Tag Archives: The Jakarta Post

The Future of News

This is the latest despatch from Loose Wire Service, a sister service to this blog that provides newspapers and other print publications with a weekly column by yours truly. Rates are reasonable: Email me if you’re interested.

Jeremy Wagstaff discusses how the Internet has redefined journalism and the emergence of “hyperlocal” news

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was asked the other day to address a room full of media types about changes in consumer behavior; where, they wanted to know, are people looking for news in this new digital world?

It’s always a bad idea to get me to talk in public, especially on this subject, since I think it’s the wrong one. Or at least, the wrong way of looking at the subject. I gave them two reasons:

First, there are no consumers of news anymore. In fact, you’ve probably heard this said a lot, here and elsewhere that, in the era of MySpace, Wikipedia, OhmyNews and citizen journalism, everyone is a journalist, and therefore a producer, of news. No one is just a consumer.

Second, there is no news. Or at least there is no longer a traditional, established and establishment definition of what is news. Instead we have information. Some of it moving very fast, so it looks like news. But still information.

A commuter taking a photo of a policeman extracting bribes from drivers and then posting the picture on his blog? It’s not news, but it’s not just information either. It could be news to the policeman, and if he’s busted because of it could be good news to drivers in that town.

We journalists have been schooled in a kind of journalism that goes back to the days when a German called Paul Julius Reuter was delivering it by pigeon. His problem was a simple one: getting new information quickly from A to B. It could be stock prices; it could be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

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That definition of news has remained with us until today.

A lot of the time it remains a good one. When terrorists hit, we’d rather know sooner than later. If stocks in our portfolio are losing their value in a crash, we’d prefer to get that information now.

When Buddhist monks hit the streets of towns in Myanmar we look to AFP, Reuters and AP to get the news out.

But the Internet has changed a lot of this. First off, everyone is connected. By connected I mean they can look up anything they like so long as they’re near an Internet-connected computer. Which for a lot of people now means a 3G phone.

Even if you don’t have one, the chances are you’ll be in spitting range of a computer that is connected to the Internet. Or you could get you information by SMS — from news sites, from colleagues, from family members. It’s not that we’re not far from a gadget. We’re not far from information.

This has a critical impact on the idea of news.

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Because we’re informed, news doesn’t hit us in the same way it used to when we didn’t.

True, if someone hits a tall building with an airliner, that’s news to all of us. The U.S. invades or leaves Iraq; that’s news.

But the rest of the time, news is a slippery beast that means different things to different people.

That’s because there’s another kind of news we’re all interested in. It’s hyperlocal news. It’s what is around us. In our neighborhood. Since moving house I’m much less interested in gubernatorial elections and much more in anything that anybody says about en bloc sales and house prices.

That is hyperlocal news, and it’s where most people spend their day. No nuclear weapons being fired? No terrorist attacks? No meltdown in the financial markets? OK, so tell me more about en bloc sales. Actually, this is just part of hyperlocal news.

If you’ve used Facebook, you’ll know there’s another kind of addictive local news: your friends’ status updates. A status update, for those of you who haven’t tried Facebook, is basically a short message that accompanies your profile indicating what you’re up to at that point.

I think of it a wire feed by real people. Of course it’s not news as we’d think of it, but news as in an answer to the questions “What’s up?” “What’s new?””What’s happening?” “What’s new with you?”

In that sense it’s news. I call it hyper-hyperlocal news. Even though those people are spread all over the world, they’re all part of my friends network, and that means for me they’re local.

So news isn’t always what we think of as news. News has always meant something slightly different to the nonmedia person; our obsession with prioritizing stories in a summary, the most important item first (How many dead? What color was their skin? Any Americans involved?) has been exposed as something only we tend to obsess over.

Don’t believe me? Look at the BBC website. While the editors were putting up stories about Musharraf, North Korea and Japan, the users were swapping stories about Britney Spears splitting with her manager, the dangers of spotty face, and the admittedly important news that the Sex Pistols might be getting back together.

Of course, I’m not saying journalists are from Mars and readers are from Venus. It just looks that way.

What we’re really seeing is that now that people have access to information, they are showing us what they’re interested in. Unsurprisingly, they’re interested in different stuff. What we call audience fragmentation — niche audiences for specialized interests — is actually what things have always been about.

