Here Thar Be Monsters!

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In The Garden of Eden

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, in a magical place called the Garden of Eden in some traditions.

Imagine a place where you never had to worry about planning for the future. If you were hungry, you reached up and plucked a fruit or gathered up a little grain or caught one of the myriad animals just lying around the place. You never needed to worry about the consequences of your actions, because everything you threw away simply decayed or sprouted anew. Fish and crustaceans were so plentiful that you had only to reach in the water and pull one out.

There was no need for planning, because there was always plenty of everything. You didn't have to cultivate or store up for winter. The day was always 12 hours and the night, too. The temperatures were always mild and there was always a nice sea breeze. There was six months of rain and six months of dry. The most effort you had to put out was to cut down some bamboo and lash together a shelter from the rain. Took all of two or three days work for something that would last for years.

You didn't need clothes, because it never got cold, and if you were hot, you played in the waterfall or swam in the ocean. There was no need to store information, because what ould you tell future generations, except how to peel a banana or the best way to tie a knot in coconut rope? You could children all they needed to know about survival in a couple of lazy afternoons. Everything you needed was everywhere.

The only history you worried about was the last landslide in the rain season. The oldest of the old might remember a volcano or serious earthquake. But those were acts of God and there was nothing that could be done about it, so why worry? There was no need for math or engineering or even war. Navigation was limited to sailing to visible islands, and if there were none visible, then you lived on the only piece of land in the world. Nothing existed beyond the waters.

You didn't need to predict the weather because there were no crops to worry about, or winters to plan for, or typhoon season for which to prepare. So astronomy was little more than a passing curiosity about those lights in the sky. You didn't have to move flocks around or house them at certain times of the year.

In short, life was almost perfect all the time.

Your language would not need tenses. The eternal present tense was enough. There was no theater, because there was no history to dramatize. Art was pretty much limited to carvings and weaving. Didn't need pottery, because there was nothing to store. Music and dancing would be really popular, and you culture would highly value good musicians and singers, but the songs mostly dealt with love and longing, because that was about the strongest emotion anyone ever had.

Your language would have many ways to express love, dealing with the many aspects of that emotion. But, it would be very simple for things like buying and selling, because other than some handcrafts, there was not much need to commerce. Concepts about medicine would be very simple. You were either sick or not, so you only had one word to describe each, and one word to describe the cure.

Your culture would not think about pollution, because there was no such thing. Banana peels decayed and seeds grew into more fruit trees. If you used wrappers for cooking, they were made of leaves or bamboo and throwing them on the ground didn't matter. Worst case scenario, you just burned what you didn't want to keep it from rotting and smelling bad.

Language and culture are all a product of environment and experience. If you want to understand Indonesia, just return to the Garden of Eden and you can see the roots of today.


Tortured Logic

I read this morning that a volcano in Iceland has produced an ash cloud that has interrupted European air traffic and has created a chemical soup that threatens ecological disaster. This puts me in mind of a thought problem I have mulled for many years now to whit: why do we distinguish between Natural and Man-Made disasters? The idea that somehow Mankind can create problems that are unnatural is predicated on the idea that we humans are outside of Nature.

The logic, as I see it, is as follows: Mankind exists outside of Nature, therefore any action on our part is unnatural, so that we can choose to live in harmony with Nature, or act in ways that are against Nature.

I recall one of George Carlin's superb HBO concerts. George, of course, was a stand-up philosopher, a la Mel Brooks' character in 'History of the World, Part I.' In one of the concerts, George concludes with a rant along the lines of this article, that Mankind cannot produce something that is unnatural. To paraphrase him, how do we know that Nature did not produce Man because it could not produce plastic itself? Being unable to create plastic on it's own, Nature had to create an agent (Mankind) in order to perform the process on its behalf.

Thus, to the crux of the issue: if Mankind is a product of Nature, then Mankind is incapable of acting in a manner that is unnatural. Now we may do things that are unpopular, distasteful, immoral, even evil, but those are all human constructs based on our interpretation of sensual data by the individual and the collective. They are not, in fact, objective judgments about our actions. They are subjective conclusions based on a limited point of view.

