we’ve moved

•September 30, 2009 • 4 Comments

Apologies to the very few who still read my blog, but I’m pleased to announce that the blog has moved, once again, to what is its newest (semi-) permanent home. The new site is here.

I won’t use auto-updates in Facebook anymore, so I guess you’ll just have to visit the site on the off chance that I’ve overcome the world’s longest (and most excruciating) spell of writer’s block and written something worth reading. (Although, considering the amount of money I’ve invested into the damn thing, I’d better start writing again, and fast. Hmm.)

So please go ahead and reset your feed readers and favorites menu – if the blog was ever on there, that is. If not, and if you’re strolling along the interwebs out of sheer boredom, head on over there and read some of the old stories and posts until I write something new.

See you on the other side!

Dreaming in Digital

•July 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Six months ago, we, in the midst of recovering from the delirium of Obama’s victory and promises of change, let ourselves be seduced by another changemonger’s campaign slogan. So what if “Digital Bangladesh” is nothing like “Yes We Can”? It was still just enough to make a disillusioned populace start to dream again.

And so, enraptured by this dream of change, like millions of Americans in early November, we swept a new government into power. “Digital Bangladesh” spoke to our hearts and souls, even if we had no idea what exactly it is that it meant.

Six months later, we still have no clue. And, even more worryingly, neither do the politicians who dreamt it up in the first place, it seems.

Let’s face it: Digital Bangladesh makes a great vision statement. Although it isn’t time-bound in any sense, it ranks up there with those tired old visions we’ve heard our politicians espouse so frequently – middle income country blah blah blah. At least it’s a newer, cooler vision, and is something that can appeal to the youth.

However, one would expect that, six months down the line, someone would at least have come up with a few accompanying mission statements, to articulate or explain what all this hype is about. But nobody’s done anything about it – the phrase remains just as ambiguous as it was six months ago. The longer it remains ambiguous, the more it will lose its allure.

We’ve seen this before – politicians hooking on to a concept or idea, then selling it to the people as the miracle cure for all societal or economic ills, and then beat that particular horse to death until nobody cares anymore.

So, in the absence of a proper explanation of Digital Bangladesh, I’m forced to create one myself. I see Digital Bangladesh as being the junction of two different dimensions – at least from the government’s point of view.

First, there’s the issue of service delivery. The e-governance train has long been a popular one for politicians, bureaucrats and civil society alike to jump aboard, but badly done e-governance is just as bad – if not worse – than none at all. What does this mean?

The government delivers services to its clients, whether they are civilians, businesses or institutions. We’ve all been through at least one such service delivery process: most readers have a passport, I’m sure. There are lots more we could potentially go through, but we tend to avoid them like the plague – they are all long, slow and terribly bureaucratic, not to mention cesspools of corruption and nepotism.

Transferring these inefficient processes to a computerized system won’t do any good for anyone – the delays will continue, and there will still be opportunities for corruption. What therefore needs to happen is that the government, prior to computerizing, needs to look at the entire process and find the steps that are unnecessary, or pose the greatest opportunity for corruption or harassment, and cut off these links in the chain. This will ensure government service delivery is simple, smooth and transparent, both online and offline.

The second dimension is the issue of infrastructure, which itself requires action on two fronts. The issue of physical infrastructure seems most challenging, but it can be easier than it looks: the government should let the private sector handle this entirely. GrameenPhone advertises its Community Information Centers, with computer access for all, and there are now computers on boats traversing our rivers. These days, you can buy a simple plug in device that turns your SIM card into a portable modem. Giving tax breaks to mobile companies who operate such free information centers would spur them to set up many more, since the marginal cost of an extra mobile intranet user is very low. The cost of the centers could easily be offset by the savings from the tax break; plus, it looks great from a CSR perspective.

Human infrastructure, however, is inherently more difficult. The government should help ensure that there is sufficient ability to use computers and online systems. These days, this is simpler and cheaper than ever – just the other day, I saw advertisements for computer training for 300 taka. What the government needs to do is provide this training for free to whoever wants it, or they can incentivize the private sector and NGOs to provide it on their behalf.

