University in my pocket

From Takshashila to MOOC

daya dissanayaka

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced a new non-profit partnership, edX, to offer free online courses. MOOC, Massive Open Online Courses are already available from Stanford, Princeton, Michigen-Ann Arbour and Penn under the project Coursera (www.coursera.org), "changing the face of education globally", to "learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students." Harvard Metadata Project provides open access in order to support learning and research, to disseminate knowledge and to foster innovation.

We have come a long way across 3200 years, from Takshashila (Taxila) which has been dated back to the 10th century B.C. to Corusera in the 21st century. We had the Platonic Academy and Aristotles Peripatetic school in Greece, Taixue in China from the pre-Christian period, and later Nalanda in India, Academy of Gundishpur in Persia and Daigakuryo in Japan.

Most of the ancient universities were founded for the teachings of great religious leaders or philosophers. But none of these great leaders had gained their own knowledge at any educational institutions or universities. Even in more recent years, some people achieved greatness and served mankind in spite of what they had learned at their universities.

Takshasila, Nalanda, Vallabhi and Vickramashila were well known for their excellence in education and had attracted students even from China. Each teacher was an institution by himself and enjoyed complete autonomy. UNESCO mentions the claim that the Mahabharata was first recited at Taxila. Valabhi was beside a sea port, attracting many overseas students and did not limit their courses to Theravada Buddhism, but offered studies in the Veda and courses for businessmen and the ruling classes. They offered Niti (Political Science), Varta (Business and agriculture), also law, economics and accountancy.

At Vikramashila at one time there had been one hundred and eight buildings, all laid out in the shape of a lotus to accommodate several thousand students and teachers. There were six 'Patashala' each with a learned scholar as the head of the acharyas.

We are able to put together what the university life had been in ancient India mainly through the descriptions by the visiting Chinese monks.

In ancient times often education was on a one to one basis, specially at institutions like Nalanda, while at Vikramashila lectures were held for large groups of students. Today we are back with both systems, with on-line learning. We can have our one-to-one education, through our own computer, even though the teacher would be addressing all his students spread around the globe.

A few decades back the ambition of most parents was to have their children obtain a university degree. Then the Rat Race among mankind led them to seek further education and higher qualifications. Twenty years ago, an Indian friend told me about his son doing an MBA and added, "I have only a degree". This craze has spread to our country too, as we can see on weekends where many young and not so young people attend post graduate classes.

There was a recent news item about a 91 year old Australian who obtained a degree in law followed by a master's at 97. He has already got four degrees, starting with his first degree in dentistry 72 years ago. He claims he did it because "I have so much time on my hands these days and I like to keep mentally active"

He has got into the Guinness records, and it is a harmless way to be mentally active. There are many who have an "insatiable itch" to keep on studying, keep on adding degrees after their names, for whatever reason. It could be that some of them want to prove to themselves that they are intelligent, that they are capable of facing educational and academic challenges, to show that they are way above the 'hoi polloi'. Or it could be that they hope to 'advance their carriers', and to gain social and economic stature.

Throughout our entire lifetime, we keep learning. Our knowledge and experience we gather from the university of life itself. We learn so we could improve our own life and be of benefit to the rest of the world, and we share our knowledge with others around us and teach the younger generation.

Jayanta Bhatta (9th cent) Kashmiri poet and philosopher had written, "How can we discover any new fact or truth? One should consider novelty only in rephrasing the oldest truths of the ancients in modern terminology". (Nyaya-manjari, Introduction vs 8. K Matilal, Nyayavaisesika). What we learn, what we know, what we discover are nothing new. We only learn what exists in our universe. This knowledge belongs to all mankind, and all other intelligent creatures. We cannot have a monopoly on knowledge, it is our duty to share it with everyone, and pass it down to the next generation.

Education was free in ancient times, but not free for everyone. There were many social, economic and religious barriers. Admission was also not easy. Major universities conducted an 'Entrance examination', to test the knowledge of the applicant and also to assess his intelligence and his commitment. It was because of limitations of facilities and funds. Today sky is the limit.

The day is coming when there will be free education for all, and we can carry our university in our pocket, along with libraries and museums, all on a tablet pc or even on our phone.

June 1, 2012, 2:04 a.m. » Tagged: MOOC , on-line university , Takshashila

literate chauvinism

literate chauvinism

daya dissanayake

"The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read", wrote Mark Twain. Yet the man who can read but does not, considers himself superior to someone who cannot read. That is Literate Chauvinism, which extends to Linguistic Chauvinism, when "my language is superior to yours", and onto Cultural Chauvinism.

Chauvinism, after the mythical French soldier Nicholas Chauvin, means prejudiced belief or unreasoning pride in any group to which one belongs.

We cultivate our chauvinist ideas from our very young days. In our days, classes were grouped according to the students "abilities" and the kids in class "A", would always look down on those in class "C", and then in grade nine, only the kids who get "good" marks are selected to do 'science', others are dumped into the 'arts' stream, and chauvinism continued. When it comes to exam results and sports "our school is better than yours".