If we’re a geek we go for our news to Slashdot. We want gossip? We go to Gawker. We want to change the world? We go to WorldChangingOnline.org The Internet makes the Long Tail of all those niche audiences and interests possible, and possibly profitable.

What we’re seeing with the Internet is not a revolution against the values of old media; a revolution against the notion that it’s only us who can dictate what is news.

What we’re seeing is that people get their news from whoever can help them answer the question they’re asking. We want the headlines, we go to CNN. But the rest of the time, “news” is for us just part of a much bigger search for information, to stay informed.

AsiaMedia :: Oh my! The future of news

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A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A Beginner’s Guide to Scanning

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

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A lot of folk ask me whether they should buy a scanner: those things that take bits of paper, or photographs, and turn them into files your computer can use.

Frankly, I’m surprised by this (not the taking and turning, but the asking). Why would people not have a scanner? I have four.

Well, five, actually, if you include that little business card scanner sitting in a drawer somewhere. OK, six. I bought a backup scanner once in case all my other scanners eloped. I scan every piece of paper that I can.

I scan whole books I want to read on my computer. I scan coworkers who pass me in the corridor. The truth is that scanners can save you lots of time, space and pain. But I readily accept that my passion for scanning may not have won you over.

First off, don’t get your hopes up. Twelve years ago I bought a scanner that, lulled by the pictures on the box of pages flying into my computer, I thought would rid me of a ridiculous four-drawer filing cabinet full of stuff I had been lugging around Asia.

I was to be disappointed. Scanners won’t digitize everything paper, I learned, and sometimes they will but will take so long the task won’t be finished in your lifetime. No, scanners won’t make you paperless, but they may lighten your load.

So, the second task is to figure out what there is you have to scan, and then get the right scanner for the job. There are flatbed scanners, which look a bit like the tops of photocopiers, which scan one loose sheet of paper at a time. (You can sometimes buy sheet feeders that, well, feed the sheets in, to some of these units.)

These can be cheap: Less than US$100 will buy you a quality Canon device. These are good, and do the job well. They’re fine if you’ve got the odd document or photo to scan, or the odd chapter in a book you want to store on your computer.

But they’re not good if you’ve got lots of stuff. For this, I’d recommend something like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have one of the basic models (5110EOX, selling for $300 to $650), which looks a bit like a small fax machine, and it’s still going strong after three years of heavy-duty scanning.

You can only scan single sheets into it — none of the flatbed/photocopier option — but it will scan pages fast, front and back, without you having to do anything other than press a button. The pages are scanned direct to a common file format called PDF.

I love my ScanSnap. I will scan all incoming business mail — bills, receipts, statements, letters of eviction — which means I need keep no formal paperwork except the odd will or letter from Aunt Maude that has sentimental value. The ScanSnap can also handle business cards, which it can scan more or less directly into Microsoft Outlook.

Neither of these options is particularly portable. If you scan and you travel, you may want to consider a small portable scanner. NeatReceipts has two scanners that make more sense if you move around: one a thin, long device that looks more like a truncheon or night stick, and one a small, cigarette box-sized business card scanner.

Which brings me to the important bit of scanning: What happens to the document once it’s scanned. Most software simply converts a physical thing to a digital thing, but to make the text that is on that physical thing something you can edit, search or add to, you need to run more software over it called optical character recognition, or OCR.

This software – which usually comes included with the scanner — basically looks at the patterns in the image of your document that the scanning software has created and tries to figure out the letters.

OCR software nowadays is remarkably accurate, so long as you give it good, clean documents to start with. Don’t expect your spidery handwriting or a smudged and heavily annotated tome from the Dark Ages to come out 100 percent accurate.

NeatReceipts doesn’t just specialize in digitizing and organizing your receipts: The smaller device handles business cards too. But for most jobs, you’d be better off with something like Paperport, which will handle all the OCR for you and also help you organize your documents into folders.

Bottom line? Scanning stuff is a very useful way to keep your desk clear and to be able to find stuff. But you have to be disciplined about it, and get a rather perverse joy out of watching paper disappear into a roller.

And be prepared to be regarded by co-workers, friends and family as a bit of a freak.

