Tag Archives: technology

Can you Kindle it?


Sara Veal

In the run-up to last Christmas, messages from Amazon suggesting I buy a Kindle began polluting my inbox.

I deleted every one with gritted teeth, mentally screaming “Don’t want!”, as if the Devil was trying to pester me into exchanging my print-loving soul for a literary iPod.

But, as I began to investigate electronic publishing in Indonesia, I decided it would be good to actually test one of the evil things.

Don’t knock it before you’ve tried it, and all that.

Gramedia were generous enough to lend me one for a week.

Seeing the Kindle in the “flesh” melted away quite a number of my reservations. It did look like a literary iPod… in a good way. White and sleek, with an “electronic ink” screen that was incredibly close to paper. I ran my fingertips over its smooth service, intrigued as Rio Eka Putra, head of Gramedia’s IT & Research department, gave me a demonstration.

At home, I logged onto my Amazon UK account and downloaded Charlaine Harris’ Gone and Dead, which I had been waiting to be released in paperback form in Indonesia – that would have been May this year or even later. The process was effortless, speedy and exciting.

Reading on the Kindle was initially odd, but I soon got used to it, and found “turning” the pages and finding my place intuitive, although I missed knowing what page I was on – instead the percentage read so far was displayed at the bottom of the screen. I especially liked being able to read with one hand. The battery power was impressive. I only had to charge it once in the week I had it.

However, there was definitely room for improvement. As an electronic device, it should be backlit so you can read without an external light, and have a better way of categorizing purchases.

At least the two purchases I made remain mine even after I surrendered the device to Gramedia, and I can send them to any future Kindle-compatible devices I may have in the future.

I also discovered that it wasn’t the presentation of books that mattered so much – at least in the case of image-free texts – it was the words and stories.

I had chosen Dead and Gone because it was “light reading”, but when my friend in the UK recommended via MSN messenger Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, a collection of short stories, I immediately took her advice. Within moments I had the electronic version on the Kindle, a heady dose of previously unimaginable instant gratification. Du Maurier – a more literary author than Harris – was just as magic on screen as she was on paper.

I imagine owning a Kindle would mean I’d buy less of certain kinds of books (light reading, series) and maybe invest more in limited editions I wanted to have on the shelf.

A Kindle extends the reading experience, allowing for experimentation and less waiting time. And it was great having so much choice at my fingertips. Definitely a winning travel companion.

Even though the pros arguably outweigh the cons, the price is rather steep, at US$259-489, especially with hefty import and shipping costs if you’re having it delivered outside of the US. But for avid bookworms with cash to spare, it might just be worth it.

Note: Kindles aren’t yet compatible in Indonesia, so you will only be able to download books if you have a credit card and Amazon account linked to a Kindle-compatible country. See Amazon.com for further details.



Filed under Clippings

The end of books?


Sara Veal

Electronic books, or “e-books” have been around for 40 years, without posing much of a threat to printed books.

But with the growing popularity of dedicated e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle, and the buzz surrounding Apple’s enigmatic iPad, one wonders if that will ensure e-books’ appeal amid Blackberry-hungry Indonesians, and thus the tragic death of traditional publishing.

While all kinds of e-books are freely available via the Internet, official e-book content in Indonesia remains limited. That could change dramatically within the next two years, as Kompas-Gramedia, the country’s largest media conglomerate, is formulating its digital content strategy.

“We are developing Kompas Gramedia Digital. We are focusing on developing e-book content, not a gadget,” says Rio Eka Putra, head of IT & Research at Gramedia, adding they were open to creating content for both the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad.

Rio describes Gramedia’s approach as a “wait-and-see” one, as the technology is “so new”, and there remain many questions associated with widespread digital content, especially preventing piracy and getting authors on board.

“We are trying to explain to the writers about e-publishing, some still don’t understand what it is, what their rights are,” says Anastasia Mustika, fiction editor at PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Young adult author Andrei Aksana, who agrees to his content being digitized, says “e-books are the future of reading” due to convenience and environmental benefits.

