20 January 2019
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Waiting for the circus to come to town again

parlimentAs agonizing suspense finally ends with the dissolving of the 14th Parliament of Sri Lanka, unlamented and unsung as well it ought to be, a palpable sigh of relief palpitates through the land.

A boot stamping on a human face - forever - JaveriaYounes

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Perhaps the author of these words, George Orwell, could not have expected his prophesy would materialize quite as it has today. Torture has become a hard-hitting reality of our time; it is no longer an issue of prisonersof war or alien combatants. It has now seeped into the very core of our society and the criminal justice system. Read more...

Criminal justice processes incapable of ending torture

june 26The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has over the past 15 years documented close to 3,000 cases of torture from Asia. Most of these cases are reported through AHRC's Urgent Appeals Programme by partner organisations working in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, Philippines, and Thailand. Read more...

How close to finding alien life?

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The search for life beyond Earth has heated up. Here are some of the ways that scientists have been thinking and talking about it.

In recent years, astronomers have become increasingly certain that planets are common in our Milky Way galaxy. It’s possible that every single star we see at night has at least one planet. That would mean a hundred billions planets, at least, in our Milky Way alone. According to a recent study, it’s possible that most stars have planets in their habitable zones, an area around stars within which liquid water – and therefore life as we know it – can exist. How many of those worlds are inhabited by simple or complex life forms? And when will we on Earth discover alien life? Follow the links below to learn more:

Microbial life vs. little green men

Next steps in the search for life beyond Earth

Where is everybody?

Biologists recently measured chemical fingerprints for 137 different microorganism species, in hopes that astronomers will use the colors to recognize life on distant planets. Here are a few of the 137 microorganism samples used in the catalog. Read more about this study. Image via Hegde et al. / MPIA
Microbial life vs. little green men It would be awesome if, like Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, scientists involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) suddenly realized that incoming radio signals could have originated only from an intelligent alien civilization. That discovery would be world-shaking, to say the least.

But – since we have absolutely no idea when or if that discovery might occur – ongoing discussions of life beyond Earth among most astronomers today typically focus more simply. When you hear today’s astronomers speak of finding life on other worlds, they’re most often talking about microbial life.

Microbes are single-cell organisms. They’re so tiny that millions can fit into the eye of a needle. They’re Earth’s oldest form of life, dating back more than 3.5 billion years, hundreds of millions of years before the age of dinosaurs. Could there be microbial life on other worlds in our solar system, and if so how close are we to finding it?

It seems that – according to scientists – we’re pretty close.

Earlier this month (June 16, 2015), NASA and university scientists hosted a panel in Washington D.C. to discuss the latest advancements in the search for life, with the focus on habitable planets. Another similar discussion – focused on water in the universe – was held on April 7, 2015, also in Washington D.C. At the April discussion, NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan made a bold statement when she predicted that we would find “strong indications” of microbial life within a decade and “definite evidence” of it within 20 to 30 years.

At the same time, NASA also released an infographic outlining evidence for or indications of water on a number of worlds in our solar system. Those worlds with possible water include the dwarf planet Ceres, now being orbited by the Dawn spacecraft, a world with two mysterious bright spots that might be icy plumes. And NASA included Jupiter’s moon Europa on its new infographic. This month, NASA announced that it was moving forward with plans to send a spacecraft to study Europa, which was found recently to have salt water in the dark fractures on its surface. That salt water is presumably from the liquid ocean thought to lie below Europa’s frozen crust.

Remember, water is needed for life as we understand it, even microbial life.

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Next steps in the search for life beyond Earth On April 15, 2015, astrophysicist Mario Livio, writing in Nature, said:


The most intriguing question in astronomy is, in my view, whether life exists in our galaxy beyond the solar system. Thanks especially to the Kepler space telescope, we know that the galaxy is teeming with hundreds of millions of Earth-sized planets in the ‘habitable zones’ of their host stars that allow for liquid water on a rocky surface …

A more powerful telescope will be needed to place meaningful statistical constraints on how common or rare life in the galaxy is. One with a mirror at least 12 meters across and with a resolution 25 times that of Hubble’s would be able to image a planet next to its star and detect spectrally the presence of oxygen and other biosignatures in its atmosphere.

