Monday, December 31, 2007

snippet (3)

(c) Harendra Alwis

... Perhaps if you listen on a silent moonlit night, you may hear it whisper to the ocean the stories it has witnessed of lives that had condensed along the banks of its fertile path, lives it had sustained, nourished and sometimes forcefully taken. Perhaps it boasts of how it flooded low lying plains after heavy rains, or cascaded like a misty veil down the face of an ancient rock on a mountain side. The ocean makes no attempt to hide its amusement as it listens to stories about bridges and dams, about animals that drank cautiously at the river banks and ferries that crossed it many times a day. The ocean consoles the ailing river which proudly deposits the burdensome sediment of its memories on the shore; like offerings of flowers and incense with the prayers and confessions of the faithful at the feet of a motionless statue of a deity. Rich sediment that had been ripped off hills and flooded plains, during times when its waters were young and raging with passion, settle down into fertile islands at the river mouth where it is impossible to know for sure where the river ends and the ocean begins. The calmness of the river now, ridicules any suggestion that it was once a powerful force that violently hurled large rocks in its path and ground them, reducing them with the passage of time to harmless pebbles that little children could play with. Now at the end of a fruitful journey, the river dissolves into the setting sun, with its many arms absorbing the powerful calmness and boundless wisdom of the ocean...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

snippet (2)

(c) Harendra Alwis

...The raindrop that dived out of the cloud was in fact made up of a multitude of tiny droplets; some whisked away by the wind from the boundless ocean, one was robbed from the leaf of a withering plant, a few from rivers and another from the white shirt that belonged to a schoolboy that was washed and hung out to dry by his mother on a bright warm afternoon.
For seconds that lasted an eternity, it careered freely through the cool damp air until suddenly its flight was rudely obstructed by a tender leaf that was perched at the tip of a lofty tree. The shock splattered and dislodged the briefly acquainted droplets and dispersed them in unknown directions into a world full of strangers again.
Some of them almost miraculously avoided further confrontations with the thick green canopy of the forest and fell on to a blanket of rotting leaves. Others unwillingly crawled along the spine of a leaf to its edge, where they dangled nervously for a few seconds and fell onto the lap another, only to trickle down a similar path and saturate in the heavy downpour until they were ready to leap back into the unknown. Some droplets, including the one whose memory was still fresh with the soapy smell of a schoolboy’s white shirt, was caught by a broad mature leaf along which it dripped back towards the stem. From there it began a slow crawl through the valleys and ridges of the bark, passing on its way stranded insects and trails of sap that the great tree had bled.
There, at the end of its pilgrimage, at the root of the oldest, wisest and the most magnificent tree of the forest, the tiny raindrops silently seeped into the bosom of mother earth...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

snippet (1)

(c) Harendra Alwis

... One of the early symptoms of my infatuation was an irrational jealousy. As I watched her from the distance of my dreams and perhaps frustrated by how little of her attention I was able to win, I felt jealous of her dog which had the pleasure of indulging lavishly in her company, which I was wholly deprived of. I felt it a grave injustice that a dog was not only allowed to brush carelessly against her, but she would also gently caress it, whereas I needed an elaborate excuse even to shake her hand. I would be jealous of a dress that hugged her delicate body, bangles that teasingly dangled at her wrist or a necklace that occasionally had the pleasure of playfully wrapping itself around her delicate fingers as if in a maypole-dance. In my secret thoughts, I gained reprisal over the little pendant that, despite its innocent brilliance, was shadowed in oblivion by the radiance of her face. But I could not conceal my envy for the hairpin that breathed in her shiny black hair every day, that despite my irrepressible (though un-confessed) love for her, I had been unjustly denied...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I spent my fourth consecutive Christmas alone – away from the warmer, more familiar sights and sounds of home. Christmas this time around was a bit different. Even though I had to work on Christmas day, I decided not to make an issue of the desolation and hopelessness of the situation. Unlike previous years, I did not yield to the temptation of writing a poignant letter or poem detailing my woes despite knowing only too well that I may never get used to spending Christmas this way.