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The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

A Beginner’s Guide to Managing E-mail

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

I’m always horrified when I see people’s e-mail inboxes.

They are always so full — brimming with messages that should have been answered, or should have been deleted, or should never have arrived in the first place.

It’s not the way to work, since you’re bound to lose stuff that way and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get steadily more and more depressed about all the stuff sitting there you won’t, after a while, even bother opening your inbox until after a stiff drink.

It needn’t be like that. Here’s my two-step recipe for e-mail order. Follow it and stay sober:

Keep all your e-mail in one place

In other words, make sure all your accounts are accessible from one location. It means that no e-mail will go missing, you’ll know exactly what you’ve got, and when you’re on the road you’ll have only one place to go to check.

Nowadays this is possible to do for nothing. This is how I do it, and how I think you should too:

  • Set up an account with Gmail. (More on why Gmail is best for this later.)
  • If you have other accounts, set them up so they land in Gmail. (For the complete instructions for this, go here). It’s a tad fiddly, but when it’s done you’ll be glad: Basically, Gmail will go off and fetch your e-mail from other accounts — and, most important, let you send e-mail from your Gmail account as if it is from those accounts.

(In other words, if you want to, you can continue to use Gmail as your main sorting office, while still using your old e-mail account, or accounts without having to add another e-mail address.)

Why is Gmail better? Well, it’s free, for one thing, and it loads quickly on slow machines. And it has a great — though not perfect — interface. Yes, it scans your e-mails to better target you with ads. For some people this is a showstopper.

But the advantages, for me, outweigh the disadvantages. (One point I should mention is that you can’t forward Yahoo! e-mail to Gmail, unless you have a paid account with Yahoo!.)

Get labeling

An inbox should be just that. A place where you pick things up. They shouldn’t stay there. A bloated inbox is like reading your physical mail and then putting it back in the mailbox at the end of your drive/in the lobby/on the door of your home.

It doesn’t make sense. So the cardinal rule of good e-mail management is to move anything you’ve read out of your inbox as soon as you can. That means having somewhere to move it and, in the past, that meant folders and subfolders. No more.

Gmail doesn’t use folders, it uses labels, which makes it possible to organize your e-mails in a logical way — since you can apply any number of labels to an e-mail, you’re not forced to agonize over which folder to put an e-mail in.

So one e-mail I receive could have the label “PR stuff” but also be labeled “USB devices” as well as “gadgets to check out”. (Not very inspired labels, I admit, but they work for me.)

Labels can be applied manually, or they can be automated via filters, which will do the labeling for you when the e-mail arrives.

Labeling in itself doesn’t solve the bloated inbox problem. Gmail has one more feature for this called Archive. One of your e-mails is either in the inbox (what you see when you open your account) or the Archive.

You can ask the filters to move incoming stuff straight into the archive, or you can select one, some or all the messages in your inbox and archive them with one button.

You’ll still be able to find them by doing a search, or, if they have a label attached to them, by clicking on one of the label links on the left. Archiving something merely moves it from your inbox.

Which is what you should do. Create lots of labels as you work — you can have as many as you like, but it makes sense to give them some thought. Assign incoming e-mails to labels manually or automatically as you read them.

Then, at the end of your working day, when you feel you’ve done everything you can with the e-mails in your inbox, select them all and archive them. You’ll then have an empty inbox, and — trust me — you’ll feel good.

Now you may not be able to get everything done before you go home. If necessary, you can create a special folder (mine’s called !Tickler — the ! ensures it’s at the top of my label list) which I put stuff in I still need to deal with.

Gmail offers its own solution: a star you can assign to an e-mail that will make it stand out. Either way, you have a way to ensure important stuff doesn’t get lost. (Of course, you then have to monitor your special label and make sure it doesn’t just become a siding for your inbox inefficiencies.)

One other tip: Gmail is great with spam. It will do a near-perfect job of getting rid of all the stuff you don’t want. But you still have to monitor your spam box and weed out the few good e-mails that land there.

Get into the habit of emptying the spam box every day, too, otherwise you might find you lose the occasional e-mail that got buried there.

In the future I’ll offer more tips on managing e-mail but this should get you started. Let me know how it works for you, or if you have other tips that work better for you.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

The Gecko in the Machine

 (This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)

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I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.

Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.

But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.

It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.

First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.

They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.

All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).

But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:

* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)

The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.

But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).

If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.

* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)

If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)

* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.

But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.

PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.

It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.

For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.

This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.

Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)

Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.

PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.

PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.

So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.

Why Journalists Aren’t Loved

The first reviews for Loose Wire the book are beginning to trickle in and I’m beginning to get a sense of what it’s like on the other side of the fence. First off, you can understand why us journalists aren’t well liked: If we are pleasant to people when we interview them the interviewee goes away thinking that a good write-up is assured — what sicko would be nice to someone in person and rude to them in print? Secondly, we can so easily make mincemeat of a product, a book, a service, a company that may have taken years of sweat, toil and marital peace to create. A few clicks on our keyboard and all that seems to be undone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the growth of the blogosphere as a form of journalism, there’s a growing blur online between the subject and the writer. No longer, it seems, are writers constrained by conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest: We write about anything and anyone, whether or not we have an interest, such as a friendship, a financial stake or whatever. (And yes, lots of people declare those interests, but that doesn’t stop them writing about it.) Nowadays, smart PR people woo journalists and influential bloggers in the hope that when the time comes to write about their product/service/company, they’ll feel inspired by the friendship to write something nice, or constrained by the friendship to not write something negative. This may not be a conscious goal, of course, but the assumption can easily be proven once the article is out: Did they feel a tad hurt that they didn’t get special treatment for all that prior relationship building?

In my case, the first three reviews have been written by people I know — one of them a long-standing friend — so perhaps, like any interviewee, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this person will do me a favor by writing something nice. Now on the other side of the fence, I can see how people might feel journalists are a two-faced bunch, being friendly over the phone or in person and then not writing something so friendly in print. But of course, our job is not about being nice, at least once pen hits paper. Then we need to think about our relationship with our readers, not with the person we’re writing about.

That said, you’d think I was setting up a posting that said the reviews were awful. They weren’t. The first batch of Jakarta reviews were not bad (the book is available on Amazon already,  but our first two launches have been in Indonesia cos that’s where I and my publisher live. More pix of the launches here.). Two of them are in Indonesian, one from the country’s largest circulation daily Kompas and one from Sinar Harapan, an afternoon paper, both of which did a fair job.

The only English language paper (OK, there’s another, but I’ve not seen it yet), the Jakarta Post, ran a review this morning, based in part on an interview I gave last week. The writer, young Australian journalist Jonathan Dart, felt that “it is full of useful tips and insights — but an advanced manual on modern technology it is not.” Fair enough; we make no claims to being that. His conclusion, however, is a positive one:

he’s also managed to do something which few technology writers — or species nerdus to be exact — have managed, a feat which is quite possibly a world first: He’s built a loyal fan-base of readers, many of whom would be comfortable in a social environment.

Jonathan did a pretty good job, and, I’m glad to say, didn’t appear swayed by our pleasant 90 minute chat during which I promised untold riches if he focused on my rugged good looks in his review. I’ve learned a lesson or two, though: Maybe we journalists need to manage the expectations of our subjects better — to prepare them for the reality that however much we like them as people, we’re not being paid to like them. We’re paid to represent the interests of our readers. But it might help to warn folk beforehand.

PS, thanks to the very nice and interesting Sharon Bakar, with whom I shared a panel recently, who recently wrote up her thoughts about the discussion here.

The Defense Minister’s Blog

I’m much amused that news that Juwono Sudarsono, a lovely man and Indonesia’s defense minister, has started blogging has hit the blogosphere. This from Shel Israel, co-author of naked conversations:

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about politician blogging. Today, I realized how very myopic that post was because I wrote only about American politicos and cited Independence Day. This came to my attention today through the Jakarta Post, where reporter Ong Hock Chuan mentions Naked Conversations in an article about Indonesia’s Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has started a blog.

Sudarsono’s most recent post deals with striking candor of the challenges of getting bureaucrats who clicked their heals in obedience under past government dictators to move with efficacy in the new democracy. His language remains a bit formal, but the content is pretty impressive stuff.

Blogging really is changing the world. I’m happy to be reminded of how much.

