Reham breaking the news

Celebrity breakups aren’t pretty. By and large, they have never been and they never will be. They make for gossip-filled headlines and details that should best remain at home.

But that isn’t the case and wasn’t so when the power couple of the country, Imran Khan and Reham Khan, split after a 10-month honeymoon.

The couple had steamrolled into the collective imagination of the national news-hungry psyche when they tied the knot in December last year. Many were dumb-founded; does the PTI chief have enough time for personal life? However, soon enough it was Reham replacing the busy ex-cricketer as the most sought after interviewee.

Her good looks and charm made her the darling of TV networks. Her every move was being monitored. Media’s fascination with the second Mrs Khan was unparalleled, even by Pakistani standards.

The Valima made waves as the ‘winds of change’ that have been the cornerstone of PTI’s political mantra, had them celebrating with a dinner at a seminary.

Slowly, Reham apparently started getting bored by being a housewife. The mother of three, herself a divorcee, and a former journalist, she involved herself in social work, especially in KP where the PTI governs.

With the media in tow, it made for good PR. But there are those who say that it was too much to handle, especially for PTI insiders.

She was titled KP’s First Lady, but slowly things started to unravel and one could hear voices of dissent over her involvement in day-to-day PTI matters. Independence is what she apparently craved, and wasn’t given.

Soon enough, reports surfaced that she is not to participate in PTI’s political power shows. This was followed by rumours of an imminent breakup. And all this while, the media had nothing better to do than to speculate on when the news would come.

And why shouldn’t they? Political couples are good for TRPs. In the end, when the split came, it was heard loud and clear from ‘expert’ anchors and ‘senior’ media people.

But Reham wasn’t the darling of only the media. They feed the public what it wants to hear. And that is why Mrs. Khan was the most searched personality in Pakistan 2015.

And, as we know, the story isn’t over ... not yet.


HONY captures Pakistan

In a country fraught with death and terrorism, it is always difficult to find the positive. Not that there isn’t any, but with the authorities busy in trying to make life safe for the citizens, one always feels the need to read something other than distressing headlines.

However, for a brief spell in the summer of 2015, Pakistan was not only in the feel-good headlines, but also at the forefront of global attention.

Brandon Stanton, creator of the online blog, Humans of New York (HONY), visited the country to find something other than the Taliban and religious extremists that this land has come to be identified with.

And for a couple of weeks, his discoveries mesmerised millions who follow his Facebook posts, in the process creating goodwill for the people and country.

His whereabouts known to few, Brandon traversed the length and breadth of the country covering the cities and the Northern Areas capturing an image of the country that looked normal to many.

He collected a treasure trove of stories that feature personal endevours as well as raising awareness about important issues like the struggles of Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who is working to end bonded labour in Pakistan’s brick kilns. The result was nearly $2 million in donations!


Hell on a visit

During Ramazan in Sindh, especially Karachi, temperatures soared to unbelievable highs. Nearly a thousand people died across the province.

And they didn’t even have any political group to blame; just the weather.

It was the worst heatwave in the history of Karachi for nearly 35 years, and coincided with the fasting month of Ramazan and severe power shortcuts.

While temperatures soared, conscientious, pious and scared shopkeepers refused to sell water or even ice, citing laws that could have them fined, or worse, the target of a mob attack. And with the increase in demand for electricity – everybody’s air-conditioning was switched on – the fragile electricity network was on the verge of collapse. In fact, it did collapse. KE blamed illegal connections, and a surge in demand.

It also took the time to remind us that the government owes it nearly $1 billion in unpaid bills. On its part, the federal government made sure that the blame for this particular tragedy was pinned on the provincial PPP-led government.

As the blame-game continued, morgues found it difficult to manage the influx of bodies. At the Edhi morgue, body bags littered the floor.

Hospitals issued urgent appeals for cold water, bedsheets and other basic items. It wasn’t just the poor who passed away.

The affluent, who couldn’t deviate from their daily routine, felt the heat in the evening. A few passed away at night.

Emergency health warnings were issued with people being requested to discourage from fasting if not well. But few paid heed and had then to pay the ultimate price.


#ThankyouRaheelSharif

The military has always held the swag in Pakistan.

That we all know. And the way things keep going, it seems that it isn’t ending anytime soon.

