Friday, May 25, 2012

The Jakarta Globe is seeking fellows

The Jakarta Globe is on the hunt for early-career journalists and journalism students to take up a year-long fellowship, starting later this year. I've been at the paper for a year and had a great time, and I can highly recommend it to anyone else keen to get some professional experience in the industry and watch Indonesia up close.

I'm happy to answer questions in comments or via email.

Here's the notification. Applications close in a week.

Be a Jakarta Globe Fellow!

Getting a foothold in the media has never been more challenging for young journalists. Here is an opportunity to work for a year in an exciting emerging market on a multi-award winning daily newspaper and Web site with professional editors.

The Jakarta Globe, an English daily in a multicultural environment, is looking for the best young talent it can find. Can you copy edit in flawless English, write and think creatively? Are you curious about the world and ready to work hard? We will help you learn and grow.

The Jakarta Globe, which launched in November 2008, has already won numerous local and international awards for our dynamic news coverage. We are recruiting young journalists to copy edit, write and learn the news business from the ground up in Indonesia.

Make your mark in the world’s most dynamic region in one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. We need people ready to start in August 2012. Candidates will be selected on the basis of a competitive editing examination and an essay. A stipend and housing will be provided. We are seeking a one-year commitment. Details on remuneration and job descriptions will be sent to interested and qualified candidates. Recent graduates are encouraged to apply.

Deadline for applications - June 1, 2012

Send your resume to: Recruitment[at]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jakartans’ business savvy shines through amid the gridlock

It's a rite-of-passage for foreign writers based in Jakarta to pen a piece on the horrid state of the traffic. My attempt, in which I merge it with a discussion on the entrepreneurial spirit of Indonesians, has appeared in The Weekend Australian this weekend and is available here.

Space crimped the effort a little, so I've decided to publish the full piece here:

Soon after you arrive at Jakarta’s international airport and head downtown, you become familiar with two of the city’s defining qualities: the entrepreneurship of its people, and the density of its traffic. With little new public transport infrastructure, the quantity of roads almost static and the number of vehicles steadily rising in line with a growing population and emerging affluence, experts say the Indonesian capital will reach a state of perpetual gridlock within a few years.

But these hours and hours that many commuters spend on the road each day have given rise to niche business opportunities that Jakartans have embraced with gusto.
During peak periods, some of the main streets are reserved for motorcycles as well as vehicles with three or more occupants. This has created a small army of “jockeys”, who linger on the side of streets near the entry points to the main road, their thumb sticking out like a hitchhiker, offering to help motorists reach the golden three. Mother-and-baby pairs are particularly highly sought by solo drivers.

Stories abound among the city’s drivers about the quick fingers that many jockeys possess, with anything loose inside the vehicle at risk of mysteriously disappearing. But given the paucity of alternative ways to get home, many drivers still take the risk.

Along the gridlocked streets are an army of mobile food cart operators known as kaki lima (literally, five legs – three for the cart, two for the proprietor) offering all manner of tasty local delights. Kaki lima push their carts along the footpath or a raised embankment between lanes, and drivers seeking to satisfy their cravings wind down their windows and place an order. So fixed is the traffic that there’s plenty of time for the operator to whip up some food – nasi goreng (fried rice) and steamed buns are the most popular options – before the traffic moves far.
Part of the reason for the congestion is the lack of quality public transport. The recent introduction of the TransJakarta bus service, with a modern fleet and dedicated lanes, has been a watershed, but its network is limited.

This leaves many people aboard the network of 20-seater minibuses offered by the Kopaja and Metromini companies. These rickety old things have been on the roads for decades, have their doors permanently open (locals call it “natural air-conditioning”), have a driver with a cigarette wedged between his lips and a conductor who spends his time hanging out the door or shuffling up and down the aisle collecting 2,000 rupiah (25 cent) fares off each passenger. One of the party tricks of conductors is, while the bus is moving, to ease himself onto the road out the front door and re-enter via the back door in a single, fluid movement. Impressive to watch.

