Tag Archives: Bangkok

The Other American Idols

My wife’s in the other room watching American Idol, and while I’m amazed it’s been going so long, you gotta admire its emphasis on quality and professionalism. And no mention of money (isn’t there something vaguely obscene about a program like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader where avarice and greed are paraded before kids as incentives to learn?)

Anyway, while my wife’s watching idolatry on a production line, I’m trading emails with the guy who wrote my favorite software of the moment, SuperNoteCard and a composer whose music I discovered as pirate tapes on the streets of Bangkok 20 years ago: Tim Story.

His Glass Green was the soundtrack to a dark period of my life and I still can’t listen to those deceptively simple songs without being transported back to the night bus north to Sisatchanalai, pulling out of Morchit in the rain.

Anyway, I once confessed this to him in an email (after I’d tracked down the originals) and he was forgiving and very pleasant, so I’m proud to be one of the first to sign up for his new CD, Inlandish, not needing to listen to know it’s going to be well worth the money. (Yes, it could be on MP3, but who cares?)

The point? I hate it when I can’t even find an address on a website when I’m buying something. But that’s so old wave: The new world is when we can discover and communicate directly with our heroes, whether they write great software that makes us more creative, or music to inspire us. And it feels good to support them.

American Idol fulfills an important role: finding the hidden gems scattered across America. But maybe the Internet does something even better: helps us find artisans who may be less interested in becoming idols to just making enough to be happy, and making others happy in the process.

The Real, Sad Lesson of Burma 2007

Reuters

I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:

“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.

or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:

“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”

There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.

First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.

It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.

Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens

“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”

They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.

Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.

More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.

I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.

By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.

Not Stopping Traffic? Blame Wikipedia

I’m not one to court fame, although it is flattering, I must confess, to be recognised in the street. First there’s the odd sideways look as they approach you. Then the diffident approach:
“Excuse me, are you Jeremy Wagstaff?”
“Why, yes, I am!”
“You don’t remember me, do you?
“Er, no.”
“I’m your wife.”
“Oh, yes. So you are. Sorry.”

Actually, that almost never happens. In fact, it’s unlikely to for the simple reason that no one has thought to create a page about me on Wikipedia. Of course, why should I be so presumptuous as to think I deserve one? And would I not be obsessively checking it were such a page to exist? And do I want people to know what I did that night in Bangkok in 1990 when I was chased by a woman in a car reversing at speed through heavy traffic on Sukhumwit? Probably not although I’ll tell you if you really want.

Still, there’s definitely a cultism about Wikipedia biographical entries. The organisers have had to gamekeep against congressional aides, PR companies and even the entries’ own subjects to prevent them whitewashing their past. Even one of the founders has been alleged to have indulged in a bit of airbrushing of his own past.

But my beef is this. Why, should the mood take me to search Wikipedia for my humble name, do these matches appear?

Results 1-13 of 13

I am not a rugby league footballer. I never went to the RCA, although I once won a Lego competition. I am not, as far as I know, fictitious although my lack of an entry on Wikipedia may suggest I am; my mother was born in Yorkshire but I, alas, was not, and while I suppose the Nonjuring Schism is a part of my heritage, I never went to Charterhouse and therefore cannot claim to be an Old Carthusian, let alone a notable one.

Still, given the amount of airbrushing out, and bland self-hagiographic rubbish one does find among biographies on Wikipedia, it’s probably as accurate as any other entry on a living person in the otherwise excellent online tome. In any case, it kind of captures the kind of person I sometimes wish I was: an artistic scrum half Yorkshireman playing notably in the Charterhouse First XV , not averse to a Schism or two so long as it’s Nonjuring and doesn’t leave any stretch marks. Now that kind of entry I would like.

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Wire Mesh and Lost Souls

You have to love the Internet. It brings you into contact with all sorts of unusual people, the likes of which I haven’t encountered since my days of being driven by tuk-tuk around the sois of 1980s Bangkok. Here’s Linda, for example, who just asked to be my buddy on Skype, introducing herself thus:

Me! A Chinese girl! My main work is to sale wire,wire mesh and wire rods!If you need my service, please contact me unhestantly!

I just don’t know when I’m going to need wire, wire mesh or wire rods so I’ve added her to my contact list. Now I can see the commercial benefits of Skype.

And then there’s my blog. Frankly, it drives me nuts, but two years ago I wrote about how awful some Nokia service centers were, and now it’s become the Mecca for any Indian resident looking for a service center. Why me? And why India? Heaven knows, and I’ve tried to explain I’m not a Nokia Service Center, but still they come. This, for example, just now, from Sreedhar Durbhakula:

I purchased NOKIA 3120 handset before one year. Now it has created me some problem like some times I am finding the device Switchd Off. I need to switch on the set to work with it. Some times it is showing blank screen and again loading the signal lines and feature.Some times when I press some key for my operations it won’t respond and will get switched off showing me the blank screen. Please let me know what caused the problem? How much would be the cost for getting repaired.. I am in India Bangalore..If possible let me know the good customer Care Center in Bangalore..?