To state things the other way around, if the mind of Man is a natural product of natural processes, then we are incapable of conceiving of, or doing anything that is unnatural. An oil spill might be the result of our actions, but it is not unnatural. Oil is a natural product, found commonly in the Universe (in fact, Saturn's moon Titan is awash in hydrocarbons) and Nature itself produces oil spills in the form of tar pits and the like. Plastics are products of hydrocarbon wax (paraffin).

In like manner, atomic fission and fusion occurs in stars, which are natural objects found by the trillions. A screwdriver is an extension of our figernails and a hammer is an extension of our fist. Every technology we have or will conceive of is a product of our minds, which are themselves natural phenomena. It is impossible for humans to think of or do something which is unnatural.

There is some validity to the argument that our actions can be good and evil. Good and evil are constructs of our minds and therefore natural divisions. However, as a kabbalist might point out, my guardian angel is your most fearsome demon. All things are a matter of perspective, but not necessarily unnatural.

One might argue that Man's destruction of his environment is unnatural, but as any high school biology student knows, if you culture a bacteria in a medium, it will grow unabated until it has completely consumed the medium and the whole colony dies. A parasite often thrives at the expense of its host until both host and parasite die. It is illogical, but not unnatural. These phenomena exist outside the cause and effect of human action, but by extension humans can behave in the same manner without being outside of Nature.

Ultimately, all disasters are natural. Whether Man is the agent or the victim is simply a matter of degree, but either way the disaster itself is completely natural. Whether it is a volcano or a chemical plant explosion, the result is the same. The only difference is whether Man was the agent and had some ability to avert the situation. Whether we are the agent or the volcano is, is inconsequential.

I suppose, in the end, what differentiates us from other natural phenomena is that we are capable of modifying our environment to our best advantage. That we have a choice not to consume our medium until the point of extinction is the advantage of sentience, but sentience is not unnatural. Smart or stupid are value judgments, and in the greater scheme of things, they are inconsequential. What is a tragedy for one species is an advantage for others. We are but one species among millions on this planet, and our planet is but one among trillions that can be inferred from current data. Therefore, our choices and actions, either individually or collectively, are of vanishing significance in the greater tapestry that is Nature. Once we have achieved our purpose, Nature will dispose of us, as it has of countless other species before us. All that we are, all that we have achieved, can be wiped out in an instant by an Act of Nature, whether that act be the sun going nova, or Mankind vanishing by its own hand. Ask the people of Banda Aceh or Pompeii if they distinguish between natural and man-made disasters.

In the end, all the hand-wringing about climate change or oceanic trash pits or other cause celebre du jour, is pointless. Either we, as a species, choose to act in a way that promotes our survival, or we don't. Either way, it makes no difference to the Universe at large. Nature will exist either way.

In a way, it's like the health craze. You can eat well, exercise daily, reduce unnecessary risks, and pray daily, and still die. The issue is the quality of the time you have, not the quantity. I know many people who are rabid climate changers who own multiple vehicles, live in large houses and consume far more than their needs. Al Gore comes to mind. Yet, they want to be comfortable, just like every other human being on Earth. It all comes down to our motives as both individuals and as a species.

A disaster is a disaster, regardless of the agent. Human history is replete with examples of great advances based of great tragedies. When we look back, we see that it had to be, but when we are in the midst of it, we bemoan the suffering. All a matter of perspective.

My father had a sign on his desk for many years that read, "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your first thought was to drain the swamp."

Truer words I have not heard.


For I Have Touched the Face of God

Today seems as good as any to take a sharp deviation from my usual subjects and touch upon the nature of, as Douglas Adams said, Life, the Universe and Everything. What prompts these musings is a combination of events: first, I've been re-reading the Bible (as I am wont to do occasionally so I can argue effectively with Osteen-bots), the ESA's Mars Express fly-bys of Phobos recently, and Richard Hoagland's latest tying elements of the former and the latter together.

What has always intrigued me about the first couple of books in the Bible is the way in which the characters talk to and about God as if he is a real person. They sit and talk, eat and drink. Jacob wrestles with God...physically. Moses has extended jam sessions with God, in which he doesn't eat or drink for months and gets a glowing face out of the deal. Abraham sees God coming from a distance and quickly clean up the place to receive visitors, who later in the story pop over to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Something about the way the visitors look clues Abraham in that these are God and friends. Not to mention, there are glowing clouds, pillars of fire and God taking afternoon strolls in the Garden of Eden.