In the meantime, there are clearly lots of unemployed youth who are computer-literate who could help others use computers – a year or so ago, they were helping the Army build the new voter list. Reemploying them to help out in, or even run, Community Information Centers should be easy enough. Mobile companies can even franchise out these centers, like the way they’ve franchised FlexiLoad services.

Tying all of these dimensions together is a set of policies and regulations that enable and protect all these activities. We need tons of them – for data security, data integrity, data backup, system compatibility, online fraud prevention, electronic payments – the list is endless. All of these need to be in place before anything else can happen. At least by now, one would have expected the government to have assigned someone to start working on all of this. But nothing’s happened yet.

I’m writing this blog on a BlackBerry while listening to music on an iPod and texting on my mobile – clearly there’s no way I could become any more digital without becoming some sort of android. But for millions of Bangladeshis, Digital Bangladesh can make a massive difference in the way they live their lives. All they are waiting for is for the government to transform this vague vision into reality.

book reviewer? me? no way!

•April 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

i realize this is very late, but it seems i’ve started a career as a professional book reviewer! here’s my review of “devil may care” by sebastian faulks, published in the daily star, bangladesh’s premier english language news source.

what’s that you say? one review doesn’t make a career? you’re probably right, but as it says at the bottom, i really wish i had more time to read books. i haven’t read one since this review came out. not even a page.

why i quit facebook…and other short stories

•March 16, 2009 • 7 Comments

a week ago today, i fought my way through the maze-like account settings on facebook, and clicked on the “deactivate account” button. this was not done by mistake, by any means, but was completely intentional – heck, i even had to go to a second page that asked me, in big bold letters, “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?”, as if i was commiting some sort of grave affront to humanity. for those of who haven’t been to this dark side of facebook, the page also asks you why you chose to undertake this vile action, and lists some helpful suggestions. i chose the least intimidating, which is “i’m doing this temporarily, but will be back later.”

a week before that fateful day, i announced to the great black void that is my friends list that i was going to quit the site in 7 days. i’m not quite sure anyone believed me, and quite a few (you know who you are) thought i was doing it to get some more attention. like, seriously. do i strike you as the kind of person who craves attention so much that i would have to quit facebook to get it?

anyway. the reason for the 7 day deadline was that i wanted to migrate the features i found useful to some other platform, and craft an explanation for why i was doing such a drastic thing. however, given my addiction to procrastination, i probably should have given myself a period of 2-3 months, since i managed to do none of that. and so, two weeks later, here’s the long explanation for why i did this.

the reason one should be shocked that i quit facebook, if you need a reason for that, is because i used to be their biggest advertiser, at least in mouth-to-mouth terms. i got almost everyone in my office to join, even people who had never tried or considered social networking. within a couple of months, everyone was safely ensconced in everyone else’s friend lists.

i also spread adoption of facebook gaming, thanks to the 20-20 cricket game, which quickly became a whirlwind of activity and the topic of intense discussions and debates during working hours. it got to the point where the office had to ban playing facebook games during office hours altogether, because it “was consuming excessive amounts of bandwidth”. yeah, seriously. as if the use of youtube to watch funny videos by others wasn’t. thankfully, by then i had gotten bored of the game already, and had moved on.

given my amazingly high conversion ratio of people (only 1 colleague refused to join, out of 20-odd others), it was quite surprising to lots of people that i actually did end up quitting. but of course, there’s an explanation. here it is:

i quit facebook because i’m not good at keeping in touch with people.

yes, you did read it right. no, i’m not completely crazy.

you see, the main advertising tag line i used to sell people on facebook in the first place was that it was a fantastic and easy way to keep in touch with people. at the click of a mouse, you could find out what even your most obscure friends were up to, and use the knowledge that you gained about their lives, from their short status message, to make yourself feel that you were still as intimately connected as you were in first grade.

but that’s the problem. for people like me who suck at keeping in touch, that momentary glimpse into someone else’s life, as it scrolls through my news-feed, was as far as i got in terms of keeping in touch with them. i found myself not even bothering to write a sentence on their wall, and although i used to use it to keep tabs on birthdays, i found myself not even wishing people anymore. to me, the whole keeping in touch process had transformed into a very simple process, where just reading people’s statuses was enough, whereas i made no moves to ever drop a line or say something to them in passing.