"Our school is THE school", was the theme in Sundara Nihahamani de Mel's 'Mahinde Tamai Iskole', launched last week. There was not even standing room at the Sri Lanka Foundation auditorium. Most of those present were proud Mahindians, proud of their 'Alma Mater', and the children produced by her. There were also a large number of Old Boys and Old Girls from other schools, who did not agree with Sundara and with the other Mahindians present and the discussion arranged as a school debate 'Mahinda Vs. other schools'. Proposed by Dr. Nihal Somaratne and opposed by Prof. Sunanda Mahendra (Ananda), Prof. Dhammika Ganganath Dissanayake (Dharmaraja), Ms. Sumana Saparamadu (Vishaka), Dr. Ariyasena U. Gamage (Richmond), Saman Wickramarachchi (Central Colleges), Saman Athavudahetti (Royal). Chauvinism disguised as nostalgia, 'going down memory lane'.

This is Literate chauvinism, and Sundara has planted a new virus in the minds of all other literates from other schools. 'Mahinde Tamai Iskole' could lead to a plethora of 'Ape Tamai Iskole' to try to establish the superiority of one's own school, and also tempted by possible demand for such books among their school chauvinists, another golden opportunity for publishers.

It is literate chauvinism, which makes us feel so superior to a farmer in a remote village who has to place his thumb print because he does not know how to sign his name. Superior to a child who had his education in a village school, or even a Maha Vidyalaya. Superior to a person with just a high school education, or only a bachelor's degree. Superior to a person who had not read Kafka and Sartre and Plato. While others show their superiority by dropping names like Coelho and Allende and Murakami.

Would the chauvinist who parades his 'Honorary' doctorate and insists on been addressed as 'Doctor', be considered a 'Literate' or a 'Pseudo-literate'? We should admire and respect the real literates who still prefer to use the title Mr. instead of Dr. even though they have earned the title the hard way, who have not been touched by the chauvinist virus. When Somapala, a seagenarian farmer in a remote southern village, who had dropped out of school in grade one, writes a novella, we have to accept him as a literate too.

Like the Male Chauvinist, who lives in a dream world believing he is superior to women, all forms of chauvinistic behavior is a disillusion created by man's own ego. Literacy is really nothing to be proud of. The pre-historic man who did his symbolic paintings in his cave were able to express with a few lines, what would take a thousand words for us to convey now. But still we think of them as "primitive", as "barbarian", as "subhuman", even though they would have been more intelligent, more capable and would have had superior memory capacity.

These pre-literate humans had a memory capacity far greater than all the capacity available in today's computers. They had to store all their data in their brain and process them and store the processed knowledge in their own brains, and also be able to pass it on to the next generation. They did not have digital storage devices, or cloud storage facilities, or backups.

The ancient Vedic scholars, who were caste chauvinists perhaps did not bother to develop writing, because once written, the knowledge could be acquired by those of other castes. All orally transmitted knowledge could be easily restricted on a real 'Need to Know' basis. Illiteracy was the 'firewall' they used to protect their knowledge.

Even among the literate, a 'hyperliterate' group emerged, mainly among the elite and the religious institutions and they used the most elaborate language possible in the religious writings, to keep them out of reach of the less literate. Chauvinism takes many forms among mankind.

Some of us feel superior because we have mastered the 'white man's language' and anyone who does not speak English is a semi-literate. In multilingual countries, those who believe their language is superior to that of others, would look down on the other languages used in their country. They would also look down on the 'link language', which often happens to be English, thus taking chauvinism to create greater conflict.

Mel Gussow said about V. S. Naipaul in the New York Times, "..he has bitter feelings ...India is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned, England is intellectually and culturally bankrupt".

If 'male chauvinists' are 'pigs' what do we call all other chauvinists?

May 23, 2012, 1:54 a.m. » Tagged: chauvinism , literacy

culture in my pocket

Museums in my pocket

daya dissanayake

Google has partnered with the Israel Museum to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls and make them available online. These scrolls, dating back to the time of the birth of Christianity, had to be locked up in the museum due to their fragility. Till now only a few scholars and archaeologists were allowed to handle them, because they are almost turning into dust. Now they can be seen and studied by everyone, even on their mobile phones, without causing any harm to the original scrolls.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as: "A non-profitmaking, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment. "

The museums are "open to the public" only for limited hours a day, on limited days of the week, and only at the fixed locations. To see all the artefacts on display in all these museums, man would have to spend a lifetime and all his earnings to travel from country to country, city to city, and still would not be able to see all of them. Some objects would be locked away under high security, or lent to other museums on the day of his visit.

The word museum has come from the Greek word mouseion, 'Seat of the Muses', meant as a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation. Based on this view the oldest museum was the Museum of Alexandria founded by the Macedonian General and Biographer under Alexander, Ptolemy I Soter (367-282 B.C.) Alexandrian Museum was more of a library, and so was the building where inscriptions were housed in Mesopotamia in the 6th Cent. B.C.

The modern concept of the museum where cultural objects are housed could have originated from the time man settled down from a nomadic life to a permanent settled domestic life, when he began to collect objects of interest. He now had a place to keep them and pass onto his children. As inequality spread wider, those who had the power and the means, could enlarge their own collections, borrowing, buying and stealing from the less fortunate.

