“Aksi bela Muslim” ala Silicon Valley

Salah satu ciri bangsa yang kuat adalah melindungi anggotanya yang vulnerable, sekalipun cuma minoritas. Bangsa Amerika sedang berjuang membuktikan hal ini.

27 Januari lalu, Presiden AS Donald Trump mengeluarkan executive order -mungkin semacam Keppres di Indonesia – untuk membatasi masuknya warga negara dari Iran, Irak, Suriah, Yaman, Somalia, Sudan, Libia. Entah kebetulan atau bukan, ketujuhnya negara mayoritas Muslim, dan entah ada hubungannya atau bukan, pada masa kampanye Trump pernah menyerukan “total and complete shutdown” terhadap masuknya orang Muslim ke Amerika Serikat.

Executive order ini langsung berdampak ke banyak orang, karena bahasa perintahnya mencakup puluhan ribu orang yang sudah secara legal tinggal dan bekerja di AS. Sekarang mereka terancam tidak bisa kembali ke rumah dan keluarganya di AS, atau malah terkurung di AS karena takut tidak bisa masuk lagi. Selain itu, perintah ini juga menghentikan pengungsi dari Suriah yang negaranya jelas-jelas sedang dilanda perang saudara dan butuh bantuan. Tak kalah parahnya, dikhawatirkan ini hanyalah langkah pertama sebelum Trump perlahan-lahan memenuhi janji kampanyenya terhadap orang-orang Muslim. Saya sendiri juga was-was, apakah nantinya Indonesia akan masuk daftar juga dan masa depan saya bisa jadi tidak jelas.

Yang bikin terharu adalah reaksi orang-orang Amerika ini. Pada dasarnya, bangsa Amerika Serikat terdiri dari orang-orang yang menganut berbagai agama, berimigrasi atau memiliki asal keturunan dari negara lain. Mereka tidak ingin kalau Trump merusak ini. Pengacara dari ormas-ormas langsung bekerja keras dan hasilnya keesokan harinya beberapa pengadilan memerintahkan penundaan perintah Trump sebelum sidang dilakukan untuk menentukan apa perintah ini sah. Warga melakukan aksi damai di bandara-bandara tempat para pendatang ditahan atau dideportasi. Media memberitakan kisah-kisah penderitaan yang disebabkan executive order ini. Dari anggota DPR sampai CEO perusahaan-perusahan teknologi ramai mengecam dan mencari cara untuk menghentikan aturan baru ini.

Kantor saya sendiri di Google juga tak kalah. Walaupun executive ordernya dikeluarkan pada Jumat sore waktu California (ketika weekend dimulai), berbagai pihak langsung bereaksi. Resources perusahaan dikerahkan untuk membantu karyawan dan keluarganya yang terjebak di luar negeri. Forum-forum internal, termasuk yang biasanya dipakai untuk lucu-lucuan, dipenuhi karyawan -dari berbagai bangsa dan agama, yang dengan spontan meluapkan reaksi marahnya dan menyampaikan pesan simpati terhadap karwayan-karyawan Muslim terutama dari negara yang masuk daftar Trump. Pak CEO mengeluarkan statement, dan co-founder Sergey Brin sendiri ikut demo di Bandara San Francisco.

Menjelang masuk kantor lagi hari Senin, muncul kabar bahwa akan ada aksi damai. Aksi ini digagas oleh para karyawan grassroot yang merasa ingin menyalurkan aspirasi – tanpa organisasi dari para petinggi perusahaan. Lalu pada jam yang direncanakan hari Senin, para karyawan yang sedang sibuk ngoding maupun kerjaan lain, ramai berjalan keluar kantor. Saya pun berangkat bareng teman Indonesia yang kebetulan satu bangunan. Dari tiap bangunan keluar beberapa gerombol, ke pekarangan gedung utama Googleplex. Entah kenapa melihat gerombolan seperti ini saya jadi ingat kayak lebaran di Indonesia orang ramai-ramai ke lapangan.

