Can cricket unite a divided Sri Lanka? Answer is in the air…will it be caught?

Boys playing cricket on tsunami hit beach in eastern Sri Lanka, January 2005 (photo by Video Image)

Two boys playing cricket on a beach, with a makeshift bat and wicket. What could be more ordinary than this in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka, where every street, backyard or bare land can host an impromptu game?

But the time and place of this photo made it anything but ordinary. This was somewhere along Sri Lanka’s east coast, one day in mid January 2005. Just a couple of weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami had delivered a deadly blow to this part of the island on 26 December 2004.

My colleagues were looking for a survivor family whose story we could document for the next one year as part of the Children of Tsunami media project that we had just conceived. On their travels, they came across these two boys whose family was hit hard by the tsunami: they lost a sibling and their house was destroyed.

They were living in a temporary shelter, still recovering from the biggest shock of their short lives. But evidently not too numbed to play a small game of cricket. Perhaps it was part of their own way of coping and healing.

More than six years and many thousand images later, I still remember this photo for the quiet defiance and resilience it captured. Maybe that moment in time for two young boys on a devastated beach is symbolic of the 20 million plus men, women and children living in post-war Sri Lanka today.

We are playing cricket, or cheering cricket passionately and wildly even as we try to put a quarter century of war, destruction and inhumanity behind us. And at least on the cricket front, we’re doing darn well: the Sri Lanka national team beat New Zealand on March 29 to qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup finals on April 3 in Mumbai.

We’ve been here once before – in March 1996 – and won the World Cup against many odds. Can we repeat or improve that performance? We’ll soon know.

Of course, rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and healing the deep-running wounds of war is going to be much harder than playing the ball game.

My friends at Groundviews is conducting an interesting informal poll: World Cup cricket aiding reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Fact or fiction?

A few days ago, Captain of Lankan cricket team Kumar Sangakkara described post-war northern Sri Lanka as a scene of devastation after paying his first visit to the region. People of the north have been deprived for 30 years of everything that is taken for granted in Colombo, he told the media.

He toured the north with team mate and wiz bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who is patron of the Foundation of Goodness. The charity, itself a response to the 2004 tsunami, “aims to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka by tackling poverty through productive activities”.

Earlier this month, Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka wrote a highly moving essay in the London Observer titled ‘How cricket saved Sri Lanka’. The blurb read: “As co-host of the current World Cup, Sri Lankans are relishing their moment on the sport’s biggest stage. And no wonder. For them, cricket is much more than a game. After years of civil war, the tsunami and floods, it’s still the only thing holding their chaotic country together.”

In that essay, which is well worth a read, he noted: “Many of us believe in the myth of sport; some more than others. Clint Eastwood and Hollywood have turned the 1995 Rugby World Cup into a sport-conquers-apartheid fantasy in Invictus. CLR James believed cricket to be the catalyst for West Indian nationalism. A drunk in a Colombo cricket bar once told me that Rocky IV had hastened the fall of the Soviet Empire.”

He added: “Let’s abandon the myths for now. Sport cannot change a world. But it can excite it. It can galvanise a nation into believing in itself. It can also set a nation up for heartbreak.”

Cricket has indeed excited the 20 million Lankans from all walks of life, and across the various social, economic and cultural divides. It has rubbed off on even a cricket-skeptic like myself.

We will soon know whether the Cricket World Cup will be ours again. Whatever happens at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2, we have a long way to go on the road to recovery and reconciliation.

Colombo, 29 March 2011: When Sri Lanka beat New Zealand to qualify for Cricket World Cup 2011 Finals

What’s the universal icon for the Internet? Is there one?

Would 2 billion recognise this?
What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Internet’?

If you’re a techie or geek, you’ll probably come up with a detailed answer that is technically accurate or precise. But most of the 2 billion plus people who use the Internet worldwide are not techies. They don’t know – or care – about the back-end technicalities.

A good icon is simple, language-neutral, and can be understood across different cultures and by people with very different educational backgrounds. For example, telephones – both fixed and mobile – have established symbols or icons. Sure, the devices have evolved beyond the well known imagery, but everybody recognises these.

So what’s the equivalent for the Internet, never mind its multitudinous applications and delivery methods?

