Saturday, April 30, 2011

Old Book, New Cover

There is a book in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial. A really huge book. In its pages is the abridged story of how Tunku and gang won our independence from the British.

The pages, however, are not real. In all likelihood it is a Flash interface, projected on the static surface of a book-like construct that relies on motion-detecting sensors to let visitors interact with it. The interface takes some time to master. I should know - I played with it. Besides text and pictures, it also contains playable video clips.

Did I have a brush with an e-book - or a version of the e-book - during my trip through time back then?

As the debate over the future of paper-based publishing and the advent of e-book technology swirls, some are hauling out the next e-book concept. Not just electronic books, but "enhanced" electronic books. Things that look and feel like the one in Tunku's Memorial.

What would an enhanced e-book of The Lord of the Rings look like, for instance? It might, for starters, have video clips for epic scenes: Helm's Deep, Gollum's (and Sauron's) End, and Frodo's departure. Audio clips of how those names or words in Sindarin are pronounced. Interactive images of Anduril, the One Ring, or Bilbo Baggin's home, Bag End.

You know what? That fits the description of such an enhanced e-book mentioned in an online CNN article. Consider the plans for an e-book for The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

...it's also cresting a wave of enhanced electronic books as one of the most high-profile literary works to take advantage of the new abilities of readers such as Apple's iPad and other tablet computers.

Released by HarperCollins and available this week for several tablets and smartphones, "Dawn Treader" will include features such as embedded video, read-along audio clips, trivia games and full-color images.

It also includes a map of the fantasy land of Narnia (a feature creators say was one of the most requested by fans), a blueprint of the magical sailing ship the "Dawn Treader" and a guide to the creatures and people in the book.

Or, in the words of HarperCollins, it "targets multiple senses to create an innovative and exciting way to experience Narnia on e-reading technology."


In the same article was news about Simon & Schuster's "first enhanced e-book", Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland," for the iPad, which includes an interview with the author and historic video clips from CBS News.

...So an "enhanced e-book" is something I can view online, like, a web site? An "interactive" web site? Or something I can find in a paper book, like, an "interactive" CD-ROM, DVD or Blu-Ray disc?

Amazing, isn't it, what some "new" things are actually old.

Another e-book program is the Libroid, which:

...currently runs only on Apple's iPad tablet computer, splits the traditional book page into three columns, allowing authors space to annotate their text with footnotes, images, maps, videos and web links.

...Page numbers are abandoned in favor of a percentage bar that tells readers where they are.

Interactive elements allow readers to make their own comments on virtual book clubs that can be linked up to the text. It also offers authors the possibility of updating their own work (something that U.S. author Jonathan Franzen might appreciate after the wrong draft of his latest novel was published in the UK).


That sounds a bit more useful than the other "enhanced e-book". But I'm not comparing apples with cantaloupes here.

One allure of the book - any book, perhaps - is how it allows the reader's allusions a bit more reign. When we read about people, places, events, the scenes unfurl in our heads, almost like a movie. Pictures and sounds may fill the gaps in the imagination but once that's done with, is there any point in reading a book anymore?

Is there a point to the book anymore?

The "e-book" is something that may have emerged a long time ago - when the web site was invented. Vanity home page sites of old such as Geocities (RIP) and today's blogging platforms are already letting us publish online, even if blogs don't "look like" books. So who are they to tell us what a book is and should be?

Novelties such as the advertised add-ons of the "enhanced" e-book may be welcomed by certain people. There's definitely a need for interactivity in academia and education, particularly in history, the sciences, the arts, and medicine, for instance. Just don't sell them "enhanced e-books", "augmented e-books", or whatever. 

But the way things are going, the next steps in the evolution of the e-book will see it resemble handheld interactive TVs. Or PCs. Nothing "new" or "enhanced" about that.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Head In The Clouds

Wow. Google had plans for a Dropbox or Skydrive of their own? So why haven't we heard about it?

