Sunday, September 18, 2011


I was going to write a post recommending everyone visit Indolicious, a really excellent and strangely empty Indonesian restaurant down the southern end of Lygon st, but it looks like I was too late. A friend who lives around the corner reports that they've closed down.

Unsurprising I suppose as they were always completely empty, even when Ying Thai right next door was packed and there was a queue outside.

A Friday night at Indolicious

Despite their apparent troubles in attracting customers, the food was fantastic. The nasi iga penyet (grilled beef ribs with sambal) tasted exactly like they do on the streets of Jakarta. The sambal on top was sweet and spicy in all the right ways.

Nasi iga penyet

And.... The, ultimate test of an Indonesian (perhaps this can even be generalised to south-east Asian) restaurant, the nasi goreng (fried rice) was perfect.

Nasi goreng ikan asin

Vale Indolicious. I hope you open up again soon. Es Teler and that Padang place near Melbourne uni aren't really cutting it...

High school health education in West Papua

On one of my work trips to Papua in 2009 we visited a community infrastructure site that was next to a school a few hours out of Manokwari. It was a weekend and there were no kids around, so we thought we'd take a look at the school grounds to see what the facilities were like.

We came across these colourful health education posters that I thought I should share. The first two are about the dangers of drugs and malaria - pretty standard fare - but the next ones we saw raised some eyebrows.

Click on the photos to see the higher-res versions.

Mainstream Papuan society is really very conservative so I was quite impressed to see such detailed and clear information on sexually transmitted diseases and such anatomically correct depictions of the reproductive systems of men and women.

My guess is that, in the face of Papua's growing HIV/AIDS problem, the community that the school serves recognises the need for clear and factual sex education. It would be interesting to know if this school is unique or if this sort of education is common throughout Papua. I'm sure the FPI would have such posters down and the teachers beaten up in a matter of days if they were put up in Java.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Strange Birds in Northcote

It's pretty late but if you're interested in West Papua or if you just generally like damn good music and you're in Melbourne you could do worse than to head down to the Northcote Social Club to see the launch of the soundtrack to Strange Birds in Paradise this afternoon from 1:45 - 4:45pm.

I saw a lot of these bands last year at an event to raise money for relief following an earthquake near the north coast of West Papua that caused a damage in Biak, Yapen and the nearby mainland. There was a really great mix of traditional percussion, I suppose what you'd call more modern guitar based folk songs and even some really tight soul. Great bands, great harmonies and always with a really driving rhythm common to a lot of Papuan music.

I recommend the music without reservation. The movie, less so.

I'm always a bit conflicted about these events because they tend to devolve into platitudes about freedom that make it sound like there's an easy solution to all of the troubles in West Papua. They encourage well-meaning Northcote types to buy lapel pins and Free West Papua bumper stickers while having no understanding of the context or the real-world implications of political change in West Papua.

To be clear, I don't support independence for West Papua. I'll go into the qualifications and reasons for this in a later blog post (if I tried to do it now I'd miss the gig). In short, I want the violence to stop, I want the people to be provided with health, education, infrastructure and other vital services and I want them to be free to express their thoughts, ideas and culture. I just think independence would be a huge roadblock on the way to doing that.

Politics aside, if you're in Melbourne, get down there and catch some great music. If you really do want some politics, ignore the rebels-without-a-cause and talk to the real Papuans.

For my non-Melburnian readers, fyi, Northcote is our little nexus of Hipsterdom. Centre of tight jeans, ironic glasses, veganism, fixed gear bikes and white people. It's top of the list of Stuff White People Like in Melbourne.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Finally, gamelan/metal fusion

I found the above track on one of those music sharing services that the kids were all using back in 2002 after buying (and loving) Dreams by Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble. As you might expect, it blew my little 19-year-old mind.

It was brash, loud, aggressive and best of all, it prominently featured Balinese gamelan right in the front of the mix. They were just samples and they were used more as a texture than an integral part of the music, but still, it was something.

If you haven't listened to much gamelan, it can sound pretty odd at first, but even as a kid I loved it. I can't remember where I first heard it, but I have vivid memories of taking gamelan music classes in primary school in Jakarta at age 8 and still remember the lyrics to some of the Javanese songs. I even once convinced my parents to let the driver take me to an all night wayang performance, though my hazy memory suggests that I wasn't awake for much of it.

