Pakistan, Day One, Saturday

My alarm clock brought me back to consciousness, two hours after my head hit the pillow. I pulled myself together, opened the door to my room and awaited developments. Soon, I was greeted by Dr. Grace Clark, the executive director of the USEFP, in whose residence I was being billeted. Dr. Clark and I introduced ourselves to each other over a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs. Dr. Clark is a specialist on aging and most recently a Marylander.

We headed to the conference site at the Allama Iqbal Open University. A difference between Sri Lanka and Pakistan was immediately apparent. In Sri Lanka and Pakistan institutions and businesses employ private guard services. The difference is that in Pakistan, the private guards are heavily armed, mostly with shotguns. There was at least one, shotgun carrying, guard at Dr. Clark’s residence. Armed campus security guards waved us through to the building containing the auditorium where all the conference talks were being held.

Once inside, I was directed to take my seat at a table on the podium as I was the last speaker of the first session of the day. Thank goodness I had taken the time to prepare my talk beforehand! The talks were loosely about education and my talk on computational science education, “Computational Physics at the University of Peradeniya,” stood out a bit. Other talks had titles like “Literacy challenge in Pakistan,” “Madrassah reforms: issues and challenges,” and “Today’s Pakistan: Challenges and opportunities for the blind.” (I should mention that the conference theme was “Today’s Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities” to explain the similarities in the titles of the talks.)

Despite the singularly scientific nature of my talk, I was warmly greeted afterwards as we headed out for a tea break.  I got my first taste of a wonderful aspect of Pakistani hospitality. Those who know me, know that “mixing” in groups is not one of my strong suits. But, throughout my time in Pakistan, Pakistanis who noticed me standing alone would make a point of approaching me and starting a conversation. It was delightful, and so  consistent, that, like the Sri Lankan  practice of adopting strangers into their families, it must be a national characteristic of Pakistani hospitality.

After tea,we heard the keynote address by Retired Justice Nasira Javed Iqbal, a former judge, a member of the Pakistani Bar Council, and former Fulbrighter to Harvard. She gave a very interesting presentation on the importance of a unified system of justice to preserve the integrity of Pakistan. Her talk was a response to the Pakistani government sanctioned, planned implementation of Sharia law in the district of Swat by the Taliban. Considering that all members of the Pakistani parliament were threatened with beheading by the Taliban if they voted against the agreement to implement Sharia law, I thought Justice Iqbal’s remarks were quite brave.

Lunch was held under a tent outside the auditorium building. All the food I had in Pakistan was outstanding. My fellow lovers of spicy food should be green with envy. Lunch too soon over, we were herded back inside the auditorium for the afternoon session that dealt with environmental opportunities and challenges. After another tea break, we attended a shorter, final session that lasted until 6PM. Two of these talks were about the history and issues of identity among the Pashtun people. As I understand it, when the British drew the line between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, they used the principle of “divide and conquer.” The British attempted to split each of two major tribal groups in the region, the Beluchis and the Pashtuns, by the drawing of this border. The two groups, with family on both sides, have tended to treat the border as non-existent over the years, and this, of course, has played a role in our current failure to keep the war in Afghanistan confined to Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have been pushed around quite a bit recently, by the Russians, the US, and the Pakistanis. Later during my visit there was a round of “targeted” killings in Karachi. These were mostly recently arrived Pashtuns being killed by Karachi locals, with some Pashtun revenge killings thrown in. Creating peace in this region depends quite a bit on creating  security and an economic future for the Pashtun and Beluchi people.

After the conference sessions were over, we traveled to the Lok Virsa. The Lok Virsa appears at first sight to be a museum, but there really are few antiquities in the museum. Rather it is more a display of the artifacts of the many cultures that make up the nation of Pakistan. We had to do a quick-step through the museum as it was close to closing time, but it was very interesting. Then we retired to an outdoor restaurant that had been set up for the conference. Sri Lankans and Pakistanis share the tradition that the meal comes at the end of the evening, so it  turned out to be yet two hours before we would eat. But once again, the Pakistanis displayed their remarkable hospitality and I thoroughly enjoyed many conversations that evening.  We were also treated to a program of classical Pakistani music with the performers on a stage set just in front of a wall of beautiful examples of Pakistani architectural carving. Dinner was served and, it still takes me by surprise, everyone promptly went home.

Traveling with the meeting sponsor, Dr. Clark, meant we stayed until pretty much until everyone else had departed. But, though it had been a long couple of days, I was wide awake, until the very moment when my head hit the pillow and then it was “lights out.”



War over, classes over, time to go home

I walked into the Physics Department tea room on Tuesday where a half-dozen physicists had gathered to hear the President of Sri Lanka address the nation on TV declaring victory in the war on terrorism. As I sat down the department head noticed me. “We have foreign professors come and foreign professors go, but you come and look…” he said, pointing to the TV screen. “Yeah”, I replied, “Why don’t they have my picture on the TV?”

Kris and I have come to Sri Lanka at a very interesting time. When we arrived, the LTTE controlled maybe 20% of the country, and now they have been completely defeated in a military sense. All the LTTE leaders are dead, a certain “live by the sword, die by the sword” form of justice. They literally fought to the last man. I can not admire this, as romantic as it sounds from a distance, because of the suffering they caused to so many even when it was clear they would lose. Their “last stand” was more of an expression of their fanaticism, their lack of touch with reality, than their devotion to their cause. Their cause would have been better served had they surrendered much earlier, or if the leaders had fled the country.