Because it was shelved. It seems Google saw no point in a dedicated online file storage facility when cloud computing meant that files can be stored online when they are created or being edited in the cloud. Besides, said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, "Files are so 1990s. I don’t think we need files anymore."

What? Not need files anymore? ...Why?

"Think about it," said Pichai in that article. "You just want to get information into the cloud. When people use our Google Docs, there are no more files. You just start editing in the cloud, and there's never a file."

Can you smell the hubris? If you can't, you'd at least feel it. Sometimes I feel these tech companies are a bit too heavy on the hard sell

Yes, we're all more mobile now, taking our tech with us everywhere. Batteries and data storage hardware are clunky, and it makes devices... less mobile. They're getting smaller, but they don't seem to be going away. So why not ditch the disk or flash memory altogether and store it in the "cloud"? In a decade or so we'll finally be making calls, taking pictures, ordering groceries, getting the latest news and Tasering snatch thieves with our watches.

Thing is, data still has to be stored. In hardware. Just not the ones we're carrying. It might not be called a "file" or look like a "file", but it's still data.

Handing over the responsibility and burden of keeping our data and keeping it safe to third-party providers may free us and our devices to do more of what we want, but the risks are also transferred there as well. Gmail has suffered outages before. Natural disasters have severed our tenuous connections to our data. And the millions of potential customer records concentrated in a few sites have proven too irresistible to cybercriminals, the way ants feel about picnic baskets.

Which is why I still keep physical backups - in more than one format - with me. I do save some data in the cloud, but I'd never rely on it entirely. The big cloud companies may have better, more secure facilities, but it isn't foolproof. And it's statements like Pichai's that make Murphy's ears itch.

Backing up one's files can be a pain, but the loss of data can be even more painful. Think Google, et al will set you free from caring for your own data? Get your heads - and at least one copy of your data - out of the clouds and back on earth. Even if one can build castles on clouds, the foundation, at least, has to be solid.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Taxing

Malacca has announced a 5 per cent "heritage levy" on tourists and visitors staying at the state's hotels and other lodgings, from 1 September this year. Once imposed, the state expects to collect an additional RM12 million annually.

Given the development hijinks that have taken place under the current Chief Minister's tenure, one doubts if that RM12 million would ever be channelled correctly.

Will some of it be used to reward aspiring cig-quitters? All that smoke and cigarette butts aren't just unsightly but unhealthy as well, and that can't be good for tourism.

Will the money end up funding the accidental felling of centuries-old trees within heritage buffer zones?

Will part of it be spent in the name of science, because G*d allegedly said so?

Will part of it also be used for the maintenance of the so-called Arab City?

Why shouldn't some of the 6 percent tax be channelled back to heritage conservation efforts in Malacca? Why does it look like the state is shouldering the entire burden of keeping its heritage intact?

Most of all, will tourists and visitors pay a total of 21 per cent in taxes and service charges to stay in the hotels of what can be said to be a developing Disneyland-style caricature of Malaysia's most historic state?

We'll be given assurances, I'm sure. But the picture of that tree stump says something else.

After the last time I was there, I'd never... well, of course I suspect that there'd be no end to the nonsense going on in Malacca. Not even if they replaced the Chief Minister.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Here And There

Quite a few things happened in April. This is one of them.


Sini Sana
Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia


Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia had been in the making for a while. My first contribution to the collection was months ago, before I joined MPH. They needed to know one thing: Is it "Taman Overseas Union" or "Taman Oversea Union"?

Of course it was the former. The area was named for the now defunct Overseas Union Bank, which was merged with United Overseas Bank in 2002.

Since then, Sini Sana had gone through several rounds of editing, and was finally in bookstores this month.

Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia
Edited by Tom Sykes and Tan May Lee

MPH Group Publishing (2011)
Travel Guide - Malaysia
225 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5222-82-5 (Paperback)

RM 35.90 | Buy from MPHOnline.com
The stories are mostly postcard vignettes of the authors' most memorable times in Malaysia. All the authors - except perhaps, Lee Eeleen - appear to have found something new or fascinating about the country, even those who were born and are living here. Ghost stories. Trips to the past. Monkey business, elephant business, culture shocks and even a touch of forbidden weekend romance.

Zhang Su Li explores the past and present in her home state of Perak, sharing stories with an old lady at an Ipoh kopitiam, and drinking tea with a prostitute above a shophouse in Kopisan, Gopeng. She also travels to Kedah's Bujang Valley and its ancient Hindu shrines and meets a street urchin who fancies himself a Hindu god.

An island getaway off the coast of Terengganu does little good for Sarah Cheverton, who is haunted by desires stemming from the need to fill the gaps left behind by a breakup. A theft at the chalet where she and her friends are staying sours the trip. Can anything be salvaged from it?

FD Zainal takes us back into the past to his father's old fruit orchard on a hill in Kelantan, where he, his brothers and his dad lived the sweet rural life. Learn how to pack for a NS camp-style rural outing, the best places to swim in a river, and how to (not) chase away errant bull elephants that arrive at your doorstep.

Robert Bradley encounters various subspecies of a different kind of animal in his walks up Bukit Kiara: the urban KLite, and their myriad worldviews. The athletic Lee Yu Kit and his entourage, meanwhile, climb a mountain and find themselves out on a limb when a storm hits.

At the Lake Kenyir Resort in Terengganu, Damyanti Biswas finds peace until she starts getting acquainted with the flora and fauna and her fellow jungle tour mates. Marc White immerses himself into culture at the night market in Overseas Union Garden and an Indian barbershop, and Jason Moriarty dives headlong into a boat ride to a beach and tangles with an octopus.

There's more, of course, but if I go on I might go into spoiler territory. All in all, you really get a taste of what it's like to go sini sana (here and there) in Malaysia.

Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia is edited by Tom Sykes and Tan May Lee, and published by MPH Group Publishing. Each copy is currently priced at RM35.90 and can be found in all major bookstores.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Posh Kopitiam - Really?

I'd like to point out that this was an unsolicited review, and I have not received any form of compensation for it. That disclaimer was part of the original copy, but for some reason it never made it to print.



A posh kopitiam
The usual local fare presented with flair and at a premium price? The Cookbook isn’t as bad as it sounds, really.

first published in The Star on 09 April 2011

An opportunity to touch base with a mutual acquaintance that Alex and I haven’t seen for months became a great excuse for us to dine at an upmarket cafĂ© I’d previously checked out with a colleague for an interior decor magazine.

Though born into a family business that sells mainly high-end furniture and tableware, John Teo had a personal interest in food. He leapt into the food business with My Cookbook, which features five dining areas over three floors, uniquely furnished and fitted with wares from the family business.

At first glance, one would not see much that distinguishes the place from the other kitschy, upmarket kopitiam outlets in the vicinity, other than the pedigree of the furniture, perhaps. Teo deals in names such as Slide and Pedrali from Italy, and XO by Philippe Starck.

My Cookbook
A-12, Sunway Giza,
2, Jalan PJU 5/14,
Kota Damansara,
Petaling Jaya
Tel: (03) 6140 6113

Opening hours: Noon-midnight.

Pork-free.
Even the food — artfully sculpted and plated interpretations of familiar Malaysian favourites like chicken rice, char koay teow, fried rice, prawn noodles and so on — spell words that the budget-conscious Malaysian diner has come to dread, such as “expensive” and “pretentious”.

Putting such familiar fare on the menu had other problems too.

“People ask me, ‘What do you serve in your restaurant?’,” Teo says. “When they hear ‘chicken rice’, they’re like . . .” He rolls his eyes at the scepticism.