WFIRST/AFTA [Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a proposed space observatory selected by National Research Council committee as the top priority for the next decade of astronomy] should be able to detect a planet 1 billion times fainter than its star; a brightness contrast of 10 billion will be required to image an Earth analogue next to a sun-like host star …

A large sample of planets — around 50 — would have to be tested. Calculations show, for example, that if no biosignatures are detected in more than about three dozen Earth analogues, the probability of remotely detectable extrasolar life in our galactic neighborhood is less than about 10%.

Note Livio’s use of the word biosignatures. That’s an important new buzzword in the alien life search. A biosignature is any substance – any element, isotope, molecule, or phenomenon – that provides unmistakeable scientific evidence of past or present life on another world. Scientists who study extrasolar planets, aka exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – are increasingly optimistic that we will eventually find biosignatures on worlds far beyond our solar system, many light-years away.

In July, 2014, NASA representatives said at a public talk on extraterrestrial life that the agency would continue the search for life with the launch of at least three future space observatories. They are:

– The Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS), scheduled for launch in 2017. It’ll search for exoplanets, using the same technique as the very successful Kepler Space Telescope. Thanks to Kepler, we now know 4,601 exoplanet candidates, with 1,021 planets confirmed, but only eight of Kepler’s discoveries are small planets like Earth in their stars’ habitable zones. TESS is Kepler’s successor. It will use an array of wide-field cameras in an all-sky survey, scanning nearby stars for exoplanets. With TESS data, astronomers will study masses, sizes, densities and orbits of exoplanets, including, NASA hopes, an increased number of rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars. Will they look for biosignatures from these worlds? No, not with TESS. For that sort of study, you need to be able to split starlight into its component colors, or spectra, which is why some astronomers are looking to …

– The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018. Kepler and TESS (and a multitude of other searches) reveal exoplanets. But the search for biosignatures will be conducted via the powerful spectrographs of the largest ground-based telescopes and by the James Webb Telescope.

– The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope WFIRST/AFTA, mentioned above), hopefully to be launched early in the coming decade.

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Artist’s concept via Shutterstock
Where is everybody? As we mentioned at the top of this post, astronomers now believe that virtually every stars in our galaxy has at least one planet. It’s easy to see why we haven’t found microbial life on any of these worlds. We haven’t been to very many worlds – or returned samples from many worlds (although sometimes, as in the case of Martian meteorites, interesting samples of other worlds do sometimes come to us).

So we haven’t found microbial life yet because our technology hasn’t advanced far enough to let that happen. But it very probably will happen, and probably within the timeframe – 20 to 30 years – suggested by NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan in April.

Intelligent extraterrestial life is a different question. Hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy alone? Surely some have intelligent life. If so, some of those intelligent aliens must have developed interstellar travel by now; we’re discussing how to do it, after all. If we can conceive of it, perhaps some have done it.

Physicists Enrico Fermi and Michael H. Hart thought of many of those same arguments in 1950. The sun is a typical star. There are billions of planets. Assuming Earth is typical, some planets should have intelligent life and should have developed interstellar travel. They added that:

Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.

And, of course, our galaxy is vastly older than that, some 13 billion years old.

Whatever you personally believe about visitations by aliens, Fermi saw no convincing evidence of it. He famously asked:

Where is everybody?

That question is known as Fermi’s Paradox, and while no one knows the answer to it for certain, there are some standard answers. For example, maybe interstellar travel simply uses too much energy, and hence it too costly to undertake. Or maybe we have been – or are being – visited, and, for some reason, alien intelligences have declined to make themselves known.

As it stands now, some astronomers – like those at the SETI Institute in California – will continue searching for intelligent life.

Many other astronomers, especially young astronomers just entering the field, will likely join in the search for biosignatures among the planets in our solar system and among the thousands of exoplanets discovered so far, orbiting distance stars.

