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Making sense of ones and zeroes

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Dr. Madhusanka Liyanage: First Sri Lankan to win IEEE Outstanding Young Researcher Award

By Sajitha Prematunge

Oblivious to the laws of physics and before he could even grasp the meaning of the word velocity, he tried to calculate the speed of the bus he was travelling in, by taking into account how long it took the bus to travel between two lamp posts. He was just seven years old then. By grade three he was trying to calculate the light year longhand. It’s not rocket science, it was just a matter of multiplying how far light travelled in a second, by how many seconds there are in a year. But for an eight-year-old to even entertain such an idea, while his peers were still playing cops and robbers, is uncanny.

In any other country he would have been celebrated as a math prodigy. So it came as no surprise when, this year, Dr. Madhusanka Liyanage won the Outstanding Young Researcher Award presented by the Communications Society of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the biggest engineering societies in the world. The award is presented to the 2nd Best Young Researcher in the region, in Liyanage’s case it is Region 8, which included Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 

Award

Research performance of candidates was a major criteria for the Outstanding Young Researcher Award. The number of academic papers published in journals and conference papers produced in the last three years, for example, were graded depending on the ‘impact factor’ of the publication or conference, with contributions to IEEE journals and conferences receiving extra credit. Citations of work in the past three years is also considered, as well as contribution to the society in the form of the number of conferences or workshops organised and journals edited. Positions held within the IEEE society is given special consideration and Liyanage was elevated to the position of senior member this year. “It’s not just my award, my team of students, mentors and anyone else who had helped me throughout my career all played a vital role in my success.”

Born in Udugama, Galle, in 1985 Liyanage is the youngest in a family of three.”Everyone else in the family have a knack for business.” Both his elder brother and sister took after their businessman father, Sunil Ranjith Liyanage. The youngest Liyanage took after his mother, Magalika Hegodaarchthi. When asked whether his mathematics teacher-mother was influential in his academic trajectory, Liyanage readily admitted that she was a positive influence. He was exposed to math at an early age. His mother still fondly reminisces how the six-year-old parked himself at the back row of her math tuition class trying to solve problems meant for 14-year-olds. “Perhaps the exposure motivated me,” said Liyanage. “Math was the only subject that made sense to me. In fact, I am not good at any other subject.” His uncle bought him the book, ‘How to become an engineer’ when he was still in grade three, the math problems in which he avidly devoured. “In fact, I can’t remember a time I wanted to be anything other than an engineer,” chuckled Liyanage.

 

Education

Liyanage received his primary education in Udugama Maha Vidyalaya. The grade five scholarship examination results qualified him to enrol in Richmond College, Galle and A/Ls got him through to the Moratuwa University, where he obtained his B.Sc. Degree, with First Class Honours, in electronics and telecommunication engineering, in 2009. “3G was just rolling out and it was an exciting time to be in the telecommunications field,” said Liyanage. He received a scholarship to Asian Institute of Technology, even before he completed his bachelors. He completed his Master in Engineering (M.Eng.) from the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011. After a year at AIT he moved to France on a dual degree programme, where he obtained a Master of Science (M.Sc.) from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, France.

In 2004, right after his A/Ls he represented Sri Lanka in the 45th International Mathematical Olympiad, held in Europe. Since that first taste of Europe, he had been drawn to it and knew then that one day he would make it his second home. In Finland, considered the base of telecommunication with big-name companies like Nokia and Huawei setting up shop there, Liyanage obtained a PhD in communication engineering from the University of Oulu, in 2016.

Then his path diverged. “I could opt for a job in the industry or stay in the academic track.” He decided to remain an academic. Between 2015 and 2018 he functioned as a visiting Research Fellow at various institutions such as Data61, CSIRO, Sydney, Australia, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s national science agency; Infolabs21, Lancaster University, UK; School of Computer Science and Engineering, University of New South Wales; School of IT, University of Sydney and computer science laboratory LIP6, Sorbonne University.

