Your Brain: Your Garden

brain-gardenMy son likes to watch Mr. Bean, which is a little worrisome for me, as I do not believe in ‘harmless  and silly fun’. While good humor and puns certainly  stimulate your brain-cells (aka neurons), I think that part of the reason people are amused by Mr. Bean, Charlie Chaplin (or any of the  situation comedy heroes who are typically getting into trouble because of their stupidity) is because watching such shows offers them comfort and relief in the knowledge that some other person can be dumber than themselves – and the feeling of having a relatively higher intelligence is enough to boost their self-esteem and actually make them laugh.

The above is just an unproven personal theory, and since I’m not a psychologist by trade, so I will probably not bother to research this idea any further, but that doesn’t stop me from telling my son that “If you watch too much Mr. Bean, your brain will slowly shrink into a pea-brain and you will start acting like Mr. Bean”. I believe it is fair, since he also knows that his brain grows and expands whenever he reads or plays games, so that he can balance the Mr. Bean silliness with some reading or games.

It seems that I am not that far away from the truth, as this recent neuroscience study from Leicester University suggests that we tend to dedicate whole neurons in our brains to a celebrity or even a fictional character. The study involved showing pictures of celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Oprah Winfrey to test subjects, and detecting the neurons that were fired! After this calibration, it is possible to tell whether a person is looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston or of Halle Berry simply by monitoring their brain cells.

This phenomenon must have a lot of applications  in the Neuromarketing and the Psy-Ops markets, and is definitely the basis for  celebrity sponsorships and endorsements, but more importantly, it has implications within our own relatively ordinary daily lives. The next time you sit in front of the TV for a few hours of entertainment, or decide to watch a movie, you might want to assess whether the neuron-to-entertainment-value trade-off is worth it for you before giving away a few more precious neurons in your brain. Of course, if you don’t intend to use all those extra neurons, then you don’t really need to watch what you are watching.

So what kind of neurons are you growing in your brain, and what kind of stuff is your head filled with?  If you can spare a few, please stare at my avatar for 3 minutes without blinking 🙂

The Answer is 200 Million Kilograms

Keep Calm
Since we usually have a bomb blast or two every other week in one of the major cities of Pakistan, and as there is nothing happening right now to hope for things to change in the near future, so I think that it is about time that we started some research on how to cope with the FUD in our “Land of the Pure”.

We can begin by looking back a few decades and learning from how our ex-rulers (that would be the British, for those who have forgotten/never knew) did it, and try to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Meanwhile, we do need to ask some questions and gather statistics to help us survive the next few days, weeks, months or years, depending on how far ahead you usually plan.

This is probably the real reason why one of the “Breaking News” headlines after today’s Peshawar bomb blast (which claimed 20ish lives) was:

“The explosives weighed 15-20 kilograms.”

I doubt that the people who died in the blast would have given a damn about HOW they died, but the question that popped up in my mind was, how many kilograms of similar explosives will it take to kill us all – and by us, I mean Pakistanis.

As the 20Kg. killed 20 people , so 1Kg. of explosives kill approximately 1 person – by simplifying our model and ignoring most variables like population densities, people’s tendency to run away from hazards etc. etc., and as the population of Pakistan is roughly 200,000,000 (We are the 6th largest nation of the world by population) – so we can safely say that around 200,000,000 kilograms of explosives are needed to blow away the entire Pakistani population.

While I do not have any visualization aids or images handy that would help you imagine what they would look like, trust me when I say that it is a LOT of explosives.

If the current bombing patterns are the best that the terrorists can do, then Pakistan is not going anywhere soon. Sure, a few thousand people will die due to explosives, but when you ‘zoom out’ and adjust your focus (at the risk of being called insensitive/inhuman), it is not much, statistically speaking.

And so, there is one less answer that is blowin’ in the wind…

Pakistan Problems Propaganda and Prejudice

Two months ago, this Urdu + English “sponsored link” ad for a website started showing up in my Gmail every day. I will not link to it for obvious reasons, but here’s what is says:

دنیا کی سب سے بدترین قوم

پاکستان سے زندہ بھاگ آپ یقیناً اتفاق کریں گے۔

The Urdu text translates roughly to “World’s Worst Nation“, “You will surely agree” and “Get out of Pakistan Alive” – the later is a wordplay on “Pakistan Zindabad“, which means “Long Live Pakistan“, and has been in use to ridicule Pakistan for atleast a decade. On the site, there is an almost exhaustive list of the many things wrong with Pakistan, in Urdu.

