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.