in reality, keeping in touch with people is much harder, and requires a lot of work, something which i’ve never put in. as a result, i wanted to remove the illusion of appearing to keep in touch with 300-odd people from my life, so that i would make an effort to keep in touch with those people that matter to me. now i have to send emails, and make phone calls, and meet people to know what’s happening in their lives, instead of just reading a one-line status message and thinking i know everything there is to know about them.

of course, i’ll miss the site, because i had no end of talented photographers on my friends list, and so i could see some amazing pictures on an almost daily basis. plus, i also had some of the funniest people on my friends list, so i had no shortage of good humor available. and mob wars is a really addictive game, although it just involves clicking a mouse repeatedly.

but i’m hoping that now, i’ll finally be much better at being a friend, instead of just another profile in your friends list.

do traffic cops cause traffic jams?

•December 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

everyone who has ever been to dhaka on a normal workday knows that we have the world’s least enviable traffic jams. on any given day, it can take up to half an hour to travel just a couple of kilometers. my daily commute, which clocks in at only about 7 km each way, takes me anywhere from 20 minutes on a good day, to almost an hour and a half.

urban planning experts complain about the lack of roads. drivers complain about slow-moving rickshaws. passengers complain about the driving skills of others. but everyone seems to agree that one of the major causes of traffic jams is the capacity and activities of traffic police in dhaka.

earlier this year, i decided to test this for myself, as part of a course on econometrics that i was taking at the time. being the pessimist i am, i naturally beleived that, the more traffic police there were on the streets, the more traffic there would be, and therefore the longer it would take to travel a given distance.

i figured that it would be a sufficiently easy model to test, and that getting data would be relatively easy. however, it’s quite a general and basic model in itself, and so there may be flaws in the analysis. the results are quite interesting and informative, but if you would like to bore yourself with the full gamut of econometric analysis, you can see it all here.

the results indicate that, on average, adding another traffic cop to the streets would reduce the average travel time by about 75 seconds. On the flip side, an additional car on the road would increase travel time by 5 seconds.

before we get in to what this could possibly mean, let’s talk about how i did this research. first, i picked a specific route for this study – asad gate to wireless, mohakhali, and the way back, via bijoy sharani and mohakhali rail crossing. this route was selected for several methodological reasons:

  • rickshaws are not allowed to travel on this route, and so the impact of these slow-moving vehicles on traffic jams was controlled. 
  • there are no schools along this route, which means that congestion on this route is also not due to school traffic.
  • parking is prohibited along most of this route, and so most vehicles are supposed to be in motion on this route.
  • this route is one of the most notorious jam-packed roads in the city, particularly in the evenings.
  • there is always generally a high concentration of traffic police on duty along the route.

i collected data on the time taken to traverse the route, the number of traffic cops along the route, and the average traffic gathered at two points during my trip. the last of these was collected at great risk to life and limb: once my car was stopped at the traffic light, i jumped out and counted the number of cars waiting at the light, and then jumped back in to my car once traffic started moving again. data was collected at both morning and evening peak traffic hours. morning rush hour here is defined as between 7 am and 9:30 am, and evening rush hour ranges from 5 pm to 8 pm. to randomize the data, i travelled at different times every day during these two blocks.

what do the results mean? well, to deal with the simple things first, the second result makes sense. given the limited road capacity, more traffic on the streets would obviously lead to more traffic and therefore increased travel time. 

the traffic cop phenomenon is harder to explain though. after all, most of their activity seems to standing at traffic intersections all day, languidly waving to cars to pass or stop. except, of course, if you have an accident or are being mugged. in which case they are most likely to disappear faster than a rabbit after a gunshot.

to explain why this occurs, it’s necessary to extrapolate from our data and use our logic. i surmise that this is because of the fear factor: if there is a traffic cop at the intersection, you are more likely to follow traffic rules and drive carefully. ergo, the more traffic police, the higher the likelihood of following traffic rules.

but that’s a simplistic piece of logic at best, and given the tendencies of bangladeshi drivers, it’s also rather hard to believe. instead, the simpler explanation may be that, as the morning progresses from 7 am onwards, two things happen simultaneously: more traffic cops come on duty, and traffic slowly decreases from the school rush to the commuting rush to the general traffic trends. similarly, as the evening progresses, more and more traffic cops come on for the evening shift while the commuter rush starts to decline.