We’re currently editing a short video on LIRNEasia’s broadband quality of service experience (QoSE) in emerging Asian economies. We play with images to tell complex stories in non-technical terms. We wanted to use an icon for the Internet (broadband or otherwise) — and couldn’t immediately think of one visual that everybody knows and recognises unambiguously as representing the global Internet.

So we searched. Our usually reliable friend Google wasn’t of much help. Google image search for ‘internet icon’ brought up hundreds of results — but none that is a universally accepted or recognised. But the search itself was interesting and revealing.

Some images, like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser’s famous ‘e’, are well known but are branded to one product and company.

Others, like the ethernet cable’s plug pin, are widely used — but how many non-techies will recognise it? Besides, when broadband access is increasingly going wireless, do the cables matter as much as they used to?

The same goes for those colourful images of fibre optic cables — dazzling points of light, but how many Digital Immigrants (or even Digital Natives) will know what they are?

At least wireless Internet seems to have settled its iconography — or has it? The little antenna transmitting omni-directionally seems to pop up everywhere these days, at least where such coverage is available. But there too, we have more than one icon — even if their main visual symbols are similar.

Then there’s the ubiquitous @ sign — originally introduced for, and still an integral part of, email addresses. But hey, Internet is a lot more than emails!

Are we settled on this?
We asked around IT industry friends and IT-watchers, but none could give us a definitive answer. The most that they could agree on was that the 3-letter formulation www (signifying the World Wide Web) comes close to a universally recognised sign for the Internet.

Hmm, that’s far from being a visually elegant design. And it’s decidedly biased to the roman alphabet too (ok, that’s the language of science).

But is there a better icon for the whole Internet, irrespective of delivery method and language-neutral? If not, isn’t it about time we agreed on one?

Designers, geeks and others with spare creative capacity, please take this up.

Wiz Quiz 10: Japan’s struggle with the four elements

Image courtesy Vision Magazine
Earth, water, fire and air.

These are the four basic elements of matter as seen in ancient Greek, Hindu and other traditions. Each had different names for them, but the concepts were similar.

And in recent days, Japan has been experiencing multiple disasters involving all these elements.

It started with the 9.0-magnitude megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan that occurred at 2.46 pm Japan time on 11 March 2011. Its epicentre was 130 kilometres off the east coast of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, near Sendai. The earthquake triggered highly destructive tsunami waves of up to 10 meters (33 ft) that struck nearby coastal areas minutes after the quake, and in some cases travelled up to 10 km (6 miles) inland. The earthquake and tsunami waves killed over 5,000 people, caused massive property damage and started fires in some affected locations. Most worrying was the damage caused to the Fukushima II nuclear power plant where reactors damaged by the quake and tsunami led to an accidental leak of radioactivity.

Japan has a long history of living and coping with disasters, but the magnitude and confluence of multiple disasters has plunged the country into the worst crisis since the Second World War. This week’s Wiz Quiz devotes several questions to the history and science of tsunamis.

As it turns out, thanks to Japan’s strict building codes and preparedness, the country could absorb much of the powerful earthquake. But the massive tsunami is what caused most of the damage — there is little defence against the mighty waves that come roaring inland, wiping out everything in their path…

Read Wiz Quiz 10: Japan’s struggle with four elements

Wiz Quiz 9: Arthur C Clarke’s HAL, are you here yet?

Joy of Tech tribute to Arthur C Clarke, 19 March 2008
This week marks the third death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke, author and futurist.

Among the numerous tributes that poured out all over the world following his departure, I found one especially poignant. It was the ‘Joy of Tech’ cartoon above, showing the sentient computer HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) shedding a single tear in his memory…

In fact, researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) are still trying to create a real-life HAL, which remains the ‘Holy Grail’ in their line of work: a machine-based intelligence that mimics the human mind in all its nuances, and not just in raw processing power.

This is proving much harder than creating chess-playing or quiz-winning computers: human beings are capable of a wide range of emotions some of which – such as intuition and sense of humour – are still not within the capabilities of advanced AI systems.

In this week’s Wiz Quiz, I pay tribute to both HAL and his creator with a few questions on the march of supercomputers. We ask the long-running question: Can computers outsmart us?

Indeed, that prospect is becoming more real every passing year. An IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue created history in May 1997 when it won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against the then world chess champion. A few weeks ago, another human bastion fell — and this one concerns me more as a quiz enthusiast (I never learnt the rules of chess, and don’t understand what all that fuss is about.)

