کیا ہم گورے ہیں؟ – On the Vital Signs & Coke Studio, i.e. a Long-Winded, Roundabout Review of Coke Studio 7
6 Jun 2015

گورے رنگ کا زمانہ کبھی ہو گا نہ پرانا

Vital Signs 1 released on March 1, 1989.

I remember going back to Islamabad, the day it was released. We went to Jinnah Market and we heard Gori playing in three four cars… and we couldn’t believe it!

Junaid, Shehzad and Rohail wanted to be a real rock band. They had grown up as musicians playing Rush, A-ha and Pink Floyd. Later Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran would become influences. They played music because they liked to, no one really thought anything would come of it.

But here, in 1989, under the mentorship of a certain Shoaib Mansoor, and under the shadow of their greatest hit Dil Dil Pakistan, the Vital Signs put out an eponymous debut album that to this day frames the image of Pakistani popular music. The focal point of that image, is Gori playing on the streets of Pakistani cities.


On Building for Values
28 Apr 2015

Suzy Menkes talks to Jony Ive and Mark Newson about the Apple Watch.

Around the 7:00 minute mark Newson begins to talk about a stream of what brings him and Ive together: what they didn’t like. In a sense that the two are intellectual partners not by virtue of what interests them, but almost by virtue of what they are dissatisfied by. Ive turns this into a characteristic exploration of why things are produced.

Ive’s identification of carelessness apparent in modern production is now familiar to those that follow his ideas.1 It’s been hard for me to pinpoint exactly what this ‘carelessness’ implies. What actual facets of a finished product imply carelessness?2 Ive’s description here is more lucid than any I have come across before I think.

He describes that much of what we see around us is produced to hit a price point or a schedule, and what differentiates Apple’s work, and what gives it the care it deserves, is that it is produced to represent the values of the people that produce it. Of course all of these things – price, schedule, values – are factors in many good production processes, but I think the difference lies in what one considers non-negotiable.

For most companies today business metrics seem to be the primary non-negotiable. This is becoming harder with increasing data-fetishization.3 Few businesses now have the courage and self-awareness to stand up for values, and I wish more did.

Values can be moral and ethical in nature, but they have power even when they take a more fickle form. What you produce for can just be what you like, in fact that is the form that a lot of art takes. That many employees of modern businesses don’t care about what they do is a great sign of our extraordinary ability as humans to get together and feel nothing.

  1. This echoes the sentiments of Dieter Rams who has been known to inspire much of Apple’s work. 
  2. Could be how nothing aligns on the new Samsung phones 
  3. Data fetishization: the need to optimize for measurable outcomes, often leading to short-sighted, uninspired goals around improving metrics that incompletely capture impact.4 
  4. I think there is an argument to be made that I should clarify that I do in fact, love data. I think it’s stupid to not measure impact when you have the tools to do so. Measure what you can. But this can be a trap. As what was formerly totally intangible now becomes partly tangible, partly intangible, there is a tendency to restrict analysis only to the numbers at hand. And to forget the stuff we haven’t been able to measure or analyze correctly. In this scenario the lesser analysis will restrict itself only to the numbers, whereas the harder, and correct thing to do is to use the numbers when you can and to keep the intangibles part of the analysis. Overriding the numbers is harder when you have numbers, but that’s also not a reason to not have numbers at all. 
On Raahi’s First Two Singles
20 Apr 2015

Raahi is a new Karachi rock-band that deserves attention just on the merits of its personnel. It comprises Louis John Pinto aka Gumby (associated with Coke Studio, Ali Azmat, Uth Records, Noori, Vital Signs, Junoon), Omran Shafique (Coke Studio, Mauj, Kostal, Co-ven), Sameer Ahmed Bakhtiari (Karavan, Azal). Also joining the old timers is Ahsan Bari, a NAPA graduate that has caught some eyes with work on Sounds of Kolachi1 and Cornetto Music Icons.

The band has two songs out at the moment, Dil Ka Raahi (which hit Vimeo a couple of months ago), and Aasman Ki Oor (which released just last week). An album is apparently on the way in a couple of months. The music is definitely interesting, as is how the band presents itself. Given the nature of collaboration, the band’s PR is noticeably understated,2 and this suits the music rather well.

