Sunday, November 30, 2008

What I'm Reading & Watching - November 2008

It's the last day of the month so I thought I should quickly note down some of my reading & video interests for November, to keep up the tradition as it were. Well, it's a rather short list this time, since it has been a rather busy month with much travelling, projects and customer engagements. So just three new books, and three videos. I had also been continuing with some of the books I started last month but hadn't yet completed.
One book I'm reading is "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives" by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (Basic Books, 2008). Digital natives, referring to those children who were born into and raised in the digital world, are coming of age and soon our world will be reshaped in their image. Our economy, politics, culture and even societal structures will be forever transformed. The authors examine this phenomena throught a series of themes - identities, dossiers, privacy, safety, creators, pirates, quality, overload, aggressors, innovators, learners, activists and synthesis - which together provide well researched and insightful perspectives.

Another book I'm going through is titled "Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters" by Bill Tancer (Hyperion Books, 2008). This one is more about understanding people better through an analysis of their collective Internet behaviour. This includes what people search for online and when, obsession with celebrities, what we fear, and how all this can be used for more effective predictive analyses. Fascinating stuff. As author Tancer aptly says: we are what we click.

The third book I'm reading is "Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World" by Don Tapscott (McGraw-Hill, 2008). It's somewhat of a continuation of his earlier study and book "Growing Up Digital". The focus is similar to the "Born Digital"book but there are many new perspectives here as well. I particularly like the chapter dealing with how the Net Generation is changing politics and government, using Obama's campaign as example.

All three books are related in the sense that they are about the Internet and digital technology, but they are also very much about people and our behaviours.

On the video side, a couple of memorable DVDs I watched were "Rendition" with Reese Witherspoon and Omar Metwally, and "Lost in Translation" starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. But my favourite was still a not-so-new swordfighting film with dazzling action scenes, called "House of Flying Daggers" starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro & Andy Lau.

Well, that's it for the month of November. How time flies ....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Journeys I'd Like to Make

Haven't blogged for a while. Kinda tied up with work. But I've been thinking about this topic for some time. As some of you may know, my present job requires me to do quite a bit of business travel. Despite this, I admit that I still quite enjoy finding new experiences in new places. I recall a rhetorical question I was once asked - "when was the last time you did something for the first time?". Indeed I find that having this innate curiousity is what makes life interesting. I frequently toy mentally with many "projects" that I've not yet had the opportunity to carry out, and which I still aspire towards. One of these projects involves a few classic journeys that I'd like to make one day - not for professional reasons but solely for personal satisfaction.

Journey #1 - The Silk Road
This one is at the top of my list. Those who've read a previous blog entry of mine know how much I liked Colin Thurbon's book"Shadow of the Silk Road", which traced the author's trip from China to the Middle East, along one of the routes of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road is, of course, the historic interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe. The Silk Road (or "Silk Routes" as they're sometimes called) were not only conduits for silk, but for many other products (satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and even rhubarb) and were also very important paths for cultural and technological transmission by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years.

The Silk Road fascinates me. Travelling along it, I can imagine going back in time - how the grand ancient city of Chang-an (now Xian) must have looked, making our way through the rough terrain and sand storms of Gobi and Taklamankan deserts, the people, the traditions, the culture, the wonderful sights ...

Journey #2 - African Trail
My next journey is within the so-called "Dark Continent". Africa is a continent, long associated with mystique and adventure, that I've not set foot on before. I envision my journey would involve starting from Egypt. Probably I would fly directly to Aswan and take a leisurely cruise down the Nile until I reach Luxor. Then move on to Cairo. Along the way, I would visit the majestic Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.

The next part of this journey will be in southern Africa, where I would love to go on safari. Of course, not with rifles but with really good photographic equipment. The countries that are apparently good for safaris include Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. Like most safari goers, I want to catch a good look at (and get some good pictures of) the "Big Five" - the lion, elephant, rhino, cheetah and buffalo (hey, what about the giraffe?).

Finally I'd round off my African adventure with a visit to South Africa, particularly in sunny Johannesburg and Cape Town. While at Johannesburg, I would of course try to visit Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. And somewhere I would squeeze in some time to visit a couple of South African vineyards ... heh heh, cheers!

Journey #3 - The Orient Express
Ever since I saw that Agatha Christie movie "Murder on the Orient Express" many years ago, I've been hooked. For me, this is THE ultimate train ride over the past century and half. (The poster shown is from 1889)

One of the websites advertising this journey describes it well enough:

"Bombed, shot at and marooned in snow drifts, the history of the Orient Express is both legendary and colourful.The carriages which form the famous Orient Express train each have a history of their own, with long years of service criss-crossing the frontiers of Europe, operating for a variety of railway companies.The carriages have taken on characters of their own as intriguing as the characters of those who travelled within their cosy confines. "

Travelling across the continent of Europe, one is faced with immense variety and contrasting experiences. Vibrant modern cities sit alongside ancient towns with glorious pasts and tiny villages that are seemingly untouched by time. The view spans breathtaking mountains, great rivers and forest-lined lakes encircling bustling urban landscapes. Famous examples of history, culture and technology are often located close by wild, open countryside where little has changed for centuries.This is what one will see as a passenger on the Orient Express.

