#AskLW Twitter Q&A on 19 June 2013: Asking was easy; getting answers was not…

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.31.53 PM Courtesy Groundviews.org

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.31.53 PM Courtesy Groundviews.org

Along with dozens of tweeps, I took part in an interesting Twitter Q&A session with Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, which unfolded from 14:30 to 16:00 Sri Lanka Time on 19 June 2013.

Our questions were posed using the hashtag #AskLW: they are all displayed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/search/realtime?q=%23askLW While most were in English, some came in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil too.

Groundviews.org, the citizen journalism website, has archived online 2,680+ tweets related to this exchange. Of these, some 1,140 are original tweets (posted since 14 June 2013, when #askLW was first announced) while others are retweets.

Twitter user @gopiharan created a bundle of tweets Lalith Weeratunga answered in the one and a half hours of the Q&A session.

As Groundviews.org noted, “There was no historical precedent for this kind of engagement over social media, especially for someone so high up in Government and in daily contact with the (Lankan) President.”

Commenting on the timing of this exchange, Groundviews editor Sanjana added: “Ironically, the announcement of the Twitter Q&A with Weeratunga came on the same day Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, in a spark of unrivalled genius, called social media no less than a national security threat in post-war Sri Lanka.”

Sanjana has done a quick and very good analysis of what was asked, which selected few among many were actually answered, and which topics gained traction among those participating – especially during the period the event was live.

Even more interesting is how contentious and controversial topics were completely ignored. To be sure, Weeratunga isn’t the first public official to do so, and some might even argue that he had the right to choose his questions. (That won’t have been so easy in a physical press conference.)

All the same, it is highly revealing that the top public servant in Sri Lanka chose not to respond to questions on Islamphobia, Buddhist extremism, hate speech, militarisation, human rights and other topics of great public interest in today’s Sri Lanka.

It’s remarkable that such questions were posed, in a public platform, which is more than what the mainstream media (MSM) of Sri Lanka regularly ask at official press conferences given by senior government officials. From all accounts, the monthly breakfast meetings that the President has with newspaper editors is also a lame affair where no critical questions are raised.

Yes, MSM and citizen journalists are not directly comparable. In the prevailing intolerant environment, it is telling that many social media users took cover under pseudonyms to pose questions to the top civil servant of Lanka (while the rest of us asked under our own names). There was even speculation among some tweeps about what might happen to those who ask pesky questions…

In this post, I want to collate and briefly annotate my own questions to Weeratunga – all of which he chose not to answer. I’m not surprised and certainly not sulky: these were admittedly not as easy as some others.

I posed a few questions in advance, and then some more during the live event. They were in one way or another related to the multiple positions that Weeratunga holds in the Lankan government.

Among other things, he is Chairman of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka is also the current Chair of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Committee of UNESCAP – the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

One question stemmed from Weeratunga’s meaningful speech at the fifth National Conference on the Role of ICT in Reconciliation held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) in Colombo in Nov 2012.

Not answered.

I also asked a question on the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which has outlived its original lifespan and whose efficacy is in question.

Not answered. See also my 2006 critique, ICT: Hypes and realities

Commenting on the very different – sometimes contradictory – messages given out by senior elected and other public officials of the Lankan government on matters of domestic and global interest, I asked:

Not answered. But then, I didn’t expect one! To his credit, Weeratunga has been the mild, amiable and intelligent face of the government…

Picking up my lasting interesting seeing a secular state in Sri Lanka, I posed this question:

Not answered.

When the live exchange started, and some tweets were asking him on all sorts of specific interventions, I tweeted this reminder to fellow tweeps:

Not quite heeded – but I didn’t expect it either.

Weeratunga, who does not yet have his own Twitter account, gave his selected answers using the President’s official account, @PresRajapaksa. This was noted by others, and I replied to one:

Many tweeps asked him to comment on the Defence Secretary’s recent remark on social media. Having noted, only minutes earlier, that “Social Media is a powerful tool”, Weeratunga added later: “Sec/Defence has a point; since it has been used for destructive purposes elsewhere, he has said so.”

