This page was hacked, now fixed.
16 Nov 2018

My sincere apologies, for a number of posts that appeared on this website this morning. If you are subscribed to the RSS feed you may have seen some of them in your RSS reader. These have now been deleted from the website. Please do not click on any links in these posts if you still have access to them for one reason or another.

It appears that someone used a common password guessing strategy to log in to a default ‘admin’ account on WordPress, using perhaps one of the many passwords that have been leaked as attached to my email addresses across various services over the last few years.

I’ve now fixed these vulnerabilities – deleted commonly named accounts and resetting passwords to not allow for this sort of brute-force hack.

Please change passwords often especially if you feel one of your passwords may have been leaked. This is even more critical if you share passwords across services.

– Zeerak


جنون سے، اور عشق سے، ملتی ہے آزادی – Twenty-five years after Junoon’s debut, a framing of what they mean to all of us
31 Dec 2016

میرا ماہی آ گیا

Junoon’s third studio album, 1996’s Inquilaab begins with a deep voice reciting the following proclamation:

یہ روز و شب کا بے نور حال
اور بکھرے خیالون کا بے نور جال
آو اٹھا دیں سارے پردے
اور گرا دیں سارے بت
آو امید کے گیت گائن

This lightless state of night and day
And this lightless web of scattered thoughts
Let’s lift these barriers
And bring down these false gods
Let’s sing songs of hope

The band then breaks into Mera Mahi – a celebratory announcement of the arrival of a mysterious lover. As much as this song announces the messianic love interest, what it really announces is Junoon’s own arrival.1 (more…)

Thoughts on Coke Studio 8, which I never wrote down in time, and will now spin as context for Coke Studio 9 (which is also inexcusably delayed, but what can you do?)
18 Aug 2016

For years Intel practiced dominance over the PC processor industry with a development cycle they called Tick-Tock. The model was a repetitive structure applied to processor innovation. Every “tick” made the processor technology smaller, every “tock” updated the architecture on the chip. The ticks were ultimately in the service of Moore’s Law, a conjecture by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore affirming that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every eighteen months. The tocks used the die-shrinking and built parallel innovations on top. This mental model of how Intel was going to work systemized an outlandish, relentless struggle to grow computing power at an exponential pace, as Intel simultaneously improved efficiency.

In 2016, Tick-Tock was retired for a slower three-step cycle, as Intel ran up against the increasing physical and economic challenges of miniaturization. But the legacy of Tick-Tock is an enduring imprint on the modern technological industry – the blueprint of consistent, predictable, exponential growth. Tick-Tock, and the five decades of Moore’s Law it helped uphold, are as Intel rightly describes, “the metronome of the modern world”.

The microchip represents perhaps the single most powerful burst of innovation in human history. In some sense, it is a magical moonshot. But understanding it in terms of Intel’s process reveals it to be a rhythmic, relentless struggle.

One of the many parallels of Tick-Tock in the tech industry today is the iPhone, a new model of which is released consistently on an annual alternating cycle. One year the body iterates, the next everything is optimized around it. The release of the first iPhone in 2007 was an inflection point in personal computing, and is in no small part responsible for the decreasing relevance of Intel. But near every iteration of the iPhone since, while bringing Tick-Tock like exponential increases in computing power, has failed to enthrall audiences like that first one – a sentiment oft phrased along the lines of Apple’s seeming loss of its ability to innovate. Rick Tetzeli addresses this sentiment in a recent profile of Apple’s ‘Long Game’ for Fast Company. In the context of Apple Maps, he writes:

What Apple has accomplished with Maps is an example of the kind of grind-it-out innovation that’s happening all the time at the company. You don’t hear a lot about it, perhaps because it doesn’t support the enthralling myth that innovation comes in blinding flashes that lead to hitherto unimaginable products. When critics ding Apple for its failure to introduce “breakthrough” devices and services, they are missing three key facts about technology: First, that breakthrough moments are unpredictable outcomes of ongoing, incremental innovation; second, that ongoing, behind-the-scenes innovation brings significant benefits, even if it fails to create singular disruptions; and, third, that new technologies only connect broadly when a mainstream audience is ready and has a compelling need. “The world thinks we delivered [a breakthrough] every year while Steve was here,” says Cue. “Those products were developed over a long period of time.”

What this comes down to, is that the idea of an unwavering grind is on the surface not as enthralling as this imagined flare of brilliance. Ironically, the speed of development of modern technology, although driven by feats of steadiness, is pushing us further to crave an ephemeral, blazing high. And as we unconsciously grind through our own lives every day, we continue to arrest our imaginations with fables and dreams of tiny moments that changed everything. In the hope, perhaps, that the vision we imagine for ourselves is only but this moment away.


No one really talks about the first season of Coke Studio. Which is largely because it was quite weird, and no one, not even Coke, took it seriously enough to record it properly. The videos are grainy, and the audio doesn’t even make it to streaming services.

But enduring still, is the strange, unpredictable impact of a strange experiment. The idea was to make eastern classical relevant and western pop interesting by putting the two together. This gave us a joyous Rangeen and a reverential Dhaani, but we really only remember two moments: Garaj Baras, and Allah Hu. Two singers came together in each, east met west, magic happened.

