A Monumental Mistake

The controversial Torre de Manila rises behind the historic Rizal Monument in Luneta Park. Photo from skyscrapercity.com

Much as I try to focus only on those topics that have a direct impact on the lives of Mindanaoans, I just cant resist commenting on the recent full-page advertisement taken out by DMCI regarding their controversial Torre de Manila project. It offers a wonderful opportunity to talk about ways of communicating with an angry public that might help other companies, some of them in Mindanao, that are facing similarly sticky situations.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, the controversy stems from DMCI’s decision to build a 49-storey condominium directly behind the Rizal Monument in Luneta. According to some very vocal sectors the building sacrilegiously obstructs the otherwise pristine skyline that has framed the historic landmark for more than a hundred years. But which, as far as DMCI is concerned after having jumped through all the legal hoops, they are well within their rights to construct.

From a communication stand point, what we have here is a classic example of the disconnect that happens between the logical and emotional levels of discourse. On the logical sphere, where what one says is received by the audience exactly as it was transmitted, there is very little ambiguity in the project, especially from the point of view of the sender. In this case, DMCI.

Reading from their own official statement, they clearly see Torre De Manila as nothing more tan a straightforward “urban solution” designed “to help address the need for mid-income housing and urban renewal… (and to provide their customers) the convenience, security and quality of life they deserve.” In seeking to strengthen their logical legal basis for Torre De Manila, DMCI also cites its compliance with all the rules and relevant laws, their clearance from the National Historical Commission, urban development issues in the City of Manila, and international precedence in the preservation of national heritage sites.

Before commenting on some of the deficiencies of DMCI’s statement as a communications tool and a way to bridge the gap between them and their detractors, let me just say that from a purely legal perspective, I have no doubt that it stands on very solid footing. That said, I also believe that this is one of those cases where one can be legally correct, but ethically wrong. And trying to argue one over the other will not get you anywhere in the eyes of an already outraged public.

What DMCI doesn’t seem to understand, and what it’s statement fails to address, is the anger felt by those opposing their project. And while they took time to outline why they are “right” and their opponents are “wrong,” this logical presentation will not have any impact on the raw emotion that drives those on the other side. It is like talking about one coin but coming from different sides, you will never be able to come to an agreement without taking a leap of faith and accepting that the other side may just have as much “right” as you do. That their perceptions, while based on nothing more concrete than a hunch, still has the force of reality behind it. And attacking people’s beliefs by calling them irrational guarantees that they will only resist harder than ever before.

In order to find a common ground, DMCI should first identify the source of the anger. Is it because of the structure or is it because of the process that went into the building of the condominium? Most often than not, the public’s anger comes from a feeling of being ignored. Of being marginalized from the decisions that affect their lives. And compliance with laws and regulations, especially in the Philippines where confidence in the government is not very high, does not ensure public acceptance.

Once the source of the negative emotions has been identified, DMCI should determine who or what is driving the anger. While there will always be those who are using the issue for their own agenda, there are also legitimate groups who have real grievances. These are the people DMCI should reach out too. Maybe even form a community organization that would work towards finding an acceptable solution. These should be sincere efforts to bridge the gap and not just public relations damage control.

Lastly, DMCI should look for ways to widen the discussions with the public. The unknown is also a potent force in creating anger and anxiety, particularly in issues that are emotionally charged. By engaging the public in dialogues across all platforms of media, traditional and social, they will be able to reassure the people that, at the very least, they are listening to their concerns. This way also, by their reasonableness, they will be able to expose the extremists and the crazies whose anarchic views leave no room for compromise. DMCI should not be afraid to talk to the community, even when they may not always agree, these can be a rich source for demonstrating that they can do better.

So, Grace Poe wants to be President. And if the surveys are right, majority of Filipinos want her to be the President too. But from what we’ve been hearing through the political grapevines, the decision of whether or not the first term lady senator would actually take the plunge rests entirely on her good friend, advisor, and constant companion, Chiz “The Whiz” Escudero. After orchestrating the ascension of Jojo Binay to the office of the Vice President, he has somehow maneuvered himself to be in the perfect position to ride the coattails of Poe towards the same seat in 2016.

