Thank You, Wired + An Addendum

May 16th, 2013

The first issue of Wired magazine hit newstands in the US in January 1993. I subscribed immediately and started receiving my copies of Wired in the post, in Pakistan, from the second issue onwards. Much of my thinking has been shaped by the early years of Wired’s fabulous content and the first site I ever visited was Hotwired.com.

Wired Magazines

Last month I was in Delhi for Asia Society’s Women Leaders of New Asia summit and met Lois Parshley, a journalist based in the US. We had a great 3 minute conversation but weren’t able to chat in detail. A few days ago, Lois got in touch and said she was doing a piece for Wired and wanted to talk. I nearly fell off my chair with excitement. Lois and I had a fabulous, long conversation which resulted in a feature about me, T2F and Karachi’s first civic hackathon. The article was published on T2F’s 6th birthday making it the most glorious present one could ever dream of.

Here is a link to the story: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/05/pakistans-first-hackathon/

I am humbled and overwhelmed. Thank you, Lois and Wired, for choosing to cover Pakistan and its potential. We have a lot of stories and tons of people doing amazing work and I hope this is the beginning of many features.

I just want to take this opportunity to add an attribution, a clarification, and a critical credit. Journalists have wordcounts and pegs and sometimes things get left out :)

Pakistan has had hackathons before. What we did in April 2013 was Pakistan’s first “civic” hackathon.

“Fear is a line in your head. You can choose what side of that line you want to be on,” is something I heard Tarun J Tejpal, founder of Tehelka say a few years ago. He is a dear friend and mentor and I quote this sentence often, when asked if I am fearful about street protest or anything I choose to do that is perceived to be ‘dangerous’. Thank you, Tarun, for providing a tight soundbyte :D

The journey to the Civic Hackathon beagn over a year ago. Sheba Najmi, a User Experience specialist came round to T2F to talk about Code for America and whether I thought there was interest and potential for doing something similar in Pakistan. I was thrilled to meet her and learn about Code for America, its exciting work, and the fact that Sheba had been selected as a Fellow. We kept in touch via e-mail while she was doing her fellowship and then we met again a few weeks before the hackathon. We had originally planned for Sheba to give a talk at T2F about her CfA experience and to share thoughts about moving forward. However, a series of crazy chats and ambitious brainstorming sessions resulted in Pakistan’s first civic hackathon. Sheba was a key instigator and was fully involved in the entire initative and in its sustainability. In fact, she is now in the process of leaving San Francisco and is moving back to Pakistan to set up Code for Pakistan and will conduct many hackathons across the country. Sheba, it’s been fantastic working with you and I look forward to co-conspiring on many more exciting projects.

The Morning After the 2013 Elections

May 12th, 2013

PTI ran a good, solid political campaign. Imran Khan mobilized millions to get the vote out. For that, I am truly grateful.

The real victory in the 2013 elections, for me, has been what feels like the beginning of a people’s movement. Independent candidates; Bindiya Rana, Veeru Kohli, and Mohammad Jibran Nasir got up and decided to take a stand – for justice, co-existence, and an end to bonded labour. Their manifestos and campaigns do not include perfect constructs to fix all that ails the country but they will learn. Teach them. Help them grow. For now, they need to be celebrated for their courage, for fighting the good fight, for not backing down in the face of threats, for speaking truth to power.


Watch Bindiya, Veeru and Jibran in an NDTV Video:
New agents of change in Pakistan politics


Hum Dekhayn GePolitics has long been a national sport in Pakistan but this time, it feels different. People showed up. People got involved. People are talking about what to do about all that went wrong. We could be on the threshold of a game-changing period in our history. As the Code for America people say, “Government is what we do together”. I sincerely hope that people who believe(d) in ‘tabdeeli’ are not going to give up just because their parties or candidates didn’t get as many seats as they’d hoped. Change takes time. It’s a struggle. We may not see results in our lifetimes. We have to adjust our expectations and not succumb to the easy narrative.