On 17 February 2011, a supercomputer owned by the IBM Corporation beat two veteran quizzers to win a high profile game in the long-running US quiz show called Jeopardy. The supercomputer won with US$77,147, while its nearest rival Ken Jennings, a 74-time winner of the popular trivia quiz, came in second with US$24,000. Brad Rutter, who has in previous appearances won a total of US$3.3 million, was third with US$21,600. IBM plans to donate the computer’s winnings to charity.

What was the name of this quiz-winning supercomputer?

In HAL 9000’s name, what did the letters HAL stand for?

Which famous rocket scientist once said: “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft…and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labour”?

These are among the 15 questions in this week’s Wiz Quiz. Test your brains against ours (supercomputers may not participate!).

T (Tambiaiah) Sabaratnam: Fond farewell to a pathfinder science journalist

Tambiaiah Sabaratnam
I seem to be writing a few fond farewells to fellow travellers every year, becoming an obituarist of sorts in that process. I don’t go to funerals if I can help it (they’re too depressing), and instead I withdraw to a corner to write my memories. Some are published; others are privately circulated.

I’ve just published such a tribute on veteran Lankan journalist T (Tambiaiah) Sabaratnam, who died on March 5 aged 79. He was a senior colleague when I entered the world of journalism in the late 1980s. He retired (sort of) in 1997, but remained active in the world of media to the very end.

He was an outstanding journalistic story-teller. As I wrote in the tribute: “He was a pathfinder and leading light in Sri Lankan science journalism for over a generation. Throughout his long association with the English and Tamil press, he advocated the pursuit of public science: tax-payer funded scientific research for the benefit of the people and economy.”

Here’s another excerpt, more personalised:
“He was a source of inspiration and encouragement to me during my early years in science journalism. Our paths crossed often in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he and I covered many of the same scientific events. He was approachable and helpful, but I could never bring myself to call him ‘Saba’. When I knew him, he had already been in journalism for longer than I’d been alive. To me, he was always ‘Mr Sabaratnam’.

“He reached out despite our generational, media house and other divides. He was genuinely interested in my progress as a science journalist, and offered me advice on both style and substance. Occasionally, he also cautioned about on various ‘pitfalls’ in the local scientific scene — personal rivalries, exaggerated claims or oversized egos.”

Read the full tribute on Tambiaiah Sabaratnam (1932 – 2011): The Storyteller of Public Science

Read compact version in Daily News, 15 March 2011: Tambiaiah Sabaratnam (1932 – 2011): Storyteller of public science

Grace under pressure: Japan faces tough test from 3/11 disasters – quake, tsunami, meltdown…

Cartoon by Geneva-based Patrick Chappatte, who works for International Herald and Le Temps

Since Friday March 11 afternoon, I’ve been watching the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Japan caused by multiple disasters — 8.9 earthquake, tsunami, dam burst, fires, and now the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

Our heart-felt sympathy goes out to all Japanese people, among whom I count many friends. No nation deserves to be battered simultaneously like this by natural and (partly) man-made calamities.

Yet, few nations are better prepared and equipped to deal with such crises. Japan may be reeling right now, but things could have been far worse if not for their readiness to face emergencies both at individual and institutional levels.

Amidst scenes of utter destruction and dislocation, the Japanese people were reacting with the stoic calm for which Japan is famous. “What’s amazing is that everyone I saw — cops on their white bicycles, boys reading comics in alleys, kids walking home with their parents — appeared graceful under this unexpected disaster,” Tokyo resident Irie Otoko wrote to The New York Times.

But make no mistake: this is a big one as disasters come. The death toll is feared to exceed 10,000, and the property damage alone is likely to be tens of billions of dollars. The societal, economic and emotional costs are hard to quantify at this early stage.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was walking the streets of Tokyo, enjoying the calm and orderly life in the modern Roppongi and the old world charm of Kagurazaka. But once again, Planet Earth has reminded us who is in charge.

And cartoonists are capturing the planetary sentiment with their usual economy of words.

