Wednesday, January 9, 2008

BTALD: The House Whisperer

Winter is probably the time we learn the most about whatever structure we live in: Where the rainwater goes, where the snow piles up, which trees looked good but were actually ready to give up the ghost...
We live right next to a drainage creek that only has water in it in the winter. When you wake up in the morning, you can listen for the creek to know whether there was rain the night before.
Houses also seem to get sick like people - a bunch of stuff happens at once. Too bad we can't get flu shots for houses. Oh wait, I guess that's called maintenance. But if you don't know what's gonna blow up, how do you know what to maintain? I have no idea. I just figure if I know how to shut off the water I'll be okay. Always know how to shut off the water.
Oh, and just one little hint - those little valves in back of your toilet? The ones that are supposed to shut off the water supply? They don't work. If they're old. Don't do a darn thing. You've gotta shut off the water to the whole place. Don't ask me how I know this. It involved a lot of yelling and running around outside. But that was the old house - I hope it's being nice to its current owners.

Media

Our embattled media


By Tanvir Ahmad Khan


GEN Pervez Musharraf’s latest address to the nation and his conversation with foreign journalists the next day has revived the question of balance between freedom and responsibility in our media. He seemed to return to the idée fixe of the present regime that Pakistan’s current troubles are mostly caused by irresponsible journalists.

Furthermore, there was the ancient lament that the foreign media ignores the great gap between the developed West and a primitive Pakistan in its reports and comment.

Prominent amongst the images streaming out of Pakistan during an entire year of political protest were those of a protracted tussle between the government on the one hand and the lawyers and journalists on the other. The media people and the legal fraternity had no background of working in tandem and what telescoped them together was the regime’s paranoid reaction to what these two disparate communities perceived were their essential professional responsibilities.

The lawyers claimed they were upholding the national Constitution and the rule of law. The media people were exercising their right to report the unfolding political drama freely. Draconian measures to curb both the groups probably did more harm to Musharraf’s standing than anything else during his long, mostly unquestioned, rule.

Unlike the predictable conflict with the men of law, Musharraf’s quarrel with the media was an unexpected development. No military ruler of Pakistan had ever been as media savvy as Musharraf. On their part, most journalists began by supporting him. He had taken major decisions such as ending the state monopoly on broadcasting that led to a veritable revolution in the dissemination of news and views.

An entire new generation of well-educated young men and women emerged that cherished freedom of expression while continuing the tradition of being patriotic to a fault.

In a recent BBC lecture, the distinguished Cambridge philosopher, Onara O’Neill, built up a case for media responsibility by arguing that any search for truth needs structures and disciplines and that this search is undermined by casual disregard of accuracy or evidence.

In Pakistan’s case, the need for such structures was never an issue as the innate restraint of a conservative Muslim society exerts a normative pressure. Compared to the mass media in the West, the Pakistani media is much less prone to slander and sensationalism. The major newspapers and electronic outlets can be tediously conservative. There is, indeed, considerable room for improvement in the discipline of accuracy and evidence.

There are discernable weaknesses of infrastructure and database, which can only be aggravated by the financial losses that the Pakistan government has imposed on media organisations.

The present travail of the Pakistani media comes largely from the unusual power its electronic component acquired in a society where access to printed information and knowledge is limited.

The regime wanted this power to work exclusively to the government’s advantage which could be done only by massive airbrushing from the picture of grim realities such as violated women, provincial insurgencies, thousands of terrorism-related fatalities including in the armed forces, police atrocities against peaceful demonstrators and, above all, a wanton disregard of the Constitution.

As if this litany of horror was not enough, the year ended with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, an event which sent shock waves across the globe and caused much foreboding about Pakistan’s future.

The Pakistani media has never failed to lend a helping hand wherever something positive could be found. Consider the transformation of public opinion in Pakistan about India. What might have been only a tactical shift in inter-state relations has struck deep roots as the media whole heartedly supported it. It demolished the myth of eternal hostility and enabled General Musharraf to conduct a dialogue with the Indian leadership in a tranquil environment.

In the ‘war on terror’ Musharraf got media support so far as the paradigm of it was concerned. But his regime never succeeded in carrying conviction with the people when it came to details. From the commitments made to the United States in 2001 to the “collateral damage” in Pakistan’s tribal belt, government versions have regularly conflicted with independent reports filed by Pakistani and foreign journalists.

