Thursday, April 26, 2012

Trishaw driver carrying 14 students nabbed

This is what the Daily News reported.

The question is how did he fit them all in? The report states that the students were between five and thirteen years old. I can imagine four or five sitting in the back seat and a similar number standing. Perhaps two could have been fitted in with the driver but that still accounts for only twelve at most.

Perhaps it was one the slightly larger models, instead of the standard ones?

Either way its pretty amazing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Anita Pratap on Prabakharan

I've mentioned before that I have run out of books to read, so I've been upturning the shelves at home, looking for something that would help while away the time. 

I stumbled on Bill Bryson's Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, a delightful read not just of the history of English in America, but of many quirky historical facts, for which alone the book is worth reading.

I have also been reading Anita Pratap's Island of Blood, which has proved to be more interesting than I thought. A friend of mine gave me his copy a couple of years ago and suggested I read it. I never bothered, I had heard a lot of hype about it and had thought it overrated, but in my desperate search for reading matter picked it up a few days ago.

She has no style to speak of, there is no elegance or grace in her writing. Nor so far have I seen anything remotely erudite or philosophical, this is just straightforward, punchy reportage, but quite readable. She tells a fairly good story and the writing has a ring of authenticity to it. A couple of passages are worth summarising. I will try and put them into context .

(The interview takes place some time after the battle of Elephant Pass.  She notes that he is now a lot more assertive and cadres treat him with a new deference. No one calls him 'Thambi' anymore, there is none of the backslapping camaraderie between Prabakaran and the cadres that was there a year ago).

I asked Pirabhakaran the question that had been haunting me for a year and a half: Why hadn't he opted for peace when it was in his grasp? After all, Premadasa had virtually given Eelam to them on a platter. Pirabhakaran denied that they had started the war and laboured the Tiger version of events, that the Sri Lankan army had violated their agreement and come out of their barracks. And anyway, he said, 'We don't want Eelam on a platter. We will fight and win Eelam. 

That then, was the crux of the matter, the reason for the fresh violence. Pirabhakaran did not want anybody else's version of Eelam -he wanted his own, an Eelam that he liberated militarily. 'Thousands of my boys have laid down their lives for Eelam. Their death cannot be in vain. They have given their life for this cause, how can I betray them by opting for anything less than Eelam? he asked. 

He didn't see the conundrum they were in-by fighting for the dead he was engineering the death of the living. Unable to bury the past, he was digging a burial ground of a nation. I told him that at the rate he was going, it would have not be an Eelam but a graveyard that he would create. If Eelam finally dawned, expatriate Tamils would rejoice but by then, most Tamils in their homeland would be six feet under. Pirabhakaran scoffed at the idea.

In some ways those words would prove to be strangely prophetic.

These remarks also reaffirm, in my mind, that Prabakaran never wanted peace except on his own terms, which is why he undid the CFA, first by ensuring that the UNP was defeated and second by restarting the war, breaking the ceasefire. It was CBK who precipitated the fall of the UNF Government by seizing the ministries, but the Tigers eagerly seized the opportunity to boot the Government out.

The Tigers brought a terrible end on themselves and they took the Tamil people down with them. 



Sunday, April 22, 2012

Deaths in custody, a growing trend

There is a persistent problem with  deaths in custody. No one seems to have kept a total score but putting together the various summaries published makes for disturbing reading.

There were six between March 2011 and April 2012. There were ten between February and October 2010. There were about thirty two in 2009 and about twenty six in 2008. There were only two in 2002.

Although the numbers have fallen from the levels of 2009, there still seems to be a persistent recurrence of the problem and no one seems to want to ask why.

First, why are deaths in custody different from random murders that take place? The difference arises because an arm of the state is potentially involved. Given that the State is supposed to ensure the safety of its inhabitants (not just its citizens, anyone who happens to be around should also enjoy the same level of safety) this is a serious problem. The guardian has, in effect, turned aggressor.

