Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avast, Me Proud Beauty! Wanna Know Why My Roger Is So Jolly?

As I write this deep within the comforting Arabian bosom of an Etihad airliner, bound for the frozen tundra of the UK for a family Christmas, I’m wondering if some of my Christmas gifts, to wit, a bumper harvest of pirated DVDs and computer software culled from the streets, and indeed the plazas, of Jakarta will be confiscated at Heathrow airport. I’m not so much of a cheapskate that I haven’t bought other presents costing more than Rp.7000 per piece, but I’d still be disappointed.

The war on piracy has really taken a ceasefire in Indonesia of course. In fact, battle was never really joined in the first place. Shoppers here can treat themselves to DVDs that flout not just anti-piracy laws but also the country’s pornography laws and censorship decrees (see the whole “Balibo” debacle). Bootlegged software and MP3 download stations are also all online at nearly every one of the city’s malls.

Intellectual property rights and copyright piracy are much discussed issues in our digital age of course and this very newspaper runs a regular column on the subject. There are various counter arguments to the finger wagging of the anti-piracy hawks however, more libertarian ideas that dovetail nicely with the more egalitarian information flows of our newly wired world.

Chin stroking thinkers stretching back to Thomas Jefferson have noticed, for example, that copyright violations involve the theft of information as opposed to something purely physical. It’s not as if someone’s sneaked into the house and stolen my camera (in fact, they did do that last year, the swine). Information is different, it’s not finite, rather it’s infinitely reproducible and thus universal. If, for example, a Jakarta street busker climbs on board a bus with his cardboard and cheese wire guitar and starts caterwauling the latest hit by Dewa, he is technically violating the artist’s intellectual property rights. This crime is redoubled in the unlikely event that he records himself thusly annoying commuters and then tries to sell copies on the street.

But hang on a moment. It’s his guitar, it’s his voice and, crucially, it’s his unkempt head, i.e. the place where the information of the song is stored, along with his date of birth and the names of his 34 siblings. You can’t have sovereignty over information without, so the argument goes, also owning people and their brains. Score one for our busker.

Another argument seeks to oppose the idea of patents. If I work hard and eventually come up with a gadget that can electrically knock out the sound emanating from all mosques within a two kilometer radius (and I have indeed long been working on such a device) do I own the idea and the design? Should I be allowed to patent my anti-sectarian-noise-pollution-o-matic? Conventional wisdom makes a distinction between inventions and discoveries. Patenting genes and biological material (which started in 1907 with the patenting of human adrenaline) is wrong in many people’s view, as such chemicals are the product of millions of years of evolution. My Call To Prayer Tazer ™ was invented and designed by me though. Case closed surely.

Is this distinction tenable though? The difference between inventions and discoveries can be viewed as being rather arbitrary. If it’s a law of nature that copper conducts electricity, for example, is it any less a law of nature that a certain amount of copper, when arranged in a certain configuration with some other added materials makes a battery, and so on? That guy in Java who came up with a Blue Energy device a couple of years back was quite obviously, to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science, a 100lb pile of brown matter stuffed into a 50lb bag. If he’d been right though, as Yogyakarta’s Muhammadiyah University who funded further research into the project rather stupidly thought he was, would he have been entitled to become stinking rich off the whole enterprise? Surely it would have been the underlying laws of physics that made the whole thing possible?

This leads us onto another argument from the anti-piracy hawks, the idea that you need intellectual property rights to give artists, inventors and creative people financial incentives. This is basically the old capitalist anti-taxation argument in a different form, namely that if society was more egalitarian then its talented trailblazers would have no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. However, a counter argument runs that in reality, people draw on other people’s work in an ongoing collaborative continuum. Our new, increasingly open source digital world exemplifies this approach. Just look at Wikipedia or Ubuntu.

Similarly, heading back a few centuries, Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. Why is he so venerated then? Because he took time honoured stories and imbued them with an intellectual and emotional depth that still resonates today. Similarly, Bach and Tchaikovsky both “sampled” passages by other composers and incorporated them into their work. Would these three find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit today?

Our computer world is increasingly throwing arguments such as the above into sharp relief as individuals become online nodes in a mind bogglingly huge network. Will cyber space spur an educational and intellectual revolution that’ll make the introduction of the public library system look like peanuts and put the fear up supposedly democratic governments everywhere? Or will the Facebook and porn brigade win? Keep buying those Rp.7000 DVDs I say.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Down in the Park

About a month ago, I attempted to attend an invite only private screening of the film “Balibo” at the Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFFest) only to find that the showing had been cancelled at the last minute. The film is about the appalling events that took place in East Timor during the 1970s.

Well, there's always a punchline in Indonesia and it came when I found a copy of “Balibo” on sale at my favourite DVD stand in Pasar Festival. "We have many copies Mister". Excellent! I picked up “Balibo” along with "South Park Series 13" and "Big and Bouncy Volume 37". I haven't got round to watching the movie yet though as I've been enjoying terrific South Park episodes such as the Elizabeth Gilbert lampooning, "Eat, Pray, Queef", so I'll have to get back to you on that one.

I also popped into a bookshop last Sunday and picked up a copy of something called, "The Green Map of Jakarta", which commendably strives to guide people around the city's green areas. When I first spied this map in the racks I thought that it must be a joke along the lines of those books called things like, "The Wit and the Wisdom of George W. Bush" which are full of blank pages.

Thankfully, the map didn't turn out to be a large foldout piece of paper with bugger all printed on it and so I snapped up a copy for a mere Rp.15,000. Many of the green spots on the map are pretty tiny by international city park standards however and I’ve probably mowed larger patches of grass with lawnmowers in my time. Let’s give this brave attempt at a green guide the benefit of the doubt though and have a look at some of the more bucolic chill out zones that feature on the map.