Aksi damai dilakukan di halaman utama Googleplex, salah satu landmark kompleks Google yang bisa dilihat di foto-foto turis atau bahkan di film The Internship. Seumur hidup saya belum pernah demo, sebelumnya tidak menyangka kalau akan demo di Amerika membela orang Muslim bersama-sama dengan teman-teman kantor dari berbagai negara dan agama. Buru-buru saya bikin tulisan di kertas untuk dipegang, dan sekalian bawa peci untuk dipakai.

googlerTernyata yang datang banyak sekali. Saya bukan ahli memperkirakan jumlah peserta demo, tapi menurut media yang melaporkan kira-kira ada 2.000 orang di halaman itu. Banyak yang membawa kertas bertuliskan simpatik terhadap Muslim maupun imigran. Orasi pun dilakukan – dimulai dari karyawan dari Iran yang menceritakan pengalamannya baru saja lolos lubang jarum imigrasi berkat bantuan perusahaan yang standby 24 jam selama weekend. Sekalipun aksi ini digagas oleh grassroot, petinggi perusahaan ikut hadir. Sundar Pichai menyampaikan kegiatan dan rencana perusahaan menghadapi kebijakan ini. Lalu co-founder Sergey Brin, yang sebelumnya juga ikut aksi demo di bandara San Francisco, juga berorasi. Ia bercerita kalau ia lahir di Uni Soviet dan berimigrasi ke Amerika sebagai pengungsi, di zaman perang dingin ketika Uni Soviet adalah ancaman terbesar terhadap Amerika. Walaupun pada saat itu ancaman perang nuklir ada di benak semua orang, Amerika dengan berani membuka pintunya kepadanya dan pengungsi-pengungsi lain. Para peserta aksi langsung setuju – tanpa keberanian dan keterbukaan ini, tentu tidak akan ada cerita sukses Sergey dan Google. Setelah aksi selesai semua bubar dengan tertib dan bekerja kembali.

Aksi-aksi seperti ini, baik di kantor saya maupun di bandara-bandara, jalan-jalan dan pengadilan-pengadilan Amerika, bagi saya heartwarming sekali. Ciri bangsa yang kuat adalah melindungi anggotanya yang vulnerable, sekalipun cuma minoritas. Bangsa Amerika sedang berjuang membuktikan ini. Walaupun Trump sekarang menjadi presiden – tidak semua sikapnya itu disetujui warganya. Mudah-mudahan semangat rakyat, maupun sistem check and balances yang sudah berabad-abad dikembangkan dalam tata negara Amerika, bisa mengarahkan pemerintah agar tidak semena-mena.

 

“Aksi bela Muslim” ala Silicon Valley

About flexible working hours

One of the topics I get asked the most from non-Silicon Valley friends is “What is the working hours like over there?”. I think this is a very interesting topic, worth blogging about.

Flexibility

First off, I worked on only one Silicon Valley company (in Google) and heard stories from similar (big, public, software) companies  in the area. These are my only sources in this writing 🙂

In general working hours are not enforced. It’s generally up to the individual engineer. It’s quite normal to see some who only come at lunch-time and also others who leave relatively early in the afternoon (maybe beginning 4pm?). However it’s not a wild west world where you can miss work to your liking. Probably, the minimum expectation is that

  • you do your job and reasonably meet what’s expected of you,
  • you show up for meetings when you’re needed (they are usually scheduled in hours friendly to both late-comers and early-leavers),
  • you’re available in the office for certain duration during the day so that people can consult/discuss with you in person.

As long as you meet those, people, including your boss and teammates, will generally tolerate whatever time you usually come to work and leave.

For me, this is quite a departure from my previous working experience in Singapore. I worked for a company that was relatively relaxed in Singapore’s standard, but there was still general expectation of working at least 8 hours/day, being in no later than 9.30, etc.

Making sure things get done

I think the trick that enables working hour flexibility is the fact that the employees have other motivation to deliver. It’s not necessarily because the tasks are amazing -it is probably impossible to give such tasks to everyone in a company. It’s more because the employees have clearly defined objectives, for example quarterly ones, and a set of incentives make them want to attempt to fulfill it.

For example, managers or stakeholders regularly check and provide feedback on progress.Some projects may be a part of a big publicly-visible project, and you don’t want to let that down by being the bottleneck. And also, most importantly, fulfilling or exceeding expectation has a big impact on your career. There is a technical ladder, and your probability to get promoted depends to large extent on how you can demonstrate your past achievement to a neutral third-party. The consequence of the technical ladder is quite serious – higher level means significantly better compensation as well as respect and influence within one’s team.

Another trick is to make the workplace as attractive as possible. There’s food and beverages all the time at the pantry, and breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided in the office cafeteria. Also, there are the old-fashioned financial incentives like bonus and stock units that are based on performance – these makes up big part of one’s total compensation.