Deaths in custody can cover a wide range of situations. The UK's Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody lists the following areas that are covered by its remit: "deaths, which occur in prisons, in or following police custody, immigration detention, the deaths of residents of approved premises and the deaths of those detained under the Mental Health Act (MHA)". It is something that can occur anywhere, even a suicide in prison is covered.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons in its report on deaths in custody defines its approach thus:

1. When the state takes away the liberty of an individual and places him or her in custody, it assumes full responsibility for protecting that person’s human rights—the most fundamental of which is the right to life. This right, and other human rights which protect people detained by the State, now form part of our law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Yet at a time when we have finally abolished the death penalty in the United Kingdom and few of our prisoners serve whole-life sentences, too many still die in custody. Some of these die, of course, from natural causes. A few are killed by fellow inmates. Others die as a result of actions of officers of the state, often without charges being brought or an effective remedy being made available to family and friends. Most deaths are ‘self-inflicted’, with yet more people in custody, especially women, inflicting upon themselves life-threatening injuries, but surviving.

2. Each and every death in state custody is a death too many, regardless of the circumstances of the person who dies.

The duties of the state towards detainees flows from relevant Human Rights laws. These are not abstract, esoteric issues, they concern the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. They need to understand why these are important, ultimately to protect their own interests, and in the case of the long list of unfortunate victims, their lives.

The fundamental issues need to be addressed and the problem rooted out at its source, otherwise who knows when the next victim will be claimed?


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gavin Menzies - '1421, The Year China Discovered America' is a work of fiction

I ran out of reading matter just before the Avurudu holidays. While desperately searching for something to read, I came across my brother's copy of 1421.  I had seen this before but never got around to picking it up.

I started reading it but found it a bit hard going. Not that it was difficult to read but it was a bit difficult to take in all that he was saying. Although no scholar, I am a keen student of history and I found the book problematic.  The author seems to keep jumping to conclusions or trying very hard to twist the facts to fit his idea. He never seems to consider alternative explanations for facts and the claims he makes get bigger and bigger.

This afternoon I did a bit of research on the book. Although based on some facts, many of its claims are fictitious. Dr Geoff Wade of the National University of Singapore believes this is a violation of the British Trade Descriptions Act of 1968. Having read his argument, I think he has a very important point. Libraries are the repositories of knowledge, publishers who misclassify books will mislead many and do great disservice to the furtherance of knowledge.

I had read about a third of the book when I came to write this, I'm not going to finish it.

Looks like I will have to find another book to keep me amused.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik and the LTTE

Anders Breivik is currently is about to go on trial for a massacre of 77 people in Oslo. Sections of the local press have been trying valiantly to find parallels between him and the LTTE, the objective of which seems to be:

a) to prove Western hypocrisy
b) prove that the fight against the LTTE is the same as the West's battle against miscellaneous evils, from Al Quaeda to the odd psychopath.

I don't think anybody takes this very seriously, although people trying to draw parallels even saw a resemblance between the coastline of Sri Lanka and the area of Norway in which the massacre took place. Having a little time I decided to do a little research, to test the veracity of these claims.

Anders Breivik's 'manifesto' is available online. I skimmed it and found one reference to the LTTE and one to Sri Lanka.

The tract as a whole is against Islam and other anti-Western influences which he perceives to be destroying Europe. According to him these influences are disguised under the cloak of 'multiculturalism' and will eventually destroy Europe. There is nothing new in this, plenty of right-wing nationalist parties have similar views and pages 1244-1250 of the manifesto list many of these.

In any case, why such a racist should see anything positive, let alone be influenced by the LTTE is a mystery. His one reference comes on page 1,479 (of 1,518 page manifesto) and refers to physical fighting. To quote the relevant paragraph:

Fourth Generation War is normally characterised by a “stateless” entity fighting a state or regime (the EUSSR). Fighting can be physically such as Hezbollah or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to use two modern examples. In this realm the 4GW entity uses all three levels of Fourth Generation War. These are the physical (actual combat; it is considered the least important), mental (the will to fight, belief in victory, etc) and moral (the most important, this includes cultural norms, etc) levels. Fighting can also be without the physical level of war. This is via non-violent means. Examples of this could be Gandhi’s opposition to the British Empire or by Martin Luther King’s marches. Both desired their factions to deescalate the conflict while the state escalates against them, the objective being to target the opponent on the moral and mental levels rather than the physical level. The state is then seen as a bully and loses support.

It is rather far-fetched to look at the above quote and claim that he was inspired by the LTTE, or for that matter Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group, mentioned in the same breath. Many opponents of multiculturalism will however find plenty to draw on in Breivik.