Some tweeps reacted to this observation among ourselves. My contribution:

Knowing well Lankans don’t like to be compared to Indians, who nevertheless hold many lessons for us in managing diversity and in balancing modernity with tradition, I asked:

Not answered — but elicited some supportive replies from other tweeps.

As Weeratunga and team was slow in responding to the torrent of tweets coming in, I remarked:

As I noticed how easy questions were being answered while a whole lot of hard ones were not, I decided to press on with what seemed like a lost cause:

Not answered. (Well, after all, this wasn’t Hard Talk!).

Prompted by @Groundviews, there was a brief exchange on Sri Lanka’s fully state owned budget airline Mihin, which has been losing billions of public funds from Day One. I reacted:

I’ve described myself as a hybrid journalist with ‘one foot in each grave’ — straddling the worlds of mainstream media and citizen journalism. In years of mainstream journalism — practised in Sri Lanka and across Asia — I have sharpened the art of asking pointed questions. I often ask more questions than I find answers for. So this is part of that process.

But I’m very glad all our questions are archived online — which is highly significant as part of the public record of our times. When Weeratunga next speaks about ICTs nationally or internationally, this digital record will be part of his legacy.

For now, many thanks to Weeratunga and @PresRajapaksa new media team for having organised this event. It’s a good start, and hopefully they will repeat this from time to time with improved capability at their end to cope with the info flood…

My last tweet in this exchange was a salute to the original cyber politician of Sri Lanka:

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Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

Communicating Disasters: ZiF Conference in Bielefeld

How do we cope with a warming planet while living in an increasingly WikiLeakable world? Exactly one year ago, I explored this in my talk given at the University of Colombo during the LEAF Conference.

As I reflected then: “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.”

I returned to this theme and explored it further this week when giving a keynote address at the Bielefeld University in Germany. I was participating in their international and inter-disciplinary conference on “Dealing with the Disaster of Others”, 26-28 January 2012. The conference was the culmination of a year-long research project on this theme carried out at the University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF).

I also built on ideas initially discussed in my 2007 book, Communicating Disasters, which was part of the reference material used during th ZiF research project.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at ZiF Conference on Communicating Disasters, Bielefeld, Germany: 27 Jan 2012

Here’s the Summary (Abstract) of my talk. PowerPoint slides below.

Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science Writer, Blogger & Columnist; Director – TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)

Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. The increased volume and flow of information, enabled by the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), fills some gaps — but not all. Other critical elements such as institution building, training and awareness raising are needed at all levels to create societies that are better informed and prepared.

The news media, driven by their quest for what is new, true and interesting, can be useful allies for disaster managers. But the nexus between these two groups has always been contentious, and the acceleration of the news cycle has made it more so. Having to sustain 24/7 coverage for their fragmented and distracted audiences places enormous pressures on news media to break news first — and reflect later. In this scenario, how can empathetic, ethical and balanced reporting happen?

As disasters increase in frequency and intensity partly due to climate change, mainstream media practitioners across Asia struggle to keep up. Disasters are more drawn out (e.g. Pakistan floods, 2010 & Thailand floods, 2011), geographically scattered (Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004) and economically devastating (Tohoku/Fukushima, 2011) than before. This stretches the capacities and resources of many news organisations. Saturation coverage of unfolding disasters can also cause ‘compassion fatigue’ and apathy in audiences.

In today’s networked society, news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt ICT tools and platforms. What does this mean for communicating disasters that requires care and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media to better serve the public interest on a warming planet? What value-additions can the mainstream media still offer to the coverage of disasters near and far?

We examine these and other larger questions with reference to recent disasters in Asia.

Here’s the PPT:

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

Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke

Word map created using http://www.wordle.net

“In the struggle for freedom of information, technology — not politics — will be the ultimate decider.”

These words, by Sir Arthur C Clarke, have been cited in recent days and weeks in many debates surrounding WikiLeaks, secrecy and the public’s right to know.

I invoke these words, and many related reflections by the late author and futurist, in a 2,250-word essay I have just written. Titled Living in the Global Glass House, it is presented in the form of an Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke. It has just been published by Groundviews.org

This is my own attempt to make sense of the international controversy – and confusion – surrounding WikiLeaks. Taking off from the current concerns, I also look at what it means for individuals, corporations and governments to live in the Age of Transparency that has resulted from the Information Society we’ve been building for years.