Necessity

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From the companies’ point of view, providing flexibility is also important to attract talent given the competitiveness in Silicon Valley.

The software engineers have various background and different needs with regards to working hours. Some have kids that needs to be sent to and picked up from school, and these employees might need to synchronize their commute with school schedule. Other employees are more of a night owl and free dinner is an incentive for them to stay late in the office. Also, business are not always open during weekdays, so you often have to go to bank, dentist, or mechanic during business hours.

Aggressively working or work-life balance?

A question I’ve often been asked: “Do people work really hard over there?” Of course people do work hard, but do they work all the time? Here, again, people have flexibility and choice. Some people choose to work really hard and they get rewarded accordingly (they get the respect that they deserve, promoted faster, etc.) But if you don’t want that, you don’t have to and you can have balance between work and other interests such as family, hobbies, or travelling.

In conclusion, I think flexible working hours is a workable concept – especially in this case where companies and employees both have interests to make it work. Companies need it to attract employees and increase their contentedness, but they also need to be sure that this won’t negatively affect productivity. Employees love flexibility, and with proper incentives they will still do their best at work. If it works out for both, there’s no reason not to do it.

 

About flexible working hours

Road Trip to the Redwood Coast with kids

The North Coast of California, often called the Redwood Coast is a coastal region north of (roughly) San Francisco Bay Area all the way to Oregon. On the Pacific coastline, it offers a series of small towns with breathtaking coastal views. If you go a little bit inland, you see a rugged, hilly terrains with rivers flowing towards the ocean, as well as redwood (Sequoia) forests. We took a short road trip there last weekend (26-27 Sep) and boy did it show how beautiful California was.

The trip was only for a 2-day weekend from the Bay Area, so this blog post isn’t exactly the ultimate road trip guide, but hopefully this can give you some interesting ideas if you’re planning a similar trip.

Day 1

We started off in the morning from Sunnyvale in South Bay, through the Golden Gate Bridge (SF is not that crowded in Saturday morning) and made our first stop in Bodega Bay.

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In retrospect probably this isn’t the brightest idea, since area around SF bay is known for being very foggy in the morning, and the beach was foggy indeed. But the kids have fun in the beach anyway and it’s also nice to take a break after ~2 hours driving at this point.

Next we drove up Highway 1, a scenic route closely hugging the shoreline. Here are some of the spectacular views I was talking about. The road is a bit winding, and there is a faster way to go north using 101, but the views here are worth it. You can enjoy it from the car, but there also a lot of spots to pull up, feel free to stop and enjoy the views. A lot of them have cliffs though, so be careful with the kids

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Two stops that we particularly liked (pictured above) were this spot in Jenner with a good vantage point to see the hills and the ocean and this spot in Gualala where you can see the Gualala River flows into the Pacific. We ate our bagged lunch in the second spot and it was terrific.

Our next stop was the pygmy forest in Van Damme State Park. A pygmy forest is a forest that due to geology and soil only contain small trees. The one here has a short boardwalk that gives you a self-guided tour which highlights, the various trees that exist here. Pretty interesting, but not super impressive. But as usual the kids have fun running around and planking in the boardwalk.

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Next we drove further north and hit Caspar Beach. It’s your typical small town Northern California beach, I guess. It’s not too crowded, we could lie down and play with sand and the wave, the kids could get wet and dirty, what’s not to like? 🙂

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We stayed here for a while, then checked into our hotel, got cleaned up and stuff and then went to the Glass Beach in Fort Bragg to see the sunset. It’s only about 5 minutes from the hotel and actually we kind of decided to go there at the last minute.

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It’s as impressive as sunset can be, so we’re really glad we come here. One problem though, the area has a lot of cliff, and our son is on the “I-like-running-everywhere-with-little-regard-for-safety” side, so it was quite an exercise trying to contain him.

Day 2

We came to the Glass Beach again the following morning – this time to see the piece of coast that give the beach its name. IMG_4597

This part of the beach is covered with semi-transparent stones. According to the beach’s signs, the area used to be a dump site (before 1967). Over the years, the waves broke down and ground the glass and the pottery in the dump to make these beautiful looking (some say jewelry-quality) pieces.

