Obama’s Legacy
30 Oct 2014

The BBC’s John Simpson writes a damning review of Obama’s presidency:

But at this point in a two-term presidency, you can tell if it has been successful. And it’s hard to imagine that Barack Obama can possibly be judged a success when he leaves office.

Simpson points out successes in the areas of US economy and health, but failures and resulting disappointment in all other promises. Our legacy of Obama’s foreign policy will be framed by failed withdrawals from Iraq & Afghanistan, and poorly thought out interventions in Libya & Syria.

But it is more than just practical failures:

The old notion Americans had of themselves as a city on a hill whose moral light couldn’t be hidden has been irreparably damaged. And President Obama has done little to improve that.

The failure to close Guantanamo and the continuing use of torture are Simpson’s grounds for this belief, and I would add the questionable procedures around drone usage to this list.

Simpson argues that Obama’s best years may still be ahead of him, pointing to similar trends in the careers of Jimmy Carter & Bill Clinton. And it may very well be that Obama continues to add to the world after his tenure ends, perhaps even more so than as President. But the sadness in this reality is that the feel-good optimism and moral clarity of Obama’s campaign from outside the White House was numbed upon entering it. The soul-crushing lack of soul in the American government is a reminder that moral clarity does not equate to change, because our social systems are resilient to moral clarity. In fact they almost seem to revel in moral and intellectual ambiguity.

Right Arm Inswing
22 Oct 2014

Serenity is hard to find for me. I spend hours, days chasing racing thoughts with seemingly aimless restlessness. Much of this anxiety is driven by existential questions that I do not have answers to for the moment, and am unlikely still to find in quick time.

In the meantime I chase a tiny bit of meaningless regularity to leave my mind deciphering meaning in the actual problems of life. I trick myself into work life, I eat cake and I listen to the news in the car.

But nothing beats the unflinching flatlining rhythm of my one half-real sporting ability: bowling.

On the cricket field one can be one of two things, a batter or a bowler. Theoretically one can also be a fielder but there is no serenity to be found there if you grew up in Pakistan, because you are a fielder if you are not bowling and not batting. Technically only players on the bowling team will field at any given time, but in the streets and playgrounds of Lahore it doesn’t matter what team you’re on. If you are not batting or bowling you are likely fielding.

Which leaves the soul searching flowchart of a cricket player to end on two possible outcomes: batting and bowling.

A part of me is convinced that I will never be a batter. The first game I ever played with a leather cherry I was out first ball. I think that memory has so ingrained itself in my head that I’ve never been able to recover. The batting collapse around me in that game isn’t a prominent memory, although every team I have subsequently been in has been prone to batting collapses. I have sat through enough never-ending probablity lectures and been on enough cricket teams to find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence.

The horror of this game aside, I think there is more to the batting role that does not gel well with a mind in perpetual existential crisis.

The batter is the person in everyone’s sight on a cricket field. The bowler runs towards him, the fielders stare ready to respond to his shot, the non-striking batter watches ready to call or run. The umpire is casually scanning his peripheral vision but his line of vision is pointed towards the batter. Which leaves really only the wicket-keeper, who should perhaps ideally be looking at the bowler and the delivery, but only with a line of sight that gently grazes the striking batter.

Of course everyone is staring at the batter for a reason: cricket is a batter’s story. A game is won by the team that scores more runs – batters score the runs. And so the poignant narrative of any cricket game is the batter’s play. It is in effect, a batter’s exhibition. Everyone else is really in supporting cast.

A good batter understands his role in the play. Try only to hit the ball straight. If it goes anywhere else it should do so only on instinctive reaction. And so the batter’s narrative is one of loose plan and strong instinct. It is a story of primal survival, a story of gusto. There is no room for fear of self doubt. And hence, I conclude, that a mind as restless as mine was never one to bat.

The last bit of evidence that I am not a batter is the realization that no real batter worth their merit would have bothered to reason to this point. They would rather have been batting.

So that leaves the other option: bowling. This plot I can manage.

Every delivery, the bowling team has many active members. The bowler who delivers the actual ball is of course, crucial. Perhaps equally important is the captain, if the captain is strong-minded and strong-willed. The captain and the bowler together own the plan, which they set up with a field placing and put into motion with the bowler’s run up.

The bowling narrative accrues ball by ball, and perhaps so does the batting narrative. But the bowling plan is much more considered, much more deliberate. There is much more time to think, to assess, to tweak, to repeat.