There are plenty of buskers who ply their wares on board, often in rather tricky conditions. On a recent trip, a 20-something man with a guitar jumped on partly filled Kopaja and started strumming and singing an up-beat Indonesian folk song. Progressively the bus took on more and more passengers, cramming into every nook and cranny. Throughout, the busker continued without missing a note, contorting the neck of the guitar to all manner of awkward angles to accommodate passengers and using his legs to cope with the minimal suspension that become apparent as the vehicle lumbered across Jakarta’s potholed roads. The tips he received were particularly generous, and only some of it was for his music.
For sure, much of the creative opportunism on display is a product of grinding poverty and the lack of a welfare system, but it also shows an admirable determination to make the most of whatever one’s circumstances happen to be. It certainly makes the city are more interesting place.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Farewell, Femi

It's been a little over a day since the Sukhoi Superjet-100 went missing over the skies of Bogor, and the news since then has been nothing but gloom. About 50 were on board, and it appears none survived as the Russian-made plane hit the side of Mount Salak.

Each of those lives taken was a life taken too soon. Good times never had. Old age never reached. Proper goodbyes never said.

There was one name on the list of passengers that was familiar to me. Femi Adi from Bloomberg News (listed as Femi, but it has been confirmed that it is her) was a young journalist I met last May while observing a prayer rally organised in Jakarta by the Islamic Defenders Front to mourn the death of Osama bin Laden.

It was a fairly tense affair, with nearly a thousand slightly-riled, white-robed men crammed into a mosque to listen to speakers stoking their anger over the death of bin Laden. Clustered outside the back of the hall were me and more than a dozen journalists, mostly Indonesians with a handful from overseas.

I must have appeared a little bewildered by what I saw, because Femi approached me and said hello. She asked me where I was from and what I was doing there, and I answered and asked her the same. She then offered to translate some of the firebrand speeches for me, helping me to make sense of what was going on.

After a brief lull in proceedings, there was an announcement. She tugged at my shirt and said, "Come on, they're going to hold a press conference." The idea of extremists holding a press conference seemed strange to me, but emboldened by her confidence I wandered forward with the other journalists.

A microphone was offered to the journalists, and most of us were reluctant to speak up. But not Femi. She happily grabbed it, introduced herself by name and by organisation (there would be few more identifiably American news brands than Bloomberg, so it was an especially bold move) and proceeded to ask a question. I'm not sure what she asked, but she was impressive in her bravado.

Afterwards we swapped contact details and exchanged a few emails, including one in which I asked if she knew of any job opportunities.

There was nothing especially poetic in what either of us wrote via email, but just rereading her words today it struck me that they capture some of the joie de vivre she demonstrated in person:

Hi Ari

---Your name looks so-Indonesian. :) ---

Its nice to meet you too in the FPI event, Ari. I quit shortly after things done. :)

I have read your blog. Its a nice blog with informal writings wrapping the great content. I like it. :) I also have a blog,, but it is not as good as your blog. It's just a daily-life-stories about corkscrew, travels, friendship, etc.

So, you leave ossie to stay with your partner and work in Indonesia? That's amazing! I will let you know if any media needs a journalist. I have been working in Jakarta since 2003 for Kontan newspaper. My hometown is in Yogyakarta. I moved to Bloomberg since last year.

Let me know if you have some time for having coffee or beer. I have to go out to the south jakarta court for abu bakar bashir trial.

femi adi

Sadly I never did take up the offer of a coffee or beer, and now it seems the chance has gone forever.

Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, and so far no individuals have been confirmed as among the dead. So there's always a chance of a miracle.

I didn't know Femi well, but in this brief tribute online at Republika, she is described as gentle, kind and friendly. Sounds just like the person I'd met.

She was also very lively online, operating a blog at and being active on a swag of social media sites.

Farewell, Femi. The world's a poorer place without you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

My '90 percent theory' tries to explain why perfection is elusive

I've always been fairly messy in managing my personal space at home. I'm happy to let all sorts of trivial items - bank statements, magazines, pill packets, slightly soiled tissues - accumulate on my bedside table before feeling a need to clean them. And when I do finally clean it, I sort through most of it and leave it in a much neater state. Not spotless, but vastly improved.

My partner Melanie is different. She's fastidious in her neatness, letting only a handful of items accumulate before feeling the need to sort through them and clear up the space. Once she's cleaned up her bedside table, it sits in a very high state of tidiness, substantially cleaner than my side even immediately after I've completed my "cleaning". It is not unknown for her to assess my side after I'd clean it, and make some smart suggestions ways to deal with the handful of items I've left sitting there.

What intrigued me was not so much the difference in the states of mess to which we would allow our respective sides to reach, but the fact that both of us would consider that we'd achieved "cleanliness" at very different points.

