Saturday, August 23, 2003

A Weekend Well Spent?

Spent half my Saturday at the customer event. I have so many things that I want to do but unfortunately half the weekend is already gone. I have digital photos that I took together with Setiawan that I want to develop. And I have some more research work to do.

People are always asking what you did over the weekend. You are expected to answer: "Oh, I went to Bandung (or Puncak or Pulau Seribu)". If you tell them that you didn't go anywhere, they'll look at you as if you had just wasted the last remaining two days of your life.

The most ridiculous thing that people in Jakarta do is to join the long crawl to the mountain "retreat" of Puncak on weekends. The jam is a few kilometers long. Often they end up in a rented "villa" staying next-door to another noisy family with five kids from Jakarta. Don't be deceived by the term "villa" that is being used rather casually here--it is often just a brick house with water heater and two bed-rooms that had been converted from an old kampung house located along the road to Puncak.

But they will come back to office on Monday and proudly tell their colleagues: "I went to Puncak". And that is supposed to be a weekend well spent.

I would rather spend my weekend exploring the nooks and corners of Jakarta city--like my visit to Kapung Kebun Djahe Kober last Saturday. That was a good weekend.

Friday, August 22, 2003

The Pleasures and Perils of Presentations

It's Friday and my colleagues are pestering me to go out tonight. But unfortunately I have a customer event to prepare for tomorrow morning at the Dharmawangsa Hotel. I still have some presentation slides to finish up.

Presentations can sometimes be fun if the topic is to your liking. I normally like to create my own slides rather than than mix and match from those downloaded from the company intranet. I have no love for marketing propaganda filled with neat soundbites and pompous taglines.

Despite having done presentations in front of audiences large and small for more than a decade, I still don't consider myself a good presenter. Often I attempt to do too much and end up confusing the audience. There's also the challenge of gauging the audience's level of knowledge: If you make it too difficult, you could end up losing the audience or worse still, put them to sleep. And if you make it too simplistic, you run the risk of insulting their intelligence.

Although it is more daunting presenting in a public seminar in a large hall packed with people, the overall task is actually easier because the audience will usually be too shy to ask questions. The toughest presentations are those done for the customer in the presence of "consultants" who are supposedly there to advise them. These "consultants" will always attempt to find ways to make you look bad so that they themselves look smart in front of their client (to justify their worth).

I realise that it is often better to limit the number of messages you want to convey in one presentation session. The audience usually remembers a very general impression of what you are trying to say, so one must be very clear of what one wants to convey and convey them well.

I also try not to linger too long on one slide. Attention span of the audience is short. They are always eager to see the next slide. Pacing, buildup and climax is important. So I compose my presentations like music videos--fast cuts with only one key message for every slide through a combination of words, images and animation. The color scheme and overall "mood" of the presentation is also important.

Thinking of presentations in terms of music videos helps to make the task more creative and fun. And these days, fun is not something I experience often from work.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Ringgit Indonesia

In one of the most interesting stories from Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Tales from Jakarta entitled "News from Kebajoran", the protagonist Aminah, a streetwalker, plies her trade nightly at what is today's Medan Merdeka area. The story is set in the 1950s.

I was surprised to find out in the story that a local coin called "ringgit" was being used then. One ringgit was equivalent to two-and-a-half rupiah, the amount that Aminah charges her customer. I did some asking around: some old-timers do remember the ringgit coin that was being used. Last weekend I wanted to seek out this "Ringgit Indonesia" at the National Museum numismatic collection, but unfortunately that particular section was closed for renovations.

Nowadays it is hardly possible to find any transaction that involves less than 100 rupiah, let alone two-and-half rupiah. During the Sukarno years in the 50s and early 60s, inflation soared to stratospheric levels. At one point, it even reached more than 600 percent!

In the mid-sixties, the government decided to devalue the currency and overnight 1,000 rupiah became 1 rupiah. Still over the decades, inflation grew. The Asian Currency Crisis brought further devaluation to the rupiah. Today 1 ringgit (Malaysia) is equivalent to approximately 2,500 rupiah--not even sufficient for tips to the tukang parkir (parking attendant) at Jalan Hayam Wuruk, where the ladies of the night prowl.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

My External Storage

There's only so much that we can remember and carry in our brains. The rest are in "external storage"--books, papers, harddisks or CDs.