When I moved back to Jakarta in 2004 I started seeing a lot of metal and hardcore music. The scene was very mature with distinct styles to be found in all of the major cities.

Maybe it's just me, but I actually see quite a lot of similarities between the next two videos:

The stop/start rhythms, the shimmering layers of sound, the intense blasts and virtuousity required all made it seem like a no-brainer that someone would be fusing gamelan and metal but I was never able to find it. I heard that Krakatau were doing great work fusing jazz and gamelan but I missed their show in Melbourne before I left and never heard of any gigs they were doing in Indonesia.

Imagine my delight then when I saw a link to Anaking's Facebook page on Rumah Musik Harry Roesli's wall.

You can listen to a few of their songs below. I recommend the second track: The Final of Nowhere. I'm a little puzzled by their decision to sing their songs in English (or Engrish?), but I can forgive them that.

It makes sense that the first metal/gamelan fusion band (that I've heard of, at least) would come out of Bandung. They have, arguably, the best metal scene in the country and STSI Bandung has one of the biggest traditional music student bodies in the country. I just wonder what took them so long...

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Is cycling in Melbourne dangerous?

One of my favourite blogs, The Melbourne Urbanist had a thoughtful post trying to nut out the constraining factor preventing Melbourne being accurately described as a bike city.

He (and his voluminous commenters) cite various articles and personal anecdotes all seemingly predicated on the assumption that to venture out on to the Melbourne streets with a bicycle is to take your life in your hands and it got me thinking: is cycling in Melbourne really that dangerous?

I ride 50-100km per week as a commuter with probably 30-40% of that distance on bike paths (with numerous street crossings) and the rest on roads; with the exception of a short stretch of footpath on Bell st between my house and the Upfield bike path I never ride on the footpath. I have been doing this for around 18 months now and in that whole time I have had to slam on my brakes to avoid a crash exactly once and stopped with a comfortable margin of error to the side of someone who pulled out of a side street on Sydney road.

I suppose I have a reasonable bike* with good brakes that would give me a little more control than average and while I'm probably slightly more coordinated than the average potential cycle-commuter in Melbourne, I'm definitely not exceptional in that regard**.

It could be a matter of framing: I rode a motorbike in Jakarta for almost a year so I may have a skewed idea of what constitutes obnoxious driving and a lower expectation of driver awareness. Am I oblivious to my impending doom or is everyone else overreacting?

* I ride a low-to-mid-range hardtail mountain bike with disc brakes set up as a commuter with slicks and the front forks locked out.
** I long for the day when I can do a track stand at the traffic lights.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Arsehole vs. asshole

There's this phenomenon I've been noting for a long time: there are more differences in Australian and American usage of the word arsehole/asshole than just the spelling and pronunciation.

Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton ably describes the intersection of the Australian and American usage in his book The No Asshole Rule as follows:
  • After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?

  • Does the person target people who are less powerful than he?
Meet these two criteria and you, sir, are an arsehole/asshole. However, while avoiding the faux pas above will spare you being called an arsehole by Australians, you may still be subject to assholedom under certain circumstances.

Americans seem to have a slightly broader definition of "asshole" that includes people that we Australians would term "fuckwits" or "dickheads." A person can be a "fuckwit" without being an "arsehole" if they show themselves to be generally ignorant about the way the world works in a way that invites derision, but does not do so in a way that intentionally harms or attempts to harm others.

In an effort to further elucidate the subtle differences, I have helpfully prepared the following chart:

Where 'A's are the unintentionally inept, 'B's are actual, literal, anatomical arseholes and 'C's are those that fit Prof. Sutton's criteria (who also just so happen to be fuckwits).

Let me close with a few examples of American usage of "asshole" that would not be acceptable in standard Strine.

Let me know if you have further questions or counterexamples.

Ethiopian creationism?

Have you ever heard of Lucy?

If you're especially knowledgable (or if you just read that Wikipedia page) you'll know that she was a partial skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974.

