Avatar: Blockbuster film as socio-political and green allegory?

“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Those words by American film producer and studio founder Sam Goldwyn (1879-1974) sum up Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making for the past many decades.

As I watched James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie Avatar, I kept wondering how the master film maker managed to subvert this so completely. Beneath the 3D, special effects and riot of other worldly colours, the movie is one long (2 hrs 40 mins) and powerful commentary on why might is not right when it comes to exploiting resources — belonging to other countries, people, or as in this case, other worlds.

This is not just another worthy indie movie made by an idealistic movie maker defiant of Hollywood traditions and big money. James Cameron is one of the most commercially successful directors in the mainstream film industry – and perhaps one of the very few who can get away with this kind of stunt. At a budget of over US$ 300 million , Avatar is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the costliest ever for 20th Century Fox.

The big gamble is certainly paying off. On 26 January 2010 came the news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing movie worldwide. According to the studio, worldwide box office total for Avatar at that point stood at US$1.859 billion, beating the US$1.843 billion racked up by Cameron’s romantic drama in 1997-98. Avatar broke that record in a little over six weeks.

Part of the reason for such appeal is the extraordinary special effects: it’s an action-packed thriller where good and evil battle it out on another planet. The strange landscapes give it a video game like feel, but no small screen can match the theatrical experience, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (I didn’t). And for a change, this time the aliens inhabiting planet Pandora are benign, while it’s the humans who are ruthless invaders and brutal killers. Well, at least most of the time…

Here’s the official blurb: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic, first conceived the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.”

And here’s AVATAR – Official International Launch Trailer (HD)

Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…

It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…

But the multi-purpose allegory is apparently working well. Take these two from opposite sides of the planet:

Thomas Eddlem wrote in The New American: “Avatar, is a visually stunning epic that is a perfect allegory for any of a dozen or more Indian wars in American history. From King Philip’s War in New England to Tippecanoe in Indiana to Horseshoe Bend in Alabama — and all the way across the American continent, for that matter — the story was the same. Colonists simply take land from the natives, as the Sully explains: ‘This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.’

Mayank Shekhar wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper: “Between a green worldview and the globe’s war over a natural resource, James Cameron’s twin analogies of present-day politics are fairly complete. They lend his science fiction ‘event picture’ a certain soul, even if not much of a story line.”

So did Cameron set out trying to send a message? Or was it all an incidental byproduct? Listen to the director himself in these two online video stories:

James Cameron’s Vision Featurette

CBS Interview with James Cameron: From Titanic to Avatar

The most compelling social commentary on Avatar I have so far read comes from Naomi Wolf, the American political activist, author and social critic. In an op ed essay written for Project Syndicate, she sees two revealing themes in Avatar: “the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America – for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster – from the point of view of the rest of the world.”

She adds: “In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans’ view of themselves in relation to their country’s foreign policy.”

Does the box office triumph of Avatar make James Cameron one of the most effective campaigners for social justice on the planet (comparable, in some ways, to Michael Jackson having been one of the biggest environmental communicators of his time)?

And is Avatar the most expensive piece of info-tainment or edu-tainment ever made, just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long (even if unintended) commercial for the breathtaking sights and sounds of New Zealand?

Certainly, mixing messages with entertainment is such a difficult and delicate art that most people who dabble in it fall between the two stools. The entertainment value of Cameron’s latest flick is not in question. Granted, it’s not as heart-breaking as Titanic, and the storyline is oh-so-predictable. But 3D and SFX magic alone can’t hold today’s audiences gripped for 160 long minutes. And if the underlying story starts movie-goers thinking and talking about many parallels between the fictional world of Pandora and our own Earth, he’s certainly getting somewhere.

As Naomi Wolf says: “Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans’ suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America’s borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar , the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.”

Perhaps this wasn’t part of the script, but would the executives at 20th Century Fox care as they laugh all the way to their bank?

Scientists caution: Watching TV may shortern your life?

Was there life before Television?

Television has been called many names in the few decades it’s been around – among them the Great Wasteland and Idiot Box. Television used to be the favourite whipping boy of those who love to criticise communication technologies and consumer gadgets — until the Internet and mobile phones came along.

Couch potatoes of the world have ignored all snide remarks, and just carried on their sedentary practice.

Now they might have to think again: Television may be hazardous to your health in more ways than previously imagined. In fact, it might shorten your life.

