Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


26 Feb 2013

From the Dawn Archives via the Dawn Facebook Page.


30 Nov 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian November 30, 2012. 

The reality that there is a decent amount of data about our lives online means people are now concerned with “maintaining” their online identity. Identifying how you want to appear to others, and correcting where necessary to prevent aberrations from this ideal. You may, for example, have been told to cultivate a personal brand. To find a way to market yourself, establish your worth. I’d rather not, thank you very much. Because I am not a brand, I am a person.

People are talked to, engaged with, learned from and understood. Brands are signed up for or bought into. I don’t want to be signed up for or bought. I don’t want to market myself because I really wouldn’t know how to do it.

The About Me section on my Facebook profile is empty because I’m a little scared of putting in three sentences that might define my being. The only reason I do put some stuff about myself online is the hope that if I put a large enough variety of things about myself in your field of vision it might confuse you enough to prompt you to spark a conversation.

But today we are ready to judge people and form a conception of their identities — that we deem reasonably complete — from their musings on the web. Take a look at some privacy tips from Princeton’s Data Privacy Initiative for some perspective:

“Think before you tweet — today’s rant, burn or flame may come back to haunt you.”

“Remember, what you post online becomes public information — it is no longer under your control.”

“Regularly review your contacts, circles, friends and followers — they may not be your BFFs.”

Is someone on the other end of this terminal waiting to find incriminating evidence about my past?

To hold someone hostage to their tweets is to prevent them from forming opinions, changing their minds or just growing up. We deal with people on the web by bucketing them into categories for bite-sized perception. What we say or do becomes definitive of our personas, with a scary finality to it. The little blips about ourselves are consumed, not engaged with, and they are dealt with a permanency that doesn’t seem to cross our mind when we post the statuses at all.

This is not the Internet I signed up for.

The Internet I signed up for is the one Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, tweeted about from the Olympic Stadium. “This is for everyone,” he said.

That Internet is about bringing us together, about creating more ways to share our thoughts and our lives. There shall be no limitation of distance, space or community. We are all one on the Internet, for this space is collectively ours. It is where we think, where we connect solutions to problems, answers to questions, information to ignorance and people to people.

The very power of communication helps us grow — to become bigger people and better societies, not to find ways of limiting our outlook. This is what the Web is to Lee: “I think in general it’s clear that most bad things come from misunderstanding, and communication is generally the way to resolve misunderstandings, and the Web’s a form of communications, so it generally should be good.”

In some ways I like to think that our state of coexistence should always be conceived as one of perpetual misunderstanding. That is both a realization that we do not know each other completely and a simultaneous struggle to want to do so.

If you look at information on the Internet from this perspective — the idea that everything you see is a window to a larger, more complex identity — we are more likely to engage more meaningfully with people and avoid the trap of consuming this information through set frames of reference. People are more than the sum their links, tweets and photos. And it doesn’t always add up. In the words of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Of course, there are two sides to this story. Just as we need some perspective when receiving information, we must also think about what we add to the Internet as content creators.

Take the uproar on ‘Prince’ comments. There’s some insightful argument from anonymous commenters to University President Shirley Tilghman’s letter. “theturdburglar” writes: “If she takes away the one truly fun aspect of the Prince (ridiculous comments sections that don’t take themselves so damn seriously … ) I would be very disappointed.” It’s amusing that the very next comment by “AH” compares the ‘Prince’ comments section with the public literary sphere of 18th century France. It doesn’t seem like a joke to me. These comments are about bettering our ideas — not stonewalling honest argument.

What we say on the Internet matters, and it should matter. Anonymous or not. Anonymity prevents us from being “silenced,” just as it gives us freedom to publicly hate. Perhaps the best comment I read on Tilghman’s article was by “ ’12”: “I’m not sure that anonymity causes douchebaggery. I think douchebags cause douchebaggery.”

So my concern is beyond anonymity. It is about getting more from our conversations and increasing collective goodwill. We can do better than to pigeonhole and hate.

Why Twitter’s ‘People You May Know’ is Broken

25 Nov 2012

Every now and then Twitter sends me an email suggesting people I should follow, labeling them as people I ‘may know’. Aside of how annoying this is, it suggests that Twitter the company has no idea how Twitter the software is used.

I ‘know’ the people I follow as much as I know Chandler Bing or Daniel Craig. That’s the thing about broadcast mechanisms. You don’t need to know people to transmit information. And Twitter is a broadcasting tool. It’s value lies in being able to broadcast short messages to the world, not in being able to connect with your friends. I don’t use Twitter to communicate with my friends,except for the odd exchange, I use Facebook. And it seems like there is a space for both to exist, but their functions are different.

The PPP’s Trouble with Free Information

25 Nov 2012

Cell phone services are down in Pakistan for another weekend.