The view around the beach is very beautiful – clean, super blue sea, big waves crashing into the cliffs, and surprisingly it wasn’t foggy in the morning! And needless to say the kids liked playing with the stones and the waves, and from this part there is no cliff 🙂

We checked out of the hotel and drove further north along Highway 1. The highway becomes narrower, more winding and uphill here, even scary at some points just inches from the cliffs. We went to the Drive-Thru Tree Park in Leggett, which is named after a tree so big that you can drive through it (someone carved a hole in its base apparently).

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There is a $5 entrance fee for this park. Initially I thought I was in for a gimmick, but this park was super awesome, especially for kids. The huge, 96-metre tree is just one thing, but there are also picnic tables where we had lunch, a large meadow, and a redwood forest. There are also mini attractions lying around that kids really like. Like a huge hollow tree where kids can get inside like a cave, a dead tree arranged in an incline so that the kids can slide, and so on. The kids have so much fun here, we decided to stay here longer and skip the next planned stop.

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If you enjoy redwood forest (like me), the park also has an easy trail where you can go inside and enjoy it.

Leggett is at the end of Highway 1, and from here we went home by 101. This is less winding and faster than Highway 1, which served us well because we’re too tired to take the winding road again and would prefer not to arrive home before too late. It was about 4.5 hours driving back to the Bay Area. We stopped for dinner in Fremont, coincidentally just in time for the lunar eclipse 🙂

Overall it’s such a fun trip, and I’m glad to see more of California’s natural beauty, and also learnt for the first time that a road trip like this (even a short one) is fun!

Map location of places mentioned here (sequential order):

Doran Beach, Bodega Bay ($7 entrance fee; in restrospect, should have probably looked for a free spot spmewhere nearby :))

A spot in Jenner along Hwy 1

A spot in Gualala along Hwy 1

Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park, Little River (note we went to the pygmy forest only, didn’t go through the main entrance of the park).

Caspar Beach, Caspar

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Drive-Thru Tree Park, Leggett ($5 entrance fee)

Road Trip to the Redwood Coast with kids

Altruism is not data-driven: Why a story prompts more actions than statistics

On September 2015, the body of a 3-year old Syrian boy (his name was Aylan) was found on a beach in Turkey. Photos of Aylan, with a red T-shirt, blue jeans and toddler shoes, lying lifeless face down in the beach, spread virally on both the social networks and mass media. Not only that, the tragedy prompted concrete actions. Major charities received massive boosts in donation, one of them recording a 1500% increase in 24 hours. Political leaders – a lot of whom had previously grudged about the “migrants” – were moved, and in the following days countries like Germany, Austria, and Britain announced that they would take more refugees.

Some people asked, why such a huge reaction, and why only now? Anyone reading the news regularly must have known that the Syrian Civil War killed a lot of people (220,000 according to UN on January 2015), many of them in no less tragic condition than Aylan. There are millions of refugees, a lot of them crossed dangerous terrains to flee their war-torn homeland to the safety of other lands. We’ve read about previous boat accidents which drowned hundreds. Why did this tragedy make so much difference?

According to the book The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely (a best-selling writer who’s a professor of psychology and behavioral economics), something like this is hardly surprising. As a rule, people don’t always use rational pros and cons analysis to make decisions, including when helping those in need.

An experiment about how data affects donation

He described an experiment where he had 3 groups of participants to donate to the hunger crisis in Africa. The first group was given the story of a specific girl named Rokia, with her close-up photo and biography. The second group was given information about the crisis, including all the awful statistics like how many people died of hunger, that millions of people suffered, and so on. The third group was given both the story of the girl and the information. Can you predict which group gave the most donation?

In the experiment, a picture and a story of a girl like this prompted more donation than the full story and statistics about how awful the hunger crisis in Africa is

It’s the first group! They only saw the specific story of a single individual, but d
onated twice more than the second group which knew the full extent of the crisis. The third group donated somewhere in between the other groups. Ariely dedicated a chapter describing this phenomenon (corroborated by other observations), and subtitled this chapter “Why we respond to one person who needs help but not to many“.

There are several reasons that explains this. For one, the driving force behind donations and helping others are mostly emotion and empathy, not calculations. Adding data and statistics to the story only serves to trigger our cold calculations and suppress our compassion.