There is a beautiful rhtyhm to this planning. At the granularity of each individual ball this rhythim is somewhat calculated. The pitch of the ball thought about, the pace and the angle played through to set the field. The goal is to be almost clinical. As a group of six balls, the over becomes about a more careful art of set up, about slowly altering the pace of the game. The rhythm becomes somewhat ruminative. As overs bundle together into a spell the rhythm begins to take a more contemplative form. Each spell a small chunk of the game, slowly defining the role of each passage of play and of each player.

But as a game, as a collection of spells the rhythm of bowling is meditative.

When the ball is given to me I am able to focus.

I hand my cap and other paraphranelia to the umpire. I verify the location of the return crease, because I’m often accused of using the width of the crease with borderline legality. I measure 10 steps from the bowling crease. This method is innacurate, but I’ve learnt to not care with Wasim Akram’s assurance. All that matters is comfort. I walk ten somewhat extended steps backwards from the bowling crease, and mark a line in the turf with my foot.

At the top of my mark I think about where I want to bowl. I pick between one of my two stock deliveries. One is a good length ball pitches just outside off and comes into the batsman after pitching. The other is a yorker length delivery pitches somewhere between the leg stump and a hypothetical fifth stump on the off side. I sometimes move the ball in the air, largely due to wrist position which I have somehow naturally discovered and learnt to stick to.

I assure everyone in the field is ready. They have been made aware of their positions and the moment they are ready, I am ready.

I run it at an angle to accentuate the angle of the delivery. And because someone once told me it worked well for me and now I find it hard to run along the axis of the crease. So I don’t fight it.

I bowl.

I’ve thrown it wide. The umpire strethces his arm, there is some murmuring from my team about the validity of this decision but I have no interest in arguing. I shake my head at my failure to curtail the umpires breadth of doubt. I think to myself, I think again about where I want to pitch it. I walk back to the top of my mark. Someone has thrown the ball to me sometime during this process but that has all been muscle memory. It is in my hand now and I don’t really remember how it got to me.

I start running in with a cursory glance at the batsman. For all the hooplah about the batsman being the center of the show, everyone forgets that I control the pace of the exhibition. The batsman begins to look ready but isn’t really. I don’t wait.

I run in. It pitches outside off, the batsman tries to poke but he hasn’t accounted for the movement. He adjusts last minute and scores a streaky run behind the wicket.

I smile.

My fielders say something. Some part of the batter’s mind anticipates a fast bowler’s stare, or a sledger’s banter. I’m not interested in what he thinks. I turn around and walk back to my mark.

I have the ball when I am looking at the batsman next.

My major mode of variation is to move the ball the other way. The problem here is that I don’t really know how to control this yet, I have a general idea but I can’t reproduce the movement away from the batsman at will. But I’ve learnt to go with the flow. Some days the ball is moving away from the batsman, sometime consistently, sometimes occasionally. These days I know that a good length outside off is a good place for the ball to move either in our out. And I use the uncertainty of movement to my advantage. If I don’t know which way the ball is going, the batter likely knows even less. The longer it takes for the batsman to identify which way the ball is moving, the less time he has to adjust his shot.

I assess the flow. I go with it. I run again. I assess myself.

I turn around, I walk back, I turn around again, then I run, I jump, I bowl, I assess myself. Then it starts again.

*

A common approach to meditative practice is to find ways to turn off your mind for a little bit. To learn to prevent the captivating control of the distracting thought. This captivity defines the prison of a racing mind. But when I bowl, I am free.

In the bowler’s rhythm I reason, I deliberate. But the pulse of this deliberation is interrupted by little gaps of going with the flow. Of running in comfort, of feeling the swing, of reverting to a constrained and tested set of challenging stock balls. It is repetitive, calming, and wonderful.

To the outsider it’s the batter’s show. The batter is the frontman to the cricket band, but the band needs a pulse. It may the batter’s words they hum but it is the bowlers’s rhythm they feel.

Clarity, Creativity, Production
16 Oct 2014

I just listened to a recording of a Steve Jobs speech given at the Center of Design Innovation in 1983, to an audience at the International Design Conference. I highly recommend listening to it if you have a few minutes and a casual interest in how computers, or anything really, is made and thought about.

What’s striking about this speech is its clarity.

