Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm the Operator with My Pocket Calculator

Last week, I finally took the bull by the horns and lugged my battered desktop PC along to Ratu Plaza for a major upgrade. It's been about five years since I last attempted such a foolhardy act and in the meantime my once proud machine has become technically obsolete, left in the dust as our accelerating world of high-tech gizmos streaks off into the sunset.

I selected a new fancy pants  Intel Core 2 Quad processor and a new motherboard plus 4Gb of RAM, a 1 Terrabyte hard drive and a sexy new casing. I kept my old monitor, soundcard, keyboard, mouse, DVD burner and Internet WiFi dongle. The nice man in the shop slotted all of these old and new bits together within about half an hour and I then popped a few shops along to buy an illegal version of the new Windows 7 operating system.

The government and police pay lip service to stamping out the pirated software industry here of course but they are not trying very hard if you ask me. It's not as if these discs are just being sold out of suitcases on street corners by guys ready to run away at the first sign of trouble. I mean there are entire shops in well-known plazas full of racks of thousands of discs which have all dedicated their efforts towards making Bill Gates' nerdy spectacles steam up with incandescent fury. Old Bill got his revenge on me later though, oh yes.

And so I picked up a Windows 7 disc and headed home to test drive the new machine. I spurned a friend’s advice to try Ubuntu, the free operating system based on Linux, as I don't possess an anorak and have actually kissed a girl before (a real one too, not just a guy in a dress or something). So I decided to stick with good old corporate, monopolistic Microsoft.

At home however, events took an all too predictable turn and served to remind me exactly why I had resisted upgrading my machine for so long. The various hardware and software driver issues sent my blood pressure soaring through the roof as I spent hours and hours and hours searching for new drivers that Windows 7 would actually support and dealing with various issues and conflicts and the pain of reinstalling so many bits of software. 'Plug and Play' they call it. Boy did they get that one wrong. 'Plug and Cry', or 'Plug and Unplug and Bloody Well Plug Again' would be more accurate names. I'd advise Microsoft to drop the, 'and Play' part and just call it "Plug..." with three optimistic dots after it.

And so, paradoxically, I had tried installing Windows 7 in order to make life easier and ended up having a three-day mental meltdown. What's going on here? Trendy German philosopher from the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, noted how our rational, enlightenment, science culture often ends up producing irrational outcomes such as this. People sit gridlocked in cars, going precisely nowhere fast in devices originally designed to make movement easier. Stock markets crash due to computers individually making decisions based on limited data and then clashing violently with each other when the bigger picture swims into focus. Mobile devices, far from freeing us, bind us ever more tightly into a shell of online existence from which there can be no escape.

For Marcuse, there is no historic, science driven path to enlightenment and rationality leading from slavery to freedom, only one that leads from the slingshot to the H-bomb.

Secondly, Marcuse also notes that science is now so complex and that we are so buried under oceans of data and bureaucracy that, paradoxically, people will believe any old rubbish about crystal healing or tofu in order to attempt to get a bit of clarity and order in their heads and so again, irrationality springs from rationality.

To these two formulations I think that I would add a third, namely that devices designed to make life less stressful and more pleasant and convenient end up irritating the bejesus out of me, not a very rational outcome. And it's not just Windows 7 that has made me contemplate an act of computer defenestration. Every time I enter a branch of Circle K or pull up to a car park barrier in town and trigger an automated, digitally disembodied voice which proceeds to regale me with chirpy, synthetic salutations, I want to cut somebody up with a chainsaw. Every time I phone up to complain about my Internet service and am confronted with an automated answering system, I go all sweaty and purple in the face after about four button push submenus. Every time my mobile phone cuts off in the middle of a conversation, I have to restrain myself from tossing the thing under the wheels of a passing bus.

Well folks, it's now a week later and I'm still having computer problems. I guess that I at least have the recourse to unplug the damn thing though. How long will it be before the computers decide to unplug us?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Three Wheels on My Wagon

A story appeared in last week's Globe stating that the days of the bemo, those three wheeled minivans that look like elongated bajajs and which can seat about eight, are numbered.  The city administration plans to get rid of the 1000 bemos is still dragging their sorry arses around the city's thoroughfares by 2011. In fact though, bemos have actually been illegal in the capital since 1996 but, as with so much else that happens in this country, the connection between legality and what actually happens in reality is tenuous to say the least.