A couple of weeks ago, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Science reported some worrying news. It said Australian scientists have published research showing a link which suggests that the more TV a person watches, the sooner they die.

The report, which appears in the journal Circulation,says every extra hour spent watching television increases people’s risk of premature death.

Professor David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, followed more than 8000 Australian adults for six years.

The team discovered that the people who watched the most TV died younger.

“What this study provides is the first compelling evidence linking television viewing to an increased risk of early death,” says Dunstan. “People who watch four or more hours of television a day have a 46% higher risk of death from all causes and 80% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.”

Read full report on ABC Science: TV shortens your life span, study finds

New Scientist, January 2008: Couch potato lifestyle may speed up ageing

Trivia: Robert Armstrong, an artist from California, developed the term couch potato in 1976. Several years later, he listed the term as a trademark with the United States government. Armstrong also helped illustrate a funny book about life as a full-time television watcher. It is called the “Official Couch Potato Handbook.”

Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2010: Choices made, now we move on…

Heads you lose, tails we win...?
With over 10 million others, I voted in Sri Lanka’s sixth Presidential Election yesterday. Today, after the votes were counted and tallied, we were informed that the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been re-elected for another six year term. He has won 57.9% of the valid votes.

Nearly 11,000 polling stations had been set up for this purpose, mostly at temples or schools. A quarter of a million public servants were mobilised to handle this massive operation, while close to 100,000 policemen and soldiers were tasked to maintain law and order. And the whole business of choosing the next leader is costing the war-impoverished nation several billion rupees.

So do the results — basically, more of the same — justify all this cost and effort? Was there real choice for us the hopeful little men (and women) who walked into little booths with little pencils in hand to make a little cross on a (not so) little bit of paper?

Opinion is highly polarised on that last question. The two main candidates not only tried to outpromise each other without coherence or focus, but also made a mockery out of the whole campaign process.

In fact, as I noted in my essay last week titled Open Moment, Closed Minds: “Party politics has always polarised Lankans, but no other election in recent memory has been as divisive…The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”

With pre-election violence escalating, the choice before voters looked like this a week before election day.
The election results will be analysed and debated for weeks to come. At first glance, it looks as if the voters used this election to express gratitude to Rajapaksa for having provided the political leadership to end Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war.

We can argue whether presidential elections should be turned into referendums on individual performance of candidates – or instead, decided on the vision and policies offered by them. I grant this is a bit more serious than American Idol – or its local variations – where we text our preference for the candidate with the best looks or talent.

In fact, I’m still not convinced whether it’s such a good idea to mix personal gratitude with voting for a head of state.

I’ve voted in four presidential and three general elections (I missed some due to overseas travel). With one exception (1994), all have been ‘protest votes’ – I was voting against an incumbent more than in favour of an aspirant.

But there are more things in heaven and on Earth, dear reader, than are dreamt in our messy politics. Albert Einstein said it so well many decades ago: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

We can only hope that our votes were properly counted — and that they count and matter to the leader whom we have collectively chosen today. That is, if he can see and hear beyond the cacophony of sycophants who surround him 24/7.

And as I tweeted earlier today: As Sri Lanka re-elects the President, we hope ALL 20 million Lankans can share the promise of a Better Future on which he campaigned and won…

Cartoons courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Open Moment, Closed Minds: New essay to mark 250 days of ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka

Today marks exactly 250 days since Sri Lanka’s civil war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

In a new op ed essay — titled ‘Open Moment’, Closed Minds! — just published on Groundviews.org, I look back and ask some hard questions.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We all knew the hard-won peace had to be nurtured and consolidated. We also realised just how formidable the challenges of healing and rebuilding were. But could anyone have imagined the dramatic turn of political events since?

“Who would have thought that the victors of the war would soon be engaged in a nasty battle for personal glory and power? Who expected the historical feud between ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ to be replaced so swiftly by a showdown between self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’?”

I raise these questions in the context of a fiercely contested presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010. I note: “The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”

I ask whether either of the leading candidates has the open mind needed to seize the historic ‘open moment’ since the war ended. I recall how we completely missed the last such open moment created by the tsunami of December 2004.

I write: “Having missed the tsunami’s open moment, we cannot afford to bungle again. Rebuilding a nation of lasting peace, pluralism and prosperity will require many sections of society to change their mindset. This is especially and urgently needed in our media, much of which has become uncritical cheerleaders for patriotism and tribalism in recent years.”