Cartoon by Terry Mosher, The Star, Toronoto, Canada
Cartoon by Gary Markstein, Copyright 2011 Creators Syndicate
Courtesy: Cartoon Movement

Wiz Quiz 8: Holding half the sky, but waiting for full equality

There is a well known Chinese proverb, which was supposedly favoured by Mao Zedong, saying “Women hold up half the sky.” Despite this, women have had to fight for their rightful place society for much of history — and the struggle for gender equality continues in the 21st Century.

International Women’s Day (IWD), which falls on March 8, symbolizes this long-running quest. This year marks the centenary of the worldwide observance that started in Europe.

Wiz Quiz this week, coinciding with IWD, starts off with a few questions on women’s rights and gender equality, and then roams the knowledge universe exploring other topical matters.

But not before we talk about the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly some years ago, and UN Women , the newest UN agency established on in July 2010 ‘to lead, support and coordinate the work on gender equality and the empowerment of women at global, regional and country levels’.

Read the full text of Wiz Quiz 8: Half the Sky…

This video is on the YouTube channel of FeelGood, a student-led movement in the US to end world hunger.

Blogging from Resilience 2011: Pathways for Staying Alive in an uncertain world

From 3 to 6 March 2011, I kept blogging from Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Along with a few other participants, I also tweeted from the conference. All our tweets are organised under #Resilience2011

Fred Noronha and I set up a YouTube channel for the conference where we posted short interviews filmed with selected participants. It has close to two dozen short videos, all filmed with a FlipVideo camcorder.

Here are links to all the blog posts I wrote on the conference website (text only as the platform didn’t allow visuals to be displayed easily).

6 March 2011: As the planet warms, we must all become more like bamboo!

6 March 2011: Slow disasters need not apply?

6 March 2011: Go beyond IPCC and SAARC, South Asian climate researchers urged

5 March 2011: Policy challenge to researchers: Summarise, simplify – and talk money!

5 March 2011: Wanted: Better Story Telling!

4 March 2011: ICTs for livelihood resilience: The importance of asking the right questions

4 March 2011: Hash-tagging Resilience2011: Twitter feeds from KL Conference

4 March 2011: Floods not always a disaster. Ask Mekong Delta farmers

3 March 2011: Banging Heads Together (nicely)

3 March 2011: SOS: Small Farmers need urgent help for climate adaptation

3 March 2011: Looking for the Bigger Picture

Resilience 2011: As the planet warms, become more like bamboo!

We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...
We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists,” says a Japanese Proverb.

In these times of climate change, we all need to bear this in mind. It’s not how we resist the battering, but how we pick up again after repeated onslaughts.

Bamboo is an amazingly versatile plant (actually, a grass) with many uses in Asian cultures. We use it for buildings, furniture, outdoor infrastructure, artistic decor and even eat parts of it.

Beyond these utility functions, the bamboo holds a philosophical lesson that the ancient Japanese and Chinese knew very well: its flexibility is its strength. It can bend and move with the wind or water or other element, rather than being rigid, unyielding and ultimately vulnerable to an unexpected jolt and sideways shift.

Bamboo was mentioned several times by Asian researchers and practitioners who came together at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 to 5 March 2011.

Resilience was discussed and interpreted in a number of ways at the conference. But participants broadly agreed that it is the ability of any individual or community or system to absorb external shocks, bounce back and transform or continue to grow.

Such bouncing back, in some climate related situations, could be to alternatives rather than to the original condition. For example, if poorly built structures are damaged in a disaster or extreme weather condition, the recovery could – and should – be to build back better.

Indeed, the bamboo metaphor is widely used in various fields from business management to self-help counseling. See these interesting links for further insights:

Australian Anthill, June 2009: ‘Be the bamboo’: Thinking tips for innovative minds

The Great Work Blog: The wisdom of Bamboo

Resilience 2011: Banging Heads together to make lives better

What does Livelihood Resilience mean to them?

I am at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, being held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 – 5 March 2011. It is jointly organised by Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA), International Development Research Center (IDRC), The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Cordaid and ekgaon technologies

The conference has attracted three dozen researchers, practitioners and policy makers from across the Asia Pacific region, and from different ‘domains’: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and disaster management; Ecosystem services and conservation; and livelihoods and socio-economic development.

I like hobnob with researchers and activists from whom I learn much. As a science and development communicator, I sit through their often very technical discussions and find ways of relating them to the bigger realities. For a start, I created a word map of the keywords being used in the conference. That gives an idea of concerns at a glance.