A few days are all that is left of another year. Perhaps years are just numbers we use to catalogue and file away memories. Does that really make them more accessible and searchable amid their volatility in our minds archives? My Christmas gift is perhaps this rare moment, to reflect on possible answers to such mundane questions.

The number of our revolutions around the sun is undoubtedly a fitting way to keep track of time. It offers useful annual reminders of events that have shaped our lives and the life of greater humanity. But when I look back on my life and on the year that’s about to end, I am amazed at how my mind has compressed a whole years worth of memories into a few seemingly inescapable images that act as cover-pages to vague memories that are bound to them.

Some of those images are of people and things that made the past year memorable. Some of them are pixelated renditions of decisions I have made, each one within a random mix of courage, blind faith, hope, desire, helplessness, grief, ecstasy, ambition...

Yet those images and memories are impoverished in their lack of detail, their inability to recollect the name of a stranger I encountered in a tram, with home I chatted for half an hour about a book I was reading. I am unable to deconstruct the 525600 minutes that made up 2007, let alone recapture even a few that stood out because they were starkly different from the rest. The simple pleasure filled minutes that the past year was studded with, like those I would have spent reading a long, personal letter from a friend, or lying on a little tuft gazing at the stars. My mind vaguely remembers the weeks I spent lost in unbearable grief, but my eyes have forgotten the steady stream of tears that flowed beneath them and flooded my heart.

The gentle flow of time has eroded most of the memories that the past year had created. It has blunted the edges of others and tinted even the most gruesome with a mild hue of romance.

Perhaps it is fitting that memories only offer hopelessly abbreviated and overly romanticised visions of the past, because there is little to be gained by fixating ourselves on the bygones of life, or for that matter on what is yet to come. While the wisdom of the past is meant to be consulted and the promises of the future summoned to inspire us, they can be meaningful instruments only when they are infused in the present moment; for ‘now’ is the only place where the wonders of life unfold.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

it's warm and raining

It’s warm and raining
If I wasn’t working
I’ll be walking
Walking in the rain, thinking
Jumping over puddles, dreaming
But I am not complaining
Because I know the stars are blinking
And my heart is flaming...
Whenever it’s warm and raining

Sunday, December 16, 2007

silent reflections

The night is quiet. The silence has lulled a city to sleep, but the stars are wide awake. If you listen carefully, you might even hear them whisper little secrets among themselves. A crescent moon has just dipped below the city lights, making way for an empty crimson glow to flood the tired streets below. I may have been dreaming, because I thought I saw your reflection in the window. My eyes searched for your deep brown gaze along the streets. My heart traced the forlorn absence of your footprints on the wet pavement. Did I catch a whiff of your dark curls in the cold air? I can’t be sure. Perhaps you walked away in silence. My thoughts followed you through the quiet streets and returned without you. As the stars limp westwards across a cloudless sky, another night will pass, like many before it. I will not dream tonight, so I will not see your beaming smile or hold your hand. But my heart still reserves its throne in the hope that you will come soon. I will lease my eyes another moment to imagine, how tiny sinews will part your lips and dimple your cheeks, to adorn a smile that is already sparkling in your eyes... and that moment will last... until I see your silent reflection in the window again.

Monday, December 10, 2007

4. TIME - The economics

(c) Harendra Alwis

As a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce in a busy world, the value of time has been on the rise, obeying the laws of supply and demand in classical economics. So it may seem obvious to an unsuspecting mind that the notion “time is money” was born out of the haste of our modern, industrialised and computerised world, but it is not. The economic value of time has been acknowledged even in ancient Greece where Antiphon, a Greek speech writer, is credited with the first use of the phrase as a maxim, when he wrote in 430 BC that “The most costly outlay is time.” The notion of time's monetary value has appeared thereafter in many cultures and has been expressed in many different ways.