If Chiz manages to pull this off, it would cap off a wild series of horse trading and back channel negotiations that has seen the political fortunes of these would-be Presidents rise and fall in dizzying fashion. Whether it is Binay, Poe, Roxas, or Duterte, the one thing that is clear is that people are having a hell of a time keeping up with all the issues being brought out about each candidate. And with the expansion of media platforms into the real of the social networks, the slightest rumor can disrupt even the best laid communications plan.

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In the wings of all these political maneuverings, President Aquino went about with the regular business of government by signing RA 10668, or the Liberalized Cabotage Law, which would now allow for much, much cheaper shipment rates of foreign goods all over the Philippines. Prior to this law it was cheaper to send goods to and from abroad than it was to send them from Manila to Davao.

As an example of the impact that this new law would have on Mindanao development, the President cited the case of a cargo container from Cagayon de Oro going to Hong Kong. He explained that in the past it would have cost US$ 1,264, of which eighty-eight percent or US$ 1,120 to ship it from Cagayan de Oro to Manila, and only US$ 144 from Manila to Hong Kong. “Because of the amended Cabotage Law, shippers from Cagayan de Oro can go straight to Hong Kong. They will pay only US$ 500. They will be able to save US$ 746 per container,” this the President says, would end the absurdity of the situation where the Philippines has one of the world’s most expensive shipping costs despite having some of the largest shipyards, and being home to one-fourth of the world’s seafarers. This development is a clear victory for the people in Mindanao. Finally the stranglehold on shipping, which has favored the interests of Metro Manila over the rest of the country has been broken.

Denizens of the deep

You meet the most interesting creatures underwater. LIke this flamboyant cuttlefish. Normally this guy crawls along the bottom, dressed all in black and dark greys. But when it gets excited, loke it is in these pictures, you can see how the colors come out. 

I took these photos somewhere in the Davao Gulf, at one of those beaches that you wouldn’t expect see anything so beautiful. Guess that goes to show you can never judge a book by its cover, or the ocean by the garbage stacked on the beach.
Cuttlefish1 image image image

Travel Memories

It’s been a while since I took to the road. Work, that dreaded four-letter, has had me tied down with deadlines for months – with the end still no where in sight. In times like these, I usually occupy myself by revisiting old photos taken during previous travels.

A floating house along the banks of the Agusan Marsh. This is near where the caught Lolong, the 21-foot saltwater croc a few years back. 
Another floating house. This time on stilts. The Agusan !arsh can be a great location for a reality TV series about a group of people riding araft from Davao to Butuan
Anyone want to play ball?
Sunrise after a night of fishing for tuna in siargao

Diving in Dumaguette

TURTLES! I’ve since returned to Dumaguete to dive in Dauin and Apo Island and true to my earlier expectations, I saw turtles and a lot more. And this time I didn’t forget to bring a camera, as evidenced by the images of ghost pipefishes, a scorpion leaf fish, nudibranchs, shrimps on whip corals and of course, a turtle. 

The seas were heaving and so was my stomach. I really shouldn’t have had that cheese omelet for breakfast. Still, there wasn’t much else I could do about it now, nor was there much else I could complain about. Straight ahead I could see the cloud-hazy bulk of Apo Island, and beneath it, I could imagine the famed corals and endless undersea wonders of what is reputed to be one of the world’s best dive sites. 

I got this far by driving all the way from Davao and I was determined to enjoy the experience. Too bad my friend Menka, who arranged everything for us, wasn’t able to join the dive. But then again I was here and Apo Island was there so what else could I ask for. At that point it mattered little that the sun kept hiding behind the clouds, or the high wind was whipping the waves across the bow of our small banca with such force that I had to wear my scuba mask to keep my contacts from getting washed off – I was going to dive in Apo island and nothing was going to spoil it. 

I turned to our divemaster and asked how much longer it would take. He shrugs his shoulders, which I took to mean either, he didn’t know, didn’t hear me, or it didn’t really matter. I envied his indifference to the passing of time and speculated about how moments flow into each other and of the transitory nature of our existence. That is until a particularly big wave hit me squarely on the face, almost knocking the mask off and treating me to a mouthful of saltwater. From then on, I thought it more prudent to just keep my mind on not drowning before I even got into the water. 