I did not know this when my father told me he would call an hour and a half ago but never did. I waited, and tried finding him on Google Talk which he uses on his phone, but he wasn’t online. Worried, I tried calling both parents’ cell phones but both were off. My grandfather is in the hospital, and I felt there were a number of reasons for which to get worried. Just as I hung up on Skype calling my father’s cell phone, my grandmother Skyped me from her iPad telling me of the cell phone situation and that my father was at the hospital.

The Taliban have said that the cell phone ban will not stop them. It didn’t stop other hardline Sunni groups either. A roadside bomb near a Shi’ite procession killed at least 7, including 4 children today.

The explosion was so powerful that it hurled a young boy onto a rooftop from a street, where a man later carried away half of his body, as a policeman with a bomb detector and residents stood near blood stains.

That bomb was detonated with a television remote control.

Government bans on information flow do not end there.

Youtube has been banned since the uproar around The Innocence of Muslims. There are some ways around it though. (via Hasan Zuberi, DigitalRightsPK)

Other Google services also seem to be intermittent in their availability. Google Docs has definitely been a problem, harming both consumers and commercial enterprises. (In the meantime I switched my father over to Dropbox but he’s having a much harder time dealing with content outside the browser, especially with the file system. He emails heavily, and is one of the most powerful Gmail user’s you’ll meet. I guess Steve Jobs was right, file systems must go.)

The government recently banned late night cell phone packages because they were counter to the country’s values, prompting this from Cyril Almeida:

Who needs the Taliban; we already have the PPP govt … (Yes, I know PTA is allegedly an ‘independent’ regulator.)

Interior Minister Rehman Malik tweeted this, I think referring to the motorbike ban in Karachi during Muharram processions that was overturned by the Sindh High Court.

Is the life of my Pak sisters and brothers important or cosmetic image?sometimes drastic and unpopular steps become need of the hour.

You can’t really argue for convenience if cell phone outages are saving lives. Late night cell phone packages are another story though. This government has been brutal on the free flow of information, and this cannot be sustainable. Pakistan is worse off having to do this.

24 Nov 2012

I can’t access now, but this is just weird.

UPDATE: Apparently it’s a lot more than just Google. (via @ProPakistaniPK)

21 Nov 2012

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, however, criticised MQM’s “deceptive” resolution, saying that law enforcement authorities had failed in providing security to the people and that the common man needs weapons to ensure his own safety.

Law enforcement is a problem, yes. But I haven’t heard any stories of weapons that got people out of tricky situations. And what will weapons keep you safe from? In the spectrum of armed cell phone theft to suicide bombing it’s unclear what weapons (I’m assuming handguns) would do to protect you. The most persuasive argument for gun rights would perhaps lie near the armed robbery end of the spectrum, where carrying a gun may deter a potential cell phone thief for example. But having a gun in such a scenario may make things worse, where either party could panic and fire.

I can’t tell if Maulana Sahab doesn’t have an argument or if Dawn just didn’t report it.

19 Nov 2012

I have ended my contract in the Big Bash league, because I want to play in the national event to improve my form and justify my selection in the team.

I hope this leads to something. I miss baller Afridi. This slump is so bad that he’s gone back to playing first class cricket at home. At the moment the PCB has yet to decide whether Afridi or Yousuf can play the President’s Trophy. Hoping he plays in India.

Marooned Passports

18 Nov 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian 16 November 2012.

“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

At that moment I felt very American. These were the values I, too, stood for. I wasn’t able to vote for Obama, but I stood by him in that moment. I believe that the choices we make, not the identities we are born with, shape who we are and determine our value to the world. That day, I chose to be American.

But just a week or so before the election, I was trying to convince someone that I was not American at all; I was merely passing through and needed a concrete reason to stay. I told him that I had to find a job that would help me justify staying in America.

“Justify to whom?” he asked.

“Myself.” I said. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Or so I liked to believe.

There had to be a reason more meaningful than the fact that I found a job here. Surely I could just “find a job” in Pakistan.

The running idea was that the natural progression of my life must take me back to Pakistan; whenever I choose to delay it, I must have a reason to do so. I could find a job in Pakistan, I told him, so what I needed to justify staying in America was something clearly more beneficial or meaningful than going back home.

“Going back” is a funny theme that seems to follow international students before they even manage to set foot out of their countries. Every now and then someone comments on the progress in our lives: “Great to hear you’re doing so well; don’t forget Pakistan,” meaning don’t forget that you are needed here, don’t forget that you are Pakistani and will remain so your whole life, don’t forget that this is who you are.

I haven’t forgotten Pakistan. I never will.