We must not forget the campaign speeches, the manifestoes, the promises. We have to learn as much as we can about the political process without losing our idealism. We have to meet our elected representatives, irrespective of our allegiances. We have to become savvier. We need to participate in local government. We have to keep showing up. We have to stay involved. We have to “get political”.

Go Pakistanis! Carpe Diem!

Tetris and Early Entrepreneurship Lessons

April 23rd, 2013

It was the summer of 1992. I was suffering at Kinnaird College Lahore, cutting 90% of my classes and falling deeply, passionately in love with my Macintosh SE.

The hostel authorities had refused to let me bring my beloved Macintosh to the hostel and it took dozens of beseeching trunk calls to finally get them to agree, and that too, upon payment of Rs. 140 per month. In protest, I’d never switch off the electricity in my room, despite being a die-hard conservationist.

I had taught myself how to use MacPaint, MacDraw, and MacWrite on my Mac Plus and had graduated to Aldus PageMaker. As the only student on campus with a computer, I used to do the page layout and graphics for the college magazine and an Asian women’s quarterly publication. Zak used to regularly courier me floppy discs full of clipart and fonts to embellish my layouts. We would go to the hostel mess for dinner, not to eat (the food was inedible), but to collect our mail, and I’d wait with bated breath, for some 3.5″ love from Karachi.

One day, the ultimate package arrived. Amongst many exciting new shareware apps, was a disc labelled “Tetris”. I stuck it into the floppy drive and fired it up. For weeks I tried to figure out this weird Russian game and was utterly confounded by it. Frustrated by my lack of ability to play what seemed like an easy enough game, I trashed Tetris. Oscar the Grouch ate it up happily.

A few days later, I decided to give it another shot. Maybe I ate humble pie and read the instructions (real geeks never RTFM). I don’t remember how it happened, but suddenly, I got it!

I have been playing Tetris for 18 years and it never ceases to excite me. Even now, I lie in bed at night, playing mental Tetris – moving, rotating, and dropping pieces – a slave to the tetromino.

Tetris

Looking back at the early days of my Tetris gameplay, I think it has taught me more than I gave it credit for. I certainly recognized that it sharpened my reflexes and spatial sense and has helped me avoid accidents. But it did much more than that … Tetris gave me entrepreneurship lessons.

Tetris taught me about the perils of distraction. I learned how to keep my eye on the ‘piece’ at all times, in pursuit of a specific goal – removing lines to keep the playing field clean.

Tetris taught me discipline. Hours and hours of single-minded gameplay honed my ability to focus on the big picture whilst simultaneously sweating the small stuff.

Tetris taught me to take risks. I learned to plan ahead and take a gamble on placing a piece in a spot that appeared crazy at the time but paid off a little later.

Tetris taught me about the power of intuition. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right, analysis and reasoning be damned!

Tetris taught me to accept failure gracefully. I learned that smart planning, careful construction, quick thinking, dexterity, flair, talent, and the ability to take risks doesn’t guarantee a good game. Everything can come crashing down in the blink of an eye. I learned to accept that when things get messed up, you can start over.

Tetris taught me to challenge myself endlessly. Oblivious to aching shoulders, tired fingers, red eyes, and the ticking of the clock, I would obsess over tactics to improve speed, strategy, and skill. The sheer joy of removing four lines at once gave me an adrenaline rush that could keep me going for another few hours.

Tetris taught me to keep the faith. Even when ‘holes’ appeared, I learned to focus on fixing the board simply by believing that I could – if I tried hard enough.

Mr Alexey Pajitnov, I owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you for creating a timeless classic that will live on forever. You’re a hero.