Anyway, I thought that I'd take a bemo ride for old times sake as, during my first year in Jakarta, I remember enjoying a few amusing trips in the pathetic little things.  And so I strolled down to the flyover that crosses Jl. Sudirman next to the Meridien hotel and found a waiting fleet of about ten bemos squatting on the road like abandoned dustbins after a street fight.  The lurid paint jobs could hardly disguise the fact that these battered three wheeled shopping trolleys fitted with sewing machine engines are now well over 40 years old.

It's quite amazing that these things are still running at all and riding in one, you have the nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that the floor is going to collapse and buckle underneath you, leaving you running frantically on the road below like Fred Flintstone out on a Sunday drive.

The very fact that these Paleolithic old bangers are still running at all however is something of a triumph of human ingenuity.  Jakarta's creaking bemos remind me of Cuba's time warp fleet of 50s American gas guzzlers.  As with Cuba, the bemo drivers and mechanics have made a virtue out of a necessity and continue to defy the capitalist logic of waste and planned obsolescence.

It seems almost magical that these things still start in the mornings.  I wonder how many miles they've clocked up over the years?  A quick Google search on vehicle longevity brings up a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 240D owned by Greorios Sachinidis from Greece. This particular vehicle has apparently notched up an amazing 2,858,307 miles, which is the distance to the moon and back about five times.  Some of Jakarta's bemos may also perhaps have made it to the lunar surface at least once.

The average lifespan of a motor vehicle these days is just 13.5  years and it's hard to imagine any of today's cars lasting for 40.  As the world begins to hit the barriers of resource limitations our consumer culture ironically follows a model of increasing disposability.  People simply don't know how to fix things these days, unlike our brave bemo mechanics, and in a way perhaps they can't.  Our advanced technologies are increasingly specialised and arcane. You can always weld a broken exhaust pipe back onto a bemo but how are you going to fix a faulty Intel microprocessor? With scissors and glue?

Technological progress follows its own inexorable logic however.  Free market capitalism means that production has to be constantly revolutionized if a company is to stay ahead of the competition.  You simply have to fund R&D and scientific research if you want to maintain your competitive edge.  Capital has thus engendered a hyper accelerated culture that has quite astonishingly propelled us from the horse and cart to the space shuttle in less than 200 years.

I'm not quite sure where exactly bemos fits in on this continuum although they are perhaps nearer to the shuttle than it may appear at first glance (and the things are probably equally likely to explode on you).

There can be no time for historical materialism when one is trying to catch a bemo however.  Last week's Globe intimated that most of the drivers of these vehicles were dodgy gangster types.  They certainly had a good old laugh yours truly as he waited for his chariot and also attempted to charge him Rp.10,000 for a Teh Botol (and offer him women to boot).

Eventually, it was time to hit the road and I elected to sit up front next to the driver as we chugged off towards Tanah Abang.  An alarming amount of fumes started to waft up into the cabin from around the sides of the gear stick, making me feel a little lightheaded.  Perhaps the powers that be want to squash the bemo due to its internal as opposed to its external pollution.  Certainly the little things are no dirtier, in terms of exhaust smoke, than the fleets of orange Metro Minis and green Kopajas that fart their merry way around Jakarta every day.

In fact, I've long thought the parlous condition of the capital's buses to be rather strange in light of the fact that most of the country's other towns and cities are served by gleaming new squadrons of Angkots (mini vans).  What's all that about then eh?

Eventually, we puttered to a halt in the heart of gangster land (downtown Tanah Abang) and I shelled out Rp.2500 for the privilege of traveling in a vehicle older than I am (twice as old in fact...ahem).  So what will become of these senile motorised tricycles and the army of rough diamonds that pilot them?  The lure of the ojeg surely beckons...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

That's neat, that's neat, that's neat, that's neat, I really love your tiger feet.

