What Price Tranquility?


It struck me, as I lay on a chaise longue at the Conrad Bali trying to filter out the drone of the jetskis, that hotels are selling a complicated product. My wife, for example, loves the clean, crisp white sheets and thick feather pillows of a king-size bed. Others go for the food, some for the ambience, some for the adventure, others for the sun, some for the service.

But in this stressful age, money increasingly buys and hotels sell tranquility: a chance to relax, zone out, be pampered, wander around in a bubble of soft footfalls, bubbling little fountains, soft tinkling music and the absence of intrusion. Of course, there are different grades of tranquility: If you want total silence, you go to an Aman resort; if you want tranquility plus active night life you go to Seminyak or Kuta. Tranquility is actually quite a sophisticated product. You don’t actually sell it directly, but it’s implicit in every photo and description of your hotel: But it’s also, it struck me, more or less the one thing that hotels can’t guarantee.

Tranquility is the result of effort and a complex management of logistics behind the scenes: You can train staff to keep voices low, to not intrude upon guests, to keep the sound of crockery being piled high to a minimum. But there are events you can’t really control. Like, in the case of the Conrad Bali, jetskis swarming the beach in front of the hotel like Sioux around a wagon train.

“It’s beyond our control,” I Wayan Sumadi, the assistant manager, told me. Although the Conrad has a cooperation agreement with some of the jetskis operators–you can rent one from one of the poolside booths or from a guy on the beach sporting a Conrad-logoed ID card–the hotel, Wayan says, can’t prevent them from dominating the seafront. The result is that no guests venture into the water and a drone that can be heard from the hotel lobby.

I’ve seen this problem before in Bali, but usually the hotel is smart enough to find out a peaceful coexistence that doesn’t annoy the guests (Wayan says I’m by no means the first to complain.) Of course, public spaces are public spaces, but clearly the jetski owners rely on guests from the hotel, otherwise they wouldn’t parade in front of them all day.

I feel for the guests who have come thousands of miles to buy some peace and quiet, and have to retreat to their hotel rooms to find it. I feel, in a way, for the hotel management who don’t seem to have figured out that–despite an otherwise beautiful hotel and good service–the jetskis undermine the very product they’ve tried so hard to create: tranquility.

If I was the Conrad I would put this to the top of my agenda on Monday morning, and not rest until the situation is resolved. For more than a few guests, I suspect, tranquility is non-negotiable.

What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About


Empty vodka bottles used for selling petrol, Bali

Tools often serve purposes the designers didn’t necessarily intend — increasing their stickiness for users but in a way not clearly understood by the creator.

Take the System Tray in Windows for example (and in the bar, whatever it’s called, in Macs.) And this array currently sitting in my overburdened laptop:


These icons usually either notify the user if something happens, by changing color, animating itself or popping up some balloon message, or they will be quick launch icons: double click or right click to launch the program, or some function within it. Or they can be both. Or, sometimes neither, sitting there like lame ducks taking up screen real estate. (These ones should, like all lame ducks, be shot.)

Skype-tickBut the thing is that for users these icons actually sometimes do something else, acting as useful sources of more important information. I’ve noticed, for example, a lot of people — including myself — use the Skype icon (left) as the best, most visible way of telling whether their computer is connected.

First off, Skype is better and quicker at establishing a connection than most other connection-based programs with icons in the system tray. Secondly, the icon is a uncomplicated but appealing green, with tick in it — an obvious and intuitive signal to even the most untutored user. (It helps that the Skype icon is a dull gray when there’s no connection — once again, intuitive to most users.) When the Skype button turns green, users know they’re good to go.

Za-tray2Another good example of this is the Zone Alarm icon which alternates between the Zone Alarm logo and a gauge, red on the left and green on the right, to indicate traffic going in and out (see left). Another useful tool to see whether your computer is actually connected, and like the Skype icon, much more visible and obvious than the regular Windows connectivity icon — with the two computer screens flashing blue. I’ve gotten so used to having the Zone Alarm icon tell me what’s going on I have not been able to switch to other firewall programs, or Windows own, because they don’t have the same abundance of visual information to offer.

