Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 29 April 2012
As I lie awake in the wee hours of the morning struggling to breathe, I remember Saneeya Hussain.
And when I see yet another road accident on our increasingly mean streets, I think of Sachitra Silva.
It is now seven years since both these lives were snuffed out, on opposite sides of the planet, within a couple of weeks. The shock and grief have subsided; the memories linger.
I knew and worked with both these committed journalists. I connect their premature deaths to the inter-related urban scourges of our own making that are now running amok: crazy traffic and fouled air.
Saneeya was an ebullient, passionate journalist who blazed new trails in empathetic media coverage of social, political and development issues – initially in her native Pakistan, and then at South Asian…
Taking Sri Lanka as the example, I raise some basic concerns that go beyond the individual incident, and address fundamentals of disaster early warning and information management in the Internet age.
I ask: Was the tsunami warning and coastal evacuation on April 11 justified in Sri Lanka? I argue that this needs careful, dispassionate analysis in the coming weeks. ‘Better safe than sorry’ might work the first few times, but let us remember the cry-wolf syndrome. False alarms and evacuation orders can reduce public trust and cooperation over time.
Five years ago, on a visit to the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii, I played an interesting simulation game: setting off an undersea earthquake and deciding whether or not to issue a tsunami warning to the many countries in and around the Pacific.
The volunteer-run museum, based in ‘the tsunami capital of the world’, engages visitors on the science, history and sociology of tsunamis. The exhibits are mostly mechanical or use basic electronic displays, but the messages are carefully thought out.
The game allowed me to imagine being Director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC), a US government scientific facility in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, where geophysicists monitor seismic activity round the clock. When the magnitude exceeds 7.5, its epicentre is located and a tsunami watch is set up. Then, combining the seismic, sea level and historical data, PTWC decides if it should be upped to a warning.
The museum game allows players to choose one of three locations where an earthquake happens — Alaska, Chile or Japan — and also decide on its magnitude from 6.0 to 8.5 on the Richter Scale.
This is an instance where scientists must quickly process large volumes of information and add their own judgement to the mix. With rapid onset hazards like tsunamis, every second counts. Delays or inaction can be costly — but false alarms don’t come cheap either.
I played the game thrice, and erring on the side of caution, issued a local (Hawaiian) evacuation every time. If it were for real, that would have caused chaos and cost the islanders a lot of money.
In fact, those who make decisions on tsunami alerts or warnings have to take many factors into account – including safety, economic impact and even political fall-out.
After playing the simulation game, I can better appreciate the predicament government officials who shoulder this responsibility. They walk a tight rope, balancing short-term public safety and long term public trust in the entire early warning system.
Taking Sri Lanka as the example, but sometimes referring to how other Indian Ocean rim countries reacted to the same situation, I raise some basic concerns that go beyond this individual incident, and address fundamentals of disaster early warning and information management in the Internet age.
Another except: “So was the tsunami warning and coastal evacuation on April 11 justified? This needs careful, dispassionate analysis in the coming weeks. ‘Better safe than sorry’ might work the first few times, but let us remember the cry-wolf syndrome. False alarms and evacuation orders can reduce public trust and cooperation over time.”
In particular, I focus on nurturing public trust — which I call the ‘lubricant’ that can help move the wheels of law and order, as well as public safety, in the right direction.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 22 April 2012
To warn or not to warn — that was the question. On 11 April 2012, following a powerful undersea earthquake, government officials in many Indian Ocean rim countries agonised over this.
The 8.6 magnitude quake occurred at 8.38 UTC (14:08 Sri Lanka Time), 440 km southwest of Banda Aceh in Indonesia and 33 km beneath the ocean floor. That was relatively close to the location from where the devastating tsunami originated on Boxing Day 2004.
Earthquakes can’t be predicted, but once detected, they require rapid assessment and decision making, especially in maritime countries in case of a tsunami.
On 20 April 2012, we marked seven years since Saneeya Hussain left us. Journalist and activist Saneeya suffered a needless and tragic death at when she ran out of fresh air in South Asia and was caught up in the urban traffic congestion of Sao Paulo.