Taman Menteng (3.4 Hectares)

I thought that I’d pop down here first to take a look at the new statue of Mr. Obama as a Menteng schoolboy that was unveiled a couple of weeks ago. The park itself is pretty tiny but a not unpleasant little spot. The new statue was the centre of much attention and the subject of many amateur photo shoots. Underneath Obama, there’s a plaque proclaiming, "A young boy named Barry played with his mother Anne in the Menteng area. He grew up to be the 44th President of the United States and a Nobel Prize winner. Barack Obama." The Nobel Prize is a bone of contention and the subject of fierce debate at the moment of course. Previous recipients of the prize include Henry Kissinger, which brings us right back to East Timor (and Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos) and so maybe the prize is a somewhat poisoned chalice. There are also those in Indonesia that are apparently less than happy about the Obama statue itself. Hey ho.

Ragunan Zoo (154 Hectares)

Naturally, the zoo features on the map as it is by far the biggest park in town. It's well worth having a stroll around Ragunan for this reason alone. I certainly wouldn't recommend going for the animals at any rate which are mainly rather sad and seem to have stress-related alopecia. There is also a high, "Hello Mr." factor here and if you are a pale face visiting on a busy weekend you may start to wonder which side of the cages' bars you are on.

Taman Medan Merdeka (80 hectares)

We all know the park that Monas sits in. Monas itself is basically an enormous sundial with an ice cream cone on top. The surrounding park is tidy but rather sterile and there aren't many trees to add a bit of pubic topiary to Sukarno's impressive column. To be fair however, you have less chance of being murdered or raped here than if you were strolling round a park in New York or somewhere like that.

Taman Suropati (13.5 Hectares)

This popular Menteng hang out is supposedly used for, "Light sport". Ultimately however it’s not much bigger than a traffic island. In fact, it is a traffic island as the park basically sits in the centre of a large roundabout. A brief mention should go here to Jakarta’s soon to be newest and smallest ever park. Down at the Semanggi cloverleaf, the gas stations are in the process of being dismantled as the area is turned "green" (how heavy can you get those inverted commas Mr. Editor?). So head down and breathe in those fumes. Ahhhh!

Senayan (279 Hectares)

The Senayan complex is certainly large on paper although it's hardly a park. There are a few green sports fields but the rest is taken up with concrete stadiums, the Jakarta Convention Centre, ever encroaching shopping malls and parking space for about 9 trillion cars. Not my idea of a fun picnic spot.

Kota Tua (Zero Hectares by 2040)

Jakarta's old town is of great historical and architectural interest of course, although it would hardly count as a green area of environmental interest, so I'm not sure exactly how it made it on to my map. In fact, the area more closely resembles some slow motion coastal/urban ecological disaster in the making. Give it 50 years though and the submerged Art Deco buildings will make superbly cinematic artificial reefs. Then the area will finally be green.

So here's to the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Let's hope that we don't blow it as good planets are hard to find. Let's pray that that irascible old goat Kurt Vonnegut wasn't being characteristically prophetic when he said, "We could have saved the earth but we were two damned cheap." He’d obviously visited Jakarta.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Can't Stand Losing You

"Why kill yourself? Life will do that for you,” somebody was once quoted as saying. Well quite, however this message seems to have eluded a number of Jakarta's citizens in recent weeks. Three individuals, to be specific, have felt compelled to take swan dives off the upper floors of shopping malls. Senayan City, Grand Indonesia and Mangga Dua Square have all been afflicted by the desire of certain customers to successfully throw a seven over the past couple of weeks. One particularly callous so-called Plaza public relations employee was even prompted to remark to the press that one of the jumpers was, "Seeking attention," and should have opted for a, "Bridge, flyover or other tall building," to commit his final act on this planet.

Why indeed did these tormented souls choose shopping plazas as their arenas of death? Possibly, the attention argument has some truth to it although people wanting to make a cry for help don't generally go down the high diving suicide route, preferring a survivable overdose and a trip to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped instead. It's all most perplexing.

Suicide is a strange issue philosophically of course. If you are a religious person, you probably view the act as a violation of divine laws, as if those wishing to kill themselves are cocking a snook at God by saying, "You can't fire me, I quit." Even if you're not much of a believer then you probably see suicide as a tragic and terrible act to be opposed at every opportunity and indeed people should surely be encouraged to reach out for help and comfort when they reach their emotional and depressive nadirs.

It has been argued by some thinkers though that, ultimately, suicide is a civil right. It is, as an act that harms nobody else, the final rung on the ladder of self determination and self ownership. We have birth control, so why not death control? Nietzsche once wrote that, "There is a certain right by which we may deprive a man of life but none by which we may deprive him of death."

Now some of you may be feeling your hackles rising as you read this libertarian argument and indeed society in general does rather reflect your views. Potential and failed suicide cases are often effectively criminalized by being locked up on psychiatric wards and otherwise denied their rights to this final act of self determination. They are dubbed, "mentally ill," a designation, given our still very limited scientific understanding of the workings of the human brain, which is ultimately more a value judgement than a description of a real pathology. Such judgements are made by those who refuse to accept the beliefs of others because they differ from their own and who seek to deny the legitimacy of depression and therefore what its sufferers think about our world.

Now I don't want to be interpreted as encouraging suicide here, rather as encouraging people to take responsibility for their own actions. Increasingly though, the Big Brother/Brave New World fusion than comprises our modern consumer Zeitgeist sees people deprived of options and herded like medicated cattle around endless shopping malls and retail parks. Robots with bank accounts whose names have been replaced with pin numbers shuffling through a world in which all of their desires have been created for them in the name of business.

