Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

On this 30th anniversary of the Web, some teachers still send lessons on WhatsApp

It’s easy to be so enamored by the shiny objects around us –smart speakers, wi-fi door locks, wireless earbuds– and assume that the whole world is connected.

Yesterday, November 12th was a big anniversary of the World Wide Web. 30 years ago to this day Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist suggested in a very academic scientific paper “…a space in which everything could be linked to everything.” This was his third proposal – the original was in 1989. It outlined the concept of hyperlinks, and how browsers, servers and terminals could possibly connect everyone.

But there are many parts of the world, including here in the US, where dead zones exist and the web is almost inaccessible. I remind my students of this often, as they sit in a computer lab and sometimes get impatient when the Wifi drops, or a website doesn’t load.

This morning, I was taking them to Pixabay, and open-source website for copyright-free images, but also for music. The site was blocked. No worries, I said. There are worse things that could happen to you. There are schools where students have to depend on lessons sent to them on thumb drives. In Sri Lanka, I know of teachers who send students lessons on WhatsApp, because the homes don’t have Internet (but a serviceable smart phone with a monthly data plan.) See Hakiem Hanif’s story how a 53 year old teacher is doing it.

So while some of you may be contemplating buying a fancy 5G phone for about the price of a plane ticket to Australia, remember that there are parts of the world where being online is still a luxury.

Purifiers, fiber-optics lines and masks. Welcome back to school!

I was as excited to be back in school as students were, last week. Online, of course. There’s something about a new school year that lifts our spirits, and simultaneously releases those abdominal butterflies. As I stepped out the car in park, strapped on my mask, and grabbed my satchel, I could feel this new normal creep up on me, and broke out into a grin – which no one notices now.

Distance learning is something we must get our arms around, like it or not. I’ve conducted webinars, and workshops online, but this is a whole new animal. (I date myself – in 2010, I taught a series of online classes that included blogging. Well!)

Behind checkered, floral and surgical masks, we go about our business, but it’s a business in a whole new dimension. Lesson plans need to get turned into material that delivered through a Google Classroom platform. These must be ‘chunked,’ linked and  annotated for a student doing it in small time slots, with slow WiFi, on a small screen. Video and audio recordings must be edited and uploaded –not to mention scheduling these moving parts in advance, with due dates and rubrics.

Tech questions arise and get solved on the fly by my colleagues: Could videos be cropped in Screencastify? Is there enough storage capacity on the drive? Why doesn’t PowerPoint let me use audio narration in a Microsoft 365 version? Check this neat way to turn a Google form into a quiz  (and have it grade the responses as well!) These and other issues must be figured out before dozens of Google Meets light up the building.

The week before we began, maintenance crew were crawling through the ceiling adding more lines of fiber optic lines  to support our data-hungry re-launch of distance learning.  We picked up our cameras to get up to speed with video conferencing.  With Bitmojis and bottles of sanitizer we took our positions and opened for business.

Three weeks of it, and still having many aha moments, this new normal is anything but. But as the students log into my ‘Office Hours,’ I am beginning to relax and enjoy being a teacher. I used to say that if I continue to do what I’ve always done each year, the students won’t be learning much. All of us – me and you and that dog named Boo — have collectively hit the reboot button. These lessons will last us a lifetime!

Lilamani Dias-Benson – A legacy of creative ‘infection’

On 11th July, we lost one of Sri Lanka’s premier creative spirits, my former boss and old friend Lilamani Dias-Benson.

There are so many facets of Lilamani, it would take a book to document her work and legacy.  But as many people remember her she infused indefatigable creative energy into advertising from the moment she stepped onto the scene. You could say she metaphorically dominated the room she entered, whether it was an uncomfortable client meeting, a photo-shoot, or a ‘plans-board meeting’ as we called it at JWT.  She would not initially say much but with a few words made everyone reconsider what was at stake. With a  few flourishes of a pencil she would coax you out of your comfort zone and revise the pathetic radio script you brought in on deadline.

I grew up as a cub copywriter at JWT when she took over the reigns in 1986, I believe. For whatever reason my art director friend Rhizvie Saldin and I came under her wing, attending high-powered client briefings, and strategic planning sessions that were above our heads at that time. I was just out of college, and had to bone up on ‘T-Plans’ (the Thompson planning document), and layout theory she made us imbibe late into the evenings. She would cite poetry,  refer to advertising legends such as George Lois, and challenge us to “come to the edge”.

That was a favorite poem of hers that she would quote, ad nauseam. It went:

“Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.”

(I am sure many of you in advertising who passed through her doors have heard her on this.)

I remember Lilamani recite this poem at a JWT creative workshop somewhere in Bentota, and then at a client meeting at John Keells.  She pushed, cajoled, inspired, and delighted everyone around her to recognize creativity, whether they approved of the idea or not.  Unilever meetings were bristly, but we came away with brand managers signing of on creative concepts they rejected a few minutes before! As a boss, she defended our work with a passion. (A perfectionist, if she spotted a tiny spelling error or a layout glitch, we would hear it on our way back to the office!) When I left JWT for studies in England, Lilamani invited me to an Unilever meeting in London, making sure the corporates met someone who worked on their brand. I couldn’t figure out why that was necessary, but in hindsight it was her way of giving me wings.

Lilamani was someone who spoke of something that is oddly relevant for our times – the idea of being ‘infectious‘ long before the tired phrase ‘going viral‘ came into vogue. You can hear her expound on it in that hilarious sitcom episode with Nimmi Harasgama (Aunty Netta)

“Infectious is different to infection,” she explains, because “what I do you catch,” especially something nice. And if I am to paraphrase what she was getting at, she was expounding on how creative ideas circulate, inspire, and return in ways you can never control. This is probably what many of her students experienced, and now continue to spread the Lilamani Dias-Benson brand of creativity whatever they touch.