Za-logo3ZA-iconI’m not convinced that Zone Alarm’s new owners CheckPoint get this: They have dropped the disctinctive yellow and red ZA logo in the system tray for a bland and easily missable Z (left). The ZA icon  was an easy and prominent way to know your firewall was working and they’d be smart to resurrect it.

What does all this mean? Well, Skype have been smart to create a simple icon that not only does things like tell you your online status (available, away) but has also become a tool to help folk know whether they’re online or not — not always clear in this world of WiFi and 3G connectivity. In fact, for many users I’m guessing the green tick is more recognisable a Skype logo than the blue S Skype logo itself.

I don’t know whether Skype knows this, or whether the Zone Alarm guys realise their icon and gauge are much more useful to users as a data transfer measure than Windows’ own. But it’s a lesson to other software developers that the system tray icon could do a whole lot more than it presently does, with a bit of forethought. And if it can’t justify its existence, just sitting there saying, then maybe it shouldn’t be there?

Beyond that, we’d be smart to keep an eye out for how folk use our products, and to build on the opportunities that offers.

Hotel To Guests: Use Skype

It seems that hotels are finally making the best of a bad thing and realising the old days of fleecing their guests with overpriced phone calls are past. In fact, one hotel is suggesting that in fact it is on the customer’s side, if this ad from today’s IHT by Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels is anything to go by:


The wording is “Consider subscribing to Skype – the free Internet vocal communications service. It could save you a small fortune in long-distance mobile phone charges.” Note the ‘mobile’ inserted here, implying that it’s mobile operators who alone have been the culprit. Indeed, it would be interesting to see whether this isn’t some fiendish plot to get guests to pay for in-room Internet services.

Staying at the (otherwise magnificent) Conrad in Bali’s Nusa Dua a few weeks back (yes, it’s a hard life), for example, I was surprised by having to pay about $10 for an hour’s Internet connection which was slower than a blood-drunk mosquito. (Tip: just piggy back the lobby Wifi if you can. It sucks, but no more or less than the connection in the room):


I’ve asked the Shangri-La’s PR for details about the Skype ad and their Internet charges (if any.) I’ll post their comments once I hear back.

Loose Launch (Or How to Throw a Book Party in Bali)

Loose Wire, the book, was launched last night at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. It was great to have such a large turnout and gratifying to sell out all copies! More have been shipped in for today’s session of the festival, and can be found at the Java Books stall at Indus. What particularly delighted me was the varied crowd — everyone from geeks to grandmothers! Thanks to everyone for coming and making it a fun evening. I realised that launching a book was really the first time I got to meet readers face to face and hear some of their problems. Mostly, most but not exclusively, about technology.

For those who aren’t in Bali, copies of the book can be bought from Equinox, my publisher. For anyone who happens to be in Jakarta, there’ll be a special launch this coming Saturday, to which you’re all welcome. More launches in Asia and beyond in the months ahead.

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Loose Launch

By the way, here’s a link to the invitation to the launching of the book. Needless to say, all readers of the blog are welcome. And Bali is a beautiful place: Sunday 1 October 2006

Tutmak Café,
Jl. Dewi Sita, Ubud, Bali
(during the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival)


I can’t really advise on places to stay up there, but there are plenty, and it’s a wonderful spot. And if you’re more literary inclined than a bunch of technology columns, there are some quite famous writers attending the Festival.

Hope to see you there.

You’ve Read the Column and Blog. Now Read the Book.

LwbI promise I’m not going to harp on too much about this, but today marks the moment when Loose Wire becomes not just a column and a blog (and an occasional podcast) but a book. LOOSE WIRE, A Personal Guide to Making Technology Work for You is now available for pre-ordering here.

The book is based around columns from the past six years, and is aimed at anyone who felt that, as the blurb says:

EVER GET THE FEELING that technology is taking over your life and not asking you first? When you’ve mislaid that important file or can’t connect your new camera, do you just want to hurl your computer out of the window? When your kids/friends/grandparents start talking about blogging, podcasting and RSS feeds do you nod as wisely as you can while wrestling with the urge to throw them out of the window too?

