Thursday, 29 January 2015

Laser-guided down memory lane

The man who made it real
The news of the death of Charles H. Townes at 99 yesterday had me travelling down memory lane about an interesting science lesson that came from some of my early days of activism.
Charles H. Townes according to Wikipedia is known for his work on the theory and application of the maser for which he got the fundamental patent and this was the precursor to the laser and for this and a greater body of work in quantum electronics, he shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with two others, taking a 50% share.
A short history of failure
Now, my story was a simply one. After completing my diploma in Electrical/Electronic Engineering at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, I was on the mandatory one-year Industrial Attachment programme at an Information Technology services outfit known as I. T. Systems.
I had always been involved in the Students’ Union movement from when I was at the Yaba College of Technology where I was the class representative in the Senate with the resulting academic exercise in futility. Smart, depressed and suffering too many things I never had any idea to get help for, I had nothing to speak of academically, two polytechnics and 4 years after secondary school.
It took a whole year to find my bearings again where an uncle, shielded me from scathing criticism and mentored me towards rebuilding my life again, this is how I eventually ended up at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro with my uncle as my guardian, distant and removed from the influence of my restless parents.
Back in my mettle
This time, moving from being one of the youngest in class all through primary, secondary and two tertiary schools to being a grandee of sorts. I was elected the class monitor and I played my role fully as a representative of our class. We were the noisiest class by far and I fully represented my constituency in the cacophony we were so good at.
I graduated in the class of 1988 and soon we found we would not be able to return to Ilaro for the higher diploma until the school had fulfilled some additional accreditation criteria.
I drafted a letter to our Head of Department and Rector asking that they work harder that getting us back for the higher diploma. In my free time, I travelled round Lagos and environs collecting signatures of my classmates, I probably gathered about 30.
Technology back then
I had typed the letter on WordStar and printed it on our office Epson dot-matrix printer, saved to a 5.25” floppy disk, my friend Tope Agboba working for desktop publishing firm near the University of Lagos, took the letter and printed it out on their Hewlett Packard HP LaserJet 2 printer.
It was copies of these rather professionally looking letters that we took to Ilaro to present to our Rector and Head of Department (HoD). It was a matter of courtesy to first meet the HoD and he welcomed us heartily. We stated our purpose and presented our letter which he read intently.
Then he said, the quality of the print of the letter was so high, asked how it was produced? We told him, it was created with a laser printer.
A lesson I cannot forget
He then said, ‘Do you know what laser is?’ we said we did not.
He then told us that laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Simulation of Emissive Radiation, with that, the full implication of what a laser is and does became apparent. I never forgot that little conversation. We never really got what we wanted, but most of us were dispersed around polytechnics and universities continuing our education.
And life afterwards
I moved into desktop publishing consultancy where laser printers were in everyday use and eventually migrated to the United Kingdom fully ready for the market and then eventually embarking on a post-graduate programme, the wealth of my experience standing in for fulfilling all the prerequisites.
There are myriad applications of lasers, too many to mention because of work done by Charles H. Townes, the shoulders of the theorists which he stood and the applications that came from the pioneering work he did. Somewhere along the line, this impacted my life, in fact, I have owned a laser printer of sorts for almost 20 years.
There is no telling what a little funny idea in a head somewhere can do to change the world.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Opinion: We are up against a menacing kind of religious puritanism