That this dish is on the current edition of his business card doesn’t help. “I do serve chicken rice, but that’s not even half the story. I can keep talking and talking, but there’s no point. My Cookbook has to be experienced.”

So that’s what we do. Alex and I meet up with a friend at John Teo’s place on a Saturday afternoon. Alex is almost enchanted on sighting the place. A clock with utensils for hands; an art installation made of more kitchen utensils, presumably the ones Teo sells; and chairs of transparent polycarbonate material with bright fuchsia cushions. And of course, the menu.

The layout is what one would find in swanky culinary cookbooks such as, say, Tetsuya Wakuda’s Tetsuya, or Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. The tantalising close-ups of food on dark backgrounds whet appetites, though drinks are not similarly profiled.

Despite the posh food styling, most of the items are familiar. My Cookbook’s “signature” chicken rice (RM15.90) is a log of rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, underlined by a row of boneless chicken slices and cucumber slices. The chicken is made from a single roasted, deboned, tightly rolled-up thigh that’s sliced into thick, mouth-watering medallions.

Several things set this chicken rice apart from the others. First, the skin on the chicken is crispy. Second, they only use the thighs or drumsticks.

“Ask the usual hawkers for a deboned drumstick and they’ll probably stare holes into your skull,” goes John. Third, the block of chicken puree in the bowl of accompanying soup is made of double-boiled chicken stock.

I rarely get to serenade Alex with descriptions of good food; it’s often the other way around, given how frequently she finds the good stuff. Curious about the chicken rice, she decides to order one. We continue poring over the menus when Irene walks in. She finds the dining concept interesting as well.

We settle for a numerically mismatched set of orders. Appetisers are a poached egg on a toast lined with shaved dried scallop (RM8.90), and prawn bisque with prawn dumplings (also RM8.90). Joining Alex’s chicken rice on the table are a char siew salmon with cheese balls (RM26.90) on a plate lined with what looks like cooked egg white, and my curry chicken with barley/pandan rice and a fried prawn dumpling (RM15.90). Dessert is a scoop of homemade durian ice-cream topped with red beans, sitting in a bowl of pumpkin broth (RM9.90).

The 45-minute poached egg on toast is an upmarket version of an Ipoh kopitiam favourite, said to be cooked down to the molecular level. When broken, the yolk does not run. The dried scallop shavings give the toast more flavour. A great way to start a meal.

Each spoonful of rich, thick prawn bisque delivers a deluge of flavour and fragrance. Irene mistakes the intense red of the prawn for the colour of spicy chilli. The dumplings in the bisque are stuffed with a firm chunk of juicy, larger-than-usual prawn. And fresh, too. Not a hint of the smell that says this crustacean is halfway towards the belacan heap.

Everyone knows that potatoes and curry go well with each other, so it’s no surprise to find the curry chicken drumstick resting on a small bed of mash. The curry chicken is well cooked. The addition of cooked barley to the pandan-tinged rice gives it a chewier texture and an appealing colour contrast.

The chicken rice?

Now, rice that’s rolled into a log-like shape is unlikely to be light and fluffy. But flavoured with chicken fat and minus the oily feel, the rice is good enough to eat on its own. The skin of the chicken is crispy and lends a firm texture to the moist, juicy meat.

The double-boiled chicken stock is pungent and redolent with essence of chook, but the meat-puree block isn’t Alex’s “kind of thing”. Once in the mouth, it breaks up into what tastes and feels like masticated chicken breast.

The durian ice-cream would have tasted even better without the chunks of ice in it, but that is a minor complaint. The flavour is fine, delicate and not overpowering. It goes quite well with the bright amber pumpkin broth, creating a durian-based dessert that wouldn’t instil fears of body heat afterwards. Irene orders a second bowl.

The total price for a My Cookbook experience can be high (main dishes are priced between RM15.90 and RM26.90) and the distance to travel long, but the experience might well be worth it. If the boss and founder of the place can’t talk you here, this review is unlikely to, either.