The first time I saw the ad, I checked the whois information out of curiosity and found out that the domain was registered to some guy in Faisalabad. I assumed that the owner was just another Pakistani frustrated at being born with brown skin, and that he was just utilizing the free adword credit that some hosts offer. The ad and the website were mildly irritating, but so is 90% 99% of the world, so I moved on.

Two months have passed since I first saw this ad – many bombs have exploded and hundreds of people have been killed in all four of our provinces – by terrorists, by our army, by the Americans and recently – by our ordinary(?) citizens – in the name of nationalism, peace, honor, ethnic cleansing, and various variants of God as well. The killings are still going on in Karachi as I write this.

The website, meanwhile, is still advertising relentlessly – I see its targeted message more than a dozen times a day, with its cryptic “About us” page that says “our identities really don’t matter, just listen to our message or go do something else”, and the owners of the website are still spending money to make their voices heard. A Google search tells me that atleast one other person noticed this last month and rightly recognized the demoralizing effect of such propaganda material, but blamed it on “international efforts to demoralize our nation”. He also mentioned seeing an indian flag favicon on the domain, a domain that is registered under a false name – after all, Indians are the real enemy, right?

After two months, the owners of worstnation have learnt from their mistakes, there is no indian flag and the whois information has disappeared from the database behind a privacy protection service though the clocktowercity website is still alive and clicking.

If you check the server for on , you will notice half a dozen websites that can have a relationship with Pakistan and are hosted on the same server – a few of them are:

The irfan-ul-quran website has this favicon that was mistaken for an Indian flag. The forums page on the last link lists 40 websites that they run, and mentions with a smile that they have (created and are running)

..and a lot more that cannot be listed here smile.gif

So, My dear brethren in Islam (who are stuck-in-the-worst-nation-of-the-world through no fault of your own), I respect your opinions regarding the state of our nation and even agree with many of the points on your website, but hiding behind private websites and talking about revolutions is no way to start a revolution!

When you say we are the worst nation, please speak for yourself, not me – and please publish your identities on your website, don’t just hit and hide… who knows, you might get lucky and start a revolution by mistake – or you might get lucky and get the death penalty (read ‘heaven’) for disrupting national harmony in cyberspace – at least that is what the new cybercrime law asks for. Either way, it is a win-win situation for you, you lucky guys! So please don’t be shy and reveal yourselves to the public. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

I love your bitterness and sarcasm, but after identifying all the problems of this nation in a couple of months, I was expecting to hear the solution to those problems from your own anonymous-yet-expert beaks. If getting out of Pakistan alive (Hijrat to Canada perhaps?) is your thing, then let me know if I can help you in any way. But whatever you do, for Allah’s sake, please stop the frigging advertising on GMail – it is irritating!

PS. and change your flag – it does resemble the indian flag.

On the Turning Away

This song came up on my playlist just as I published the previous post, so I had to share it.

Consider spending six minutes of your life listening to Pink Floyd.

I tried looking for a ‘moderate’ flavored documentary, but couldn’t find any good video that didn’t mention the US of A.

Warning: it contains some very shocking images, but if shock and depression can cure us of apathy, we should be shocked more often.

Here’s the youtube link.

and the lyrics… just in case… Read more “On the Turning Away”

FBI is Confused About Dr. Aafia Siddiqui

aafia-normalWhile a tiny percentage of our Pakistani population is protesting for fair treatment to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, it looks like the US FBI is as confused as we are about the truth regarding her case.

The official FBI page on one of the most wanted women in the world has her picture with the caption “In Custody”, and on the same page it states:

“Aafia Siddiqui’s current whereabouts are unknown.”

The page also says:

“Although the FBI has no information indicating this individual is connected to specific terrorist activities, the FBI would like to locate and question this individual.”

Maybe the FBI’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, or maybe their webmasters are too busy working on more important tasks. Either way, some God-fearing media monitor from their government should poke the FBI to change/fix the text before people start getting the wrong impression from this slip.

I found the link to the FBI page from Mind Hacks, a neuroscience blog that I subscribe to, which also has a summary of her area of research. The research topic does not have anything to do with the military application of neuroscience (an area that Uncle Sam seems to be an expert at). The Mind Hacks page also has links to her thesis and research papers, in case anyone is interested.