This even got picked up by a blogger at the World Bank (yes, I know! Whatever next?) who says it might be a hoax. It’s not; it’s legit. The site is held together by one of Juwono’s sons.

Actually, it is an important development, but with all due respect to Shel, Ong (who started all this discussion) and to the Bank, it’s probably a bit early to cite it as an example of blogging changing the world. Juwono is a very well respected figure in Indonesian politics, but he has always trod a lonely furrow. As far as I know he’s the first senior figure in either business or government in this country who has embarked on this initiative, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. He is engaging a young Indonesian audience and a foreign readership who remain understandably skeptical of the country’s leadership and direction. What he is not able to do through a blog is to engage the 200 million odd Indonesians who don’t have access to a computer, an Internet connection or English lessons. What is impressive, however, is that Juwono has replied to those people commenting on his blog (twice, on this post) so this is a good start. Congratulations, Pak.

Urine, Corrosion, And The Decay Of Bridges

You have to feel sorry for designers, particularly bridge designers. How can you factor in all the variables that will determine whether your bridge survives?

Take for example, a bridge in Palembang, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Built between 1962 and 1965, the 1,177-meter long and 22-meter wide bridge was named after the then president, Sukarno. When he fell from grace it was renamed Ampera (short for Amanat Penderitaan Rakyat or the Mandate of People’s Pain, according to The Jakarta Post, In Memory Of The Suffering of the People, according to others. They were difficult times and bridge namers were not given to levity). It is a distinctive-looking bridge, with two tall towers standing like guillotines above the Musi river. It is, in short, the pride of the region.

photo by Audy Mirza Alwi

It has been repaired a few times. The Post says it was renovated in 1981 after fears that flaws in the original construction might cause it to collapse. More recently the Japanese have funded (PDF) efforts to rehabilitate the bridge, especially after some serious underwater damage (mindful, no doubt, that the bridge was originally funded by war reparations from the Pacific War.) Despite some problems (like ships bumping into the bridge), the Japanese were able to report in late 2002 that “The project has contributed positively, based on the master plan, to urban development”.

Well, up to a point. Last Friday, The Jakarta Post carried a story headlined “Bridge in Palembang may collapse due to excessive urination”. Not really much more needs to be said, but let’s spell it out. The bridge is sloping. This ‘irregular slant’ had been confirmed by Professor Annas Ali, a highway and bridge expert at the public works office who conducted research on the bridge recently (presumably by standing on it and noticing that he was not standing, as we engineers call it, ‘straight’).

Upon further inspection officials noted that, in the words of the Post, “one of the reasons for the apparent structural deterioration was due to the frequency of people urinating on one of the steel pillars of the bridge, causing it weaken due to the corrosive forces of human urine.” This deterioration can be measured since you can actually feel the bridge ‘resonating’. This was proven by the head of the city’s transportation office, Syaidina Ali, who advised the Post reporter to ”try standing on the Ampera bridge. If the traffic passing on the bridge is heavy, you can feel it moving quite a bit.” Presumably he did not advise standing under the bridge in case a colleague was corrosion testing.

If someone had been, it wasn’t anyone from the highway and bridge department at the Palembang Public Works Office, whose head, Azmi Lakoni, was quoted by the Post as saying that his office had not yet done research on the condition of the bridge. But Mr Lakoni did agree on the urine theory. “The office has not yet done thorough tests on the slant of the bridge,” he said, ”but we are concerned that one of its main support piers has been weakened by urine, as it is a popular spot for locals to relieve themselves.”

This is not the only problem facing the bridge, and it’s another bitter lesson for bridge designers. “Another problem that was pointed out,” the Post report continues, “was that people had stolen pieces of the bridge.” This is always a hazard for bridges, but not uncommon in Indonesia (or Australia, thanks to Taka. As the Post explains: “In 1998, when the country was simultaneously in a state of euphoria and confusion sparked by the reformasi movement, thieves were known to have dismantled some parts of the bridge” by climbing the two towers and removing bits of them. It’s not clear from the report whether they were euphoric or confused when they did this, but one can only hope they were not relieving themselves.

My advice to tourists thinking of visiting the area: Avoid the bridge until this whole problem is sorted. But if you do find yourself in the area you now know of a good rest stop.