But though I sympathize with the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, I can not be sorry for the death of the LTTE leadership. Their complete annihilation should give the island some peaceful breathing room, some time to start to heal the differences, to build a sense of Sri Lankan identity that rises above cultural differences. But that time will be limited, so the healing work to be done must be done urgently, as urgently as the movement of troops in wartime.

Classes at the University were supposed to be over yesterday, Wednesday. But then the war ended and I knew it was coming. Sure enough, on Tuesday, the President declared Wednesday to be a national holiday, wiping out the two final classes I was to teach. I decided there was nothing in Electromagnetic Theory that would justify bring the class back together, but met today with the Computational Physics class as it was their last opportunity to finish their projects. New Year’s, Poya Days, the celebration to end the war, all happened on the days I had classes. It was uncanny.

Final exams in both classes are still pending, but that was the last class meeting for me in Sri Lanka. For this last class, I wore a sarong. I told the students that they had honored me all year by wearing the national costume of my country, so on the last day of classes, I wore the national costume of their country. Actually, on me, it looked more like I was a tourist dressed for the beach than anything else.

So, the war is over and classes are over. My work here is done. Time to head home.


Weather report: Humid

I am not making this up. A news item a couple of days ago reported that the government Meteorology Office predicted that the weather would be “humid” for the next two weeks.

Are they kidding? There has not been one day here that I would not describe as humid. Reading this news report reminded me of a weather report I think I remember from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update : “The weather  for tonight is predicted to be dark, with continued dark until the early morning hours.”

The air is so humid in Sri Lanka. How humid is it, Tim?

  • It is so humid here that  according to official government statistics, every year an average of 51.5 drunks drown because they couldn’t tell they had  inadvertently staggered into the Indian Ocean until they were 100 feet underwater.
  • It is so humid here that  Sri Lanka has the world’s only coastline that is not fractal.
  • It is so humid here that scales have to be corrected for buoyancy.
  • It is so humid here that many plant species do not need roots. (True.)
  • It is so humid here that in a recent sports scandal, track and field athletes were caught using performance enhancing flippers.
  • It is so humid here that a confused water monitor was spotted 100 feet above the level of Kandy Lake. (True.)

Readers  who live in or who have visited Sri Lanka are encouraged to add more examples in the comments.


Getting my Pakistani visa

I have not traveled very much in my life, at least not internationally. So, in that way, this has been quite a remarkable year for me. Kris and I traveled to Ireland for a Christmas holiday early in our married life. I presented a paper at a conference in Aix-en-Provence in my last year as a graduate student, after which Kris joined me and we drove around France, took a train to Amsterdam (arriving, quite by accident on the Queen’s Birthday), before flying back to Seattle from Amsterdam. Excluding Mexico and Canada then, the only other significant travel before this was the trip to Singapore, Bangkok, and Siem Reap three years ago.

Largely, getting a visa is relatively easy for Americans. Many countries grant Americans tourist visas automatically upon arrival in the country. Long time blog readers will recall that we did have some trouble getting our Chinese visa. The Sri Lankan visa process was tricky, but then we were applying to reside in Sri Lanka, not just be tourists in Sri Lanka. (In fact, Sri Lanka is a country that automatically grants tourist visas to Americans upon arrival.)

Well, I have already given away the surprise in the title of this posting, but I was invited to travel to Pakistan by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) and I returned  yesterday from a nine day visit to that country. I am now back in Sri Lanka, safe and sound. I did not post about my trip in advance because I knew that some readers of this blog would be alarmed at the prospect of me going to Pakistan. But let me say that, just as the news reports about Sri Lanka give one a grossly exaggerated view of the danger of traveling to Sri Lanka, the same can be said for Pakistan. I can honestly say that at no time while I was in Pakistan did I feel the slightest anxiety about my safety.

But, of course, before I could travel to Pakistan, I had to obtain a visa. This turned into the most uncertain and most expensive visa application process to date.  I started by finding the web site of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo (“High Commission” is the English-system term for “Embassy.”) I then tried to email to get instructions on how to apply. Every email address that looked even remotely appropriate turned out to be dead email addresses. Despite hating talking on the phone because of my hearing problems, I finally contacted the HC by phone. A nice person gave me the correct URL for the instructions to apply for the visa. So I downloaded and studied the requirements.

Requirement number one, since I was not a tourist, was a letter of invitation from my hosts, the USEFP. This was duly and timely supplied. Requirement number two is to fill out a long application form. Not too bad. Requirement number three is a fee of about $100. This seems somewhat odd and discriminatory against Americans, since a Sri Lankan traveling to Pakistan would have only had to pay a visa fee of $1.  I was to learn later that the reason the fee is so high is that this is what the US charges Pakistanis (and Sri Lankans and Indians, among others) to come to the US. Requirement number four is two 1″x1″ photos of myself.