The route I'd probably choose would go something like this: Istanbul-Bucharest-Budapest-Venice-Prague-Paris-London . With that itinerary, I would be crossing at least eight countries, starting from Turkey, through Romania, Hungary, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and then finally crossing the Channel to end the journey in England.

Other journeys
There are a few other journeys further down on my list - like taking a cruise on a luxury liner across the Atlantic or travelling by train criss-crossing India (like what Gandhi did when he returned from South Africa, and was trying to understand his own country better .. yeah, I saw the movie too :-) But I guess these would be a bonus if I can achieve my top three.

Life itself is a journey. We have little control over how long or how short this journey will be. But we do have some control over how we make use of it. We can determine whether we are mere passengers in this vessel we call our body, or whether we've firmly taken the wheel and steered towards where we want to go. It's as an old saying goes, "it's not about the years in your life, but the life in your years" ... To my fellow travellers, bon voyage!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bangkok - Loy Krathong, Ladyboys and eLephants

Sawatdee! This week I was back in Bangkok for some meetings. I was last here about three months ago, and I remember things didn't go too well on my last day - my meetings overran and in my haste to check-out, I left my toiletries bag in the hotel room, then I was caught in a massive traffic jam enroute to the airport, resulting in my missing my flight and having to book myself on a later one. Thankfully things went much smoother this trip.

Despite small hiccups like the above, Bangkok is still a very nice place to spend time, as long as the weather is cool - as it was this time in November. The day I arrived (12th Nov) happened to coincide with the festival of Loy Krathong. This is one of the most popular festivals of Thailand celebrated annually on the Full-Moon Day of the Twelfth Lunar Month. This is a time just after the rainy season is over and there is a high water level all over the country.

"Loy" means "to float" and a "Krathong" is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves (though these days, one can get the more snazzy but less authentic looking plastic ones) .The krathong usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks, some flowers and coins.

I read that the Loy Krathong festival dates back to the time of the Sukhothai Kingdom, about 700 years ago. It marked the end of the rainy season and the main rice harvest. It is based on a Hindu tradition of thanking the Water God (or Goddess)for the waters.

Thus, by moonlight, people light the candles and joss-sticks, make a wish and gently place their krathongs on the water in canals, rivers or even small ponds. At a park near the hotel, I saw some children launch their brightly lit vessels in a canal (river?), and it was a beautiful and serene sight watching as scores of these krathongs drifted along. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away sins and bad luck, and the wishes that have been made for the new year are due to start. The festival was accompanied by firework displays (which I heard and saw in the distant sky) as well as shows and the so-called "Noppamas Queen" beauty contests (which unfortunately I didn't get to witness).

Indeed, in this time of global financial woes, it is especially apt time for such a festival, and I reckon it might even be a good idea to introduce a Global Loy Krathong to comfort the thousands of people around the world whose savings, jobs or livelihoods have been affected.

For this next section, I hasten to qualify that my interest in this subject is 100 percent academic - it is more of a social or anthropological study ;-) I'm simply keen to find out why there is such a distinct (some might even say "flourishing") transvestite sub-culture in Thailand. How did it develop and why is it more prevalent here than in other Asian countries I've visited?

Wikipedia has this to say under "Kathoey":-

The term "kathoey" is not an exact equivalent of the modern western transwoman — it suggests that the person is a type of male, unlike the term sao praphet song, which suggests a female sex identity, or phet thee sam, which suggests a third gender. The term phu-ying praphet thi sorng, roughly translated as "second type of woman", is also used to refer to kathoey. Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term "kathoey" was used in premodern times to refer to intersexuals, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males. The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity — many kathoeys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear makeup and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the western category of effeminate gay man than transgender. Kathoeys are often identified at a young age, and are considered to be "born that way". They may have access to hormones ... and medical procedures during their teenage years.

To guys reading this who have never seen any Thai ladyboys, don't be too smug thinking a macho man like yourself would never be fooled by a man cross-dressing as a woman. Believe me, through the wonders of cosmetic surgery, make-up and behaviour, some are more beautiful and lady-like than real ladies. Sometimes it is hard to tell !