And so we return to our Jakarta jumpers. Maybe these guys felt that mall suicide was the only way to absent themselves from, and protest against, society’s Prozac popping, perma-happy, Oprah Winfrey watching facade of relentless optimism and compulsory positivity. Maybe depression is a way to dissent from the only ideology left, the one that says you can buy happiness. Perhaps it's a militant refusal to join in with all of this dentally whitened smiling.

Well, I took myself down to the mall nearest my office this week to see just how down I could get and how appealing those upper floors railings would seem. I won't tell you which mall it was lest some hawkeyed PR manager tries to sue me for not experiencing feelings of total fulfillment on plaza property. Alas, the new ATMs zone hadn’t been fully plumbed in yet and so I couldn't spend my way to a smile. The cake shop proved to be quite appealing on a primal level and the book store undoubtedly had a few good tomes in it (alongside all of the usual racks of vacuous self help ‘literature’).

Other shops though, such as the one selling cutesy plastic tat for adolescent females or the grossly overpriced furniture store ushered in the old black dog of depression and the beast was soon yipping around my ankles. In fact, aside from the enormous supermarket in the mall’s basement, it would be fair to say that little on offer could really be considered essential for survival, or even really for pleasure or entertainment. I wound up slowly past the bright shop fronts and eventually came to the escapist Mecca of the cinema on the top floor. Perhaps life is like a movie. If you've sat through half of it and it's rubbish, who would blame you for walking out early?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thy Kingston Come, Thy Wimbledon...

This week, I thought that I'd go and see what all the fuss is about and took myself down to Planet Hollywood to watch “2012”. What better venue could there be in which to take in a Hollywood movie about planetary destruction? “2012” has caused much controversy here and Indonesian clerics have urged that the film be banned as only God himself knows when the end of the world will come.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that these are self-proclaimed guardians of public morals (the MUI or Indonesian Council of Ulema is not an organization that anyone votes for), they clearly haven't learned the lesson that such adverse publicity only makes people want to go and see films such as "2012" even more.

The blasphemy argument is an interesting one however. This week, the new Indonesian Minister for Communications and Information, Tiffatul Sembiring, claimed that the recent string of disasters which have befallen the country were due to the general population’s, "Moral decadence". Appropriate as it may be for a Minister of Communication and Information to have a direct hotline to the big man upstairs, it's interesting that those who decree it blasphemous to claim to know the mind of God seem to be having a jolly old time making exactly the same claims themselves.

What we are essentially getting here is the age old sectarian refrain: you were created sick, humankind, now cure yourself. Well, I for one will not be spoken to and told what to do in this way, and so a trip to the flicks it was.

Leaving aside the film's bogus scientific pretext and hokey family drama, "2012" does feature pretty much the best special effects that I've ever seen. This is pure hyper reality. One particular scene, in which the movie's main protagonists fly a plane through a Los Angeles that is collapsing around them and sliding into California Bay, is quite simply jaw dropping on the big screen. The real end of the world would surely be an anti-climax after this. The moving image is now more real than real.

There is however another movie, admittedly slightly lighter on the pyrotechnics, showing at the moment that is also trying to attract the seasonal box-office crowds. It's the umpteenth remake of Charles Dickens's classic "A Christmas Carol" and it also makes predictions about the future. In fact the story's main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. I haven't heard any objections being raised by the thought police on this movie yet although popular Indonesian TV shows that feature ghosts have received a fair amount of flak in recent years from the clerics.

"A Christmas Carol" is a tale of personal redemption of course. Scrooge isn't commanded to be good by the ghosts on pain of eternal suffering. Instead, the spirits reveal Scrooge’s avarice and coldness to him as they are reflected in the lives of others. Eventually his redemption and rebirth come from within, despite the seasonally religious theme, make of that what you will.

I wonder what a ghost of Idul Adha future would have to show Indonesia's elites, who seem to so totally embody the Scrooge ethos, if they too were whisked forward to a vision of the country in 50 years time. Our spirit may show these privileged few a country completely denuded of forests. A land whose felled trees have released the locked in peat carbon of millennia into the atmosphere at a rate of a billion tons per year (emissions equivalent to the whole of Germany's output).

Our putative ghost would reveal the consequences of the runaway greenhouse effect that this venal deforestation has contributed to. He may also show our leaders a barely educated population struggling for resources with many on the edge of starvation and dying of preventable diseases. He would also show the elites their children, themselves now the country’s leaders, circling the wagons and facing down the rabble with guns.

Our ghost of Idul Adha future will expose a country racked with conflicts and all but broken up. And Jakarta itself will show itself as one of the world's most utterly hopeless and completely failed mega-cities. In fact, this vision may end up looking pretty much like "2012" itself. It would be "A Christmas Carol" shot through with a hallucination of the Apocalypse with squadrons of helicopters buzzing the ruins of the Scrooge Empire. Actually, if any local film directors are interested…

Science remains our best method of seeing into the future and, by definition in fact, has to make predictions. It also has the saving grace and humility to admit that it's not perfect. We can all look forward to the certain death of our planet, however, with complete confidence. A time will come when our dying sun will expand into a red giant and engulf the Earth in fire. Don’t cancel your Globe subscription just yet though as you’ll have to stick around for another five billion years, as opposed to just three, in order to enjoy this cosmic barbecue. "Bah, Humbug" as Scrooge would say. Still, I'm sure that the movie will be better than the real thing anyway.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

We Shall Overco-o-ome

The wheels seem to have well and truly fallen off the Indonesian democracy wagon of late since the various Machiavellian machinations of the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) saga have come to light. The president has depressingly resisted standing full square behind the KPK and its anti-sleaze drive, which was seemingly the main reason that people voted for him in droves earlier this year. And so the country's anti-corruption efforts, after gaining some traction over the past few years, look set to hit the buffers.