Soon after the APS massacre in December 2014, questions were asked as to who is responsible.

The government’s response was too mundane, to put it lightly. However, the media managers at the GHQ had a novel scheme of responding to criticism of the military’s handling of the disaster. A military response was required and was given, though not by the bullet.

And soon enough, #thankyouRaheelSharif was populating the online world. The hashtag was in response to the military action in Karachi.

Then of course there is the campaign up north, though a year on, critical questions surrounding the APS massacre remain unanswered.

It wasn’t restricted to just Pakistan. Gen. Raheel, it seems, established a cult of his own. The Paksitani Diaspora, again in need of a hero in the absence of any real muscle from the democrats in Islamabad, took to him immediately and soon enough the Pakistani COAS was the most tagged personality online.

However, it soon took alarming proportions with many asking, has there been a silent coup in Islamabad? The international media was also asking questions, like, is the army general more popular than the prime minister in Pakistan, and what does that means for democracy.

The ferocity of the online campaign had many asking, what does the ISPR and the Army aim to achieve. DG ISPR denied any involvement.

The hashtag also inspired a million memes. Menial tasks, like reaching the office on time, even watching a complete movie without getting bored, were #ThankyouRaheelSharif.

There is speculation that apart from deflecting responsibility for the APS massacre, there is also a concerted effort to have Gen Sharif extend his tenure.

Whatever the case, the Pakistani nation desperately clung to anyone who could provide them with whatever sense of security.


The Pluto flyby

A journey 10 years in the making, the New Horizons space probe’s flyby of the distant Pluto was a story of astronomical proportions (pun unintended). The result was spectacular photos of what was once officially considered the ninth plant of the Solar System, the first ever close-up of the space body.

Data started pouring in on  July  14 at mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) whose engineers, along with scientists and technicians at NASA  and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), had put together the entire mission.

The data took 4.5 hours to reach its Earth station, some 3 billion miles away. It did all of this as it zipped through the Pluto system at an unobstructed 31,000 MPH. At this speed, had the spacecraft encountered any piece of debris the size of a grain of rice, it could have knocked the spacecraft out putting the entire mission in jeopardy.

New Horizons feat was doubled when it came within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface to scrutinise the ‘dwarf planet’, its big moon, Charon, and the system’s four tiny satellites with seven different science instruments. This was just the beginning as the spacecraft would continue to beam data back to Earth for 16 months.

The $723 million mission was launched in January 2006. The concept itself had begun even earlier, as way back as in 1989. But during its long journey, Pluto – which was re-classified as a ‘dwarf planet’ by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 – isn’t the only encounter. It approached Jupiter in 2007, at a distance of 2.3 million kilometres.

Having completed its Pluto flyby, New Horizons has now manoeuvred for a flyby of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 that is expected to take place in 2019.


BlackBerry leaves?

We like to invite investment, profile the country at £50,000-a-table gala dinners and highlight it as the place to bet your money on.

Then we make it a point to discourage the free flow of investment into the country. The case of BlackBerry, the mobile service and handset provider that has built its reputation by providing secure lines of communication, is just that.

The government and its security agencies want to breach this security, demanding access to BlackBerry’s services. The company would rather leave than compromise on its principles.

The drama had been going on for six months and December 30 was the latest deadline. The PTA extended the initial deadline (read threat) by a month.

BlackBerry refused to entertain the government’s request for “wholesale” access to BlackBerry Enterprise Services (BES) servers which encrypt users’ private information, such as emails and instant messages. The Canadian company said it enforces a blanket ban on allowing so-called “backdoor” access to customer information anywhere in the world.

“Pakistan’s demand was not a question of public safety; we are more than happy to assist law enforcement agencies in investigations of criminal activity,” said BlackBerry Chief Operating Officer Marty Beard in a blog post at the end of November. “Rather, Pakistan was essentially demanding unfettered access to all of our BES customers’ information.”

The government  on its part says BlackBerry’s refusal is hindering its fight against lawlessness as both terrorists and criminals are using secured services to meet their end.

BlackBerry may or may not remain in the country to service it 5,000 odd remaining customers. The signal it sends to foreign investors is that they have to be clearer on what they can and cannot do to facilitate the government before entering the country.