It is often said that all governments are obliged to take liberties with truth for reasons of state. If this is so, they must also accept the fact that in this information age and in this globalised world a counter-narrative would also emerge.

Since the credibility of the regime remained in free fall, the suppression of the mainstream media resulted in a high premium on unconventional information disseminated through the internet and the mobile phone. These new sources of information are subject to no discipline of verification but are often credited with more truth than they carry. During ten weeks of travelling in Europe recently, I was struck by their impact even on professional foreign observers of the Pakistani scene. Between the blogs and the text messages, the official version became almost irrelevant.

Basically, Gen Musharraf fell out with the media because of its coverage of his conflict with the higher judiciary. There is no doubt that real-time coverage made a great difference. Without it, the forced retirement of the judges and the reconstitution of courts might not have become a public issue. Nor would there be internal and external questions about the plan to use democratisation as a means to perpetuate military rule by another name.

Even illiterate Pakistanis say that media curbs continue because the government plans to rig the forthcoming election or not hold it at all.Therein lies the ultimate justification for a complete restoration of media freedom.

Without that freedom democracy would remain devoid of credibility. Without recovering the lost trust no future government will be able to calm Pakistan down. The media must inform the people accurately; the state must treat it with respect. The Pakistani media is perfectly capable of balancing freedom with responsibility. It is time that the executive too learns to tolerate the accountability inherent in a modern democratic state.

Swat Tragedy

The roots of Swat’s tragedy


By Asim Effendi

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THE journey that our serene Swat Valley has made from being a prime tourist attraction to becoming a battlefield is nothing short of tragic. Going back in history, it was the Yousafzai tribe’s migration into the area under Sheikh Malli in the 16th century that further pushed the valley’s original settlers, the Swatis and Dalazak, across the Indus.

Even today the Hazara region has a sizeable population called the Swatis because of its pre-Yousafzai affinities.

With the dawn of the 18th century, Swat emerged as a stateless entity pursuing a nomadic lifestyle as its population moved from one village to another under the administrative arrangement of ‘Wesh’ land distribution. The area’s political evolution was shaped primarily by events that took place around its geographical boundaries, and by the mid-18th century the arrival of the British made the need for a viable state more acute.

Lack of modern education and sociocultural restraints left the Yousafzais of Swat without any political options other than the moral authority exercised by its theocratic leaders. Abdul Ghafoor, locally known as Saidu Baba, was one such spiritual figure and it was on his recommendation that the first ruler, Syed Akbar Shah of Ghali Khay village, was selected. Subsequently the Akhund’s grandson Miangul Abdul Wadood, known as Badshah Sahib and recognised by the British, ascended to the throne as the Wali of Swat.

The mullah phenomenon that we now see in Swat is not entirely new to the area. A case in point is the uprising at the end of the 18th century led by Sartoor Faqir, called the ‘mad mullah’. But the British were astute administrators and countered the threat by taking care of the means and letting the end take care of itself. They not only recognised the new ruler but was also conferred a knighthood on Miangul Abdul Wadood (making him Sir Abdul Wadood) in recognition of his exceptional statesmanship that ensured an arms-free and peaceful Swat.

The Miangul dynasty, though founded on religious grounds, ensured that the state prospered on modern lines with foolproof law and order mechanisms. Its judicial system was fashioned according to local customs and traditions, or ‘Riwaj’, and the subjects ensured that all laws were observed and respected. In case of any violation the culprit was speedily brought to book.

The primary functions of the state were performed competently to protect the life and property of its citizens. This, coupled with the dispensation of speedy justice, created unprecedented economic dividends in the shape of a booming tourism industry. Boulevards, bridges, schools, dispensaries and lush playgrounds came to dot Swat’s landscape. Not only were religious seminaries built under state patronage but missionary schools were also constructed to ensure modern education for all.

There was absolute religious harmony and not a single incident occurred where any tourist felt insecure. Even Queen Elizabeth was impressed with the scale of development in the infant state whose economy was sustained wholly by tourism and forest resources.