In 2018, he received the Docentship from the University of Oulu, Finland, within 18 months from the PhD, making Liyanage the only researcher to receive the Docentship so soon. He worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Oulu while engaged in his post doctoral studies. He joined the School of Computer Science, University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland, early this year as an assistant professor and Ad Astra Fellow with the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship. The fellowship is one of highly reputed fellowships offered by the European Union.

 

Research

Liyanage’s main research interest is telecommunication network, 5G and 6G mobile networks in particular, focusing on network security concerns. “The major change we can expect with the transfer from 4G to 5G will be the number of devices that will be connected to the system.” He explained that although we only connect mobile devices such as mobile phones, tabs and laptops to the network, the advent of 5G will allow more devices, such as smart wearables, to be connected to the network. 6G will further expand the horizon to include the whole shebang, or Internet of things (IoT). In lay terms IoT is the network of physical objects, referred to here by ‘things’, that exchange data with other devices and systems over the Internet.

“These new devises don’t have the standard security measures that mobile devises and laptops have, making them more susceptible to cyber attacks.” Liyanage explained that there are only a handful of mobile device manufacturers in the world, consequently all mobile devices have in place stringent security control measures and are required to follow strict standards. “There is a large number of IoT device manufacturers, and are not bound to follow such strict security measures.” Liyanage explained that such devices are susceptible to cyber attacks and can, in fact, be used as entry points for attacks on the 5G network. “Besides some IoT devices are considerably smaller and, therefore, does not have a lot of processing power. Consequently, they cannot support high power security mechanisms.”

Liyanage further explained that even reputed manufacturers of IoT devices, opt out security tests, due to related costs and time constraints imposed by high competition. “A major drawback in 5G is that it is a software controllable network and software based systems are generally more vulnerable than hardware based systems.” He elaborated that 5G is an open architecture platform, which will enable software developers to understand, and possibly manipulate it.

What has the potential to make matters worse is that, after all IoT devices are interconnected, the next step will be to integrate all critical infrastructure such as the power grid, transportation network or water managements systems. “These can be monitored by IoT devices via 5G.” Liyanage pointed out a major security risk arguing that any terrorist or cyber criminal with a decent IoT device could hack into such systems and thereby wreak havoc with any of the aforementioned critical infrastructure.

He explained that 6G will enable the integration of Artificial Intelligence into the system. “It will be a mostly automated, self sustaining network, centrally controlled by an AI. “AI is essentially a good thing as long as it is used for the good,” said Liyanage. But it can also be manipulated to achieve malicious ends, according to him. “For example, if someone creates a malicious intelligent agent, it can identify loopholes in the system and self perform attacks on it.” The sci-fi like evil AI agent stuff may come off like an episode of ‘Person of Interest’, but Liyanage maintains it is entirely plausible. Consequently, he reiterated the requirement of straightening out the AI related security issues before considering launching the 6G system. “We have to consider everything from the data fed to the AI to what kind of effect it will have on the AI and how reliable the AI algorithm will be.”

All these maybe years away and will no doubt have repercussions of global relevance. But what are the more immediate threats at individual level when switching to 5G? “It will have a huge impact on society. So far we only connect mobiles, tabs and laptops to the system.” But with a full-fledged 5G system, expected sometime between 2025 to 2030, a lot more IoT devices will be interconnected via the system. “These devices can collect a lot of personal information. For example, from cameras on mobile phones to smart TVs, every new device comes with a built in camera. It won’t be long before many strap smart wearable that store health information.” Liyanage pointed out that this wealth of personal information, most of which is uploaded on to cloud services, can easily be stolen. “This is a major violation of privacy.” He emphasised that, at an age when everyone in society is connected to the system most of the time by at least one device such as the mobile phone a proper privacy protection mechanism should be put in place to counter such privacy violations.

When asked whether 5G or 6G posed renewed individual financial security threats, Liyanage pointed out that such information is already available on most devices connected to the 4G system. “But they are connected through personal Wi-Fi, which is safe as long as you maintain it password protected.”