Stubbornly our little banca, like the little choochoo that could, pressed on. Every dip into the waves threw up a fresh wall of water, but at the same time it drew us closer to our destination and it wasn’t long before we were turning the corner and were within sight of our first entry point. 

As the small 16–horsepower engine sputtered to a stop, the divemaster began his briefing. We were at Cogon Point and we would be doing a modified back roll entry, which actually meant that we would neither be going on our backs nor were we rolling. We would in fact be jumping of the banca face forward and butt first. Whatever. It was going to be a drift dive with our maximum depth pegged at 80 feet. He pointed off to the distance to our exit point, telling us that we would be picked up by the boat when we surfaced. 

Three splashes later and we were all in the water and raring to go. After some minor adjustments, a few hand signals, and the hiss of air being released we slipped gently underwater. 

THE CLOSEST THING TO FLYING 

For those who’ve never tried it, it’s hard to express in words the three dimensional freedom one gets from diving — unfettered by gravity, it is the closest thing to unaided flight humans will ever experience. Whenever someone wanting to learn to scuba asks me what its like, I often tell them to just try it and they’d either come out liking the experience or hating it. 

Another thing about scuba, the lines of choices are clearly drawn. It is always an experience sliding beneath the waves. There is a quietness and serenity that overwhelms the senses and drives all thoughts out, leaving only the moment and the awareness of each breath. Sounds of the world above are forgotten and motion is reduced to the pace of thick molasses. 

These first few moments are always the best for me; it is a moment of doors opening and genies being unleashed. 

And the genies of the deep were clearly with us during that dive as less than five minutes into it we were welcomed to Apo by a pair of giant trevallies swimming in the current. They were a bit above us and I wanted to swim to them to get a closer look, but the urgent tank-banging of our guide drew my attention further down. 

I swam to where he was and saw the huge, moss–lined, barnacle-encrusted carapace of a hawksbill turtle. I searched for the head and it took me a while to notice that it was tucked underneath some sponges feeding. This wasn’t the first turtle I’ve seen, but it was certainly the most self-assured. It never spooked even when I got in close enough to almost touch it. I can remember looking into its wizened eyes as it turned its head ever so casually towards me and wondering what amazing sights he must have seen — and all this time there was this whole surfer dude dialogue going on in my head — and I knew that it won’t be long until I was started calling clownfishes, nemos. 

After that first awesome encounter, there were a couple more turtles that we saw — even one with a missing fin — plus schools of jacks, barracudas, a couple of stone fishes, a ribbon eel, a snaggle-toothed snapper that I swear was almost as long as my forearm, and more corals than you can shake a stick at. 

As to the last, it was wonderful to see such abundance without any signs of decay or deterioration. 

We did three dives that day, each successively better than the last and at the end the only thing we regretted was not having the foresight to bring an underwater camera (duh!). Well, I guess that only means I’d have to go back and do it all over again… maybe next time the sharks will be there. 

The unseen world of scuba diving

 

The Beauty Within

Few things can surpass, and none can match the thrill of scuba diving. The sensation of slipping into a world where the constraints of gravity are loosed and one is free to fly, gliding with the unseen currents like an eagle soaring in the wind, is an indescribable experience that never gets old no matter how many times you do it. Every time is always the first time, and every dive unique from all the rest. The vastness and diversity of our oceans practically guarantees that you will see something new each you put on that wet suit.

When the water is crystal clear and the visibility is unlimited, you can survey the underwater world like you would from an airplane – looking down on the many-colored and oddly shaped corals. The multitude of fishes too numerous to count. And the unbelievable array of the strangest, weirdest, most interesting creatures you would ever find – from an eight armed octopus that can change colors at the drop of a hat, to shrimps with a thousand eyes and a kick so fast it creates its own sonic boom. Old Mr. Ripley can write a whole volume on these wonderful animals and it still won’t even scratch the surface.

Once in a while the lucky diver may also catch a glimpse of a shark, the undisputed king of this watery world, cruising among lesser mortals with all the surety and menace of Mike Tyson entering the ring during his prime. Seeing these apex predators for the first time, looking into the unblinking blackness of their eyes, you get a distinct feeling that it is only through their sufferance that you continue to remain healthy while in their realm. It is a humbling encounter where the wise depart with a sense of awe and a big question mark on the true place of humans in the hierarchy of nature. And the foolish do not leave at all.

