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Hobson’s or ‘Homben Yana’ choice?

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Way back in the 16th Century, there lived a man in Cambridge by the name of Thomas Hobson.

He rented and sold horses and was the proud owner of a stable that had 40 stallions of all colours and breeds. Anyone who wanted to rent a horse from him to ride the paddock or journey into the far horizon, paid money and got a horse. There was one condition, the renter was not allowed to select the horse. The ‘wanna be’ rider had only one choice. He had to take the horse that was in the stall nearest to the door. It was a simple matter of either ‘take it or leave it.’ When the word spread about this, it became known among possible horse renters that what they got was ‘Hobson’s Choice’.

Yet, they had one guarantee. The Hobson customer always got a horse to ride.

Now let me take you to the ‘Homben Yana’ choice segment of my story. First, let me explain what ‘Homben Yana’ means. You crawl on all fours with your head bent down and your chin digging into the ground. Of course, we don’t have a Thomas Hobson and 40 horses locked up in a fancy stable. What we, the sons and daughters of Sri Lanka have for choice is the one and only Diyawanna Oya to rule us. Sadly, instead of 40 steeds, our inheritance is at least 40 thieves, like in the Ali Baba fable. Oh no, we are certainly not going to get stallions to ride into the glorious sunset simply because we thought we voted sensibly! What we received in return after every election is another five years of Homben Yana prosperity. For 73 years of a pretentious democracy that is all we got. Whatever political choices we made, we ended up with our chin shoved to the ground, that is what I mean when I say we are a “Homben Yana” proletariat that is perpetually crawling an unassailable Calvary.

Sri Lankans stood up proudly and faced the new world with hopes running high when we received our freedom from the Colonial Masters in 1948. Yes, we were a united people of an independent paradise isle. But, from then on it has been a slow slide, as the average Sri Lankan struggled to find answers to the ever-multiplying woes the country’s leadership brought upon its eternally suffering citizens. Let’s look at the recent past, the 21st century. The ethnic war was in full swing when the new millennium dawned in the year 2000. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the 30-year-old carnage ended in 2009 at Nandikadal. That entire story is best left in the past; too many people from all races and all religions suffered when unmarked graves or mounds of earth buried the victims of the miserable war. Then came the hope of peace, along with the blessed promise of prosperity. Things did change, less for some, more for others, but things did change for the better. But, unfortunately, this euphoria didn’t last long. People were forced back to the ‘Homben Yana’ syndrome. Undoubtedly, the minorities got most of the flak.

Presidential elections came in 2015 and Diyawanna Oya changed colours. The winners had a clarion call that reverberated ‘corruption, corruption, corruption’ in flashing neon. Nepotism and power-abuse were also added to the sin-list along with other misdeeds with which the winners branded the defeated. New hopes began to sprout and the Homben Giya ordinary men and women slowly rose to their feet pleading that the new brooms sweep Lanka clean.

A bright and beautiful life filled with marsh-mellow dreams was offered to the masses by the new coalition regime occupying Diyawanna Oya. We, the Homben Yana population of Lanka came out of the blocks like Olympic sprinters, full of whim and vigor. New appointments were made to bring justice to the fore. This committee and that commission went into action to crucify the culprits who supposedly stole from our national wealth. Yes, they erected the cross at Galle Face Green and brought in the nails and the hammer, ‘full of sound and fury’ like the Bard quoted, but alas! There was no one to crucify. Everyone walked away, as innocent as new born babies; it appeared the new brooms didn’t sweep at all. I only read in the papers the likes of a school principal who was sentenced to 5 years of rigorous imprisonment for taking a bribe to admit a student to her school!!!

We can leave all that for now and take a time-out to give a rousing cheer to 007 the Bond man who came from Singapore. Of course, he had friends and that too in the right places. So, he did what he wanted to do and high-tailed it to Singapore and perhaps, as I write, is sipping a chilled Margarita sitting on a wicker chair in the prestigious Raffles Hotel. And we who have lost 11 billion (could be much more – I don’t know) came back to our Homben Yana status while helplessly despising Diyawanna Oya for its unbelievable tomfoolery! There goes a pompous fairy-tale, if ever there was one.

2019 brought in another change. Those who had been in the freezer for 5 long years marched back to the Diyawanna Oya like saints on parade. A few new faces were in the team but most were the same horses that ran the old race. As for us, our hopes skyrocketed as high as kites. Before anyone or anything could settle into the minted path of prosperity, Covid-19 took over the entire planet. Everybody was swimming upstream in the waters off a busted dam and everybody was blaming everything on the Corona Pandemic. Between election gatherings and Port City scrambles and opening LCs for luxury cars the government got their priorities mixed up. If Sri Lanka trimmed their boast of controlling Corona to a whisper and got their act together, I am sure we could have done better in handling the ramifications of the pandemic. 2/3 majority and 20th amendment were handy tools to govern with, but unfortunately Corvid -19 would not give a hoot to all that autocratic power.

