No Principal On The Playground: NY Magazine Worries About Pakistan’s Intractable Anarchy

June 14, 2011

In a previous post, I wrote: “In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now.” The New York Times Magazine expresses the same concern in a recent article, titled “Can Pakistan Be Governed?“, making this a far more existential issue than I had envisioned. It’s no longer the central problem of the Pakistani people: it is perhaps a defining characteristic of the Pakistani nation that it cannot be ruled in an orderly fashion.

The events of the last two weeks have certainly lent some gravitas to this question:

  1. Apr 5: Eight paramilitary forces attacked by a suicide attack.
  2. Apr 5: Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claims responsiblity for an attack on a Shiite mosque in Chakwal, in the FATA, that claimed over 30 lives.
  3. Mar 30: Mehsud also claimed responsibility for the death of over 25 policement in an attack on the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore.
  4. Mar 28: Over 70 people were killed at a mosque in Jamrud, along the Peshawar-Torkham highway.

More lists are easily available online, by searching for ‘terrorism in Pakistan‘ or ‘Taliban attacks in Pakistan.’

The subtitle to the NY Mag  article asks, Is Zardari The Man To Do The Job? The way the picture is shot, it seems like the question has been answered. Situated plumb center in the picture, and right under an almost refulgent portrait of Mohammed Jinnah, the founder of the nation, Zardari flashes a nerdy grin. It’s hard to imagine that a man with such a visage can be expected to actually play an important role in setting the world right from the troubles that plague it.

In spite of this seeming inability to play a significant role on the world stage, Zardari seems to excel in pontificating about the way the world is. Most of these thoughts are expressed mostly by way of adding the word “world” in the middle of some pretty arbitrary thoughts: ““The world philosophers,” have come to the conclusion that aid has never been one of the best ways of developing countries,” or “Democracy becomes the best formula of the world because it learns from its mistakes.”

Perhaps through these interventions, Zaradari hopes to convince his audience that he is equipped to handle these problems at the global level at which they are playing out. The danger with the situation in Pakistan (“everyone’s favorite front-line state,” as Traub’s article wryly puts it) is that it’s most certainly going to affect a large part of the world. Indian commentators are continuously worried about how any fallout of chaos in Pakistan is going to spill over into their own security situation. Then of course, there’s the danger to general American interests in the region: the Taliban, perhaps the most powerful military force with which the United States has failed to reach any compromise, will probably gain a foothold in the region. What will Iran do? The Taliban is Sunni, which allies them with Iran’s arch-enemy, the now-defunct Ba’ath Party headed by the now-dead Saddam Hussein. Its resurgence in Afghanistan or Pakistan is not exactly the future Iran is dreaming of.

Where Pakistan is headed is everyone’s concern, but within no one’s ability to control. All any one can do is watch the numbers, as if we are looking at the stock tickers of death in the hope that they will tell us something about where the market will be a few months from now.

And we know how easy that is. Sheesh.


How Search And Social Media Are The Same

April 1, 2009

There’s a lot of debate about Twitter being the Facebook killer and Facebook being the Google killer and Google being the Microsoft killer and so on. There’s been some back and forth between the media and the blogosphere and people like Eric Schmidt about the true business worth of all these companies and whether Schmidt  was right to pooh-pooh the idea of buying Twitter or some other social media service.

It got me thinking about what social media and search are, and I came to the Friedmanesque conclusion, the kind of conclusion you come to somewhere closer to the start of my thinking rather than at its conclusion, that social media and search are in fact the same thing! Read the rest of this entry »

Economist Hook Sentence du Jour: Iran’s Presidential Elections

March 25, 2009

I have been a fond reader of the Economist for a while, partly for the dry wit and erudition evident in the writing and partly for the fun of discovering what I call the “hook sentences” that go into many of the articles: statements that are tossed out with such carelessness that one is tempted to think they are unimportant but that in truth hold or represent all the biases that the Economist holds dear and from which biases proceeds much of the reporting choices made by the periodical.

For my first post on this thesis, I cherry picked an article from a recent issue that I thought would have a preponderance of “hook sentences,” and here’s one that’s simply a gold mine:

Iran’s presidential choice: It could make a big difference

There’s so many ways to slice this cake, that it’s hard to know what to focus on. Let’s just pick this pair of sentences, which are fairly safe to quote out of context: “Wary of the ever-vigilant supreme leader and chastened by past failures to overcome conservatives, … a reformist president would probably shy away from any bold departures in foreign policy. Yet even changes in tone could have a dramatic effect.”

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Paying Tribute To The Act Of Creation

March 18, 2009

God, this is so cheesy, but it needs to be said. When you are seeing or reading or listening to something that is beautifully expressed, and that gives you the chills or the goosebumps or that makes you really laugh or cry or just have a good feeling somewhere inside you, you have to give it up to the people who made that piece of expression, that piece of art, possible. The artists, the talent, the creators, the producers — every one’s skills and genius collaborated to make something that was worthwhile to you, even if for just a snigger that sounded like you were snorting, or a little lump in the throat.