The most famous Thai ladyboy is probably the former champion kickboxer Nong Tum, whose life story has been featured in many articles (eg. refer to this one in National Geographic) and movies ("Beautiful Boxer" directed by Ekachai Eukrongtham)

I admit I'm no closer to finding the answer to why the "kathoey" culture is so prevalent in Thailand? Is it in the societal DNA of the region? Is there some evolutionary implication? Is it something that has been around for centuries in different lands but just more prominent here because the Thai society is more liberal? I don't know. But what I do know that this sub-culture is bringing in many fascinated tourists to Thailand.

Interestingly, I also learnt that "The Ladyboys of Bangkok", a fun-filled and glamarous cabaret show featuring more than a dozen beautiful Thai transvestites, is one of the most popular regular features of the Edinburgh Fringe festival each year. I kid you not. Check out their website at


Without looking too hard, anyone can quite easily find many illegal activities happening on the streets of Bangkok each day - from the DVD pirates, to sellers of fake watches and handbags, to seedy-looking saunas and massage joints - but there is one activity that's a lot more animated (pun intended) than the others. I'm talking about elephants in the streets of Bangkok.

Our pachyderm friends aren't supposed to saunter down the city's streets as they do almost every day. For at least two decades the giant gray beasts have plodded through this giant gray city, stopping off at touristy areas where their handlers peddle elephant snacks of sugar cane and bananas to passers-by, especially in the evening time. Just five minutes from my hotel at Erawan, I know exactly where I should go to have a more than a fair chance of sighting an elephant on any given evening.

Elephants on the streets is of course in violation of several Bangkok Metropolitan laws. However, the police simply shrug, politicians periodically order crackdowns but it doesn't seem to have made much difference (at least as far as I can tell). Animal lovers despair, especially since there have been a number of road accidents involving elephants, with a recent one ending in the tragic death of an elephant and a child.

The creation of a Stray Elephant Task Force in 2006 didn't keep the elephants off the city streets. Nor did the team of undercover elephant enforcers (the E-Team?) who periodically cruise through Bangkok on motorcycles scouting for the beasts.

My view is that enforcement should be stepped up, and elephants ought to be kept off the streets. Elephants are after all a symbol of Thailand, and should be cared for in special sanctuaries. However, I do admit that being able to see, pet or feed an elephant within Bangkok somehow does add to the charm of the city. So perhaps a middle-ground could be determined, with special areas (free of vehicular traffic) being set up to allow tourists some interaction with these majestic beasts.
Bangkok is a most interesting city. Its people are hospitable, and its cultures and traditions enchanting. Despite the political problems Thailand is currently going through, a casual visitor to Bangkok would never know anything was amiss (unless you try to go to Government House, where the protestors are still staking out). My best wishes to all my Thai friends. I hope everything works out well politically and economically.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Intriguing Indonesia

This week I was in Jakarta, capital city of Indonesia, for three days. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt in the centre of the city. It's a very nice hotel with an adjoining shopping mall called Plaza Indonesia.

From the lobby lounge cafe as well as from my room, there's a great view of the huge roundabout that's sort of a landmark of the city. You know, I spent some time just watching scores of vehicles making their rounds and I couldn't figure why the road leading into the roundabout (on the right of the picture) was always so much more congested than the other parts of the roundabout.

It's an intriguing time for Indonesia. Several significant events have been capturing the attention of the people, and even arousing passions in some circles ...

(a) Akan Datang : The Indonesian Presidential Elections

The Indonesian Presidential Elections will take place in May 2009, but many activities have already started in the build-up to the campaigning. Many individuals are making known their political aspirations - the usual political stalwarts like current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, current Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, former presidents Megawati Sukarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid (who obviously want to go another round), former DPR speaker Akbar Tandjung, and newcomers like the Sultan of Yogyakarta.

I noticed party banners and buntings being strung up in various corners of the city. Not really very prominent yet, but it's still early days, and things will no doubt heat up in the coming months.

On the banners and posters, the faces of SBY and Megawati are easy enough to recognise. But I'm sure there'll also be young, new candidates who take inspiration from the Obama victory and like Obama, they will offer themselves as representatives of CHANGE, and hoping to displace some of the more prominent names on the election trail.

And speaking of Obama, Indonesians are pretty pleased with his victory, especially as he spent some time as a child living and studying in Jakarta. An "Indonesian son" is now Leader of the Free World. Imagine that !

(b) The passing of the Pornography Law

The Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) passed this law recently. It was a very controversial piece of legislation. Some parties, especially the more religious-leaning ones, pushed hard for the law to be enacted. But many others were afraid that it was not well contemplated, pushed through too hastily and could be misused. The law's definition of pornography was also questioned because of the inclusion of the words "to arouse sexual desire", the meaning of which was considered too ambiguous.