Sir Arthur foresaw these developments year or decades ago, and wrote perceptively and sometimes in cautionary terms about how we can cope with these developments. As a research assistant and occasional co-author to Sir Arthur from 1987 to 2008, I had the rare privilege of sharing his views firsthand. In this essay, I distill some of the best and most timely for wider dissemination. The above Wordle graphic illustrates the keywords in my essay.

The essay was also prompted by recent experiences. Here’s that story behind the story:

By happy coincidence, I arrived in London on 28 November 2010, the very day the WikiLeaks Cablegate erupted all over the web, beginning to spill out what would eventually be over 250,000 secret international ‘cables’ within the US diplomatic corps.

The Guardian UK that day published an interactive map-based visualization of the leaks. By moving the mouse over the map, readers can find key stories and a selection of original documents by country, subject or people

During the week I spent in London, I experienced not only uncharacteristically early and intense snow storms, but a mounting international storm on the web over the leaked cables. WikiLeaks’ co-founder and chief editor Julian Assange was also somewhere in the UK, playing cat and mouse at the time with the Swedish police and Interpol. (He later turned himself in to the British authorities.)

Sir Arthur Clarke: The legacy continues...

On December 1, the British Interplanetary Society invited me to join their annual Christmas get-together where they were remembering their founder member and past chairman Arthur C Clarke. They talked mostly about the man’s contribution to space exploration, but listening to those fond memories against the wider backdrop of WikiLeaks very likely inspired me to write this essay.

Soon after I returned to Colombo, Transparency International Sri Lanka asked me to speak at a workshop on the right to information they had organised for journalists. Given my reputation as a geek-watcher and commentator on the Information Society, they asked to talk about what WikiLeaks means for investigative journalism. Two days later, the Ravaya newspaper did a lengthy interview with me on the same topic which they have just published in their issue for 19 December 2010.

All these elements and experiences combined in writing this essay. Being confined to home by a nasty cold and cough also helped! In fact, on 16 December when Sir Arthur’s 93rd Birth Anniversary was marked, I was too weak to even step out of the house to visit his gravesite. In the end, I finished writing this Open Letter to him on the evening of that day.

My daughter Dhara and I would normally have taken flowers to Sir Arthur’s grave on his birth anniversary. This year, instead, I offer him 2,250 words in his memory. The fine writer would surely appreciate this tribute from a small-time wordsmith.

Read Living in the Global Glass House: An Open Letter to Sir Arthur C Clarke


Compact version published in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, on 21 Dec 2010

Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms

Ray Wijewardene on the set of 'Sri Lanka 2048' TV show, June 2008: Cautiously optimistic about the future...

The small farmers, buffaloes and earthworms all over the world lost a true friend and spokesman this week when Lankan scientist Ray Wijewardene passed away.

Ray packed multiple interests and pursuits into his 86 years of life – including engineering, building and flying light aircraft, and Olympic-level competitive sailing. But he was happiest being a farmer and mechanic, and had strong opinions on the subject. He was vocal about misguided priorities in tropical farming his native Sri Lanka – and across the developing world.

He was especially passionate when speaking about small farmers in the developing world, with whom he worked many years of his international career as an expert on tropical farming systems.

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, and with impeccable technical credentials, he was no stranger to the ways of academia. But he remained a sceptic about the efficacy and benefits of agricultural research — on which hundreds of millions of development funding is invested every year.

The main problem with agricultural research, he used to say, is that those who engaged in such studies and experimentation didn’t have to rely on farming for their sustenance. There was not enough self interest. In contrast, the small farmer had to eke out a meagre existence from whatever land, water and seeds or livestock she had. In her case — and a majority of small farmers around the world today are indeed women — it’s a stark choice of innovate or perish.

Thai researchers and farmers looking for field solutions (from Living Labs TV series)

The heroic efforts of small farmers were rarely recognised by the rest of humanity who consume their produce — and the farmers themselves are too busy planting crops or raising animals to speak on their own behalf. This is where Ray Wijewardene came in: with his education, exposure and talent, he made an outstanding spokesman for small farmers all over the tropics.