The first thing that hit me about the music was how surprisingly ‘pop’ it was. Not in the sense of being upbeat and boppy, but rather how well-rounded the songs were and how smooth they were to listen to. This isn’t per se a bad thing, but I was expecting something more experimental. Gumby has said that he recruited Omran by saying they had been making music for other people for long enough, and it was time they made the music they wanted. I just assumed they wanted something edgier.3

Once you get past that hurdle however the music is unique still. Gumby’s playing is unsurprisingly intricate and subtle, Sameer plays a gentle rock-bass, Omran softens his Mauj style and Ahsan’s vocals round off the sound with a defining eastern swirl.

Dil Ka Raahi has a charming coffee-house aesthetic. It is mellow, but not sad – slow but with an obvious movement. Gumby’s percussions are minimalist, limited to the edge of a snare drum and a hand drum. Sameer plays acoustic bass, while Omran plays acoustic and then accents it with a glass slide. Ahsan’s vocals are intricate, but not in your face. The singing is more Amanat Ali than Junaid Jamshed, in that it is technically excellent but its primary quality is not the sheer power and recognizability of the voice. Most of Pakistani pop’s renowned vocalists have fallen into the latter bucket: Junaid, Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Ali Noor. The comparison here is similar to the difference between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hussain Buksh Gullu – one a vocal powerhouse, the other a quiet maestro. The vocal style is fundamentally different to warrant a different assessment. Ahsan’s vocal quality makes complete sense in this band’s accompaniment.

The lyrics are ambiguous – I read them as oscillating between finding love and self-discovery. Perhaps that is intentional to point to the related nature of the two. But the lyrics neither seem to attempt to say something a pop song hasn’t said before, neither leave you with the impression that they have. But they are pleasing still, and decidedly do not fall into the trap of being comically simplistic as they attempt to say too much (ala Noori). Like the band itself, they are understated and not the worse for it.

Aasman Ki Oor takes the tempo and the distortion up a notch. Gumby moves to a full drum kit, Sameer picks up an electric bass guitar and Omran plays with a characteristically pop-rock electric guitar sound. Ahsan’s vocals keep up with the energy in the sound and in the lyrics (the words here are about energy, needing to get up and move, as far as I can tell). And in this song more than the first, the vocals clearly paint Ahsan as an eastern-trained vocalist fronting a western-style rock band. This aesthetic is also not new, but is presented in a manner more refined. You can’t credit Raahi with inventing a style here, but they’ve picked up one that we know and practiced it tastefully.

Junoon’s legacy has given the eastern vocal a great prominence in the east-meets-west Pakistani rock style. The recent trend to make the eastern influence a little more subtle is definitely refreshing. And it is what makes this music decidedly Pakistani in its lineage and aesthetic. A plain-old pop vocal would have made this just urdu soft rock, but the eastern training of Ahsan’s vocal (and presumably the eastern influences that have affected Gumby and Omran’s work in Coke Studio) make the whole aesthetic original.

It is good that an album is in the works, because this isn’t really a collection of singles. It is more the kind of music you leave on in the background as it quietly makes the day a bit more pleasant. But it is not the sort of music you find yourself obsessed with and playing on repeat. At least I don’t.

In some sense the band’s position is analogized by their lyrics. Sufficiently obscure to be saying a lot, or nothing much at all; familiar enough to a pop sensibility; but pretty nonetheless.

  1. I did some brief digging on Sounds of Kolachi, that Ahsan describes as an amalgamation of many different genres. That’s a pretty good description really, and it sounds almost like eastern lyrical and musical content playing with frameworks of jazz, pop and folk. Definitely interesting. 
  2. Though I have to say their description of themselves on Facebook: “The Real Sound of Music” is a little strange. I want to write this down as a PR firm folly but I have no evidence to indicate the merits of this theory. 
  3. In their defense the band call their work a ‘straightforward, mainstream’ sound. Not what I was expecting, but still welcome. 
On Halting Pakistani Police Contributions to the UN Peacekeepers
20 Apr 2015

Wajid Ali Syed reports for the Friday Times, on Pakistan’s decision to halt contributions of police personnel to the UN peacekeepers.

Reasons for this move aren’t particularly clear. There is some talk of the need to keep police officers at home given the domestic security situation, but the numbers don’t fit this theory. Claims of a rift between the District Management Group and the Police department seem more likely, and also more tragic.

