Monthly Archives:December 2010

Up from the Streets – Part 3

30 Dec 10
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Another great business. It seems the t-shirt companies really try the hardest to stand out. Read the yellow one:



Heard it on the Radio – Part 1

21 Dec 10
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Say what you will about commercial radio in the United States – and there are lots of negative things that can be said, especially when it comes to the complete lack of local news, or for that matter much of any other community service beyond remote dance parties – one thing done relatively well is the keeping of obscene material off the airwaves. As a father, I appreciate not having to worry too much about what the kids might hear were I to turn on the radio.

Not so, apparently, in Indonesia. Driving in the car the other day with the radio on, I began nodding my head when a popular song by the artist Pink came on. I’ve heard this many times in the airport, or even in the car. While I don’t particularly like the song, the refrain is especially catchy and seemed to have a harmless message:

“Pretty, pretty please, don’t you ever, ever feel, like you’re less than perfect.”

Or so it would go in the U.S. Here, however, they sometimes play the original version:

“Pretty, pretty please, don’t you ever, ever feel, like you’re less than fu#@ing perfect.”

“Pretty, pretty please, if you ever, ever feel, like you’re nothing, you’re fu#@ing perfect to me.”

It sure got my attention. Fortunately the kids weren’t around. That wasn’t the type of cultural exchange I expected during our Indonesian adventure – especially in the middle of the day.

Movie Reviews

17 Dec 10
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We love reading the reviews, or blurbs, they place on the video jackets that talk about each movie. Their goal is to convince you to buy the film.

Many of them are quite funny. Some of them are just words they know people want to hear – for instance, many family movies say the same thing: “A warm-hearted family movie.” Even when everyone in the kid movie dies of some odd disease, or famine or even eating grasshoppers, it’s still labeled as “warm-hearted.”

Many of them though are strange amalgams of sayings – odd things they mix together, sometimes taking phrases from several reviews and mixing them together, with sometimes hilarious results. Some of our favorite examples are below.

“Extraordinarily for most of its run time.”
The Last Airbender

“Full Action Pack.”
24 – Redemption

“One Day is Enough for You!”
Knight and Day

“Entertainingly Epic Eye Candy.”

“This is a seriously crazy-ass film”
Observe and Report (Okay, this one could actually be real, but it’s still funny)

“She’s rampage.”
“Killing spree.”

“The Hearts of Children Will Love It.” (What about the rest of them???)
Animals United

“A pure thriller, all blood, no frills, in which a lot of people get shot, mostly in the head.” (Clearly a fun family film. Maybe even ‘warm-hearted’)
Faster (Dwayne Johnson)

“Perfect comedy… you watch it!”

“Smooth, compelling, almost suspenseful.” (But not quite, apparently. Clearly describes any Tom Cruise movie)

“Movie In This Year.”
Tom and Jerry in Space

“A Pretty Good Film, Albeit a Straight One.” (Good. No gay cartoon characters for my kids)
Arthur and the Minmoys 3

“The pile-driving pop-culture jokes, and the moments of weird, early-mad-magazine comic invention.”
The Princess Frog (The Princess Frog – Mad Magazine???)

“Hollow, lightweight entertainment.”
The Mummy III

“Surprisingly uneven and marginally entertaining.”
Meet the Fockers

And my personal favorites:

“The result is a brisk trot through a story that is, at heart, a tough slog.”
“Not Every Incredible Story Makes a Compelling Movie.” (You can sure say that again)
The Way Back

All damned faint praise, I’d say.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

12 Dec 10
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Piracy is alive and well in Indonesia.

Not the sort of piracy we read about today off the coast of Somalia, or even more recently closer to India.

That’s not to say that Indonesia is not acquainted with piracy on the high seas – this region has a long, colorful history of piracy.

Over the years this region has produced much of the world’s more expensive spices. Monsoons provide just the right amount of water for pepper plants. Volcanic ash and the equatorial heat create the perfect conditions for many other spices. And their many uses in Europe and other parts of the old world long made them an expensive commodity, so a worthwhile target for criminals.

Before the days of refrigeration, some spices were valued for their preservation qualities, as well as for the ability to make salted food palatable during a long hard winter. In Elizabethan times, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague. In ancient Egypt, cassia and cinnamon were essential for embalming. Spices were a major commodity, and many of them came from the Malay Archipelago.

This availability of spices attracted people interested in making fast money from international trade. And the region’s geography made it a perfect place for pirates hoping for a share of the loot.

The Straits of Malacca and the Sunda Strait are what naval officers call “choke points;” an area of water squeezed between two points of land, where all shipping traffic must travel. It’s a term still used by naval planners today. Water traffic funneled into a choke point is vulnerable to attack, and the areas around these straits are filled with nearby coastal streams that can, and did, provide shelter for marauders. So for many years coping with pirates was simply a cost of business in the region.