I stay up to wee hours of the night to cheer on the cricket team. I sulk the entire day when we lose. I follow the newspaper everyday as if I’m there, perhaps even more so than I would if I were there because Pakistanis tend to become numb to pieces of breaking news they receive every 20 minutes. I am proud to be Pakistani, proud of the connections I have made in Pakistan, proud of the common values I share with many Pakistanis.

But here I am in Princeton, N.J. for nine months of the year. This year I stayed for the summer, too. American current events affected me as much as Pakistani ones. But here I am ineligible to vote in America and probably incapable of voting in Pakistan because next year’s elections will not have absentee voting.

So I am arguably neither truly American, nor truly Pakistani. I cannot voice my political opinion in either country, yet the government affects me in both.

Both America and Pakistan mean a lot to me. I love my two homes, Princeton and Lahore, dearly. Today, however, the color of my passport has too much of a sway in how I can contribute to societies than it deserves to.

Wouldn’t it be a more perfect world if my Pakistani-ness remained only a fact about where I was born and melded away into irrelevance in every other way?

Often being Pakistani — or being American, for that matter — is made out to more than it really is. I am not Pakistani because I am anti-India or anti-American; I am Pakistani because I was born there. I believe that all citizens should be treated equally by the state, and so did Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder. But Jinnah was clearly not American, and neither am I.

In his inauguration speech as president, Jinnah asserted that what kept Pakistan from freeing itself from oppression was our inability to look past our ethnic and religious identities. And at the birth of Pakistan, what mattered was the well-being of the people — regardless of who they were, where they were from or what God they believed in. The past must be forgotten, and we must cooperate and prosper as one. The “angularities,” as Jinnah put them, of our differences must vanish.

Today I wish that the angularities of our differences in national identity also vanish. The world over, jingoistic patriotism and belief in national identity has led to oppression, to class superiority and to war. Today our problems are global. Many of our lives are also global. In a perfect world, our nationalities should only exist to help identify us, not to define our identities.

Taking charge of email

25 Sep 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 25 September 2012. 

There is something very interesting in the manner in which the Office of Information Technology chose the replacement for Princeton’s Webmail system: The transparent process shows how important emailing tools are to our everyday workflows. But email today remains problematic in many ways, and it may be worth our time to think about how we want to communicate.

OIT’s choice came down to Microsoft Exchange 2010 (which came with Office 365) and Gmail from the Google Apps suite. Both Microsoft and Google independently presented their solutions to students, and OIT decided to have 150 students test both systems. Only two of those students preferred Office 365, so Google Apps was adopted.

The move to have students test both offerings was recognition that software is meant to solve problems for the end user. More often than not, information technology departments of large organizations will make software decisions for all other staff. This can often lead to operating efficiencies, but doing so disregards personal preferences and can tend to overlook usage trends from the people who will use these services most. So the transparent user test reaffirmed that answering our email is our problem and it might be worthwhile if we had a say in how we did it.

It is also interesting to consider why Gmail was the popular choice. Many students already used Gmail for their personal accounts, and often forwarded all Princeton email to Gmail. Familiarity with Gmail has therefore been considered an important reason in this decision. While that may be true, I don’t think it’s that simple. Gmail pioneered modern email when it came out in 2004. It took storage limits from Hotmail’s paltry two megabytes to a whopping one gigabyte at the time (Gmail storage now stands close to 10 times that amount). It used Google’s successful search technology and brought it to email, and also pioneered the use of AJAX (a quick, dynamic website technology) in mainstream web applications. The interface at the time was simple, fast, uncluttered and useful.

Other major Gmail innovations included labels, filters, starring and, later, Priority Inbox. Many people equate labels to folders, but I think it is more useful to think of them as Post-it notes. You can use many labels at once and then a quick glance at a message with a color coded label can tell you what it’s about. Combine this with filtering, which auto-sorts your email as it arrives, and it’s a powerful tool. While mail filters are part of most major email clients (often referred to as rules), labels remain largely a Gmail specialty. Think of starring as a quick way to identify emails that you want to get to in the near future. And Priority Inbox is Gmail’s artificial intelligence system that learns from your usage patterns and divides incoming email into important and not important categories.

One Gmail philosophy that seems to bemuse most users is archiving. It takes a while to understand where Google was going with this, but the idea itself is interesting. Gmail is designed so that your inbox contains only emails that you want to respond to or follow up with in some way. All other mail can be archived. As a result,  your inbox is uncluttered and allows you to get to relevant email much quicker. It can be quite useful for some, but most people would rather not be bothered with the extra click to archive every email they’re done with.

Google put some real thought into email, but today, email seems to have become more problematic than Google’s solutions can keep up with. The Gmail interface has since become more cluttered, and usage on mobile devices, especially iPhones, is compromised. None of Gmail’s flagship features work well with most native desktop and mobile applications.