Jobs’ real contribution to technology is understanding its worth to many people who hadn’t yet embraced it. This is a result of his great ability to look at something and really understand the meaningful aspects of it. In any creative pursuit, meaning is found by understanding the purpose of producing something, by really figuring out what it is that a creation brings to the world. The outcome of this approach is creative output that is deliberate. Deliberate in the sense that it takes its form for a reason.

All of this seems obvious until you begin to see the sheer magnitude of things around you that are the way they are ‘just because’. ‘Just because’ is an interesting phrase because on face value it might indicate that things are ‘just because’ because the reason they are because of is so obvious that the need to actually put it in words hasn’t occurred to anyone. When in reality it’s ‘just because’ (minus any actual reason following that) because there is no clear reason, and no one has taken the time to think through any of this at all.

Take this wooden spoon:

Wooden Spoon

I somehow have come into possession of this wooden spoon, and have been cooking with it for months. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why there are slits at the end of the spoon. For the life of me I have not even a semblance of a clue.

There are gaps at the end of a fork because the material that remains forms prongs or spikes that you can then use to pierce food and pick it up. The relative width of the gaps and resultant ‘prongs’ between them on this spoon mean that doesn’t happen. So what else? Maybe you want to pick solid up from what you’re cooking and want to drain some liquid from it. But in that case why would the gaps be at the edge and not at the center where the spoon actually curves downwards and will naturally take the liquid? (There’s another wooden spoon in the set that actually is designed this way so that rules this theory out). It doesn’t give you better control, it doesn’t let you pick things up any easier, and it doesn’t boost magical stirring power.

The worst part is that the slits at the end of the spoon actually make it harder to clean because inevitable things get stuck in there that I then need to use either a fork or a knife to get out. So what’s the point?

Sincerely, if you understand a point to this spoon that I don’t please do let me know.

I imagine spoons like this come from a discussion like this:

If you don’t have time to think about why you’re parading around like a headless chicken then you probably shouldn’t be parading around like a headless chicken.

*

In a way ideas are like sculptures. You start off with a promising piece of material that requires meticulous chiseling before it becomes something beautiful. The day you land on a good idea without any chiseling is a great day, but most other days and most other ideas require constant thinking and re-thinking to get to the final piece, to really understand the essence and the core string that holds up an abstract thought. Good ideas require work.

Part of the work is constantly refine your idea, but there is a curative aspect of it also. I read somewhere once (where I now cannot trace) that anyone who has ever written something knows that it isn’t coming from them, that it’s some strange external force or spirit that’s somehow channeling it’s way through their head and onto their keyboard. And I believe it’s true because I really don’t have any control over what ideas my brain spews out. I’m not that much of a mind jedi. But what I can do is to recognize the good ones from the shit ones. And there are a lot of shit ones.

And might I add even the great minds produce a lot of shit ideas. Here’s an excerpt from Jony Ive’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs:

Steve used to say to me (and he used to say this a lot), “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.” And sometimes they were — really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet, simple ones which, in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.

And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. I think he, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

The only way I can think to be inherently more creative, and to produce better ideas and better work is to surround myself with great ideas, to create an environment where the parts of my brain that I can’t consciously control can find enough fodder to continue processing. And surrounding yourself with great ideas also improves your ability to recognize the good ideas from the bad ones.

And once you put it this way you realize that creativity is really just the name we give to the intention to produce something. And clarity is just the name we give to having really understood something. Put together you have a force that really understands how to change the world and is a promise to do it. I can’t really see a point to spending myself any other way.

The Transformation of Mecca
14 Oct 2014

Ziauddin Sardar writes in the New York Times on The Destruction of Mecca:

The few remaining buildings and sites of religious and cultural significance were erased more recently. The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, completed in 2012, was built on the graves of an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, including the city’s few remaining millennium-old buildings. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night, displacing families that had lived there for centuries. The complex stands on top of Ajyad Fortress, built around 1780, to protect Mecca from bandits and invaders. The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, has been turned into a block of toilets. The Makkah Hilton is built over the house of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the prophet and the first caliph.

The spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount.

Mecca’s transformation seems unworthy of a place this holy. This is not the image many have in mind of what should be one of the world’s great spiritual centers. Given the disappointment over these developments we have to ask ourselves how we continue to allow this to happen. How have we allowed ownership of things we care about to be taken so far out of our hands that we are left feeling disconnected and dejected?

