Revolution at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Egyptians want freedom – video

This short video is currently a high favourite online. Created by Tamer Shaaban. Another Egyptian who’s had enough.

Their blurb: “Violent clashes between police and demonstrators as over ten thousand gather on the streets of Cairo. The Egyptian people have endured a tyrant’s rule for far too long, millions struggle each day to find where their next meal is coming from. January 25th, 2011 marks the day when the people rise and take back what’s rightfully there’s. This isn’t the end, but hopefully the beginning to a long awaited regime change! Send to everyone and let them know.”

Song: “Into the Fire” – Thirteen Senses

Thanks to the following news sources for their footage
Daily News Egypt
The Guardian
CNN
New York Times
Al Masry Al Youm

The video was posted on reddit and has gained momentum!

#Facebook Link: Egypt’s Peaceful Revolution

Related blog post: Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Revolution in the making...at the bottom of the pyramid

Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!

Yertle the Turtle King: My mental image of a despotic ruler!

Related blog post on 7 Feb 2011: Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

January 2011 has been an eventful month for democratic reform in the Middle East. As People Power successfully toppled the deeply entrenched dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the ordinary Egyptians intensified their pressure on own 30-year-long regime of Hosni Mubarak, commentators around the world have been trying to make sense of the rapidly unfolding developments. One of them, David Kravets, writing in Wired linked to a blog post of mine that talked about the experience of one of the earliest successful demonstrations of people power — in the Philippines, when they toppled a long-misruling dictator in 1986.

Amidst all this, and while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

The story was first published in April 1958, in a picture book collection by Theodor Geisel, published under his more commonly-known pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. In 2001, Publishers Weekly listed it at No 125 on a list of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

For those poor Seuss-deprived readers, here’s a helpful summary I have adapted from Wikipedia:

The story is about Yertle the Turtle, the king of the pond in the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond. Unsatisfied with the stone that serves as his throne, he commands the other turtles to stack themselves beneath him so that he can see further and expand his kingdom (he considers himself the master of all he can see). However, the stacked turtles are in pain. Mack, a very ordinary little turtle at the very bottom of the pile, asks Yertle for a respite, but Yertle just tells him to shut up. Dissent is suppressed.

King Yertle is still not happy: he wants ‘to expand his kingdom’. So he commands more and more turtles to add to his throne. Mack again asks for a respite because the increased weight is now causing extreme pain to the turtles at the bottom. Again Yertle yells at Mack to shut up. At this point, little Mack decides he has had enough and decides to do something to vent his anger and frustration: he just burps. That simple action shakes up the entire stack of turtles, and the mighty king comes crashing down into the pond — and all turtles are freed at last!

Required reading for all despots?Years ago, when I first read the story to my then very young daughter, I could immediately see strong parallels between the vain, merciless Yertle the turtle king and the equally egotistic megalomaniacs in the world of human politics and governance. I would later learn that Dr Seuss meant Yertle to be Adolf Hitler: the turtle’s rule of the pond and takeover of the surrounding areas signified Hitler’s regime in Germany and invasion of surrounding Europe.

The ordinary but courageous Mack epitomises long-suffering Everyman and Everywoman in all countries where autocratic or dictatorial regimes rule, piling ever more burdens on their people. Like the turtles in the stack, the people can go on for years taking a great deal of suffering and sacrifice while the despots plunder and make merry. But there comes a day when a ‘Mack’ says enough is enough…and emits a humble ‘burp’ that shakes up everyone.

As Dr Seuss wrote (and this is my favourite part!):

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Read the text of Yertle the Turtle King

I don’t mean to oversimplify or belittle the enormous courage and resolve it takes for ordinary people to take on a brutal regime, but as pop-culture metaphors go, it’s hard to find a better one than Mack and his defiant burp. That little burp by a tiny turtle brought a vain king down, and its real-world equivalent is called people power: when long-oppressed ordinary people take to the streets to protest against the accumulated excesses of their rulers, demanding reform or regime change.

Not all such ‘burps’ bring all ‘Yertles’ down in the real world. The mighty Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s thanks to the courage and persistence of ordinary people who stood up and stepped out. It also worked twice in the Philippines: first against an outright dictator (Marcos) in 1986, and then against a renegade elected president (Estrada) in 2001. A variation of it happened in Nepal against the brutal King Gyanendra, who was dumped into the dustbin of history with the entire monarchy in 2006. Each case had its own history, dynamics and outcomes but shared the common feat of people power.

Sounds familiar? That's because it's all too common!

But elsewhere, as in Tiananmen Square of China (1989) Burma (2007) and Thailand (2010), people power failed to change regimes and led to much violence and bloodshed. What particular combination of social, political and technological factors make people power work is currently the subject of intense study and debate among scholars, diplomats and activists.

But there’s no doubt that recent history has been shaped and made by Macks who broke the silence and, figuratively speaking, burped. Some such burps were heard around the world, and some Macks went on to lead prolonged revolutions that ended with them becoming rulers themselves: Lech Walesa, Cory Aquino and Valclav Havel come to mind.