By and large, Gmail’s stagnation parallels our general failure to fathom how we use email. We don’t just send emails to replace letters anymore; our email inboxes our now our to do lists, our broadcasting mechanisms, our way to listen in on conversations in large groups and also where we store important information. So electronic mail is now a replacement, in some ways, for memo pads, radios, walkie-talkies, desk drawers. Unfortunately, it is also getting as noisy as these mediums once were.

Because of the volume of email, it has become reasonable to assume that it is not possible for many to respond to all their email. Our most vital communication mechanism is now run with the assumption that the communication we intend to do may not happen at all. You’d think this was a problem someone would care more about, but developing mail clients is hard. Mozilla’s Thunderbird, a popular desktop client, is no longer under active development. Sparrow, an innovative desktop and mobile app for Gmail, has been acquired by Google, and many think this was encouraged by the fact that the Sparrow team just could not make enough money to sustain the work it was putting into its software. Microsoft, Google, Apple and some independent developers continue to tweak email offerings in the hope that a better solution emerges.

Meanwhile, our activity on other Internet networks has also created new communication paradigms. Facebook has become a nice sharing mechanism, and Twitter is the new broadcasting tool, but in many ways email remains a bit of all of these things. As our electronic communication continues to increase, email will remain an important problem to solve, one that deserves not just the attention of software guys, but of everyone to whom email has become an essential service.

In defense of common sense

9 May 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian May 9th, 2012. Co-authored with Hamza Masood

In an article about Princeton University’s overseas financial investments published in this newspaper on April 27, Pakistan was singled out as one of the countries in which the University had held an investment. In fact, Pakistan was mentioned in the title of the article and was the only country out of 29 in which the University holds investments to be discussed in the article. The article suggested, both with references to previously controversial overseas investments as well as the crises that have rocked the U.S.-Pakistan relationship over the last year, that investing in Pakistan was a suspicious and possibly condemnable activity. This is an irresponsible and inaccurate depiction of reality.

The reality is that the U.S. government, U.S. investors in general and the University in particular are all invested in Pakistan. Let us explain each of those in turn and discuss where this money goes. The U.S. government in 2010 alone provided $1.9 billion of economic aid, $2.5 billion in military aid and reimbursements of $1.2 billion through the Coalition Support Fund, according to the Center for Global Development. This money was spent on furthering efforts to improve governance, health, education, police, agriculture and infrastructure, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts, along with supporting the continued deployments of Pakistani troops along the Pak-Afghan border to fight the insurgency. Through the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman Act, the U.S. government is committed to providing $1.5 billion of aid each year from 2010 to 2014 to the civilian government alone. In the private sphere, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, foreign direct investment in Pakistan from U.S. investors in 2009 totaled $517 million. These are investments held in stocks in private Pakistani companies.

As for the University’s investments in Pakistan, they are not limited to the paltry $86,000 the article mentioned. Every year, the Financial Aid Office gives grants totaling several hundreds of thousands of  dollars to Pakistani students who study at the University. Considering how many students from Pakistan in the last decade alone have studied or are presently studying at Princeton, the numbers add up very, very quickly. Several of these students, including us, have either returned or are committed to returning to Pakistan to live and work there. The University chooses to invest resources in Pakistani students every year, and we see no reason why this should stop.

The point here is that while there are certainly reasons for why some investments in Pakistan should be considered suspicious, just like some investments anywhere outside the country or even in the United States should be considered suspicious, painting any and all investments in Pakistan to be in the same category is irresponsible and presents an inaccurate picture. There is no doubt that there are terrorist groups operating in Pakistan that are a threat to both the world and to Pakistan. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the U.S. government remains committed to providing Pakistan with military aid. Issues of government corruption have been raised, and for good reason. However, that has no bearing on privately held investments, which is what the University held in this case.

This bears particular relevance when seen in the context of the recent referendum to create an “oversight committee to encourage the University’s endowment to be investment in ‘socially responsible ways.’” The article seems to insinuate that the mere mention of an investment in Pakistan was a “controversy” on the scale of investing in a Zimbabwean defense contractor that aided a government known to engage in human rights violations. We hope that further insight into the University’s endowment, not least of all in Pakistan, is treated with more nuance. In fact, it was disappointing that the University seemed almost defensive by quickly explaining that the investment was made by an external manager and has been zero value for some time. The account’s value should have no bearing on the ethics of investing in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a country of 180 million people. The large majority of those are desperately in need of intelligent capital spending and have no relation to extremist activity. It is worrying to see the simple mention of Pakistan be so quickly linked to suspicious spending and controversial activity. There is much more to Pakistan that can and should be discussed, and we hope that future discussion addresses more specific controversial or suspicious issues, rather than implying with broad strokes. We are not oblivious to Pakistan’s problems, but we hope others are not oblivious to everything else in the bigger picture either.