This is one of more than 100 comments left on that page, nearly all complaints or moving accounts from India of failed bids to get Nokia’s care and attention. Frankly I am developing a warped view of the subcontinent, as this place criss-crossed by lost souls bearing malfunctioning handsets, desperately looking for salvation in the form of a glowing Nokia logo.

Anyway, maybe I should introduce them all to Linda. A wire rod or two may be just the answer.

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The Economics of Journalism

Daniel Harrison at the The Global Perspective takes issue with my post about media companies no longer being about content and all about the medium. He makes a fair point, and it’s a good thoughtful post (I’ll forgive him getting my name wrong), concluding that “it is misleading to get side-tracked into a debate on medium, when content is what it’s about”:

The medium is changing, but this is nothing new. One hundred years ago most newspapers did not have pictures; now they do. So what? The act of news reporting and delivery is what the economics of journalism is about.

I don’t think, sadly, this is true.The economics of journalism is to make money through advertising, and to a lesser extent, through subscription. The content — how many reporters can be hired, how far they can travel — is largely determined by this. Some publications manage to ignore this with the help of wealthy patrons, but eventually they all fall into the same equation. Newspapers have been economic for so long because they represented a viable logistical operation for delivering content (and advertising). But if the technology of logistics changed, so would be the business model. That is what is happening now. The delivery mechanism has changed so radically that it’s also changing the content mechanism. If bloggers on the streets of Bangkok can get pictures and news of a coup before the wires and TV crews, why not make that part of your content?

His commentary is in the context of the broader tug of war between bloggers and journalists — one he is right to say has a tendency to get too personal, too vitriolic. This is one of those weird artefacts of this period of change, and we’re going to look back and wonder what all the fuss was  about. There will always  be room for professional journalists — reporters, editors, commentators and columnists — and Daniel is right to say that content, in that sense, is still going to be a priority for many media companies. But it will be in a much changed environment, where the walls between creator and consumer are broken down, where delivery, creation and sharing are part of the logistical machinery, and where a well-known, respected blogger is as credible as a well-known, respected journalist.

The Escalator Shuffle

I’m not sure it’s confined to any one culture because I see it all over the world, and I still don’t understand it. The Escalator Shuffle is when people in malls or wherever race to be ahead of others on escalators, but then stand still as soon as soon they’re on it, usually two abreast — or however many it takes to block any idiot who insists on walking up or down. No one is expected to try to pass, or scowls will be exchanged.

This of course is a very strategic manoeuver, and leaves them well-placed to, er, do what exactly? It prevents anyone passing them, which can only be a good thing for one’s self-esteem, but raises interesting questions as to why they rushed to be on the escalator if they’re not in so much of a hurry that they’re actually going to walk up or down said escalator? Because they want to show off their new pants to the folk standing behind them? Because they find all the other people trying to get on the escalator really ugly and don’t want to have to look at them as they glide up or down said escalator? Because they are exhausted from racing so fast to get on there first they couldn’t possibly walk a step further?

I must confess I don’t understand this. In Jakarta, Singapore or Bangkok it seems natural enough not to rush the whole escalator thing. No one is in that much of a hurry in these places, unless they’re in a car. But it always amused me in Hong Kong because there everyone will use any ruse to gain an extra inch on everyone else. But still, except for poor delivery folk whose life depends on getting everything done in 30 seconds, the escalator seems to be sacrosanct, a hallowed neutral zone where everyone can stop for a second, mop their brow and stare at the next person’s ass (going up) or hairpiece (going down). I guess it’s Hong Kongers’ idea of a holiday. Maybe that’s what the Escalator Shuffle is: a short holiday, in the middle of a busy day doing nothing in an air-conditioned mall.

Malaysia’s New PDA Phone

Malaysian company Fifth Media (beware: lots of Flash animation) will this week launch the Axia, a PDA phone that is small, and, at $525, ‘arguably the lowest-priced PDA phone’, according to today’s New Straits Times.

The Axia A108 is a GSM tri-band phone using Microsoft Windows CE.NET, with GPRS, MP3 player and 1.3 megapixel camera. There’s no Bluetooth, in case you’re wondering.

It will first appear in Singapore, Bangkok, London and Hong Kong. It will later be launched  in Paris, Mumbai, Jakarta, Manila and Dubai. Fifth Media, the Times reports, plans to launch three more models in the next year: the Axia A208 with a pocket personal computer and facsimile, a A308 with Bluetooth and a 2.0- megapixel screen, and the A338 with WiFi.