Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Threat of the Goggle-Box

On Words

The threat of the goggle-box


Jakarta Mid election-surprise-holiday day, I sat on the foot of my bed with a mound of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese balanced between my wine-capped knees as an advertisement for something called the Baby Channel was broadcast on the screen of my Digital 1 fed moving-picture box.

I sat up straight. Surely, I thought, as a small-screen enthusiast, this development was to be to my delight.

“Finally,” I inwardly rejoiced, “the cycle was complete. At last, the time had arrived in which we have television programming to pull us wet and swaddled from the womb, propel us all through life, before finally surrendering our wide-eyed, empty-headed bodies back into mother earth’s embrace.”

Cradle to grave goggle-box. How could this possibly be wrong?

But, then I remembered hearing about a study published by the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute just a few days before. It had concluded that popular DVD’s such as Baby Einstein offer toddlers no benefits and that the babies who viewed such fare in fact comprehended fewer words than video-free tots.

Suddenly my comfort food left me cold and with bits of powdery orange-pasta drying in the corners of my mouth, I lowered the bowl.

As a parent of a soon to be ten year old, I am utterly aware of all, ok, some, of the influences children face nowadays. In our enlightened era in which Mc Donald’s is introducing healthy kid’s meals and smoking has been outlawed on the thoroughfares of Jakarta, do we really need to take a step back and introduce our children to an addiction at yet an even earlier age?

How far behind can the Cemal or Pell Mell (their misspellings, not mine) candy cigarettes of my boyhood be? Next thing you know there will be children’s Visa debit cards and Bintang Zero alcohol beer. All props for a twisted make-believe world, these are best relegated to Tim Burton’s silvery screen and out of our more-than-Technicolor lives. The buying on credit, binge drinking, and eating disorders can surely be put off until the university years.

Childhood is the time to solidify the good habits. And since today’s column is about adolescent television viewing, let us get back to that. Simply put, numerous studies have shown that watching too much television leads to, among other things, obesity and low test scores in children.

Watching television dulls your awareness so that you do not notice messages to your brain saying that you are full. This is why it is so easy for you to mine through an entire bag of chips or a pint of Hagen Das while you are distracted by the latest madcap happenings of your favorite fictional family.

Two 2005 studies published in The Journal of Pediatrics said that children who watched too much telly were prone to fatness. R.M. Viner and T.J. Cole from the University College London found that every hour over the recommended 1.5 hours of daily television watched by five year olds raises the risk of them becoming obese by the age of 30 by seven percent.

In the other study, on the Atlantic’s modern side, Doctors Kirsten Davison, Lori Francis, and Leann Birch from the State University of New York discovered that nine and 11 year old girls who exceeded recommended guidelines of television viewing were 2.6 times more likely to be overweight than girls who watched less television.

Low Test Scores

Television in and of itself does not make us stupid. The danger is that it is such a demanding, time-devouring habit that it keeps us away from true life experiences.

According to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, in 1990, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tested eighth-graders across the United States and found that, “The more they watched, the lower the scores.”

In 1991, other tests of young teens from more than a dozen countries showed that in math and science “Students who watched the most television had the lowest scores.”

A 2005 edition of The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine quoted Doctor Dina Borzekowski as saying about similar tests, “Among these third graders, we saw that … those who had bedroom TV sets scored around eight points lower on math and language arts tests and seven points lower on reading tests.”


Though the above studies were conducted in the West, Indonesian children are not safe. They too are falling victim to the same electronic demon, watching well-above the recommended limit of 1.5 daily hours. The Children Media Development Foundation (Kidia) says, “The average Indonesian child watches between 30 and 35 hours of television per week, or 1,560 to 1,820 hours per year.”

Kidia’s Chairman, Boby Guntarto, told The Jakarta Post just over a year ago during the nation’s first “No Television Day,” Children who watch too much television are more likely to be overweight and unhappy. It also affects brain development and learning."

It is clear that this seemingly-innocuous practice can hook and detrimentally affect us no matter where we live. Next week’s On Words column will explore some techniques that can help you and your family kick the television habit.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Balinese Children's Foundation

On Words

Balinese Children’s Education Foundation


Central Bali Dennis and Nancy Colbert’s Balinese Children’s Education Foundation is making a difference one school at a time.