This short feature was published in The Sunday Times(Sri Lanka) of 15 April 2012. However, for some reason, their web edition didn’t include it.
From Ceylon with Love: Tea for the Titanic?
by Nalaka Gunawardene
Many consider the 1958 British movie A Night to Remember as the most authentic Titanic film of all time. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, it was based on the 1955 book of the same name by Walter Lord, and made in consultation with many survivors.
One scene unfolds inside the turbine engine room soon after the crew realised their ship was doomed. The chief engineer discusses how to keep the lights going for as long as possible. “I’ll give the word when it’s time to go — and then it’s every man for himself,” he says.
His deputy tries to calm down the crewmen: “If any of you feel like praying, you’d better go ahead. The rest of you can join me for a cup of tea!”
Even in such dire circumstances, the quintessentially British habit kept them going. But what kind of tea was served on board the Titanic? Did some of it come from Ceylon? That is plausible, given the cosmopolitan nature of the floating city and diverse tastes of its wealthy passengers.
Harney & Sons Fine Teas, a tea blender in New York, recently launched RMS Titanic Tea Blend as “a commemorative tea to honour the 100th anniversary of those who perished when the Titanic sank”. Their website says: “Reflecting the quality of tea that was served on the Titanic, this blend includes Chinese Keemun, one of the last teas the British still consumed in 1912, as Britain had mostly switched to black teas from Assam, India and Ceylon.” (see http://tiny.cc/TiTea for more).
Perhaps an aficionado of tea could dig (dive?) deep for evidence. Interestingly, Sir Arthur C Clarke once wrote a science fiction thriller where Ceylon Tea was indeed on board the Titanic — albeit for a different purpose.
In his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks — where British-American and Japanese teams are competing to raise the wreck in time for the centenary — he imagined how crates of Ceylon Tea were used as the perfect packing material for precious and fragile cargo.
“The Chinese had discovered centuries ago that their wares could travel safely the length of the Silk Road if they were packed in tea leaves. No one found anything better until polystyrene foam came along,” he wrote.
In Clarke’s story, which culminates in 2012, a wealthy English aristocrat travelling first class had carried exquisite glassware – Medici Goblets from Venice – packed in standard 80-pound Ceylon Tea chests. Nearly a century later, his great-grandson uses deep remote operating vehicles (ROVs) to recover some from the bottom of the Atlantic.
Clarke describes the first item that came up: “The chest still displayed, in stencilled lettering unfaded after a century in the abyss, a somewhat baffling inscription: BROKEN ORANGE PECKOE, UPPER GLENNCAIRN ESTATE, MATAKELLE.”
Despite journeying across (most of) the Atlantic and then sinking four kilometres to the bottom of the sea, the glassware is found intact – thanks to the ship’s designers or the tea producers (or both)…
Clarke was well known for plugging his adopted homeland whenever possible in his writing, public speaking and global TV shows. ‘Addicted’ to the brew, he once called himself a ‘machine that turned fine Ceylon Tea into science fiction’.
In his novel’s acknowledgements, Clarke highlights another link between the Titanic and Ceylon, this time for real. William MacQuitty (1905 – 2004), the Belfast-born writer, photographer and filmmaker who produced A Night to Remember, had been based in Ceylon in the 1930s working for the Standard Chartered Bank. He returned to the island in 1954 to produce Beachcomber, a British movie that was partly shot on location here.
Having drawn much inspiration and insights from A Night to Remember, Clarke dedicated his own novel as follows: “For my old friend Bill MacQuitty – who, as a boy, witnessed the launch of RMS Titanic, and, forty-five years later, sank her for the second time.”
That was the – not very original – slogan I coined 30 years ago as a school boy to promote and popularise kola kenda, the Lankan version of herbal porridge.
I’ve always been an ardent eater of green leaves and veggies (isn’t everybody?). So I didn’t need any special persuasion to drink kola kenda.
Most of my peers didn’t share this enthusiasm. They didn’t mind the taste, but the whole thing seemed too old fashioned. Self-respecting teenagers shouldn’t be seen drinking a favourite of their grandparents, they argued.