but are ingenious police shift timings the only cause for this phenomenon? perhaps, but that is quite pessimistic. although travelling down the dhaka streets and watching the activities of the police force would reinforce one’s assumption that they are incompetent, there is also a need to be more objective. i would postulate that there is an extension of the “fear factor” hypothesis: since the primary task of the police is to reinforce the traffic light system, it’s likely that, if there are traffic cops, drivers are more likely to obey traffic lights, thus ensuring smoother flow of traffic and more effective traffic management. thus, there is less traffic, and simultaneously lower travel times.

this research, however, is by no means comperehensive and conveniently ignores several other important variables. for example, it does not take into account how many policemen were actively guiding traffic, as opposed to standing around chatting or seeking bribes while pretending to fine people (i know, gross generalization). similarly, it assumes that all traffic counted is travelling in the same direction, instead of turning or travelling in other routes.

finally, it ignores the fact that there are other underlying reasons for traffic, other than policemen or the number of cars. for example, one of the main reasons traffic jams occur in dhaka is that important intersections are closed off haphazardly across the city, meaning that cars that want to turn at a certain intersection often have to congregate at a limited number of turning points, thus backing up traffic. after all, traffic moves in flowing patterns, and blocking the flow inappropriately can cause it to back up indefinitely. think of water flowing into a bucket through a pipe with lots of holes. if you start plugging up the holes arbitrarily, the amount of water in the pipe will start to increase, until both the pipe and the bucket are flooded. therefore, ignoring traffic mnagement as a primary cause of the traffic jams is virtually impossible.

using these results for policy recommendations along the lines of increasing the number of traffic cops can be dangerous and will probably not solve traffic problems. however, it is undeniable that more cars will cause more traffic, and so traffic reduction must focus on controlling the number of cars or managing them better, so that they don’t clog up the limited pipes that make up dhaka’s streets.

a case of exploding mangoes

•December 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In its very first chapter, Mohammad Hanif’s narrator urges the reader to look closely at the scene of Mohammad Zia-ul-Huq’s final farewell before he boards his final fatal airplane flight. And that is something that the reader must keep doing throughout the rest of the book, as Mohammad Hanif draws out the stories of potential suspects – the narrator himself, a sidelined general, his trusted deputy, an angry blind woman with a death sentence on her head, a crow, a group of tapeworms, even a crate of mangoes – to account for Huq’s assassination. 

The book – the first by the BBC Urdu Service chief – is a delightful political and historical satire that examines the last few days of the life of the influential Pakistani leader. Following in the mighty footsteps of Mohsin Hamid, this latest page-turner from Pakistan explores an important time in the history of Pakistan, when the rapid Islamicization, coupled with the war in Afghanistan, gave rise to the greatest evils in our world today, fundamentalism and terrorism.

Nowhere is Hanif’s satire more potent than in a scene from a Fourth of July party at the American Ambassador’s residence, where, amongst the Marines and CIA spooks, a lonely bearded man by the name “OBL”, from Laden and Co. Construction, appears, and is generally avoided by all, other than receiving some words of congratulations from American intelligence officials. OBL, hungry and at a loss for people to talk to, finally ventures into the kitchen tent for some food, but finds it all ravaged by the rest of the exuberantly intoxicated guests.

The majority of the book deals with the story of the narrator, Junior Under Officer Ali Shighri, and how he seeks to avenge the apparent suicide of his father, which he blames on Gen. Huq. Along the way, Shighri meets Obaidullah, a young fellow cadet at the Air Force Academy, who proceeds to quickly fall in love with him. The love manifests itself most when Obaid, upon realizing Shighri’s plot to assassinate Zia, attempts to steal a plane from the Academy and crash it into the General’s residence. Shighri is promptly arrested by the ISI, who subject him to rigorous psychological torture, below the premises of Lahore Fort. Eerily, Hanif’s descriptions of Lahore Fort bring to mind the premises of something much closer to home – our very own Lalbagh Fort.