The Treasures of the Past

But for all the beauty that it holds, much of our seas and oceans remain a mystery. An unexplored world just outside our doorsteps, and whose murky depths have proven all but impenetrable to our quest to see and understand what lies beneath the waves. Far from the prying eyes of men, a large part of human history lies hidden and undisturbed in the silent darkness of the ocean floor.

Buried beneath thousands of feet of water is a chronicle of man’s earliest attempts to answer the siren’s calling beyond the waves. From the meanest dugouts to grandest galleons, crossing the vast distances between continents meant venturing far beyond the sight of land and into the heart of the unknown. It was an adventure for the ages and countless brave souls answered the call. Tragically not all of them made it to the journey’s end. Stored away in Davy Jones’ mythical locker are the stories of man’s persistent itch to explore, to discover what lies beyond the horizon. 

Aside from fueling our curiosity, the oceans have time and again been used as a tool to extend man’s capacity to inflict violence on other men beyond the borders of their own nations. Throughout history, and even up to the present time, warlords, conquerors, and despots have played their games of brinksmanship on the high seas, with the fate of millions on the line. And while those who have succeeded are written into the history books, the failures of those whose efforts have yielded nothing but a watery grave, can be read only from the battered and broken wrecks they left behind. 

Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg

In descending these depths, the intrepid diver journey’s into a world of unending possibilities and new discoveries, a world of wonder and sudden, violent danger. A world filled with relics of the past and the promise of a bright future. And, sadly, a world that is slowly dying from neglect, and misuse. Because its bounty is hidden beneath the surface, it is easy for people to turn a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating conditions of our oceans. Despite the increasingly dire warning and doomsday predictions from scientists and conservationists, the dumping of millions of tons of garbage into our waters remains unabated. 

According to a report by by Ocean Convervancy (oceanconservancy.org), “The amount of plastic going into the ocean from land is estimated between 5 and 14 million tons annually. This study demonstrates that the sheer volume of plastic in the ocean is orders of magnitude greater than what has been previously estimated.  In the next decade our ocean could hold one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish.

We know that plastic is bad for ocean wildlife and habitats – animals ingest it and can get entangled in it; it litters our beaches and waterways.  Volunteers with Ocean Conservancy’s International Cleanup have collected over 190 million pounds of trash, including plastic waste, since the event began 30 years ago.   And plastic waste is not just an environmental concern.   For countries where plastic consumption has outpaced waste management, there are real concerns around public health, job creation, tourism and quality of life.” 

And as far as it being an endless supply of food for our growing cities, man’s greed and inexhaustible appetite has beggared the once seemingly limitless riches of Neptune. Every year, as the fish stocks grow smaller, it becomes harder and harder for fishermen to meet the demands of the market. Leading many to resort to more desperate and environmentally destructive methods in order to increase their haul of the ever more precious fishes. Soon this vicious cycle of exploitation and extermination will come to a dead stop as the oceans will finally be depleted of all that it has to give. Which, if the current studies hold true, may come sooner rather later.

Hoping for a Better Future

But until that time comes we continue to hope that something will change. Something drastic that will make people realize that we should do all we can to preserve and protect the oceans and all the creatures that live in it. Not just because we rely on it for food or that it is useful for whatever purpose it might serve us, but because it is simply the right thing to do. The late Jacques Cousteau, a scuba diving legend and one of the earliest advocates for marine conservation said it best when he declared that, “If we go on the way we have, then fault is our greed. If we are not willing to change, then we will disappear from the face of the globe. If we are just logical, then the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

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For more of my ramblings, please visit my site at http://www.mindanation.com and http://www.infinitemonkees.com

Billion peso blunder Part 2

In addition to their penchant for fudging the fiscal details of the Sasa Port Modernization project, Department of Transportation and Communication Secretary, Joseph Abaya and the rest of his team are also guilty of ignoring local realities, not to mention sensibilities, in drawing up the plans for this wet dream of a project. 