So, I gather all this stuff together and head off on a three hour train ride to Colombo. A tuk-tuk takes me to the Pakistani HC. A big, beautiful plaque proclaims this gate to be the Pakistani HC. I tell the guard that I am here to apply for a visa. He takes me inside where a woman tells me that I have to go to the other entrance where they accept visa applications. So I turn toward an interior hall and ask if this is the right way. No! I have to go back out onto the street, walk about 100 m (100 yards) back up the side street that this entrance faces, turn left on the main road, walk maybe 35 m from this side street to the next side street, then 100 m back down the side street to the other side of the same house.

I do so. Now I find myself at the end of the side street, not a sign in sight. I walk around a bit. I back  track a bit to see if I missed a sign, then finally try a little alley to the left of the end of the side street with a half-open gate at the end. I approach the gate and discover that there is a plaque on the part of the gate that is open that proclaims this as the Pakistani HC, but with the gate open, the sign is not visible from the road.

I walk into the courtyard where I find a covered, outdoor area furnished with down-at-the-heel living room type furniture. To one side are parked the motorbikes of the HC employees. A Sri Lankan policeman strolls around the courtyard, bored to tears. There is an oldish man sitting on a chair in the covered area. He asks what I want. I tell him I wish to apply for a visa. A flicker of surprise appears, briefly, in his eyes and then his expression returns to its impassive state. He motions me toward a window in the side of the building. Again, a brief flicker of surprise, and then a cold glare that I last saw on the faces of Cambodian border guards. I hand him my papers and he begins to examine them. He actually seems to warm up a bit as I really did seem to have everything in order. Things were looking up. After asking me to take a seat, he goes off to consult someone and comes back after some time. There was just one problem, he said. You have to explain your presence in Sri Lanka by means of a letter from the Fulbright Commission. I am to arrange to have the letter sent and then come back in a few days.

Rats! Well, it is not too bad. As the HC is not too far from the Fulbright office, I take a tuk-tuk over there. In addition to the very friendly people, the new Fulbright office (the  US  Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission, USSLFC) is one of the better air conditioned places in Colombo and I was cooked after waiting in the open air at the Pakistani HC.

Hold on, the USSLFC  people say. For me to travel out of the country, I need the permission of the USSLFC  board of trustees. Translated, this means no letter today. Sigh. So I do a few errands and take the three hour train ride back to Kandy, bloody, but unbowed. On the train, on the way back,  I get a phone call from the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani HC in  Colombo (the guy who was sitting behind the window). He tells me that the Pakistani consul wants to see me, can I come back tomorrow at 10AM. Oh, and they still need a letter from Pakistan. Well, no, I  tell him that I can’t come back tomorrow because I have to teach, but I can come back next Tuesday. Yikes! I say to myself. Why would the Pakistani consul want to see me? As for the letter, I assumed that since he already had a letter from my hosts in Pakistan, he had misspoken and really was referring to the letter from the USSLFC.

Well, I was a bit freaked about the consul meeting. I contacted the USSLFC and the  Fulbright liaison at the US Embassy in Sri Lanka and asked for a clue what this might be about. Should I go alone or should someone from the US Embassy accompany me? I almost, but did not say, “You did not see the look in the superintendent’s eyes! Can I please have a Marine come with me?” That is when I learn that interviews are routine. The US Embassy interviews every applicant for a visa to the US.  I was told it was likely he just wanted to ask me questions about why I was going to Pakistan. Wear a tie.

Fast forward to next Tuesday. The USSLFC board had approved my request by email and a letter was waiting for me at the USSLFC office. I hopped on the train (or I hopped as well as I can hop at 0610  in the morning) and rode back down to Colombo. A tuk-tuk took me to  the USSLFC office where I picked up my  letter, then off to the Pakistani  HC.  I proudly turned over my letter and was shown to the consul’s office for my interview. The consul (actually is business card said “counsellor” so I am less sure that he was “the” consul) sat behind a large desk. I sat on a chair across the desk from him and there was a muted TV in the corner of the room off to my right that was showing what looked to be the Pakistani equivalent of CNN.

The consul started by calling me a brave man for volunteering to come to Sri Lanka. I told him that I was not so much brave as a better than average calculator of statistical risks. Then he asked why I would take on the perhaps increased risk of going to Pakistan. I told him that I was not crazy, that evangelizing about computation science was not worth dying over, but that I had confidence in the determination of the USEFP, backed by the US Embassy in Pakistan, that I could make the trip safely. As it was, my travel was restricted strictly to the capital city of Islamabad.

Then he asked me what I perceived to be the cause of the trouble in Pakistan. I do not know what possessed me to say anything other than “I don’t know”, but I said, “Well, it can’t be helping that the US is killing people in Pakistan in Predator drone attacks  without the permission of the Pakistani government.” “Exactly!” he said, and he launched (if you will pardon the pun) into a half  hour lecture on the situation in Pakistan. The drone attacks were killing civilians as well as militants, the people in the country were angry, causing them to sympathize with and support the militants. He told me that no one had ever conquered the people in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The British (“upon whose empire the sun never set”) could not conquer these people, the Russians with all their brutality could not conquer these people, and the Americans were failing in their  efforts to conquer these people, so “Why does the West expect tiny Pakistan to do what no other country in history has been able to accomplish?” The drone attacks are big news in Pakistan and three times during the half hour lecture images of drones appeared on the TV. Each time they appeared the consul interrupted his lecture to point the drones out to me. Basically, I replied with sympathetic noises, because I am sympathetic. Frankly, I expected that Obama would have stopped the drone attacks upon taking office. It really is a provocation and an insult to an ally to be bombing  their country without their active participation. At the end of the interview, pleasant words were uttered and it looked promising once again.