The state was generous enough to gift the poorly equipped PAF a fighter named ‘Jehanzeb’ at the time of Pakistan’s independence. But July 28, 1969, when Swat was absorbed and fully integrated into Pakistan, marked a turning point in the area’s history. A supposedly theocratic state that was progressive and democratic, thereby ensuring economic prosperity, became a victim of superficial democratic dispensations that exploited the religious sentiments of the people for personal gain. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arguably the first to advocate Pan-Islamism, primarily to assume an international political stature with Saudi support. It was in 1977 that the Swatis, disillusioned with the new bureaucratic order, demanded the enforcement of Shariah for the first time.

General Ziaul Haq was another who made the people wait indefinitely for his brand of ‘Islamic’ rule of law that would ostensibly guarantee fair play and justice. All this while he flogged political opponents in the name of religion and served as the vanguard of a CIA-sponsored operation against the Soviet Union to prolong his rule. Subsequent democratic governments were extensions of their predecessors in one way or the other.

While political jugglery of the worst kind was de rigueur, Swat underwent systematic deterioration in all areas of its infrastructure. The roads began to disintegrate, the once leafy soccer grounds became deserted, deforestation set in and the emerald river was poisoned by effluent from unplanned hotels along its banks. Swat’s wildlife died out, and so did its art and culture. The corrupt judiciary dragged out day-to-day civil litigation over decades, contributing hugely to the emergence on the political canvas of the mullahs who eventually came to challenge the writ of the state.

Once a tourist haven, Swat today is a militant stronghold and at a virtual standstill. Confused residents are living under traumatic conditions, terrorised both by the mullahs and the military and braving indiscriminate shelling and daily curfews. The presence of some 20,000 army personnel sent to battle militancy in the area is unlikely to achieve lasting peace. The unplanned deployment, marked by operational flaws and an absence of clear objectives, has demoralised the troops who in some cases have surrendered to militants in the absence of logistical support. The subsequent use of excessive firepower, without any accounting for collateral damage or a proper rehabilitation plan for displaced residents, makes the shortcomings of the security ‘strategy’ all the more evident.

It appears that the most workable option would have been to empower residents to clear their own designated areas of militants. The security forces should have concentrated on eliminating militants in the inaccessible Peochar Valley through a simultaneous two-pronged ground assault from Dir and Matta. Unfortunately, the security forces continue to focus on all that is unnecessary, subjecting ordinary residents to the nuisance of checkpoints and hardship of prolonged curfews. All these measures will be counter-productive in the long run.

The extremism espoused by Maulana Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah may be one of the causes of the turmoil in Swat but it is not the sole reason. The incompetence displayed by the state machinery has contributed immensely to the present anarchy. Violence is likely to escalate further if the security forces continue to pursue the flawed strategy of securing areas without winning hearts.


AJAX

AJAX BASICS

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Ajax (sometimes called Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is a way of programming for the Web that gets rid of the hourglass. Data, content, and design are merged together into a seamless whole. When a client clicks on something on an Ajax driven application, there is very little lag time. The page simply displays what they're asking for. If you don't believe me, try out Google Maps for a few seconds. Scroll around and watch as the map updates almost before your eyes. There is very little lag and you don't have to wait for pages to refresh or reload.

Ajax is a way of developing Web applications that combines:

  • XHTML and CSS standards based presentation
  • Interaction with the page through the DOM
  • Data interchange with XML and XSLT
  • Asynchronous data retrieval with XMLHttpRequest
  • JavaScript to tie it all together

The Ajax engine works within the Web browser (through JavaScript and the DOM) to render the Web application and handle any requests that the customer might have of the Web server. The beauty of it is that because the Ajax engine is handling the requests, it can hold most information in the engine itself, while allowing the interaction with the application and the customer to happen asynchronously and independently of any interaction with the server.

What is Asynchronous? This is the key. In standard Web applications, the interaction between the customer and the server is synchronous. This means that one has to happen after the other. If a customer clicks a link, the request is sent to the server, which then sends the results back.

With Ajax, the JavaScript that is loaded when the page loads handles most of the basic tasks such as data validation and manipulation, as well as display rendering the Ajax engine handles without a trip to the server. At the same time that it is making display changes for the customer, it is sending data back and forth to the server. But the data transfer is not dependent upon actions of the customer.

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