The troubling thing for me however, is the resultant glorification of the sort of patriotism that looks down on interacting with the rest of the world. There are few areas in the world where Pakistan’s contribution adds to a global well-being. Any effort from any state that contributes to a global well-being, and is not only motivated by self-sustaining principles, must be praised. But the victimization of the Pakistani state and people by the world, as prominently discussed in our political narrative, makes it difficult to create any space to praise positive global interaction.

As a result we lose on the following:

From 1992 to 2013, Pakistani police deployment increased from 35 to 766 annually. The UN peacekeepers returning to Pakistan were replicating the best practices of peacekeeping at home. They continue to identify themselves as UN peacekeepers while serving in the police by displaying their UN police medals and insignia on their uniforms. During their time as peacekeepers, the blue helmets operate within a system in which respect for human rights is seen as the cornerstone of police work, the report says, and they undergo human rights training for their missions. On returning home, local communities tend to respect former peacekeepers for their perceived integrity in an environment where human rights violations in regular police work are commonplace. Former peacekeepers perceive themselves as politically neutral and as agents of the rule of law.

From the information available I think there is a strong argument to be made that contributing to the UN peacekeepers makes Pakistan more secure. And I can speak from personal experience that there is little that teaches a person more than to be in an alien environment.

I hope this becomes a more important issue of discussion.

On the Tragedy of the Afghan Exodus
15 Apr 2015

Dawn published a heart wrenching Reuters’ piece on the Afghan exodus from Pakistan. The photos and text are deeply saddening. The worst part is this:

Some analysts say the migrants are being used as scapegoats to distract attention from the authorities’ failure to end violence.

“It is so easy to exploit them. They have no legal framework to protect them,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director at the International Crisis Group. “Targeting Afghan refugees is a diversion.”

I don’t see any evidence to believe the analysts are wrong.

It’s all leading to stories like this:

Shahkirullah Sabawoon, an Afghan clothes merchant in Peshawar, is one of the people preparing to leave.

“Pakistan is our second home and we have invested billions of rupees in different businesses but police are asking us to shut our businesses and leave the country,” he said.

Shahkirullah said many in the community were too afraid to visit the market and check their shops for fear of being arrested.

“We have made up our minds to leave Pakistan and move our businesses to Afghanistan but it’s not an easy task.”

The anger against Afghan refugees is knee-jerk, misled, and hurtful. It is against any idea of multiculturalism, of global solidarity, of a basic humanity to help who one can.

It’s easy to scream at immigrants and say that undocumented immigrants may pose a threat. It’s too easy. Many of them ran away from the sort of terror we face now, and we are breaking their lives again so we can pretend that we made some progress to eradicate terrorism.

Shahkirullah’s life is worth more than anything we stand to gain. This is the wrong move.

There is good reason for hatred of Pakistan if you are Afghan. There is a list of grievances, this is just the latest.

On Smart Crime Fighting Technology in Peshawar, and the Express Tribune’s Stupid Sensationalism
10 Apr 2015

Authorized police officers in Peshawar are now able to check details on vehicle registration on the fly by using a car’s license plate number and a cellular connection, as the Express Tribune Reports.

This is an incredibly smart use of cell phones and government data. As the report notes, in only a few months the system has helped recover 6 stolen vehicles. And hopes further to help combat militant attacks.

But instead of praise, the Express Tribune headlines this article:

Big Brother is watching: Your data, now at the fingertips of police

It then starts as follows:

PESHAWAR: As you zip through the crowded corridors of the provincial capital, bear in mind you are under constant surveillance of Peshawar Traffic police and they have plausibly everything they need to know about you.

The very next paragraph contradicts this by clarifying what they really know:

Experts sitting at the traffic police headquarters are just a click away from reviewing the registration and specification data of any vehicle en route in any nook or corner of the province. The data has also been made available to officers on duty at pickets, checkpoints and check posts punctuating the roads of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

I think the ISI snooping on phone calls and internet communications is an actual problem. This, is not.

Unfortunately, there are no real details on the actual technology. But I’m assuming registration data and criminal records for all vehicles available have been collected into a central database, that police officers can query by SMSing the license plate number to a special phone number. From here they likely get all the details they need in a predefined format via an SMS reply.