Despite the many disappointments of the past 250 days, I still remain cautiously optimistic. But for how long?

The origins of this essay can be traced back to a blog post I wrote on 19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Read the full essay, and join the conversation at Groundviews.org

Buzz Aldrin at 80: Still blasting off imagination everyday

Moonwalker No 2

This is one of history’s most famous photographs – and also one that is frequently misidentified. The man behind the space mask is a pioneer Moon walker – but it’s not Neil Armstrong. It’s the Buzz Aldrin, the second Man on the Moon.

According to space historians, all the famous photos from the first Moon landing are actually of Aldrin, with Armstrong reflected in the visor. This is an occupational hazard for those who take photos!

Buzz, who celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20, remains active and publicly engaged as he has been for most of the past 40 years since the first Moon landing in July 1969.

I’m following Buzz on his Twitter feed, from which I find that he’s just back from a trip to Antarctica with a National Geographic cruise, was at the premiere for the movie Avatar in mid December, and is now busy promoting his latest autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

On his 80th birthday, Buzz asked fans to donate US$8 ot 80 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. And he will soon launch my iPhone App, Buzz Aldrin Portal to Science and Space Exploration.

This contrasts with Neil Armstrong, who is notoriously shy. He rarely speaks in public, turns down all media interviews and has also refused autograph requests since 1994.

Trained as an engineer, the two-time space traveller Buzz has been keeping up with new media pretty well. He has his own website, and launched his own YouTube channel only a month ago, where we can see his latest broadcast and film appearances. Through these and other means, he continues to promote causes like space exploration, science education and nurturing imagination.

To mark his 80th birthday, we present some of the many Buzz Aldrin videos available online.

First, here’s the moment when Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, in a partial restoration by NASA Video

Here’s the DVD Promo Overview of the latest Buzz video:

On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares his experience and predicts where man will go in the future. (Assciated Press video, 20 July 2009)

Buzz has long years of close association with popular culture. For example, the popular space ranger character Buzz Lightyear, in Pixar’s Toy Story movie series, is named after him. Apparently the film’s makers felt that he has “the coolest name of any astronaut.”

NASA video: Follow Buzz Lightyear on Spaceship Discovery

Finally, for comic relief, here’s the 2003 interview Buzz did with Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the British comedy series Ali G in da USA, during which Ali G referred to him as Buzz Lightyear:

P.S.: If you prefer a more detached look at the man and his career:
The Guardian, July 2009: The Man who fell to Earth

Making of ‘The Greenbelt Reports’ recalled in ‘The Green Pen’

The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.

The book, titled The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia, is edited by two senior Indian journalists, both good friends – Keya Acharya of Bangalore, and Frederick Noronha based in Goa. (In 2007, Fred and I co-edited Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.)

Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).

I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.

Keya Acharya (left) and Fred Noronha
The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”

“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”

It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.

Who says South Asia is large?

More in TVEAP news story: The Greenbelt Reports featured in new book on environmental journalism in South Asia

Wim Wenders: How our images can change our world

Wim WendersEvery now and then, we come across a simple yet profound statement that sums up our work or our aspirations – or both.

Here’s one such gem from Wim Wenders, the German film director, playwright, author, photographer and producer: “If we can improve the images of the world, perhaps we can improve the world.”

I must admit, now and here, that I’ve not seen any of his films (except for extracts online – does that count?). Yes, what a lot I have missed — but I’ve read a bit on him and been enormously impressed by how he plays with images, both still and moving, in a unique style of his own.

The more I searched about him, the more impressed and amazed I became about his progressive and pragmatic comments about his art and craft.

Consider these other gems I found, all talking about how movies can catalyse or support change in society:

“Any film that supports the idea that things can be changed is a great film in my eyes.”

“Any movie that has that spirit and says things can be changed is worth making.”

“Entertainment today constantly emphasises the message that things are wonderful the way they are. But there is another kind of cinema, which says that change is possible and necessary and it’s up to you.”

“On the contrary a film can promote the idea of change without any political message whatsoever but in its form and language can tell people that they can change their lives and contribute to progressive changes in the world.”

Read collected quotes of Wim Wenders on BrainyQuote

Opening of Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders

Here’s an interesting interview with the legendary film maker by a legendary broadcaster:

Frost over the World featuring Wim Wenders – Al Jazeera English on 11 Jan 2008

I’ve now run out of excuses for not seeking out Wim Wenders films. That’s one of my aspirations in 2010.