The grandparents of five visited Bali for the first time in 2000 to see Nancy’s sister Christina Welty who had recently moved to a village north of Ubud. They were struck by the kindness of the island’s people and once back in their Northern California home, decided that they had to try to help them.

With humble ambitions, they started their non-profit foundation with the hope of just building an elementary school library to encourage reading. Dennis, in a written interview, says about the beginning, “Nancy and I have always loved being with children, always very interested in their education, as well as knowing how the love of reading can enhance a child’s education.”

Nancy, a former elementary school teacher, and Dennis, a retired business executive, wanted to find a school in need of a library and, just as importantly, one with which the Colberts could forge a bond.

Dennis says, “Having a connection in some way to the school really helps with the overall communication and receptiveness to looking at new learning techniques.”

Returning to Bali in early 2005, Dennis searched for such a school. He visited a number of elementary schools before selecting one in Kalabang Moding. “The connection in this school,” he says, “is through the local village families that live in the villages near my sister-in-law’s house; we got to know them and they in turn went with us to the school to introduce us to the headmaster and teachers.”

The library is located in a building off the school’s main wing which had not been “painted or maintained in any way for 20 years.” The foundation started with the basics: getting the building’s inside and out painted, the floor retiled, a new ceiling installed, the leaky roof repaired, and new books purchased.

Then with the library completed, the foundation found it hard to ignore that the school needed much more than a simple library. The school still needed to be modernized and cleaned up.

To meet the first goal, they added five desktop computers, a printer and a computer teacher to teach all of the grades and teachers in after-school classes. All of the teachers participated and learned the basics of word processing and creating spreadsheets. Currently, the foundation is preparing a computer education program whereby the local inhabitants can earn a computer proficiency certificate.

Then, in May 2006, the foundation started a recycling program to help clear away the plastic and trash that littered the school grounds. They found a recycling business in Ubud to provide recycling bags and a weekly pick up service at the school.

Next came perhaps the biggest challenge of all, educating the students, teachers and locals as to how recycling would improve their health and their collective environment.

The foundation posted charts around the school detailing how long plastic takes to decompose. A two-page Indonesian flyer explaining the benefits of recycling and the health dangers associated with burning plastic was distributed to the students. The students in turn used these to educate their families.

Then with the recycling program in place they held a school assembly, where the entire recycling program was discussed and, following which, everyone went straight to work cleaning up the area. Dennis is proud of the program’s success, “In our subsequent visits to the school, usually every three to four months, we have found the grounds very clean and a real pride in the neat grounds.”

Dennis says that all of this assistance has been deeply appreciated, “We found that our work was also a motivational thing for the headmaster and teachers, as they poured concrete for new pathways, improved the gardens and showed a new enthusiasm for their basic job, teaching the children.”

Infused with the spirit of success from its first school, the foundation began the search for a second in late 2006. Assisted by the local Rotary club, an elementary school in Belang-Singapadu was located. This village turned out to be the home of Ganesha Book Store manager, Made Rohani. The foundation had been purchasing most of its books at Ganesha at a discount, so the foundation was fortunate to once again have secured that connection that is so important to its work.

On the foundation’s visit to the school, Dennis says it found, “One of the wings just needed painting. The other wing…was in terrible shape; one of the rooms could not be used because of the leaking roof, floors had many holes, windows and doors broken…The school also had an unused building that could be repaired and used as a learning center.”

Following a meeting with the village school committee the heavy construction was started in January 2007. Utilizing the skills of the local villagers, the classrooms, learning center and library were repaired and painted.

In April of this year, Dennis, Nancy and Nancy’s sister Susan returned and turned the school grounds into an educational project by having the students design the grounds and select the plants that would landscape the area.

Always a businessman, Dennis has been able to measure success at the two schools of about 135 students each, “When we were in Bali in April 2007, the library checkout system for the two schools showed that the books had been checked over 1,000 times over the last three months, which [is] way beyond anything we had expected.”