This is the terrifying paradox of zealotry: no one hates humanity more than those who believe they know what's best for it." Howard Jacobson
Before us
Reading this in the Wit & Wisdom column of The Week magazine simply crystallised my thoughts about activities of religious extremists around the world.
In terms, we can all agree that the Islamic State has eclipsed both the Taliban and Al Qaeda in their utterly hubristic quest to somewhat purify their world and rid it of any person, view, thought, opinion or act that dares question their premise.
They have arrogated to themselves an omnipotent and untrammelled control of everything, having the power over life and death, killing off people like cattle with impunity and sadly, it seems without any consequence.
Religious puritanism
For how much longer we can continue to tolerate this rotten menace in our 21st Century world, I cannot tell, but the more we allow it to fester, the more this cancer will metastasise into an incurable blight on our humanity.
What we are up against is a brand of religious puritanism that imposes itself relentlessly on our humanity, grabbing headlines with more daringly desperate and reprehensible acts that threatens to condemn our civilisation to a mediaeval existence.
Like someone offered in a tweet to me a few weeks ago, he defined puritanism as the fear that someone somewhere appears to be having fun or enjoying themselves.
Human expression curtailed
You them ask why life is not here to be enjoyed? Why should we not be happy? Why should we not appreciate beauty in nature and in things, in art, in music, in sport, in theatre, in dancing, or in every form of human expression?
Why should anyone think they can impose their beliefs and their extreme interpretations of religion on others where it is clear we are neither uniform in our devotion or allegiances?
These are people, flesh and blood like you and I, yet they act like there has never been any like their kind that walked the face of this earth. Tombstones all around the world mark the graves of those who thought they will live forever, some never even had a sign for posterity where they returned to dust. History stands as a forever indicting judge over those whose heinous acts against our human coexistence brought pain, death, suffering, war and worse to their fellow human-beings.
Where is the outrage?
The height of this hubris was first demonstrated when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, a treasure of human antiquity about 15 centuries old that some misguided religionists suddenly thought did not fit with their religious world-view.
Since then, there religious puritans and megalomaniacs have ravaged and vandalised, treasures, cities, records and histories, convinced that they serve a cause too great for any other to comprehend. They terrorise with violence and atrocity, purveying their absurdities with more alarming rhetoric, this needs to be stopped once and for all.
What we can lose
As we watch these people and let them thrive, with satellites in Africa, Asia and beyond; just imagine if this plague sweeps into Egypt and razes The Great Pyramid of Giza to the ground, because the Pharaohs were not of a particular religious persuasion, or see how Damascus reputed to be one of the longest inhabited cities in human history being torn down in our time.
It is unacceptable and the longer these people are allowed to exist our very existence is not only threatened, we become lulled into a form of acquiescence that history will never ever forgive our generation for.
If there is no leadership to arrest this nonsense like Nazism was arrested and defeated just 70 years ago, then what a pitiable existence our once resilient humanity has come to.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Thought Picnic: From the village with love

Longer than usual
These conversations never last long, at least not for as long as he can remember. 3 minutes would signal a rather long exchange that had pleasantries, an expression of concern, some laughs, always some laughs, a prayer or two and a closing.
That was deed done, duty done, even if there was desire to have a longer engagement, just because engagement and conversation is good.
Yet, this time, the conversation went on for much longer than one had anticipated, they caught the 20 minute mark before any semblance of closing materialised. Interesting is the word that came to mind.
Ambushed at noon
On a topic she had not broached for nigh on a decade, it became the burning issue, a funny deployment of older smarts came in to play, after opining about not seeing a recent picture it leapt to seeing a picture of the grandchild will be recent enough.
Quite an ambush that was that he reared before he caught himself, not so much in agreement, but there are things that were never on the agenda regardless of yearnings of others and this particularly, never was.
As she weaved and waned between the suggestion of promiscuity and lack of choice, she offered her own unique and quite funny solution.
A parcel to bear
To the village she shall go and obtain for herself a prospective daughter-in-law, green and untouched, she will embark on adventure to arrive abroad passing through border checks, the name of the son emblazoned across her bosom for the sole purpose of procreation.
This is the stuff of stand-up comics, something that should have people laughing until their tears flooded the auditorium. At once the whole idea can be both amusing and repulsive.
Some parents just cannot let their children live their lives if that life does not conform to a norm or some expectation. In this, fantasy and reality will never unite in the fulfilled desire of another and for that, he is saddened for the disappointment others will just have to live with. C’est la vie.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Thought Picnic: On the footstools of progeny