Despite the value of time being acknowledged as way back in history as ancient Greece, it was not until the dawn of super fast computer networks in the last few decades that time has actually become a publicly traded commodity. To be considered a commodity, time had to be mass produced in sufficiently large quantities, chopped up into measurable chunks, price-tagged and transported to open markets. It was only recently that the technology that enabled the production of time has combined with market forces that demanded it, to make the trade possible and economically viable.

In fact, the industrial scale production of time is perhaps the most lucrative business opportunity that opened up in the 20th century. Predicting the future of markets is at best a guessing game, but considering the growing demand and healthy prices on offer, it will probably continue to show a healthy growth well into the foreseeable future.

Machines that do things faster than us ‘save’ time. So faster cars, faster toasters, microwave ovens that cook food much faster than conventional ovens and barcode readers that process our grocery list faster at supermarket counters have all ousted their slower and therefore inferior predecessors. Among this flood of faster technology, computers are perhaps the closest that comes to being an embodiment of time as a commodity in the material world. Faster computers that presumably carry out more tasks per unit of time are more expensive because they perceivably ‘save’ time. Given the rate at which their prices change however, it is reasonable to believe that the price of time in the open market can be very volatile.

Most computers can only do one thing at a time. Yet they can give us the impression that they can do many things at the same time by switching between each task at speeds that we will never notice. Yet, by letting you type out an email while downloading a movie, while listening to music, while talking to a distant friend on VoIP telephony, computers have become mini-home-based time factories that let us accomplish multiple tasks in one single chunk of time. Late 20th century consumerism is feasting on tempting treats for those of us who want to save time; such as toasters that consume thirty seconds less to toast a slice of bread than its previous model and ‘Door Close’ buttons on elevators that on average save 0.8 seconds of its passenger’s time.

Machines that substitute for us ‘create’ time by freeing us even momentarily from time’s unrelenting grip; so that we may do ‘something else’. Computers today, squeeze in roughly ninety times more work into one second, than they did ten years ago, essentially creating more time than they did then. Washing machines, coffee makers, bread makers, mixers and blenders have unhinged the metal grip of time that held pre-twentieth century housewives captive to a multitude of household chores. They not only allowed the expansion of the economy by allowing the fraction of the productive workforce in society to double, but quantitatively increased average family incomes resulting in an explosion of the middle class. The political as well as socio-cultural revolutions that tore the class-based social structure apart was- in the final analysis - enabled by the spare-time that automation had created in the lives of common men and women.

Thanks to technology that can transport time into the remotest of places and in small chunks, trading time has become ubiquitous and user-friendly interfaces have greatly simplified these transactions. Certain advertising models on the Internet offer payment or other rewards of monetary value for anyone to trade in seconds and minutes of their time to watch advertisements and fill out surveys. Mobile phone calls are billed by the second. Millions of ordinary people in front of computers around the world buy blue-chip stocks, and sell them within minutes for a hefty profit.

It is the paradox of the age we live in however, that as we try to save time by inventing machines that create and add seconds, minutes and hours to our lives, the pace of our lives inevitably accelerates to keep up with them. The vast quantities of time we save and create are ironically spent trying to create and save more time than we can ever spend. It is perhaps the elegance of life’s design that no matter how much time we save or create, they cannot be added to our lifetime. Despite the profits we earn by trading time we are becoming increasingly poorer for not being able to spend any of it on the truly enriching experiences of life. Birds sing outside our windows and flowers bloom and wither in our gardens without being offered a moment from our vast reserves of time, for their music and vivid colours to uplift or inspire us.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

3. TIME - The power

(c) By Harendra Alwis

As much as governments today rigorously guard their atomic clocks and dedicate their best infrastructure to the dispersion of the most permissibly accurate reading of time, kings and emperors of the ancient world commissioned their best mathematicians and astronomers to fine-tune their Calenders. The narrative of the calendar has its humble beginnings over six thousand years ago in Egypt. The Egyptians had a cleverly calculated calendar that was divided into 365 days which consisted of 12 months of 30 days each, three weeks of ten days in each month and 5 ‘wondering’ days.