“We are now working on obtaining government statistics on how our two schools have done in the past few years, in terms of testing results, number of sixth grade graduates… to compare to current results.”

With the two schools thriving, the foundation is now ready to expand its reach.

Dennis reports, “Once again, with the success we have had having a connection to the schools we have selected, I am going to look at three schools in September, that have been attended by Balinese that have worked for us on various jobs in Bali and for my sister-in-law, and now have children attending these schools. If the schools need libraries, recycling programs and some repair work, we will do all three.”

By working school-by-school, forgoing contractors and using the labor of local inhabitants as much as possible the foundation keeps costs down to a minimum. Dennis says, “The advantage someone would have in donating to our foundation is that I personally oversee 100% of the funds and disburse them myself, so it guarantees that 100% of the money goes to help the children.”

“I handle all payments directly to people I hire,” he continues. “With as many as possible from the local village to do the work at the school, and do not use contractors for the work. I found that this ensures that the money gets to the right people.”

The foundation says that a library usually costs between US$600 and $2,000 depending upon how much building repair is required. Computers are up to $3000, while ongoing training expenses are about $1,000 per year.

Thus far, the foundation’s work has been funded by the Colberts, an Indonesian businessman in Jakarta, and the sale of products from Bali that are sold in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Colberts say, “All proceeds from the sales go to the Foundation and then back to Bali schools.”

Registered with the National Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, American citizens are able to make tax deductible contributions to the foundation. If you have any questions regarding the Balinese Children’s Education Foundation please contact Dennis Colbert at

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Doctor H. Arief Rachman on Education: Part Two

On Words

Doctor H. Arief Rachman – part two


JAKARTA Today’s On Words’ column completes Professor Doctor H. Arief Rachman’s interview.

Coming into being just a few years before Indonesia gained independence; the educator has matured alongside his nation. And, similar to his younger sibling, he does not hesitate to stand up for what he believes to be just. This trait has landed him in prison on two separate occasions.

The first was in 1966 when he fought against communism because, he says, “Our philosophy says to believe in God, while the communists claimed to be atheists. For me it wasn’t political. I just went against what I thought was wrong. All the fighters who went against communism were imprisoned.”

A dozen years later, the man who spends his free time helping drug abuse victims was locked up a second time while he was a dean of students. He explains, “All the students went against the government due to its corruption and instead of the students being caught, the Dean of Students was caught. I was in for eight months without ever being charged.”

With his forty plus years in classrooms, schools, and universities, Rachman has witnessed the development of education in Indonesia. He says, “The city universities and teacher colleges are changing, though evolutionary, not revolutionary as we need.”

Despite this sluggish pace of growth, the heart of the man remains rose colored and he says, “On the micro side we are OK, with many good universities flourishing along good high schools and international schools.”

Rachman was just a teen of 16 when he first experienced the joys of a multicultural classroom after he was accepted into the American Field Service foreign-student exchange program in 1959. He was enrolled in a small high school in New Jersey, America, becoming the program’s first Muslim student to move in with a Jewish family within a Jewish community.

He recalls about that pivotal time, “In that high school we exercised cross-cultural understanding, active learning and discovery learning. I saw teachers as friends. It was then, that I began to think in the back of my mind, I’d like to go into that field and help students.”

Now, Rachman envisages a land where schools are genuine societal reflections. He says of the late 1980’s, when he was a member of the team that established Lab School’s integrated culture, “I discovered that a school should not only have intellectual input. So we tried to have a healthy population of children from the poor, the middle, and the upper classes. We did this both for financial and intellectual points of view along with cultural diversity. A homogeneous-school society cannot create a strong school.”

“We should have,” he explains, “Muslims, Christians, Hindus and more, all in good proportions. Additionally, we should not only have clever students, but also average and slow learners. With that blend, we’ll have a healthier, intellectual society.”

“Fast learners understand that life is a learning process in which we all live together with people who are not on the same track, different races, and religions. The good schools have a mixture of fast and slow learners that help each other. Multiculturalism should be emphasized.”