This article claims that "The killer’s manifesto also referred to the Anuradhapura massacre in 1985 and the slaughter of Muslims at the Kattankudy Mosque, in August 1990", neither of which I can locate in the manifesto.

It goes on to say that the "Sri Lanka mission in Oslo has said it would be important to study how the LTTE had influenced Breivik and the circumstances leading to the 33-year-old Norwegian following the Sri Lankan terrorist group".

If this is indeed what they intend doing perhaps they should desist, unless they want to run the risk looking rather foolish.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


A friend wanted to know where she could buy a wrist bag to hold her Blackberry device.

The problem with little wrist pouches is that they tend to swing around and knock into things, which is the last thing that one wants with a Blackberry since the screen is quite vulnerable. My friend's brother and I were of the same view so we advised against this, pockets are the safest option.

The problem is that women's clothes don't have roomy pockets, if they have them at all. Even trousers or jeans don't have proper pockets. It seems that designers avoid pockets because they leave ugly bulges that spoil the line of the garment. Women are thus forced to carry bags in which they have to put all their valuables, which is why it common to see women on the floors of nightclubs dancing with their bags in hand or why male friends are seen standing outside women's loo's holding onto friend's bags.

Whether designers omitted pockets because they believe that women carry bags around or whether women are forced to carry bags because of a lack of pockets I do not know. Not only must women suffer the indignity of wearing uncomfortable shoes, it seems she must also put up with impractical clothing for the sake of a masculine aesthete.

Any views to share, ladies?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The vanishing middle class

A friend said something quite surprising a couple of days ago. There is hardly a middle class left, just a small circle of the very rich and a large mass of the less well off.

My friend has a small flat in Borella that he was trying to sell for around Rs.15m that has attracted very limited interest. I have another friend who has a nice house in Kotte for sale for Rs.21m and he has been waiting for over two years with no serious offers.

My friend thinks, there is fair interest for houses upto a value of about Rs.4-5m. There is also not much difficulty in disposing a flat at Monarch, Empire City, Emperor or Iceland for Rs.70m+. Houses and flats in the range of Rs.10-25m, prices that should be affordable to the middle class, bring forth very few buyers.

I think consumption taxes and price increases over the past decade have hit the middle class disproportionately, while they have (in general) been unable to cash in on the big deals that have taken place over the past few years.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tremor detected in Colombo 2

People in the Sampath Bank building at Navam Mawatha, Colombo 2 detected a slight tremor in the building roughly around 2.30pm. Some saw their teacups shake other saw signboards swaying or felt their chairs shake.

People rushed out of the building and stayed outside for about 20 minutes before returning in.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A cure for hiccups?

I had a sudden attack of hiccups last afternoon. It was annoying, embarrassing and, after a while, a little painful. I searched on the internet for remedies. I tried swallowing air, unsuccessfully. Warn water was a little more helpful, it reduced the intensity but did not cure.

I exercised in the evening and it disappeared after that, but reappeared as soon as I had dinner. After about half an hour my throat was beginning to get a little sore from the hiccuping so I drank a tablespoonful of bees honey. It soothed the throat and cured the hiccups immediately.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Sri Lanka's economy grows 8.3%

The economy has apparently recorded a growth of 8.3% in 2011, a record but this particular citizen does not feel particularly well off.

One reason is that my pay has been stuck at virtually the same level as it was in 2008. Wages were frozen due to the poor performance of the company. There were also unfortunately, too few job opportunities opening, and what ones that did open up were taken by 'Sri Lankan 'returnees', fleeing recession in the West, so I was unable to shift to a better job. Expenditure, however has been growing steadily.

I more or less gave up alcohol a few years ago, it was simply getting too expensive and I constantly thank the heavens that I don't smoke but despite my frugal habits things have been getting expensive. The official inflation indicator omits both of these so I'm roughly in line with that at least, but still the costs keep mounting.

I remember telling a friend when we were budgeting for trip in the mid 1990's that we only needed to budget for the meat items, however many vegetables we bought it would never come upto more than 500-600 rupees. Now buy a handful of vegetables or fruit and you are down two thousand rupees.

What exactly does the growth in GDP mean to me?