“There are now around 30 million Internet users in Indonesia if I’m not mistaken … and the numbers are growing very quickly, after India and China. So, e-books have enormous potential. E-books mean we can read any time, anywhere [with internet-ready devices] such as Blackberry, iPhone, although it’s a pity these [devices] are mostly only enjoyed by the middle class.”

Clara Ng, author of the MetroPop series and children’s story books, also accepts digitisation, as it would allow more to access her books.

“As a reader, I am happy with e-books because they are cheaper [than conventional books].”

Writer Sitta Karina, however, remains sceptical about e-books, preferring “holding the physical form of the book, savoring the paper smell of each page”. While she appreciates the potential environmental benefits, she has not yet agreed to content digitization.

“Not in this short period. I’m still worried about book piracy. Even most internet hackers now could break through ‘m-book’ coding,” she says referring to Gramedia’s collaboration with Telkomsel to offer m-books, fiction through mobile phones.

Available since last year, the 100 or so m-books are mainly young adult fiction and cookbooks, which Telkomsel customers can purchase chapter by chapter.

Anastasia says the m-books scheme was profitable and would continue, although Rio felt reading on handphones was not the way forward, due to the small screens.

“It’s not comfortable to read on [handphones and Blackberrys]. We must go to the gadgets.”

While Gramedia is adopting a cautious attitude to the novel technology, Lontar, a publisher specialising in Indonesian literature-in-translation, is leaping head-first into digital publishing, finding it a solution to existing challenges.

“Until print-on-demand technology came in Lontar has always been hobbled by the fact that the cost of shipping is so exorbitant that it’s impossible to make any money on the sale of books,” says John McGlynn, Lontar’s co-founder and director.

With print-on-demand, digital content can be uploaded to servers and then printed in response to orders, anywhere in the world through the associated printer, circumventing shipping costs.

“It’ll be a year before we actually find the results. But starting this year we’ll be putting 28 books in print-on-demand format,” says McGlynn, adding that previously Lontar had only been able to annually release a handful of books.

As well as widening Lontar’s titles, and hopefully profit margins, McGlynn says print-on-demand could facilitate the distribution of textbooks around the archipelago, a flow of information that could indirectly enhance national literacy.

“You look at education in Indonesia… and especially in Eastern Indonesia and elsewhere, where publishers do not send books there. Gramedia is one of the few that has bookstores in the country. But even there and in Papua… they are only two or three in the whole province. If, for example, there was a print-on-demand operation in Papua, and Indonesian books were already digitized, they could print them immediately.”

Matthew Schafer, media specialist at Jakarta International School (JIS), also saw the educational potential in electronic content, specifically through the Kindle, if they were fully compatible in Indonesia and adapted for schools.

“I’d love to have 30 of these and start checking them out. Whenever the next Twilight comes out, I don’t have to ship them, and have them ready on the day… click and buy until there’s a nice rotation… or when a kid wants to order something unusual. It would be a great service to provide,” says Schafer, who has been using a Kindle since last year.

“The amount we spend on shipping to get books here is through the roof… in a perfect digital world, we’ve save a lot of money.”

Schafer adds e-book readers would also be a convenient way of giving students all their books for the year, and that the Kindle’s functions, like text-to-speech, inbuilt dictionary and translation would be useful for those who did not speak English as their native tongue.

“That part’s awesome from a teaching standpoint.”

Librarian and author Sylvia L’Namira agrees that e-books could encourage and facilitate literacy in youth.

“But that of course depends on the librarian who runs the library – and the board who give the library budget – whether they think it’s important to collect e-books or not. I have noticed that readers are starting to look for e-books rather than buying books. Maybe because e-books can be downloaded for free from the internet, while you have to spend some money to get the book.”

Aspiring novelist and part-time translator Melissa Chandra vouches for the educational benefits of e-books.

Melissa, who has been completely blind since adolescence, first encountered e-books in her final year of high school, which, with the aid of a screen-reader, expanded her literary world.

“Before, the only way for me to read was through my mother to reading me, or the audio library in one of the blind communities I have been active in since the start of senior high school. I prefer e-books, as I do not get sleepy – as opposed to listening to audio books – and it was much more practical too.”