In keeping with his assimilation goal, Rachman’s vision as an educator has always been to develop well-rounded people. He remembers, “We aimed [at Lab School] to develop good personality and character based on good faith and strong healthy nationalism… Our teaching curriculum was accompanied by lots of extra-curricular activities that involved: intellectual development, emotional development, spiritual development, social development and physical development.”

“Those five potentials,” he adds, “we realized by using the school culture, the relationship between the parents, the teachers, and the students. We became a strong family.”

Unfortunately, Rachman feels this spirit and vision are lacking throughout much of the archipelago. “The state system of putting all the clever in the same schools is a mistake because not much learning takes place in those schools. It’s more like training.”

“I think we have a weak and narrow way of looking at success,” he adds. “Perhaps it goes to the love of materialism and status of the tangible, instead of the soft power of the intangible that education brings, like values, music, dance, culture, and religion.”

Elaborating, Rachman continues, “Even at the global level, Greenpeace and WWF have not been successful,” says the professor who also is the executive chairman for the National Commission for UNESCO. “In UNESCO we have a motto: ‘Learning to know. Learning to do. Learning to be. Learning to live together.’ I think now we [Indonesia] are only at the stage of learning to know.”

He feels that second-language instruction in Indonesia remains at that same stepping-off phase, saying, “Language is an arbitrary system used to communicate. For English, the communication is not there, what teachers are doing is giving the knowledge of rules. Here, English is knowledge, not a skill. The teachers realize this, but do not yet have the capacity and skills to go beyond the rules.”

Aware of English’s importance in today’s world, he says, “The role of English in Indonesia is as an open window to knowledge, a window to the world. People who do not speak English, do not know the world. Secondly, English is a path of international friendship. Without English you are confined in a box.”

Rachman has long been propping open that window to the world for Indonesians. For ten years, more than 20 years ago, he was the presenter of a televised English language quiz show on TVRI. “I entertained and motivated people to like English,” he says. “Everyone watched me since there was only one channel at that time. I was lucky.”

Indonesia is fortunate too, for older brother Professor Rachman continues to watch over her.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Doctor H. Arief Rachman on Education: Part One

On Words

Doctor H. Arief Rachman – part one


Tuesday, 17 June, 2007, 8:17 PM Local Time

JAKARTA – Deep into his fifth decade of educating, Doctor H. Arief Rachman has no plans of slowing down.

In fact, with his recent appointment to Diponegoro junior, high, and vocational schools adding to his work as a Universitas Negeri Jakarta (State University of Jakarta) lecturer along with his duties as the Executive Chairman of the Indonesia National Commission of UNESCO, his frankness is clear as he claims the word retirement holds scant desirability for him.

He says, “I do not understand the meaning. Perhaps there is status in the word. For me, I think I will be busier in my old days, because at that age it isn’t just about implementation, but about inspiration.”

Sleep, at times, does not find the grandfather of three easily. Thirty-six of his high school senior students had recently failed their national examinations and he says, “I couldn’t anticipate whether I’d have the courage or not to face them. I knew it was to be hard and it kept me awake at night.”

However, meet them he did, saying, “I am trying to build a system that teaches honesty is most important. When you fail, you fail.”

This commitment to integrity is important to the man. Before he joined Diponegoro half a year back, he declared “if I am wanted in this school, honesty is on top of everything. True, the final exam results are sad and quite low but… you’ve got to perform according to what you are and failing is OK.”

Rachman believes dishonesty is rampant in lower-income schools with tests being marked up and reports falsified. He does not understand how the schools can have 99% or 100% final examination pass rates.

“Corruption in education is largely uncontrolled,” he says, “lots of teachers enjoy doing wrong practices. We’ve got to keep echoing to everybody that this is wrong. I’d like to call on my fellow teachers to be honest. Do not make up scores or reports.”

The educator feels that it is the final examinations that breed problems and dishonesty. “We need to go back to the essential and ask what we are evaluating. Marks, final exams or students progress over the years? A student’s continuous evaluation should be considered as a basic criterion of passing. So no national government rules should be the only criteria for passing.”

Explaining, Rachman continues, “In Banda Aceh, 32 teachers were killed in the tsunami and entire schools destroyed. The students were living in tents and suddenly it was demanded that they meet the same criteria as those in Block M. This is very illogical.”