Why search for life? At the June 16, 2015 NASA panel discussion, panelist John Grunsfeld – a physicist and former astronaut and Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. – said:

We’re trying with the science to answer some fundamental questions … where do we come from?

What’s the evolution, the path, by which the Earth was formed in such a way to allow life to form?

What’s the future of the Earth and solar system, and what’s our role in that future?

Are we alone? Is there any other life out there?

As always, there are more questions than answers, but it’s a safe assumption that – in the weeks and months and years ahead – we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this subject!

exoplanets potentially habitable e

View larger. | Artist's illustrations of 12 extrasolar planets, known to orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life - like that on Earth - might be able to survive on them.
View larger. | Artist’s illustrations of 12 extrasolar planets, known to orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life – like that on Earth – might be able to survive on them.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a precise answer to the question “how close are we to finding alien life,” you can stop reading. No one knows the answer for certain. However, over the past year, the search for alien life has heated up in the scientific community. This post outlines some of the ways that scientists are thinking about, talking about and implementing the search for life beyond Earth.


‘Hunger games’ closed doors and what next? - Dr. Vickramabahu

bahu articalFascistic gangs of Mahinda claimed that LTTE is active in the North and in many occasions LTTE flags were being hoisted in that area. However, immediately this was countered by the police and security forces and the latent regime of Mahinda did not challenge it.
Any one visiting North East could see that army is not operating in the streets and there is civil governance with police implementing law and order. Army is confined to the camps and part of land occupied is given back to the owners. Still large part of agricultural land is within the high security zone; but ways and means of reducing that is considered by the relevant authorities.
The UNP General Secretary and Cabinet Minister, Kabir Hashim has said that the new government has not withdrawn a single Army camp. But the fact remain that civil authorities in the north- east have taken over the duties of governance while armed forces are confined to the barracks. Also it is clear under normalcy it is necessary to cut down the strength of armed forces, and give back the land so far occupied while keeping any land for expansion.
No one has opposed the presence of the security forces in all areas. It must be clear to every body that security forces will be present in all districts of the country even though under normal conditions they will be confined to the barracks.
In fact it has to be reminded that Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran demanded that armed forces should be removed from the streets and check points while leaving implementation of law and order to the police.
Perfectly correct
It is perfectly correct if the government is to take action, under conditions permitting, to further reduce the Army presence in the North, to release more LTTE detainees and to do much more that would facilitate reconciliation, given the fact that more than six years have passed since the end of the war. All suspected LTTE detainees, even those charged under the penal code should be considered to be political prisoners and should be released under a general amnesty. Mahinda regime too had released more than 11,000 suspected LTTE cadres who were accused of various crimes, by 2011. It proved to be an action in the right direction. Also, all that 59 Army camps mentioned had been withdrawn from the North by Mahinda regime.Mahinda regime some times relaxed military control and released political prisoners for opportunistic reasons. Addressing the Defense Seminar 2012 in Colombo, the political Defense Secretary of Mahinda regime stated “In five stages between October 2010 and November 2011, much of the area covered under the High Security Zone near the Palali Cantonment was released.” He added that in 2009, there had been approximately 2000 checkpoints, sentry points and barricades in the North and the East, but there were none in 2012. “28 battalions that were in the North have been relocated in the South and the East. The overall number of troops in the North has been reduced by more than 21,000 since 2009. In addition Mahinda regime had withdrawn the security forces’ facilities even on political grounds. Hence it is clear that the present campaign of the latent Mahinda regime is to create a separatist bogey for conspiratorial purpose. It expects the fear created would lead to furtherance of animosity between communities creating calamities such as the 1983 riots and the recent unfortunate incidents in Aluthgama.
Disputing this accusation the former President claimed that he has at his disposal many weapons against the present government other than this Tamil bogey. The legitimacy of the present government, the breach of promises and the morality of rule by a minority government exceeding its so-called mandate, are some of them. However none of these is powerful enough to shake the mass mandate given to the regime of Maithree and and Ranil. All attempts so far to bring impeachments and no confidence motions against the ruling regime have collapsed leaving only the crude mechanism of resorting to racism and anti minority sectarianism.
Mahinda had claimed that “to the rude shock of the patriots the Elam flag was now being hoisted, 59 army camps had been withdrawn from the North, some groups in the government were insisting on the release of dreaded terrorists and the so-called peace activists such as Erik Solheim who wanted to see the country in flames were openly working on a separatist agenda.” Further more Mahinda while on his temple rounds has been claiming that terrorism is raising its ugly head again and the country is fast moving towards division and separation. But the fact is, the country faced the danger of division exactly because of chauvinism and racist terror against minority communities.
Radical masses
Though he claimed to be a Buddhist he has thoroughly rejected the path of Meththa, Karuna, Muditha and Upeksha given by Buddha. On the contrary he has worked on the basis of Raga, Devesha and Moha and brought misery to the people of Lanka. His fascistic organization claimed he will be the Prime Minister candidate of the SLFP for the coming elections. This sent a shock wave among the radical masses that participated in the January 8th uprising. In particular trade unions, people’s councils and social groups condemned this betrayal. However table has turned against Mahinda.
President Maithripala Sirisena has flatly rejected to grant any concession to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming election campaign, Cabinet spokesman and Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said recently.
Minister Senaratne told the weekly Cabinet news briefing that President Sirisena categorically told the six-member committee appointed to mend fences among the two factions that Mr. Rajapaksa did not qualify to be nominated as the Prime Ministerial candidate nor in the national list, or get nominations from the SLFP to contest the poll.
The people have clearly rejected the policies and the style of the governance of the previous regime and therefore, attempts to bring back rejected politicians and policies back to power was an insult to the people who elected Maithripala Sirisena as the President and the government formed under his leadership. “The people must decide at the forthcoming election whether they would continue to support the good governance under President Sirisena or restore the pillaging and plundering Rajapaksa regime.
They also must decide whether they approve to punish the rogues who looted public money or let them free and open the gates once again for corruption, lawlessness and thuggery” Minister Senaratne stressed.
That sounds the door of the SLFP is closed for the fascistic group of Mahinda. We should be watchful for the next step of this menace. 