This is What Sells …

April 23rd, 2013

295C For Dummies

Mediocrity Trumps All

April 23rd, 2013

Any new technology is disruptive and threatening. Luckily, there are always early adopters who will wax eloquent and evangelize the new technology. As more people begin to embrace the new technology, it becomes less threatening. The curious begin to experiment tentatively. The new technology starts to change lives and thus begins the democratization of the new technology. It is inevitable. It’s also a great, great thing. Except, when it’s not.

In today’s post web 2.0 world, people have access to countless, easy-to-use, free tools to create ‘stuff’ and the delivery platforms to share their creations with global audiences. Anyone can record a song. Anyone can take photographs. Anyone can direct and produce a film. Anyone can write a book.

This is an incredible phenomenon.

BUT …

When some runt uploads a video on YouTube and becomes an overnight sensation based on knee-jerk reactions such as, “Dude, that is totally, like, fucking awsum”, “you rocked the show, man”, “omg, you killed it”, etc, I want to kill myself. Sooner or later, said runt appears on American Idol and a musician is born, errr, I mean, ‘created’.

In the world I grew up in, Billie Holiday was a musician. Ella Fitzgerald was a musician. Bhimsen Joshi Ji was a musician. I was taught that you have to sit at the feet of your ustaad for years, you have to struggle, you have to learn the virtue of patience, you have to hone your talent, you have to develop a soul … you have to suffer before you can become a musician, or any kind of artist.

But not in this world of instant fame. In this world, anyone can become a rockstar or an author or a film-maker or a photographer. All you need is YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and your friends will make you famous. Any other way is so last century.

I am a geek. I thrive on disruption. I love and cherish the fact that technology has the potential to change lives. We need to devote ourselves to making enabling tools and technologies accessible to more and more people. The process of democratization does that … and so, of course it’s a good thing. But, the democratization of technology also provides a platform for the super-efficient perpetuation of mediocrity.

If anyone can create anything, and can make it ‘go viral’ on the interwebs through breathless self-promotion (humility, wtf is that?), and then everyone ‘likes’ it … then it must be good, right?

Art is now created like this:
Coca-Cola To Help Maroon 5 Crowdsource a New Song

GROWL!

An Ode to Tetris [4 April 2011 - 6 September 2011]

September 6th, 2011

TetrisI’ve never been a ‘cat person’. I grew up with the pre-conceived notion that cats, while intelligent, are selfish and uncaring. I’d been hankering for a puppy for years and my mother was fiercely against the idea, given my chaotic, manic work hours. Eventually, she relented and said go ahead and get a puppy as long as you look after it yourself and give it the attention it needs and deserves. It took a week for me to realize she was right. I couldn’t handle the puppy and gave it to someone who had a more stable life than mine.

In May 2011, I went to Delhi and met Smallie at Tarun Tejpal’s and Geetan Batra’s house. The Tejpal residence is a sanctuary for sick animals and I found myself surrounded by 3 cats, 4 dogs, and various other creatures. I was initially wary of the cats but found myself enthralled by Smallie’s antics and grudgingly began to grow rather attached to her. The transition from ‘dog person’ to ‘cat person’ had begun.

When I got back to Karachi, I was determined to get a kitten. One day, someone posted pictures of some little mites on Facebook and I fell in love. The owner was happy to give me one and I trotted off on a Sunday to get her. I’d been trying to adopt a baby for over a year and it hadn’t worked out. Then Tetris came along and changed my life. While I have no idea what it’s like to nurture a human baby, Tetris fulfilled my maternal needs as well as my inner 4 year-old. Her favorite place to sleep was behind my monitor and atop my keyboard. I’d live for the moments that she’d leap up onto my bed and climb onto my chest and fall asleep purring happily. We played hide and seek every day. We listened to music. She’d wait for me to come home so we could play peek-a-boo and chase each other around the dining table. She loved to pose and have her picture taken and within days she’d amassed a massive fan club on Facebook. When I travelled to the US, I’d chat with her on Skype every day. When my mother travelled, I’d  insist on regaling her with Tetris’s latest antics. I once left a dear friend’s house rather abruptly because I was missing Tetris and wanted to go home and play. 