The youthful-looking, eternally-smiling lecturer is a realist and understands the need for examinations. He says he knows there is a need for student evaluation, but believes the examinations “are causing people to worry, and does not make them aware. Our education is fonder of competition with ranking, putting people in blocks, not together as one.”

He warns, “Unless the government gives realistic criteria for passing grades, people will try to find shortcuts instead of being true; people will try to be safe. This principal has got to be abolished. I’d like to change it by giving guidelines to schools and then letting the teachers and headmasters decide who’ll pass and then demand all teachers and headmasters are honest.”

Rachman believes that this desire to be safe at the expense of being true “comes from the discrepancy between the haves and have nots, [from] the big gorge growing between the clever and the slow learners. I am afraid,” he says, “the clever and the rich will have better facilities and will go up and up while the slow and poor will sink down and down, although our constitution and our laws of education do not agree with this.”

“Our philosophy in Indonesia,” he elaborates further, “Unity in Diversity, is an excellent philosophy and we should go in that direction. We should be more consistent with what’s in our constitution. It is said we’ve got to believe in God, humanity, nationalism, social justice, democracy and being humane. [But] How can you be humane if you are cornered by a situation in which you are forced to steal and to lie? I think education should come into that area and teach that no matter how poor you are, you have no justification to steal, to lie. You must be strong no matter what you face.”

Rachman says he was drawn to Diponegoro for the opportunity to assist those that face such dilemmas. He says that 75% of his students come from poor families, the children of our maids, guards, laundresses, walking food hawkers.

“It attracted me,” he says, “because the students come from the lower financial classes and I’ve discovered that although intellectual input is not very high, financial input is not very high and the salaries of our teachers average just five to six hundred thousand rupiah a month, the schools have about 3,000 students in total.”

“I am also attracted to the schools because the students are so enthusiastic to go to school, although I do not think many of them have healthy support at home. They’ve got to fight for their lives.”

He leans back, pushes his fingers through his full-head of salted hair and remembers, “I asked one student why he wasn’t wearing a belt and he replied, ‘This is Tuesday. It’s my father’s day to wear the belt.’” During the interview the professor shares similar one-belt family stories about shoes and study materials.

“I do not feel we have addressed them well and I do not think we have paid enough attention to these kinds of schools. I imagine these types dominate all schools in Indonesia.”

He is proud of Diponegoro’s progress thus far. “When our students finish they have strong confidence to face all our challenges.”

The good doctor was gracious enough to invite me into his Rawamangun home for more than an hour as he readily shared his thoughts. On Words next installment will continue the interview, with the professor’s words about building a progressive school culture, the role of indigenous and foreign languages in Indonesia, his decade as a English quiz show host on television, and the two times he was imprisoned.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Idea Mining: Part Three

On Words

Mining Ideas – part three


Saturday, 07 July, 2007, 9:12 PM Local Time

JAKARTA – Now that we have all had a week to play around with the more staid prewriting techniques of brainstorming, the journalistic approach, and listing, it is time for us to step out of academic writing’s confining safety and drop into creativity.

Just as last week’s skills do, these idea-generating techniques give writing energy, honesty, and originality. And, once again, these activities are meant to be fun, so come along and get happily messy.


The timed exercise is a staple of writing practice. The key to it is writing continuously for a pre-set amount of time, refusing to pause for any reason whatsoever. Freewriting silences your inner-critic and gives you the freedom to get down those fresh-flashing thoughts hot as they appear.

The rules to freewriting are all about not having any rules:

1. Start with a topic at the top of the page. It does not matter what that topic may be. It can even be, “I’ve got nothing to write about.”

2. Let your hand go, keep it moving. Do not even lift it from the paper. Stalling is your critic attempting to gain control.

3. Do not edit. Do not reread what you have just written and do not cross out anything (The time for that is later in the writing process).

4. Have no worries. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, neatness do not exist in freewriting.

5. Be illogical. In Freewriting, one plus one does not necessarily equal two. It may equal 23. Or a pair of fuzzy purple socks. Who knows, it may even equal two.