The war of '71 continues

Wounds are rarely healed, especially those left untreated and those emitting from a bloody breakup.

Such remains the case of the war fought through 1971 in the then East Pakistan.

The result of course is known, but the ill-attempt from the sides responsible to bring to rest the ghosts of that era continue to linger.

Everyone, it was thought, simply wanted the matter to be swept under the proverbial rug. Everyone except the Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina, that is.

She is definitely on a warpath and along the way is working hard towards bringing those supposedly responsible for the atrocities to justice.

As a result, Bangladesh hanged two high-profile survivors of that era; 67-year-old  Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and 66-year-old Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.

Both the men, along with dozens of others, were accused of war crimes. The men were hanged after their appeals were rejected by the Bangladesh Supreme Court.

The pair was convicted by a tribunal set up by the government in 2010. Their convictions and that of dozens of others triggered protests and violence. However, post-hangings the response on the streets was muted.

Bangladesh’s effort to bring to justice those it can has been criticised, not just by those it is targeting, but also from within Pakistan and the world community at large.

Analysts have pointed out that hangings show that violence is the only way. And though the PM’s popularity has soared, they argue it is bound to be short-lived. The tribunal that convicted these men has been criticised for lack of transparency.

The accused for example were allowed four witnesses whereas the prosecution was allowed 10 times that number. Critics say that the tribunal is simply a tool to silence the opponents.

Criticism has been forthcoming from JI’s allies in Pakistan. So much so that Islamabad issued a statement condemning the hanging of the accused. For the moment though, the path that the Bangladesh government has taken is anything but of truth and reconciliation. It is more blood and more violence.

The war of 71 goes on.


A to Z of Alphabet

Already the largest search engine in the world, an enviable thing in its own right, Google rocked the corporate world when it brought the biggest restructuring surprise of the year with the roll-out of the new parent company called Alphabet Inc.

And if that wasn’t exciting enough, the web address of the new entity surely caught the imagination; www.abc.xyz. Google has always been known to do things its own different way.

That’s the least to say about a company whose corporate looks like the playground of the geeks. But its founders have always maintained a shrewd business mindset and that is what Alphabet is all about, as shared by Google founder Larry Page.

“This new structure will allow us to keep tremendous focus on the extraordinary opportunities we have inside of Google. Our company is operating well today, but we think we can make it cleaner and more accountable. The whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands.”

Under the rebranding, Google will retain its best-known businesses, such as search, apps, YouTube and Android. The other newer entities, such as investment and research divisions, the ‘smart-home’ unit Nest and the drone arm will be run under Alphabet. Mr Page will become chief executive of Alphabet, with senior vice-president Sundar Pichai becoming CEO of Google.

Investors and analysts welcomed the move with many pointing out that the new strategy should give them greater clarity on strategy and how much Google was spending, especially on new products.

So what exactly will be in Alphabet?

People are expecting everything from A to Z and that is how it seems things are shaping out to be.

Some of the things that the new company will have include Google X – driverless car, drone delivery service and, a contact lens that measures the level of glucose in the wearer’s tears and communicate the information to a mobile phone or computer. It will also have Calico – a health-focused research and development company; Nest – smarthomes anyone?; Fiber – on-demand television; as well as Google Robotics and Google Ventures and Google Capital, the investment arms.

And what’s the official reason behind naming the new entity Alphabet” According to Mr. Page, it was chosen for two reasons; one, it represents language, “the core of how we index with Google search”. And, two, because Alpha-bet means “investment return above benchmark, which we strive to do”.


The blackened face of India

Religious intolerance is nothing new in societies. People are scared of what’s not the norm for them and then start a campaign to have a particular practice changed, or banned altogether.

But when it is state-sanctioned, it has a different dimension. The year 2015 was the first complete calendar year in power for PM Modi.

Recognised for his nationalistic rhetoric, this was the year when the true colours of his victory were to be reflected in the national character.

We didn’t have to wait for much long. In March, the government in Maharashtra banned the consumption of beef. Haryana followed suit and soon enough 11 of the 29 Indian states had imposed similar laws that have a direct impact on the country’s 138 million Muslims and 24 million Christians.

And in extreme cases it has led to murder.

The most disturbing was the murder in Dadri of a man who was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by a mob on the basis of rumours that he had consumed beef.