For every ‘Mack’ who succeeds, though, there are many who go unsung —or much worse. We still have no idea what happened to that much photographed and celebrated ‘Tank Man’ who stood up against the Red Army’s tanks on Tiananman Square one fateful day in June 1989. We don’t even know his name, but his defiance against such enormous odds still inspires assorted Macks all over the world.

For sure, our world is a tiny bit larger — and more complex — than that muddy pond in far away Sala-ma-Sond. And we have an abundance of Yertles, of various colours and hues, riding literally on the backs of their fellow people.

At least some of these tyrants must be following the recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt with growing anxiety. We can only hope that there will be a steady stream of courageous little ‘Macks’ in all such countries who will finally speak up and say: ‘Oi, Enough is enough!’

And then…BURP!

PS: Interesting footnote: Dr Seuss was the first to use the word “burp” in print. That apparently was cause for some concern before publication. According to him, the publishers at Random House, including the president, had to meet to decide whether or not they could use “burp” because “nobody had ever burped before on the pages of a children’s book”.


See also this interesting poem The Vain King, by American poet Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, 25 years later: Communication Lessons

Space Shuttle Challenger's smoke plume after in-flight breakup that killed all seven crew members

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It was the worst accident in the history of manned space exploration up to that time. All seven crew members died in the disaster — among them was Christa McAuliffe, who was selected to be the first teacher in space, and the first strict civilian to go to space as part of the US space programme.

Challenger was destroyed as it broke up in mid-flight in the second minute of its 10th mission, on 28 January 1986 at 11:38:00 am Eastern Standard Time. The break-up was later found to have been due to the failure of an O-ring on its right solid-fuel rocket booster (SRB). The O-rings are used to seal the joints between the multiple segments of the SRBs.

STS-51-L crew (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

While the presence of Christa McAuliffe on the crew had provoked some media interest, shuttle launches had become commonplace by this time and there was little live broadcast coverage of the launch. The only live national TV coverage available publicly was provided by CNN.

Challenger Disaster Live on CNN

The accident was thoroughly investigated and has been well documented. What interests me are the communication lessons drawn from the incident – it continues to be cited as a case study in subjects as diverse as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, effective communications, and the perils of group decision-making.

According to the Wikipedia, Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who had warned about the effect of cold weather on the O-rings, left his job at Morton Thiokol and became a speaker on workplace ethics. For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Many colleges and universities have also used the accident in classes on the ethics of engineering.

Information designer Edward Tufte has used the Challenger accident as an example of the problems that can occur from the lack of clarity in the presentation of information. He argues that if Morton Thiokol engineers had more clearly presented the data that they had on the relationship between low temperatures and burn-through in the solid rocket booster joints, they might have succeeded in persuading NASA managers to cancel the launch.

To me, it was extraordinary how President Ronald Reagan handled the aftermath of the tragedy. On the night of the disaster, he was scheduled to give his annual State of the Union Address. He postponed it by a week and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office. The speech, written by author Peggy Noonan who was the president’s primary speech writer, is a fine piece that combines grief, tribute and resolve in just the right proportions. No lofty intellectualisation or pontification. Just plain, short sentences that appeal to the hearts. Ably delivered by the Great Communicator, it remains an excellent study in how a national leader can counsel a nation in grief without descending into either despair or denial. Draw your own contrasts with other tragedies before and since.

Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger Shuttle explosion

President Reagan spoke at 5 pm EST from the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television. Here is the full text of his speech (emphasis is mine):


Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger

January 28, 1986

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

How do you measure progress? Say it in 3 min video!

How do you measure progress? Count simply the economic growth numbers? Or something more? Are people in richer countries necessarily happier? If not, what’s the key to real progress that makes people better economically, environmentally and socially?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) wants to hear from young people about these issues through a video competition. To celebrate the OECD’s 50th Anniversary, young people worldwide are invited to create a short video describing their vision of Progress. In 3 mins, or 180 secs. The competition is open to young people (18-25 years) in every country worldwide.

Upload your video on YouTube and register online before MIDNIGHT (Paris time) on 1 March 2011. Details here. Promo video below:

Wiz Quiz 2: A Handful of Oscars!

It’s the film award season once again! Awards for the best performances and technical accomplishments in feature films released during 2010 will be announced during the first quarter of 2011.

The best known – and most sought after – film awards are presented by the (American) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Official called the Academy Awards, they are better known by their informal name ‘Oscars’.

‘A handful of Oscars’ is the title on our weekly Wiz Quiz this week in Daily News. Film buff Vindana Ariyawansa and I have chosen a few of the great many records and outstanding feats from the rich and colourful history of Oscar awards.

There aren’t too many notable Asians in this history, but we’ve focused on some: Satyajit Ray, Dr Haing S. Ngor
Akira Kurosawa and Ang Lee among them.

The first Academy/Oscar Awards ceremony was held on 16 May 1929, at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood to honour outstanding film achievements of the 1927/1928 film season. The 83rd Oscar awards ceremony is scheduled for 27 February 2011, and will honour the best of films released during 2010. Nominations for the 2010 Awards have just been announced, on 25 January 2011.

