Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lost Season Five: Episode 14

Here's what I knew about this week's episode before it aired: it would centre on Daniel Farraday, it was titled 'The Variable' (you don't need a degree in math to figure out its connection to 'The Constant') Desmond would appear and it was Lost's 100th episode. When it comes to Lost, I prefer hyperbole, but for once let me be understated and say that I was kind of excited.

No surprises that Jeremy Davies was brilliant; 'Twitchy' has been a revalation since he joined the show. But I particularly loved Eloise Hawking, especially the second time I saw the episode. And 'The Variable' is an episode that particularly rewards repeated viewings. Already knowing that she will shoot (kill?) her son, allows us to feel her pain and gives much-needed context and poignancy to what seems like another typically (for Lost) bitchy and hard-headed, maybe even evil, parent.

- Let's get the most obvious question out of the way. Is Daniel Farraday dead? Now, on Lost I refuse to believe that anyone is dead until he/she has been buried (and in the case of Nikki and Paolo even that wasn't enough) but I don't think Farraday is going to make it. The guy was going to violate the very rule he articulated: what hapenned, happened. He's got to pay the price for messing with the Island in that way. And to be more practical about it, Jack (remember him) is unfortunately the star of the show and with the finale just two weeks away he's got to do most of the heavy lifting.

- My guess is that the heavy lifting Jack will be doing is detonating the hydrogen bomb. And how does a show up the ante for its final season after exploding a friggin H-bomb? On a related note, it must be wonderful to be Matthew Fox. You get paid more than anyone else on the show and barely have any work to do. No wonder he looks so contented and at peace with himself.

- I'll be the first to admit that I cry a bit too easily but man Daniel's scene with little Charlotte was heartbreaking and may have caused my eyes to moisten just a little bit. I liked how she repeated her last line before dying: "I can't have chocolate before dinner."

- In the first Daniel flashback, when his mother tells him he will have to give up the piano because he won't have enough time to play, he replies, "I'll make time." Hahahha. Nice bit of foreshadowing.

- So, Charles Widmore is Daniel's father. That would make Daniel Penelope's brother, Desmond's brother-in-law and Charlie's uncle. Can anyone point me to a flow chart that explains all the relationships on this show in one easy diagram?

- Best line of the night: Daniel asking Kate if there were any guns for beginners. Close runner-up: "Your mother is an Other." Or even "I got shot by a physicist." For such an intense episode, there were lots of funny moments.

- I loved how quickly Juliet gave Kate the code for the sonic fence after Sawyer called her Freckles.

- I still refuse to believe that Pierre Chang doesn't know that Miles is his son. There's something deeper going on with Chang and I hope we find out soon enough what it is.

- You would think that a group of people who had crashed on an island would be able to stay united because of their shared experience. But yet again we have another split. I'm guessing this is the 393421st time this has hapenned.

- If you know were going to (had?) shoot your son on the Island, wouldn't you try to stop him from going there. Yet, Eloise Hawking pushes her son into accepting Widmore's assignment. Every character on this show has an agenda, but we don't yet know what her's is.

- Eloise Hawking telling Penny that, for the first time, she doesn't know what's happening was quite chilling. Hawking is generally a very cold character and expressing her vulnerability in that scene made me feel that everyone is up against forces that are too evil too comprehend. Certainly far more evil than Ben, who increasingly seems like a pawn in the Island's game and not a mastermind.

- Over the past five years, I've taken it for granted that Lost will always be on the air. But there are only 20 episodes left. And congratulations to Lost on its 100th episode. It's really quite staggering that a show this thematically rich, daring and obtuse could last so long on network television.

Obama Less Popular Than You Think

Unintentionally revealing quote of the day from someone called Byron York (via Matthew Yglesias) who, I must confess, I'd never even heard of before this brouhaha:
On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

Hmmm. How can something be more popular than it actually is? What on earth could that possibly mean? The closest translation I can come to is: "If you exclude people who think Obama's great, then Americans' opinions of Obama are not as great as you previously thought." A less charitable interpretation would be: "If you exclude people who don't really count because of their skin color, then Obama is less popular than previously thought."

Similar twists of logic:

1. The presence of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Yaya Toure make Barcelona appear a bit better than they actually are.