Harping on the fact that this is the first and only PPP project in Mindanao, Abaya – with the enthusiastic endorsement of Mindanao Development Authority Secretary, Lualhati Antonino seem to be under the impression that Davaoeños should be jumping for joy simply because the national government in Manila has deigned to bless us with its attention. Antonino articulated it best when, while lecturing the stakeholders on what is good for them, she said “eh di kung ayaw ninyo  sa Davao, sa Gensan na lang…

Not to sound like the ungrateful brats that these people make us to be for voicing our concerns, an appreciation of local know-how should be a paramount consideration when undertaking a project that threatens to disrupt the lives of so many people. More than the tyranny of their calculators, those who drew up the plans for this monstrosity should respect how people feel – no matter how capricious or illogical it may appear to them. This is even more true, as is the case in this hot mess that they insist on foisting on the people of Davao, when the supposed facts and figures being presented flies directly in the face of common sense.

One clear example of this conflict between theory and practice is in the over-hyping of the supposed benefits that will be derived from the increased efficiency in loading and unloading after the Sasa Port if modernized. According to DOTC, the current rate of unloading in Sasa Port of two days will be reduced to just three hours once the new facilities are put in place. On paper it is hard to argue with such empirically advantageous data. 

But if you are a Davaoeño who has passed through that one and only road in front of the Sasa pier – if you are familiar with this narrow, over-crowded stretch of highway where traffic comes to a complete stop at every intersection – from the Lanang all the way to Panacan and beyond. Then you would instinctively know that there is absolutely no way that the current road network can handle the sudden flood of container-laden trucks, which the DOTC gleefully predicts will be spewing sixteen-times faster than they do now. 

Maybe as a way to show that they did have some foresight and anticipated this problem, they now promise to build wider roads to accommodate the increased traffic volume. But without explaining where and how they will go about it doesn’t really add up to much of anything beyond more of the same empty words. I am particularly curious as to how they intend to expropriate all those private properties along the highway extending north and south from the port. Huwag na po tayong magbolahan, the principle of Public Domain be dammed, there is no way in hell that the government will be able convince those thousands of Davaoeños to sell their homes and businesses for the making of a highway. And without these crucial pieces of real estate, the much ballyhooed increased efficiency of the new Sasa Port might as well be flushed down the toilet for all it’s going to do for the city.

And as if ignorance of the local road network wasn’t bad enough, the plan is also riddled with assumptions such as the idea that banana exports out of Sasa port will continue to be a viable option and one of the prime reason for its modernization. While I am all for positive thinking, the DOTC, NEDA, MinDA, and all these other alphabet soup agencies are clearly delusional when the choose to see this particular glass as being half full, instead of what it really is – a half-empty vessel that has rapidly lost half its value because its bottom has fallen out. 

The simple and irrefutable fact is that the banana plantations are in Panabo, and it will always be more efficient for plantations to ship their products as near to the source as possible. This is why, despite having been in operation for only a couple of years, the Davao International Container Terminal (DICT) has already siphoned off a large chunk of the market that the Sasa port still dreams of. Worst still, this is a situation that only promises to become more acute once the Hijo International Port Services, Inc. (HIPSI) in Tagum City is completed. That the DOTC still insists on locking the barn door long after the horse has escaped illustrates a lack of imagination and the built-up inertia of incompetence that afflicts government institutions.

But most egregious of all their shortsightedness is the DOTC’s failure to incorporate the clear and unequivocal clamor coming from many of Davao’s leading citizens for a berthing place for passenger cruise ships in any plan to modernize the Sasa Port. This oversight, which Sec. Abaya dumps on the lap of his colleague, Sec. Mon Jimenez of the Department of Tourism, is a clear-as-day indication of the planners inability to think beyond their cubicles. Making matters worse, they tried to justify their deliberate omission of the passenger berth that everyone wanted, by citing the concerns of the shipping companies that no one welcomed. 

In the end, after all is said and done, I go back to councilor Dayanghirang’s assessment that the biggest failure of Abaya, Antonino, and all those pushing for this project has little to do with their ability to explain the technical aspects of it, rather it is simply in their inability to communicate with the kind of respect that the people expect and deserve. 

Billion peso blunder Part 1

I was supposed to write about something more pleasant, but then I needed to get rid of the really bad taste in my mouth from the bullshit we were fed during the presentation of the Davao Sasa Port modernization project the other day. The event, which was hosted by the Davao City Chamber of  Commerce, was supposed to have been a consultation among the proponents of the project, led by the Department of Transportation and Communication, and the stakeholders from Davao region, as represented by local government officials, community and business leaders, and members of the media. The aim was to come to grips with some of the lingering questions in the minds of the public regarding the project, particularly the baffling increase in its proposed cost of four billion to a whopping seventeen billion pesos.