This trend continues even now, and it was practiced unashamedly during the occupation of the more civilized countries by the invaders from Europe. Today, if the western countries are to return all the items which they stole from the other countries, perhaps they would not have anything worth displaying. That is the pathetic situation where scholars from Sri Lanka and India have to go to the

London museum to research on our own history.

We should be able to study all the historic documents and cultural objects housed in the London Museum, seated at our own desk at home, and at no cost, or at the cost of the internet connection.

The situation is changing. It is only now that museums can be really open to the public, round the clock, round the year, with the rapid advancement of digital technology, communication facilities and the interest created among people to learn not only about their cultures, but also about the history and culture of other people around them.

Augmented Reality (AR) is another technology now catching up with Museums. Inside museums, a visitor can already “handle” objects via their iPads and smart- phones or see dinosaurs prancing through the gallery. Outside, they can use GPS-enabled devices to recognize their location and then populate a Civil War battlefield with video of 're-enactors', or perhaps compare the street view in front of their eyes with a 19th-century version drawn from historic photos in a museum’s collection. The disadvantage is that what we see and experience will be what someone else imagined, which may be very far from what had really happened in the past.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation online collection contains more than 800 artworks by over 300 artists from the Guggenheim’s overall permanent collection of over 7,000 artworks, and they keep adding. The University of California Museum of Paleontology already offers online access to their programs on the history of life on earth. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which went online in 1995, was opened in 1683 as the Ashmolean Museum, a gift from Elias Ashmole. The Future Museum is already here with the launching of the Museum with No Frontiers in 1995.

In the near future we would be able to access online all our ancient inscriptions and Sigiri Grafitti, to be read and studied by anyone anywhere on earth.

When all the objects on display in museums and all the descriptions are online, for worldwide access, geographical, political and social barriers would disappear. Several museums, including the Smithsonian, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the British Museum, have established positions for “Wikipedians in Residence.” The Wikipedians push museum data and images into the Wikipedia universe, as well as soliciting and managing content from the wiki-editing crowd. They are using 'crowdsourcing', to provide more and better service to the crowds themselves. This will soon spread to other museums, till someday all the museums will merge into one huge cultural center in the clouds. Then we could have all the museums in our pocket, the same way we would have our libraries.

Let us hope that our children should be able to visit, observe, study and learn all they want about our history, our past achievements and mistakes, on their tablets or mobiles.

May 18, 2012, 1:19 a.m. » Tagged: culture , museum

all roads bring garbage

All Roads Lead to Eco-destruction

Creative Placemaking has come to Nuwara Eliya, brining vast improvements to the town, specially around Lake Gregory and all roads did lead to Nuwara Eliya, this 'season' too. The little town was bursting at its seams. A cultural tradition inherited from the 'White masters', is one more battle of nature vs. culture, a battle which nature is always losing.

What a crowd! A crowd of so many different kinds who had zeroed in on Nuwara Eliya. There were the regulars, who always came to this 'Little England', to 'escape the heat', 'because servants had gone home for the new year', 'because we have always come to Nuwara Eliya in April', 'to enjoy the cool climate', 'for the motor races'.

There are those who come to Nuwara Eliya because they have heard it is the most beautiful place in the country. We tell this to our foreign tourists. What we do not tell them is that our hill country would have been one of the most beautiful places on earth, before the forests were cleared to plant tea. When we have a whole country that is really as beautiful as Nuwara Eliya, why do we all have to converge on this small town, is a question that always come to my mind.

We also have visitors who come to Nuwara Eliya because everyone else comes here for the season, and they feel left out. Those who come here to get away from the city and the people they meet day in and day out, end up with the same crowd here at the hotels and restaurants and the race track.

There were those who stayed in the most expensive hotels, who had arrived in the latest luxury vehicles. Others who rented the holiday homes scattered around the town, or had booked other hotels months ahead, and still others who arrive without any planning and go around looking for rooms.

We meet people who talk of our cultural heritage, but who have ignored the New Year cultural procedures to 'enjoy' Nuwara Eliya. Priorities keep changing. It it the way of life. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. Anithya.

All of them contribute to the worst pollution of the town, some of which cause permanent damage and the town would take the next eleven months to recover from the lesser damage. If only our visitors could realize that we should make every effort to keep whatever is left of the natural beauty of ancient times, and we should not do anything to cause further damage. This is the kind of place where we should not even leave footprints.

We have seen and heard so much of the positive aspects of the Nuwara Eliya Season, but unless we try to look at the negative side today, tomorrow there would not be a Nuwara Eliya for all roads to lead to. Even this year, most visitors felt the effects of all the environmental damage we have been causing. There was so much rain during the season, when everybody expected sunny weather, where they could see all the flowers in bloom, around the hotels, home gardens and at Hakkgala. They had hoped to let the children play in the park and walk around the town.

Very soon instead of fire places and room heaters, hotel rooms would require air-conditioning. Instead of winter clothes, people would need light summer clothes, ice cream would be in greater demand than hot tea.