The superintendent of the visa section showed me to the open-air waiting area, returned to talk to the consul, and returned about fifteen minutes later. It turned out that I had not misheard about the need for another letter from Pakistan. My letter of invitation from the USEFP included the information that I would be attending a Fulbright Alumni conference to be held at the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. They now wanted a letter from the Allama Iqbal Open University confirming that there was indeed a conference to be held there. Sigh, no visa today. Back to Kandy, empty-handed.

Well, that Tuesday was the day before the entire nation of  Sri Lanka takes off to celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year for ten days.  Things were starting to get a bit tight. But, hey, it was just one more letter, right?

The USEFP arranged to have the letter faxed to the Pakistani HC in Colombo. As expected, I did not hear from them until the end of the New Year’s break.  “Where is your letter?” the superintendent asked?  “I was told it had been faxed to you,” says I.  “It has not been received.” So off I go to fax my copy of the letter to them. The deadline is getting closer. I call the next day to ask if the letter had been received? “No.” I panic a bit. Maybe the HC  just does not want to tell me straight out that they do not want me to go to Pakistan and are giving me the runaround instead. After all, fax machines give receipts. In a last ditch effort, I re-send a fax of my copy of the letter and the USEFP  re-sends their fax of the original.

The deadline has arrived. My flight leaves early Friday morning April 24th. It leaves so early in the morning that I decide to spend the night in a hotel in Negombo (the town closest to the airport) the night before, so I can get some sleep before leaving on the long trip. I hire a car and driver to take me to the Pakistani HC on Thursday the 23rd. One of two things will happen. The visa will be denied, I will retrieve my passport, and be driven back to Kandy. Or the visa will be waiting for me and the driver will take me to Negombo, the town closest to the airport. I am uncertain enough that I do not even book the hotel room in advance, relying on the depressed travel industry for an available room.

My driver  comes at noon on the 23rd. We drive to the Pakistani HC and arrive at 3PM. This is an hour before they open their window  to hand out visas. But, as  I settle into an old sofa to wait, the old man in the courtyard announces my presence to someone and the superintendent of the visa section of the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo appears a few minutes later. I pay him the $100. He wants four photos. I am savvy enough by now that, despite the fact that the website indicated that only two photos were necessary, I am, in fact, carrying eight.  I hand them over without mentioning the discrepancy. And he hands me my passport with the Pakistani visa affixed therein.

So, off we go to Negombo. I decide to do a little scouting for my sister Shannon’s arrival and we go to the Brown’s Beach Hotel.  This seems promising as it is an Aitkens Spence property, the same company that owns the Kandalama Hotel. This hotel is relatively old and the prices correspondingly less. I am received in high style. Yes, they have a room. I, in turn, have a valid  credit card and a residence visa qualifying me for the resident rate. The room with breakfast comes to about $50. Upon completion of the financial arrangements, someone drapes a (cheap, but it is the thought  that counts) shell necklace over my head and a cold fruit juice is supplied. A ride to the airport is arranged for the morning (about $15) as is wireless Internet access in my room (about $12  for 24 hours).

The hotel is in a lovely setting. It is right on the beach. Every room has a balcony that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The downside is that once you leave the lobby area, the age of the hotel shows. The room could use a paint job. Some of the fixtures are dated. The rooms are not sealed against mosquitoes. But everything works, including the air conditioning, and for $50/night, it is a bargain. Not recommended for honeymooners, but recommended for people who want a reasonably priced place to stay on the beach.

So, I checked my email, sent a message to my Pakistani host that I was on my way, did some web surfing, had dinner at the hotel restaurant overlooking the ocean, missed Kris, and turned in early.

More on Pakistan in my next installment.


Happy (Sinhala and Tamil) New Year!

Nearly everyone is on holiday in Sri Lanka, as both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities celebrate the New Year. There are some unexpected and interesting features of the Sri Lankan New Year that my non-Sri Lankan readers may find interesting. My Sri Lankan readers can return to their regularly scheduled programming.

Since Sri Lanka has quite a few national holidays, many of them based on a lunar calendar, we have become accustomed to keeping an eye on the calendar to anticipate the holidays. Looking at April, there was quite a clump of national holidays marked. April 9th was the Buddhist, Bak Poya Day. April 10th was one of the two Christian national holidays, Good Friday. (Someone was being cagey, I suspect. Easter is the more important Christian holiday, but it always falls on a day everyone is off work anyway.) Following the weekend, which, of course, included Easter, the calendar indicated that Monday, April 13th was the day before the New Year and Tuesday, April 14th was the New Year.

