Live, from Jakarta

I really, really shouldn’t be awake right now. Although it’s a bit after lunch at home, it’s near 1 a.m. here in Jakarta and I need to be ready in seven hours to give an all-day workshop.

But, what am I going to do? Let down you, my loyal audience? All four of you are dying, I know, to hear about my adventures so far. Luckily for you, I’m awake enough — and stupid enough — to have both the energy and the adventures for this post.

An interesting start

I decided to forgo driving myself to the airport Saturday, and instead hired Washington Flyer to drive me there. My driver, who’s name I failed to get, was Malaysian, and told me that he had just come from a family party to take me to the airport. He was friendly and in good spirits, so I asked him what the party was for. “My brother in law died,” he answered.

Not sure if that was indeed an even worth celebrating, I asked the driver where he was from and other such niceties. That turned into a 45-minute monolog about his arranged marriage, including the four women he turned voted off the island because they weren’t pretty enough. His parents, nearly exasperated, demanded he find a bride before returning to the United States. Apparently he succeeded, because he now has two boys. He said he won’t be picking out their brides for them, but he added that they’d better only marry once. “No divorces!” he shouted, as we pulled up to the United terminal.

Snorers everywhere

The flight from Dulles to L.A. was uneventful, which I think is always a plus when defying the laws of gravity. That’s not to say the 18-hour flight from L.A. to Bangkok was full of surprises. Indeed, it, too, was mostly uneventful. I was, however, startled several times by the gentleman a few seats over with a severe case of sleep apnea and what appeared to be pneumonia. Given his condition, and the copious snoring he emitted, I was surprised to see he was chewing gum — I would think that would be choking concern. Actually, my observation’s not quite correct. The gum was resting precariously on his lower lip, as if trying to decide whether or not to leap for freedom. I did not notice whether or not the gum’s escape was successful.

Real estate deal

The third leg of the trip, from Bangkok to Jakarta, was a 3-hour joy ride compared to the 22 hours I had thus far spent in a giant aluminum tube. I played some Orbital, read some New Yorker, and flipped through the in-flight magazine. It was there I noticed an ad for spacious beach-front property. It looked amazing. And priced at 3 million baht, it had better be, I thought. Then I grabbed my iPhone and did the exchange rate. What? $120,000 for a beach? Holy crap! Honey, sell the house. We’re moving to Thailand.

Traveling with stupid

I’m not used to carrying around a lot of cash. That’s for two reasons. First, I don’t have any. Second, I too often rely on my cards for purchases. It’s a habit I need to break. Especially after today.

Upon arriving in Jakarta, we were steered to the on-arrival visa station. For starters, I didn’t even realize that’s what it was. I thought it was a money-changing station. OK, I thought. I’ll get some rupiah. So, I stand in line. Eventually, I realize I need to pay $10 for an Indonesian visa. No problem, I thought. Then I looked in my wallet.

What kind of moron travels 12,000 miles — to the other side of the planet!! — with $4 in cash? I mean, really? Could I be more of a dumb ass?

Hey, no worries, I think. The luggage carts around here all have MasterCard ads on them. I can just use my card.

So, I go to the  window and show my card. The man shakes his head. “Oh shit,” I thought. Either I need to hit up a fellow passenger for $6, or I’m about to get my ass shipped back stateside. Just as my stomach was about to hit the floor, the man pointed across the hallway. “Over there. Credit card.” I glanced over and saw an identical booth, but that one accepts plastic. Thank God.


As I waited to clear immigration — and waited, and waited — I began to find incredible amusement in the advertisements adorning the area. The first one that caught my attention was a sign offering billboard advertising space. The image was of an idyllic beach. The text? “We’ve got space.”

I really, really hope the intention was not to erect billboards on the Indonesian beaches.

The next sign I guffawed at was the one declaring “Welcome to Indonesia. DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS!” In English, of course.

Oh, Indonesia, really know how to make a guest feel comfortable. Actually, the really funny part of the sign were the six guys pictured who had apparently been caught trafficking drugs and put to death. Ok, that’s not funny, but what is funny is that the sign blacked out their eyes.

There was one more sign that cracked me up. Well, not a sign, exactly, but a sticked. On the window of one of the airport security office was a large sticker proclaiming “Y2K Ready!” Yes, and just in time, too.