Worldwide weather patterns have changed, and will continue to change, and all because of the selfish greedy acts by man, a little of which we can observe at Nuwara Eliya during the season. Like the 'flap of the butterfly', the changes we cause here, could affect the climate at the other end of earth.

Some of the damage could be easily prevented. The scattering of garbage, polythene food wrappings, left over food, empty bottles and cans, need not happen. Yet it happens. People are not concerned. Even if we deploy all the Environment Police force of the country in Nuwara Eliya we could not stop it. There has to be awareness and the willingness, and also the support of the local authorities. There were very few garbage bins on the roads, and if people did not have a place to dispose of their garbage, many would not bother to keep them in their vehicle till they found a dump.

The influx of tourists, both foreign and domestic, creates a demand for more rooms, more restaurants, more entertainment. All this means more construction, in a town with limited land availability. Construction means clearing more land, more virgin forest cover. The buildings need more timber, meaning more trees to be felled, and more sand to be collected from rivers and tanks. Most of these buildings open during long weekends and school vacation periods, and would be closed up for the rest of the year.

The way this town is built, there is no room for the expansion of the road network, unless by pulling down the historic buildings, uprooting all the trees and leveling off hillocks. Then it will no longer be 'Little Englnad', but 'What used to be little England'. Till then we are leaving a huge carbon footprint. We are doing permanent damage by contributing to global warming. The roads are so congested, parking space is so limited, all the vehicles stranded for hours in traffic jams. It is worse than the city at peak times.

One more crime we can prevent is the torture of the poor animals, with human beasts riding on them. Their backs had not evolved to carry other beasts on them, and not to walk on asphalt and concrete amid the dust and the noise. Even if a child could be carried on their backs, how could adults who are perhaps heavier than the creature they are riding on, consider it fun. If we do not teach our children to love plants and animals, how could they learn to love their fellow humans when they grow up?

All this is not to discourage people from visiting Nuwara Eliya during the season. April is the best time for the visit, and the most convenient because of the school vacations and New Year holidays. Let us think about all these issues over the next eleven months, so that 2013 season could be more enjoyable, more 'fun' and also more eco-friendly.

And let us not limit ourselves to Nuwara Eliya. We have beautiful beaches, over 2800 km of coastline. Then there are 21 National Parks, and over 70 bird sanctuaries, and 427 bird species. We have 51 waterfalls which are over 10 meters in height. The wonder we can see on a moonlit night or in the evening from the Parakrama Samudra, Minneriya or Tissamaharama could always match anything we could see in Nuwara Eliya.

Where ever we go, let us also keep in mind, that all this natural beauty does not belong to us. It belongs to all living creatures, and is for the benefit of all, and that we do not have any legal or moral right to harm it in anyway. Let us respect Mother Earth as we respect our own Mother.

May 16, 2012, 11:53 p.m. » Tagged: eco-system , holiday season , Nuwara Eliya

Melville's woman

The Draft of a Draft

"White Killer Whale Adult spotted for the first time in wild". On April 23rd, BBC reported a sighting of a white whale, off the coast of eastern Russia. The article concludes, "The most famous white whale, though, is the fictional sperm whale that drove Captain Ahab to his eventual fatal fury in Moby Dick".

'Killer' whales are not known to kill human beings, except when they are kept in captivity. Just like our elephants, the whales have no reason to kill people unless provoked. Whales belong to the dolphin family. They are known to be intelligent and very social, and use vocalization to communicate with each other.

Captain Ahab was after a Sperm Whale, the largest toothed mammal in the world. It was named Sperm whale, because of whalers mistaken belief that the wax found inside the head of the whale was coagulated sperm. Sperm whales were murdered indiscriminately to collect this wax to be used in manufacture of candles and cosmetic creams.

Such a sperm whale was 'Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific'. Described as a monster by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, because the whale attacked boats and ships. But it was the human monsters who had compelled the whale to attack his enemies in self-defense. When finally Mocha Dick was killed to yield "one hundred barrels of clear oil, with a proportionate quantity of head-matter" the killers also found more than twenty rusted harpoons on his back, showing how many times man had failed to destroy this majestic creature, and how much the whale had suffered.

Herman Melville probably got the idea for Moby Dick from 'Mocha Dick'. Nathaniel Hawthorne had encouraged him to change 'Moby Dick' from a story full of details about whaling, into an allegorical novel.

Sena Jeter Naslund, based her novel about Una, wife of Capt. Ahab in Moby Dick. "But do you know me? Una? You have shipped long with me in the boat that is this book. Let me assure you and tell you that I know you, even something of your pain and joy, for you are much like me. The contract of writing and reading requires that we know each other. Did you know that I try on your mask from time to time? I become a reader, too, reading over what I have just written" (Ahab's Wife p. 145).

Naslund's Una begins the story, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last", a famous first-line to match Melville's "Call me Ishmael".

150 years after Moby Dick, perhaps Naslund is trying to hit back at Melville who had written to a female acquaintance that Moby Dick was not the kind of book for a woman. What he could have meant was that he aimed it more at men who were slaying whales and destroying nature in other dastardly ways. Stacy D'erasmo, in the New York Times wrote that Naslund is pursuing Melville, "...it may well turn out to be Melville's worst nightmare. 'Moby Dick' rewritten by a woman..". The nightmare would be because Naslund blurs the message Melville was trying to give us.