Closeness, vividness and the drop-in-a-bucket effect

If calculation does not inspire action, what does? Ariely mentioned 3 factors. The first is closeness, either in term of location, kinship or how you can identify with the victim. The second is vividness, e.g. whether you witness the tragedy or can strongly imagine doing so. The third is what he call “drop-in-a-bucket effect”, whether you can single-handedly and effectively help, as opposed to just contributing a small insignificant aid.

These 3 factors explains why a specific tragic story is more powerful than statistics. A lot of people have kids, siblings, nephews/nieces, neighbors, etc who are toddlers like Aylan. In my case, he was roughly the same age as my son Umar, had approximately the same physical shape, and wore the kind of clothing that Umar does. Looking at the photos greatly saddens me and it’s really hard not to feel empathy.

The photo is also vivid. Looking at it you can’t help imagining the boy, how helpless he probably was in the sea, meeting his death very tragically. You don’t get this kind of vividness from statistics and numbers.

In terms of the “drop-in-the-bucket effect”, with an individual story you can make people feel they can make a difference. You can’t sort out the war in Syria, or prevent 200,000 people from getting killed there, or take care of 4 million Syrian war refugees. But you can singlehandedly help a person, or a family like Aylan’s, so that they don’t have to make those dangerous trips. In developed countries, it would only take a fraction of an average person’s savings to provide food, water and shelter for an individual refugee. Suddenly you feel like your contribution is not a drop in a bucket anymore.

What does this mean?

Knowing our weaknesses and behaviour, we can use them to be better at giving. For individuals, this means that when you feel the impulse to contribute, just follow your heart. Don’t delay, and don’t make a complicated calculations or analysis about it. Just do it! Personally, I think religion is a major influence as well. The promise of a better rewards from the All-Powerful is a very powerful motivation compared to responding to numbers.

For charities or volunteers, this means that in events like fundraising, it’s more effective to focus on individual and vivid stories that people can identify with and do something about, and also importantly avoid emphasizing on data and statistics. This may sound counter-intuitive, but people are more willing to help one person than a million people.


You can watch Ariely explains this chapter here:

The book is The Upside of Irrationality, and the chapter discussed here is Chapter 9.

Altruism is not data-driven: Why a story prompts more actions than statistics

Indonesia as a French colony: a history trivia

The history class in Indonesia’s school list our former colonizers as : Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, and Japan. A little known fact and interesting trivia is that France is also a member of this list. It ruled Indonesia for some period, mostly indirectly (as master of our Dutch rulers), but for at least one year Indonesia was a titular French colony.

The story began with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon which saw a lot of wars and changes in Europe. Anyway, in the War of the First Coalition (one of a lot of wars that happened after the French Revolution) the Dutch Republic joined the coalition against the French Republic. The war went badly for the Dutch, and in 1795 the French conquered the Netherlands, and founded the “Batavian Republic[2]” (Bataafse Republiek) to rule the Dutch. The Treaty of Den Haag in the same year formalized the relationship between this new Republic and the French Republic. Basically the Batavian Republic became subordinate to the French, locking the Dutch in alliance with the French, requiring them to pay a lot of money to France and allowing France to maintain an army of occupation in the Netherlands.

This began the indirect rule of the French. Indonesia was still a VOC (Dutch East India Company) colony and the Dutch retains the rule of this colony, but the Netherlands itself isn’t exactly independent. Also note that in 1800, the VOC was dissolved and its possessions (including its territories in Indonesia) nationalized.

Louis Bonaparte
Louis Bonaparte (Koning Lodewijk), Napoleon’s brother and the King of Holland (1806-1810)

In 1810, in an attempt to have even more control over the Dutch, Napoleon Bonaparte (who had become the Emperor of the French since 1804) forced the Dutch to become a kingdom – with his brother Louis Bonaparte as king. This kingdom was called the Kingdom of Holland (Koninkrijk Holland), and Louis become also known as “Koning Lodewijk” (Dutch for King Louis).

It is during this time that King Louis made Herman Willem Daendels the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. HW Daendels wasinfamous in Indonesian history, due to his institution of forced labor (kerja rodi) in Java for various projects (best known of which was the Great Post Road), which resulted in the deaths of thousands of native laborers.

Herman Willem Daendels, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, on behalf of France

Interestingly, Daendels was known for being pro-French, in fact he was the general of the Dutch contingent in the French army that conquered the Netherlands in 1795. Part of his task was to defend the Dutch East Indies against a possible British invasion (the British was one of France main enemy), and this is part of the reasons for his projects.