Shameful compromises with regard to January 2015 consensus - Kishali pinto jayawardena

tamil northernAs the year winds to its mid-term, the January 2015 consensus for a better Sri Lanka seems dangerously fragile. One can only wistfully enough, wish for a virtual miracle to rescue the country.


Proposed 20th amendment of the constitution

sl logoThe government has gazetted the 20th amendment to the constitution for a new electoral system. Read more...

Sri Lanka to use advanced detection technology to combat drug smuggling

technoWhile passengers who travel through airports, those considered suspicious are subject to rigid checks, but it is impossible to individually examine over 24,000 containers which arrive at the Colombo port on a monthly basis owing to the lack of staff and expertise. Read more...

What would Jesus do about global warming?

jesusAs the pope cries out for the planet, Latin America listens attentively but quizzically

AS RELIGIOUS statements go, the one by Pope Francis on the environment is readable and in places, beautiful. With a clear eye on some global climate-change diplomacy which will come to a head in December, it affirms that carbon emitted by humans is the main reason why Earth is warming, and urges rapid action, especially by rich countries, to curb it. Read more...

Deterioration of the legal intellect (12): Towards an explanation about violence, based on failures of policing, prosecution, and judicial institutions - Basil Fernando

law 16Problem

There has been much discussion on violence as a result of cultural, ethnic, religious, social, and economic factors, but hardly any on violence caused by failures of the justice sector. Read more...

Befuddlement in Colombo; shenanigans in Jaffna - Dr. Kumar David

mr ms 18After a crisp period of activity following the election of Maithripala Sirisena as president and the induction of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister in January and culminating in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (19A) in April, statecraft in Lanka entered a period of limbo and what will happen next is uncertain. Read more...

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