Today, while some shipping piracy continues, especially in nearby Malaysia, the real action does not come from ransoming cargo, but rather from intellectual theft.

Here in Bandung that translates into movies, music and video games. Street stalls display copies of the latest movie releases, often before those same titles appear in the area’s cinemas. New titles for the Play Station 2 and Xbox are everywhere.

Most of us know someone who simply has to be the first person to see the latest movie. Remember those long lines for Star Wars, or Harry Potter releases? I never quite understood the costume thing.

Soon after arriving though we quickly learned to avoid the first copies of new movies. These are for die-hard movie fans only. That’s because they’re made even before a DVD or VHS copy of the movie is available to the public (yes, some movies we’ve seen have been recorded off VHS tape – the visible tape creases and video noise are unmistakable).

It’s curious how this can happen. I first thought that perhaps a stolen print was intercepted on its way to a movie theatre, or that someone inside a movie company or distribution firm was sneaking out an electronic copy. In reality though, it’s decidedly more low-tech than that. Someone, most likely located in nearby China or Hong Kong or Singapore, all of which have been considered at times to be major piracy hubs, simply sneaks into a theatre with a movie camera. They sit in the front row, point a camera at the screen, and that’s all there is to it – the first screening copy.

Before arriving here I had heard of such prints, and in your mind you think you can imagine what it’s like to watch one. But you’d probably be wrong. It’s honestly something you should experience at least once in your life, preferably by watching a comedy.

The first giveaway that you may be about to watch a hand-held movie is the previews they sometimes leave on at the beginning. Some of the videos even start during the “please turn off your cellphones and do not smoke in the theatre” warnings that are screened before every show.

The technical quality of the video really varies. Some are almost crystal clear, obviously shot with a high-end camera by someone worried about producing a good image. Others are so out of focus and sound so terrible that I suspect the original was recorded on an iPhone.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of all those horrible news videos submitted by just about everyone with a cellphone now when they witness a traffic accident or a police chase. Low on content, high on annoyance.

Then there’s the framing. It’s important for the secret videographer to be all the way down front, to prevent a lot of heads from appearing at the bottom of the video (although some movies have just that). But if you’re all the way down front, it’s impossible to have a wide enough lens to take in the whole screen, so the video is cut off on the edges, often missing much of the important action.

The worst part though is the audio. No matter how good the video might be, the audio is always bad – it’s next to impossible to record good audio when your camera is hidden up your sleeve. And in today’s movie theatres, with surround sound systems, some speakers are on the side walls. This portion of the audio is either missing entirely, or comes into the camera system with a slight delay, causing some echoing.

And then there’s the crowd. People don’t sit quietly while watching movies here. Indonesian theatres have surprisingly comfortable seats that can recline a bit while letting you collapse into deep cushions. These seats are often more comfortable, actually, than those found in many homes, including ours. This comfort level apparently makes people feel right at home, so they seem to behave as if they are.

Some people smoke, even though you’re not supposed to. One father, sitting in the row behind us during the latest Harry Potter movie, proceeded to explain, using a loud voice, the whole movie to his young son sitting next to him (who was really too young to be watching the movie in the first place) and didn’t stop through the whole movie.

Some people even take cell calls in the theatre. And one person near me during one screening would call a friend to provide periodic movie updates. I suspect it’s this stuff that leads people to buy those pirated movies in the first place.

So now imagine what those secretly taped movies are like to watch.

We did watch one – the kid’s movie, “Despicable Me.” I purchased this when we first arrived here before I knew about these early releases. What did I know – I thought we were buying a legitimate copy.

Watching it (on our large screen TV that came with the house), I flashed back to the old Mystery Science Theatre 3000 show. You know, the show with the robot and his friends sitting at the bottom of the picture sharing comments with each other about the movie.

People were sitting at the bottom of our screen as well. They would regularly shift position. Someone would leave periodically for snacks, coming back a few minutes later with a big box of popcorn and a soda. And that wasn’t even the most annoying part of the experience.

That was reserved for the audio. The sound was muddy, sometimes so much so that you had to back the video up for a second try at understanding what was being said (subtitles really help, although often they too are quite hilarious). The best part though was the laughter. I still don’t know how this was possible, but somehow the audience knew beforehand what was going to happen. So just before anything funny occurred (the movie is a family comedy) they would begin to laugh. And laughter also came at the worst possible moments – say, when someone says “I’m going to kill you.”

This was the last time we watched an early release movie.

We have our own store we visit. It’s located in the Pasteur HyperPoint, on Jalan Pasteur not far from where the kids go to school. It was the first place we bought movies, and as it turns out it’s also the best movie place we’ve found.