But meanwhile, this particular Wim Wenders quote is a caution for people like myself: “The more opinions you have, the less you see.”

Solar Eclipse 15 Jan 2010: New media slowly eclipsing MSM in Sri Lanka?

The Annular Solar Eclipse, best seen from northern Sri Lanka and southern India on 15 January 2010, was not only a rare celestial event; it also marked a turning point in how the mainstream media (MSM) and new media cover a wide-spread news event (albeit a highly predictable one).

Where the island of Sri Lanka was concerned, it was the first solar eclipse of the broadband internet era — and that showed.

The last solar eclipse seen in Sri Lanka was two generations ago, on 20 June 1955. That was almost pre-historic in mass media terms. The newly independent Ceylon had a single, state-owned radio station and a handful of newspapers. There was no television, and the internet was not even conceived.

Yet, paradoxically, the media’s influence over the 8 million people then living on the island seem to have been greater at the time. As astronomer Dr Kavan Ratnatunga recalled: “A quack physician cum astrologer, recommended that women wanting to become fair and lovely should drink a decoction of which the main ingredient was “Vada Kaha” (Sweet Flag or Acorus Calamus) at the time of the total eclipse, preferably unseen by others. Many who took his advice ended up in hospital.”

Solar eclipse on 15 Jan 2010 seen in Anuradhapura, north-central Sri Lanka - photos by Reuters
In contrast, in 21st Century Sri Lanka, the January 15 eclipse was not much of a news story. I don’t claim to have done a systematic analysis, but my impressions are drawn from scanning the major newspaper websites in English and Sinhala, and surfing the dozen or more terrestrial (free-to-air, not cable) TV channels that were on the air during the three hours or so of the eclipse. (Sorry: I missed out radio, and I’m not proficient in Tamil.)

Broadcast television was my biggest disappointment. Solar eclipses are a visual spectacular, and literally heaven-sent for live television. Yet, not a single Lankan TV channel carried a live broadcast of the event, either from northern Sri Lanka where it was best seen (in its annular form, with ‘ring of fire’ effect), or from elsewhere on the island as a partial eclipse.

It seemed as if the Colombo-based media were completely preoccupied with the intense build-up to the presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010 — a case of politics eclipsing the solar eclipse?

Jaffna school children view the solar eclipse - Photo courtesy Virakesari

But there were a couple of honourable exceptions – and thank heavens for that! One was the leading Tamil daily Virakesari, which sponsored an expedition to Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, by a group of professional and amateur astronomers from SkyLk.com. According to one member of this expedition, Thilina Heenatigala, this newspaper provided the widest and most uptodate coverage of the annular eclipse from Jaffna.

SkyLk.com collaborated with the Hindu College in Jaffna, whose playground was converted into an open air observation camp. Thilina says over 2,000 people – including school children and adults – had converged to witness the event. A large screen was set up on to which the live image from a telescope was projected.

Not far from there, a group of engineering students and teachers from the University of Moratuwa was doing a more scientific observation. Later that day, team leader Dr Rohan Munasinghe reported in an email: “We have recorded the solar eclipse from Kayts (lat 9d,37m N, Long 79d,58 E), the biggest island off Jaffna Sri Lanka. We have timestamped the video with GPS (Garmin 18) accuracy.”

University of Moratuwa team observing the clipse - photo courtesy Dr Rohan Munasinghe

The Sinhala Sunday newspaper Rivira was part of this university expedition. Its science editor Tharaka Gamage, himself an astronomy enthusiast, reported from the eclipse’s ground zero for his readers.

Elsewhere across the island of Sri Lanka, there was plenty of interest among the people from all walks of life — as seen from the thousands who stepped out during mid-day to take a peek at the celestial phenomenon. Not all of them followed the safety precautions to prevent eye damage, disseminating which the media had done a good job in the preceding days.

Clearly, this high level of public interest was not reflected in how the rest of Lankan mainstream media covered the eclipse. But if the mainstream media’s gaze was firmly fixed on the gathering election storm on the ground, the new media created opportunities for others to step into that void. Citizen scientists joined hands with citizen journalists to capture and share the eclipse with each other — and the world. These unpaid enthusiasts used commonly available digital tools and online platforms for this purpose.

Some of them uploaded dozens of photos for public viewing on image sharing sites like Flickr. A good example is what Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony did. There were many others.