Last weekend I was ready for a couple of days out of town. A few weeks in the big smoke can really take their toll on the psychic defenses, not to mention making the old liver squeak like a rat stuck in a trap, and so I took up an offer to head out once more to the tropical paradise of Jakarta's Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands).

I usually like to take my chances on the Rp.15,000 public boat from Muara Angke, however this time I was afforded the privilege of sharing a super fast yacht/speed boat out to Pulau Macan (Tiger Island) from the very posh Ancol Marina, as part of an all-inclusive and very reasonably priced weekend deal.

If you're an island novice or otherwise disinclined to slum it with the Kretek chomping Bapaks on the public boat, then I'd highly recommend the Macan trip, which is proving tremendously popular with expatriates (have a look here).

The fast boat takes a mere hour and a half to steam through the mud, silt and 100 million toilet flushings that coat Jakarta Bay and on into the crystal blue waters of the islands, considerably faster than the chugging public hulk. This speed can come at a price however. If the sea is in any way choppy or rough then the boat bangs and smacks over the waves like an ojeg speeding across the lunar surface, pummeling your backside into tenderloin in the process.

Foolishly, I had necked a few cans of Bintang prior to weighing anchor (a medicinal early morning pick me up you understand). After about an hour, I made a beeline for the head (as I believe the smallest room is called in nautical parlance). Alas I got inside just as we hit a rough spot of water with predictably hilarious consequences. I reemerged from the little sailor's room with a sprained knee and damp trousers and sat down in a huff. I should stress here though that I was the only one of 14 passengers who manage to both injure and wet himself simultaneously on the way to Macan, so perhaps I only have myself to blame.

After landing at the Macan jetty I felt a touch peculiar (so what's new, I hear you cry) and went for a bit of a lie down on a sun bed. After a rousing from my siesta I found Macan to be just as picturesque and lovely as the other islands in the chain that I've visited. The tiny atoll was covered in trees and fringed with coral and an eco-friendly resort boasting solar power, recycled rainwater and a coral rehabilitation programme has been set up there. Some top snorkelling is available, or alternatively you can sit on your fat arse all weekend drinking gin and tonic whilst your Jakarta stress meter drops out of the red zone.

I thought that I'd go for a swim before hitting the sauce though and paddled over to the nearest neighbouring island, around 200 meters away. After wading through the shallows and trying not to spear my feet on any of the sea anemones that liberally dotted the coastline, I flopped onto the sand like a beached whale, the only person on the tiny island. I think I was the only person there at any rate. It took me a mere five minutes to circumnavigate the tree-covered sandbar and I didn't come across any warungs or ojeg drivers crouching amid the tropical foliage.

Birds were squawking in the trees however and mud skippers hopped across the sand hunting fish as the sun beat down, burning my back to a crisp and ensuring that showering would be painful for the next week. It was easier to imagine that I was 5000, rather than 50 kilometers or so away from a filthy sprawling metropolis.

Perhaps, when global warming causes Jakarta to be swamped, then the city itself will become an extension of the Thousand Islands. People will be able to kayak or swim between higher bits of terra firma or between partially submerged skyscrapers, as fish and coral colonize the swamped roads, traffic islands and abandoned cars and bajajs of the ex-capital. If you don't want to purchase an apartment too many floors up because of the earthquake threat then think again, you could be sitting on an eco-tourism goldmine.

After some drinks, a soothing massage, more drinks and a blissful night’s sleep undisturbed by revving motorcycle engines and calls to prayer, it was time to re-board the turbo powered speed cruiser for the 90 minute blast back to the effluent filled beauty of Jakarta Bay and the joys of Bluebird taxis. Thankfully, this time, the seas were calm and thus there was no repeat of my uncomfortably damp first leg of the journey. There was only a moraine of plastic bags to traverse about half an hour from Jakarta that seemed to demarcate the boundary between the blue waters of the further islands and the mulligatawny soup that bathes the capital's coast. Drown it all I say, wash the city into the sea, let's start again and do it properly this time.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Lake of Fire

Last weekend, I revved up the old banger and drove down to one of the few Jakarta tourist spots to have so far eluded my attentions. Around four or five kilometers southeast of Ragunan Zoo in South Jakarta, on the way to Depok, lies Setu Babakan, one of the city's more sizeable lakes. Around the lake's perimeter you'll find a Betawi Cultural Village which is devoted to preserving the ethnic and cultural heritage of Jakarta's indigenous people.

