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!

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!

Robotics Team to represent Sri Lanka in Mexico

If you’ve been following my robotics coverage here, I am happy to report on this year’s Team Sri Lanka, who will represent the country at the second Robotics Olympics. The event will be in August, in Mexico City.

I met with the team coaches in Colombo in mid June to find out how they have been progressing. They have been building the robot from the kit they received from First Global, under guidance of a engineer and IT teacher, Shankar. His expertise is in CAD design and he seems excited –though unfazed! — about his students who must build a robust competition-worthy robot.

At the time of writing they are working on a lift mechanism –a so-called ‘cantilever lift’ mechanism — that will allow the bot to move objects to the area that earns them maximum points.

In case you’re wondering, here’s what last years Robotics Team looked like.

Bandarawela, a hideaway too often misunderstood

Don’t believe Lonely Planet. Don’t look at the once-sleepy up-country tea-trading town of Bandarawela only as a place overtaken by tuk-tuks and buses. That’s just one part of a town that’s outgrown it’s status as a hub for tennis tournaments, a wholesale vegetable trading route, and where some of the finest tea comes home to roost.

The Bandarawela I know is still in tact, if you care to look. The quiet three-mile walk past old churches, convents, and a haunted house. The breathtaking switch back (in these parts we call them ‘hairpin bends’) up to Pilkinton Point. A quick dip in the waterfall on the way to Diyatalawa, and so much more.

Reading, stagnant. But book fairs are on the rise!

Reading among students in the US has been stagnant for the past 20 years – according to a recent NAEP study. An expert quoted in the article (how reading is good for the brain) says schools are too focused on reading for comprehension, while not focusing enough on vocabulary and background knowledge about what’s being read. See my related post on adult reading that also seems to be in steep decline. Pew Research tracks reading trends. A recent survey of 2,002 adults, ages 18 and older, showed this.

Oddly enough, book sales are doing somewhat better now in the US (according to Publisher’s Weekly). Meanwhile, 12 time zones away in Sri Lanka, huge, week-long Book Fairs like this, and this are on the rise.

A report by Roar Media: https://roar.media/english/

A report by Roar Media: https://roar.media/english/

 

 

Future Inventors – My LMD article on Team Sri lanka

SRI LANKA AT THE ROBOTICS OLYMPICS

BY Angelo Fernando

 

A short walk from the White House, the steps leading up to a neoclassical building where Robin Williams once performed spill over with teenagers in bright yellow and blue T-shirts. Using screwdrivers and wire, they are feverishly fixing their robots. It’s only 15 minutes before Round 1 of the two-day competition held in July – a global event drawing 163 teams from 157 countries.

The humidity in Washington D.C. hovers around 90 percent and Team Sri Lanka’s four students are sweating bullets. Huddled in a basement, and parked between Senegal and Sudan, their 20-wheel steel robot needs some repair work.

Why? The bot they had built in a classroom (so secretive was the project, they called the room ‘Area 52’) arrived with a warped axle and damaged omni wheels. The motor failed too, which is not an uncommon problem among teams here. In a few minutes, they must have their 23-kilogramme robot working. It is the ‘Olympics,’ after all…

Link to full article here.

Published in the Sept issue of LMD Magazine.

Two weeks to Robotics Olympics! Team Sri Lanka gears up

Yesterday I spoke to Sri Lanka’s four-member team making the final tweaks to their robot, with hundreds of moving parts including 8 motors, 4 sensors, 4 servos, and some pretty fancy wheels. (This was them, 2 weeks ago.)

These are A-Level students, with the grit and passion you’d expect from college kids. They’ve mastered the programming software Blockly. They tell me they redo some parts of the design, just to be sure. In two weeks, they pack it all up and head to DC.

Today I also spoke to Joe Sestak, president of FIRST Global, and he told me how impressed he was by this team which is so committed, despite getting the robot kit a few weeks later than most other country teams.

I wish them the best!

 

If only schools can be like this!

I just interviewed Kris Canekeratne, CEO of Virtusa, a 20,000-strong global business consulting and IT outsourcing company headquartered in Massachusetts. Among the many strands we talked about, I was fascinated by his take on learning, and how schools ought to be the ‘ignition’ for curiosity.

“Students have an innate proclivity to curiosity,” he says – no different how engineers are inherently curious, with problem-solving and design thinking as part of their skill set. If only we could design schools to be the spark plugs of knowledge! It’s time we began exposing students to Big Data, Nanotech, AI, user experience, and gamification, he says, instead of teaching them how to memorize material just to pass exams.

To this end, here’s an example of design-thinking class at a Charter School in Berkeley, California.