OK, next is the ESA's Mars Express mission. After a couple of years in orbit around Mars, the craft's orbit takes it several times past Phobos at very close range, closer than any craft before. Phobos, in case you don't know, is the larger and inner-most moon of Mars. So this special occasion sets up for some cool science. The probe will use its range sounding as a way to map the gravity well of Phobos, while the radar will pound on the moon to get an idea of how it is put together.

Turns out, multiple data from multiple experiments reveal that the moon is at least 1/3 hollow. Now, at first blush, that wouldn't be ground shaking news, but the radar tests reveal that the caverns inside are geometrically regular, with right angles and a seeming pattern to them.

Wait a minute...

A moon of another planet, with an unusual and decaying orbit, has 'rooms' inside??!!

So in comes Hoagland with another of his famous multi-part cliff-hangers, who posits that Phobos, if part natural, has been engineered to make it a spacecraft! Ok, you're thinking, let's not get carried away here...but think about it. A moon that should not be where it is (astrophysics cannot supply an adequate theory as to how Phobos came to be where it is), that is at least 1/3 hollow, and whose hollows are in a form that cannot be natural. Sure, you can write Hoagland off as a quack (you wouldn't be the first), but the European Space Agency is pretty credible and the science behind the radar mapping is well established. And the data is from multiple passes and correlates with Russian data from it's own craft that was lost in the late 80s. In other words, the data comes from multiple craft, multiple instruments and multiple passes. The error ration is getting pretty small.

So, how does my mind tie all this together? Well, when I read the Bible, and taking it as at least a semi-accurate record of someone's experience, the fact that some people experienced God as a physical being who walked, ate and hung out on the porch. Others experienced him as techno light shows and sound effects. And all seem to have experienced God as multiple personalities and beings, though using the same designation. I say designation, because in fact God used many different names and even refers to himself as 'we' in Genesis.

Sprinkle all of this with cargo cults and the Dogon, and one could be forgiven for thinking history books are sadly incorrect.

It is astounding to ponder the possibility that a moon of Mars may in fact be modified or manufactured by someone that is quite obviously not us. It is difficult at best to ascribe geometric cavities inside an extraterrestrial moon as being natural in any sense of the word. We have spent billions of dollars and decades of research scratching around on Mars looking for microbes, when circling overhead was a derelict spacecraft manufactured by an alien culture...and abandoned for some reason. This also calls into play Hoagland's pet theory about Cydonia and the "Face on Mars," as well as the myriad "ruins" that others have found on the surface of Mars. It also begs the question, did Abraham really have tea with God? And if he did, was that creature one of the builders or users of Phobos? And if so...well, you see the point The questions are not so astounding as the answers. I mean, after all, it could mean that our history and development have been guided by alien cultures for millennia!

Suddenly debatable sightings of UFOs and breathless recountings of alien autopsies just pale in comparison to an artifact...a spacecraft 15 miles long in orbit around another planet.

Where does this leave us? Well, according to Hoagland, the ESA is set to announce its findings sometime this year, including the possibility of artificiality. In the next year or so, the Russians will again try to get to Phobos, with the Phobos-Grunt mission, which is supposed to return actual samples. Mars Express will probably get another turn or two at the job, as well.

If all stays on the same track, then 2010 may well be the year that everything changes...everything!

And that's the problem with thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything. The more you look at it, the more it just makes you go...hmmmm.


Jam in a Botol

One of the most confusing, frustrating and bewitching things about Indonesian life, at least to Westerners, is the measurement and concepts of time here. It requires a nearly complete reframing of your assumptions. Additionally, if you are a Type A personality, you will be apoplectic in short order. Coming from the US or Europe requires you to stomp on the brakes and start selling a lot of flowers while you wait.

The first concept you will run into right away is that of 'jam karet,' or flexible time. I have seen Westerners almost have heart attacks over this. Basically, if an Indonesian makes an appointment at 9 a.m., he will show up somewhere between 9:15 and 10:00. I know one person who is particularly self-important, who routinely is 2 to 3 hours late, just to demonstrate their social rank.