SkyLk.com group was more ambitious: they actually webcast the eclipse live online from their public observation camp at Hindu College grounds. Stuck in Colombo with its sub-optimal viewing conditions for this eclipse, this was the best chance for people like myself to catch the annular part of the phenomenon.

“We were struggling with bandwidth limitations most of the time,” Thilina Heenatigala says. “We used a Dialog HSPA modem to connect to the web, and line speeds kept fluctuating. We were not the only ones uploading still photos or video to the web from different locations in northern Sri Lanka — and apparently all of us were slowing down each other.”

Being the tech-savvy planner he is, Thilina had alerted Dialog telecom company about the likely peaking of bandwidth demand. But he is not sure if any temporary enhancing was done, even though Dialog currently claims to be the ‘first and best’ to offer telecom coverage in the north. Certainly, the live eclipse webcast was not of uniform quality — it’s a small miracle it happened at all: until a few months ago, this was part of the theatre of war in northern Sri Lanka.

In fact, SkyLk.com had used the web to build up public awareness and interest using video trailers on YouTube. Here is one of several simulations they had up from December, thus one for Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (simulation):

In the end, however, SkyLk.com became a victim of its own success. The live webcast was followed by hundreds, and then thousands of online visitors from different parts of the world. This apparently overshot the usual allocations provided by the offshore hosting company (in the US), which suspended the account. Right now SkyLk.com website is not accessible (as at 16 January 2010, 15:00 UTC/GMT).

Within hours of the eclipse, several individuals and groups also uploaded highlights of their eclipse videos on to the YouTube. Here are the most striking ones I came across in a quick search:

Solar Eclipse 2010 Sri Lanka Scientific Record – by University of Moratuwa
Scientific recording of the annular solar eclipse on 15 January 2010 was carried out from the Island Kayts (Lat +09d 37m North and Long +79d 58m East) of Sri Lanka.

Orion Video’s coverage from Nallur, Jaffna:

Not in the same league as the above two videos, this was Nishan Perera’s personal observations from Ratnapura, south-western Sri Lanka:

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from this random evidence, but in all likelihood, we passed thresholds in both citizen journalism and citizen science with this eclipse. Clearly, the mainstream media’s monopoly/domination over reporting of such an event has been shattered: their indifference will no longer stand in the way of information and images being disseminated.

Perhaps just as important, it is no longer possible for a couple of self-appointed ‘public astronomers’ to dominate the public information channels on an occasion like this, mostly for shameless self-promotion. As Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, President of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association, noted in an article: “I am amazed as to how many who have never even seen a Solar Eclipse, will gladly talk about it to an equally ignorant journalist, resulting in some totally misleading and sometimes hilarious information being published in both the English and Sinhala media. In a nation which believes in pseudo astrology, I am sure it is just a matter of time before quacks start using it to predict influence on local events and politics. However, there is absolutely no influence on any person by any of these celestial events.”

At the end of the day, however, astronomy aficionados are emphatic that no amount of media coverage can really substitute the experience of being there and experiencing it ourselves. As Kavan says: “A solar Eclipse is event which must be experience and observed. No video can do justice to that experience. It can also become addictive. In the modern age when the Internet and TV can bring events to your home, one may wonder why some Eclipse chasers travel round the world to see an Eclipse of the Sun.”

The next solar eclipse visible from Sri Lanka will be on 26 December 2019. I wonder what kind of media and ICT landscape would cover that event…

Having a bad day? This cosmic perspective could help!

We all have a bad day every now and then. Each one has different ways of coping with it – some curse the government, others blame their karma, and still others just play sport or music to soothe the mind.

This past Season, two astronomically inclined friends showed me a new way of coping with the assorted problems of our imperfect world and unfair life.

First, Rex I de Silva – diver, naturalist and amateur astronomer who was a citizen scientist before the term was invented – sent me this clever piece of animation that originated in Australia. He wrote: “It’s so very well done that most folks don’t realize how much info is being shared! Just click on the link below….but with your computer’s speakers on. We are on quite a ride….It’s not over till it asks if you want to view again.”

Indeed, it’s the ultimate journey – take it at:
http://dingo.care2.com/cards/flash/5409/galaxy.swf (it was working as of today).

Then, Thilina Heenatigala – one of the most active astronomy and space enthusiasts in Sri Lanka – informed me that the original Galaxy Song was sung by Eric Idle from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983), with graphics from NASA of flying through the universe.

