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Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel is about a domestic aide robot

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We are hearing and seeing more about robots in the house helping with chores. And really it frightens me. I am glad Sri Lanka is backward in harnessing Artificial Intelligence to have robotic domestic aides.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara and the Sun’ his first since the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded him in 2017 “for works that uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection in the world”, is set in a near-future America, “where the social divisions of the present have only widened and liberal-humanist values appear to be in terminal retreat,” with the robot Klara- Artificial Friend – giving his/her opinions. “The book addresses itself to an urgent but neglected set of questions arising from a paradigm shift in human self-conception. If it one day becomes possible to replicate consciousness in a machine, will it still make sense to speak of an irreducible self, or will our ideas about our own exceptionalism go the way of the transistor radio?” Artificial Friend Klara is a sort of mechanical governess bought by a young teenager Josie, suffering from an obscure illness “At first, Josie’s family is unsure how to relate to Klara: She seems to them something in between an au pair and a household appliance. Ishiguro wrings plenty of pathos from these conflicting attitudes.”

Another facet of the story, as Ishiguro sees it, is the rise of ever more sophisticated technology and the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence creating a permanently jobless class, which in turn has led to mass unrest and top-down repression.

I read and quote from a very long critique titled Kazuo Ishiguro Sees What the Future Is Doing to Us by Giles Harvey writing in the New York Review of Books. He sums up his assessment of Ishiguro thus:With his new novel, the Nobel Prize-winner reaffirms himself as our most profound observer of human fragility in the technological era.”

 

1989 Novel

I was delighted with the article as I had read ‘The Remains of the Day’ (1989), saw the film, and later read ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2005) and found him to be an excellent writer in English. As you know, ‘Remains….’ is the narration of his life story by a faithful English butler, and was awarded the 1989 Booker Prize. James Stevens, the stiff and starchy butler, devotedly serves his lord and master who is a Nazi sympathizer in between the two world wars. He serves without a thought for himself and not permitting the slightest desire to interfere with his daily routines though he is attracted by another of the ‘downstairs staff.’ He realizes his folly too late when he leaves service and drives to seek Miss Sally. She is married by then.

 

The film

You would think that that sort of story would not make a viewer-drawing film, but it did in the hands of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screen writer Ruth Prawer Jhabwalla, the very successful trio. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1994, for Best Film, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Emma Thompson), Best Screen Play, Best Director and Best Production, among others. The cast included Hugh Grant and Christopher Reeves.

 

2005 Novel

My reaction to reading “Never Let Me Go’ was strange to say the least. At the start I thought I was reading an account of a school story which would develop to include love and other happenings. Just kept getting a cold feeling as I read about Kathy, her friend Ruth and the third of a triangle of sorts – Tommy, living normal lives in Hailsham, a progressive boarding school. Then came clammy fear when I realized they were cloned human beings – named ‘donors’ and worse, were to donate their organs to real humans who would be saved but the clones would be ‘complete’ – die in their thirties. The process of donating starts after graduation. Kathy knows what’s coming, and yet she tells her story, and seems to accept her fate, without self-pity or alarm, as though state-sanctioned organ theft were just another one of life’s minor irritations. Ishiguro exposes the defects of our current liberal order, and the selective blindness of its beneficiaries. His comments are relevant to workers who give of their service and even life while the beneficiaries are rich, powerful and of course utterly inconsiderate and unfeeling. Here I thought of our women slaving in the Middle East while the politicos especially back home benefit from their earnings. During the Covid pandemic, these stranded workers were the last to be repatriated and at their cost, after many complaints by thinking members of the public.

Ishiguro said:

“Love and friendship may not survive death, but they grow stronger and deeper right up until the end” This is the moral center of the novel.

The film directed by Mark Romanek in 2010 starred Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and Andrew Garfield. Frankly, I would not want to see it. Donors and transplants are all too common now, but this novel, termed a dystopian tragedy. would be hard for me to watch.

 

Ishiguro’s life

He is a British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer and is one of the most celebrated current ‘men of letters’. Born November 8, 1954 in Nagasaki, to a traditional three generational Japanese family, with Nagasaki developed but standing as a symbol of human destruction. To watch his favorite program, “The Lone Ranger,” Ishiguro had to go to his friend’s next door.

Ishiguro’s father, Shizuo, was an oceanographer whose work on storm surges caught the interest of the British government. In 1960, he moved his young family to Guildford to take up a short-term research job. Like Nagasaki, Guildford was a place of long-established custom. Everyone was white, and yet the new arrivals were warmly received. Ishiguro picked up the language quickly, and learned to turn his foreignness to his advantage, putting it about, for instance, that he was an expert in judo. He also started going to church, where he became the head choir boy. His family believed it was important to respect local ways, however odd they might appear. His father’s employment was extended. Growing up between two cultures, Ish, as everyone now called him, acclimatised himself effortlessly. His mother, Shizuko, schoolteacher, maintained close contact with family back home. To be Japanese was for the growing boy a private source of confidence, but he was firmly rooted in England. It was a relief, when, in the late 1960s, his parents decided to stay for good.

He was a good student and experimented in life. Before studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro hitchhiked around America and held a series of jobs in England, including grouse beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. After graduating, he took a job in an organization in West London that helped homeless people find housing. While there, he met Lorna MacDougall, a social worker from Glasgow, whom he married in 1986. She is Ishiguro’s first and most important reader, and her comments can be unsparing. In 1979, he studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

In his late teens and early 20s, when he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, Ishiguro had shoulder-length hair and went around in torn jeans and colorful shirts. In late October 1983, young writer Ishiguro, who’d recently published his first novel, joined a quarter million people in central London to protest against thermonuclear weapons.

Ishiguro’s first novel – 1982 – when he was 27, ‘A Pale View of Hills,’ written while at the University of East Anglia, is largely set in a Japan of the mind, an imaginary counterfeit of the place and was acclaimed. The following spring, Granta magazine named him on its list of Best Young British Novelists along with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. He decided to quit his job and devote himself full time to writing. He named Charlotte Brontë as the novelist who influenced him most.

He is meticulous in his writing, spending years mulling over a story. Then he draws detailed blueprints for the entire novel, First, he writes very quickly without revisions. He drafts a chapter in longhand; reads it through, dividing the text into numbered sections. On a new sheet of paper he now produces a sort of map of what he has just written, summarizing in short bullet points each of the numbered sections from the draft. Working from this sheet, he then produces a flow chart, which in turn serves as the basis for a second, more painstaking and deliberate draft. When this is finished to his satisfaction he finally types it up. Then he moves on to the next chapter and the process starts again.

By his own admitting he is not obsessive about his writing. ‘Klara and the Sun’ is only his eighth novel. When he does want to, he is capable of going flat out. He produced a first draft of ‘The Remains of the Day’ in a four-week crash, writing from morning till night, stopping only for meals.

“He’s very at peace with himself,” Robert McCrum, a longtime friend and former editor, said. “There’s no darkness in him. Or if there is, I haven’t seen it.”

NOTE: a text formatting issue caused the omission of many words in one paragraph in Nan’s last week’s article; Nan apologizes to her readers for the garbled text.”



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Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small

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‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention

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The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.

 

This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona

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The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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