That thought alone should be good for a little more pleasure coming out of you, the viewer, the reader, the audience. Someone, or some people, labored to give you this moment of happiness, and you should be thankful, on top of being happy, that such a thing as creativity exists.

After Death, Everything Is In Focus

March 15, 2009

The classic short story, publishable in innumerable journals: death arrives, preferably unexpectedly and preferably to someone young and undeserving, and the bereaved experience a moment of epiphany. This story will, if written tolerably well, get published just about anywhere.

The death can be imagined, or there could be a metaphorical reference of the passing away of something beloved, like the death of one’s ambitions, or the permanent separation of one’s loved ones.

No matter what dies, the important thing in the short story is to focus on who is the loser, and what happens to him or her when the loss is noticed and then reflected upon. Nothing justifies a complete change in personality or a massive onslaught of conflicting emotions as recognizing that death has come into one’s life and brought with it the heartlessness of cold uncertainties. If death can happen so sudden and unbidden, the soul is forced to inquire, What else can befall me? And the answer to this question becomes as large as the universe, and, because of its magnitude, has space enough to house every emotion and every story.

Nothing can attract the typical short story editor or contest director more strongly.

Let the games begin!

The Dirty Cages Where The White Tiger Prowls

March 15, 2009

The precise cliche with which to begin trashing the cliche-ridden nonsense that is Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-prize winning novel, The White Tiger, eludes me. Shall I ask what might have possessed the prize awarding committee? Shall I talk about the obvious faddishness of writing about India and its poverty? Shall I worry about how literary status is today decided by the smooth publicity machines that are akin to political lobbies and king-making backroom cabals? Or should I follow the technique of literary polemics in ripping the author a new one by exposing all of his obvious literary deficiencies, and making ad hominem attacks on his patent incompetence and ineligibility to be admitted even into the lowest rungs of the literary pantheon?

Maybe I will just do all of these because I am unemployed, talk is cheap on the Internet, and I like typing.

Adiga’s novel takes about sixty minutes to read, about fifty-five if I tip you off before you start it that the word “black” will appear about once every five paragraphs, and you should find some way to elide it visually from the page. It will really get you flipping the pages fast.

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The Mexican Concept: Opening Up The Taco Of Unequal Relations

March 15, 2009

I was reading a random blog by a conservative writer in South Bend, Indiana, where I read a rant about the current state of the U.S.-Mexican border. It made me think about a few issues around the border — I have been personally affected by the deteriorating civic security apparatus in Mexico recently, in a somewhat direct way, because it fed into my decision to not make a visa appointment at a US Consulate in Mexico. I have heard fearful stories, both anecdotally and in the press, about how lawless things are in places like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, and I don’t want to get caught in the cross-fire.

This is definitely a complex issue. Firstly, Mexico holds an interesting place in the American political constellation because of the immense numbers of Mexicans who have settled down in the country, legally or otherwise. Just look at the immigration data recently published by the New York Times, visualized very helpfully as a map showing the spread of foreign-born populations arond the world.

Then there’s the popular joke that most of the territory of the United States once belonged to Mexico, so in reality, by the parameters of this jest, it’s the Americans who are the upstarts in the region and who fail to pay proper respects to their forebears who pioneered the settlement of a large swath of land that now forms the four south-western and western states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

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An Open Letter To A Now Defunct Wine Bar

March 5, 2009

Dear London Wine Bar,

why? Why do you exist, when your collection of wines is something beyond a travesty, a sin, a crime, a blot on the face of this planet? My friends and I tasted six of the dozen or so wines you had available by the glass, and they were all nightmares.

I don’t just mean blandly fruity, “easy drinking” wines. I don’t mean characterless spice or berry bombs that are good to get drunk with when having some pizza or smoked ham. I mean, disasters with harsh tannins that make me feel like I was licking on a stirrup at a hazing ritual. I mean, sulphur-spewing smellfests that remind me of the worst horrors of the Krakatoa cataclysm.

Why, LWB? Do we not have enough existential questions to grapple with, that you must force us to analyze one more inexplicable riddle of the universe? Do we not have enough evidence of the unfairness of life, that you must add your blatant avariciousness to the mix? A bottle of wine that sells at BevMo for $5.99, that you resell BY THE GLASS for $5.50? Please. I would rather you charged me a dollar to get directions to the store’s nearest location.

I have read reviews on Yelp, where those who require high standards from a “wine bar,” have been characterized as pretentious and self-aggrandizing. There seems to be a notion that the LWB is being given a bad rap by those who are too elitist to let the common man have a good time, at a “cozy” and “down-to-earth” place.