There are apparently around 2.5 million Betawi people in the capital which is, I guess, around a quarter of Jakarta's total population. The Betawi have a culture and a language, not to mention music, traditions and food, that are all distinct from Java's Sundanese and Javanese populations. They are also known for their rough and ready manner, their openness to strangers and even for their short temperedness, all character traits that are anathema to the supposedly refined Javanese.

Anyway, I headed down a bumpy track to the side of the lake and took a stroll down Setu Babakan's bucolic (and only slightly bubonic) boulevards. The lake is ringed with cheap and cheerful chairs, tables and 'warungs', at which courting couples can whisper sweet nothings in each other's ears whilst taking in the pleasant views of the lake and scoffing down a few bowls of ‘baso’ meatballs. There were plenty of amorous young blades present on my visit in fact, all enjoying the relative pollution free calm.

There were also a few groups of Betawi gentlemen enjoying some rather dubious looking homemade concoctions and shambling about arhythmically to a cassette of traditional Dangdhut music. One of them tipped a bottle of Red Bull into a mineral water bottle of fearsome looking brown liquid and offered me a swig. Fearing for the health of my optic nerves, I declined his kind offer of a Pertamina Pina Colada and continued on with my stroll.

If the Sharia religious police ever manage to expand their sphere of influence down through Sumatra and on into Jakarta, then they will surely have a field day cracking the skulls of the young couples and half cut ‘bapaks’ down at the Betawi Cultural Village. Let us hope that such a vision never come to pass.

Also stationed around the lake were various fishermen trying to hook a few bites and carp and tilapia are supposedly there for the taking. Mind you, I saw precisely nothing swimming through the rather brackish waters and perhaps this isn't surprising given that the lake is fed directly from the somewhat less than pristine Ciliwung River.

Also, next to the lake I came across a hawker selling posters of a chap called Benyamin Sueib, who was apparently a famous native Betawi actor. "Mr. Ben -- 1939 -- 1995" was the legend under one such poster. Yet another Indonesian gentleman fails to make 60. Ho hum. Perhaps those homemade, lakeside cocktails were a contributing factor to Mr. Ben's demise. The other famous ethnic Betawi gentleman is, of course, Jakarta's current governor and moustache enthusiast, Mr. Fauzi Bowo. I wonder if he ever brought a lady friend down to Setu Babakan during his formative years?

Next to the lake, sits the Betawi Cultural Village and this is well worth a look around. Regular musical and theatrical performances are held here and, on Thursday nights, Silat demonstrations can also be watched. Silat is Indonesia's indigenous martial art so I'd recommend standing well back if you do go along.

Strolling back lakeside, it was time to head out on the high seas in a pedal powered, fiberglass sea lion with a ball balanced on the end of its nose. Not quite hang gliding at the Bogor Lido for sure but extreme sport enough for a Sunday afternoon, after a Saturday night weighing Anker in Bintang Bay. A 20 minute, self powered cruise will set you back a mere Rp.5000 per person.

Back on dry land, I rounded off a fine Betawi afternoon with a tub of my favorite durian ice-cream, purchased from one of the lakeside stalls. It hadn't quite been a holographic, high-tech ride through Disneyland but Setu Babakan at least has the ring of cultural authenticity to it. Even the hello misters and suggestive innuendo were bang on target.

Perhaps though, with a little investment, the place could be turned into a modern Betawi theme park. They could put in a loop the loop roller coaster with a Bluebird taxi going round it, or a Ferris wheel with Bajajs for gondolas. They could even set up a gridlocked dodgems ride on which one only gets to move five centimeters during a single five minute session. Drivers would also get to have real, authentic Betawi road rage punch-ups with other dodgems drivers who bump into them.

Eventually, it was time to head home and I left the courting threesomes (boy, girl, scooter) of Setu Babakan to enjoy the dusk in peace. If you've already done Ancol, Taman Mini, Taman Safari and the zoo, then this relaxing little spot could be just the ticket. Just don't drink any strange liquids if offered.