Leading a rather nomadic life these past few years has made it difficult for me to carry along with me all my possessions, especially my books. I consider my library to be my external storage. At the same time I am also accumulating new books, which if not properly managed, could start cluttering my room here in Jakarta.

So I try to pack books that I've read (and most likely won't refer to again) and bring them back with me to KL every few months. This is akin to archiving them to a remote site.

Sometimes I'd recall a fact or a line that I remember reading in a particular book and would immediately like to "reload" the passage into my mind. And I would often end up cursing myself when I realise that I had already sent it back home to KL. It is no longer "cached" in my memory and the "backup tapes" are already sent for remote archiving.

Trying to recall a quote from some book that is no longer in your immediate possession is almost like trying to " NFS mount" a UNIX file server across a bad network.

For example now I'm trying to recall a very interesting line from Carl Sagan's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Dragons of Eden which I read twenty years ago. I still have a yellowing paperback copy in my library back home in Subang Jaya.

Carl Sagan made an interesting comment about the uniqueness of books that lingers in my mind until now: A book is a block-like object, made from trees; it consists of flat thin sheets that help to increase its surface area; and then there's these strange black marks on them; and when you read these marks, you hear the author's voice (hello!) in your brain.

Of course he put it a lot more eloquently. But alas, I cannot recall the exact lines. Carl Sagan's sense of wonder and his infectious passion for knowledge and discovery inspired me a lot as a teenager. There are so many other authors and books that have played a great influence in my life. But my brain only contains tantalising pointer addresses to their contents.

Without books by my side, all I'm getting is the frustrating message: "NFS server not responding...".

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

"It's a Bird, It's a's a Statue!"

On my way to work today, passing through Jalan Jend Sudirman, I suddenly noticed a new feature on the landscape--a giant statue of a Javanese man poised in a military salute, erected on the divider at the entry point to the business district. I later found out that it is the statue of General Sudirman, unveiled only last Saturday.

The eight-lane wide Jalan Sudirman, around where most of the large multinational banks and businesses are located, is the most well-known street in Jakarta. It is also a fitting tribute to General Sudirman who was the first commander of the revolutionary Indonesian military and hero of the independence struggle against the Dutch.

This statue is at least a lot more tasteful than a lot of the other ones in Jakarta constructed during the Sukarno era. During his tenure, Sukarno acquired a penchant for gargantuan statues from the Communist countries. He planted many of such grotesque displays of nationalism all over the country.

There's a statue known officially as the Youth Statue located on the roundabout going south to Senayan and Block M. One could be forgiven if one mistakes this giant green sculpture of a man holding a flaming plate high above his head--arched in a gesture of great exertion, gnarled sinewy muscles and all--as an overboard advertisement for Ang Lee's Hulk.

The locals call it the Pizza Man. With its contorted face and a cavernous mouth perpetually frozen in a scream, I personally know it as the Orgasmic Man.

There's another statue right in the middle of the Hotel Indonesia Roundaout (Bundaran HI)--considered the center of Jakarta: Placed high on a pedestal above the cascading sprouts of the fountain, is the scupture of a boy and girl waving in a gesture of welcome. Officially, it is called the Welcome Statue.

And of course the locals have a nickname for it: Hansel and Gretel. Some prefer the more contemporary sounding, Donny and Marie.

But the most famous landmark in Jakarta is of course the National Monument, Monas. No tour guide will fail to mention that it is also known as Sukarno's Last Erection.

Monday, August 18, 2003

My Moral Gymnasium

Even if one does not belong to any religious persuasion, the so-called "Law of Karma" propounded by many faiths can be a useful model for viewing life and how we respond to it.

The Law of Karma can be intepreted in many ways. The scientifically inclined would usually point out that Newton's Third Law of Motion--"for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction"--as the physical manifestation of this law. They believe that the law continues to hold true in our more subtler realms of existence.

Those familiar with Biblical sayings would quote words such as "you reap what you sow" and "give and ye shall receive" as corollaries of the Karma Theorem.

The philosophically uninformed would pooh-pooh away Karma as being associated with reincarnation and the superstitious belief in the possibility of being reborn again as animals as punishment for sins in this life.

The word "karma" (which in its original Sanskrit simply means "action" or "work") itself has even come into mainstream use. There are many websites that offer "karma points' to contributors who are rated highly by other readers. Karma points become a system for measuring trust in the anonymous world of cyberspace.