Look, LWB, I confess to being a wine snob. I am the most obnoxious bastard on this planet when it comes to pissing on Californian “boldness” and “bigness” of fruit.  But in the case of the LWB, it isn’t about wine. It’s about basic human values. If you want to put up a flat-screen TV with WWF matches showing on it, call yourself Joe’s or The X Lounge or whatever, and make a pretty buck on people’s need to get drunk after work, that’s fine. The delusion you seem to be under, however, which you disseminate among your unsuspecting consumers, that you possess even semi-coarse, leave alone fine, wine, is simply unconscionable.

It makes me wish that the waters of the bay, that were landfilled to make the ground this establishment stands on, would rise briefly but forcefully, Neptune’s wrath fringing its waves with foam, and devour this ridiculous folly that stands testament to all that is base in human nature.

Notes On Multi-Cultural Experience: Music And Growing Up

March 5, 2009

For a long time, as a writer, I have resisted writing about multi-cultural issues, or from a multi-cultural perspective. I thought for all this while that the reason I did not want to write like this was because I was not drawn to multi-cultural topics, and there was also, for me, something naive and hackneyed about it. The greatest cliche of all was that of the stereotypical cross-cultural experience, usually involving gaffes at a party and tensions in a relationship. I felt that these ideas had already been written about so extensively that I could do no better than sound the same tired aphorisms and come to the same, well-trodden, conclusions.

More recently, I started considering the possibility that I didn’t have a reason for not writing about multi-cultural issues, merely a rationalization for it. This realization about myself was itself revelatory enough, that it has inspired me to shake off a long-held moratorium on writing about multi-culturalism and plunge headlong into the thick porridge of thoughts, experiences, ideas and ideologies that had been brewed over many decades by writers of this ilk.

What is this rationalization? I believe it’s simply that because I don’t really know what “culture” means, or haven’t cared to come to terms with what it means to me, I haven’t actually been in a position to write about multi-culturalism. I have been incompetent and the trick was to pretend I was indifferent. That was where the rationalization came from. Perhaps also I was avoiding the troubles that come with grappling with the role of “culture” or “my culture” in defining who I am. Intellectually speaking, I have been performing a difficult surgical procedure of separating from my identity the very notion of “cultural conditioning.” It’s like pretending your skin doesn’t exist really, but I didn’t think it was particularly naive to think of myself as purely what I make of myself, rather than what my cultural background has made of me.

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Learning Through Online Search: Some Thoughts

March 1, 2009

I searched for the phrase “calories per dollar” after having calculated the amount I spent on a recent grocery purchase. At the end of the second page of results, I found a link to the blog Marginal Revolution and was intrigued about what this left-leaning blog might have to say about the “calorie per dollar” issue. On the post, I found a link to an article in the New York Times by the celebrated food journalist, Michael Pollan, which turned out to be an instructive essay on the effect of national food subsidy policy on the prices of food items. (His essay makes his point that the structure of the “food bill” — the crops it supports and doesn’t support — greatly affects the distribution of prices along the calorie/dollar curve.)

This is a good example of the limitations of search when it comes to researching a topic, in a way that we learn about the greater forces that affect something we care about. When I started out reading about the topic of caloric prices, I didn’t think that an important part of the puzzle was the “food bill.” And Pollan’s article wasn’t even a search result — how could it be, when the phrase “calories per dollar” was not mentioned in it, even though it was a common phrase in other articles?

What this illustrates is the problem in the world of online search of what I call, “intent optimization.” Intent optimization is the ability to insert into a piece of content all the phrases that represent the interests of the people who might benefit from that piece of content. People searching for information about the price of a calorie need to read Michael Pollan’s article but that’s not something that online search can surface.

In order to do so, both content and search terms have to be mapped to a universe of concepts that they relate to, so that they can then be related to each other via this mapping. Because this information is key to the competitive advantage of a search company, it will not be released in any significant format to the public.

However, this information is going to become key to the public good, because we will all benefit from having a better understanding of the zeitgeist, in order to find communities of interest that can support our needs and to find the right pieces of information relevant to our personal development. Therefore, it behooves the open source community to create a service that gathers the search stream and the click-through data and makes it available in the public domain. In effect, it’s an anarchic movement to reclaim the knowledge of the community from the control of corporate interests.

There is no conflict here with the interest of profit-making because the knowledge in the public domain doesn’t allow in itself the creation of an auction market for advertising, which is what an online search engine like Google makes its revenues from. This service will simply aggregate searches and list trends among the most common ones, as well as relationships between different search terms. In the example above about “dollars per calorie,” this service might have detected a significant relationship between that term and, say, “food bill” or “Michael Pollan.”

The service will in fact simply re-purpose results from existing online search engines, and hence all click throughs (that is, search traffic) and ad clicks (that is, paid search revenue) will flow only to the underlying search engines providing the results. Moreover, as the service will retain minimal session information in order to protect individual privacy, it will lack a critical piece of information that forms the competitive advantage for search engine businesses.