It all boiled down to how well the planning was done and how efficiently the powers handled the situation. Today most people have become partners of the ‘Homben Yana’ clan, not by choice, but by sheer circumstances. Everyone knows that with the current time and mood it is difficult to govern, but the question is are we handling the catastrophe in the best possible way or have we become poor ‘also rans’ with no clear answers in sight? When a young university student told me that she and her mother and father shared a packet of rice for the day, doesn’t that tell the whole story? That’s all they had to eat. It is not just them, but millions who live below the poverty line suffer a similar fate.

In the current state of the country the future does look fractured and bleak. The front pages of the newspapers are always full of political tugs-o-war and on the evening TV “Face the Nation” is filled with the ‘wise’ and the ‘not-so-wise’ lambasting their party oppositions mostly in a meaningless melee. All that is fine for us the ‘Homben Yana’ TV audiences. But what is difficult to stomach is the senseless and super-stupid arguments some ‘Kade Yana’ buffoons bring out to defend their political godfathers. Many a truth is crushed and trampled and discarded and we watch the programs like fools simply because we have no choice. Whether they be ‘in power’ or ‘out of power’ seldom would we hear anything that resembles the truth.

So where can the average you and I find the logic to cast our vote? How do we evaluate the pros and cons of Diyawanna Oya to come to some reasonable conclusion to nominate a candidate? … Come election time do we follow the same script as we did for 73 years and send some local Einsteins to parliament. Are we going to get our usual Hobson’s Choice? Are we willing to go another 5 years dragging our chins on the ground with yet another ‘Homben Yana’ result?

As far as Diyawanna Oya is concerned in its current state in July 2021 one can see a ripple or two of discontentment that crawls like a weed-clogged wave. Looks like the horoscope is indicating possibilities of turbulence and probabilities of apple-carts tumbling down. All that is fine, but what is the answer for the long-suffering denizens of Mother Lanka? Whom do we vote for? Sure, among the so-called exalted leaders of the land there are a few who toe an honest line. Honest and determined people who want to change the tide. But would they get the ballot to be selected?

Three more years to run before we go to the polls again. It is difficult to know what is in store as the Covid-19 is currently dictating terms and no one has the faintest idea how long this miserable pandemic will last.

Apart from all that if the world manages to tame the virus and the next Sri Lankan election comes around we will have another chance to select whom we want.

So much for the choices we make. Will we ever learn that we are ‘choice-less’?



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Features

English in Mathematics

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By R.N.A. de Silva

 

“Which subject did you have most difficulties with, having switched the medium of instruction from Sinhala to English?” I posed this question to a Sri Lankan student who was following a pre-University course in an educational institution in Hong Kong, having completed studies up to the GCE Ordinary Level programme in the Sinhala medium in a leading girls’ school in Colombo. “It is definitely mathematics,” she replied. Having served as a teacher for a long period of time at this educational institution with students from over 80 countries, I realised the above-mentioned view was shared by other students, too, who had to change the medium of instruction to English. This does not seem to make sense as one would have expected mathematics to be the easiest subject to follow as it has its own symbolic language. Why then has this situation arisen?

I would like to separate these difficulties into two categories:

1. Hastiness due to mindset

2. Vocabulary issues

Sometimes hastiness can automatically occur due to the mindset that mathematics should be easy to follow even if you change the medium of instruction as you are dealing with symbols. This attitude can cause enormous problems as students may skip instructions or avoid reading the question fully and concentrate only on the symbolic part of the problem

As an example, consider the following question.

The graphs of lines 3y = 5x + 1 and 2y = 7 – 3x intersect at point P. Find the coordinates of P.

Seeing the word ‘graphs’ and the two equations, a student maybe tempted to draw the graphs of the two lines and thereby find the point of intersection, which is a time-consuming affair. If it was read properly, the student could have noticed that the solution can be obtained by solving the two equations algebraically, which is much more efficient.

To a fast reader, obtaining the correct answer to the following question can be a problem as it may end up with just finding the value of x.

If 2x+3 = 5x-3, find the value of 2x+3.

The students need to be trained to read the question fully and understand what is required to be done, before attempting it.

The time spent to grasp the aim of the question is not wasted time.

Many children consider mathematics as an alien language consisting of symbols and expressions. Most of the difficulties that students encounter is related to vocabulary. The mathematical interpretation of the meaning of a word may differ from the meaning given to it in the English language. The word ‘find’ in mathematics means to obtain an answer showing the working while in the English language, it refers to discover or search. The following sketch shows the funny side of this difference.

Two of the words that has caused much confusion are ‘or’ and ‘and’.

In general usage, A or B is considered as either A or B but not both, as shown in picture.