It helps to think of every meeting as a doctor appointment, where you are required to show up at the appointed hour, even though you know the doctor won't get around to seeing you for another 45 minutes.

Appointments are just the surface. If someone says they will call you tomorrow, do not hold your breath. The call could come anytime in the next week. The same goes for just about everything. Most Westerners find this insulting, frustrating and/or rude. However, there is an underlying cultural reason that allows for this kind of thinking.

As always, I turn to language to show the root of the problem. In Indonesian, 'kemarin' means yesterday, and 'besok' means tomorrow. But, here's the trick: both words do not strictly refer to the preceding or next days. They can refer to anytime in the recent past or near future. There are subtle linguistic clues that tell you how far yesterday or tomorrow is meant. However, like all people using a second language, they will often use the direct English translation and forget to 'flavor' the word with other descriptors that you would get from context in Indonesian.

Thus, when making appointments or discussing past or future events, it is best to clarify your meaning. If you want someone to meet you at precisely 9 a.m., then say so. If you are refering to yesterday or tomorrow, be sure that you are clear that it is the previous or next day.

The next problem is easily remedied, but require some practice. Indonesians express the half hour as before the next hour, rather than after the last hour. In other words, 4:30 is half to 5. This primarily affect Americans who have a psychosis about time that forces them to tell time by the precise numbers (e.g.- 4:41 instead of quarter to 5). With a little patience, you get the hang of it.

The one that I find most confusing, and leads to many missed meetings or dates for a lot of people, is the idea that the day begins the previous night. For example, our Tuesday night is an Indonesian's Wednesday night, and when they refer to 'tonight,' they are talking about the previous one, not the forthcoming one. So if someone wants to meet you on Saturday night, they are talking about Friday. Now the tricky part is some English speakers make the adjustment, while others do not. Be sure to ask. If you are speaking Indonesian, then the rule always applies.

Once you begin learning the Indonesian language, it gets worse quickly. Indonesian does not have verb tenses like most Western languages, therefore the verb is modified with a dizzying array of time stamps in order to show past, present and future. The most difficult concept is 'before,' which in Engish is used for both past and future and is modified by other words. In Indonesian, there are at least five different ways to say before, and they each have a different 'flavor' that expresses past time or future time.

Even if you are a tourist and have no desire to learn the language, you will be affected because, like all foreign speakers of a language, they will tend think in their native tongue and transliterate, rather than translate; they will tend to use their native 'framing' and choose words that have the same dictionary meaning, but vastly different connotations and subtext. This includes the use of idioms that make little or no sense in English. Think of the English idiom 'take a shower,' and you will see the point. If I transliterate that to Indonesian, it would imply that I am dismantling and removing the act of bathing. Yeah, makes no sense.

Whether you are a tourist, or coming to stay for a while, you will want to be aware of these things. It will save you a lot of headache and aggravation. Since I am hardwired for punctuality, I cannot make myself late, no matter what I do. So, I try to set appointments at coffee shops or cafes where I can relax and enjoy my wait. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If you can't join 'em, find a way to enjoy it anyway.

So, until tomorrow (next week), relax and enjoy the ride!


The Golden Years

I've had a couple of friends ask me about retiring in Indonesia. Can it be done? What is the cost of living? Will my retirement income cover my needs? The answers are, "Yes." Indonesia offers cheap living, diverse cultural and natural attractions and a native population that is generally receptive. Prices given assume an exchange rate of Rp.10,000/$1.

For the purposes of illustration, I will use one friend who receives a military pension and Social Security (USA). His total income per month is roughly $4,000.

As far as living expenses, he could take a decent apartment, fully furnished with basic appliances, centally located to shopping and entertainment, with pool, workout room, steam room, 24-hour security (key card and live guards). Cost for a one-year, prepaid contract is around $2,500. Water and electric, plus security and maintenance fees are additional, so that total expense would be about one month's income for the entire year.

He could add a full-time maid for about $50/month and food for both (3 meals a day cooked at home) would be in the range of $60/month. Five gallons of drinking water per week is about average will take about $1.50/week. A cab ride from one end of Jakarta to the other in average traffic runs about $10. The highest I have ever seen in 2 years is $20. A very nice dinner out, with steak and wine for two, runs about $100.