So here it is, the film version from YouTube:

If the real images are not awe-inspiring enough, here’s an animated version of the same song that I discovered on my own while exploring that rapidly expanding online video galaxy – it features ‘Pinhead’ from RProduction13’s animated short series, “The Four”.

And here are the lyrics of
The Galaxy Song:

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you’ve had quite eno-o-o-o-o-ough…

Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the “Milky Way”.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it’s just three thousand light years wide.
We’re thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go ’round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

(Animated calliope interlude)

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that’s the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

Composers: Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Author: Eric Idle
Singer: Eric Idle
From the ‘Meaning of Life’ album, MCA Records MCA 6121

I have no idea who Mrs Brown is, but it sure works for me too!

Wanted: ‘Magic Mirrors’ for a Land of the Blind…

Last chance...?
Here’s a winning idea for a new business venture in these lean times: make an always-agreeable ‘magic’ mirror — and the vane and wicked will beat a path to your door.

Well, at least half the politicians in Sri Lanka would. They’d rather not see their true selves on any mirror.

The magic mirror idea was popularised many years ago by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whose wicked and vain queen had an unusual mirror that talked back, each time she asked: ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?’.

The queen wasn’t looking for honest answers; she just wanted to hear she was always the prettiest and fairest in the land. (All competition – real and imagined – was dealt with brutally.)

Little has changed, even in this 21st Century. We may not have too many monarchs left in the world, but our uncrowned rulers can be equally vain and ruthless. They are obsessed with self-aggrandizing sycophancy – they’d only tolerate magic mirrors that totally boost their egos.

If I seem to be preoccupied with mirrors, that’s nothing to do with my own vanity. In this digital age, the mirror is still a pretty good metaphor for the media industry that I have been part of, in one way or another, for over 20 years. At its very basic, the media are expected to reflect our society and our times.

But some people don’t like what they see on a true mirror. In 2009, we saw a spate of mirror smashing or media bashing in Sri Lanka. It started on 6 January, when the studio of the Maharaja Television/Broadcasting Network (MTV/MBC, popularly known as Sirasa Group) was attacked by armed gunmen who almost blew up the country’s most popular private broadcast organisation. On 8 January, exactly a year ago today, Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of The Sunday Leader, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in suburban Colombo.

Sirasa & Lasantha: Refused to be magic mirrors
One year later, both crimes remain unsolved. They have joined a long list of crimes against journalists and media organisations in Sri Lanka, most of which have never led to any prosecution of the perpetrators.

As Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement this week: “The emotion and anger have not gone away in the year since this famous Sri Lankan journalist’s death. The anger is being sustained by the government’s flagrant obstruction of the investigation. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s name and memory will not disappear and, in that sense, those who were behind his murder made a mistake.”

Commenting on the MTV/MBC (Sirasa) attack, I described the typical reaction of the mirror-bashers: “…if you don’t like what you see in the mirror – which is what media is to society – just kick it, shatter it and hammer it into dust so that it won’t reflect anymore. Destroy all the mirrors of the land, and we’ll finally be the fairest and prettiest in the whole world. That seems to be the perverse logic that fuels attacks of this nature.”

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for in the late 1970s cautioned that Lasantha’s murder was the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. As I asked on the day of Lasantha’s emotionally-charged funeral: “Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?”

Owing to these and other threats, pressures and intimidation during the year, Sri Lanka was ranked 162nd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the worst ranking of any democratic country. See RSF website section on Sri Lanka.

Back to mirrors. While the true mirrors were getting bashed, those who played being ‘magic mirrors’ have done well for themselves (and are probably laughing all the way to their banks). But that’s not a phenomenon confined to the little island of Sri Lanka. A good part of the US Media did the same under the hawkish Bush Administration, which prompted the cartoon below.

It’s not just ‘Dubya’ who is addicted to such agreeable mirrors. Indeed, for many modern-day rulers, an essential trapping of power involves surrounding themselves with spin doctors, press commissioners and other manipulators or manufacturers of image. In mature democracies, there are certain checks and balances which usually guard against the worst excesses (but there are notable exceptions – look at Italy!).

In immature, fragile or pseudo democracies, mirrors obey the laws of physics (optics) at grave risk to themselves. If you want proof, just talk to the staff of Sirasa or The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka…

Groundviews.org: One year later: A murder unresolved, a government unashamed

Nov 2009 blog post: We need more reflective mirrors in the media!