However, Amang Suramang from Good Reads Indonesia, reserves short-term expectations for both e-books and print-on-demand technology, noting that most Indonesians still do not comprehend the concept, although he expects that eventually e-books will prevail, without completely displacing printed books.

“I see e-books and books like a horse and a car. When you’re on a horse, you enjoy the emotional journey… but you’ll be challenged to find people using a horse to go to the office, they use a car. E-books are a car. But we need time,” he says adding the price point of the Kindle and other such e-book readers (US$259 and upwards) was still too expensive to be accessible for Indonesians.

Considering the multitude of possibilities and already proven benefits, it’s safe to say that the reign of digital publishing is nigh. But it also appears printed books aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Like Gramedia, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

1 Comment

Filed under Clippings

Karim Charlebois-Zariffa: The Invisible Artist


Sara Veal

Karim Charlebois-Zariffa creates the kind of magic you see all the time but never really thought about.

Commercials where buildings explode with paint, music videos where rock stars appear to be floating in thin air or film title sequences where plasticine figures morph into live action people and back again.

This is motion design, sometimes known as “the invisible art” – on average, twelve minutes of every hour of broadcast television is the work of a motion designer, taking the form of commercials, title sequences, trailers and special effects.

“Often people think motion design is a new field of graphic design but in fact it has been around for many years, in different forms,” Charlebois-Zariffa said, citing the 1950s and 1960s work of Scottish experimental filmmaker Norman Maclaren, Czech surrealist artist Jan Svankmajer and American graphic designer Saul Bass, who created the film title sequences to several Alfred Hitchcock films.

“For me, motion design is a mix of everything. It’s mainly graphic design and movement. It’s using a variety of techniques to get to what you want to say. What I find most interesting is finding a new technique of animation every time. it’s always a challenge.”

Recently, Charlebois-Zariffa came to Jakarta to present a talk, “International Motion Graphic”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: *Kinesis'” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place between July 7-12.

The 25-year-old was born in Quebec City, and is currently based in nearby Montreal, which he says is “a great city to be a designer”.

Artistic from an early age, Charlebois-Zariffa joined the local graffiti scene, and from there learned about graphic design, which he studied at CEGEP level, a Quebecois qualification between high school and university.

His first professional foray was as a fashion designer, starting a company, Colourblind, which offered shoes, hats, t-shirts and skirts. However, he eventually decided he needed to find something that offered more opportunity for innovation.

He soon found what he was looking for after doing Photoshop work for an animator who was making a music video clip involving motion design.

“I had no idea at that time about motion design. So I saw him work and I was curious and interested. I asked him to show me what motion design was and how it worked. I became hooked.”

As there were no specific motion design courses on offer, Charlebois-Zariffa largely taught himself, and soon received many assignments, which kick-started his career.

Most of his jobs have been making title sequences for soap operas and documentary series. These include title sequences for science show Le Code Chasteney and Montreal in 12 Places, which highlighted spots around the city such as a street market and horse race track. The latter, which required a year of intensive work to create a minute of animation for each of the twelve places, netted his team “pretty much every motion design award there was to win in Montreal”.

He also aligns 3D objects, such as pills and colouring pencils, for magazine spreads. At one point these were so in demand he began to feel typecast and so ended his run with a print book, which showcased on everything he owned, all aligned in his apartment.

“Nothing was hidden. Everything I owned was shown, without any shame or whatever. If I had something I wanted to hide, my rules were that I had to show that.”

Most recently he has been making title sequences for feature films, like French-Canadian De pere en flic (2009), which he prefers, as they can be longer and have a larger budget and more time.

Charlebois-Zariffa always strives to “do what a camera couldn’t do”, which involves combining a range of techniques from stop-motion, live-action and 3D animation. The end result appears effortless, but requires endless hours of meticulous work and planning, from methodically positioning glass strings to creating 24 frames of stop-motion animation for one second of animation. He says he is driven not by patience, but by passion.

“If I’m doing a stop motion that takes me months, it’s because I love it.”