The second season was serious, and so the magic was thought through. Pop would be reworked in the frame of a raag, classical would be given the production and the backing band it deserved and never got. And once every episode (or thereabouts), two artists would play something together. Largely this collaboration was one half classical or folk, and one half pop. But this wavered now and then. Season 2 was consistent, sizable, pure magic. Really it built on ideas that had been tweaked the year before, which themselves came from ideas that had been toyed with for years before, but those years didn’t make it to the Behind the Scenes videos.

As the years progressed the songs became more complicated. The raags took longer to set a mood before the song could reach any sort of climax. Reworkings of old songs made way for newer material, as the safety net of known tunes was no longer needed to dive into the experiment of fusion. The frame of the experiment became more rigid, and so the inputs themselves became more flexible.

Of course as the frame became more rigid, the show itself began to take on this unflappable funk of incremental grind. The magic seemed gone. We’d seen it all before. Except, it wasn’t that we’d seen it all before, it’s just that we’d felt a sort of high we wanted to feel again.


Intel had an easier job, in some sense. Because regardless of how normal they made their grind appear, it was in measurable terms obviously ridiculous. You could count how fast their processors were becoming. Apple has it harder because the commoditization of personal computers means that you can’t just measure what they do, you must measure how they make you feel. It has to make you feel a fleeting high – to make you feel magic. 1

We have nothing really to measure Coke Studio with, but I tried to draw a picture of its narrative by tracking the lengths of songs and their associated Behind the Scenes videos over its first eight seasons.2

Coke Studio Durations

During the Rohail Hyatt years, the songs remain roughly the same length. A few epics appear in Seasons 4 and 5. But what becomes increasingly evident is a desire to explain more of what’s happening in these songs. And by Season 6, clearly the most complicated of all of Rohail’s years, it often takes longer to explain the song than to play the song itself. This explains, perhaps, the growing acceptance of Season 6 in retrospect and why it took longer for people to appreciate it.

Starker than this gradual march towards Season 6 however, is the clear departure from it in the Strings years. Strings made no secret of the fact that they agreed with general opinion, the magic was gone. They remembered the magic – Seasons 2 and Season 3. They were going to recreate it, and they modeled to a fault.

More than the length of the songs and the explanatory clips, Strings drew on everything that made the old Coke Studio feel magical – the two-artist collaborations, the rebirth of the country’s biggest names in music, the nostalgia of refreshing old songs. Of course these elements were in service to a more invisible core framing and a more abstract higher purpose, but nobody thought they felt those bits.

And so Coke Studio 7 and 8 have more collaborations, with not much made of the original framing of east meets west. West can meet west, east can stay east. More of the music industry is on the stage, because while the song is important, we must also feel the warmth of Pakistan’s biggest names coming together. A full-time falsetto man is added to the backing vocalists, the lights flash more often, montages play before the song starts. Oh, and you get a solo, you get a solo, you get a water cooler.

The new Coke Studio is a variety show. But really, the variety show is a facade for the fact that Coke Studio is an ad campaign. And a brilliant one at that. For years an ad campaign has captured our imaginations, and what can be more magical than that?

The new Coke Studio is trying very hard to search for the magic. The danger of course, is that the new Coke Studio can almost pander. Sohni Dharti, Rah e Haq Ke Shahidon, beautiful in their own way, but dangerously reminiscent of the old record company idea of ‘every album must have a patriotic song’. This Coke Studio is a leg spinner bowling too fast, a one-day batsman trying to hit the ball too hard. It is desperate for magic.

In this desperation, Coke Studio presses on the soft nerves we all share: nostalgia, blind hope, trust, warmth. You only have to drive on Lahore’s roads for a few days to realize that these are emotions short in Pakistan. On much of Lahore’s Main Boulevard, traffic lights have given way to giant U-Turns. Traffic lights, the global mechanism for operating intersections, work on faith. To stop, you must believe that allowing others to pass makes your own journey smoother. But traffic lights don’t work quite like that in Lahore. Nobody stops as the light turns red, to compensate you start creeping forward before the light turns yellow, and you start honking before that. All the while you must remember that you are stuck. A U-Turn may eventually make everybody slower – no one really knows. But through all of it you are never stuck, you always have the ability to fight your way through, and you never feel helpless. But despite it all, Lahore’s traffic is not genial. And everyone remembers a better time. And to this traffic, on these roads, are the images of giant Coke Studio adverts all across the city. On the Cavalry Ground flyover you can see seven signs at the same time. To this traffic, and to these roads, Rah e Haq Ke Shahidon, the arrival of every musician anyone remembers, the reprise of every great hit, and every solo, is a consistent, relentless struggle to make us feel warm, to begin to trust, to feel that feeling of magic for even a small time. Strangely, in the desperate search for that great moment, Coke Studio has become a steady, trustworthy march of assurance.

Who am I to complain about that.

  1. Or vote for Brexit and Trump, but that for another day. 
  2. Many thanks to Shahir Ahmed who helped identify the original track orders of all Coke Studio seasons in the absence of official Coke Studio archives. 
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.