the next time you dare to compare our species with others. We are supposed to be the superior beings; it's about time we live up to that claim.


El Filibusterismo (Subversion) - José Rizal, Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin, Raul L. Locsin
"In the meantime, while the Filipino people may not have sufficient energy to proclaim, with head high and chest bared, their rights to social life, and to guarantee it with their sacrifice, with their own blood; while we see our own countrymen in private life feeling shame within themselves, to hear roaring the voice of conscience which rebels and protests, and in public life keep silent, to make a chorus with him who abuses to mock the abused; while we see them enclosed in their own selfishness, praising the most iniquitous deeds with forced smiles, begging with their eyes for a portion of the booty, why give them freedom? With Spain and without Spain they would always be the same, and perhaps, perhaps worse! Why independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow? And they would be, without doubt, because he loves tyranny who submits to it. Senor Simoun, while our people may not be prepared, while they may go to battle beguiled or forced, without a clear understanding of what they have to do, the wisest attempts will fail and it is better that they fail, because why commit the wife to the husband if he does not sufficiently love her, if he is not ready to die for her?"

When I see Filipinos not stepping up to their responsibilities; when I meet people taking their studies for granted; when I see some of our leaders pandering for votes and gullible people actually adulating them for it; when people engage in mindless barbarism; when I encounter people who do not have any regard for their surroundings, the environment, and their fellow Filipinos, I often think of Rizal's prescient words.

Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

When I was a kid, there was a TV animated series adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". I can't remember most of the scenes now, but what I remember most is the sight of Huck and Jim's raft floating in a leisurely manner along the Mississipi River. That scene alone was enough for any kid - and even an adult - to imagine what it would have been like to be on such a spot.

There are few great works of literature where geography played an almost central theme to the story; Robinson Crusoe's island and Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings series are two. And then there is the Mississipi River of Mark Twain.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a book for children, but it also has a vibrant thread of maturity in it. As a children's book, the funny adventures and the voyage along the Mississipi provide the amusement. As a social commentary, the novel is a stinging take on contemporary American frontier life in the 19th century.

The Mississipi serves as the platform on which Huck and the slave Jim sought to escape. And the odyssey.

And some things never change. We read of Huck Finn's good-for-nothing father, a drunkard whose only purpose in life was to pester Huck and Judge Thatcher for a "share" of Huck's wealth stored in the bank to buy a bottle of moonshine, taunts Huck for studying, and just exhibits his worthlessness in his responsibility to raise Huck to be a good son. You would wish the piece of dung would drink himself to death and leave Huck in peace and Huck would be better off. But then, the adventures would not have happened. Well, there are still dads and even moms there who are like Huck's sorry excuse for a father.

The absurdity of the con men the "Duke" and the "Dauphin" conveys the deceit that lurks in this world, a deceit whose only match is the gullibility of people who literally buy that foolishness. The Dauphin's ridiculous "The King's Cameleopard" or the "Royal Nonesuch" reminds me of Miley Cyrus's "twerking" and her "wrecking ball", and all those who lapped them up. Some things never change; some even get worse.

Reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" offers amusement and also reflection; now there's a book that is both fun and serious.

A Profound Pleasure

The Tower Treasure / The House On The Cliff - Franklin W. Dixon

Ah, childhood. When life, as well as the pleasures, were simpler. And one of those simpler pleasures was reading these books about two brother detectives, their friends, and the adventures they had fighting criminals in their fictional hometown of Bayport and elsewhere in the world.

I have to give credit to the library in my grade school for introducing me to their extensive Hardy Boys collection. I used to eagerly await the end of classes to get the chance to borrow a worn book at least once a week and read it at home.

In an age of innocence, the Hardy Boys series provided a rich fare for the imagination and fantasize about being a detective oneself. Reading their adventures takes one around Bayport, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Florida; and other countries, imagined or otherwise: Mexico, Canada, Morocco, and many more.

In a way, the Hardy Boys series is an imagination of America. In it, you will find two teen-age detectives who can be said to be the author's idea of an ideal American: tall, intelligent, technology-adept, and living in a small, nuclear family.