Traveling with stupid, part II

I was met outside customs by a nice fellow from the hotel. He escorted me to a taxi — a shiny black Mercedes — and off we went. I had taken off my long-sleeve shirt and was sitting there in my white t-shirt as we skimmed the surface roads along ramshackle huts of corrugated metal, wide canals, and your usual assortment of safe and unsafe vehicles. I felt incredibly Western and not in an especially appealing way.

I set my iPhone next to me and thought, “don’t forget it in the taxi.” (This is what’s known as foreshadowing.)

We scurried along the highway and into the city. From a high overpass, I got a view of the incredible, sprawling metropolis that is Jakarta. The air was hazy and the land was a mix of trash heaps, fragile huts and buildings in various stages of construction or decay.

Eventually we made it to the hotel where guards checked the vehicle and raised the entry gate. Oh, right, I thought. Danger lurks here, doesn’t it?

Then I hopped out, handed the driver some rupiah (I had stopped at an ATM at the airport after clearing customs), and marched into the hotel.

After checking in, I made my way to my room only to discover my keys hadn’t been properly programmed. So, I trudged back downstairs to have the problem fixed. As I stood there, my drive came rushing through the lobby. He had discovered my iPhone in the back seat and had brought it back to me. I was stunned. Not only by my stupidity, but by his kindness. I thanked him profusely and he quickly withdrew back to the hot, humid air.

More tomorrow.

Dreaming of an Apple Tablet

With all the reports of an Apple tablet, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about what it might be and how it might work. Last night, pathetic as this might sound, I even had a dream about it.

I should clarify… my dream wasn’t of the unicorns and rainbows and angels sort. I didn’t dream about the joy of owning an Apple tablet. Rather, my brain seemed to be trying to figure out what Apple would do with a tablet. It’s my belief that Apple under Steve Jobs generally tries to solve computing/media problems through elegant design, instead of just coming up with cool (and sometimes lame) products. For example, Apple’s routers are all about making them super easy to set up. Sure, other routers work just fine (often with more features and a lower price), but Apple’s routers are pretty and easy to use. Same with Apple TV. Same with the iPhone, iTunes, iPhoto and more. (The Apple speakers are a glaring exception.)

In fact, Apple often doesn’t create the best products in their class, when comparing features and price. But, they create the best experience and they solve problems by making it easy to do what you want. And in that regard, their products are the best.

So, back to the purported tablet. The first question that one must ask is, what’s the point of a tablet? What can I not do now on my iPhone or MacBook or iMac that a tablet would solve?

Honestly, I can’t think of much. For the most part, I like how quickly the iPhone responds and it is sized appropriately for what are essentially personal functions — phone calls, listening to music, watching short pieces of video, playing casual games. But, I can’t multitask. And, the iPhone is a terrible text input device. The MacBook takes longer and is a bit less convenient for simple tasks, but I can work on my MacBook in ways that the iPhone is simply incapable of (writing long bits of text; editing audio/video, etc.). A bigger/faster iPhone could close that gap, I suppose. Perhaps that is what the tablet would be.

At 10 inches, a tablet could still serve as a personal device, but one that creates a bigger social barrier than the iPhone does. Watching videos on that screen might be nice, but it’s also far more antisocial than the iPhone. What, my wife and daughter and I are all going to watch different movies on our tablets on the couch? I don’t think so.

Playing games is somewhere in between. Sure, I like to play games on my iPhone, but I prefer playing games with other people.

Reading, though, is still a personal endeavor. So is working on a document. And both could benefit from the larger screen. So, a tablet could be useful for reading text, especially if it was as fast to respond as my iPhone is. I could totally pull a tablet out of my bag for reading the latest New Yorker while waiting at the dentist’s office. Is that enough? Perhaps only when you consider the larger ecosystem.

If Apple incorporates .me, iWork and iLife, and takes full advantage of the media ecosystem Apple has built, it could work. Furthermore, if that ecosystem were to be expanded to include more text, be that novels, graphic novels, comic books, textbooks, repair manuals, cookbooks and more, and could allow access to one’s content from anywhere (think the recent LaLa acquisition plus “Back to my Mac.”) I think that’s one of the possible killer features. Whereas the Kindle is really just about text (with some lousy graphics) from Amazon, Apple’s tablet could serve up any text-and-graphic-based material from any source. For example, I could see having complete access to one’s iPhoto library and then using the tablet to create slideshows on the fly. Or access to my home media library.