This is of course a bit excitment for me, because the columns have all been written with a vague idea in my mind that the world of technology could be sliced into thin enough pieces for anyone to digest. Now putting all those pieces back together in book form reveals a kind of pattern that surprised me. Not many surprises in there for the geeks among us, but those of you wanting an accessible guide you can read in the bath might find what you’re looking for.

The book is being launched on October 1 in Bali (where else?) at the Ubud Writers Festival which is playing a host to bunch of internationally acclaimed writers, i.e., people not like me. The launch party will be on October 1, 5.30 pm at Tutmak restaurant and café. If you’re around please do drop by. There will be drinks. I will also be appearing on a blogging panel the following day at 2 pm alongside (or probably slightly behind) Deepika Shetty [Singapore], Dina Zamen [Australia/Malaysia] and Sharon Bakar [Malaysia]. There will also be a launch later that week in Jakarta, and then maybe one later in the year in Hong Kong.

OK, no more plugs, I promise. Well, not too many.

Unconscious Bandit Suspect Scratches Self

This news is not new, it’s not technology related, and it’s not particularly nice, but I like the way it’s written (thanks, Johnny). From The Post Online (Cameroon): Mob Justice In Bali:Three Suspects Lynched:

Mob Justice In Bali:Three Suspects Lynched

By Peterkins Manyong

The third of the four suspect bandits dragged out of the police cell in Bali and beaten by a mob, has died. Eric Che Zama, of Mankon extraction, died on Saturday, April 23, four days after he received his own share of the beatings. Sources at the hospital told The Post that Zama, an ex-convict at the Bamenda Central Prison, was suspected to be the biological father of the baby recently brought forth by Caroline Lambif, the woman sentenced to death by firing squad in connection with the murder of Alkali Garoua, former GMI Bamenda Commissioner.

A nurse at the male casualty ward told The Post that Crispus Tetuh, the last of the four bandits still alive, is very conscious but pretends to be in a comma. [sic]

During the day, he pretends to be unconscious, but late at night he eats his meals with an appetite quite unbecoming of a sick man, the nurse said.

Our source was convinced that Tetuh is feigning consciousness hoping that hospital staff and the police would comply with his mother’s request that he be evacuated to Batibo, his area of origin for better medical attention.

But the police are reported to have rejected the request to have him evacuated. Patients sharing the same ward with Tetuh said he demonstrates visible signs of consciousness by scratching himself where he feels itches but refuses to respond when spoken to.

Sounds a bit like a few people I know in the office.

Needless to say this is not Bali, Indonesia, but Bali in the West African state of Cameroon.

Bluetooth And The Art Of Safe Sex

I’ve been researching Islam and technology for a story due out later this week. There’s been some interesting gadgets enter the market place recently aimed at Muslims but what also interested me are the attitudes of Muslims towards technology: Was there any life left in the non-Muslim perception that Islam does somehow not approve of technology? Short answer: No.

Anyway, long introduction to what I hope is just a mere misunderstanding in a piece by Ali Al-Baghli, Kuwait’s former oil minister, in the Arab Times last week (thanks to blueserker), who writes an interesting article on the relationship between Muslims and technology. While I think I follow his tack, towards the end I share the confusion of blueserker who says “I’m really hoping there is a translation issue here”.

Al-Baghli’s main point is that technology can be used for good and bad. While ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘extremists’ have long opposed the use of technology, from satellite dishes to mobile phones, it is the extremists, he says, who have also benefitted from this such tools such as the mobile phone “because it can be used to carry out terrorist acts”. True: Jemaah Islamiyah relied on the mobile phone to plan and execute the Bali bombing in 2002. (It also led to their capture.)

But I lose him in his last paragraph on Bluetooth: “This device is being used by thousands of people and is most beneficial to engineers and medical staff because of the voice and view facility.” Can’t disagree so far. However he goes on:

This new device has sent shock waves in Kuwait because some young boys and girls make wrong use of it and the Ministry of Justice was prompt in forming a committee – comprising legal and legislative experts in addition to attorneys – to regulate its use. If what we have heard is right, the reaction is shameful. The Bluetooth is like a knife – you can use it in the kitchen while cooking or to kill someone. It is also like a ‘safe sex’ tool mostly used by whores to prevent pregnancies. Can we prevent people from using knives and ‘safe sex’ tools… just because some are making wrong use of it?