This is not a technologically ingenious system by today’s standards. In the sense that there is no real innovative technology here. It’s just a database query, connected to an SMS connection with hopefully some smart language processing.

But the real takeaway here is that software does not need to be ingenious to be useful. A huge number of problems can be solved by a centralized database and smart ways to access the data. Think of the tool in Pakistan that let’s you check what SIM cards are associated with your NIC. Incredibly useful, really simple. Kenya’s a great example of such systems being put to great use, and high literacy (when compared to Pakistan at least) greatly helps the use of SMS interfaces to get data.

Governments are sitting on massive amounts of data that is in unusable forms. Small projects like these can make that data available, actionable, and valuable.

Good ideas can do without the Express Tribune’s melodrama.

On the Lahore Music Meet, and measuring success
29 Mar 2015

Ahmer Naqvi has a great piece in Dawn about the Lahore Music Meet (LMM). I found this bit particularly interesting:

An event like LMM could finally give a chance for the executives to be forced to confront the larger diversity of Pakistani music.

Naqvi asserts, correctly, the diversity of musical practice in Pakistan. Questioned also, again correctly, are the prospects of a sustainable infrastructural future of said practice.

What’s really interesting to me is his use of the state of corporate marketing as a barometer for these circumstances. The corporate sector’s music ventures have been dull recently, and we do need some way of having marketers find the more interesting stuff. I think that could be one of the LMM’s real successes, putting the right people in touch. But it’s not going to be an easy metric to be able to judge it against.

As technology gives us more powerful ways of measuring things, there is an increasing demand for empirical success metric – i.e. there is an increasing desire, and perhaps need to be able to measure success in numbers.

This is difficult for cultural initiatives, because there aren’t many numbers too look at. Beyond perhaps the number of attendees at an event, or the amount of money made. And with initiatives that are neither completely populist nor very good at making money, it’s very hard to measure worth.

The beauty of meets like the LMM is that it’s not the crowd that makes the event, it’s how you feel when you’re there. Which is primarily driven by the music. We don’t have a good way to measure that yet. The best we can do is to try and capture the feeling, which is why discourse around culture is so important. Because it is the only way for us to remember how we feel. Which is why the LMM exists in the first place.

It’s totally possible that the LMM results in better music financing and sponsorship, and for it to receive no direct credit. It takes brave, committed, driven minds to be able to take this on.

The Programmer’s Dilemma – On Code, Meaning, Truth
7 Jan 2015

I asked my mother a few days ago if her two-year old iPad had become slow. It had, and this phenomenon bemused my father. How can a computer ‘become’ slow? I studied computer science, sometimes code as a hobby or for special projects, and help build software for a living. I buy a new computer (in its many incarnations: PC, phone) every few years when the sluggishness of my current computer becomes intolerable. But I couldn’t really answer how computers become slow off-hand. So I went back to my first few months in computer science to try and make sense of it all.


On Interstellar’s Sound
18 Nov 2014

Jacob Kastrenakes for The Verge:

Interstellar sound designer Richard King tells The Verge that you aren’t always supposed to understand the dialogue because the movie is more concerned with conveying a broader emotional tone. “We mixed this in a way that people aren’t used to,” King says. “It’s more about the experience. The visceral experience of the movie. Being with it. Allowing yourself to be carried along by it. Not grasping for every word, because some of the words are intentionally downplayed in favor of the emotion of that moment give by the actors’ emotion and performances.”

This bugged me as I watched the movie, but I like the movie more now for knowing why the sound was the way it was.

The reason I do is because it’s forcing me to be less neurotic in a way that many other technological shifts are allowing me to be. I’ve switched from broadcast television to internet streaming, and from radio broadcast to podcasts – essentially the shift being from an always on medium you tune into to an on demand medium where you can play what you want when you want. Being able to control playback gives me the ability to go back and correct for shoddy listening, i.e. to rewind and replay content when I think I’ve missed something. And often the cognitive load of doing this is not worth the completeness of consumption. Instead it allows the OCD part of my mind to take over the flow part of my mind. I don’t know very much about how the brain works but I think there’s something to be said for an effort that forces us to just be – be engaged in the moment, which interestingly does not equate to listening to it fully.

On Lahore’s Rapid Transit Bus System
10 Nov 2014

Shahid Saeed has a good piece in defense of Lahore’s Rapid Transit Bus System in Dawn, a great counterpoint to the common narrative critical of the project.