Thankfully though, there are those willing to take to the streets in an attempt to once again put the venal, money grubbing elites on the back foot. I read recently that a group of students had pitched their tents outside the KPK's office in a show of support, demonstrating that campus activism is still alive and kicking here. Then it occurred to me: I have a tent and enjoy the occasional camping trip in the wilds of West Java, why don't I pack up my troubles in my old sleeping bag and head down to the KPK building for an evening enjoying the natural splendor of Jl. Rasuna Said?

Long-term, tent-based protests have quite a history in my country (the UK). During the 1980s, the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common was established to protest the nuclear weapons sited there and remained for years. More recently, in 2001, anti-Iraq war activist Brian Haw pitched his tent in Parliament Square in London and has remained there ever since. There is also now a permanent Camp for Climate Action which has been set up outside the perimeter fence of London's Heathrow airport.

There would seem to be something about camping that political activists find particularly enticing. It's the old slogan, "We shall not be moved," manifested in even more concrete terms I guess: “We shall not be moved and further more we’ll be cooking up baked beans over small gas stoves here in a couple more hours if you fancy a quick bite."

And so it was that I turned up unannounced at the KPK office last Monday evening and found a spare bit of the miniscule grass verge at the front on which to pitch my tent. The various undergraduates who were sitting outside the front of their tents, strumming guitars without their full quota of strings and passing the night away merrily told me that they came from many far-flung universities, including institutions in Aceh and Makassar, whilst others were from more local Islamic universities such as UNISMA in Bekasi. All however, are members of the LMND (Liga Mahasiswa National untuk Democracy - the National Student League for Democracy). They informed me that they planned to remain under canvas for a hundred days, well into next February.

I learned that the police leave them well alone and that the KPK staff has even run an extension cable out of the front of the building to allow them to recharge their mobile phones and run a TV on which they can watch SBY equivocate and prevaricate every evening. In fact, what with Facebook and social networking, Indonesian campus activism is extremely well coordinated these days.

Alas however, being from Muslim strongholds such as Aceh and Makassar, they didn't have any booze on them with which to make my evening under canvas on Jl. Rasuna Said more bearable. I did ask one of the Acehnese students what he thought about recent moves towards full on sharia law in his home province. He told me that if the people wanted it then it was democracy and fine. I didn't push him although I reckon you could drive a Metro Mini bus through the holes in this specious argument.

After a good chat, I eventually turned in for the night and tried to contend with the heavy goods vehicles roaring past my ear every two seconds. Some of the students were still awake however and sloped off down the road in order to spray paint political slogans on some of Kuningan's abandoned monorail pillars, might as well put them to some use ay?

Inside my tent, running dog mosquitoes were out in force while outside a counter revolutionary cat was continually trying to gain entry. Perhaps I should have taken the camping test first to see if I qualified for the KPK experience, namely take a camping torch and shine into one ear, if a beam emerges from the other ear, you're good to go.

In fact it was the most unpleasant night under canvas that I think I've ever spent. Call me a yellow belly but, unable to sleep, I packed my things at around 4:30 a.m., before the rush hour, and shuffled off home to the comfort of my boudoir. I have to take my hat off to the obdurate, guitar strumming defenders of democracy down in Kuningan. It's going to be a long haul until February with plenty of rain to contend with. If you’re passing the KPK building then maybe you'd like to consider dropping them off a few groceries (minus Bintangs and condoms of course). Stand firm comrades!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eyes, Dark Grey Lenses Frightened of the Sun

Thankfully, last Saturday, the weather held off as I headed up to Ancol in order to attend the Surya Slims Playground Festival. The whole shebang luckily didn't dissolve into the Sidoarjo style mud bath that many European and North American music festivals end up becoming. Surya Slims isn't in fact a supergroup comprising of Fatboy Slim and Chris Rea's sister Sue, but a local brand of cigarette. We were all correspondingly presented with a packet of said brand upon entry to the festival, something I'd find it hard to imagine happening at a Western gig.

It certainly wasn't Woodstock up at Ancol last Saturday in fact and those in attendance were basically polite middle-class kids after a bit of weekend escapism from Jakarta's unremitting grind. Mind you, the hippies at the original Woodstock ultimately proved to be more Ivy League hedonists than revolutionaries and have subsequently proved as much by taking the reins of the capitalist world. I guess what I mean to say is that the event wasn’t an orgy of free love and brain altering chemicals.

How do I know this? Well I've long noticed a kind of dance floor diffidence in Indonesia, a seeming reluctance to really let go and be physically possessed by those voodoo popular music rhythms. Ironic perhaps for a land known historically for its dance culture.

Certainly, my friends, used to the enthusiastic free for all of Western festivals, noticed a strange lack of audience movement. Much of Indonesia's popular music has long struck me as whiter than white. Whether it's bland, whining, anemic three chord rock bands, soppy ballads pierced by soft metal guitar solos or local clubs largely opting for the whitest, most funkless and frigid forms of West European techno, there doesn't seem to be enough Africa, African America or Jamaica in it for me. However I don't want to go up in a balloon over is this as there have been more interesting signs of musical life in the country in recent years, what with the spread of file downloading and new technologies.