Yet, you can also find criminals who can be said to be the complete opposite of gangsters like Al Capone or Lucky Luciano. Can you imagine criminals who do not seem to kill? Villains who would just knock or gas their victims or the Hardy boys, and only try to kill them near the end of the story? Unbelievable. But then, the series is made for kids and teen-agers.

In contrast to today's superheroes with superpowers like Spider-Man, the Avengers, or Batman, the Hardy Boys series provided that middle ground where one can be a hero and still keep your feet on the ground.

So despite its flaws, the Hardy Boys series is one great read and deserves to be in every school library's collection. Heck, every grade school boy (or even girl) should read at least two of the books. Who knows? It can set the kid to a love for reading. Now that's a simple pleasure with profound consequences.

What a Year It Was

The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall - Michael Meyer

A concise yet great read, this book reveals the events that led to the democratic revolutions that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, as seen from a correspondent's eyes. It's like a classic movie with a plethora of characters. Villains like Honecker and Ceausescu. And heroes like Walesa, Havel, and the lesser known Nemeth. On one side, a repressive system. On the other, peoples yearning for freedom, democracy, and prosperity. A thrilling read about those heady days of 1989 and a reminder not to take those democratic values for granted.

And You Thought You Had a Bad Day

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ralph Parker, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Alexander Tvardovsky, Eric Bogosian

Dear reader,

Greetings! My name is Ivan Denisovich. I was wrongfully imprisoned by our "beloved leader" Josef Stalin for a crime I did not commit. But then, in my country at that time, ANYONE can be thrown into prison for ANYTHING or worse, NOTHING. And I was not alone. There were thousands, even millions, of us.

I hope you are doing great there. You are probably in your bedroom, sitting or lying comfortably while reading this. Good for you. Most of us slept on bare cells or on worn materials that served as mattresses.

Have you eaten? I hope you have. I have partaken of my daily ration, so-so grams of bread and a watery mixture that our captors passed for as  "coffee".

I guess there are among you who shun even the lightest manual work. We here did backbreaking work, and at sub-zero temperatures at that. Every. Day. Without pay.

So if you do read this, pray (if you pray) or think about me and countless others who passed through the numerous prison camps set up by our masters in this communist "paradise". For many of us, the trip was a one-way journey. The bones of those who never returned are still there.

Now that the Soviet Union is in the trash can of history, I hope that the world will never again see what we saw, feel what we felt, and experience what we did. Because even a day here felt like a lifetime.

But I did not let the system break me. In the end, it was people like me who eventually survived the system. And we did not just survive it. We triumphed against it.


This is Not a Fairy Tale

Animal Farm 50th (fıfthy) edition Text Only - George Orwell

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for those others that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

One of the most biting and devastating satires in literary history, George Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) wrote this masterpiece mostly influenced by his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39. Yes, Virginia, this book was based on real life events and is not just a fable about animals and certainly not a book about Farmville.

The Spanish Civil War broke out due to the struggle between two ideologies: traditional Spanish values as represented by the Spanish elite and the military, and republicanism, socialism, and-later in the war-Soviet communism. This complex plethora of ideas and values was not peacefully settled and broke out into open war by the mutiny led by General Francisco Franco and the military against the Spanish Republic.

Orwell, who was himself a socialist, went to Spain initially as a correspondent for a leftist newspaper. But he was soon actively involved in the war on the side of the Republic. But if he thought that the only enemies were on the the side of the rebels led by General Franco, he was in for a rude shock.

The Spanish Republic sought the help of the Communist Soviet Union in its struggle against the rebels. The Soviets did send some help - and more. They sent agents from the Communist International to eliminate the Soviet Union's enemies (real and perceived), including those in the ranks of their own comrades-in-arms. Many Spanish and international volunteers who fought for the Republic were suspected of being "infiltrators" and "counter-revolutionaries". In true Stalinist fashion, the Communists were often more interested in purging their own ranks rather than effectively fighting the military rebels.

Orwell was a witness to all these as he himself admitted that they were lucky to escape with their lives from the clutches of the Soviet Union's agents. He was deeply shaken by his near-death experience and became a vocal critic of the communists and Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin.