I can only assume the former minister is referring to the emergence of Bluetoothing — the art of picking up partners in public via Bluetooth — which, according to a comment added to this posting to Geek.com back in April, has been going on for quite a while in Kuwait. I have to confess, however, I’m not sure where the knives come in, and how, exactly, Bluetooth is used in safe sex. Can anyone explain?

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the Hand That Pays

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 18 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I get hot under the collar over a lot of things, especially being forced to write this column in the sweltering tropical heat of Bali, when I could be in a cool, air-conditioned office cubicle. But one thing riles me in particular: the efforts of music, movie and software majors to restrict usage of their products because of pirating. How much sillier can things get?

It’s now possible to download whole movies off the Internet, milliseconds after they’re released (and often before). The movie industry is feeling the heat that software manufacturers have been feeling for years — the same heat that the music industry felt, too, during the brief reign of Napster’s file-sharing software.

In nearly all cases, the industry reaction has been to punish the very people it should be trying to win over: the paying customer. This is usually done by building in limitations on use of their product. In the case of DVD movies, the world is divided into zones — a DVD bought in one zone cannot (theoretically) be played in another.

Some music CDs now often have special keys or codes built in which prevent easy or exact duplication. Microsoft has been trying out ways of forcing people to register their software; if they don’t, they find the software stops working after a few weeks. All these efforts are misguided and alienate users, who feel they’ve stumped up the cash and can do what they like with their purchase, short of using it as a lethal weapon.

To find a solution that works, we need to acknowledge a few basic principles. First, piracy is no longer a backstreet occupation, if it ever was. A few metres from where I’m writing this in Bali you can buy the latest version of Microsoft Office for a fraction of its original price. Want a DVD of a new movie like Angel Eyes or Ocean’s Eleven? Join the queue in Jakarta’s main expat supermarket and you can snap them up for about $6 each, or a quarter of the price of the imported original.

The lesson from this: It doesn’t pay to look at the problem too moralistically, or legalistically. If we do, we’ve got to get tough on half the world, which spends its time making fake Rolexes, imitation Gucci bags, sports shirts and the like, and the other half, many of whom I can see from my vantage point at the hotel bar, who spend their holidays in the tropics buying them up.

Thirdly, technology is not the answer. Industry boffins can dream up new ways of restricting copying but the copiers will always be one step ahead. I realized that MP3s were no longer the province of nerdy types when I spotted a small store in an Indonesian village selling MP3 collections of the likes of Sting and Britney Spears alongside single sachets of shampoo. The lesson: Technology finds a way round every obstacle placed in its way. For users blighted by DVD-zoning, many electronics shops will happily rejig the software in the DVD player to enable any DVD to play regardless of where it came from.

In my view the answers are simple. Manufacturers should reward the genuine user. Don’t just shove a disc in a plastic box and shrink-wrap it: spend some time and effort compiling interesting sleeve notes. Offer DVD buyers a once-only code to download the sound track in MP3 form free. Enable those who register to buy a boxed set of autographed DVDs by the same director. Some of this happens at the moment, but it’s not enough.

Adopt brave measures: Reduce prices, which have stayed too high (particularly CD prices), and stop annoying the rest of us with stupid restrictions on usage. Learn from companies that do things well, like Qualcomm, whose excellent e-mail program Eudora comes in a free version. This is funded by ads, which appear in a tasteful, but visible, format (and are accompanied by a polite but firm warning should you arrange your other programs to cover up the ads).

DVD-manufacturers or CD-makers could sell cheaper versions of their products interspersed with commercials: Pay more and you can get one without the ads. Let’s face it, some people are never going to pay top dollar for these products, so stop worrying about them and encouraging us law-abiding folk to buy more. Now I’m off to buy a real Rolex. No, really.