Charlebois-Zariffa says what made him fall in love with graphic design was the work of “rockstar” graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.

Last year, he did a week-long workshop with Sagmeister, and eventually plucked up the courage to offer himself as an intern. A few months later, Sagmeister invited him to join him during his sabbatical year, which he takes every seven years.

So for the past five months, Charlebois-Zariffa has been in Bali with Sagmeister, who asked him to extend his stay, as an employee.

Along with a small team of graphic designers from all over the world, as well as Balinese artisans, Sagmeister and Charlebois-Zariffa are working on a top-secret, experimental project.

Charlebois-Zariffa says Bali feels like home right now, remarking on its natural beauty and inspiring craft culture.

Although he looks forward to returning to Montreal within a month, he knows he will come back to Bali, particularly because of his ongoing collaboration with Sagmeister and the facility of working with Balinese artists.

“We could never find these kinds of talents in New York and if we could, they’d be too expensive. Balinese are very happy people and very willing to try out new stuff.”

Although he is still passionate about motion design and the constant, creative challenges it offers, Charlebois-Zariffa does not see himself focusing on it indefinitely.

“I really like sculpting right now, and art in general. I love everything about designing art, so I hope I can move on. Right now I’m moving more into video clip direction.”

“I’m never going to be a lawyer or accountant, but for sure, in the same field or tree, I like to touch all the branches.”

Visit www.karimzariffa.com for more information.

Leave a comment

Filed under Clippings

Pioneering animation fusion with ‘Wanga-Manga’


Sara Veal

During the 1920s, a young man created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character that quickly became a success for Universal Studios.

But when he asked the producer, Mintz, for more money, the producer insisted upon a 20 percent budget cut, reminding the young man that the studio owned the character. The young man disassociated himself from Oswald and moved on.

He was, of course, Walt Disney, and his next project was Mickey Mouse. Today, both Disney and Mickey are famous the world over, synonymous with animation and imagination.

Oswald will always be Mickey’s shadow, but for animator James Speck, he remains an inspiration.

“The irony is that [Mintz] did Disney an enormous favor. Yes, Mickey Mouse resulted from losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the bigger lesson was that Disney never ever again trusted his business partners,” Speck says.

“He realized that they were all short-term thinkers, and that they underestimated his talents. Had Mintz given Disney what he wanted, Disney would have been tied to Mintz, a producer whose films are basically obscure.”

Speck has learned from Disney’s experience. Since he first became interested in animation at age 15, he has continued to hone his craft, always endeavoring to remain in creative control and own the rights to his own creations.

His projects include Hollywood films, international television productions, commercials, fine art exhibits and live motion capture performances.

Born in Michigan, but calling Arizona home, Speck first came to Jakarta in 1992, when a Montreal-based company, Softimage, sent him to ASEAN to develop their 3D software. He moved to Singapore shortly afterward, where he has remained.

There, he founded Cowboy Water Design in 1994, a company that aims to “continually push the boundaries of computer animation and exceed client expectations”.

His company’s unusual name and idiosyncratic logo (the rear view of a naked child in a large cowboy hat, peeing) were inspired by Speck’s earliest childhood memory.

“When you name something it should be really personal and it should have meaning for you,” he says. “My youngest memory was in South Bend, Indiana, four years old, in front of a mirror, going ‘Drink cowboy water’. It stuck in my head … It’s timeless, it’ll never go out of fashion. That little boy in the hat is me.”

Last Thursday, Speck was in Jakarta to present a talk on “Technology vs Creativity”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: ‘Kinesis’” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place from July 7 to 12.

Speck might not have found his Mickey Mouse yet, but he already has a host of creations under his belt, ranging from a perky blue-haired television host to a urinating chihuahua.

At the talk, Speck declared a new art movement, “Wanga-Manga” or “Wanga”, a fusion of Western art and Japanese manga.

Lili, a real-time virtual character that debuted in 1998, is arguably his most famous creation to date, as well his first realized example of Wanga, a figure displaying manga-style facial features and a Western-style body.

The Lili Show, on the MTV Asia Network channel, involved Lili interviewing pop stars such as Madonna, Bono and Coco Lee.