I then tried to make sense of the conference introduction note, published on the event website. It looks and reads like the work of a committee, and not the easiest to read and absorb unless one is deep immersed in these areas. Since most of us aren’t, I spent an hour or two rewriting it in my own language. Here it is — my version of what Resilience 2011 conference is trying to accomplish:

Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate Asia Regional Conference
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 3 – 5 March 2011
A layman’s interpretation of the vision, scope and aims of the conference

Asia, home to over 60 per cent of all human beings, is the largest and most diverse geographical region in the world. It is also a region of sharp contrasts and disparities in economic and social development.

Some Asian economies have been growing faster than any other on the planet, and even the global recession has not slowed them down too much. This growth has helped push tens of millions of people out of poverty during the past three decades. Yet, Asia still has the largest number of people living in poverty and food insecurity.

In some respects, gains have been lost. For example, the UN Millennium Development Goals Report for 2010 revealed that the proportion of undernourished Asians has increased recently to levels last seen during the 1990s. Two thirds of the world’s undernourished people live in Asia. At the same time, the natural resources on which food supplies depend – land, water and biodiversity – are degrading rapidly. Food shortages and water scarcities are already being experienced, or anticipated, in many countries.

Growing number and intensity of disasters adds further pressures. According to the international disaster database EM DAT, Asia accounted for nearly half (46 per cent) of the all water related disasters in the world, and 90 per cent of all affected people during 1980 to 2006. During this period, disasters in Asia caused a total of US$ 8 billion worth of economic damage. These disasters impacted disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

Climate change impacts will make this situation worse for everyone, and especially for the poor who already have limited options and ability to adjust to rapid changes. It is now clear that all efforts aimed at reducing poverty and protecting the socially vulnerable groups need to factor in the additional pressures created by changing climate.

To cope with these challenges, we need better understand how livelihoods are threatened, and what strategies can be adopted to improve resilience especially at the grassroots. Researchers and practitioners in natural resource management and poverty reduction are now focusing more and more on the nexus between resources, climate changes and livelihoods.

New ways of looking at the inter-linked challenges have emerged:
• Humanitarian aid workers active on disasters now focus on disaster risk reduction, expanding the scope of risk management to include preparedness and risk reduction.
• Development practitioners working on poverty reduction emphasize on increasing access to various capitals to help address disaster risk and poverty.
• A ‘systems approach’ is being used to look at poverty in broader terms of well-being of people and ecosystem services of Nature.

In addition, researchers and activists emphasize the value of freedoms for participation, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, protective security and ecological security. It is only by ensuring these freedoms that the poor will have a meaningful chance to assert their rights and make their own choices in what they do, and how they do it.

The slowly but steadily warming planet challenges everyone to rethink their conceptual frameworks, and redefine or reconfigure how they work. If there is one thing certain about these uncertain and turbulent times, it is business-as-usual won’t do!

What do we seek to achieve?

Each sector has accumulated a knowledge base, set of best practices and lessons learnt exist within individual domains. Each sector’s theories, approaches and actions within various domains differ on how to make livelihoods more resilient, especially in the often harsh realities of the developing world.

They are all necessary, but not sufficient. Taken individually, no single approach or solution can help make everybody’s livelihoods resilient from the multitude of pressures and impacts. Yet, what one strand cannot withstand on its own, a bundle of strands very likely can: bringing different areas of research, advocacy and practice is the way forward to ensuring better resilience at the grassroots.

This is easier said than done. Both researchers and practitioners have long worked in their own silos or compartments, with occasional nods at each other’s work and periodic exchanges. From this, we need to evolve more integrated framework that brings in the ecologists, disaster managers, social scientists and everyone else who share an interest in making lives better at the grassroots and at the bottom of the income pyramid.

The Kuala Lumpur conference attempts to address this formidable challenge. It will provide a common platform to practitioners and researchers from various ‘domains’ related to livelihoods to work out a shared vision on livelihoods resilience by seeking answers to these questions:
• What are the existing challenges to achieving livelihood resilience?
• What are the gaps in existing livelihood frameworks in relation to disaster, climate change adaptation and conservation in addressing livelihood resilience?
• What are the challenges in scaling up pilot models of Livelihood Resilience?
• How does social adaptation occur in resilience building?