Gone like the wind
The fact that he is rarely overcome with nostalgia is a conditioning of self-preservation that appears to have served him well. He can walk away and not look back, yet not burn his bridges because he uses the wells of memory to water the fields of stories that grow and grow.
Would he have loved the company of forebears he has not seen for a quarter of a century? Interesting question, that seems when set against culture and tradition, you are to keep them close and give them a renewed youth from the fruits of procreation.
Tradition is broken and norm is none of his for conformity, the sacrifices they made were responsibilities they willingly took upon themselves, gratitude he must have, but not to the point of worship.
Beholden astray
He pines at times, but their differences are as stark as night is from day, the things they dwelt upon for leverage estranged them, they parted in mind and body, yet never in spirit, the bond was never cut like the umbilical cord is severed to allow child to begin to live independent of mother.
They enthroned themselves seeking homage when they probably could have asked and he probably could have striven to make well, each to a degree obstinate or set in their ways.
No meeting past or planned as time counts seconds to an eternity of something unknown, a beyond that is the destination of the many whose more recent tombstones signifies they passed this long road of personal and shared experiences.
For choices unchosen
They had a choice, much as he did, a will they both had, but deigned to act. Opportunity came when he lay dying in a foreign land amongst strangers who became family. Given 5 weeks to live, no one budged, they partied in their world, and he suffered in his world. He survived, thanks to their prayers, some providence, grace, medicine? In all, he and they were thankful yet still apart.
The pain lingers, yet the will is firm, lives lived apart might find a reunion of sorts with each a choice to make or abandon, the story told tending to regret about what might have been, but never was.
All is forgiven, yet nought forgotten, till we return and mingle with the sands of time from whence we came, a tear a day, a fear away, a care to stay, a dare to sway, to forbear we'll always pray.
No one is duty bound to serve the other, but respect for each other goes a long way.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

John Coll: Friend, Mentor, Gentleman

Borne by email
It is with great poignancy that it was by email that I got information about an event in the life of the person who gave me my first real email address just over 20 years ago.
It was an unusual friendship that started with my answering a job advert in the Pink Paper for a role I was not qualified for, nor was I looking for favours, but it launched me on a very successful career in Information Technology, something I can never ever be fully grateful for.
Unlike any other employer, John Coll did not dismiss my application and my CV by chucking it in the bin, he called me and proceeding to offer advice.
Knowing John
Then he invested 3 hours of his precious time in knocking my CV into shape, a CV he said appeared to have everything but said nothing. He was thorough and disciplined like an old schoolmaster that he was, in just over 3 months I landed my first job outside the public sector and the rest is history.
John became the man I could go to when I was suffering a crisis in confidence, a career crossroad or even issues of life and relationships, he had done it all.
At Connection Software, his drive and his ideas with his team of amazing young minds led in ground-breaking mobile software solutions long before the internet was big or mobiles were everyday products, he just had that foresight.
A little known fact, he was a pioneer in the personal computer industry having helped write the functional description of the BBC Computer and then the BBC Microcomputer User Guide.
The man, I knew
As a man, he gave so many support, opportunity, advice and encouragement, he mentored, he uncled, he fostered, he befriended, he encouraged, he was a life-long enthusiastic teacher who always had a great sense of fun.
When I last spoke to him, he did say he did not have another year left, I listened to how he had planned for things to continue after he had gone and had planned with my best friend to pay him a visit one long weekend I was in London.
Alas! That was not to be, John passed away just two days to Christmas and it was through an email that I learnt of his passing.
Thank you, John
There is not enough space for me to express my thankfulness for knowing John Coll, how he like a big brother always had my back, especially when I was at my lowest point. He was ready and generous with time and resources even before I asked, he was there.
I will remember John the most for his zest for life, his amazing unretiring self that even into his 70s he was a technology buff as good as any, his homeliness and desire to give others opportunity and vision beyond our limits.
He was forthright and funny, a great friend, a sure mentor, an example to living life sensibly and fully, a confidante, a supporter and a fine gentleman. Two years ago, I wrote an email to 6 friends I expected to be my pallbearers, one has gone.
Dear John Coll, thank you, you’ll be sorely missed and may your honest, gentle, loving and wonderful soul rest in peace. Goodbye John (1943 -2014).