Well, to start with, it is a fairly crude measure of output, have a look at the definition for GDP. It is generally stated in real terms, which means after discounting inflation. One problem with Sri Lanka's GDP number is that the inflation index probably understates real inflation because it omits items like tobacco, alcohol and has been re-jigged a few times to show lower numbers. Second it just adds Government spending, whether productive or not, so high levels of Government spending contributes to an improved GDP growth rate, even if it does not benefit a large number of its citizens.

When GDP numbers are a bit ropey, a good proxy on growth is energy consumption. I have been looking at the units of electricity sold over the last few years and this shows a few surprises, see table below.

Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010

Electricity sales 7,832 8,276 8,417 8,441 9,268

Growth in electricity
5.67% 1.70% 0.29% 9.80%

Electricity generated 9,389 9,814 9,901 9,882 10,714

Electricity lost 1,557 1,538 1,484 1,441 1,446

Loss as a % of sales 19.88% 18.58% 17.63% 17.07% 15.60%

Historically, I believe Sri Lanka's economy has grown at around 1.5 times the growth in electricity usage. Looking at the table above, 2008 and 2009 were rather lean years, while 2010 was a bumper one, which corresponds more or less to my own experience. Unfortunately the data for 2011 was not available. The data was taken from the Central Bank's Socio-economic data 2011.

What is also interesting is the wide gap between electricity generation and electricity sales. Does this represent losses in transmission and piracy? If so it is pretty serious, some 15% of electricity generated has been lost in 2010, although it is an improvement from the 19.88% in 2006.

Coming back to my own problems, growth to me means improvement in my lifestyle, which in turn is dependent on two things; my income and my expenditure. My income depends on the availability of jobs, the more jobs there are in relation to workers, the greater the price paid. What determines job creation? In a word, investment. Investment that creates jobs.

The second factor is the cost of living - the further my hard earned rupee can go, the better off I will be.

Some sectors have undoubtedly recorded good growth, tourism and its allied industries, motor vehicle sales, construction, banks and leasing companies. People working for these sectors of the economy should have seen growth in their incomes although some of this would have been offset by increases in prices.

Perhaps I'm just in the wrong sort of job. Most of the investment has come from existing companies expanding their operations so while there has been an increase in direct customer service type jobs, from salesmen to waiters, to drivers to maids,to cashiers and cooks, there has been little demand for back office work of that would suit an 'Office Wallah' like me. These usually come when new companies are set up which usually means new investors, either locally or from overseas. This has been lacking, people who are already in business are willing to expand a bit here and there, put up a new hotel or a block of flats, especially when interest rates are low. The big new investments have been in basic infrastructure and seemed to be manned by the Chinese.

If I wait patiently and growth continues at this rate, perhaps the benefits will trickle down to me. With interest rates and taxes on the rise that is beginning to look a little unlikely.

Update 16.4.2012

Electricity consumption grew 8.2% in 2011 to 10,024Gwh, slower than in 2010, but still healthy. Losses between generation and sales dropped to 13%. More info here.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

St Bride's, the journalists church, faces closure.

St Brides, a beautiful church in the city of London, just off Fleet Street, faces closure due to the deterioration of its spire. They have not received funding from the state and have now launched an appeal to private donors.

A short video on the church is on Youtube.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Children's Encylopaedia by Arthur Mee

I started to read rather late as child, having a grandmother who would read stories being the probable cause of the delayed start. When I did start to read it was with Enid Blyton but having developed the habit, I would pick up any book that I came across. Fortunately there were plenty of books around and one particular set, The Children's Encyclopaedia was a favourite.

The Encyclopaedia (in several volumes) occupied a shelf in my grandfather's bookcase. It had been bought in the 1930's for my mother and her siblings. Beautifully written in an elegant, if slightly old fashioned prose, it presented heaps of facts in a uniquely interesting way. I would spend many an afternoon with a volume in my lap, reading it almost like a novel.

I've just discovered that the joy that this brought me was shared by others and someone has even put a part of it on the web. Some copies are even for sale on Amazon! (although this is a 1963 edition it looks almost the same) An infestation of termites destroyed all those lovely books, but I'm toying with the idea of buying the copy on Amazon. Have a look at the bits that are on the web.

For some further info on the books, see here.