This is not a problem unique to Mecca or to Muslims. The feeling that we have no ability to control or affect things that matter to us seems a common sentiment. The transformation of Lahore in recent years is a very obvious illustration of this for me. I feel like I was never a part of a conversation about what I liked about Lahore and how I wanted it to change. I heard complaints about the new rapid transit bus system but I have a hard time remembering discussing whether we wanted it at all. If there was any conversation at all I don’t know who was part of it. Now it all seems too late.

Feeling unable to contribute is depressing because it makes you question your worth to the world. It forces you to ask yourself how you matter. It often leads to the conclusion that your beliefs are not relevant to the decision makers in the structures that run our world, which encourages the belief that you don’t matter. And hereon it’s easy to find meaninglessness and malice in the structures we have created to run our societies: governments, corporations, stock exchanges, financial institutions, all seemingly having no interest in what you think.

It is easy to equate this feeling of disappointment with a moral disapproval of these entities and their structures, and in the strength of our emotion it seems we casually establish opinions on many big ideas: capitalism, democracy, humanity. These opinions are often not thought through, and dangerously so. Just as the dangerous thirst for change and progress dwarves the desire to think through action taken by social structures. Mecca’s consumerist transformation, the agenda for Imran Khan’s latest protests, both beg the question: why are we doing this? It is outrageous how often this is a question we need to ask and how often we forget to. Our greed to go somewhere routinely outstrips our ability to figure out where to go.

As individuals it is often clear what we want, as groups it’s all much more muddled. Part of the challenge of operating in large structures of people is identifying what is meaningful to us as a collective. The belief of the whole is often not reflective of the belief of the individuals that make it up. This is perhaps the great challenge of living together, in both senses of the word challenge: an exasperation and an opportunity.

A Letter Explaining This Blog’s Raison d’être
9 Oct 2014

I found out during my last two years of college the names of some of the funds that had helped pay for my college education. One of these funds was established in the name of a Senior Editor at the Reader’s Digest.

Over the past year I’ve been at a loss of what to write, and whom to write for, if to write at all. I went back to the people that wanted me to write to find out why.

The letter that follows is addressed to secretary of the class to which the aforementioned editor belonged. It explains who I am and how the affection of some people (who I have never met) towards a loved one (who I have also never met) and their resulting generosity affected me.

*

I write to you today to thank the family, friends and colleagues of Mr William Hard Jr, member of your class, in whose name a scholarship was established that helped support my way through a Princeton undergraduate degree.

I graduated last year as a member of the Class of 2013, with a major in Computer Science, a certificate in the Woodrow Wilson School, and a curiosity in everything else.

During the spring semester of my junior year, I was informed of the involvement of the William Hard, Jr., ’30 Memorial Scholarship in helping me through college. I was told that this scholarship became a part of my award the subsequent year as well. The timeline of events here demands an apology, as a result of my tardiness in offering my sincerest gratitude for what is perhaps the greatest gift I have ever received from anyone on Earth.

As part of this apology I wish to offer the following explanations (which are intended to be not so much a justification for this belated letter, but rather an exposition of my feelings towards receiving such a tremendous favor).

The first is that I have always wanted to get this letter right, and have hence always been scared to write it. This is the excuse that takes the well known form of: I kept it for later because I wanted to put my full energy and focus towards it. As played out as this form of excuse tends to be, I can only offer an expression of deep sincerity in this emotion, and hope that I am able to communicate how much I value the support of your classmate and his well-wishers. I hope I can offer as earnest of an expression of gratitude that their gesture deserves.

The second is that I have somewhat been at a loss about what exactly to say. I have always expected to offer my deepest thanks, but the need for and source of that gesture seems obvious. Hence that alone always felt incomplete as a first communication with those that helped support my way through college. And I have also always been unsure as to how exactly I should introduce myself as the beneficiary of my sponsors’ efforts. This latter bit is partly a function of this being always a hard question for me to answer, from freshman ice-breakers to meeting new friends. But it is also partly a function of me wanting to provide the reassurance that the time, effort and resources of my benefactors went to a use that would make them happy and proud. I worry still whether I can fully guarantee the worthiness of myself to have received this award, or the assurance that I used it as best I could. There are always doubts, and perhaps there always will be.

My fear of talking about myself having been laid out, I will attempt it nonetheless in the hope that I can offer some insight into my interests, beliefs and work which may paint a picture to what is otherwise the somewhat invisible impact of aid resources.