Meanwhile in Europe, even with his brother on the Dutch throne, Napoleon still felt dissatisfied about his control over the Dutch. In 1810 he forced his brother to abdicate, dissolved the Kingdom of Holland, and annexed its territories to the French Empire. Now the Dutch no longer have their own state, and the French become, in title, the direct master of Indonesia.

The administration and defense of the colony was still done primarily by Dutch personnel. Daendels originally stayed as governor-general until in 1811 he was appointed a general in the Napoleon’s army that was about to invade Russia and was replaced by Jan Willem Janssens, another Dutchman. Janssens didn’t stay long in his position though, for the British invasion troops invaded Java (the center of the colonial power in Indonesia) in the same year and captured the island from the France.

The colony remained in British hands for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. They returned the colony to the Dutch in 1814, after Napoleon was defeated[3] and the Dutch regained its independence. This time the Netherlands became a monarchy, which would later be known as Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), which continued to exist until today. They held their territories in Indonesia, until defeated by the Japanese in World War II. 


[1] Technically, in 1811 the sovereign state was the United Kingdom. England was just a country inside the UK after the Acts of Union, but Indonesian language text seem to rarely recognize this difference and refer to everything as “Inggris” (England/ the English)

[2] Batavia was also the former name of Jakarta, but it was not the reason the Republic is named this. Both Batavia the city and the Batavian Republic was named after the Batavi, a Germanic tribe believed to be the ancestors of the Dutch.

[3] This was not his final defeat. He would in 1815 return from exile, led another campaign that ended in his final defeat at the famed Battle of Waterloo.

Indonesia as a French colony: a history trivia

Indonesian words are long – why?

This is something I found out while Umar (our toddler) learns to speak.. It feels to me he clearly prefers learning new English words than Indonesian ones. For example, when I tell him something like “it’s a car, Umar” he would repeat “Yes, it’s a car, daddy!” and henceforth he would call the thing “car”, while if I teach him “Itu mobil” he would react a bit more slowly.

Environment is probably the main factor.[1] But another thing I and my wife notice is that English words are almost always shorter (or at least equally short) to the Indonesian counterparts, in terms of syllable count. Some illustration, just some random words that come to my mind right now:

  • Basic colors: blue, red, yellow, green, black, white vs biru, merah, kuning, hitam, putih
  • Pets and farm animals: cat, dog, cow, goat, chicken vs kucing, anjing, sapi, kambing, ayam
  • Basic verbs: eat, drink, sleep, walk, run, jump, go, come vs makan, minum, tidur/bobok, jalan, lari, lompat, pergi, datang[2]
  • Everyday objects: home, food, toys, car, train, bike, tree, shirt, pants vs rumah, makanan, mainan, mobil, kereta, sepeda, pohon, baju, celana

I bolded the English words that have fewer syllables, which for the list above is almost all of them. Some of them equal. But none of the Indonesian words above are shorter. If I think harder, I can find some opposite examples (e.g. gajah vs elephant, besok vs tomorrow), but they are much rarer.

Why is it that Indonesian words are longer? One can explain it in various ways, but being an engineer, my favourite theory/explanation is using information theory. Before that word scares you (you, non-technical people!), let me show you something.

English has way more vowel sounds[3] than Indonesia. Like tons more. Standard Indonesian (like its twin, Malay) have just 6 vowels (a, i, u, e like kecil and e like becak), and 3 diphtongs (ai, au, and oi). According to this chart English (considering only the standard dialect in the US and Britain) has about  27 vowels and diphtongs[4]:

english vowels

To add to this, English also has more consonant clusters. An English syllable can begin with up to 3-consonant cluster (e.g. string) and end with 3-consonant clusters too (e.g. warmth[5]). Indonesian syllables don’t even have clusters except for loan words, and that’s only limited to 2-consonant cluster in the beginning like “truk” and does not use clusters at the end of a syllable[6].

How is this related to the length of words? This is where information theory comes in. Syllables are units of information, like bits or bytes for computer systems. Since an English syllable have more possible vowels and more possible consonant clusters, it has more possible values, which means it packs more information (more ‘bits’). Just like in computer systems, a byte packs more information than a hex because a byte can have 256 values while a hex can only have 16 values.