Melville does not let Ahab kill Moby Dick. He uses the story to remind us that man will never be able to defeat or conquer nature. Ahab is warned once, but he ignores the warning, and with typical human arrogance is determined to seek revenge. Ahab was not concerned about how many lives he has to sacrifice in his blind pursuit.

'Ahab's Wife' was an immediate success, getting into best-seller lists, while 'Moby Dick' had sold only 3000 copies in Melville's lifetime. Once again proving that not all great books become instant best sellers.

Was Una's adventure as a cabin boy on a whaler an attempt by Naslund to relive Melville's own adventure abroad a whaler, to describe the horrible scene. Yet Naslund could not empathize with Moby Dick and all innocent creatures exploited by man. Her book is full of irrelevant incidents and descriptions, spread over 600 pages, which overshadows the cruelty. The greatness of a book is not measured by its length.

There have been attempts to compare Ahab and Una with Adam and Eve, that Naslund created Ahab's Wife from the few lines written by Melville, which is compared to Adam's rib. Melville doesn't even give her a name, just calls her girl-wife. Others considered Ahab's Wife as feminist, but it is feminism that has missed something very important, that nature itself is feminine. Cannibalism and incest would never have been in Melville's mind when he wrote 'Moby Dick'. Naslund characters do not remind us of Adam and Eve, but of Cinyras (Thesis) and his daughter Myrrha and their incestuous relationship, in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Melville let only Ishmael be saved, out of all the inhuman whalers, so he could carry this message to the world, and then Naslund got him to be Una's last husband.

Towards the end of the book, Ishmael tells Una,"My whole book is but a draft - nay, but the draft of a draft", and Una feels the same about her story. Perhaps we can say that about 'Ahab's Wife' and 'Moby Dick' too, that like all fiction and other creative works, it is the reader and the art lover who finishes them, the way they wish them to be.

That is why on this Wesak week, when we are thinking of Loving Kindness and love and compassion towards all living things, we should read Moby Dick again, to finish it the way we wish it to be, to understand the cruel barbaric nature of civilized man, and to learn from such weakness, how we could live in harmony with nature, without hurting or harming anyone. There are a few good things we can still learn from the West.

May 2, 2012, 1:45 a.m. » Tagged: ahab's wife , moby dick

tsunami threat

eco-enemy and tsunami

daya dissanayake

"Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" was the title suggested by Philip Merilees to Edward Lorenz for a talk Lorenz was to present to the American Association for the Advancment of Science in 1972. The story goes, that Lorenz heard a meteorologist say "one flap of a seagull's wings could change the course of weather forever".

It is not that the seagull or the butterfly could change the weather or the climate, but just shows how a small initial condition could result in major changes.

The 8.7 Mwp earthquake off the West coast of Northern Sumatra on April 11th, 2012, brings our attention to the possibilities of when and where a butterfly had flapped its wings to bring about the earthquake and the tsunami threat.

A little over a month ago, on 3rd March, on 'The Climate Desk', Bill McGuire of The Guardian, wrote "The idea that a changing climate can persuade the ground to shake, volcanoes to rumble, and tsunamis to crash on to unsuspecting coastlines seems, at first, to be bordering on the insane." McGuire goes on to show that it really happens, that the atmosphere, the oceans, and the solid earth, intertwine and interact.

We ignore that this solid earth we stand on, is just a thin crust, the tectonic plates that move and shift and grind. Mother Earth could be writhing in pain, or growling in anger, and once again the fleas on a dog comes to my mind. When the dog cannot bare the flea bites any longer, he would violently shake his body, as if to throw the fleas off. Or he would scratch himself, or jump into a river. Sometimes the dog owner would use a chemical to kill all the fleas.

We look at all changes in our world one at a time, piecemeal, and we refuse to look at the big picture. We refuse to accept the warnings by the Cassandras. Perhaps we should think of our Mother Earth as a living entity, as Gaia, "The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts...[Gaia can be defined] as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback of cybernetic systems which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet." - (Dr James Lovelock - Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth)

According to those who supported this hypothesis, Gaia has continuity with the past back to the origin of life and extends into the future as long as life persists. This idea was put forth when man was familiar only with his own tiny planet and had no idea about the rest of the universe. The idea could be extended to the entire universe. May be there is more than one universe, the Multiverse, as we can call it.

Six years ago, James Lovelock had claimed that Mother Earth, or Gaia as he preferred to call her, was seriously ill, and her condition was getting worse, and it is worsening minute by minute. In such a situation Gaia could be sending us these warnings, one after the other, but we are too blind to see them, or too arrogant to accept them as warnings. She warned us in 2004 with the Indian ocean tsunami, 2008 Sichuan earthquake, 2010 Icelandic volcano and 2011 Japan tsunami, which are just a few of them. Gaia has shown that nothing man-made can withstand her fury.