2. World War I and World War II make the German state seem a bit more war-prone than they actually were.

3. Closet racists masquerading as pundits in the American media make the discursive space in American politics more laughable than it actually is.

By the way, York responds to charges of racism here. I will let you be the judge of whether or not it is a convincing defense.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Links For Wednesday

Limited edition.

This story in the New York Times smashed all previous records of "number of people who emailed/Facebooked me the article, saying something to the effect of 'DUDE, you HAVE to put this on your blog'". You guys are so predictable, first in thinking that I would be interested in a couple of Karachi businessmen making dildos for a living, and second in sending me the same thing. Why don't you mix it up a bit? Come on, people, surprise me.

The Israelis are pissed. No, not at the Palestinians. At swine flu. Actually, they're not even pissed at swine flu. They're pissed at people who call it "swine flu". Their suggestion? Click here to find out. (Via Andrew Sullivan)

One of our readers (Karachi Khatmal, whose blog you can read here), alerted us to this absolutely amazing blog. It's written by a bit player in the IPL, and he has all sorts of gossip and insider tidbits to offer. The names will take a while to get used to, but desis will understand it by the second or third post.

Slate analyzes the Arlen Specter switch.

Steve Walt has a must-read post on Benjamin Netanyahu, and the fast-evaporating possibility of a viable two-state solution in the Middle East.

Juan Cole is not worried about Pakistan falling into the hands of the Taliban. I don't agree with everything he says -- and may elaborate in a future post -- but you should definitely read it.

Please, please, please check out the photograph linked to in this Paul Krugman post.

Speaking of business types, here's a really interesting discussion on management and corporate culture and business schools and what their role is. (Courtesy Adeel)

Have to run to class, so that's it for today.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Barcelona Fail To Unlock Chelsea, All To Play For At Stamford Bridge

Two hundred and forty. Two hundred and forty. No, that's not the number of players Chelsea had behind the ball (though it sure seemed like it). Actually, two hundred and forty is the number of days since the last time Barcelona failed to score in a game, home or away, in any competition. Two hundred and forty.

There are two basic ways to thinking about Chelsea's tactics today. The first is what I would call the "rationalist-instrumentalist" school. This school would say that sport is ultimately about winning, that you do what you have to within the rules of the game to come out on top, and that entertainment should complement, but not come at the price of, winning. Such a school would have no problem with Chelsea's display today, and would in fact encourage it.

The second school can be called the "purist romantic" school. This school would say it cheapens sport when you play it a certain way -- especially football. This school would have you believe that it's not just how successful you are, but how you are successful. People subscribing to this philosophy would be disgusted that a team costing hundreds of millions of pounds basically played like Greece in Euro 2004.

To be honest, I don't know where I stand in this debate. I'm obviously disappointed that Chelsea -- especially after Hiddink promised to attack -- had ten men behind the ball at all times, and played as if punting it down time and again to Drogba constituted their best chance to win. But I also understand that this was a first leg, that Chelsea know that they just have to nick one goal at the Bridge and keep Barca out, and they're through, and that at the end of the day, you're supposed to play for trophies, not photographs. Look, they came to the Camp Nou with a very specific plan, with a very specific goal, and executed it to perfection. They did their job.

I will say this though: it should never have come down to Chelsea's tactics. Barcelona played poorly. Ok, perhaps that's a bit harsh. Let's say Barcelona played well below average. Messi had a terrible game, misplacing passes and mistiming runs. I've never seen Messi not play well in a big game. This was the first time. Henry and Eto'o squandered a golden chance each -- the former wasted his by holding up the ball as defenders were backtracking (he is wont to do) -- and the latter by being a touch selfish on a two-on-two opening in the second half. Bojan missed an absolute sitter right in front of goal, and indeed deprived Messi of a simple tap-in, who had an even easier chance than Bojan did if he had just let it go. The passing wasn't as crisp, the movement not as decisive, and the final ball not as cutting as we are used to seeing. Some of the credit should go to Chelsea for that. But most of it was simply down to Barcelona's less than average performance.