I’ve become friends with one of the employees, who works six days a week (a typical work schedule here, where good jobs are scarce and employers take advantage of that fact) so he’s always around when we stop by. He is fascinated by the kids, especially Adam’s long hair. And although he’s young he is a movie and jazz aficionado. His recommendations have always been excellent, introducing us to such musical artists as the British jazz singer Adele. And he watches out for us, telling me when a movie is still a hand-held version rather than a DVD copy. When a particular video is bad, they’ll even take it back and give me a new one.

To be honest, I don’t know for certain that all of these movies are pirated. They come in plastic bags with the same color inserts you would find with a legal copy, even though the text is not always the typical copy you might expect. The blurbs from reviewers are often hilarious. One example: “Justice is fast – revenge is fatter.” The DVDs themselves have the appropriate label stamped on them as well. Perhaps the real giveaway though is the price. If we buy several at a time (which we always do), they can cost as little as 5800Rp, or about 75 cents each.

Finding a legitimate movie store though is just about impossible, and with 70 cent movies for sale, rentals are nowhere to be found. Even our Netflix live-streaming account won’t work overseas. So for now, we’re stuck with our local store, the good service, and the sometimes bad movies.

Heard on the Television – Part 1

08 Dec 10
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Bad TV writing is not just an invention of the American media. This quote was seen on a television news program’s crawl after the eruption of Mt. Merapi in October:


“The death toll has climbed – another person has died.”


While any death from a disaster such as this is tragic, the issue is scale. One additional death rarely means the toll has “climbed.” Unless, of course, your aim is to sensationalize the news.

Creepy Crawlies – part 2

06 Dec 10
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As part of my Fulbright I’m researching famed British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and his travels around the Malay Archipelago. Wallace produced a couple of important papers about evolution while he was here, and those papers are the primary focus of my work.

Wallace though was also a major collector of the flora and fauna. He sold much of what he collected in order to fund his expedition. So the kids and I have decided we should follow in his footsteps – we’re doing some collecting of our own.

So far we’re just finding our samples around the house, and at least for now we’re not lacking in material. In fact, the appearance of so many things with more than two legs was a major factor in our decision to collect. But before we could start, we needed to gather our equipment.

I’ve always wanted to learn more about insects and other creepie crawlies. So I brought to Indonesia a collection of bug jars. Some are round, with a magnifying glass built into the top for better examination. Others are simply plain plastic boxes, square or rectangular in shape.

It’s been quite a learning curve so far. The first lesson was that these boxes hold a lot of air, and it takes a long time for a small bug inside to actually die. Which of course is a bit disconcerting for the kids. So we had to figure something out – some way to more quickly kill these critters without a lot of pain.

Wallace, when he lacked other materials, used a local alcohol called Arak. Back in the 1800s it was distilled from the sap of toddy palms. Today it is also made in some places from rice (this alcohol should not be confused with the similarly-named Arak of Middle Eastern descent, which is made from grapes). Regardless of its source, it has a high alcoholic content (as high as 60% or more), which made it useful for preserving Wallace’s specimens.

A quick aside: Arak leads to major problems of drunkenness in some parts of Indonesia. It also can kill – in 2009 a number of Indonesians, as well as foreigners, died after drinking Arak laced with methanol. A fact I was grateful to learn after Adam and I each sampled a bit of Arak while on Bali.

I did not want to purchase Arak simply to waste it in search of a quick kill, so we tried the next best thing – Purell hand cleaner. We brought Purell with us, assuming that at times we would not be near a place where we could wash our hands. It’s great to have a small bottle when on planes, or while riding on a bus where you may be sharing a seat with someone’s rooster. But one good thing about Purell is rather than clean by using harsh antibacterial chemicals, like so many of the soap products now available in the U.S., it uses ethyl alcohol. In fact, it’s 65% alcohol.

So we’ve found that by using a napkin soaked in Purell (and now distilled alcohol, which we eventually found in a drug store) we can more humanely dispatch our specimens.

We’ve only been collecting for a couple of weeks, and admittedly with school, after school activities, homework and sleep, there isn’t much time left for bugs. But in that short span we have found a number of interesting items.

Twice now we have had a huge wasp fly into our house. And when I say huge, I mean blotting-out-the-sun huge. They look like they could be used by the military to transport tanks – that kind of huge.

Our house has a portion that is an open two story section. It’s sort of a family area, where the TV and our stereo sits, and the openness provides a great acoustic sound when we play music. It also makes for a great wasp flyway. So these wasps have flown in the back door, then glided up into our airspace and played, out of reach of brooms and other utensils we commandeered in an attempt to knock them out of the sky.