In the first year of operation, the total ridership was 43 million. A 42 per cent fleet expansion took place midway through 2013, increasing capacity. Peak daily ridership was 178,850 and the average daily ridership through the first half of 2014 was at 149,228 with a monthly average peak of 159,222. Buses are jam-packed and total ridership this year should be expected to hit 54 million, up 25 per cent, but having reached operational capacity.

From what I’ve seen while in Lahore last year and via anecdotal evidence, the system is heavily used.

Saeed links to sources for only two of those numbers, which lead to tweets by Khurram Dastgir-Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Commerce. Khan has many twitter followers, and his tweets are an interesting mix of feel-good Pakistan sentiment, musings and links about poetry and fine art, and a sprinkling of random stats that should be published in government documents. This use of tweets as press sourcing will be familiar to those who followed the ISPR’s statements during the tense moments of Imran Khan’s march in Islamabad in August this year.

Khan also has a Facebook page with a curiously smaller number of followers (~4k on Facebook compared to ~76k on Twitter). I recommend you visit the page and read some of the comments. You’ll find citizens complaints formatted as formal letters inside Facebook comments, and then some gems like this.

Back to Saeed’s argument, which in general is that Lahore’s MetroBus serves a large number of people, addressing an important need, and is done using a justifiable government subsidy, and fare-collection that is in line with transit systems over the world.

He then points to ways to make the system a little more efficient and self sustaining:

PHA currently charges Rs1,472,000 for around 180 sq ft of advertising on a moving transport vehicle and Rs1,328 to Rs3,163 per sq ft per month for ‘streamers’ – ads that are hung from poles.

Looking at outdoor advertising rates, and since any ads along the busway will not be at the ideal location that billboards occupy, rates can be expected to be around Rs1,000/sq ft/month. On the fence of the 19km on ground busway section, if 500 advertising spaces of 15×5 ft are leased out at this rate, it will generate Rs450 million.

I understand the need, but this scares me.

Saeed too acknowledges the valid criticism that the project lacked public involvement (as I wrote a few days ago):

Lahore’s Green Line BRT has had many issues too, not least of which was the lack of public engagement in planning, which is a product of bureaucratic mistrust of the people and the ‘all-knowing benevolent ruler’ governance style.

Even the project’s most enthusiastic supporters have valid criticisms.

The design of the stations and elevators could have been better. Some are not happy with a planned LRT line being converted to a BRT one, even with the government’s promise that it may be converted to light-rail one day.

I have a certain fascination with rail systems, particularly underground ones. And I have always hoped that Lahore would some day have a rail system. But a trip to Istanbul last year convinced me that a city can function extremely well with a number of different transit systems catering to different areas and different kinds of travel. Istanbul has a dense bus network, rapid transit bus lines, on-ground rail as well as an underground rail system, which together keep the city moving quite well. My sense is that Lahore will take on a similar approach.

And it’s good to see that improvements to the system are already being incorporated into projects in other cities:

Lessons learnt have already been incorporated in the new transit lines planned, with Multan’s planned system consisting of two corridors from the get-go; with ability to have more than two routes on it, and far better designed stations too.

The hope is always to get the first one right, but it’s never really possible to get the first one perfect. The best we can hope for is that we continue improving and that we improve fast.

Saeed goes on to provide counter-arguments to common criticisms:

Many people are comparing a single transit line’s ridership to the city’s entire needs and suggesting that the project is a failure.

He’s right. More often than not it seems that people are unhappy with an incremental improvement, and are looking for something that solves everything, which of course, is unrealistic. What could help here is if the Lahore & Punjab governments share a plan to address the city’s transit needs more broadly, and present a vision for a system of which this bus line will be a part. That won’t get rid of all critics but will put the government on much better ground.

There’s also an update on the work for the bus lines in Rawalpindi-Islamabad:

With the dharnas, work on the final terminus of the planned BRT line remains suspended and a vital part of the corridor stands affected. When it opens next January, the BRT line will not end at the planned terminus of Pakistan Secretariat, which employs thousands of lower middle class administrative staff who live in Rawalpindi or in Islamabad’s sectors that the BRT line is going through, but one stop short.

Another consequence of the PTI’s aimless protests in the capital. I’m sure they can spin this as a success but it really isn’t.