Thursday, 19 March 2015

Foreign fighters in Syria & Iraq

The attack in Tunis is depressing - we seem to have an ex-post hypothesis for why Tunisia now.

More fighters have traveled from Tunisia to Syria and Iraq than any other country, especially if we adjust for Tunisia's population & distance from the conflict (under the conjecture that the neighbors or more closely located countries to the conflict will likely supply more fighters).

Virtually every country has supplied fighters to this conflict - but there's a handful which have made a disproportionate contribution. Here's a chart to illustrate:

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Pakistan vs New Zealand - Day 5 ... What's a juicy target?

NZ is 177/6 with a 187 run lead. Day 5 is nicely poised. New Zealand should be all out before 225, barring really good batting by Ross Taylor.

Here's some quick analysis I ran on what a target like that means ...

A target of 235 will be really interesting - there's enough time in the day for things to happen.

Good times ...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Pakistan's Diversity Miracle & Challenge

Sometimes when you return home after a long time, you begin to see things differently - you start to notice things that you didn't think were significant before.

This is a scene I captured today at Islamabad Airport, in the International Departure Lounge. It left me with a complicated mix of thoughts, feelings and emotions - simultaneously baffled and awed; proud and frightened; amused and intrigued.

We have a seriously turbaned and traditionally bearded guy; the urban Pakistani version of a yuppy/hustler wearing a cap and some sneakers on his phone; an oldish guy absorbed in his book; a youngish guy with a long (presumably Islamic) beard staring at the flight information screen; a young make-up laden girl, with her red-suitcase, being social on her phone; and a couple of "big" aunties in the background. People watching is fun - and it's really fun in a place like Islamabad Airport.

Now, these are some of the people who need to get along, understand each other, and agree on public policy. It's not going to be easy.

But it's amazing that these people do in most ways actually get along - at the very least, they do share the same airport.

But here's a question anyone who knows anything about diversity will ask - does this visual representation or superficial manifestation of diversity actually hold deeper salience? In this case it seems obvious to me that it does. Try taking this same picture in an airport in the United States or Western Europe.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Epistemology & Psychology ............... (& Tribalism & Factionalism & Pride & Hubris & Heuristics)

In the midst of the mind leaps,
that allow us to feel and believe in the ways and things that we choose to feel and believe,
And then wondering why we keep talking past each other;

In an echo chamber using a loud speaker,
Wondering what it means to be educated and in the know.


Inspired by observing and experiencing a couple of broken relationships; torn families with children placed in really unfair positions (including grand mothers getting involved in the drama); coverage of Gaza on CNN and Fox News (literally sat and watched Fox News for 2 hours, which was surprisingly educational); coverage of Gaza on my Facebook news feed (which is largely an echo chamber of my Pakistani and Arab friends); and reading about general Salafist progress from ISIS in Northern Iraq to the out-of-control atrocities in Gurjanwala.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Tin Tin's deepest thoughts

Ok - this is a little absurd. But please consider it art, and please hold some faith in my mental stability. It's a parody of an extremely famous and deep poem by Bulleh Shah from present day Pakistan, so I feel a little guilty for butchering that poem. But I believe that Bulleh Shah would have approved of appropriating such ridiculous thoughts to something as ridiculous and heavily entertaining as Tin Tin.

Tin Tin, I know not who I am,
Am I a polar bear, or an albino?
Am I just a toy, or could I apply to become a real boy?
Am I a believer, or an infidel?
Would I have made a better Mosses, or a better Pharaoh?
Tin Tin, I know not who I am.

Tin Tin, I know not who I am,
Do I actually like cats, or do I just enjoy the thrill of conquest?
If Theo lost her tail in some tragic accident, would I still find her attractive?
Do I enjoy sleeping by the main door, or in the upstairs living room more?
Is cat food better, or dog food?
Tin Tin, I know not who I am.

Tin Tin, I know not who I am,
Why do they all hate me?
Is it because of their own insecurities?
Would they feel differently, if I dyed myself grey?
How would I do that anyway without thumbs and fingers, or the ability to express my wishes to real boys?
Tin Tin, I know not who I am.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The crazy things that might well happen in our lifetimes

For some reason, it’s a real joy to talk and speculate about the crazy and unusual things that might happen in our lifetimes. It’s open license – no right or wrong answers. And I guess there could be no greater creative and intellectual exercise than to stretch the imagination, and think about how things might be different to what we’re used to.