I’m from Lahore, Pakistan where I was born and raised. Princeton was the second place I called home.

Although I graduated with a major in Computer Science & a certificate in the Woodrow Wilson School, my interests and corresponding coursework was a little more diverse. Thanks to Princeton’s flexibility & liberal arts approach, I was able to study music, photography, near eastern studies, the sciences and journalism. I was also able to study abroad at Oxford my Junior fall, where I spent time studying the EU, British History, Ethnomusicology & Computer Science.

Some point out that I may have spread myself thin, but I think I may have not spread myself thin enough. There was lots more I wanted to study, but alas that will require me to read on my own time.

I now work for Microsoft Corporation in Seattle, where I help the engineering and design teams build software used by millions of people every day. This involves finding answers to design questions as big as how you should search for anything on your phone, to how far apart two pieces of text should be on a page. The answers to these questions are not arbitrary or one-dimensional. They are complex, dense and involve many intertwined disciplines – the perfect use of a liberal arts education. This job also involves an unholy amount of email, which Princeton has also prepared me for.

On the side I have spent time writing, helping high school students apply to college, and playing rock music.

I came into Princeton pretty certain that I would get my hands dirty with Computer Science. It took me one class my freshman fall to be sure that this would be my major. Granted, as I neared the end of my time at Princeton, I questioned whether I should have considered majoring in something else. But my choice was based out of a boyish innocence and obsession with software and the innovation of the tech industry in general. In school I began learning how to build rudimentary websites and animations. I then read about Apple and Google and Microsoft, and it seemed clear to me then that this was what I was interested in doing. I could spend hours trying to build things on a computer,
thinking of new products, imagining I could build the next big thing. This interest in product design remains with me still, albeit attached to a slightly more complex understanding of technology and the humans that used them.

In fact I realized during my time at Princeton that an understanding of humans was often more interesting than an understanding of technology. This is the thread that allowed me to connect a diverse set of coursework, that spanned from Ethnomusicology, to Sufi Philosophy, to Public Policy and Photography. Central to my coursework at Princeton, and to my time there in general was the belief that I was there to form a better understanding of the world as it was: of the people that inhabited it and of the thought they had put together. This was to empower me to understand better my position in the broader world and to give me the capability to change it for the better.

I often joked to interviewers for various jobs I was applying to that my interests in art, politics and technology had no intersections. But I realized during my time at Princeton, and even more so afterwards, that the common thread was the need to establish a holistic understanding of the world. This conclusion I was only able to reach through fabled conversations in hallways and over meals, with cherished friends, colleagues and teachers. But this thought took its real form through writing, which I was luckily able to publish in the Daily Princetonian (whose reach awes me still).

Growing up, my parents never expressed their desire for me to pick up any profession in particular. They allowed me to think on my own and to form my own opinions. But the one thing I was asked to do was to write. I am not completely sure what compelled them to push me in this direction, but writing has made me a better thinker and a better person.

At times, motivating myself to write has been difficult, because I was unsure who cared. I was unsure who cared what I thought, and what difference my putting it in writing would make. But I remembered then that the William Hard, Jr., ’30 Memorial Scholarship had been formed specifically to aid a student with interest and ability in expository writing. This gives me hope, and assurance that people do care. And that with some effort I may be able to make a small difference somewhere, to someone. With this letter, I hope to restart writing regularly once again and publishing online as I have before.

Some time in my senior year, my friends and peers began to see the writer as a part of my identity. And in my gratitude I wish to promise your classmate and his well-wishers that I will do what I can to have the writer remain a part of my identity, and for this writer to always write for the betterment of the world.

*

I came into Princeton knowing so little, and I left knowing the most important fact of all: that I still know very little. The humility inspired in me by this belief is similar to the effect of putting my head around the generosity of my sponsors.

I don’t know where or who I would be without Princeton. And I would not have been at Princeton without financial aid. In short I am who I am and I can do what I can do because of the generosity of those that loved Mr William Hard. To them, and to Mr William Hard himself, who must have been a great man to inspire such a beautiful tribute, I am eternally grateful.

I sometimes wonder if I can ever give the world what has been given to me. I hope that in my life I can add to the world as the many who have supported me have done, and perhaps have hoped I do also. In a sense this letter of gratitude does not end here, but will be played continuously as I do anything of worth in my life.

Sincere and best regards,
Zeerak Ahmed ’13.