If you live within your means and don't do a lot of clubbing or spend a lot of time at bars, this friend could live nicely for two months of his income per year. That leaves 10 months for savings or travel. Jakarta is central to pretty much anything in Asia. In about 3-4 hours, you can be in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Shanghai, Taipei, Perth, Melbourne, and Manila. That doesn't even include such local attractions as Bali, Manado and Batam. Discount travel is available on airlines such as Air Asia, or the flagship carrier Garuda Air offers excellent service, all with new aircraft. Prices are extremely reasonable, with discounts and special offers frequently available.

Health care in Indonesia is ridiculously cheap, by American standards, and the quality is reasonable, with many physicians speaking English and having been trained in Western countries. The average doctor's visit runs about $18, plus medications, which average about 1/3 the price of US. Most major cities have at least one world-class health center. Additionally, you can avail yourself of traditional Asian medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, as well as cheap and widely available traditional massage. A full-body traditional massage runs about $4.50 for 2 hours.

Jakarta has an excellent English-language newspaper, The Jakarta Post, with daily deliver (except major holidays) running about $12/month. The also are a plethora of entertainment magazines with reviews and entertainment news, all in English.

If you prefer to buy an apartment or house, things get a bit more complex, but the prices are extremely attractive. Recent changes in Indonesian law allow foreigners to purchase apartments or houses, however you can not buy the land under them. An apartment starts at about $10,000 and goes up quickly. You can purchase these using payments but make sure you vet the contract carefully. Retaining local legal assistance is recommended if you are buying, both for negotiating and to ensure the paperwork is in order. A house starts at roughly the same level, but the prices go up a lot slower as the size increases. Your best option is a new-build, but you will have to look on the outskirts of town, and newly developed areas don't always have full amenities, but they will come in time. Many apartment towers are like self-contained cities with everything you could want without leaving the complex. Housing areas are a little more spread out, but in Indonesia you can get almost anything delivered to your door. It just takes a little initial homework and little leg-work to get it all set up.

Other items include a fairly good cell phone network with a dizzying number of choices, internet access that is quickly improving and a long tradition of handcrafts and textiles. A custom-made, silk batik shirt with inner lining, long sleeves, breast pocket, and meticulously matched pattern, will set you back about $30.

Of course, there are many other considerations, which you can find already addressed in this blog or in coming posts. The biggest consideration is immigration and visas. That will require and entire posting, so look for updates. Income tax for foreigners working in Indonesia is 6%, called the NPWP. All purchases have a VAT included in the price. If you have specific questions, leave a comment or contact me via email, and I will try to address the issue in a future post or get a personal response to you.

As they say in Indonesia, "Ya bisa!" (Yes, you can!)


Bits & Pieces

Following are some observations that haven't really taken form for an entire posting, but are worth mentioning.

Indonesians have no sense of humor. They are very literal people and take everything at face value. Therefore, irony, juxtaposition and sarcasm are completely lost on them. A question like, "Why does an elephant paint its toenails red?" simply makes no sense. It is difficult, if not impossible to formulate double-ententre in Indonesian. Being a fan of the late Douglas Adams, I commonly reply to questions like 'what are you thinking,' with 'life, the Universe and everything.' I translated it into Indonesian (hidupan, Alam Semesta dan semuanya) and continue to use the phrase, but to a local, that statement is all but meaningless because they cannot humor of reductio ad absurdum. Indonesian comedy is purely slap-stick, prat falls and goofy double-takes. Their jokes are primarily simple substitution word-play. The one successful Indonesian joke I have created is a word-play on a malady called 'masuk angin,' or entering wind. I change 'angin' to 'anjing,' so that it becomes 'entering dog.' Trust me, it's funny in Indonesian.

Indonesians have got to be the worst drivers on the planet. For the most part, they completely ignore laws, conventions, markings, and signs. I have literally seen 2-lane roads with 5 lanes of traffic, with a counter-flow of motorcycles on the outside. The goal of drivers here is to never come to a complete stop. Amazingly, it all seems to work, but until you get used to it, it is a hair-raising, white-knuckle experience. The motorcycle taxis, called ojek, are an even more terrifying experience.