And so was born Animal Farm. George Orwell had the guts to voice his criticism against the excesses he himself saw perpetrated by people who claim to be fighting for the oppressed and the downtrodden, the "vanguard of the proletariat".

I read this book in the early 2000s, well after the end of the Cold War. Since the collapse of communism in Europe, the world has known
of all the failures and atrocities the Communists have left in their wake. So reading the meaning of the book is not hard to miss.

So for all the talk of "class struggle", "classless society", and paradise on earth, all the Communists have done and are still doing are having blood on their hands, a trail of corpses, and other incalculable damage in the name of the false theories of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Done by "revolutionaries" who ended up being the exploiters and tyrants that they claim to have "liberated" the people from.

Churchill's words could not have rung louder.

*For those who are interested in the relevance of the Spanish Civil War with this book, I recommend "Homage to Catalonia" also by Orwell and "The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War" by Antony Beevor.

It's an Honor to Have Met Him

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II - George Weigel

"Are you ready? Let's go."

"Yes, ma."

It was a Sunday, January 15, 1995. I was twelve years old. Pope John Paul II was in the Philippines for his second visit, and my mother and I were going to the World Youth Day Mass at Rizal Park in Manila.

We went to the park in the early morning, and it was a sea of humanity. There is a famous photo of the papal helicopter arriving, with the gargantuan crowd beneath it. It was as if the park itself was made of humanity. It was later estimated that up to five million people were in the park for the Mass - the largest single gathering in history. Filipinos and other members of the Universal Church gathered as witnesses.

What could be the explanation for such a great phenomenon? The fire of faith? The Pope's magnetic charisma? The exhilaration of youth for what some call the "Catholic Woodstock"?

All of the above, maybe. But one thing is also clear: the sea of humanity at World Youth Day 1995 in Manila and elsewhere is a microcosm of the yearning of the Universal Church for evangelization - to know the Good News and to share it. And perhaps no other Servant of the Church has done more to help facilitate this need than Pope John Paul II.

That this is so should not come as a surprise or an aberration to anyone who can be acquainted to his remarkable life. Born in fervently Catholic Poland to devoutly Catholic parents, in a time of new-found freedom and independence for the country, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II's real name) grew up to his adolescence and early manhood amidst personal tragedies as well as happiness. The horrors of the Nazi occupation and the Soviet "liberation" did not dampen his faith; they served to strengthen it further and were influential in his decision to study for the priesthood.

Ordained in 1946, Father Wojtyla was a caring parish priest who already manifested the signs of intellectual and philosophical prowess. Later, as Archbishop of Krakow and a Cardinal, he further contributed to reinforcing his constituents' spiritual well-being, in defiance of the Communist puppet-rulers of Poland. And he also participated in the Second Vatican Council, a watershed event whose results would prove crucial to the Church and his Papacy.

When he was elected Pope in 1978, his first words to the Church were "DO NOT BE AFRAID!". And those words will become the signature of his service.

Be not be afraid to proclaim the faith. Be not afraid to live as witnesses to Christ. Be not afraid to admit your shortcomings and repent. Be not afraid of death and the culture that promotes it.

Be not afraid to proclaim the faith. Pope John Paul encouraged the faithful to know it and to live it, to serve as embodiments of what Christ taught.

Be not afraid to live as witnesses to Christ. Pope John Paul II encouraged all, especially those living under authoritarian regimes and totalitarian dictatorships, to stand up for their rights and for their faith. That the Pope was influential in the collapse of the communist empire of lies in his own Poland and the rest of Europe is a vindication of the truth against the lie.

Be not afraid to ask for forgiveness. Pope John Paul II himself asked for forgiveness for the sins of members of the Church had done. How many leaders can do that?

Be not afraid to do the right thing. What is popular may not necessarily be legitimate.

Pope John Paul II's greatest legacy may be his reminding the world of what true humanism means. The world knows what false humanism can do, when the unbridled desire for what one wants is let loose. It did not lead to a utopia; it resulted in Auschwitz and the gulags. And he also taught that false humanism can also exist in democracies, when the presence of freedom can be misconstrued as just doing what one pleases and subjecting everything to the trap and hollowness of atheism and moral relativism.