Even in the name of saving Mother Earth, in protecting our environment, we continue to abuse our fragile eco-system. We organize conferences in 5-star hotels about how to reduce global warming, we fly thousands of kilometers to meet and discuss how to cut down emissions, while we could do all this from our homes, or offices, at our desk, without burning any fossil fuel, without destroying trees to publish the papers discussed at these gatherings. We should make use of technology, communication facilities and our commitment to save our planet, to minimise the carbon footprint we leave from our eco-friendly activities too.

In reality, those who come out as eco-friends could be far more dangerous than real eco-enemies among mankind. We protect ourselves and out Mother earth from known enemies, but when they come in the guise of friends, we are helpless and powerless. One such example is all the talk and actions for what is called 'Sustainable Development'. If by the term 'Sustainable' we mean a 'sustainable environment' and 'Development' means 'material development' then the terms are contradictory. All material and cultural development, progress of civilization, science and technology, always means destruction. Destruction of our natural surroundings and our natural resources. The only way 'Development' can be 'Sustainable' is if we consider our spiritual and humane Development, devoid of desire, greed and envy.

If we can accept that Mother earth is a living entity, then all we have to do is give her our loving kindness, practice ahimsa, try to treat her as our own mother. Then we will think twice, before doing anything that would hurt our mother, or her children. Her children are our brothers and sisters. We are all one family, all the human beings, all the animals from elephants to ants, and all the plant life from Vanaspathi trees to algae.

Like the proverbial cock who believed that the sun rises in the morning to hear it crow, we believe that the whole multiverse has been created for our benefit, for our exclusive use. We also believe that our intelligence and our technology combined can outdo nature and that we are today more powerful than God. It is that belief that gives us Dutch courage to defy nature, defy Mother Earth, defy God.

April 29, 2012, 2:15 p.m. » Tagged: climate change , earthquakes , tsunami

Say No to rotting flesh

Say NO to Rotten Flesh

daya dissanayake

This is Wesak. The day symbolizing Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment and Nirvana. Today is a day we could contemplate on Ahimsa, and why there should be a need for the rotting flesh of animals and fish in our diet, which leads to direct or indirect violation of the First Precept.

A recent myth promoted by meat vendors in our country is that Buddhism does not say anything against eating meat, but only about killing animals. But animals are killed because other people eat them. It is not just the killing, the meat eaters are responsible for, but the lifetime torture of the animals. In today's meat factories, the chicken, the pigs or the cattle would never see the light of day, never breath fresh air from their birth to premature death. A pig lives in six square feet, a cow in 14 sq.ft. but a chicken only 130 sq. inches! The chickens are made to grow so fast, that hearts and lungs cannot support their bodies, so if they are not slaughtered they would die of heart failure.

In our country for a year we consume over 25,000 tons of beef, 45,000 tons of chicken and over 100,000 tons of fish. (Based on Sri Lanka socio-economic data)

I have always believed that man had originally been a vegetarian, that the myth of pre-historic hunter-gatherer had been created by the anthropologists from the West, who had grown up on a diet of rotting flesh, who could not believe that human beings could survive on a vegetarian diet. My belief was strengthened when I learnt of the forthcoming book by Prof. Raj Somadeva about Sri Lankan pre-historic cave art. Prof. Somadeva says that he had not found any cave paintings depicting hunting scenes in our country. He had found only two caves with drawings of bow and arrow, but there were no signs of any animals as targets. Our ancestors did not hunt their food, but only gathered fruit and vegetables and yams. They were true Buddhists even then.

When did our ancestors become carnivorous, we may never know. At least in other countries, it could have been at times of famines, when there was no vegetable food available, and when animals began to die too. Then man could have been compelled to eat the flesh of dead animals, as sometimes in more recent history too, man had been driven to even cannibalism.

The first recorded 'vegetarian' from the West is said to be Pythagoras, and until the term 'Vegetarian' was coined, those who abstained from meat was known as a Pythagorian. Pythagoras had believed not only that it was wrong to kill another being, but that meat eating disturbed the humors inside the body. Plutarch wondered why man does not eat lions and wolves, but only innocent defenseless animals. He challenged, "If you declare that you are naturally designed for such a diet, then first kill for yourself what you want to eat. Do it, however, only through your own resources, unaided by cleaver or cudgel or any kind of ax."

Vegetarianism in Asia is a historical fact, but we should appreciate when people become vegetarian in the West. When they begin to think like Thomas Edison, who said, "Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages." And Jean Jacques Rousseau, who declared a universal truth, meat-eating animals are generally more cruel and violent than herbivores, Leonardo Da Vinci considered the bodies of meat-eaters to be graveyards for the animals they eat.

The myth that meat contains a high nutrient density and provides high quality proteins and vitamins for child growth is easily debunked, when we consider India. A majority of the Indian population had never consumed any form of meat during their entire life, for thousands of generations. Their children did not receive their nutrients and proteins from animal flesh. Yet India produced the Buddha, Mahavir, Valmiki, Kautilya, Tagore, and the world IT industry is a modern example of intelligence and technical capabilities of the Indian youth.

A few decades ago the haematinic syrups for iron deficiency contained animal liver extracts. But today the Pharma industry is able to manufacture haematinics without liver extract, which simply proves that man does not need any animal based products.