So Aris and I resorted to throwing pillows from the couch. Each time this has first served to simply make the wasp mad. A direct hit may knock it halfway down the wall, where it buzzes angrily at us before climbing once again to the ceiling. An errant pillow sometimes crashed into the chandelier (yes, the place has a chandelier – it came with the house), shaking it but thankfully not doing any damage. Another might smash into the top of the big-screen TV (which also came with the house) or rattle the large picture window. Finally, a pillow will hit the wasp, it clings to the pillow, and both fall to the floor where Aris, acting well over his pay grade at this point, pounces on it.

The first wasp we simply killed and threw outside (or I should say Aris killed while I watched from a safe distance). However, the second one went into a collecting jar to surprise the kids when they got home from school.

It actually looks rather tame in the picture, but I swear it could have carried one of us off if we hadn’t been careful. Its length was about 4cm, or 1.5 inches. And yet it’s not even large by Asian standards. There’s another one, called the Asian Giant Hornet, which will fill your whole hand and devour your cat. I’m grateful we haven’t seen one of those yet.

We’ve also collected a moth. This capture was much simpler than that of the wasp. In fact, Adam found it – I never saw it until it was in the collecting jar. Butterflies too are common. One day we had one in the front yard that looked just like a monarch. We checked on-line and found some differences, but nonetheless it looked a lot like our American butterfly. Even dragonflies have made an appearance.

My favorite so far though made its way into the house this week. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam spotted something scurrying under the couch. He immediately grabbed a specimen container and began the chase. It didn’t take long before he had an earwig under plastic.

Earwigs are really interesting to watch. They have long, narrow, flattened bodies with wicked-looking pincers at the rear. They have a broad range, and are quite common in the U.S. Their shape allows them to hide in small places as well as under the bark of trees. Earwigs are omnivores, and have a pretty varied diet.

It’s not clear whether the name earwig came from the myth that these insects crawl into people’s ears, or if the myth was created because of the name. But one thing is clear – they do not slide into your ear, like the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams fame, and lay eggs on your brain (although a small one could wander a short distance into your ear, according to Wikipedia). The one we found is slightly less than two inches long, so navigating your ear canal would be pretty tough for this guy anyway.

The pincers are used to capture prey. They also use them to defend themselves, but they do not contain poison, and they really won’t hurt a human, even if they pinch them.

The toughest thing for us is the display of our collection, now that we’ve started one. Wallace had huge problems with ants, which would swarm his specimen table and devour his insects, birds, and just about anything else he left out. He resorted to putting the table legs in cans of water, which would deter all but the most intrepid ants.

We have the same problem. I was going to mount the insects on a big piece of foam. But before I could get started, ants had discovered air holes in one of our specimen jars, and had begun to eat a dragonfly.

Then last night another problem made an appearance as I was heading to bed after we caught the earwig. The kids were asleep and I was upstairs when I heard the sound of plastic hitting the floor. I went down, and with a flashlight I scanned the counter where we had placed the bugs. A gecko was scurrying off, after trying so zealously to eat the earwig that he knocked the container onto the floor.

While some things I have read claim that there are no geckos in this area, I’m certain that the lizards living in our house are indeed geckos. These lizards are unique among their kind, because they make an odd chirping sound when engaging in social behavior with other geckos. And our lizards can make a lot of noise. One seems to hang out just across the street, and late at night makes the loudest belching sound I’ve ever heard from such a small animal. Those in our house also vocalize.

Most of our geckos are about 15cm, or six inches long, although one tiny one seemed to follow Adam around for a while one evening, chasing him from his bedroom to the living room and back and trying to crawl up his arm. He was probably no more than six to seven centimeters long.

Their coloration ranges from a pinkish purple to a more subdued sand color. They appear to be almost rubber in consistency, but they are slightly moist to the touch. Some can be captured and held for a few moments before they try to scurry away. Geckos don’t have eyelids, which gives them that bug-eyed look made famous by the Geico gecko on the U.S. TV commercials. Those eyes though are rather unique, and provide the lizards with excellent color vision in low light.

These are probably what are called common house geckos. They love climbing all over the walls, and they are fun to watch as they race up and down, but they only come out at night so we don’t always see them. But we know they’ve been about, because of the little piles of gecko poop all over the floor in the morning (it took us a few days to figure out that particular mystery).

We don’t mind it too much though. That’s because of the gecko diet. Geckos, especially house geckos such as ours, thrive on insects, including mosquitos. I can only imagine what our ant population would be like if it weren’t for the dozens of geckos that live in and around our house. And eating mosquitos will reduce the chance of one of us contracting dengue fever.

So we’re enjoying our insect hunts. I hope the kids learn something about Indonesia by examining some of its smallest residents. I’m disappointed that we won’t be able to properly display our insect collection. But I must confess I’m also glad for the pooping geckos, because they keep the majority of the critters at bay.