As I write this blog entry I am swarmed with so many ideas and interesting anecdotes about karma that I believe there's enough material even for a book. Karma is a fascinating area of study indeed. But I have to be brief here. It is Monday and it's a public holiday for me. Furthermore I'm writing this in an internet cafe and the clock is ticking. (Plus I'm also hungry).

One of the paths to realise God, as expounded by Lord Krisna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, is known as Karma Yoga. To me it is the most interesting path of all because it does not require one to indulge in esoteric practises such as meditation or fasting. It is one which every common folk can pursue.

Swami Vivekananda explains Karma Yoga as the "Secret of Work" where one can pursue salvation by relinquishing all attachment to the rewards of one's works. It is selfless action. An act of donation need not necessarily be a selfless act if one expects recognition for it. A desire for recognition disrupts the clean karmic transaction of one's deeds and generates further karma, which could either be positive or negative.

Life is one big entanglement of karma. When we are born we are but bundles of unresolved karma. It is a reservoir of energy that's waiting to be unleashed. For those who believe in Eastern theories of reincarnation, we can consider ourselves to be carrying residual karma from our previous lives. For others, simple genetics could explain our inborn talents and quirks of behaviour.

How does one use up one's "karma points", so to speak, which we are bestowed from birth? We can choose to create works of art, commit acts of terrorism, do good social deeds or strive for personal spiritual transformation. The choice is ours. In the process we always generate fresh positive and negative karmas. All actions, all thoughts, no matter how simple, have consequences.

A religious guru will tell you that neither positive nor negative karmas are good for one's spiritual salvation. The purpose of life is to work out our unresolved karma and dissipate them so that no fresh karma is generated anymore. When one's store of karma is exhausted, the whole cycle of birth and death ceases. That will be the end of our suffering.

How does one ensure no or at least less new karma is generated in our everyday conduct? Non-attachment. Selflessness. Equanimity. Lovingkindness. Compassion. There is always one right action in every human situation. We, in our imperfection, may not always distinguish it clearly. There's always one right shot for a particular configuration of balls on a snooker table.

I am dissipating a bit of karma here by writing this blog entry. And you are feeling the karmic effects of my action by reading this. Is the effect positive or negative? I wish for neither. As Vivekananda so wisely put it: The world is a moral gymnasium for us to work out our karma. This blog is my moral gymnasium.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

The Real Java

Had a tiring day yesterday with Setiawan taking pictures with our digital cameras around Pasar Baru and Monas. We later had lunch at an East Javanese restaurant on Jalan Juanda which serves excellent soto. I definitely plan to come back here more often.

I am happy to be able to put in a fruitful amount of work last night. Today is Indonesia's Independence Day. I plan to just stay around my hotel and do some light reading. Recently I finished a book called A Cup of Java. No, it is not another one of those Java programming books (which I believe pops immediately into the IT geek's mind) but a well-researched and entertaining account of the coffee industry in Java. It is about the real thing--the coffee that has gained fame worldwide and known throughout simply as "Java".

I am not much of a cofee drinker myself--preferring tea--but since coming to Jakarta I have developed a taste for the cheap local cofee served here called kopi tubruk. Most of the expensive coffee beans from reputable estates in Java are exported overseas. The cheap coffee found among popular local brands such as Kapal Api are actually blended with corn.

First-time visitors to Jakarta might even find the first experience of drinking kopi tubruk rather unpleasant--you have all these sediments sticking on your teeth; the coarse coffee powder itself is typically not filtered out. I know many of my middleclass Indonesian friends actually disdain drinking kopi tubruk as being "low-class", preferring the western-styled cappucino and espressos served in up-market cafes that are sprouting up everywhere in town.

But to me the choice is clear: there is no experience more authentically Javanese than to drink a cup of kopi tubruk. It is the real Java to me. For some strange reason I also find kopi tubruk less disruptive to my system--it doesn't induce the palpitations and agitation that I experience drinking regular western coffee. Nothing is more pleasurable than having a bowl of Indomie rebus by the roadside warung with a steaming glass of kopi tubruk.

I am lucky that I do not have the bad habit of starting my day with a cup of coffee. Like cigarettes, It is an addiction that I can do without. But writing about kopi tubruk makes me start craving for a cup myself. Maybe I'll drop by at my favourite local cafe Arobusta after this. Ah, the pleasures of living in Jakarta.