It lead be to a theory I'll call my "90 percent theory" in the absence of a better name: basically, in any given task in which people seek to improve something, they will be able to improve it 90 percent of the way between how they found it and perfection.

So, applying it to my and my partner's bedside tables, from the point at which each of us decide to clean our sides, we will improve it 90 percent compared to how it was. Because I start at a more advanced state of messiness, 90 percent improvement will not make it as neat as my partner's side.

Furthermore, when she approaches my tidy-but-not-perfect bedside table after I've cleaned it, she will be able to improve it a further 90 percent on how she's found it, bringing it to 99 percent cleanliness compared to its initial state. Theoretically, were a third person to come along and seek to clean it again from the state that my partner had left it in, they would be able to improve 90 percent of what they see, bringing it up to 99.9 percent. But given the difference between 99 percent and 99.9 percent is so minimal when the entirety of the task is cleaning my bedside table, there is probably too little to notice.

It's worth noting, however, that by this rule perfection is impossible. Improvement is, in a mathematical sense, asymptotic. Each attempt gets us ever closer, but we can never reach it.

Human psychology is the main factor behind the theory. When we approach a given task, we generally assess the quality of the outcome relative to the quality of the starting point. It keeps us sane by preventing us from obsessing over every minor imperfection, but does also make us occasionally complacent and willing to forgo the pursuit of excellence.

I've noticed this theory playing out in another context, in my work as a copy editor at a newspaper. In the role, we take the stories filed by reporters and have responsibility for checking facts and spelling where possible, ensuring the expression is smooth and professional and making sure that the story is neat and logical. The task has an extra degree of difficulty because most of the reporters do not have English as their first language, and so the quality of the written expression is quite varied.

On the copy desk, the first person, usually but not always someone with less experience, will perform a copy edit; then they will pass it through to a check editor, who will give it further scrutiny; then finally a page editor will look at the page as a whole, keeping an eye out for anything that has been missed.

I've performed all three roles at one time or another, and can see that the quality of one's output is in part a product of the quality of one's input. So a copy editor dealing with a particularly poorly written story will work hard to improve expression, spelling, etc, but is likely to unconsciously let through some less-than-ideal parts because their focus is diverted to the more blatant imperfections. That same copy editor, however, working with "clean" copy in the first place, will notice and hopefully rectify much more minor issues that become more apparent because of the quality of the work around those issues.

Though I have the experience to work as a check editor, when in the role of copy editor I find myself overlooking errors that I know I should have picked up and suspect I would have were I to be a fresh pair of eyes reading it as a check editor. Improving beyond the 90 percent is remarkably difficult to achieve. (This also demonstrates my asymptote theory - despite three pairs of eyes picking up theoretically 99.9 percent of errors compared to the original story submitted by a reporter, errors still make it into print.)

You can even see the theory in action in a political context. Take traffic, or smog, or corruption, three issues that afflict Jakarta particularly badly. A government that commits to rectifying these ills will generally seek to rectify them by a proportion of the initial problem rather than to reach an absolute number. (Of course, few governments would be so bold as to seek to reduce any of these measures by 90 percent; instead they are seeking to reduce the discretionary component that may be responsive to change by 90 percent. An unchangeable hard-core will remain, and they are generally not the focus of public-policy efforts.) A government campaign to rectify any of these issues, if successful, might be able to alter 90 percent of the discretionary causes of the problem. But then it hits a wall, struggling to take it any further. Then only a new idea, often generated by a new cohort of politicians, can improve performance further.

So what does all this mean? I think it's significant for a few reasons. It means that the less severe a problem is when we first encounter it, the closer to perfection we can expect the end result to be. It means that we should judge our performance against the extent of the initial problem rather than some absolute measure. It means that one actor is not able to achieve the best result on their own, and is better working in coordination with others with the aim of improving upon each other's improvements. And it means that we should accept that perfection is impossible and we shouldn't be too hard on those who fail to achieve it.

This theory is borne exclusively from my own observations. It's possible there are some exceptional circumstances or people that confound it, but they would be few. It's also possible that the 90 percent figure is off the mark. I think of it as an average among people; some will be higher, others lower. It is also influenced by circumstances; time pressure or psychological pressure are likely to lower the figure. But for the most part, I think it explains plenty about why things are as they are.