Since we should all practice what we preach, perhaps the first step to be taken by all environmentalists and eco-friends is to abstain from consuming any flesh of animals. They have to realize and accept that all meat-based diet is BAD for the environment. Even after prehistoric man began to consume animal flesh, the environmental damage caused by their livestock would have been minimal, because villagers would have used only locally available resources without exploitation. Like with all other forms of 'development' there is no possibility of 'sustainable development' in meat factories. There is only destruction. Commercial scale livestock contribute to climate change, by emitting green-house gasses, feed production process and effluents and deforestation. Oregon State University agriculture professor Peter Cheeke calls factory farming "a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems." John Robbins, in his book 'The Food Revolution' says, "you'd save more water by not eating a pound of California beef than you would by not showering for an entire year."

Today there are no animal farms. We only have meat-producing factories, where we measure development in terms of output. 330 eggs per year with a feed conversion ratio of 2 kg of feed to give 1 kg of eggs. broilers weight 2.5 kg at 39 days with a feed conversion of 1.6 kg per 1 kg body weight. in 2005, a total of 741 million tons of cereal had been fed to animals, with a total of 1250 million (brans, pulses etc) to produce about 250 million tons of meat. One argument by the meat eaters is that the cereals and other food, even if available to all the people, some may not have the ability to acquire the food, because of the cost. But if the demand for meat production dropped, the prices for other food items should drop and become more accessible.

All socialist minded comrades should give up meat and fish, because it contributes to a widening gap on food distribution among mankind, and contributes to greater inequality in food consumption and nourishment. In 2005, when the "developed" countries recorded 82.1 kg per capita meat consumption, South Asia was only 5.8 kg. But in South Asia too there could have been a few families who consumed even more than 82 kg, because majority of people in India did not consume any meat. In the developed countries, each person consumes about one ton of grain indirectly through the meat they eat. Frances Moore Lappe estimates that the cost of an 8 ounce steak could fead 45 to 50 hungry human beings. Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production by 10 percent in the U. S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people. Today people in Ethiopia are starving not because there is a worldwide shortage of food, but because of inequality in food distribution and food consumed by livestock. In the developed countries, each person consumes about one ton of grain indirectly through the meat they eat.

The Senior members of the World Food Program should abstain from consuming meat, because meat production AGGRAVATES global hunger. According to the FAO report for 2009, there were over One Billion human beings on earth suffering from chronic hunger, that 4 - 5 billion people are suffering from iron deficiency. The report admits, "the rapid growth of the livestock sector means that competition for land and other productive resources puts upward pressure on prices for staple grains as well as negative pressures on the natural-resource base, potentially reducing food security." FAO is worried about food shortages, while reporting that "Livestock grazing occupies 26 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surface, and the production of livestock feed uses 33 percent of agricultural cropland". In other words livestock is the world's largest user of land resources, with almost 80 percent of agricultural land used for animal feed production.

Even in the U. S. where there are only less than 5 million vegetarians, The American Dietetic Association says in a position statement, "Appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

The officials of the World Health Organization should set an example by saying NO to meat, because it compromises the health of all human beings. The meat-factories are the cause of many human diseases, spreading even to those who do not consume meat. Before WHO worries about anemia and other health problems, assumed to be due to non-consumption of meat, they should concentrate more on health problems created by the production and consumption of meat and the hormones, antibiotics and chemicals (including Arsenic) fed to humans through the meat they consume. There are diseases that arise in animals but are passed onto humans , like influenza. Food borne diseases are salmonella and E. coli. WHO is the first organization which should practice Preventive Healthcare. The FAO report continues to tell us, "At least half of the 1,700 known causes of infectious disease in humans have a reservoir in animals, and many new infections are zoonotic diseases. More than 200 zoonotic diseases have been described, caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses, fungi and unconventional agents (e.g. prions). About 75 percent of the new diseases that have affected humans over the past ten years are caused by pathogens originating from animals or from products of animal origin."

There used to be a theory of measuring economic growth by the increase in sugar consumption. Since man realized the harm of excessive sugar consumption now they have identified sugar as a killer and do not talk about it. In the same manner till to-date we talk about increasing meat consumption in the developing world as an indication of their economic growth, while in the developed countries, people are beginning to realize that they are committing slow suicide by consuming rotting flesh of other animals.

The increasing consumption is mostly because of the demand created by food suppliers for their junk food, the ready to eat or ready to cook meat products. For almost 90 per cent of the junk food they use meat, to add "value" as they claim, but in reality to add "higher profits". Most of the food we eat today, is decided by their availability. In our consumerist culture, an artificial demand is created by the supplier, who dictates to the producer and the consumer. Eric Schlosser in his book 'Fast Food Nation' says, "Americans now spend more money on fast food—$110 billion a year—than they do on higher education. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music—combined."