OK. So that would be a nice six day vacation. But there was more to the New Year than appeared on the calendar. I was told that the university would be off on Wednesday, April 15th as well to allow students to return from time with their families. Since I have no classes on Thursday or Friday, that meant the rest of the week off for me. So, I’m looking at twelve days off. Later, my colleagues let me know that the staff also will be off the rest of the week. So we are all looking at a twelve day break. Well, you know universities. A partial week is inconvenient for class scheduling and all. But there was even more…

As I mentioned in my last post, Kris and I went out to do errands that led us to the Kandy central post office. That was Wednesday, April 15th, the day after the day marked as the New Year on the calendar. I have never seen Kandy so deserted. The train station was open and we purchased our tickets for a trip to Colombo next weekend. The post office was open with the results described in the previous post. Food stores were open and a few restaurants. But virtually everything else was shuttered. Our tuk-tuk sped along the empty streets, slowed only by an occasional pothole, or a stray dog casually meandering across the road. So we asked our faithful tuk-tuk driver how long stores would be closed. He told us that stores do not open after the New Year until such time as is deemed “auspicious.” Oh. And when, on average, would that be? He told us that generally we could count on “auspicious” not to be before the weekend. So, other than essential services, the whole country is taking a twelve day break.

In a tragic, but in another way amusing, related story in the news, six prisoners, attempting to escape from a Sri Lankan prison, were shot dead and four others wounded and recaptured. It seems the prisoners were trying to take advantage of the fact that there were only three prison guards on duty and none of the prison officials. The absentees were, of course, all off celebrating the New Year with their families.

What struck us about the Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s here is the emphasis on family. Families do travel all across the island to be together at this time. The closest comparison in the US would be Christmas in terms of the focus on getting families together and having the time off work and school to travel.

There is gift-giving on New Years, but with a twist. Gifts at Christmas in the US center on pleasing the recipient, and the whole Christmas holiday in America has been skewed by the focus on lavish giving and getting of “stuff”. There is some of that here, pushed in advertisements, but gifts here tend to have a theme. Gifts are intended to help the recipient to start the new year off right. So a gift of a new dress or something else useful seems the order of the day. And families gift the family as a whole as well. A new piece of furniture or an appliance for the house appears to be common. In fact, when I took the train from Colombo to Kandy the other day, many of the passengers waiting in the train station were sitting next to as yet unopened boxes of some-assembly-required furniture that was to make the train trip home with them. Going along with this theme of starting the new year off right, Sri Lankans customarily do a thorough house cleaning at New Year’s.

I wrote before of why Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Thanksgiving still expresses an important sentiment and embodies an unselfish spirit, unlike, say, Christmas as it is often practiced today in the US. But I think I really like the Sri Lankan New Year, too. For the US, New Year’s Eve is an often drunken party, ending with rueful soliloquies on the missed opportunities of the old year, and New Year’s Day is non-stop football. The custom of New Year’s resolutions is more the butt of jokes than a serious attempt to change for the better and, besides, resolutions are all about the individual. I see the Sri Lankan New Year as a time to gather the family together and, with their gifts, to prepare to face the challenges of the New Year together, as a team.

And this New Year comes at a special time in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The LTTE has been defeated militarily. But distrust, enmities, and injustices remain. Of all the holidays on the Sri Lankan calendar, I think it is fitting that the Sinhalese and Tamil communities celebrate New Year at the same time. The future is a challenge that all Sri Lankans face. What I hope for the people of Sri Lanka is that, in the future, they not only celebrate New Year’s at the same time, but that they come to celebrate the New Year together, like a Sri Lankan family, as a team.


Big city post office, small town service

We have had our share of problems in sending packages between the US and Sri Lanka. We discovered that USPS does not track packages once they leave the US and, while  the packages we sent ourselves did arrive, they arrived beat to a pulp. We discovered that buying anything online and having it shipped to Sri Lanka involved being ready to pay the DHL or FedEx delivery man an unpredictable (but substantial) fee for duties at the unpredictable time when the package is delivered, with exact change, in cash (no checks or credit cards accepted).

Hmm. I do not seem to have told that last story on this blog before. I am surprised, because I thought I had posted every one of my kvetches.  Rants, kvetches, and my medical issues, that’s my blog. Anyway, bottom line, DHL is the best option by far for sending any package with goods that have to clear customs. For paper documents in  a hurry, any of the courier services that track packages (i.e., not USPS) will get the job done. For paper documents where there is no hurry, the respective country’s postal system delivers, eventually. Paper mail sent by Connie at Kenyon to me at Peradeniya seems to take about two weeks.

Today, we had an interesting postal experience. Keep in mind that we live in a city with a population of about 100,000 within the boundaries of the city itself, but is the administrative center of a district of 1.4 million people. We were doing errands in Kandy itself and stopped off at the central post office. Kris had collected three Sunday newspapers to send to my Kenyon colleague, Frank Peiris, who will be living in Kandy next year with his family. Kris hoped that the papers and their classified ads would help the Peiris’ get a sense of the rental housing market in Kandy.

So, Kris approaches the stamp counter with her package. The man behind the counter deems her wrapping job to be inadequate and sends her off to the conveniently located postal store in the lobby. Kris purchases a new envelope, addresses it, and reappears at the stamp counter. The man behind the counter tells Kris that the cost to send the package will be $15. Kris decides that is more than she wants to spend. So she dumps the package in a lobby trash can and we head off for our other errands. The time is approximately 11:30AM.