The rest of the book shows the lives of the narrator and Gen. Huq on a collision course (pardon the pun) with each other. Up to this point, each character gets his own dueling chapter to tell the tale of their activities on the last few weeks before the assassination, but then they all merge into a confusing tangle of events that culminates in the fatal plane crash.

Along the way, Shighri’s motive – to avenge his father’s death – becomes clearer. However, the greatest character development in the book happens to the soon-to-be-dead General Huq, who undergoes a rapid transformation in the face of a death that he foretells from a passage in the Quran. The book very clearly elucidates the rapid Islamicization that grips the General’s brain, as well as the fear and paranoia of impending death that grips him from the beginning of the book. The fear of death, coupled with the death of his most trusted bodyguard, drives him into a frenzy of mistrust, as a result of which he sidelines his most senior general, the head of the ISI, who then hatches a plot to kill Huq himself. Along the way, Huq learns what his people really think of him, from a policeman who meets him during a brief escapade, and realizes that none of his sycophants are worth trusting anymore.

Bangladeshi readers will recognize one line in particular – “the last time someone tried to steal a plane, the country was split in two”, referencing the final journey of our very own Birshreshtho Matiur Rahman.

The book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. First off, how many people conspired to murder the General? There are a host of suspects, both human and animal, but there seems to be no end of potential suspects. Even General Beg, Huq’s eventual successor as Chief of Army Staff, seems to be have knowledge of the plot as well, as do many of the other characters who make an appearance in the book. But then the reader must remember that Hanif set out to write a piece of historical fiction, not to rewrite the history books nor spawn more conspiracy theories.

Overall, the book is an exciting and interesting read, and is hard to put down. However, compared to Mohsin Hamid’s darker tales of betrayal and deception, Hanif’s book seems to fall short, and lack some of the dynamism that Hamid is able to infuse into his own writing. That said, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is still a fantastic tale in itself, and is definitely worth the read.

political procrastination

•November 19, 2008 • 1 Comment

the roads of dhaka are eerily empty for 8:30 pm. strangely, there are few traffic cops on the road – just a lone soldier dutifully manning the road 27 intersection. no sergeants astride their trusty motorcycles, no battalion of police positioned idly at major traffic points. few cars are on the streets – busses abound, but otherwise there are few other vehicles. thin queues of people seem stranded at bus stops. storekeepers rush to shut their shutters, half an hour before standard closing times. no noise, no incessant honking of horns, no road rage-infested drivers trying to push others off the roads. a lone beep from my car, at an errant rickshaw, seems to ricochet off the concrete walls.

my mobile flickers softly and vibrates twice. new message received. opening the inbox to read the missive seems to take forever, with the status bar seeming to sway lazily from one side of the screen to the other. finally it opens. “govt wanted to defer JS vote to dec 28…but now plans to hold polls dec 18 due to lack of consensus among parties,” it reads. i curse under my breath – is this the beginning of the end?

the drive turns out to be refreshingly but strangely quick. i’m home in 15 minutes, whereas the regular commute takes up to an hour and a half every day. sprint up the stairs to catch the news – have talks broken down? is this the political armageddon that we’ve been waiting for?

nothing but replays of the five adviser’s press briefing, and scenes of bnp leaders trooping in to their office. special correspondents eagerly wait outside every politician’s house, but no one has anything to report. stay tuned, they tell me, we’ll be back live with bnp’s press briefing.

the clock winds down. 48 hours expire, but more time is needed. the leaders are deeply embroiled in conversation, we learn, so stay tuned. meanwhile, nothing to do but watch tv commercial after commercial, while the same old news scrolls across the bottom of the screen, billed as “breaking news”.

at last, some of the leaders decide to brief the press. this is it, the moment of judgement for the future of the nation. khaleda’s nowhere to be found, surprisingly. perhaps her speechwriter couldn’t produce another classic government-bashing, blame-shifting, military-praising masterpiece? no matter. everyone’s favorite delwar has his own written page that he reads from.

no mention of 48 hour deadlines. no mention of boycotting or participating. no mention of anything but empty angry rhetoric aimed at the caretaker government. 