All animal lovers and members of organizations for the prevention of cruelty to animals should abstain from meat because there is no humane way to rear and slaughter animals for human consumption. Free range farm animals are a thing of the past. Today the meat factories do not consider the animals as living creatures, but as raw materials to produce meat. The producers are not concerned, if the animals never get a chance to lie down, to rest, or to play around. They are not concerned if the animals are in continuous pain, both in mind and in body. They are not much concerned if some of the animals die before they are processed. Such animals would be the 'factory rejects'. When the time comes for processing the meat, the only concern is the maximum production at minimum cost. Human beings are using inhuman methods to provide food for other human beings, which they can do without.

Let us show loving kindness to all living creatures, not by abstaining from meat on this Wesak day, but everyday.

April 29, 2012, 1:12 a.m. » Tagged: Buddhism , hunter-gatherer , vegetarian , Wesak

Cassandra & Nightingale

Cassandra Nightingale

daya dissanayake

The tragedy of Humanity has always been due to ignoring the Cassandras among us and their warnings. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein considered Cassandra as representing the human moral conscience whose main task is to issue warnings, while Apollo represents the destructive influence of the cruel super-ego. She talks about the universal tendency towards the denial which is a potent defense against persecutory anxiety and guilt.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba of Troy. Apollo, infatuated by her beauty, gave her a gift of prophesy, but when he could not win her affection placed a curse on her, that no one would believe her prophesies.

The first tragedy which she tried to prevent was the destruction of Troy. She warned about the Trojan horse, but no one believed her.

The name Florence Nightingale brings to our mind what she did for nursing, but more important was her struggle on behalf of the suppression faced by women and girls in her time, in England.

She was probably the first person to identify Cassandra as the symbol of women's limitations and as their voice. In 1852, Nightingale wrote 'Cassandra' as part of her essay 'Suggestions for the thought to Searchers after Religious Truth' which was only privately printed. She had conceived Cassandra as an autobiographical novel, developed as a dialogue between two characters Farisco and Nofriani. In One of her early versions of Cassandra she had written, "Oh! call me no more Nofriani, call me Cassandra. for I have preached & prophesied in vain. I have gone about crying all these many years, Wo to the people! And no one has listened or believed.." and again, Nofriani says "I, I alone am wandering in the bitterness of life without" She (Nofriani) had suffered so much that she had outlived even the desire to die.

Katherine V. Snyder has done a study of Nightingale's Cassandra, and its transition from an autobiographical novel into an essay, published in 'The Politics of the essay:feminist perspectives'.

Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, in a letter to Nightingale in 1861, commenting on her essay Cassandra, said "I did not exactly take Cassandra for yourself, but I thought that it represented more of your own feeling about the world than could have been the case". This happened with the transition of the original version in subsequent editions to become a non-fictional essay from what had begun as a novel. Nightingale had written this at a time when she was suicidally depressed, out of despair due to the objections of her parents for her determination to serve the public.

When at last she received an allowance of £ 500 per year from her father, in 1883 she had accepted a post as the Superintendent of an "institution for the care of sick gentlewomen in distressed circumstances" in London. This led her to the Crimean War in 1854 and Florence Nightingale became the legend.

Nightingale protested the "over-feminization of women into near helplessness, such as what she saw in her mother's and older sister's lethargic lifestyle despite their education" She saw a similarity with Cassandra as her ideas also were ineffective at the time.

Nightingale was only 32 years old when she wrote 'Cassandra'. She had been educated at home, in Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, in addition to history, grammar and composition all by her father, while a governess tutored her in music and art. Then she defied convention, by stating that her future was not in marriage but in helping the needy.

Her 'Cassandra' is mainly about "the role of women in Victorian England. As such, not only does it reflect upon gender equality, it also represents a powerful tool for Nightingale to express her concerns about her own future and lack of occupation". (Laura Monros-Gaspar).

Nightingale had written many books in addition to the essay on Cassandra, but she was more a social reformer than a writer.

Many books had been written about Cassandra, before and after Nightingale. Christa Wolf retold the story of Cassandra in her book 'Kassandra' using the myth "as an allegory for both the unheard voice of the woman writer and the oppression and strict censorship in East Germany."

Apache Software recognized Cassandra for what she was, and so named their NoSQL database in her honour because it is the future, and it is used by Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

A later day Cassandra was Rachel Louise Carson, the author of 'Silent Spring' (1962). She too had been cursed not only by Apollo, but also by Hiddukel (the god of ill-gotten wealth). That is why 'Silent Spring' was included in the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" and she was called a "hysterical woman".

Cassandra too was considered mad. Her father Priam kept her locked up. Even Shakespeare had treated her as a madwoman in Troilus and Cressida. Robert Graves interpreted the name Cassandra as "she who entangles men". That is the fate of any woman who refuses to play by the rules laid down by men.

Man had always preferred to hear only good and positive news from the prophets. No one likes to hear bad news, or bad predictions. He has listened to warnings only if heeding them was to his advantage. The Trojans did not listen to Cassandra. Then they probably developed the legend about Apollo's curse, simply to justify their refusal to believe Cassandra. Ugo Bardi, at the University of Florence, says, "Today we still prefer a reassuring lie to an uncomfortable truth. It is the Cassandra Legacy."

April 13, 2012, 5:01 a.m. » Tagged: cassandra , nightingale