Anyway, back to the matter in hand, after a quick Red Bull and vodka (a purely functional necessity you understand) we headed over to watch the first big act of the night, Peter Hook. Peter (or Hooky as he is known), was the bassist for the seminal Mancunian band Joy Division before lead singer Ian Curtis decided to fully live up to the existential terror of the band's lyrics and killed himself. The group then became New Order and churned out a slew of perfect, angst ridden, sequencer driven pop records in the 80s and early 90s.

Hooky has now left the band however his DJ set was liberally peppered with tracks from the old back catalogue and thus the icy, metronomic sturm und drang of tracks like Joy Division's "Transmission" and New Order's "Blue Monday" were surreally blasted into the humid, tropical beach air of Ancol. Fair brought a tear of nostalgia to my eye it did.

Next up, over on stage two, the ambient techno of Cafe del Mar favourites Chicane was in full flow. As with a number of other electronic acts before them, Chicane had drafted in a live singer, bass player and drummer in order to negate the essentially faceless nature of modern dance music and render it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Thus, alas, the groups set sounded more like top forty fodder than the inhuman, machine age transcendence that is club music’s aesthetic forte.

Following this, it was a return to classic rock as the mega selling Franz Ferdinand took to the main stage. FF look the part for sure, four Scottish milquetoasts in sharp threads, sporting even sharper fringes. They also know how to put together a set of driving, spiky rock though. I could clearly discern the influence of late 70s new wave acts such as Gang of Four, Wire and even early Talking Heads in Franz Ferdinand’s oeuvre but I guess most of the audience here tonight weren't even born when those guys were around (in fact, I was only about seven years old at the time myself, I'm not in my dotage yet I'll have you know).

The final word of the evening went to the man they call, Sasha, perhaps the UK's most iconic superstar DJ and often dubbed 'God' by many enthusiastic clubbers. Known for his 10 hour sets that take thrill seeking ravers on spaced out journeys to the edge of the cosmos and back, Sasha was here restricted to a couple of hours of tranced out, ambrosial digi-bliss. The crowd swayed, deep in their own musical universes (and possibly psychically orbiting a tremendous altitude due to the effects of various non-prescription medicines).

At around 3am, the effect of having imbibed a skinful of Red Bull and vodka was beginning to take its toll and I began to feel the heavy hand of an imaginary bouncer on my collar, ready to boot me back through the doors of perception into the real world. It was time to take my still untouched packet of Surya Slims and head for the exit. I soon found myself back in the centre of town. Those Jakarta weekends ay? The city that never sleeps, which is presumably why it looks so bloody awful the next morning.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Goodbye Blackberry Way

As Sir Walter Scott once said, "What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." And so the KPK/National Police/Parliamentary Smackdown continues apace and its Machiavellian twists and intrigues are starting to become more than a little confusing, for me at least. I think I need a break from reading about the whole 3 ring circus to be honest. Perhaps, along with batik, endemic corruption should be recognized by UNESCO as a unique part of Indonesia's, "Intangible cultural heritage."

The KPK saga has certainly been a bit of a reality check. From some international media reports you'd think that the country had transformed itself into some kind of post-Fordist, techno-capitalist paradise over the last five years. Sure, there was a peaceful election but the Indonesia I stick my head out of my front door into seems pretty much the same as ever. Except in one respect though: namely that everyone from 'ojeg' drivers to fried rice sellers to maids are all pumping some kind of handheld device as if their very lives depended on them (which perhaps they do, as calling or texting a regular 'ojeg' driver to come and pick them up is becoming an increasingly common occurrence amongst acquaintances of mine).

This week, this paper reported that shoppers queued for hours to get their hands on the latest Nexian mobile phone. The item in question costs only Rp.599,000 and allows one to use Facebook. Most importantly however, as many of the shoppers confessed, the thing looks almost exactly like a Blackberry. The Blackberry is currently the de rigueur item of urbane urban sophistication of course and has elevated techno-fetishism to a new level in Indonesia. Between January and June of this year, mobile advert requests on Blackberry telephones increased by a whopping 842%.

Post-modern, post-Marxist critiques of capitalism have tried to get a handle on such consumer lust and have theorized that there are four main ways in which an object obtains value. The first is its functional value, its instrumental purpose. A pen, for example, writes, or a Blackberry can be used to surf the Internet or call someone up. The second is the object’s exchange or economic value. One Blackberry may be worth three imitation Chinese models, or the salary earned by three months of work, for example.

The third value making process is an object's symbolic value. This is the value that the subject assigns to an object in relation to another subject. For example, a diamond ring may be a symbol of publicly declared marital love. Similarly, a Blackberry may symbolize a person's rite of passage into the tech-savvy, urban elite. The last value is the sign value of an object, namely its value within a system of objects. A particular phone or mobile device may, whilst having no functional benefits, signify prestige relative to another mobile phone and may also suggest particular social value such as taste, class and refinement.

The first two values here, it is argued, are constantly and increasingly disrupted by the third and fourth. The consequences of this are that advertising and public relations have become huge worldwide "industries", ones that increasingly subsume even politics and ideologies themselves.

I myself am not always able to resist such techno-consumerist seductions, despite hating our new Blackberry republic with a vengeance (mainly because the thing's buttons are too damned small for my sausage like digits to cope with). I was thus powerless to prevent myself from popping along to the JCC last weekend to check out the latest technology trade fair.

Inside, the Hewlett-Packards and Sonys of this world mixed with cheaper Sino-Asian silicon, and all were lovingly presented by some very comely sales girls. Blackberry knickknacks were all over the place, of course, however the new Windows 7 operating system was also attracting a lot of attention. The various different versions of Microsoft’s new baby were all going for around the Rp.1,000,000 mark. A lot cheaper than in the West for sure but, on the other hand, considerably more expensive than buying a pirated version for Rp.50,000 from Ambassador Mall, or plumping for the increasingly popular open source option (Ubuntu 9.10 has just been released to much geek fanfare and rustling of anoraks).