Calendars held much more significance in ancient China than merely as a way of accounting time. It was a crucial instrument of governance for consecutive dynasties. The first decree that a founder of a dynasty set forth was to pronounce the calendar of the new dynasty together with the element and the colours corresponding to it. At a time when civilization was not technologically sophisticated enough to invent the mechanical clock, it was the calendar that synchronised the lives of their subjects who were scattered across distances that took days, if not months to cross. Kings and emperors of the ancient world therefore, partly derived their power to rule through the calendars they endorsed. It is only the logical transition of history that decrees governments of today to spend as much effort on regulating the clocks that synchronise the lives of their subjects.

It is only narrow judgement and naivety however, that would scorn ancient kings or democratic governments for subjecting their people to the unforgiving rule of clocks and calendars. Synchronisation is a critical necessity for life in organised communities. Our lives today are synchronised by the faster and more conspicuous ticks of a clock than the slow progression of days, weeks and months of our ancestors. Life in their age would have been different from ours, but only by the degree and scale of their obsession with time compared to ours. They would have consulted their Calenders to find days, weeks and months, as we consult the clock to make sure we are in sync with its seconds minutes and hours before we embark on even the most trivial of our daily tasks.

The tragedy of our slavery to time lies not in the fact that it has synchronised our lives with the greater community, but in the fact that perhaps some of us gaze at the clock face far more often than we do the faces of people – even those we love and care for - and for longer. We not only wear the time on our wrists, but even assign high status to those who wear the most sophisticated and expensive watches. The tragedy of our modern conception of time is that even though we erect clocks at the busiest street corners and ration the time we share with loved ones, we fail to even notice how intimate and ingrained our relationship with time is. That is perhaps the only reason why it is not surprising, that the seconds, minutes and hours that tick away on a clock face has more control over our lives than anything else or anyone. Time dictates the function and pace of the organizations we work for and especially in a country that is obsessed with astrology – even the governments that we elect.

2. TIME - for geeks

(c) By Harendra Alwis

If the rising of the sun, the changing faces of the moon, seasonal rains, red autumn leaves and blossoming buds of spring made time’s first impressions on the emerging human conscience, the earliest and most primitive manifestations of our time-consciousness was through song and dance. With it, we could capture, embody and express time as a form of art and art in the form of time. The sweetest songs and the most elegant dances reflect the natural frequency of the human body, the varying speeds of the human mind and the mysterious rhythms of the soul. The precise reading of time is however more critical for governments, business and the military, than it is for musicians and dancers whose biggest loss as a result of a mistimed beat or step would be a song being labelled as ‘hip-hop’ or a dance partner tripping over.

That is why, one of the fastest loops of electronic communication networks in the world are dedicated to the simple task of keeping time. Busily talking to each other through fibre-optic veins that carry infinitesimally short pulses of light and checking, rechecking and correcting each other many million times each second, are atomic clocks, which an ordinary person would probably mistake for a stack of computers. Inside them, vibrating Caesium-133 atoms split each second into 9,192,631,770 parts – conforming to our absolute definition of time. They announce to the world with sureness and authority, the single piece of information that they preserve within – the absolute and most accurate reading of time available to mankind. These are the timekeepers of the world. Heavily armed soldiers that stand guard outside the buildings that house these clocks can only hint at the importance and value of what is contained within. They are protecting an element of the universe that none of them can see or touch, yet it is not an exaggeration to say that time has become perhaps the most ‘valuable’ and critical among all of humanity’s inventions.

If such an accurate reading of time was not available, the first noticeable changes that would debilitate the hastened world we now live in, would be a breakdown in radio broadcasts and telecommunications. That is because radio and TV broadcasts as well as telecommunications operators are trapped in the tight grip of the hands of time, because broadcasts from adjacent towers must be synchronised with great precision to avoid the signals – which are electromagnetic waves - from cancelling out each other. Given the speed of light at which they operate, their clocks have to be constantly synchronised with readings from a network of atomic clocks.