In the 1960s, as the inventor and promoter of the world’s first two-wheeled (Land Master) tractor, Ray travelled all over Asia, Africa and Latin America working with tropical farmers.

For half a century, Ray has championed the lot of the small farmer at national, regional and global levels with UN agencies, academic and research groups, corporate sector and governments. But in later years, he questioned the wisdom of trying to mechanise tropical farming, and considered that phase of his career a ‘big mistake’. He dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture, on which he co-wrote an authoritative book in 1984.

Ray had the rare ability to ask piercing questions without antagonizing his audiences. He was an activist in the true sense of the word, but one whose opinions were well informed and grounded in reality, not rhetoric.

This comes through very powerfully in an extensive media interview I did with Ray in 1995, which I released online this week as a tribute to Ray — who has been my mentor and friend for almost 25 years.

At the outset, Ray points out where the Green Revolutionists went astray: “All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximizing yields through massive inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields!”

We then talked about the particular challenges faced in tropical farming, and the mismatch of temperate farming systems promoted widely in the tropics where climatic and soil conditions are different. One of Ray’s main concerns was agriculture’s profligate use of water – more for weed control than to meet the strict biological needs of crop plants themselves!

Ray, a grandmaster in summing up complex technical issues in colourful terms, said at the time: “Water is rapidly becoming the most expensive herbicide in the world — and freshwater is increasingly scarce!” [A decade later, I would go on to script and executive produce a global TV series called Living Labs on just this issue: how to grow more food with less water, or get more crop per drop.]

Ray wasn’t fundamentally opposed to external, chemical inputs to boost soil fertility but he advocated a mix of natural and synthetic options. In our interview, he asked: “We have multinational companies supporting — directly or indirectly — the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm?”

He then added: “For us in Asia, these elements are far more important. Indians have recognized this, but we still haven’t. As long as our agricultural scientists are trained in the western mould of high external input agriculture, this (mindset) won’t change. Cow-dung and earthworms won’t stand a chance – until some western academic suddenly ‘re-discovers’ them…

It was Indian science writer and environmentalist Anil Agarwal who asked me, sometime in mid 1995, to interview Ray for Down to Earth, the science and environmental fortnightly magazine published by his Centre for Science and Environment. As Anil told me, “In Ray, you have not only one of the topmost agricultural experts in the developing world but one of its most original thinkers.”

By this time, I’d known Ray for almost a decade, and been exposed to several of his multiple facets. But each encounter with Ray was enriching for me, so I immediately seized the opportunity. The usually media-shy Ray already knew of and respected Anil, which helped.

Down to Earth is part of Anil Agarwal's legacy

The interview was audio taped over two long sessions, and I remember spending many hours transcribing it. I had to check some references with Ray, who cooperated wonderfully. I’ve been trained to observe the word limit set by editors, but in this instance, I sent in the full length Q&A, for it was so interesting. Down to Earth issue for 31 October 1995 carried a compact version, skillfully distilling the essence of that long exchange between Ray and myself — one of the most memorable interviews among hundreds I’ve done during 25 years of work in print and broadcast media.

How I wish the exchange was also preserved on audio tape! Indeed, it’s a small miracle that the original transcript survived for 15 years. The soft copy was lost in a hard drive crash of 1998, but fortunately I’d taken a full print-out. I’m grateful to a former colleague, Buddhini Ekanayake, for retyping the entire interview in mid 2008 when I considered releasing it in the wake of the global food crisis. That somehow didn’t work out, but the soft copy was ready at hand for me to rush to the editor of Groundviews on the day of Ray’s funeral. All I added was a new, 500-word introduction which tried to sum up the Ray Wijewardene phenomenon.

Read the full length interview with Ray Wijewardene, published for the first time, on Groundviews.org:
Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung?

Ray Wijewardene: Finally free to roam the skies forever…

Ray Wijewardene: Freed from gravity, at last!

I went straight from a paddy field, where I was filming much of the morning, to the funeral of my mentor and friend Ray Wijewardene early afternoon at the General Cemetery Colombo.