6. Write with courage. Frightening, naked thoughts are often the most energized.

Before your writing muscles strengthen, you may want to start freewriting with short limits such as five, seven or ten minutes. There is no magic number. The power lies in your commitment to writing nonstop for that entire period.

Random Book Prompts

Bibliomancy is the practice of seeking spiritual insight by randomly selecting a passage from a holy book. The art dates back at least 3,000 years from when folks peered into the I Ching for guidance. Since then, adherents of all the major religions have done the same with their own particular holy books.

And now you have the power to bring this deliciously groovy technique into the here-and-now by using it to mine your own writing ideas. The steps are simple. Set a book, any tome at all, on its spine and let it fall open. Then, with your eyes closed, point to a place on the open page before opening your eyes and writing down whatever sentence, phrase or passage your finger has divinely chosen.

That is your writing prompt. You coddle it. You nurture it as you see fit. A timed freewriting perhaps would suit the prompt or a brainstorming or even a methodical listing. The options are limited only by your vision and your courage. What is guaranteed is that through bibliomancy, you will wander down paths of creation you would have never otherwise even known existed.

Jump into the Unordinary

Daily lives can be boring and be even more boring to write about. Sometimes it is necessary to try a new angle when it comes to writing. Mix it up. If you normally write with Leonard Cohen in the background, put that old Canadian man to bed and give your daughter’s Pussycat Dolls a ride.

Use props, costumes, become someone new. Wear your maid’s housedress or your driver’s flip flops. Buy a monocle, a cigarette holder, a feather boa. You could change your materials and try generating ideas with the precision of a jeweler on a series of post-it notes or you could go in the other direction becoming a kid who writes with a fisted-crayon on a large pad of drawing paper.

The point here is to find a new state of mind in which to write.

Pay attention to the Ordinary

Writers keep track of the ingredients that make up life. They write about the tilt of grins, the roar of bajajs, the way shadows fall across sidewalks.

Take the above-detailed freewriting technique and use it to explore the ordinary. Select for your topic something so humdrum you never give it a second thought and freewrite about it. Your elbow, white rice, your husband’s eyebrows are all ripe, commonplace sources of ideas. Our task as writers is to find what’s special in the everyday.

Final Thoughts

As we finish this three-part Mining Ideas series, we need to remember that practice is as practice does. It is the doing that cranks the taps. Promise the time to yourself; schedule yourself a mere corner out of your daily schedule and soon you will be watching the ideas flow.

This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Idea Mining: Part Two

On Words

Mining Ideas – part two


Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 3:13 PM Local Time

JAKARTA – Today, as promised in the last On Words’ column, we will explore the whats and hows of various prewriting techniques. So grab your pencil, a fat pad of empty paper and come along. Soon, with a little practice, you too will find joy within writing’s difficulties.

The skills you learn today, brainstorming, the journalist approach, and listing are geared towards academic writing. Next week we will delve into creative techniques that can help even the most constipated of nonfiction writers. That caveat notwithstanding, all prewriting techniques produce ideas that inject energy, honesty and creativity into any writing.

The key to all of these techniques is that they must be approached playfully. At this stage in the process mistakes are not mistakes. All is a seed that may or may not take root. Every sense, every thought that flashes in your brain needs to find its way to your paper. Nothing is wrong.


My favorite academic-prewriting technique is brainstorming. Also called mind mapping, clustering and all sorts of other things, it is not just a writing skill. It is a mnemonic that goes two ways by both boosting output and securing intake. Brainstorming is effective because it mates the visual aspects of our beings with the verbal.

Besides its visual efficiency, I dig it since it is so easy to turn into an outline that is ready-made for writing. Just sprinkle in some lower case characters, Roman numerals and there you go, a paper merely lacking verbs and signal words.

To brainstorm, you start by writing a topic in the dead center of a blank sheet of paper. Then you draw a circle around that topic. The topic can be a single word, phrase, picture, or symbol. Anything.

Then other words, associations, will start popping into your mind. These you write inside circles that are connected to the centered topic by lines radiating outward from the topic. As more words come, you write these down while always drawing lines and circles showing how everything is strung to one another.