Local Internet dongles (Telkomsel, Speed Up, Smart, XL Connect) were all on sale and all offering speeds of, "Up to 3.1 Mbs". I should imagine that "Up to" are the operative words here. Also, a mini netbook computer can now be had for around Rp.3,500,000, which is cheaper than a decent Blackberry.

I resisted splashing out on my real objects of techno-lust (a fancy midi keyboard and a pair of extremely sexy Sennheiser headphones) and instead made a more modest purchase. I found one of those Micro-SD cards, the ones that are about the size of a pinky nail for putting in mobile phones, that had a whopping 16Gb capacity. When I first bought one of these minute slivers of memory about five or six years ago it only had 128Mb to play with. That's a storage increase of 125 times. Amazing. If only my wetware noggin could keep up with all of this.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Play for Today

This week, I thought that I'd indulge the big kid in me and check out a couple of options that frustrated parents can employ in order to shut their offspring up for a few hours and get a bit of peace. Now I don't, to my knowledge at least, have any children myself as I am always scrupulous about taking precautions. In fact, I usually don a full beekeeper's outfit during my romantic dalliances. However, there is no law to say that you have to have kids in order to enjoy a bit of playtime and so I scuttled down to the Waterbom Park in Pantai Indah Kapuk as I had a complimentary ticket for its second anniversary day. I then relived my childhood with an afternoon of splashing about and sliding.

Pantai Indah Kapuk itself is a pleasant suburban area up by the coast, about halfway down the airport toll road. Apparently, PIK has been known to flood like a bitch in the rainy season however during my visit, the green fields and open spaces proved a welcome relief from downtown Jakarta. Inside, Waterbom was packed with nuclear families all out for a few snatched hours of fun before their WiFi brained sprogs threw up in the SUV on the way back into town.

The slides proved to be great fun and include one that shoots those brave enough to take up the challenge, down into a splash pool at, allegedly, 70 km per hour. Once was enough for me on this particular thrill ride and I’m man enough to admit to being utterly terrified on my rapid descent. Indeed, some of the more portly sliders also made me fear for the structural integrity of the slide itself. Some of these kids will never make the Olympic Games at this rate I fear, unless fried chicken eating is introduced as a new event.

Waterbom also features a mini rafting river which transports one under waterfalls on an inflatable tube. This was absolutely jammed with punters of all ages during my visit. Probably it would have been better if I had donned one of the natty full body 'burkinis' that some of the more devout ladies were wearing in order to protect my peachy skin, as I suspected that the junior urine content of the fluid sloshing around in said attraction was pushing 50%.

It was all good fun though and after a thorough shower I headed back into town for a spot of go-karting down at Speedy Karting, which you'll find on Jalan Gatot Subroto opposite the Hero near Pancoran. Here, budding Jenson Buttons can enjoy a five minute race in a motorized shopping trolley, navigating a track marked out by used car tires. Now this was actually enormous fun and sure beats crawling through the city's traffic jams. All of your thwarted pedal to the metal aspirations can be thrillingly indulged down at Speedy. A five minute race will set you back Rp.55,000 and you even get to take your racing balaclava and gloves home with you. A nice little bonus if you're the sort of person who enjoys wearing a balaclava and gloves about the house.

Alas, many of the city's poorer kids don't have the necessary folding stuff at their disposal to be able to afford such bourgeois pleasures as water sliding and karting. Sadly, what with Jakarta's woeful lack of parks and green spaces, the best that my local urchins seem to be able to get up to is a quick kickabout in the street. This entails them having to stop their game every 30 seconds as yet another car comes past. Rapping on my windscreen and clapping arhythmically comes a close second as the hobby of choice. Rp.1000 kites are also popular and perhaps, at some unconscious, symbolic level, seductively embody the idea of escape and slipping the bounds of the city's surly, sweltering gravity.

The lack of parks in the city is indeed a sad thing as I believe it's very important for kids to have somewhere to go where they can climb trees, set fire to things, sniff adhesives from plastic bags and get invited to see puppies by strange men. All kids need their play.

According to the noted play theorist, Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is the root and foundation of creativity in the arts and sciences. Writing, painting, composing, inventing... all creative acts are forms of play and thus adequate freedom to play and explore as a child is vital for person’s future creative development.

Play is also explicitly recognized in article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 29th, 1989. The convention states that:

"Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."

So there you have it. Refuse to give the little horrors their ball back and you could find yourself in The Hague with Radovan Karadzic.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nocturnal Emissions

Last week's interesting collection of features in your soaraway Globe focusing on Jakarta's traffic Hades got me in the mood for some serious motoring. I'm actually one of those green and sweaty Bike2Work loons and am usually to be found propelling myself on my trusty 18 speed alloy steed down the Busway lane to my office every morning. It's a journey of a mere 15 minutes and involves a lot of craning my neck around in order to ensure that I’m not squashed as flat as a ‘martabak’ pancake by a runaway TransJakarta behemoth.

More recently however, I've purchased a cheap, secondhand crate in order to cruise around town of an evening (and also to get the hell out of it of a weekend). I don't use the car on weekdays however, and this is not so much for any ostensibly green reasons as the fact that the experience gets me so pent-up that I almost end up slitting my wrists in order to lower my blood pressure. I've also, in some of my darker traffic jam moments here, considered pulling over to the side of the road and opening all of my car windows. A few deep breaths and I'd no doubt find myself farming harps before 10 minutes were up.