Lucy is far from the only primate fossil specimen that illuminates human evolution found in Ethiopia; there are dozens of important specimens found over the years. The national museum in Addis Ababa devoted a huge percentage of its space to providing detailed information about these fossils, human evolution more generally and palaeontology.

Another interesting thing about Ethiopia is the dominant religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Now, I'm far from an expert in the field, my observations are based purely on talking to a few people over a week in the country and reading a few Wikipedia pages, but here goes anyway.

As I understand it, the Ethiopian church split off from the rest of Christianity very early on; well before the split of the Eastern and Western churches into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. In fact, by the great schism, Christianity was already Ethiopia's state religion and they had already translated the Bible into Ge'ez (a translation that is still in ritual use today).

The religion still seems very strong in the country, at least in the north where we were. Pretty much everyone we spoke to professed to be a Christian though they said there were some substantial pockets of animism and Islam down south. The deacon who was our tour guide around the monolithic rock churches of Lalibela told us that there wasn't a strong history of proselytising, although there were missionaries that went to visit the southern provinces of Ethiopia, he said there weren't really any efforts to teach outsiders about the faith. They have a different calendar, a bit more of a focus on fasting* and their own festivals and holy sites, but as far as we could tell, they were pretty in line with the sorts of beliefs we had seen outside the country.

Wikipedia tells me that Ethiopian orthodoxy is considered to be in full communion with Catholic teachings, which means that the pope decided that they might have some different traditions, but they are essentially following the same doctrine. They seemed to have a lot of the same saints - St. George is a major saint had one of the churches of Lalibela dedicated to him. I asked a few people (including our deacon friend) what the significance of St George was to Ethiopians and he said that St. George was famous because he killed a dragon: the ultimate symbol of evil. There also seemed to be a lot of Ethiopian saints whose names and deeds escape me now.

A lot of the most spectacular sights in the country are Ethiopian Orthodox holy sites including the rock churches I mentioned earlier and what they claim is the real, actual ark of the covenant. Sadly, we didn't have time to see the church that supposedly contains the latter.

Soon enough, I started wondering: are Ethiopian Christians creationists? Does national pride over the importance of the scientific discoveries there outweigh doctrine?

According to the three people I asked this question (one deacon and two laypeople, all men between the ages of 20 and 35) the answer is no. The three people I asked knew about Lucy and were familiar with the idea that we shared an ancestor with apes but didn't believe it. None of the people I spoke to about it showed any interest in convincing me of their point of view, my guess is they looked at it as a matter of faith.

I'd be interested in finding out to what extent this is a doctrinal matter but, sadly, I don't know any Ethiopian Christians in Melbourne.

* Their fasting food was vegetarian and really tasty, which was pretty nice for the wife - she was getting pretty sick of nshima/ugali and greens from further south.

In search of Mulatu

I had a summer subject in Mumbai last January so the wife and I decided to take advantage of our long university holiday and turn it into a trip through a few parts of the world we'd never seen before. Seriously... When is the next time we're both going to have 3 months off?

Unlike seemingly everywhere else in the world I have been (except maybe America) you almost never hear foreign music in Ethiopia. We heard massive amounts of American hip-hop and R&B all through Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya but when we hit Addis Ababa it just stopped. And it's not like they're not in the habit of playing music in communal places, every restaurant, cafe, taxi, drink stall, bus and - of course - music shop has massive speakers blaring out music at all hours of the day. It wasn't until the second day that I noticed this and until the third day that I finally heard some Aretha Franklin pounding out from a bar near our hotel. The rest of the time was either traditional Ethiopian music or their frenetic pop music.

The rhythms of Ethiopian music are generally pretty complex. A really common rhythm to hear is four groupings of really fast quintuplets, usually with the stress on the first and third beat of each quintuplet**. They also have some version of 12/8 that stresses different beats depending on the region. Vocals are very melismatic and the most popular songs seem to be the uptempo ones (a nice change from the arhythmic Celine Dion often playing in restaurants in SE Asia).

The one singer we heard absolutely everywhere is called Aster Aweke. Have a listen to this song and tell me if you can imagine a place in the world where this is the number one hit song.

It's so syncopated, so complex, so virtuosic and band is absolutely slamming... I guess Cee-Lo and Janelle MonĂ¡e would give her a bit of a run for her money, but not too many other people in the west.