In 2000, The Lili Show won the Asian Television Award for Most Innovative Program. It remains one of the most highly rated Asian MTV shows of all time, attracting an audience of 1.2 billion at its peak. Lili, along with sidekick Bibi, appeared in Time magazine and on the CNN network and performed live at the MTV European Music awards. Both Lili and Bibi continue to represent a fashion line and appear at live music events.

“It was so far beyond what I could imagine success-wise: thousands of screaming fans in Taiwan for this character,” Speck says.

“That show opened up a lot of doors for me, but that was it. I thought, now the money’s just going to come rolling in … but then nothing… I own the rights to this character and have done a few things with it, but mainly, I’ve moved on.”

In 2004, Speck created Quu and Tee, a pair of Wanga-style characters designed to represent Animax Asia, a 24-hour Japanese anime channel.

Adding to his live motion performance work, in 2007 Speck developed five real-time virtual characters for the Woolworth’s Corporation in Australia, which over a period of five days performed live for an audience of 40,000 people at the convention center in Melbourne.

“Grown businessmen were suddenly talking and laughing and having a really good time, because of the crazy cartoon characters.”

In 2008, he created canine mascot Randy for Singaporean IPTV channel “Razor TV” (www.razor.tv). The chihuahua’s most notable feature is his frequent urination.

“Why put a cartoon dog in a live set? Why put a cartoon dog in anything?” Speck says. “Because people love to be entertained. People like talking to cartoon dogs.”

Speck introduced two Woolworth characters — a laddish household cleaner and imperious washing powder box — and Randy to the seminar attendees, demonstrating real-time lip-synching technology.

The characters are controlled by a computer keyboard, a mouse and a microphone. Their rate was between 57 and 60 frames per second, which approaches Pixar or movie quality. Speck also included secondary motion, which enhances lifelike performances.

The seminar attendees responded to the characters, performed by Speck, with laughter and smiles, a response that Speck is used to, but never gets tired of. “People behave so interestingly when they talk to a cartoon character.”

His latest project is Tra the Tiger, a ukulele-playing, Wanga-style Sumatran tiger that dances with musical durians. He hopes to collaborate with the WWF and use Tra to promote environmentalism internationally in a fun, accessible way, through television, merchandising and licensing.

“Tra the Tiger will be a spokesperson for all animals and all different types of tigers. He’ll be talking and dancing and singing, with the ukulele,” he says.

“I don’t think there’s any other tiger that plays the ukulele. I’ll be the first one.”

While his other characters have usually been voiced by professional actors, Speck plans to voice Tra himself.

“I want to make him a tiger with a real attitude, like, ‘Dude, get your hands off my skin’.”

Speck hopes that Tra will eventually be able to interview high-profile conservationists such as Jane Goodall.

He plans to target palm oil plantations and large-scale companies such as Tiger Beer and Tiger Airlines for funding, as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs.

He hopes to convey through Tra that it is not a simple case of megacorporations being the bad guys and ruining the environment, and that these are issues that should be on everyone’s conscience.

“None of us are innocent. Palm oil is used in shampoo and foods … I probably used a product today, maybe it was in my soap,” he says.

“I found that Exxon Mobil spends US$10 million a year to save the tiger.”

Inspired by his treks around jungles in Sumatra, Speck decided to focus on saving the tiger, because he observed that their presence was linked to the condition of the environment.

“If you go and try to save a bird or snake or whatever, there’s no point if there’s no tiger. If you’ve got a tiger in a forest, that [place] is in really good shape. If there’s no tiger, everything goes downhill.”

He intends to remain in Asia, which he feels currently offers far more opportunities than the US, but hopes to leave Singapore soon, possibly for Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“Singapore may fund this project, but after that it’s going to be game over. They have their own animators now, I trained a lot of them … It’s time to wake up and do something different,” he says.

“I want long-term, I want sustainability… I hope I can retire with Tra the Tiger.”

James Speck can be contacted at cowboy@singnet.com.sg. Tra the Tiger is available to add as a friend on Facebook (search “Tra Tiger”).


Filed under Clippings