Blockchain applications, another research area that appeals to Liyanage, may just provide the solution for a host of these security issues. For those uninitiated in telecommunication networking, Blockchain applications are cryptography used to secure transactions made using cryptocurrency. Blockchain technology became popular a decade ago and gained momentum because of Bitcoin cryptocurrency, the digital equivalent of money. It may be just a bunch of ones and zeroes but daily transactions using cryptocurrency can amount to billions.

“Bitcoin cryptocurrency is a beautiful innovation but what’s more interesting is the technology used to secure transactions made using cryptocurrency, blockchain, because of its applications in other areas such as telecommunication.” Liyanage pointed out that some of the pressing security issues of 5G and 6G can be solved using blockchain technology. “The biggest advantage of Bitcoin cryptocurrency is that it eliminates the third party. For example, if two people want to make a transaction, it has to be done through the bank. But with Bitcoin, transactions can be made direct.”

So, what are its implications for telecommunication? “The same concept can be used in telecommunication,” explained Liyanage. “There are certain instances where a third party is required. Roaming is a case in point.” Roaming allows the use of a mobile connection while outside the range of its home network by connecting to another available network in the country of travel. “To achieve this, the home country service provider should have an existing agreement with the visiting country operator.” When two parties who do not know each other want to enter into an agreement, in order to ensure that both parties keep their end of the bargain, a trusted neutral third party must intervene, and be paid for, for their pains. Blockchain can offer this trust and is far more preferable to a physical third party as is requires no commission. “Anywhere a third party is required, they can be replaced by a blockchain.”

There are many other such applications, according to Liyanage. “It can be used in service-level or SLA agreements. For example, if a user enters into an agreement with a telecommunications service provider, on his or her own terms, a third party must ensure that both parties keep to their agreement.”

 

Multitasker

Liyanage currently supervises nine PhD students and three Master students in four different universities. He is also a visiting Lecturer at Moratuwa University, Sri Jayewardenepura University and Yangon Technological University, Myanmar. In addition to conducting lectures for Undergraduate and master courses at the University College Dublin, supervising postgraduate students, mentoring postdoctoral researchers and functioning as the principle investigator for various national and internal research projects, Liyanage has found time to publish over 100 research articles and three books. When asked how he achieve all this at such a young age, with two masters and a PhD to boot, Liyanage attributes it to his time management skills.

 

“I may not always have my nose in a book, but I manage my time efficiently.” He takes after his parents, who happen to be early birds, waking up at 4 am. From four to eight or nine he dedicates to research work. “Having the satisfaction that I have done my job for the day, I can fool around all I want the remaining 10 hours or so. I think life needs this kind of balance.”

Unlike Sri Lankan students, who are forced to work in the government or corporate sector while reading for a master or PhD, Liyanage didn’t have to sacrifice valuable time on a job unrelated to his field of work. Liyanage was paid to do research and this, he points out is the fundamental difference between European countries and Sri Lanka. “I hardly know any full-time PhD students in Sri Lanka. Most of them are forced to lecture. PhDs require dedication.” He admitted that his academic load of University College Dublin is comparatively low allowing him to dedicate more time to research. Usually a lecturer is required to teach three modules per year, but because he is an Ad Astra Fellow, he is required to teach only one module. “In a bid to encourage research, University College Dublin hired 100 lecturers over a four-year period as Ad Astra Fellows, who would have limited academic load.”

It’s quite the opposite in Sri Lanka, pointed out Liyanage. “There are talented students and lecturers in Sri Lanka, but they are overloaded. Some lecturers are required to teach three modules in a single semester.” He also pointed out the lack of research funding and grants. “It should come from either the government of the corporate sector. To attract good PhD students remuneration equivalent to industry sector salaries must be offered.”

Liyanage’s achievements are not solely academic. The multitasker also has a patent to his credit. During a short stint at General Electronics, their branch in Italy wanted to replace the wired communication mechanism between the head and the tail of trains built by them, with wireless communication. “Because wired connections were a hassle when changing carriages. But wireless communication mechanisms are relatively less secure, because open air transmissions can be intercepted.” Liyanage built a secure wireless communication mechanism, which was patented. When he is not engaged in research, teaching or supervising, Liyanage likes to travel.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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