To accomplish this, the table would require:

  • an incredible high-resolution display for video and text
  • mobile internet connectivity
  • a simple interface
  • a long battery life
  • unparalleled thinness and lightness
  • a modicum of Flash-based storage

Several things it would not require:

  • a removable battery (Apple has already shunned this concept)
  • an input device
  • optical media
  • ports, other than mini-USB

The mini-USB port would take care of charging the device. Everything else would be wireless. Heck, even the charging could be wireless, if they employed conductive recharging technologies.

The interface is the most interesting aspect of such a device. Apple’s not likely to include a keyboard or any other input device. But what if they did something totally radical? What if they used eye tracking? This is already in wide use as an observation tool for studying usability. Could it be used here, too? Just wild speculation, but it could be pretty cool.

But, here’s the thing: my iPhone and laptop are both capable of doing those things now. And that gets me back to the core issue: what would the Apple tablet solve for me? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see what Apple can imagine that I can’t.

Using Blogger

This post is intended for a small audience: a class I’m teaching at AU. However, it might be useful to other people, too. Essentially, it describes one way to embed multimedia into Blogger posts, with some help from Dropbox, my favorite Web tool EVER.

Here goes:

  1. Sign up for a Blogger blog and a Dropbox account. (Here’s a link for the latter.)
  2. Copy your multimedia files (.mp3, .swf, etc.) to the Dropbox public folder.
  3. Go to the Dropbox Web interface and click into your Public folder.
  4. Use the arrow to get the public URL for the file in question.
  5. If you’re trying to embed audio, copy this text into your Blogger entry:
  6. Replace [MP3 URL HERE] with the URL  you copied from Dropbox.
  7. Publish.
  8. For SWFs, do the same as above, but use this embed code:
  9. In this instance, replace [SWF URL HERE] with the Dropbox public URL and [###] with the appropriate SWF sizes.
  10. Publish.

That’s it.

Ten things I think I think about Avatar

Last night, Cyn and I went to see Avatar in 3D (Real 3D, that is). Part of me was a littler resistant to see the movie, mostly because I think James Cameron is an ass. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, but everything I’ve read about him (like this New Yorker profile) and his outburst at the Academy Awards just makes me disinclined to like him.

But, I’d heard great things about the movie and decided I should see it. So, we went last night and I’ve not stopped thinking about it since. In fact, here are 10 things I think I think about the film:

  1. Artistry: Let me say it up front, this is a beautiful movie. I mean that literally: it’s actually beautiful. That’s different from “good.” I don’t know that the film is all that good. I found the story rather predictable and character development utterly lacking (more on this later), but as a piece of visual art, it’s quite stunning. The colors, the richness, the use of 3D – it all comes together to form scene after scene of beauty. I also loved the thought that went into the various forms of technology. From the military aircraft to the computers, it had a Minority Report-like confidence in future technology different from what we do today. And this art appears in virtually every scene throughout the film. Quite spectacular. Even the fake Navi language is quite beautiful. But, beauty should still be believable, and I had a big problem with some of the science, including…
  2. Tidal forces: Pandora, the celestial object where the movie takes place, appears to be a moon of a much larger planet. Sort of as if Earth orbited Jupiter. From all appearances, Pandora is close enough to the much larger planet that there should be extreme gravitational effects on Pandora. I mean, Pandora should be experiencing the sort of tidal forces that make Titan and Europa such interesting moons in our solar system. Yeah, geeky, I know. But still, it seemed such an obvious problem to me. Another obvious problem was the…
  3. Stereotyping: I couldn’t help but find the oversimplification and stereotyping of characters obnoxiously annoying. From the military commander who is a blood-thirsty cowboy to the chain-smoking anti-social scientist who hates her own kind, to the naturalistic Navi. The Navi seemed to be modeled on American Indian/African people, from the hair, lips and noses, to the clothing, mysticism and clan-like tribes. This bothers me because it seemed so simplistic. It’s as if indigenous people are always the mystical and technologically simple (and fairly helpless) people, while the white Americans (with a modicum of minorities thrown in) are cruel, technologically and militarily superior, and careless. Meanwhile, the Navi were unable to do anything until the hero, who is actually a good-guy white American, saves them. That all leads to…
  4. Lack of character development: This might be the biggest problem I have with Avatar. There was virtually no character development throughout this entire film. Now, one might argue that Jake Sully developed from a jarhead to a Navi, or that other Navi developed into a force that could fight back, but that’s being awfully generous. The truth is, none of the secondary characters developed at all, and that Jake was a complete blank slate at the beginning of the film. He didn’t move from one place to another, he just showed up. For example, he seems to have no problem suddenly turning on his fellow Marines and killing them. (I have a feeling this will be something that many people will have a problem with.) I would expect this to be a torturous issue for him. There’s also almost no character development for the main Navi characters. How they were at the end of the film wasn’t too different from how they were at the beginning of the film. Speaking of the Navi, I found them…
  5. Insufficiently alien: Why did the Navi have to look so human? Not only the Navi, but all the other alien creatures look like monstrous versions of present or past Earth life. For a film that was so fantastical and animated, it seems to me Cameron missed a wonderful creative opportunity to imagine completely new forms of life. And not just imagining new forms of life, but new ways of making life, which leads me to…
  6. Sex: Let’s face it, the main Navi girl is smoking hot. She’s got perky little breasts, a tight flat tummy, a small hard butt and skimpy clothes. You knew at some point she and Jake (who’s quite a catch himself, in both human and Navi form) were going to get it one, and they did. But what’s with the human form of copulation? Kissing? Woman on top? I was really hoping to see some funky alien lovemaking going on. Maybe their pony tails would link up, at least. Once again, this could have been an opportunity for more creativity, though perhaps with everything else, Cameron’s creative juices were exhausted. At least he didn’t use Navi sex as a cheap opportunity to employ more…
  7. 3D: This is the first non-IMAX 3D movie I’ve seen and, well, wow. I thought 3D was just a gimmick, but I’m converted now. Avatar didn’t do anything flagrant with 3D, which I thought was appropriate. One of the trailers, though, was for Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland and that looked amazing. I’ve often found Tim Burton’s films to be beautiful in their artistry and terrible in their execution, and the same might be true for Alice. But, I’ll say this: based on the trailer, it looks like Burton uses 3D the way a cinematographer uses light and shadows. As for Avatar, the 3D added to the film in a very pleasant way. One funny moment for me, though, was that at one point I thought the person sitting in front of me had gotten up. I was about to ask him to sit down when I realized it was a character in the film. Freaky. Oddly, despite the incredible detail to the artistry of the scenes and the 3D, there were more than a few…
  8. Odd oversights: Given how much time and money went in to making this film, I was surprised by what appeared to be numerous technical flaws in the film. On more than a few occasions, I was surprised by incredibly awkward camera movements (jerky zooms, etc.) that looked like mistakes. There was a time when the humans were in an open helicopter without masks. And when, at the end, Jake and his Navi babe are together, she was suddenly, and obviously, a human in makeup. The size difference evaporated and it just seemed weird. It shook me out of the moment. This reminds me of Alien when the monster at the end of the film was obviously a guy in a rubber suit. It just felt wrong. Another thing that felt wrong was the…
  9. Lack of science: For a science fiction film, this movie was almost completely devoid of science. Why???? What’s so wrong with science. I already discussed my problem with the tidal forces, but what about the science of the avatars themselves? Or the floating mountains? It just seems like there were opportunities to explore more of the science of the moment, much like the latest Star Trek movie did so well. Science wasn’t the only thing lacking in Avatar. Another was a…
  10. Lack of subtlety: I’m guessing that just as fuck and shit are bad words in most houses, subtle is a bad word in Cameron’s (and shit and fuck are not). There is nothing in Avatar that even remotely qualifies as subtle. The message of environmentalism, the disdain for militarism, the love story — it’s all so in your face. I probably mostly agree with the message of the movie, but it’s so flagrant, so over the top, that I can’t help but feel a bit repelled by it. It’s kind of like…
  11. Cameron’s taste in music: So, this is a bonus entry because it’s not what I think I think, but rather what I know: James Cameron has terrible taste in music, at least as far as film scores go. During the credits was another Celine Dion-like screamer who made me flee from the theater. Who calls this shit music? It’s awful.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about Avatar, and given a few more minutes I’ll probably think of them. Maybe you will, too. Please pick apart my arguments, point out things I’ve missed, or add to what I’ve put here. I’d love to hear some different opinions.