As often happened, I disagreed. Not only did I take delight in partaking my kola kenda, but also kept trying to convince my peers that, hey, kola kenda was cool.
First I tried the rational, evidence-based approach. I found out as much as I could about kola kenda and distilled it into a few non-technical, non-preachy lines. I wrote about in our school magazine, spoke about it at the school assembly, and seized every other opportunity to plug the green stuff.
I must have been around 15 or 16 years old at the time, but even then, I realised kola kenda had an image problem. So — following the golden advice, “Don’t just sit there; do something!” — I tried to improve it.
I abbreviated kola kenda to KK. I designed a stylish logo for it, independent of any corporate branding. Adapting a popular tag-line for Coca Cola at the time, I even came up with the slogan, “Have a KK – and a smile!”
None of this really worked; after six months, I gave up being the kola kenda evangelist. But that campaign earned me an inevitable nickname: kola-kendaya.
I was proud of it then as I’m now.
Years later, when I started running my own household, I realized making kola kenda is a tedious process. So, despite being a life-long kola-kendaya, I don’t make it too often.
I’m all for modernising traditional recipes: retaining the nutrition and taste, while reducing the drudgery. That’s just what CBL have done. It comes in five flavours too: gotukola, welpenela, haathawariya, karapincha and mixed herbs.
At LKR 50 (less than US$ 50 cents) per pack of 3 servings, it’s good value for money.
I’m now working on my resident teenager to try it sometime. She’s not yet convinced. I’m hoping that this 21st Century Girl would prove smarter than those ignorant boys who turned their backs to KK 30 years ago…
Writing the Foreword to the book on ‘Communicating Disasters‘ that I co-edited in 2007, Sir Arthur C Clarke said: “I was born five years after the biggest maritime disaster the world had known: the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic while on her maiden voyage. My home town Minehead, in Somerset, was not more than a couple of hundred kilometres from Southampton, from where the Titanic set off. All my life, I have been intrigued by the Titanic disaster.”
The Titanic — whose wreck not discovered at the time — made a cameo appearance in his 1976 novel, Imperial Earth. For the Quincentennial of the United States, the wreck is raised and carried to New York.
But he continued to be haunted by the mighty ship (as did, and do, many others). He finally had to write a whole novel to exorcise it from his mind.
One day in early 1989, Sir Arthur asked me: “Does ‘Ghost from the Grand Banks’ mean anything to you?”
It didn’t — but that wasn’t surprising as I’d been raised on the other side of the planet, in an entirely different generation.
The Grand Banks of Newfoundland are a group of underwater plateaus southeast of Newfoundland on the North American continental shelf. The cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream here — making it one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
It is also close to where the Titanic sank on the night of 14/15 April 1912, and has served as the launching point of various shipwreck expeditions.
That heralded the genesis of an entirely new Arthur C Clarke novel. For me, it was the beginning of an exhilarating journey across space and time, supporting the creative process of one of the finest science fiction writers of the 20th Century.
I was working as Sir Arthur’s research assistant at the time, two years into my fascinating association with the late author (which lasted 21 years).
Over the next few months, I was to research and/or cross-check all sorts of records, data and other nuggets of information, which Sir Arthur — the master weaver of narratives — then worked into an entirely new novel.
The novel, published in late 1990 as The Ghost from the Grand Banks, was an ocean-based thriller set in the (then) near future. It revolved around rival British-American and Japanese teams trying to raise the legendary ship’s wreck in time for the centenary in 2012. Both teams mobilise mega-bucks and cutting edge technology: while one team relies on 50 billion little glass balls, the other’s ambitious plan involves making the world’s largest ice cube…
Two weeks before the centenary of the Titanic‘s maiden voyage – and its tragic sinking – I re-read the novel. On the information society front, at least, I found that The Ghost from the Grand Banks stands up remarkably well in 2012.
Living as we do at the time when his story culminated, we can now compare Sir Arthur’s ‘extrapolations of the future’ – he carefully avoided labelling any of his ideas as ‘predictions’ – with what has become our reality.
Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 15 April 2012
Exactly one hundred years ago today, RMS Titanic — the world’s largest passenger ship — sank on her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage.
Several worlds collided on that night of 14/15 April 1912, with results that shook and horrified the world. Its reverberations are felt even today, a century later, and its lessons are still valid.
When the floating city disappeared in the open seas off Newfoundland, Canada, humanity’s technological grandiosity was literally reduced to debris. The Titanic disaster has been attributed to many factors, among them overconfidence of its designers, builders and operators.
For example, J Bruce Ismay, director of the White Star Line that owned the passenger liner, had argued that carrying the full complement of lifeboats was unnecessary: after all, the ship was ‘unsinkable’!
How and where do you begin to tell the story of the biggest peace-time disaster at sea in modern times — where only 24 people survived and more than 4,000 perished within an hour or two?
That was the challenge that my Filipino filmmaker friend Baby Ruth Villarama and her colleagues faced, when they made an hour-long documentary, Asia’s Titanic, which National Geographic TV broadcast in mid 2009.
Former television journalist and now an independent TV producer, Baby Ruth Villarama specialises in story research and documentary producing. Runs her own production company, Voyage Film, based in Manila but active across Asia.
A few days ago, I asked Ruth for her own memories and reflections. This is what she shared with me, in her own words — the moving story behind the moving images creation:
With the Doña Paz story, sharing their memories was the most difficult part of covering it as the tragedy is something they’d rather not talk about – and, if possible, forget.
I spent a year ‘off-the-record’ understanding the holes in their memories. I felt I had to retrace the steps of these 4,000 souls and learn the relationship of man and the sea.
They’ve lost their children, parents and comrades on Christmas eve over a sea mishap – drowning and burning in the quiet water. We can only imagine the pain they went through.
The tragedy is the peak of memory they have left of their loved ones too, so every Christmas, some relatives of the dead gather together to live the lives their loved ones would have wanted to continue.
I joined that gathering for about three Christmases in between my research efforts. It was then that I began to understand the rabbit holes in each one of them — and the rabbit hole I had in me for not knowing my mother personally.
We started sharing pains and the “what-could-have-beens” of those lost memories. That was the connection they were looking for: to be able to speak of the pain to a stranger, or worst, to a group of filmmakers who would broadcast their story to millions of households around the globe.
This documentary was initiated not just to tell their story but to attempt to fill a hole of justice to the many casualties and their families.
It was through them that we were able to speak to the remaining living survivors. We became part of that annual gathering. Despite the requirements of the studio and my director to deliver deadlines, we tried my best to balance their readiness to speak. Good thing NatGeo was willing to wait 3 – 5 years in the timeline…
I remember visiting a survivor in his sleepy town in the province of Samar sometime in 2005. He owns a small sari-sari (convenient) store then. He said that it took him a year to speak again after the tragedy — and another year before he could eat properly because he couldn’t swallow soups and liquids right.
He never really set foot outside his island again – always fearing for fire and water, including the air as he vividly remembers how it added fume to the fire on that fateful night at sea.
After a while, he started talking about the details of that trip. He stopped, wept and couldn’t carry on anymore. He couldn’t breathe and seemingly battled against the air.
A huge part of me personally felt wrong seeing him again but I know that if we do not tell this story, no one will — and the world will just forget about this huge ‘mistake’ in navigational history.
I’d like to think that the impact of the story outside the Philippines is to remind the world fact that Titanic is not the worst maritime disaster — that somewhere in South East Asia, there was a small ship that killed more than 4,000 lives. It created maritime talks in international forums and the fact that accidents in this magnitude didn’t occur anymore — I think people are more careful now.
It’s a shame that Doña Paz was not as celebrated as the Titanic. One big difference between the Titanic and Doña Paz, aside from its route and technical specifications, is the status of passengers.
The Titanic carried a large number of wealthy westerners. Those who boarded the Doña Paz were mostly average Filipinos — no names, no status in society, even in their own country.