These associations become sub-ideas supporting their own web of ideas. Within five minutes you should have a fully-inked page regardless of topic.

Journalist Approach

Journalists are taught to report on the five w’s and the one h. This grand idea is suitable for any writer writing on any topic. By addressing these questions during the prewriting process you will ensure that you are heavy with ideas once the writing starts.

A simple method of following the journalist approach is to do the same as you did with the brainstorming method. Start with a topic circled in the middle of a paper. Then have each of the six outward pointing spokes represent a different w or h.

This is also a very quick and easy technique a person can use when needing to talk on any topic. My IELTS students have used it to great effect when it comes to the long turn of their speaking examinations.


This technique is very similar to brainstorming in that ideas are written down as they come to you. However, listing is more suitable when you need to whittle down a topic to a point. For example, Indonesian cuisine is too broad a subject for the reach of most single papers. It needs to be narrowed down some. The course of thought could go like this:

Indonesian Cuisine

Available everywhere

Available at all hours

Eat at home

Five-foot hawkers

Often spicy

By following this natural stream of thought you, the writer, would be left with the specific nugget of writing about the spicy food sold by the walking peddlers you eat at home. This very well could be an interesting read.

Next week we will, as mentioned above, get into techniques that are more creative and, in my opinion, more fun.

Until then,

Happy writing,


This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Idea Mining: Part One

On Words

Idea Mining – part one


Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 4:22 PM Local Time

JAKARTA – Have you ever had something to write, perhaps a school report, a business proposal, or even just a simple letter for those back home? So you set aside some time, cleared a space at your desk, put on some writing music, hunched forward over your pad and wrote… nothing … nil …naught?

Your brows huddled together tangled with vacant thought. Your knuckles, a row of whitening little helmets of surrender, tightened around your pencil. Tick, tock, the paper’s vacant nonchalance taunted you, dared you to put something down. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. You had nothing to say. Blankness there and nothing else.

Of course you have experienced this. We all have.

Writing is just about the most frightening of all the language skills. With the exception of public speaking, itself a trauma so great that the majority of us fear it even more than we do the reaper’s nippy embrace, the action of facing a blank pressed sheet of lined pulp armed with merely a No. 2 is something most try to put off as long as possible.

We either forget or are not aware that this dread of filling the empty page is something all writers experience, even the most accomplished. I once read that James Joyce, perhaps the most celebrated novelist of the 20th century, lamented after a friend caught him anguishing at his writing desk that he had not been able to pen more than seven words that day.

His friend, attempting to lift the author’s spirits said, “Seven? But… that’s good, at least for you!”

“Yes,” Joyce replied. “I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

And this from a literary god whose most distinguished work’s final chapter consists of a single sentence that runs on for nearly 50 pages. When it comes to writing, what chance do us mere mortals stand?

While you may never become the next Joyce, Dr Seuss, or J.K. Rowling, you can become a strong and effective writer who enjoys the challenge and thrill of creating something out of nothing. One of the early keys to this growth is learning the prewriting techniques.

Prewriting techniques generate ideas. The ability to create these first thoughts is vital since the act of actually getting starting is often the toughest part of writing. The initial ideas germinated by these techniques will liven your writing with energy, honesty, and creativity.

First thoughts are powerful. Most of our lives are spent in a world made up of messages that have been prettied-up by our internal censors. This is why it is so refreshing to meet someone who truly speaks his mind, a real straight shooter. The prewriting techniques will teach you how to capture your thoughts at first spark before they have been altered.

First thoughts are egoless. Uncensored, they are your most honest, no matter how nutty that may in fact be, and therefore extremely potent. An honest voice is the door through which strong writing walks. Writing that lacks an honest voice is timid and flaccid.

First thoughts breed creativity. The power and honesty created by the prewriting techniques will give you the freedom to be wrong, to be creative and to essentially write without fear. It is while in this zone, that pieces seem to write themselves. By learning these techniques, you too can bathe in writing’s autopilot sweet spot.

Next week you will learn what the prewriting techniques are and discover how easy it is to master them and add them to your language skill arsenal.

Good writing,


This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.