While I picked up a lot of new music around the country, there was one musician I was looking for in particular: Mulatu Astatke. He is considered the father of Ethiojazz and has been gaining a second career touring the world playing to lovers of fine music who discovered him through the Ethiopiques series of albums or Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers soundtrack.

He even toured to Melbourne twice last year. The first time backed by local Melbourne band The Black Jesus Experience and the second time with his own band (so I hear). I caught the first gig and it was fantastic.

So, I sought out CD stores in every town we hit. People's eyes would light up when I said his name, but no one had any CDs.

We even found the Mulatu Astatke Institute of Music, but sadly we were there on a Sunday so no one was around.

Look at him, mocking me

Then finally, on our last day in the country in a mall on Bole road there was an electronics store with a little CD section and, sure enough, there it was: a dodgy early 90s smooth jazz album with more cheesy synth pads and corny drum machine sounds than you could poke a stick at. Still, I probably like it more than Tutu and You're Under Arrest.

Ah well, as it turned out, there were plenty of 60s Bollywood soundtracks in India to keep me busy for a while..


I have dozens of half- and quarter-written posts sitting in various places around my computer, my draft folder and the dark recesses of my brain.

I'm going to see if I can't clear a few of them out...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On live cattle exports, racism and the Facebook generation

In the past few days there has been a lot of noise in the Australian media about live cattle exports to Indonesia. GetUp! has started a campaign and Animals Australia has a number of videos up with the aim of getting the government to ban live exports to Indonesia.

First off, I am sympathetic to a lot of arguments put forward Animals Australia (and people like them). I think that we Australians eat far too much meat, we (in general) don't know where it comes from or how sustainably or humanely it lives or dies. Anything that makes people think about how their meat gets from being part of a living animal to being on their plate for dinner is, to my mind, a good thing.

What I object to in these videos and the associated campaign launched by GetUp! is the dog-whistling for outrage with no action and the tacit racism.

I've never been to an abattoir in Australia (I have been to a few in Indonesia and seen animals killed for meat in mosques and streets) but I'd bet the main difference between the facilities in the two countries is how well insulated Australian ones are from the media. I would be willing to bet that your average Australian would be just as outraged by what they saw in Australian slaughterhouses. The only difference is that it's evil, uncivilised brown people doing it over there. One quote from the video: "the goal of the workers is to subdue and restrain the animals, so that they can kill them". Isn't that the job of abattoir workers all over the world?

The videos also use phrases like "beautiful Australian cattle", "he was a big affable steer", "that the workers get some gratification out of", "he called out in a way that was heartwrenching", "I swear I could hear him call out 'why?'", "3000km from home and safety" and name the cattle as if they are trying to tap into the same kneejerk anti-Indonesian sentiment that made the Schapelle Corby case such a media firestorm.

We have this strange disconnect in Australia where you can love animals like dogs, cats and dolphins but implicitly support the institutionalised violence against animals by buying factory farmed meat at the supermarket. It's true that Indonesia doesn't have animal protection laws in the same way that we do in Australia, but at least they understand where meat comes from.

A huge percentage of Indonesians see animals slaughtered in mosques and streets each year around Eid al-Adha. To my mind, the integration of the slaughter of animals into general society is much healthier than the sanitised mass-production meat machine that we have in the west (though arguably not from a public health standpoint).

No matter what the laws are in Indonesia, the way they treat animals is cultural and you're not likely to see much change in the way they treat animals for a generation or two. They have demand for beef, if we don't fill it, someone else will and it will just be "beautiful Brazilian cattle suffering thousands of miles from home and safety" instead.

The Facebook generation love getting behind causes as long as all they have to do is click a "Like" button. This cause seems tailor-made for that. Just click a button, hate on some brown people with some different values and keep on living the way you always have.

So, what do I propose instead? Don't buy factory farmed meat. Take action against factory farmers in Australia. If you really want meat, buy from local sustainable producers (like my Mum and Dad).

Unfortunately, all of these things require people to do things that actually impact their lives... What's to bet you see a lot more people signing up to GetUp!'s petition than actually stop buying their factory farmed steaks from Coles and Woolies?