The growing intolerance in India, pushed largely in part by the ruling BJP’s effort to bring the country more to its ‘Hindu’ roots, has prompted protests and voices of concern, especially from the country’s celebrity elite.  

Actor Amir Khan for one shared his and his wife’s anxieties. He in turn was targeted by those who claimed that his words sent an ill image about the country and about the PM.

“Those opposed to Mr Modi should go to Pakistan,” one aide said, while others spent time having a concert by Ghulam Ali cancelled and, more menacingly, dousing in black paint the organiser of a talk featuring former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri.

Secular India anymore? Was it ever?


Death in the Holy Land

For many it’s a journey of a lifetime. And for around 2,000 of those in 2015, during the annual pilgrimage of Haj, it became the last journey they ever took.

First there was the crane collapse.

Following  a storm and strong winds, a huge red crane collapse, crashing onto a section of the mosque where worshippers were gathered. A grainy video from outside the mosque showed the moment when it crashed down. Lives were lost aplenty.

Then, barely two weeks later, during the actual Haj pilgrimage, a stampede near at Mina resulted in deaths that have been numbered at beyond a couple of thousand. Of course the official count is much less.

The tragedies soon took an international political turn when Iran accused the Saudis of mismanagement.

Relatives of Pakistani pilgrims who couldn’t be traced days after the accident accused the government of cover-up and being more concerned about its relations with the Saudi monarchy than about the well-being of its people.

After the tragedy, the usual plethora of questions; how can such an incident be avoided in the future? Is there no way of managing two million plus people for at least a week? Or should the numbers be curtailed?

One hopes the answers and actions will be ready in time for the next year’s Haj.


Chinese on the march

To be part of any elite is a great thing. And then to break into the most established group of financial managers and be recognised as one of their own is another.

The Chinese currency, the Yuan, also known as Renminbi, broke into the circles of the International Monetary Fund when it realised its long-held dream of becoming the fifth currency to make it to the IMF’s basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) where it will rub shoulders alongside the Dollar, the Euro, the Sterling and the Yen.

Being in the IMF elite currency basket opens up the possibility of a surge of investment flow that could really rock the global financial system.

It also brings to end what many believe is the unhealthy dominance of the US Dollar that has failed to keep pace with dramatic

changes in the world economy, and at the same time weakening Western control over the machinery of global markets and economic rulebook.

So what is the SDR? IMF member countries can borrow money at favourable rates from the IMF’s reserves in any of the currencies listed in the SDR basket.

Yun’s inclusion, though announced, will take about 10 more months to materliaise. It would be a full-fledged member from September 2016. Policymakers believe that the move will grant the world’s second largest economy more credibility on the international stage.

Pursuit of SDR status is thought to have driven China’s decision to revalue the Yuan in August 2015.

Officials altered the mechanism by which the Yuan is fixed against the Dollar to make its movements more responsive to market forces. This liberalisation prompted the currency’s largest one-day fall against the Dollar in more than two decades.

All this makes for good reading. But apart from the rhetoric and the politics, what difference will the Yuan’s inclusion make?

Not much, say international money managers.

According to one survey, 71 per cent of the sovereign reserve money managers already had or had intended to acquire Yuan.

So, to cap it all, the IMF’s decision has been clearly a political move aimed at drawing China into the college of global governance.


Beauty in the cell

There is no dearth of news in the media. And if there is for some reason, we can very well depend on media practitioners to pluck something out of thin air.

However, when it came to covering the case of Ayaan Ali, the media in general and the TV channels in particular made sure that no facet of her celebrity status and her physical charm was left untouched.

The lass, termed the supermodel of the country, was arrested while trying to board a flight to Dubai while allegedly carrying in excess of $500,000 in her baggage.

She was arrested and sent to the infamous Adiala that had never played host to such a visitor. The prison guards immediately got their act together. Uniforms were cleaned and pressed. According to online reports, the staff and police officials seemed to take extra care of personal hygiene. Visiting her quarter of the barracks for no reason at all soon became the norm.

And while all this was happening, the media had a field day.

On the day of her hearing, media vans besieged the jail.