How could we not. We came. She pushed. We flew.

Facebook employee resignation reveals dark practices

Take a look at this disturbing resignation letter from employee, Timothy Aveni.

He says that “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie” and that he finds “Facebook complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history.”

He says he’s scared for the US because, “social media-fueled division that has gotten people killed in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” 

A few days back I asked my friends (and posted here) if they could justify using this corrupt social network. But don’t take my word – pay attention to this FB employee!

My Mum, Catherine Fernando

A mother seldom reveals parts of her resume. So, there were many sides of my Mum I got to know of by accident.

She was entrepreneurial, a dressmaker in the family otherwise known for Salonpas and pharmaceuticals; a winemaker who ran an underground milk-wine business around Christmas. I once was a part accomplice, printing labels for her limited edition brand, Cathy’s Vineyard. In between these two moonlighting jobs – three, if you considered the cake orders she took – she was a formidable tennis player with a wicked forehand. I’ve seen photographs of her posing with trophies, and heard stories of her in action at the Bandarawela Tennis Club.

My short answer to the question people always asked about how she was so active for so long, was this: The Legion of Mary work she did in the evenings was like her gym membership. If you’ve been up and down a flight of stairs at the Bambalapitiya flats you’d know what I mean. Until a few weeks ago I would be amused at how she would describe her friends at St. Martin’s Home for the Elders as “these old ladies!” many of whom were much younger than her.

Speaking fitness, last year we took her on a train trip to Bandarawela, and in Ella faced with a very steep flight of 90 steps, took it in her stride. If I asked her do Adam’s Peak next year she might have agreed.

Mummy loved my long-winded letters and until a few years ago would write back. Then in June she made it a point to mention that she liked an article I’d written in LMD. “You did?” I asked, perplexed. It was a feature about Facebook. (I tell the publisher that his readership is skewed. Besides CEOs and tech people, nuns at her home, and someone born 65 years before the Web was invented read the publication.) Sometimes an audience of one is all you need, isn’t it?

I’ve met many people who had stories of my Mum’s quiet power and influence. She had a sense of humor, and was an incurable optimist. She ended many phone conversations saying how blessed she was to have so many friends and relatives around her, and more than anything else, thanked God for her good health. “I’m getting more forgetful,” she would tell me, but in the same sentence recall details about Nadia and Aaron, or Tanu’s fruit trees. If she forgot anything it was forgetting to keep grudges, and forgetting to complain. 

So, it’s hard to sum up someone who’s been a dressmaker, cake maker, winemaker, homemaker, devout Catholic, tennis player, a wonderful mother, aunt, grandparent and friend to many. Oh she was also a member of what we called the BBC, that three-part team of sisters Bridget, Beta and Catherine. They dominated the Bharatha channel so many of you tuned into. On Saturday August 24th, the last small powerful voice on the BBC went off the air. 

My brother Tilak and I, and her dear brother Ben will miss her very much. We thank all those who connected with her, and supported her over the years.

Easter Sadness, Sri Lanka. Our faith will rise again.

It’s Easter. Which started out on a wrong note –a hope of the resurrection clouded by sadness. If there is any consolation for us who grieve, it is knowing that many Christians who had watched the gentle sparks kindle an Easter flame saw the face of Jesus that morning. Confronting the message of the empty tomb this week are the mass graves with tiny caskets. Children, mummys and daddys, uncles, aunts and grandparents gone too soon. The images are too raw to process. The cruelty too grotesque.

At this moment, we must weep together, forgive together, and spiritually hold up each other. How else to confront the unspeakable actions of a few? Our collective pain from a scab that healed ten years ago has resurfaced. For now, we grieve. Later –weeks, months? –we will untwist those hateful ideologies, and move past our suspicions. We must trust again. 

We come from an island in which hospitality, inter-faith harmony, and inner joy are a default lifestyle. But this week we cannot hide our tears. After the crucifixion came resurrection. I know our faith, and those departed souls, will rise again.

‘Energy Impact’ challenge at First Global Robotics

The biggest international robotics event starts this week in Mexico City, and will run from the 16th to the 18th August. Sri Lanka’s team was featured on the home page of First Global this week.

This year’s theme for 2018 is “Energy Impact. This means the robots must work in collaboration, working in three teams (three random nations are picked for each round) to create environmentally friendly solutions in the contest environment.

The larger purpose is to let students from countries with different world views, understand what it takes to work together as alliances.

When I spoke to the team a few days ago they seemed very confident of the maneuvers and demands for this year’s challenge, involving fuel cubes, power lines, solar arrays, and wind turbines. It’s been months or preparation, though each match is just two and a half minutes long!

Team Lanka at Robotics Olympics in Mexico this week

Last July, our team went to to the kickoff  Robotics tournament in DC.

This year, the team’s expanded to include students from other schools in the country.

  • Students: Cong, Daniel, Felix, Hamza, Lasith, Navod, Sachin, Sherwin, and Syanthan.
  • Coaches: Shankar, Jekhan, Dilum, and Srimali

This is one impressive gathering of 170 nations. It is hosted by the ‘FIRST’ organization, which is the umbrella organization that holds 5 other robotics tournaments around the country, such as FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics for grades K-4, 4-8, 7 – 9, and 9-12 respectively.

I’ve worked with FIRST for the past 6 years, and met Dean Kamen, the founder, who’s one of the biggest STEM promoters I’ve ever known. He puts his money where his mouth is, a serial entrepreneur and educator who inspires youth across all ages. If you like to know how to get your school involved in robotics, or STEM, let me know.

 

S.T.E.M, skyscrapers and suicidal Tuk-tuks

One month isn’t enough in Sri Lanka!