Indeed, hundreds of people demonstrated in Yogyakarta, Solo and especially in the streets of Bali. The Province of Bali (being a popular destination for Western tourists) has officially rejected the law, putting the Central Government in a dilemma - if it accepts their rejection, it will be accused of giving the province special treatment. Conversely, enforcing the law would lead Bali to oppose it even more.

Even though the Bill has become Law, many feel that several articles in the Law are still problematic. I have a feeling this isn't the end of the Pornography Law story. The saga is likely to continue for some time to come.

(c) The execution of the Bali Bombers

It was the end of the road for the three Bali Bombing convicts (Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Mukhlas). They had been sentenced to death five years ago after being found guilty of involvement in the October 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people in the touristy Kuta area. The fatalities included 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 British, 7 Americans and others. The three convicts were imprisioned on the island of Nusakambangan. After many legal challenges and appeals, they were finally executed by firing squad in the early hours of Sunday 9th November.
Now the government is a little on edge with security stepped up at sensitive sites, just in case there's some militant backlash. Let's hope the concern proves unfounded.
Yes, the Republic of Indonesia is an intriguing country. In spite of its huge population, sprawling geography and obvious socio-economic challenges, most observers agree that over the past two years, things have been moving. Not always smoothly, but moving all the same. It's a little like that huge roundabout in central Jakarta. Once in a while, there's a bit of congestion. But overall the progress is undeniable ...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Snapshots of Seoul

I had my first real visit to Seoul, capital of South Korea, this week. In the past, I've had a number of interactions with Korean public sector officials and academics before, but never had a chance to explore the city of Seoul. Not that I had much time on this business trip, but at least I went to a couple of interesting places and saw quite a number of sites on the way from/to Incheon airport.

The economic history of South Korea is remarkable. Like the proverbial "phoenix rising from the ashes" of the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the Korean wars (1950-1953) - which brought widespread turmoil and destruction in the land - the country grew into an economic powerhouse by the late 80's. In the early years it was led by a series of autocratic leaders. When I was a teenager in school, my image of South Korea was always one of military rule with frequent civilian riots or protests. Between the 1960's-80's, South Korea industrialized very rapidly, adopting an outward-looking strategy. Today looking back, it is astounding to realise how the country achieved regional and global leadership in so many industries - shipbuilding, steel, machinery, automotive, consumer electronics, semiconductors, petrochemicals, information & communications technologies (ICT) and the latest exports of Korean music and television drama series (the so called current "Korean Wave") !
I stayed at the COEX Intercontinental, a very comfortable hotel in an area called Gangnam in Seoul. Next to the hotel was COEX, a huge convention centre from which the hotel derives part of its name. My company had its offices literally two buildings away. Within walking distance were a few shopping malls and tourist attractions (temples, parks and even the famed global headquarters of Taekwondo, the popular Korean martial arts).

From my hotel room window, I looked out to one side of Seoul city - which wasn't really the wall of gleaming skyscrapers I had expected but reflected more a sprawling metropolis with low to mid-rise buildings. Seoul reminded me of an early-day Tokyo in some ways, and perhaps that's not coincidental since Korea was under Japanese rule for 35 years.

After a day and half of meetings, I did find time to go out for dinner with colleagues and friends, and on my last day even made my way across the Hangang river to the main shopping areas.
I visited Itaewon, a popular shopping street recommended by the hotel conceirge, and spent some time walking around there. Picked up the few ubiquitious souvenirs and trinkets to bring home. Ha, ubiquitious - now that's a word that Koreans seem to like a lot! It's all about ubiquitious government (u-gov), ubiquitious computing, ubiquitious city (u-city), ubiquitious Korea (u-Korea), etc ...

I also went to a street market area called Dongdaemun, with makeshift stalls selling all kinds of consumer products and Korean foods. However it appeared rather disorderly in the way the stalls were laid out - possibly because of a massive construction that was happening in the adjacent block. Many stalls were also not open. I suspect the place would look better in the evening with more stalls open, more lights to add to mood, and more visitors. I walked around for a while but didn't see anything I fancied.

After a while of wandering around , I found the architecture of the historic Great East Gate, from which the area gets its name, more interesting than the wares sold in the stalls along the street. (Note that "dong" in Korean means east, similar sounding to "tung" in Chinese, and "mun" is akin to"men" in Chinese, meaning door or gate). This east gate of the fortress wall of Seoul was first built in 1397 (and rebuilt after falling into disrepair in 1869). It still looks very majestic, although a little out of place in its modern surroundings.

Well, this Seoul experience was certainly very interesting. I admit I was never much of a Korean fan (not having quite taken to their music or TV drama series), but I was pleasantly impressed by the city, the food and (despite hearing stories about the gruffness of some of the people) I found everyone I met very friendly and hospitable. Certainly I look forward to more exploration on any future visits. Annyeonghaseyo!