The focus was on her hairstyle, her looks and her attire rather than on the merit of the case. No alien to publicity, Ayyan went along with the frenzy. How she got hold of the money, and, indeed, the murder of the inspector who made the arrest were apparently things that were less worthy for the media hounds.

Even after her release, her visit to Karachi University drove the media into frenzy. The camera just didn’t stop rolling.

The recent news of her getting her passport back has the media buzzing again.

Who’ll get to travel with her on the flight to Dubai? We’ll all see.


Beginning of the end

We have heard many theories in the past. Prophecies and soothsayers have been proclaiming for long – centuries, actually – that the end is near and be prepared for it.

But what was announced in 2015 by a group of scientists was deemed credible enough to be taken seriously by many.

The bad news was announced by a group of scientists led by the esteemed Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in Biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University.

The group used highly conservative estimates to prove that species are disappearing faster than at any time since the dinosaurs’ demise, forcing them – the scientists, that is – to declare that we could have entered what can credibly be labelled as the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet.

And this time, the results have a direct impact on the well-being and the existence of mankind.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, showed that even with extremely conservative estimates, species are disappearing up to about 100 times faster than the normal rate between mass extinctions, known as the background rate.

Ehrlich and his co-authors have called for quick action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat, but have warned that the window of opportunity was rapidly closing.

Though there is a general agreement among scientists that extinction rates have reached levels unparalleled since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, some have challenged the theory, believing that earlier estimates rested on assumptions that overestimated the crisis.

According to Gerardo Ceballos, of the Universidad Autónoma de México, “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.”

In support of their study, the scientists have shared the magnitude of irreparable loss to Nature that mankind has already done. The long list of impacts includes land-clearing for farming, logging, invasive species, carbon emissions that drive climate change and ocean acidification as well as toxins that alter and poison ecosystems.

Now, the spectre of extinction hangs over about 41 per cent of all amphibian species and 26 per cent of all mammals, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains an authoritative list of threatened and extinct species.

The end could, indeed, be here. Be prepared!


FIFA red carded?

Administrators of the most popular sport in the world finally fell foul of the authorities earlier when investigations, initiated by the US Department of Justice and aided by the legal authorities in Switzerland, finally had enough of the growing evidence against FIFA regulators.

When in charge of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, detractors aren’t far behind. In FIFA’s case, they’d been there for a long time. And this time, they caught up, not only with the organisation, but also with its all-powerful and seemingly immortal president.

The three-year investigation exploded when the US authorities, based on the information provided by FBI, indicted several top FIFA officials on charges of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption.

The Swiss not only cooperated, by arresting a number of executives, but also made Sepp Blatter the subject of a criminal investigation launched alongside the US inquiry.

Though FIFA is an international body based in Switzerland, the US Justice Department’s indictment says the corruption was planned in the US even if it was then carried out elsewhere.

Whatever the outcome, the future of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is a major question.

More importantly, the image of FIFA and that of the most watched and followed sport in the world stands tarnished.


The man and the company

Shoaib Ahmed Shaikh was an up and coming businessman. He was running a successful software house. He was setting up the largest media house in the country. And he was busy acquiring the best talent in the business.

The Chairman and the owner of Axact was the man everyone wanted to meet. And yet he was as elusive as they come. Despite all the negative publicity surrounding the running of his software house, he was still in the game.

But as the gods of fortune would have it, the tables turned. One print story in the New York Times talked of the real wealth behind Axact; degrees by universities that existed only online.

Shoaib, though expecting the story, didn’t anticipate the response he got from the authorities.

Thinking the story would blow away, he kept quiet at first and then gave an interview or two that were too little too late. The Federal Interior minister, at ease with the war on terror – what with the Army having taken care of the details – decided he needed a new chapter.

Following days of investigation, Shoaib Shaikh was arrested by the FIA on allegations of offering/preparing/selling/issuing fake diplomas, degree and certificates of hundreds of fictitious institutions through a fraudulent online system.

This was not the turn of events Shoaib Shaikh expected it to be. His business in tatters, many decided to jump the ship instead of sticking with him; a wise capital decision. Shoaib and his inner circle are now alone.

Investigations have been slow.

What many are wondering about is that a fake degree was never an issue as big as in this case. There are millions in the country. There are fake doctors that play with people’s lives. So what was so unique about Axact?

Maybe someday someone will spill the beans.

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