Because an English syllable packs more information than Indonesian, it follows that to convey the same amount of information, English needs fewer syllables than Indonesian.[7]

This means Indonesian (at least, written Indonesian) is less efficient. You’ll also know this when you compare Indonesian translation of foreign books like Harry Potter or Dan Brown novels, which are usually much thicker than the original work in English. As for spoken Indonesian, the theory is the low information rate/syllable should be counterbalanced by speaking faster. I’m not sure how true this is for Indonesian, but a research has shown it by using other languages.[8]

So, to recap, I think English words are shorter because they contain more information per syllable. In other words, for English more information is encoded in the choice of syllables, while in Indonesian more is encoded in the quantity of syllable.


Footnotes

[1] Since we live in the US, people (including his friends and people on TV) speaks English all the time. I and my wife speak mostly in Indonesian at home though. We keep teaching the little one our national language, even though mostly less successfully than teaching him English.

[2] this doesn’t yet include the prefix and affix that often accompany verbs in Indonesian, like berjalan

[3] Vowel sounds, not vowel letters. There is only 5 vowel letter of the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u) in English or in Indonesia

[4] The number will vary in different sources because English has a lot of variation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_phonology#Vowels

[5] Yes, I know, r, m, t, h are 4 letters. But they are only 3 sounds, because th here represents only one sound

[6] If you’re interested in this topic, this is an interesting paper discussing Indonesian’s lack of clusters and how it affects Indonesian learners/speakers of English: Final Consonant Clusters Simplification by Indonesian Learners of English and Its Intelligibility in International Context

[7] This can be illustrated, again, using computer system. Look at the count of unit to convey the same information (the letter ‘a’) increases as the possible values/unit decreases.

lowercase a

[8] See Which language is the most efficient? and Across-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate

Indonesian words are long – why?

Driving in Indonesia vs California

In California, I can drive everyday, push the speed limits, go on road trips. In Indonesia, I stand no chance.

So, before the last vacation I went with some confidence that I would now be able to drive myself around. That would be nice, because it would be more comfortable than motorcycles (especially since we have a toddler). I thought so, because I’m more than comfortable driving in California on a regular basis – it is my main mode of transport. I’ve even driven hundreds of miles/kilometers on a single day without any problem.

I went to Indonesia with this expectation and the result: No, there’s no chance I can confidently drive in Indonesia in the near future.

Why is driving in Indonesia so different? After all, the law of physics, the controls of a vehicle and the basic principles of traffic are the same, right? Maybe for some of you who drive in Indonesia, the answer is kind of obvious, but I thought a little bit about why the driving skills that I have during almost 2 years driving regularly in Califoria isn’t so useful in the face of Indonesian urban traffic. I think one of the reason is because the rules are very different. I don’t mean that de jure Indonesia have dramatically different traffic laws. It’s that in reality, the convention on the road are really different.

65 mph (105 km/h) is the common speed limit for freeways in California, and it is very common for people to drive about 15% faster than this. When I told this to people in Indonesia, they seem surprised that I drive to that kind of speed. But in reality, despite being much faster, this is way easier and way less dangerous than a typical Indonesian traffic.

For example, in California once you’re on the road what you do is really simple. You stay on your lane carefully, try to follow the same speed as traffic, and be careful when you do something different like changing your lane, making a turn, slowing down and exiting/entering a road. Simple, right? The rule applies no matter where you are, when you’re 120+ km/h on the freeway, driving slowly on city streets, or  when you’re stuck on a traffic jam.

If you do this in Indonesia, there’s a lot of things that will make your drive difficult and ineffective. For one, there are tons of motorcycles that don’t follow the marked lanes or go with the same speed as traffic. There are vehicles that stop in the middle of traffic for whatever reasons, and if you’re trailing him it’s foolish to “stay on the lane carefully”. Also, a lot of vehicles split lanes, so it’s not so outrageous if you do so.

Another example is intersections. In California it’s very orderly. Depending on  the intersection, and signs/lights involved, the rules about who goes first is very clear, and for the most parts people abide by these rules. For example, simple rules like people entering a road must yield to existing traffic. In Indonesia, forget about those rules. You’ll never get through the intersection if you play nice in a dense traffic. What matters is how clever and how confident you are in positioning your car.

There are other factors, like narrower roads, prevalence of manual transmission car (in California I drive auto), and all these made me eventually abandon the idea of driving. We got around by motorcycles, or being driven by parents/friends or hiring drivers.

Driving in Indonesia vs California