I also feel that we live in a really bland world since the end of the Cold War. The rise of China, pan-Islamic jihadism and the Arab Spring have spiced things up a little bit – but it’s still a really bland, neo-liberal, unusually peaceful state we’re in right now, which I don’t think will last.

And most of the powerful actors in the world have a really strong moral self-perception, and hold themselves to more moral and ethical scrutiny than ever before. People still continue to do many bad and ethically questionable things, but never before have they been so proper, mainstream and questioning of themselves. It just defies human nature, in my humble opinion.

So, I was doing this over dinner this evening with an old friend in New York, who is somewhat of a kindred soul. We really think alike – it’s a little scary at times. Here’s what we came up with:

1. There might be mass pogroms of Muslims in Europe: The population of Muslims in Europe is rising fast, and placing some serious stress on the national character of all these countries. 30% of Amsterdam is now Muslim – that’s really insane. And can you imagine a Muslim majority Amsterdam with legalized prostitution and drugs? It’s going to happen within the next 30 years.

And at the same time Europe is becoming more and more atheist. It’s not crazy to imagine the swift rise of a radically militant form of atheism. Everyone from Bill Maher to Richard Dawkins already represent the first banner holders of this movement, though at the moment they are quite restrained because their numbers are so small.

And when that switch flips and demographics do their thing, it’s going to get really dark and ugly. I really wish that more atheists were agnostic and held some self-doubt and possibility in the belief of others. Religion isn't the only cause of violence (though it certainly helps) - I hope these atheists realize that people are the biggest cause of violence.

2. Today’s Islamic world will hold 90% of the world’s failed states: It’s already happening. But countries like Egypt and Pakistan might be like what Somalia is like today. I really don’t know how to explain it. Is it religion? Would it have happened regardless? Did what happened in Karbala 1,400 years ago kill this otherwise (in most ways) miraculous religion? Who knows, but it really seems like it’s going to happen. And the humanitarian crisis that will follow will be unprecedented.

3. Asia and more specifically China will be the new United States: People will immigrate to China in boat loads. The ethnic Han will not do any dirty work. Chinese physical features will define our new standards for beauty and physical attractiveness. Koreans are already getting there – you should just watch the music video for the S.E.O.U.L. song. I don’t hold any trace of Yellow Fever (I even have a vaccination card to prove it), but I find the girls in that music video to be attractive. Plastic surgeons will make a killing, changing peoples’ faces to these ethnic Han physical characteristics. The tiny border between Pakistan and China will need to be fenced – Chinese anti-immigration hawks will be more hawkish than the American Tea Party.

4. Israel and Palestine will only end one way: In mutual destruction. Their positions are too irreconcilable, and there’s too many nukes out there and too many ways of delivering them (Pakistan alone could destroy Israel 50 times over, and if the Pakistani state fails, things could well go there). Enough said. You would have to be either be really blind or idealistic to not see this coming. What’s more interesting is whether it will happen suddenly and unpredictably, or whether there will be a massive immigration wave and period of instability leading up to that point. Now that’s really hard to say, though my money is on the suddenness.

5. Bangladesh and an insignificant number of other countries will sink: As Mid-Western Americans continue to drive their monster trucks and centrally heat their homes, large parts of some countries such as Bangladesh will begin to disappear off of the face of the planet. It’s really going to suck – not least for the humanitarian tragedy that will precipitate, but also because it will be so complicated to settle who did what to whom (across both geographies and generations/timelines). With it, we’ll lose unbelievably amazing countries like the Maldives. The Seychelles will survive because it is hilly, but its beaches won’t look as good. That will also really suck, because I would rather have the beaches of Seychelles than some cozy worthless Mid-Western American homes occupied by lazy over-weight people.

6. Immortality: This one is science fiction. But it’s quite possible to crack. We might miss it by a generation or two. But it almost seems inevitable – and plenty of time and energy will be devoted towards cracking it which would be my argument for why it seems inevitable.