On the 5th of September 2011, Tetris fell ill. Within 24 hours, she died of hemolytic anemia, a genetic blood disorder. Her sister died a day before her. I have never, ever experienced such profound grief, and an overbearing sense of loss envelopes me. I cry all the time and simply can’t believe that my beautiful little baby is gone – forever. She was with us for barely 4 1/2 months during which time she acquired several khalaas and grandparents. I can’t thank Tetris enough for some of the most joyful, wonderful days of my life. In time, I hope I will let go and allow another kitten into our lives. 

It’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy!

August 24th, 2011

It was a hot day in June 1989 and I remember it vividly. I met my first Macintosh in Zaheer Kidvai’s drawing room and my life changed forever in the moment that Mazhar T gave me a demo. In that tiny 9″ screen, I witnessed a new world, free from the shackles of the C: prompt and the command line. It was a computer for the ‘rest of us’ and it gave us the ‘power to be our best’.

From the pirate days, through the wilderness years, and on to the greatest comeback in history, it’s been an incredible journey. To you Steve, I owe more than I can express in words. Much of me has been shaped by you. You did it your way, every time. You continue to be deeply inspirational and I feel privileged and blessed to have seen you at Macworld in 2007. Please get well. Till then, I shall bleed in 6 colors.

Panic Stricken!

July 23rd, 2011

Cabel SasserPanic Inc. is a tiny company in Portland, Oregon that makes awesome Mac software. They are a huge inspiration to scores of Mac developers around the world for an infinite number of reasons.

They make truly great software of the serious variety; not of the Delicious Generation ilk (remember Disco?) and are legendary for their crazy attention to UI detail, customer engagement, and knowing how to have fun.

In his blogpost about how to become an indie programmer in 1068 days, Gus Mueller wrote that he and Brent Simmons make ‘usable user interfaces’ by trying to “figure out ‘what Panic would do’. WWPD?” To illustrate just how cool the Panic founders are, check out what one of them did in response.

I have been following Panic’s work since 1999 and do not have the vocabulary to express the extent of their influence on my design sensibility and thoughts on user experience. These guys take the concept of elegant rigour to the nth degree – just knowing that they were out there, helped me get through endless nights of pixel pushing in pursuit of the notion that whatever we were doing could be better if we tried harder.

I wrote to the co-founder of Panic, Cabel Sasser, in 2005, overcome by emotion after reading The True Story of Audion:

On Dec 26, 2005, at 11:00 PM, Sabeen Mahmud wrote:

Dear Cabel,

I am writing to you from Karachi, Pakistan, as a rabid Panic fan and long-time user of Audion, Transmit, and all the other wonderful goodies that Panic produces. Last night, I was just browsing through your website (I love that nifty “drag any app here to instantly download action you have going on”) to check whether there was anything new in the “Extras” section and came across “The True Story of Audion”. After reading the first couple of paragraphs, I just knew it was going to be one of those stories that you have to take to bed.

Whilst reading “the true story of Audion”, I laughed, cried, giggled – ended up with heartburn and couldn’t sleep for ages. Your descriptions of discovering how to fake alpha channels, learning about SoundJam, how you felt when you wrote to Steve, how your head was exploding, the confusion you experienced during the AOL talks, your spot-on take about doing great stuff vs being rich, not shortchanging your loyal userbase – by the end, it was just too overwhelming (in a nice way).

I run a tiny 10 person, interactive media company in Karachi (www.bitsonline.net) and have used a Mac since 1990. When Audion first came out, I was blown away, and downloading “faces” over idiotically slow dialup connections used to be the ultimate joy, and mega time waster. Every new hire would be forced to sit down and understand how utterly cool irregularly shaped windows with NO JAGGIES, and soft drop shadows were. Such amazing memories. We’ve run our firm in a very similar way to Panic, in terms of company philosophy, commitment to the user experience and not selling out. It’s been really tough and we’ve come close to being forced to shut down many a time. It’s companies like Panic that have inspired us to keep the faith and keep on doing what we believe in.