After our errands, we met a fellow Fulbright scholar for lunch and a Peradeniya faculty member in the Economics Department. We had a delightful lunch with great conversation and basically were the last people to leave the restaurant from the lunch crowd. I tell you this to explain why it was that we only returned home close to 5PM (and to publicly thank the Econ faculty member for treating us all to a delicious lunch!)

So we get home and our maid tells Kris that the neighbors have a notice from the Peradeniya post office (not the Kandy post office, but the post office closest to our house) about them holding a “package” for us to pick up. Most forms in use in Sri Lanka are a Rosetta Stone of the same message in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. This was all in Sinhala, but the neighbors kindly translated for us. Some confusion ensued because we were not expecting any packages, but, of course, it turned out to be the package of newspapers Kris had discarded in the Kandy post office trash can.

I was trying to imagine this happening in the US. I can see it happening in Gambier, OH (population 2069) or Mount Vernon, OH (population 14375), but it seems unlikely in any larger city. So credit one to the Sri Lankan postal service for providing that “small town” level of service in one of its largest administrative centers.


Book review: “The Assault on Reason” by Al Gore

I acquired The Assault on Reason by Al Gore almost by accident. Coming back from the Fulbright Conference in Kolkata, we had a medium long layover in Bangalore. The airport has some nice duty free shops, though, sadly, none that carry Canon dSLR equipment (neither do the duty-free shops in the Colombo airport). I did run across an odd bookstore called Crosswords, though, at first, I could not quite pinpoint why I thought it was odd. I finally realized that among the titles for sale included books that must be long out of print in the US. So, although all the books were new, the shop had a selection that you might find in a good used bookshop. And being India, books are cheap.

The Assault on Reason is probably not yet out of print in the US, but it caught my eye. I had seen something about it on the Internet and the title makes a good title for a topic that I have become more and more concerned about in (I will be honest here) the last eight years, the Bush-Cheney years. More and more, it seems, debate on questions of public policy are less about pragmatic questions of constructing policies that work, but are more about policies that fit one’s own ideological viewpoint independent of any evidence about what policies do the most good. Thus, lacking any considerations of evidence, the debates descend to pointless, often acrimonious shouting matches in which no minds are changed  and no compromise can be reached. Arguing political ideology, especially without allowing evidence of the effectiveness of the resulting policies, is equivalent to arguing about religion, it is all about faith and tradition, not about facts.

My political ideology tends toward the conservative when it comes to economics and toward the liberal on social issues. Of course I would be very unhappy with Bush and Cheney in any case since they were so much in favor of government interference in people’s lives on the one hand and such profligate, irresponsible spending of public money on the other hand. This spending continued, totally heedless of the debt Bush and Cheney were running up in our name, unless, as has been rumored, theirs was a deliberate attempt to bankrupt, and thus limit the power of, the federal government for the foreseeable the future.

But, oddly, those were not my biggest complaints about Bush and Cheney. My biggest complaints were that they governed by ideology and not facts, and that they deliberately distorted, lied about, fabricated, and suppressed facts when such facts did not match their ideology. The reason this bothered me more than their actual policies was that government based solely on political ideology is indistinguishable from government by religious zealots. Bush and Cheney, by their actions, were subverting American democracy at its heart.

To be fair, there are plenty of people on the left and the right who frame political debates in this fashion. For example, for a very long time now, no one in favor of increasing the production of electricity using nuclear power could be nominated by the Democrats to high office. The actual facts about safety and ecological impact of nuclear power ceased to matter. Only now, when we face a much larger ecological threat from carbon emission, is  nuclear power being re-considered. It pains me greatly when I think of the years, money, and soldier’s lives we have wasted being chained by a narrowness of public vision and the greed of private enterprise to oil from the Mideast. The illogic of those who oppose abortion also opposing sex education and contraception is another example. Sex education and contraception are proven means to reduce the rate of abortion. Anti-abortionists could further reduce abortions by creating and funding a system to facilitate adoption and to support public policies that guarantee maternal support and medical care for mothers and babies. That, largely, they do not, casts doubt on their true motives. Are they against abortion or are they just moralists in that long tradition of people who believe that sex is the greatest evil of all and women (not men) should be punished for the evolutionary advantages of sexual, as opposed to asexual, reproduction.

Hmmm. I seem to have strayed from Al Gore and his book. So it turns out that Al Gore is as concerned as I am about this issue (the twisting of the truth issue, not the sexual reproduction issue), so much so that he took the time to write this book, a non-trivial amount of work. In addition to the issues I ranted about above, Gore has some thoughts on some of the root causes of the problem and a vision of how it might be addressed. Gore, rightly in my view, attributes the possibility of government-by-ideology to a question of public access to information and to public access to the means of publishing information. In Gore’s view, Bush and Cheney’s sins against democracy had to do with their control of information available from government agencies, often the only source of important information used to shape policy. This was most evident in their manipulation of data gathered by our intelligence services. In hindsight, all of the reasons used to justify invading Iraq were invalid, and evidence suggests that Bush and Cheney knew that very well and were a party to fabricating those justifications. Frankly, their actions come as close to war crimes as the actions of any president I can recall. What can be worse than fabricating reasons to start a war that kills thousands of American soldiers and a substantial fraction of a million Iraqis? In the case of global warming, Bush and Cheney appointed a young political operative with no significant expertise in science to censor and otherwise edit scientific reports from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) on climate change. These are the scientists that we the people pay to keep on top of issues related to climate and weather. I am not saying that any group of scientists are always right, but these are the people who are presumed to be the government’s experts on climate and weather. A rational government starts by assuming that their own experts are right and acts to investigate further. It does not start by suppressing their views to fit a political ideology.