However, in mathematics ‘A or B’ means ‘it can belong to A or B including intersection’. This is shown in picture.

The above, in normal usage is interpreted as ‘A and B’. However, in mathematics A and B refers to only what is common to A and B as shown in picture.

Here are the mathematical meanings of some of the other words which can have a different meaning with the English language definitions.

Determine

– Obtain the only possible answer

Plot

– Mark the position of points on a diagram

Write down

– Obtain the answer (Working need not be shown)

Constant

– A number that does not change

Similar

– Having the same shape but not the same size

Deduce

– To show a result using known information

Operation

– A procedure such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.

Element

– A member of a set

Volume

– The extent of space occupied by a solid

The following illustrate some of the difficulties that the difference of meanings brings:

How odd these odd numbers are? The even numbers are even stranger.

Don’t be mean and help me to find the mean of these numbers.

Is right angle the right answer? Let me write it on the board.

The polysemous nature of some of the mathematical terms make it confusing for the students in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Mathematical terms have precise definitions to describe numerical relationships. At times these definitions resemble the everyday usage meaning but there are instances where the definitions notably differ. Consider ‘in general’ as an example. In mathematics there can be no exceptions to a result if it is considered to hold in general. However, in everyday usage, if a claim is said to be true in general, it would mean that it is true most of the time, but exceptions are possible.

To add to the problem, there are some terms such as ‘degree’ that can have many different meanings within mathematics while having a different meaning in everyday use. In mathematics, degree can refer to the measurement of an angle, the complexity of an algebraic equation and a unit of temperature.

Although mathematics deals essentially with symbols, it is taught through the medium of language which is the major means of communication. Students build understanding as they process ideas through language. It is important for students to give emphasis to the familiarisation with the mathematical vocabulary and at the same time understand the difference of meanings of terms mathematically and everyday usage. Teachers have an important role to play here in highlighting such terms and using them in different contexts for comfortable acclimatization. As Marcus Quintilianus quoted, “One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”

(The author is a senior mathematics examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organization and a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo.)

 

 

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Features

Success with debut single

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Fred-James Koch: Lots of airplay for ‘I’m Runnin’

 

Fred-James Koch seems to be more in the news, these days, than his illustrious father, Alston Koch.

The turning point in Fred-James career is, undoubtedly, the Hollywood film ‘Night Walk.’

His role in the film is two-fold – actor and singer.

It’s, in fact, his singing of the theme song, ‘I’m Runnin,’ that has generated quite a lot of excitement, among music lovers.

The song is now being heard, world-wide, over radio (in Sri Lanka, on Sun FM), while the video, too, has been seen by many, on social media.

An Australian magazine, ‘Music Injection,’ had this to say about Fred- James:

“Fred- James Koch has written an incredible theme song for the movie ‘Night Walk,’ called ‘I’m Runnin.’ Just released, this song is engaging and gives us a sense of urgency, as the song builds. Fred-James vocals have a unique tinge to them and with the video having scenes from ‘Night Walk,’ it encourages me to watch the movie. ‘I’m Runnin’ features AZ Sheriff.” – Jen.

Following the debut spin for ‘I’m Runnin,’ on The Music Director programme, on 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne, the track was also played on the All New Saturday Ausmosis programme.

And, guess what! It’s now No. 3 on the Australian Top 20 Download chart. and No. 2 on the Australian Top 20 Stream chart.

 

 

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Features

Inklings of change in national reconciliation policy

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By Jehan Perera

 

The government comfortably overcame a vote of no-confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel.  Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no-confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost.  Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences.  The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together.  The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together. 

An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war.  The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies.  They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed.  It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the President’s current term in 2024.

On his part, the President has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong.  The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives.  In his early period in office, the President has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments.  It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do.  But the President evidently trusts them and they are his support base.  Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party.  Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making. 

 

CHALLENGE EXCESSSES

However, there is a need to challenge the excesses.  The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts, including the Supreme Court, to have deliberately killed children and (adults, eight in all), outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most.  However, the President is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance.  Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities.  The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to accredit other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression.  The military hierarchy who will head the KDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.

The KDU law needs to be opposed as indeed the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has urged along with opposition political parties.  At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives.  For instance, they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process.  There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.  The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community.  This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government. 

However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka, emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation.  All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece.  Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold.  The first is the increased visibility of the US Embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties.  The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US Embassy delegation, led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.

 

CHANGING WINDS

The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation, emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz.  This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence.  The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK.  This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights. 

The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section in which it mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”  This is the first official indication that the Government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze is own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international assistance. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.

Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree, who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation.  He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now.  If the President is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broad base his support at multiple levels.  He will not only need the support of the ruling party, led by his brothers, as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties.  This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from past and chart a reconciliatory course of action.

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