Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Asian Scholar Visits

alan @ work

I was best man at Alan's wedding, in my parents' living room in Thimphu, Bhutan. He and Kattie, a scholar of Burmese Buddhist traditions especially, were not sure how seriously to take things going in, given what an ad hoc affair this was, with the connecting airline miss-delivering their belongings elsewhere. Everything came together as if by magic, and the ritual / ceremony proved binding and legally accepted in other nations, France especially (where Kattie is from).

Alan champions the Adobe PDF format as way better than PowerPoint or Word for distributing valuable information of a multimedia nature. I've shared his materials at GIS in Action, where I expected an especially appreciative audience for such artifacts.

One of Alan's projects was to apply projective digital media technology to the task of restoring an ancient temple in Laos. The building was rather worse for the wear, and the more lasting and actually more traditional thing to do would be to tear it down and build a new one in its place. Excavation and archeological exploration of the under-structure was also of neighborhood interest (hidden treasures?).

Perpetuating the graphics on the wall looked like a daunting prospect, with some of the skills lost. The solution: create a high quality archive of the temple interior, the wall art especially, with a goal of later projecting this information on the interior walls of the new structure, for the purpose of guiding painters in recreating the original graphics from the projected information.

The project was a success and is now an accepted way to replicate and perpetuate these traditional depictions, and their accompanying stories.

In other work, Alan made a detailed inventory of ecological features likely to be lost if hydro-electric projects were not well planned. Working with the feng shui of nature is not that difficult and is the mark of any skilled engineer, but many a developer in our developing world have little appreciation for the fine art of earning the respect and admiration of their peers.

Beautiful waterfalls that have anchored a geography and lore for centuries get shut off for a mere megawatt in return, a paltry sum, much of which is squandered on inessentials. Perhaps the shut-offs are a result of land-grabbing by a resort hotel and casino complex, wanting to exploit an "idyllic countryside" by destroying it in the process (not all casinos encourage environmental degradation -- not Avalon's for example (in Catalina)).

Alan's PDFs contain records of some of these lost natural wonders.

The story of Celilo Falls is repeated in Sri Lanka.

The locals often don't realize what they're about to lose, until it's too late. The introduction of hydro-power in Borneo seemed more propitious. I also thought the Japanese engineers in Bhutan were doing a better job, keeping environmental impacts to a minimum, or net positive. Not all hydro-power projects are created equal.

Buddhist thought offers many teachings about letting go, and perhaps the creaky old water wheels of Cambodia, used for irrigation in the dry season, were not going to feed enough people reliably enough.

Preserving these wheels in digital formats, including in movies, would seem a minimum acceptable form of preservation in those cases. Alan specializes in the digital preservation of geographical information. His PDFs tend to be multi-lingual. We all sat around the new monitor (a sponsor donation) and oogled at some of these materials, much of which was written in Laotian.

Alan was expert at getting video cameras into the hands of local witnesses, who knew what was most memorable about the local geography. His work has been pioneering and its relevance has been amplified by the fact that the equipment has only gotten less expensive, more powerful, and easier to use.

Variable Height Projector
wall mural projector