Hmmm. Straying again. Gore further mentions the threat to the flow of information to the citizens of our democracy of the current state of journalism. Economics is killing off the newspaper. Ironically, the newspaper is both the “traditional” home base of investigative journalism and the “traditional” home base of biased, politically influenced journalism. But the latter downside used to be balanced by the fact that all sides had newspapers and reporters and so information managed to find its way to the public from one source or another. But recently, laws designed expressly to keep our sources of news diverse have been removed. So a cable company can own the newspaper in town and also some of the radio stations. Reporters are pure expense items from a business point of view, so using their product in all of their media outlets make sense economically. Giving a journalist time to do investigative reporting is also expensive and is being done less and less. So the information we are getting from journalists is both reduced in quantity and quality and subject to corporate control by a very few players in any media market. Laws that used to require “equal time” for political candidates are being gutted in the name of freedom of speech for corporations. (While I knew this in principle, Gore cited the Supreme Court case that established that corporations had the same rights and responsibilities of individuals. This both gives corporations freedom of speech rights to use their money to promote political causes and complicates our personal income tax forms, since the same 1040 form used by individuals must cover all the complexities of corporate taxation as well. Think about that as you are working on your income tax form this year and then join my movement to disenfranchise corporations. :^) ) The end result is that citizens of our democracy, who must have good information to make considered decisions with, are getting less and less diverse and unbiased information.

Gore, of course, was pilloried for his supposed claim to have invented the Internet during the run-up to his nomination for president. However, he is an ardent backer of the Internet and holds out hope that the Internet can solve the problem of the information needs of a democracy’s citizens. In particular, he points out that the cost of making information available on the Web is  cheap and hence accessible to everyone. He discusses this as a reversal of the process that began with the advent of television and radio of information traveling in only one direction: from those who could afford the expensive equipment  necessary to broadcast TV or radio to the passive consumer of information who could not respond in any effective way. Gore tells us that in the early days of our country, the printing press served that role, as it was not too expensive for an ordinary citizen to print and distribute a broadsheet, for example.

Gore warns, however, that protecting this accessibility to the Net is vital to the future of democracy in America. This access is already under attack. The buzzword is “net neutrality”, the idea that the information that anyone makes available on the Internet will be treated equally by those who maintain the transmission systems of the net. Those who do maintain the transmission systems of the Internet are, of course, already major players in entertainment, TV, and news delivery. Companies like Comcast and AT&T are already seeking permission to charge information suppliers additional fees for a higher tier of service in terms of the speed of delivery of data from source to destination. This could lead to a situation where those without deep pockets would be unable to deliver information of high quality in a timely way. Once again, the information flow would become one way and filtered through a few corporate entities.

I totally agree with Gore on this point. A democracy cannot function if the information that citizens use to cast their ballots is controlled by a few vested interests, if it is only money that talks. Even absent this influence, money already has a hugely corrupting influence on our politics, just from the fact that every senator and congressman has to spend so much time raising money for expensive, empty of content but of proven effectiveness, 30 second TV ads for the next campaign and has to consider the campaign finance impact of every congressional vote he or she casts. If that congressman can not even count on being able to communicate clearly to his or her constituents why they chose a principled, if unpopular, position on some issue, then democracy, already ailing, is effectively dead.

Gore also strikes a blow against the efforts on the right to co-opt our Founding Fathers. This galls me no end because our Founding Fathers were very progressive men of their day. I recently read a right wing screed about how Thomas Jefferson was the first superintendent of public schools in the District of Columbia and he made sure that each child had a Bible. So surely Thomas Jefferson would not be in favor of separating church and state. They must be joking. Thomas Jefferson was so disenchanted with the Bible that he created his own! The Founding Fathers nearly to a man were very much in favor of separating church and state because of the wide diversity of religion in America and the spectre of what religious wars had done to Europe in, what to them would have been, the recent past.The right can not invoke the Founding Fathers in their causes today without grossly distorting history.

So, generally I agree with Gore on almost every point and am happy that he has written about this very important threat to democracy. Those on the left and those on the right should be equally concerned about this issue of the citizens need for information in order to intelligently cast their vote. But, I must say, the book itself is a “snooze.” By contrast, Gore was great in the movie The Inconvenient Truth, one of the best examples of science explanation for the public I have ever seen. But even with the fact that the subject of The Assault on Reason is a hot-button issue of mine, I struggled to get through it. The book is not well organized and is repetitive. The same message could probably have been more effectively communicated in a New Yorker article or in half of the 308 pages that he ended up using. This is the side of Gore that doomed his election chances. He is not a dynamic communicator, either as a speaker or as a writer. The Bush-Cheney years might never have happpened if Gore had half the dynamism of a Barack Obama. As it was, look how close he came. Do not get me wrong. Gore is fighting the good fight and I support him in these new endeavors as I did when he was running for president. And he can not use ghostwriters for his books, or actors for his movies, and retain his credibility. I’m a bit of a dork myself, so I am greatly sympathetic to Gore’s plight. I, certainly, could do no better.