As a refresher, the controversy regarding the modernization of the port came about after the initial figure of four billion pesos ballooned to seventeen billion, four times the original cost, without any clear explanation as to why from the people and agencies tasked to implement it. Given the situation, Daang Matuwid notwithstanding, it is not at all surprising that there are persistent allegations of one or all of the following traits that characterize government projects – incompetence, inefficiency, overpricing, and corruption.

Unfortunately the proceedings, as a forum to clarify the issues, fell far short of the people’s expectations as DOTC Sec. Joseph Abaya and his team spent half the time painting unrealistically rosy pictures of the project and the other half weaving and bobbing away from the critical issues at hand. I think Councilor Danny Dayanghirang hit the nail perfectly on the head when he said that essentially what we had was “a problem in communications.” Between government officials who pontificate from their pedestals in Manila, and the rest of the country who are the victims of their insufferable arrogance. 

This kind of bullheaded, smarter-than-thou management style typically practiced by our national government officials was again in full display during the presentation as Sec. Abaya, who comically is somehow under the impression that Davao City is still being serviced by propeller-driven passenger planes circa the1950’s, kept on insisting that modernizing Sasa was going to be good for the region. This despite having admitted, when questioned by Councilor Dayanghirang about reported irregularities about the port project, that the “MRT-3 has taken much of (his) time so hindi ko masyadong natututukan (ang detalye ng Sasa project).”

It is therefore no wonder that during the presentation the DOTC took great pains to make it appear as if everything was on the up and up, and that any discrepancy was merely the product of a misappreciation of the facts by the people. Abaya argued that Davaoeños are talking “apples and oranges” when they mistakenly compare the figures of four and seventeen billion, as the former is just for the rehabilitation of the port, while the latter is for an entirely new facility. Unfortunately this simplistic rejoinder fails to adequately explain how the privately-owned Davao International Container Terminal (DICT) was able to build a modern port facility from the ground up with a budget that is even smaller than what the government wants to spend for rehabilitating the Sasa pier. Which of course begs the question, does the government intend to pave the port in gold, or are some people’s pockets going to be lined with silver?

Continuing on this theme, Abaya likewise dismissed the concerns – or what he calls “the fixation” – of the people about the project’s seventeen billion-peso tag, saying that this is not the actual project cost but is merely an “indicative price” to be used as one of the reference points by the participants to the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Program in making their bid proposals. And to demonstrate how groundless and naive the public’s fears are, he and his team were emphatic that it is very possible, even likely, that bidders will submit proposal for as low as five to seven billion pesos for a project that the government has estimated will cost seventeen billion.

So let’s take a look at this again, just to be very clear. The government, presumably after doing its own studies and estimates, has pegged the “indicative price” of the Sasa Port Modernization project at seventeen billion pesos. This figure, unless it was simply pulled out of Sec. Abaya’s ass without any basis in fact or reason, must have been premised upon specific technical and performance requirements that strictly follow industry standards – and prices. 

All product classes – particularly those of a highly technical nature – have an almost inflexible cost matrix that allows for very little room for maneuvering. That is why luxury cars, regardless of the brand, are basically within the same price range, give or take a few hundred thousand pesos. A significant price reduction – such as in the scale of the fifty percent or more drop being suggested by the DOTC for the modernization program – would normally mean a change in the category or level of the product being offered. This is essentially the same difference between buying a Prado and an Avanza.

Therefore, while it is true that some bids may come in lower than the seventeen billion “indicative price” set by the government, it cannot be anywhere near the five or seven billion that Abaya is disingenuously trying to peddle to the public. And if ever it is, then it just proves that the only thing the “seventeen billion” is indicative of is the incompetence of the DOTC and the National Economic Development Authority in coming up with a realistic estimate for a project of this scale and magnitude. Either that or the bidders have cut significant corners in the proposal. Both of which would necessarily undermine the whole purpose and relevance of the project.

 

For more of my ramblings, please visit my website at http://www.mindanation.com and http://www.infinitemonkees.com.