However, all of this urban anomie hasn't yet deterred me from the night-time pleasures of my vintage wheels and so I thought that I'd try and get hold of a compulsory emissions test sticker for the old girl. All vehicles in town are apparently required to display such a sticker by the end of this year. However, my expectations of actually being able to get hold of one of these elusive clean bills of automotive health were not high. Braver men than me have already tried and failed, if the newspaper reports are to be believed.

According to one story I read, citywide, a mere 17 garages have ordered a massive total of 3000 such emissions stickers to date, making the things as rare as hen's teeth. As per usual, where the city administration is concerned, it seems that the wheel is still spinning but the hamster has long since died. Determined to be upbeat though, I set off in order to check out the sticker situation down on the streets. After all, my office in Mampang is surrounded by literally dozens of garages, surely one would be able to give my exhaust pipe damn good fondling.

In the event however, my local mechanics proved to be about as helpful as a windscreen wiper on a cow's backside. Of the six garages I tried (including an official Honda Astra service centre) none had got the stickers. One of them did have an emissions testing machine (although no stickers) in fact, however the appliance in question appeared to be even older than my car. In the event, several hefty wallops from the grease monkey in charge couldn't really get the thing working properly. And so I remain sadly sticker-less.

Maybe I can get some carbon credits to offset my motor’s nocturnal emissions. You know, pay some Javanese farmers to plant a few more corn cobs than normal or something. Of course, if the city's vehicles emissions regulation was strictly enforced, then the only buses left on the road would be on the Busway itself, which possibly wouldn't be of tremendous help to the commuting public in the short term.

I refused to be disconsolate however and was determined to bag some kind of motoring story. I therefore went in search of one of those car jockeys that render the city's three-in-one car policy, currently enforced during rush hours on Jakarta’s main thoroughfares, completely toothless. And so it transpired that I picked up a mother and her child at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman and we zoomed off northwards like a snail on Largactil.

My jockey told me that she could make up to five trips per day with the child, although she had to dodge both public order officials and other gangs of car jockeys who can sometimes turn nasty. Alas, she also told me that her husband had left her. I didn't offer to marry her and adopt the boy I'm ashamed to say although, in my defense, she did have the kind of dental work that convinced me she could eat a watermelon through a picket fence.

I ended up paying her Rp.20,000 at the other end of the line (I’m a soft touch) and dropped the pair of them off on Jl. Wahid Hasyim. I then parked up and went for a beer...erm...I mean a Coke.

And so the three-in-one farce continues. Apparently the government wants to introduce a more effective ERP (electronic road pricing) system like they have in Singapore. Alas however, according to this very newspaper, a "Disagreement about whether the Jakarta Government or the Ministry of Finance would collect the fees has helped halt implementation". Ho ho! Yes, I'll bet it has. Perhaps it's just as well that the money goes to the jockeys instead. Several cokes later I drove home alone. Sad really.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sheikhin' Stevens

Well, I didn't manage to do anything particularly fun last weekend, unless you count going to the lavatory 20 times within the space of 48 hours time well spent. And so, pending verification from the Guinness Book of Records for my claim to have suffered the most rapid and total dehydration ever experienced by human being, I’d best think of something else to write about.

Luckily, something did happen just over a week ago that also got the old bowels rumbling. For the second time in two months, I found myself running frantically down flights of stairs and into the street, whilst the building I was in wobbled ominously around me. Many of you will have had similar experiences I am sure and will have found yourselves standing out on the pavement looking pointlessly up at the building that you just exited, wondering what would happen if a really big earthquake hit the capital.

Presumably, such a quake would make Padang look like a tea party in comparison. In fact, I was sent a warning on my office’s internal messaging system this week telling me to avoid buildings this Saturday as an earthquake registering 8.5 on the Richter scale would hit Jakarta on that day (today!). How this scaremonger had managed to achieve a feat that has eluded every geologist and seismologist in the world, namely the ability to predict both the time and place of earthquakes, wasn't made clear in the message.

At least our soothsayer hadn’t attempted to attach any theological significance to his prediction though, as has been the case in the wake of the Padang disaster. Various clerics have tried to match up the times of the tremors with passages in the Koran and were amazed to find verses of fire and brimstone corresponding to the hour and minute of the tectonic rumblings in question. Just possibly, if I chose a passage out of a holy book purely at random, then I would be quite likely to find similar descriptions of death and destruction however I thought that I would rise to the challenge that this latest Jakarta tremor has presented me with.

My watch registered 4.55pm when the tremblor struck and so, being from a Judaeo-Christian lineage, I thought that I'd try and match this time up with something from the Bible. A quick Google search (as I seem to have mislaid my own Bible) threw up the Book of Ezra, chapter 4, verse 55: "and likewise, the charges of the Levites, to be given them until the day that the house were finished and Jerusalem builded." It works! Well kind of. Houses being finished? There you go. It's all been preordained in the Scriptures.

Science, by contrast, admits to its limitations regarding the issue of earthquake prediction. In fact, we know far more about the centre of the Sun, a relatively simple system of lighter elements, than we do about what's under our feet. For well understood fault lines, seismic hazard assessment maps can estimate the probability that an earthquake of a given magnitude will affect a given location over a certain number of years, and that's about it. In terms of early warning systems, a few seconds is the most you're going to be able to get before major shaking arrives to lay waste to your place of residence.

On the other hand though, throughout history, observations of unusual animal behavior observed before earthquakes have been recorded by people from almost all civilizations. Some animals are indeed much more sensitive than human beings in terms of being able to detect vibrations or ultrasonic waves, although extensive research hasn't produced a lot of strong data on their powers of prediction.