My other criticism of the book is that Gore spends too much time flogging the Bush-Cheney administration. There is no question in my mind that they worked this government-by-deception scheme deliberately and to maximum effectiveness. However, the book, having come out as it did before the election, comes across as being merely for partisan political gain. But the importance of information in a democracy is much deeper than that and Gore’s effort to convince the reader that the fate of democracy itself is at stake suffers from not criticizing those on all sides who practice the same tactics.

So, I’m not sure I can recommend The Assault on Reason as a good read, but it is a start if you haven’t thought about this issue. I do recommend that you write your congresspeople to support net neutrality, however. Oh, and to support efforts to expand access to broadband in rural areas, like Mount Vernon, OH.


Another blown weekend in the hospital…

Well, I was looking forward to the weekend to catch up on my lecture preparation and to prepare a midterm for my Computational Physics class. But I was awakened on Saturday morning at 3AM feeling just uncomfortable. Then uncomfortable turned to a sharp pain, low on my right side. Having been there once before, I knew what was coming. Without going into detail, let’s just say that I soon had some visual confirmation of my self-diagnosis of a kidney stone. I took some Panadol (the trade name here for Tylenol) and was able to sleep another hour or so. But after that the pain got bigger than the Panadol could handle and Kris and I were off for our second visit to Lakeside Adventist Hospital.

I was immediately seen by a doctor. With just a short description of the symptoms, he quickly injected me with a very strong pain killer and I was off to la-la land and pain-free. I was “warded” in the men’s ward, the private rooms all being occupied. I would like to think that the high occupancy rate was due to the high ratings I gave the hospital from my last visit. Poor Kris, she suffered more than I. Mostly, I slept. Whatever they gave me, I was zonked. Without benefit of narcotics, Kris mostly remained awake for the duration and must have been bored out of her mind.

I was surprised to learn that they were keeping me overnight. They scheduled me for an ultrasound and an X-ray on Sunday morning. Kris went home to get some much needed rest and I went back to sleep. The wakeup call in the men’s ward is 05:30. By this time I had been sleeping for almost 24 hours straight, so it was something of a relief to be awakened. Being an Adventist hospital, breakfast was vegetarian, of course. But it was a delicious bowl of black beans and coconut meat with a spicy condiment to pep it up, followed by a crisp apple. No coffee, though, sigh…

But then it was off to the ultrasound room. It turned out that the results were of the good news, bad news, good news variety. The good news was that I had, in fact, succeeded in passing the kidney stone on my right side. The bad news was there was one waiting “on deck” in my left kidney. The good news was that it was small. Then it was off to the X-ray room, where I gather not much additional was learned. Unfortunately, we then had to wait until the afternoon for the doctor to view my X-ray and to release me. So, Kris had another tiring, boring day, sitting in an uncomfortable chair and watching me sleep, but we were out of there by 5PM.

Two days, one night, all meals, all meds, all doctor’s fees, an ultrasound, an X-ray, all radiologist’s fees, total cost: $130.

Back in the US, if I feel another kidney stone coming on, I’m hopping the next flight to Kandy’s Lakeside Hospital. It will cost about the same as going to my local hospital and I’ll get to visit my friends in Sri Lanka again. I may stock up on some Oxycodone first though!


The lush tropical vegetation

We had one of our Sinhala language lessons today and the view from the window was of this gorgeous flowering tree.

Yellow creepers on tree

Yellow creepers on tree

Aiming my camera a little to the left, you can see that this tree is not unique.

Yellow creepers on hillside

Yellow creepers on hillside

Well, we have flowering trees in the US, but what we don’t have as much of are heavy infestations of epiphytic plants growing on those trees. All that yellow one can see in the photos above are the flowers of an epiphytic vine that grows on the trees.

Life is just more abundant here in the tropics.


Good, accessible, explanation of global warming

I just ran across the best, most accessible explanation of global warming I have yet to read. In particular, it addresses two common misconceptions that global warming deniers keep harping on, a) that water vapor is a bigger contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide (so why worry about carbon dioxide?) and b) carbon dioxide is such a small fraction of the molecules that make up the atmosphere (so how can carbon dioxide be having such a large effect?).

Art Hobson’s essay makes the point that water and CO2 are the two major contributors to global warming despite the fact that together they make up less than one percent of our atmosphere. The major components of the atmosphere (nitrogen and oxygen) play no role in the so-called “greenhouse effect.” Second, the key difference between water and carbon dioxide is that when water vapor levels get high, water condenses to form rain, and so the water vapor is removed from the atmosphere. This does not happen with carbon dioxide, so it is the level of carbon dioxide that controls global warming, despite carbon dioxide making up such a small portion of the atmosphere overall.

I will say that the essay is not entirely free of misleading language, in that the essay seems to imply that the levels of water and carbon dioxide are not too different. In fact, the water vapor content of the atmosphere is a few percent, while the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is 0.038 percent. So water vapor molecules are 100 times more numerous in the atmosphere than molecules of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the importance of carbon dioxide levels to global warming is still pretty surprising at first glance.

Art Hobson’s essay is not much longer than a letter to the editor, but it does a good job of getting at the heart of global warming. I recommend it to anyone.


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