Ray would have approved: despite being a high flyer in every sense of that phrase, he had his feet firmly on the ground — and sometimes in the mud. He was fond of saying, “Agriculture is my bread and butter, while aviation is the jam on top of it”.

Dr Philip Revatha (Ray) Wijewardene, who passed away on August 18 aged 86, was an accomplished engineer, aviator, inventor, Olympian and a public intellectual of the highest calibre. He was also one of the most practical and down to earth people I’ve known.

He preferred to introduce himself as a farmer and mechanic ‘who still got his hands dirty’. Perhaps that’s how he wanted to be remembered — but each one of us will carry our own vivid memories of this colourful, jovial and altogether remarkable human being.

I’ve already written a quick introduction about Ray for Groundviews.org, which has published a long interview I did with Ray 15 years ago, originally for an Indian science magazine. That exchange is a reminder of the imaginative thinker, life-long experimenter and outspoken scientist that Ray always was.

Read Who Speaks for Small Farmers, Earthworms and Cow Dung? The late Ray Wijewardene in conversation with Nalaka Gunawardene

Story behind the story explained in later blog post: Ray Wijewardene: Passionate voice for small farmers and earthworms

I’ll be writing more about Ray Wijewardene in the coming weeks, exploring his many different facets. I’ve known and walked alongside him for almost a quarter century. For now, I’ll remember him for one facet that I didn’t share despite many offers and invitations: flying.

per ardua ad astra...

Ray just loved to fly. Most humans share this age old dream, but Ray wasn’t contented just being flown around on commercial jets — which to him were merely large, sealed up cylinders. He far preferred the small, propeller-driven aircraft – single or twin seaters that gave their passengers a true sense flying and a real taste of the sky.

Looking back, it was quite apt that I first met Ray at the Ratmalana Airport, just south of Colombo, from where he took off and landed hundreds of times over the decades. One sunny morning in mid 1986, he took time off from his flying to talk to a group of high school leavers who were participating in the first Science for Youth programme. It exposed us to various (then) modern technologies over six consecutive weekends. Much of the knowledge we gained has long been obsolete, but its inspirational value was timeless….and continues to propel me forward.

Much of that inspiration came from Ray Wijewardene, who talked to us – with lots of practical demonstrations – about problem solving and innovations in three areas close to his heart: energy, agriculture and transport. I remember how he was experimenting with improvements to the humble bicycle at the time, so that riders could optimise performance with modest efforts.

He also talked about growing our food and energy. But it was his flying experience that most fascinated us starry-eyed youngsters. As a pilot, Ray was licensed to fly three kinds of flying machines: fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. But this pilot was flying not only factory-fitted, mass-manufactured units. He also experimented with building and flying his own ultra-light aircraft and helicopters – he was particularly interested in building amphibious small planes that could land on, and take off from, Sri Lanka’s numerous inland lakes and reservoirs.

All this and more made Ray a journalist’s dream, but as I soon found out, he wasn’t an easy subject to cover! In 1988, The Island newspaper asked me to interview Ray and write an article about the dream and reality of flying. He happily talked with me for two hours — yet, in the end, didn’t want his name mentioned in print. For all his accomplishments and outspoken views, Ray was completely publicity shy. He didn’t mind his views being reported, but with little or no mention of the source.

It’s the song that matters, not the singer, he said — and I heartily disagreed. I pointed out that we journalists needed to attribute wherever possible for greater credibility of what we write (I didn’t tell him that we also love good news-makers: the more informed and opinionated they are, the better!). This became a running argument that Ray and I had for two decades. Within a few years, he trusted me enough to talk to me on the record. But what he said off the record was always more interesting…

When he was approaching 75, Ray told me how nervous he was when he had to go for renewals of his pilot’s license. In the end, it wasn’t age that ended his flying career: along with everyone else, he was ‘grounded’ when private flying was first restricted and then banned during the latter years of Sri Lanka’s long-drawn war.

During the 1990s, Ray had repeatedly invited me to share a flight on one of his home-built light planes. He assured me they were perfectly safe — among satisfied customers was Prof Cyril Ponnamperuma, one time science advisor to the President of Sri Lanka and an internationally renowned biochemist. (Ray did acknowledge that he’d crash landed his various planes thrice — and each time, he lived to tell the tale. He believed that test flying one’s own aircraft designs quickly eliminated bad designers!)