Pope John Paul II taught the world not to be afraid of Christ-centered humanism; to respect each other as a creature of God with a soul, with rights, and with dignity. A human person is not an object of utility, to be judged as being useful or not; a person is an individual subject with freedom. And Pope John Paul II reminds us that we are here on Earth to live for the truth and we should use our freedom for good.

"Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought" - Pope John Paul II, in his homily in Baltimore, Maryland, 1995

And that is why he is now a saint.

The Real Issue

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

When North Korea ever pops up in the news, the items usually covered are about a buffoon-like dictator, the absurd show of brainwashing (real or staged) of many of its people, and the threat of it getting a nuclear bomb. But the truth is far more serious. Because the grim reality is North Korea is the world's biggest prison and the inmates are the majority of its people. It is a slave state. And the world bears a responsibility for not doing anything to liberate the oppressed North Koreans.

This book is one of the most powerful I have read in recent years, along with "Nothing to Envy". The force of this book is the chronicle of one man who was born and raised (if that can be called the right term) in one of North Korea's brutal concentration camps (yes, dear, concentration camps still exist in this world today), where life is cheap and the system eventually kills you. But not if you don't let it defeat you. His escape in 2005 is one of the most amazing feats in modern history and deserves to be told in every corner of the planet so as to continue to shed light on the most evil system in the world to this day.

Screw the so-called nuclear threat. North Korea is doing enough damage to the whole of humanity by its gross human rights violations. If not for the North Korean refugees who miraculously escaped from their prison country, the world might not have known about them. When will the world wake up and do something?

Nothing to Envy, Indeed

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick

If you thought that George Orwell's satires Animal Farm and 1984 are just works of fiction, think again. Look at a map and find North Korea. That's a present-day, real-life Animal Farm.

Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, gives us a peek of a spot of hell here on Earth. Based mostly on interviews with 6 North Koreans who defected to South Korea and from the author's own experience, this book takes the reader into an often difficult read of how North Koreans are being lied to, brainwashed, imprisoned, starved, and killed by their own atheist, Communist government, while their dynastic dictators, the murderous Kims and their cronies continue to live in the lap of luxury. And yet, Communists and other leftists around the world continue to turn a blind eye to this evil. Well, maybe, not surprisingly.

A mother scrounging for edible weeds and tree bark to augment her family's meager diet. A teacher without a salary still being forced to work, just to see her students drop out one by one and never seeing them again, wiped out by starvation. People with stunted bodies and minds begging or even dropping dead on the streets. And the most perverse part of it is that the dictatorship tells them that they owe their lives to the "loving generosity" of Kim il Sung, Kim Jong il, Kimchi, Kim this, Kim that. And to even speak something bad about your situation or against the Kims can earn you a one trip ticket to the numerous gulags or prison camps scattered across the countryside. Paradise on earth, indeed.

What is common about the defectors' testimonies is the degree of resourcefulness that most North Koreans display just to survive. To survive, they have to break North Korean law. To survive, they sometimes steal. In North Korea's case, breaking the "law" to survive cannot be considered a crime anymore. With the North Korean atheist, Communist dictatorship itself deliberately starving its people so they don't have the physical strength to resist, breaking the "law" is not just imperative to survive; it is the right thing to do. The atheist Communists will eventually kill you through starvation or execution. The ordinary North Korean citizens are not the criminals; it is the dictatorship that is criminal, a gang of liars, thieves, and murderers.

The silver lining in this darkness is the stories of escape of North Korean defectors and their eventual resettlement in South Korea. The world which their government forcibly covered before from their eyes and their lives is now there to see and live in, with all the freedoms, opportunities, and lives that they were denied in the North.

I now include in my prayers people in countries which do not have basic freedoms like what we have, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc. Freedoms that some people in free societies tend to take for granted, abuse, or even denigrate. Democratic societies are not perfect, but I am sure oppressed peoples around the world would glady trade their lot for one like ours.

I just hope that the world can come to an agreement and take action to help save North Koreans and take collective action not just to contain the illegitimate, lying, and murderous North Korean dictatorship, but actually put an end to it. The civilized world has a responsibility to protect. The regime will eventually fall. It is not a question of if; it is a matter of when.