Click here to see full list of Oscar Award nominations for 2010

Coping with a warming planet and WikiLeakable world: Common challenges

Time is ticking away...but crises also mean opportunities

I like to think and speak in metaphors, especially visual metaphors. Sometimes I coin or design new ones. This illustration is the latest example.

Individual elements in this came from very different sources (thanks to them all). I just mixed them together to make two points during a talk I just gave at the Colombo University.

We live in a crisis-ridden world where we have to cope with multiple emergencies unfolding at the same time, impacting us on different fronts. This illustration captures three of them: crisis in biodiversity, man-made climate change, and the new reality of living in a rapidly WikiLeakable world — what I called the Global Glass House.

We don’t get to choose the timing, severity or duration of any challenge. But we do have some choice over how we respond: we can despair and grumble (blaming the Gods or karma if we believe in those); we can become really alarmist (a la Chicken Little); or we can be measured and smart in how we deal with the seemingly overwhelming situations.

Speaking at the Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum (LEAF) on Preserving the Past, Securing the Future on 22 January 2011 at the University of Colombo, I advocated this last option. I also pulled together a number of ideas mentioned on this blog over the past four years.

LEAF was a two-day summit held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, hosted by members of the Elon University’s Periclean Scholar Class of 2011, in partnership with the University of Colombo, the United States Embassy in Colombo, the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and Rainforest Rescue International.

My illustrated talk was titled “Telling Stories to Save Ourselves: Communicating on a Warming Planet” — I revisited an idea originally featured on this blog in mid 2007 (about Arabian Nights and their modern day relevance) and coupled that with a more recent proposal of mine: consider education and communication the third track of plank in humanity’s response to climate change (alongside climate mitigation and adaptation).

In fact, some challenges of living on a warming planet are comparable to coping with a WikiLeakable world: both demand quick adaptation to a new reality. In both cases, governments and society have to change mindset and practices on the go — business as usual is no longer an option. Denialism, or demonising the messenger, won’t take us forward. We need more measured, sometimes even pragmatic responses.

In that process, all-or-nothing is not a viable approach. Waiting for full knowledge and understanding is not feasible either. As I once described it, responding to the planet’s climate and other ecological crisis with partial scientific understanding is akin to many pages of our planet’s ‘operations manual’ being still completely blank — and yet we have to manage the planet to the best of our knowledge, intuition and common sense.

Many of the same principles apply to living in the modern networked info society, where no secrets can be kept that way for too long. The sooner we come to terms with this new reality and adapt, the better.

I’m delighted to see others are addressing these parallels. In my talk, I mentioned a recent essay titled Could climate science become open source? by Brendan Barrett and Sulayman K. Sowe, published earlier this month on the UN University’s Our World 2.0 website.

In their perceptive piece, the authors ask whether climate science would benefit by being more firmly grounded in the principles of openness, perhaps along the lines of the free and open source software communities and open content movements. “The concept of openness behind free and open source software describes a mode of creative knowledge production and sharing in which individuals and communities freely generate and adapt or remix resources (content or software) without licensing restrictions.”

They add: “Proposing a move to a new model of climate science in no way suggests that climate change is not a real and present threat or that we cannot rely on the integrity of our contemporary climate science institutions and scientists. Rather, the argument here is that learning from the way free and open source software projects and communities work may be an important way forward in engendering more effective global, national and local responses to climate change.”

I have always worn multiple ‘hats’, and dabbled in multiple pursuits rather than follow narrow paths of enquiry. I see myself continuing to oscillate between the ‘geeks’ and greens, and where possible, bridging their worlds. It’s really encouraging to see some others straddling the two spheres.

When the Twerms Came: The PLAYBOY Comic Strip is found!

Skip Williamson's Facebook profile photo

Wow, isn’t the Facebook a great place to connect people, ideas and creativity? I never thought much about it, but maybe I ought to spend more time there…

Yesterday, I published a semi-serious essay called WikiLeaks, Swiss Banks and Alien invasions, which was about an obscure short story by Arthur C Clarke describing an unlikely alien invasion of the Earth. For once, the invaders used brain and cunning rather than fire power, and against this onslaught, our planet’s rulers had no defence…

I mentioned how PLAYBOY Magazine had used that story as the basis for a psychedelic comic strip illustrated by the American underground cartoonist Skip Williamson. At the time of writing, I had not been able to locate the comic strip that was published in their issue of May 1972. I wondered: “…it’s either behind a pay-wall, or lies somewhere with little or no indexing by search engines.”

Turns out to be the latter. In less than 24 hours, there was a response from Skip Williamson himself saying the artwork is on his Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/skip.williamson.

Many thanks to Skip Williamson for posting the link…and while at it, for all his brilliantly cheeky and subversive creations over the years! I hope he doesn’t mind my reproducing the comic strip (all of 2 pages) below:

When the Twerms Came - Comic Strip - Page 1 of 2

When the Twerms Came - Comic Strip page 2 of 2