Computers more than any other device are defined by time. With processor speeds doubling almost every eighteen months, modern computers are capable of splitting each second into many millions of parts. Together with fast broadband communication networks, even a simple home computer can be used by a skilful programmer to exploit the time difference of a few millionth of a second between two servers of a bank’s computer system, for money laundering by making double withdrawals from the same account – seemingly at the same time. Unless computer systems in banks and stock-markets around the world are not synchronised with the precision of atomic clocks, most of the largest financial assets of the world will instantly become vulnerable to vandalism and fraud.

There are even more critical reasons that necessitate accurate timekeeping than the synchronization of radio broadcasts, stock-markets and banks. Governments and especially the military depend on the most accurate timekeeping devices ever made to coordinate military operations. The measurements of these clocks are not available for civilian use as the most advanced precision weapons systems including missile guiding systems and aircraft bombers depend on the accuracy of their clocks. It is the accuracy with which they can read time, and thus the accuracy with which they can derive their exact position and velocity aided by the time-stamped pulses of GPS satellites, which ultimately guides them and their deadly cargo, to their intended target. The precision with which time is read by a bomber aircraft can mean the difference between life and death to those who live in warzones.

Civilisation in essence has created a world that is more reliant on time than any other single factor. If we were to be deprived of the simple yet extremely critical wisdom of the atomic clocks for any significant amount of time – paradoxically, perhaps as short a duration as a few seconds - life on earth, or at least a significant portion of the technological and economic advancements we have achieved, will immediately be pushed back by many decades. These atomic clocks directly or indirectly influence -if not regulate- the actions, lifestyles, decisions and choices of individuals and governments, including war and peace.

Monday, December 03, 2007

1. TIME - for laymen

(c) By Harendra Alwis

Time both as a concept and a construct of the human mind, has gripped our lives with it's many tentacles that run through our minds. A majority of decisions that we make in the course of our daily business is at some level, influenced by time. The only way we seem to be able at least have an illusion of breaking free of the grip of time is to talk about ‘saving’ or ‘managing’ it.

Time saving devices and time management philosophies has taken the fore because we have come to think of ‘Time’ as a limited resource. Therefore as any other resource, we trade time in the open market in many ways and forms. We trade hours that add up to days and in days that add up to years, more often for monetary rewards rather than satisfaction or fulfilment, but overall it is a fair trade.

Time is indeed limited because in the grand scheme of things, a lifetime worth of time is all each of us really have. Whatever we gain or lose in life is a result of how well we trade our time for whatever we think it is worth. In the process, some of us loose time here and there on poor bargains or by spending more time than we can afford on things that don’t add any meaning or purpose to life, and with each second we perceive to have wasted, we worry over the scarcity of time and the acceleration of life.

I was mistaken at first to assume that the industrial revolution which started in the 18th century was responsible for sparking off this rapid acceleration of our lives by forcing us to synchronise ourselves with machines and thus get caught up in a never ending struggle to keep up with them. I was wrong, because the acceleration of life actually started a millennium before the industrial revolution, with the invention of the mechanical clock.

Before the invention of the clock; which is believed to have been in the later years of the 8th Century, civilization kept time with the daily cycle of night and day, the changing faces of the moon and the changing seasons. While the heavens kept time for us, our minds would have been free to gaze at the stars without having to feel guilty about ‘wasting our time’ ‘doing nothing’. But the clock changed our perception of the flow of time from an effortless and unhurried motion of the planets and changes that followed the four seasons, to a quickening, hurrying, intensifying feeling that came with each striking second on the clock-face.

It was only with the invention of the clock that we could accurately account for hours, minutes and seconds and could arrange a meeting at 1700 hours and expect all participants to be there ‘on time’ and also expect to be angry when anyone failed to be there on time. That was when life began to be synchronised with machines. The mechanisation of time is however, a creation of the human intellect and it has almost always been in conflict with our biology.

The human heartbeat is almost always out-of-step with the ticking seconds on the clock. The heart feels and responds to our feelings, beating faster when the body demands and slowing down when we are calm and rested. But the clock ticks on coldly with an even beat and we are reminded that time does not wait for anyone, because it does not know or care for anyone - as life does.