Apparently, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a few minutes before the killer Asian Tsunami of December 2004, a herd of 500 blackbucks rushed away from coastal areas to the safety of a nearby hilltop. Alas though, the best you can probably hope for is that your dog starts howling about five seconds before your roof collapses on your head.

Well there you have it then, unless you're going to start living and working in a tent out in the street, then I'd forget about the big one if I were you and file it away at the back of your mind where it can haunt your dreams along with global warming, asteroid impacts and SARS. Indeed, in my more cynical moments, I find the prospect of Jakarta being utterly razed to the ground and laid waste to be quite an appealing one. Upended Busway buses falling into huge yawning chasms in the streets, deadly dull shopping malls being rent asunder, parliament coming crashing down on the heads of sleeping politicians, the entire city collapsing into Jakarta Bay leaving space for a rebirth, it would make for a great movie at the very least. They should get Miyabi in to play the plucky, mini-skirted seismologist whose warnings aren't heeded. I can see it now, Jakarta, West of Krakatau. It would be Karakatau, East of Java remade for the Blackberry generation and feature plenty of wobbling cleavage when the tremor strikes.

So it’s now Saturday. How are we doing for time? Did the 8.5 level big one materialize or not? Or do we live to fight another day?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Is It Rising, Son?

I've written much, of late, about the great Indonesia - Malaysia scrap. At the end of the day, maybe these nations are, in Shaw’s famous formulation of the US/UK divide, two countries separated by a common language. Last weekend however, I found myself in the midst of an altogether rosier bilateral relationship when I went for an afternoon stroll around the base of Southeast Asia's most prominent Freudian symbol, namely Monas, to the 2009 Jak-Japan Matsuri Festival, which was being held in the grounds of the park.

I was presented with a fetching plastic hand fan upon buying an entry ticket and, after fanning my lightly perspiring brow for a few moments, headed inside for a few cheap Land of the Rising Sun thrills. There were stalls a plenty to check out as well as entertainment on stage and various Japan themed costumes on show. A bunting of Japanese and Indonesian flags had been hung everywhere and, all in all, one could safely conclude that relations between the two countries had come a long way since Japan's World War II annexation of the Archipelago.

The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1958 and most recently established a bilateral free trade pact in July of last year. In fact, Japan has more investment tied up in Indonesia than in any other Southeast Asian country and Tokyo is particularly keen on accessing Indonesia's natural resources. Indonesia is currently Japan's largest supplier of liquefied natural gas, for example. Indonesia has also reciprocated by sending a whole load of care workers and nurses over to Japan in order to bed bath the country’s ageing population. And who wouldn't want to be cared for by a Javanese maiden in their dotage?

Japan's influence over Indonesia is indeed substantial, as the festival reflected. Years ago, I was once strolling along the road with my local girlfriend of the time when she suddenly remarked, "You know, I just thought, all these cars driving past are Japanese aren’t they? And in my house, my television, my fridge, my air-conditioner, my CD player, all Japanese, none of them were made in Indonesia and yet we use them."
"Erm... yes that's right," I ventured cautiously, not wishing to niggle any nationalist nerves or provoke any prickly pride (or indeed inflame any inferiority complexes). And it is indeed true that the post-World War II phenomenon that is Japan does pretty much sit at the opposite end of the Asian technological and industrial spectrum from Indonesia.

Mind you, my own country, England dear England, once the crucible of the industrial revolution, now sports a rapidly atrophying industrial and manufacturing base. These days, back in the perfidious Albion, those dark satanic mills have been replaced by the perceived sexiness of the service sector: financial schemes that you need a degree in mathematics to understand and the infinite, and yet ultimately insubstantial, Moebius strip of information technology.

Back at the Matsuri Festival, the Yamahas and Panasonics of this world were out in force, but so were smaller Japanese companies selling everything from boilers to tinned seafood. The snacks on sale were also as Japanese as they come. Octopus balls anyone? Presumably they have eight each.

A few Indonesian youngsters dressed up in that effete, androgynous, heavily made up Japanese teenage style were also wandering around, reflecting the influence that Japanese pop culture has also had on its Asian neighbours.

The real Indonesian - Japanese story of the hour though was conspicuous by its absence down at the Matsuri. I asked some of the DVD vendors at the festival whether they had anything starring Maria Ozawa AKA Miyabi but alas, to my great chagrin, the cupboard was bare and so I was left with only the Panasonic AC units and the boilers to admire which, fascinating as they were, lacked that human interest element that I was looking for. Having looked Miss Ozawa up on the Internet, I can testify that she certainly isn't a boiler.

Miyabi, a Japanese porn starlet, has been cast to appear (fully clothed I might add) in an Indonesian production entitled Menculik Miyabi (Kidnapping Miyabi) to predictable fundamentalist uproar. In fact, the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) had this week even threatened to accost the poor wee lamb at the airport, which may have led to her recent decision (Wednesday’s paper) not to come at all. Damn shame.

And in other news from the misogyny desk this week, I note that newly crowned Miss Indonesia, Qory Sandioriva, has also received many warm messages of support from her local clerics in Aceh. The great evil beast of female sexuality strikes again it would seem. Personally, I doubt that the fundamentalists would know what to do with one virgin let alone 72. And of course, they are all most likely virgins themselves. It's that old psychic hydraulic system striking again: push down and repress male sexuality and it bursts out with renewed vigor elsewhere, twisted into new misanthropic shapes and religious foment.

As for myself back at the Matsuri, I was on my eighth octopus ball by this time and starting to feel a little nauseous. Miyabi-less and snowed under by plasma TV promotional materials, I headed for the exit feeling like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Domo Arigato and see you all next week.