Indonesians literally cannot go without at least one good serving of rice each day. They simply do not feel satisfied if they do not eat rice. It they go more than a couple of day without rice, they actually develop digestive problems. Everything here is either composed with rice, or served with rice. Even McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, BurgerKing, and Wendy's all serve rice. In fact, most Indonesians subsist solely on rice with various sauces and flavorings. The only alternative is mie, or noodles, which are used for variety or when rice is not available.

The Chinese are highly superstitious. Worse than the Irish, I think. One that is very common is the number 4. Many buildings do not have floors with the number 4, nor do they have floors with numbers that add up to 4, such as 13, 22, etc. The reason for this is that the Mandarin word for 4 sounds very close to the word for death. There is a huge markets for cell phone numbers that have a lot of 6s and 8s. Some sell for as much as $100. Many people will not buy a car or motorcycle with license plates that have a number 4.

Indonesians are among the biggest penny-pinchers I have ever seen. The could make a Scotsman blush. I have seen people in the market haggle over 10 cents for half and hour. They love bule (foreigners) because they never haggle, just pay whatever price is asked. For this reason, the bule price for everything is about 200% to 300% higher than for locals. Tourists pay it because even inflated it is still ridiculously low by western standards. An Indonesian considers it a major victory if they are able to save even a nickle. There is almost no such thing as fixed price here.

Indonesians are big on recycling, but not out of some altruistic reasoning, but because they can make money or save money. I often see one fellow who collects plastic cups from the trash, takes them behind a building, trims the plastic covers off, rinses them, and then sells coffee in them from his push cart. And no, he is certainly not the only one.

A very popular kind of food here is padang. Padang is a region in west central Sumatra, which you may recall from the news late last year, where they had a severe earthquake. The food is very spicy and quite delicious. Most people go to the steam table and order a la carte, however if you sit down without ordering, they will begin piling dishes and bowls with two servings of every item they have. You eat what you want and the rest is dumped back in the pot. A padang restaurant is usually signified by a peaked roof motif emulating the traditional Sumatran houses, and has a stack of plates displaying their offerings in the window.

Indonesians are very sensitive to 'face.' Everyone is concerned not with who you really are, but what image you present in public. Javanese are especially adept at this, and their traditional clothing symbolizes it. A typical outfit for a male is a long silk tunic with loose silk pants. A sash is tied around the waste with the knot in the back. A kind of daggar is worn in the knot in the back. A small brimless hat is worn that is almost featureless, except for a small curled tail in the back. In this way, the front appears to be smooth while the rear contains the business end of things. Many middle-class men will have one or two wives and at least one istress, yet they condemn westerners for their free sex. What they are really condemning is the openness with which it is displayed. It's not what you do, but what you show.

In Indonesian, the word 'malu' means both shy and embarrassed. When you are malu, you cover your face with the palm of your right hand. In western culture, we say that someone talks behind you when they gossip, as if hiding the fact. In Indonesian, that person is said to talk in front of you, as if going through a crowd telling everyone about you before you get there.

When offering something to someone, you always use the right hand and place the figertips of your left hand under the right forearm. If it is unavoidable (your hands are full) and you must use your left, you say, "Maaf kiri," or pardon the left.

In Indonesian, one almost never uses the word 'please.' In stead, there are polite and course ways to request things.

An Indonesian may not be seen dating many people. If a man asks a woman out and she says yes, then barring unforeseen circumstances, it is expected that they will marry. This is slowly changing, but the public shame on someone who goes out with many different people is very strong. A woman who is seen with many men is called a 'jablay,' which is a contraction of jarang dibelai, or seldom caressed. The term began as a way of identifying divorced women and was a warning to keep your husband away from her. It now more or less means prostitute, which would seem to be the polar opposite of seldom caressed.

Something I was initially very uncomfortable with is 'salim.' Children and teens are expected to take the right hand of a respected adult and touch it to their forehead or cheek. It is similar to kissing the bishop's ring. When I first experienced it, I nearly recoiled in horror. It is one of the things that was most foreign to me.

I've gotten used to it, though.