and, just as quickly as it had emerged, the anxiety and intrigue disappear. no, that’s wrong. the anxiety and intrigue don’t dissipate, but are replaced with anger and frustration. no concrete decision, no announcement, no sense of finality. only the usual talk about “the people” accompanied by a nearly desperate final plea for the withdrawal of the state of emergency. have the seven four demands now boiled down to only one?

miraculously, delwar agrees to answer the press’s questions. the first question is, traditionally, extremely wrong, and gives him space to vent his generic frustrations with the government. meanwhile, muzahid smiles creepily at delwar’s side. why doesn’t anyone ask him about the party’s decision?

finally some intrepid reporter talks about the people waiting at home for a decision. delwar evades the question, as usual, saying something irrelevant about free and fair elections. it takes several more tries for a journalist to ask the actual question: will bnp participate in the elections on december 18?

but delwar’s just too clever to answer that question that easily. we’ll meet the alliance tomorrow, he says, and then decide. 

and just like that, the press conference is over. no clear answer, no definitive direction, just another attempt by the bnp to buy some more time to prepare for the election. what did they do for  the past 48 hours, i wonder. couldn’t they have drawn up their contingency plans in all that time? why did they have to wait past the deadline to decide what to do?

the mobile flickers again. “nomination deadline extended by 3 days,” says the breaking news alert. great. that just gives them 3 more days to waver and flitter about. another three days of uncertainty for everyone trying to figure out if this country will just disintegrate into anarchy come 2009. 

i’m not a political person, as anyone who reads this blog will know. but this cat-and-mouse game of demands and deadlines is not helping bnp’s cause. they can’t seem to set a deadline and make it stick, and can’t seem to arrive at a decision one way or the other. meanwhile, the fantastic five run around town on the daunting cantonment-dhanmondi-cantonment commute to figure out a way to placate everyone, and extend deadlines to allow these people to continue to waver incessantly without a concrete decision.

if i was bnp, i would be highly concerned about my public image. spouting conspiracy theories off the top of one’s head as a means of buying time doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, at least not mine. and that’s all it boils down to – fear that poor preparations will lead to a crushing electoral defeat. but why are their preparations poor anyway? did a certain former “technocrat” actually end up doing any work, or was he too busy with his personal hobby, filing false cases against random influential people?

am i going to vote in this election? no. i plan to be somewhere else, on a much deserved vacation. but i, and all of the jonogon that delwar and all the others keep talking about incessantly need to know – nay, deserve to know – if bnp will participate in the election. if bnp will not participate, fine, but we the people have the right to know. if they will, even better.

it bothers me greatly that not even the top leadership of bnp seem to know what the ultimate decision is. there seems to be enough people regaling khaleda’s ears with monologues on the benefits of either course of action, but all that that seems to be doing is making it her own personal decision at the end. and that is truly scary. it all boils down to two choices for her: lose the election and lose face and power for the next five years, or boycott the election and destroy the country in the process. and, given her previous choices in life, and her potential need for revenge against the hasina of ’96, i fear she may choose to do the latter. 

in my opinion, the only reason that decision was not made tonight may be that she doesn’t trust her alliance partners quite as much as she claims to. i think she fears that, if bnp boycott the election, jamaat may go ahead and participate anyway, thus dissolving their alliance. jamaat could easily do that – look at 1996. given the recent dissension within her ranks, this would in effect her party to just another footnote in the country’s history. quite hard to launch an anti-government campaign against the government when even your partners are in bed with the other side, isn’t it?

in the end i think it boils down to a case of rats deserting a sinking ship. bnp will continue to hold out till the 23rd without giving a firm answer, and then eventually give in, once jamaat’s threats to participate no matter what finally sink in. then the other alliance will gleefully make use of their indecisiveness and crush them in the elections. alternatively, she might stand firm and refuse to participate. in which case i have a feeling that my fellow jonogon will wholeheartedly ignore her boycott calls and cast their vote for anybody they wish, making voter turnout remarkably high. that’ll ruin any claims of power and support that bnp can muster next year, and ensure that she is unable to destablize the country much. i think it’s just punishment for the charade that they have led us through over the past week.

one way or the other, the bnp now have to figure out a way to lose the election while still saving face. otherwise, given their recent performance, they may very quickly become just another minority party in a jamaat grand aliance.

 
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