I kept deferring my own tryst with the open skies and was too preoccupied with earthly matters — and suddenly, it was too late. By the time Sri Lanka’s war ended in May 2009, Ray’s flying days were over (and our skies are not yet fully free for private domestic aviation).

Gravity, bureaucracy and age may have conspired to keep Ray confined to the ground in the last few years of his life — but only just. His spirit soared even when the body wasn’t allowed to: in all my years and encounters with him, I’ve never seen him ‘down’ (concerned and reflective, yes; depressed, no).

A lone spirit, on a long journey....

That passion, enthusiasm and spirit of adventure characterised Ray and influenced everything he did, on the ground and in the air. Born in the 1920s and raised as part of the first generation of humans for whom private flying was available, he was infected with the ‘flying bug’ in the same way that American author and aviator Richard Bach was. In fact, Ray knew Bach and was a devoted fan of the latter’s books, especially Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Perhaps Ray saw himself in Jonathan: a seagull tired of the monotonous life in his clan. He rather experiments with new – always more daring – flying techniques…which means he must fly solo most of the time, and confront the travails of life on his own.

Ray wasn’t a loner (to the contrary, he was very much a team player in everything he did). But sometimes he was racing ahead of us – or just flying at a higher altitude. Although I’ve never heard him say it, perhaps this unattributed quote partly explains the phenomenon: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

What Ray did quote, frequently, were these words of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

It was entirely fitting that a grand daughter would recite the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a favourite verse among aviators and, more recently, astronauts.

High Flight
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

On returning from the simple yet moving funeral, I tweeted:
No longer a prisoner of gravity: sky-lover, pilot & light aircraft builder Ray Wijewardene blasted off heavenwards. Farewell, high flyer!


20 Aug 2010: A Lankan pilot’s tribute to his mentor: Happy Landings, Sir! by Suren Ratwatte

FIFA World Cup 2010: Media Conquering Planet Football!

Most Earthlings have just spent a month on this!

“If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose July 11. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance.

“Today, most members of the Earth’s dominant species – the nearly 7 billion humans – will be preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. It’s only a game, really, but what a game: the whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the FIFA World Cup Final.

“Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this was much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.”

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, which appears in several print and online outlets this weekend. It’s timed for the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2010 – the most widely followed sporting event in the world, which will be played in Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa today, 11 July 2010. The Netherlands will meet Spain in this culmination of international football that has been distracting a good part of humanity for a month.

This sporting event is tipped to be the most-watched television event in history. Hundreds of broadcasters are transmitting the World Cup to a cumulative TV audience that FIFA estimates to reach more than 26 billion people. Some TV channels offer high definition (HD) or 3-D quality images to enhance the mass viewing experience.

The essay was written a few days ago, after the FIFA World Cup 2010 had reached the semi-finals stage. To be honest, I’m not an ardent football fan. But as an observer of popular culture, I’ve gladly allowed myself to be caught up in the current football frenzy. I just love to watch people who watch the game…

It’s a light piece written to suit the current global mood, but I acknowledge that the World Cup is really more than just a ball game. The basic thrust of my essay is to comment on the powerful mix of fooball and live coverage: “For the past month, the winning formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.”

The Times of India, 11 July 2010: Planet Football: Sports unites a fragmented humanity

The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 11 July 2010: Conquering Planet Football

Groundviews.org: Beam Me Up to Planet Football

United Colours of Football, courtesy FIFA

The essay builds on themes that I’ve already explored on this blog – for example, how President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby championship to unite his racially divided nation, as told in the movie Invictus.

I also touch on FIFA being a wielder of formidable soft power in the world today, arguably more influential than the United Nations.

Here’s my parting thought, on which I invite reader comment: “On second thoughts, those invading aliens don’t need to worry too much about the Earth’s political leaders or their armies. Without firing a single shot, the globalised media have quietly taken over our Global Village — and now it’s too late to resist! We can argue on its merits and demerits, but the facts are indisputable.”