7. Drones will become both wide-spread, and a giant head-ache to manage, leading possibly to anarchism: One of the main things keeping terrorist attacks in check right now is that we can road-block or regulate two dimensional ground traffic, and air traffic has not been “democratized” (the irony) enough. But once it opens up, regulating 3-dimensional traffic is going to be an enormous (though not impossible) challenge.

This might sound like science fiction – but it really isn’t. Withn a few years one will be able to download a schematic, and 3D print a drone. It’s completely conceivable.

How will we tell good drones apart from bad ones? May be a tightly managed centralized registration system? And all that linked to an iron dome like air defense system that immediately takes down anything that isn’t authorized? How will we select the gate-keepers of this space from amongst ourselves? And what about software security and hacking? The technology alone sounds complicated, and the institutional strength required to pull it off may only exist in 5 countries right now – may be Singapore and Israel will pull it off, whereas the rest of us will be doomed.

And how will we maintain Government “red zones” in all these countries? (a “red-zone” is typically a 5 block by 5 block part of the capital city, where the formal Government of a failed or failing tends to bunker itself in, though it typically runs not much more than just the red-zone – Islamabad has one, that I grew up in, back when it was not the red-zone; Kabul has one; Baghdad has a really famous one, half of which was taken up by the US Embassy with its massive country club; Mogadishu has one that’s only 3 blocks by 3 blocks). Will they have to build a giant 3-dimensional cage around it, or something like that glass dome from the Simpsons movie? But even those things can be penetrated? How about a complete no-fly zone, where even something as benign as a flapping bird gets zapped and toasted? Or maybe we will have zapping technology that differentiates between birds and drones?
P. S. I hope none of this is Nostra-Damus style ambiguous metaphorical B.S. I’ve tried to make it quite specific. But please do feel free to let me know what you think and criticize it.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Irrational is the only thing irrational

One of the greatest myths of our time is this notion that certain people behave in ways that are “irrational”. I don’t think such a thing exists. We tend to use the term often to discredit people who disagree with us, or disagree with what is widely socially accepted – our use of the term is almost a tool for social control, or a means to get people in line. Sometimes, we use it to justify our inability to predict others’ actions, as obvious as those actions might be – if we can label those actions as nonsensical, then we absolve ourselves of the responsibility for having predicted them or dealing with their fall-out. And the use of the term certainly doesn’t help advance the cause of understanding why people feel or behave in certain ways.

I was having a conversation with a fellow Stanford Graduate student, who is actually going on to do some fairly high profile and important work in security and international relations – we seem to share a common vision for a safer, more prosperous and more egalitarian world. We were discussing how military weapons systems are going to shape up in our ever flattening and technologically advancing world, which I find to be a fascinating topic – this is when she mentioned all these “irrational” people, and how hard it is going to be to live in this world and deal with such “irrational” actors.

But it’s not just my Stanford Graduate student friend. Condi (Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State) teaches a popular course at Stanford, which it titled “Challenges and dilemmas in American Foreign Policy” – the course description specifically calls out “irrational” actors. May be they’re “irrational” because they made Condi’s job really hard. But I personally think that it’s both intellectually lazy and cowardly of Condi to use such a term.

As we label things rational and irrational, let’s keep in mind the Socratic claim that “no one willingly does wrong”. It’s fairly self-explanatory, and at the heart of it is the notion of self-interest. Enough said.

And we know both from real world observation and from social science, that people will willingly inflict damage upon themselves, in order to also inflict damage onto others, or for what they perceive to be higher and more important causes. The “Ultimatum Game”, which is one of the great discoveries in social science over the past 30 or so years, shows this clearly.

In this game, two players, who cannot see one another or communicate, have to split $10 among themselves. The first player proposes a split, any split, and the second player can either accept or reject the split – if the second player accepts the split, then both players end up getting the money in the proposed split. But if the second player rejects the split, then both players end up with nothing.

The ultimatum game has taught us, and it has been proven to hold across cultures, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, education levels, different sizes of money being split, or whichever other way you might choose to draw up the experiment or cut up humanity, that people will inflict damage upon themselves in order to impose justice on others. Irrational? Enough said.

I hope that the most educated and savvy among us will start to realize that the only thing that is irrational about notions of rational and irrational is believing that others can actually be irrational.