I don’t have the words to express how I feel about Panic and its founders. It is people like you and your products that make the Mac so special and such a pleasure to use.

ROCK ON and thank you for everything!

I nearly died when he responded!

From: Cabel Sasser
Date: January 10, 2006 4:41:06 AM GMT+05:00
To: Sabeen Mahmud
Subject: Re: The True Story of Audion

Hi Sabeen,

It’s really great to hear from you. And I’m very happy to hear you enjoyed the story — it took me a while to write, but it felt great to get it all down on paper.

Your company sounds wonderful, and I’m glad to hear that we share philosophies. Sometimes it seems like the world needs more small, passionate companies, rather than large, soulless ones. But maybe I’m just being elitist. :)

Regardless, it would be my dream to one day meet up in person over dinner and share business stories! :) One of these days I’ll make it to Pakistan.. it’s on the list..

Thanks again for the very kind message, and best wishes in the future.

Sincerely,
Cabel
Panic

It has been one of my long-standing dreams to meet Cabel Sasser, and finally, on Wednesday July 13 2011, I met him!! At Panic Inc. HQ in Portland. He was every bit as wonderful, friendly, geeky, artsy and awesome as he appeared online. I felt like I’d known him forever. I was given a grand tour of the office and the roof and got a sneak preview of something that only 10 people outside of Panic have seen. Eeeeeeeeks! It’s very cool and I can’t tell. Heh!

I feel utterly privileged and fortunate to have had this opportunity :)

 

Here’s to the the MAD ones!

October 15th, 2010

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars …”

Jack Kerouac

We the People vs Big Business

October 15th, 2010

In under 24 hours of going loud, we received our cheque from Unilever. I also wrote a letter to the CEO and Chairman, Mr. Ehsan Malik. The fact that we suddenly got paid means only one thing. The CEO told someone to hand deliver a cheque to us ASAP.


A commenter on Facebook said:

Good to hear… but why must this only happen after raising a hue and cry. Even if the CEO didn’t actually know that T2F hadn’t been paid, why is their system not reviewed regularly to check and correct such errors anyway?


Exactly!


Here is why, according to an anonymous commenter:

Well basically they have a negative cash cycle, which means that they make all sales on cash and delay payments to creditors as much as possible – without holding much inventory. This way they have ‘your’ cash lying around, which they can use to either earn income on, or use it to do some CAPEX – without using a single penny in debt or equity. Last year, ice-cream production capacity was doubled via this way. By delaying payments to you and other people, vendors etc. they make huge investments, produce sub-standard products, with flashy marketing campaigns. And we all buy the stuff, and dream to work for such companies and the vicious cycle continues =)


This is fairly standard practise. No surprises here. Banks do it all the time, claiming to not have received remittances when they have. They use our money to get their stuff done. We are up against a system of institutionalized corporate crime with several layers of complexity. Power, greed, incompetence, allegiance to shareholders, smarminess, and whatever the bullying flavor of the day is. They do it because they can.

Getting this payment from Unilever is not a victory. It is just a small step towards taking a stand. What I dream of is a day when I can get paid for my work by sending in an invoice and receiving a cheque on the date it was promised, based on mutually agreed terms, without having to call anyone. Yes, it’s a utopian fantasy. But this is the kind of marketplace we need to create, since we certainly didn’t inherit it – thanks to decades of apathy and corruption. I don’t care what anyone else says or thinks but I am going to do what I can to agitate for change in the corporate sector.

My personal goals:

1. Follow up on the accounting systems review promised by Ehsan Malik
2. Encourage service providers to speak up when they face problems in getting their dues
3. Create a citizen-led watchdog organization to monitor corporate activities and “ethics”

If anyone would like to be a part of these efforts, please leave a comment.