I'll tell you who wasn't less than average though: Victor Valdes. He has been much maligned on many Barcelona forums -- including here -- but I have always maintained he's an excellent shot stopper (it's his positioning and judgment that's a problem). He could very well have saved Barca today with that save against Drogba. It was funny: as soon as the ball went to Marquez, and I saw him shaping up to pass it back through the middle instead of safely playing it out for the corner, I had a feeling he would miscue it into Drogba's path. I just had a feeling -- you get a type of sixth sense with these things when you watch a team week in week out. But well done to Valdes; without him, this tie would be over right now. Kudos to Iniesta and Xavi too, the two best players on the pitch from either team. And Yaya had a decent game, especially after a nervy start. But everyone else flattered to deceive, including the entire Chelsea team. Essien? Lampard? Ballack? Honestly didn't see them the whole game, except for one or two vicious tackles from Ballack.

A note on Dani Alves and Drogba: I'm actually quite speechless at their antics. Dani Alves does this every week, and someone's got to put a stop to it. I'm sorry, but it reflects badly on the entire team and the Barcelona culture, especially when everyone else plays the Right Way. Guardiola should give him a talking to. And Drogba is as bad. It cheapens the sport in general, and it frustrates the living daylights of the opposition, as well as fans watching at home. Quite disgraceful to be honest.

So onwards we march. Barcelona play at the Bernabeu this Saturday, and should expect similar roughing up. Then it's up to London next Wednesday. It remains to be seen if Chelsea will play the same way. There's always a risk that if they open up, they get scythed to pieces on the other end. And to be honest, they weren't that far off from being scythed to pieces today: it was only around the 35 minute mark, when the heavy and late challenges (and the attendant yellow cards) came that Barca lost their flow and rhthym. And Barcelona looked quite dangerous in the last ten minutes, when they adopted a more direct approach. But they'll be ruing their missed chances, no doubt.

Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of a 0-0 first leg is that neither team feels particularly comfortable in the interim seven days. I think Chelsea are happier than Barcelona at the moment, to be sure, but I don't think Barcelona are plagued by the self-doubt that they were a year ago in the same position (against United, after a similiar story in a park-the-bus first leg). So it's all to play for next week. Let's hope we actually get a game then.

UPDATE: Quick thoughts on the penalty shout. Was it a penalty? Probably. But the ref's not going to see a pull on the shirt from that distance at that angle. You can't blame them, and it wasn't an especially egregious foul. It was just bad enough to get Henry away from a shooting position, and so was successful in its aim even if it was undesirable. Kind of like Chelsea's tactics the whole night.

UPDATE II: Another point I forgot to make was the relationship between Chelsea's tactics on the one hand, and the Premier League's supposed supremacy on the other. I have a simple question: if the premiership is all that, why do it's best representatives come to the Camp Nou every year and put 10 guys behind the ball? Do they not have the self-belief and courage to play against us the way they play against each other? Would Chelsea have ever played like that against United or Liverpool, home or away, League or Cup? And if not, what does it say about the purported gulf in class between the leagues?

UPDATE III: Quote of the day, from Sid Lowe's review of the Spanish press:
"What would you take on a desert island?" asks Carles Rupiérez. "You could always go to Didier Drogba for suggestions. He had 89 minutes to think about it last night, 89 minutes to choose a book, a CD, to go for a mobile phone or a Swiss army knife or a lighter to make fires. Every now and then Piqué or Márquez visited him as they went to collect some strange object his team-mates occasionally sent his way, always by air mail."

: Just got done watching the Arsenal-United game (except for the first twenty minutes of the second half). Man, I feel stupid picking Arsenal. Whether it was because I have an affinity for Arsenal's Diet Barcelona style, or whether I felt sorry for AKS and Nikhil, or whether I just wanted to pick against Ronaldo's team just because (rooting against Real next year will be even more fun), or whether I just wanted to hear the end of the constant quintuple/quadruple chit-chat on the Guardian blogs from annoying United supporters, it's clear I went with what I wanted to see rather than what I would see. Arsenal didn't even arrive on the pitch until the 25th minute, by which time they really should have been three down if it weren't for Almunia.

In general, there was a massive gulf in quality between the sides, at least based on today's evidence. I don't know if time (6 days) and a change in location (from OT to the Emirates) is really going to change that. United simply looked a better team -- much better -- and I've rarely seen a game in the latter stages of the Champions League where one team simply doesn't seem to cut it.

Am I allowed to revisit my pick? Ah, nevermind.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dear Americans, Please Don't Make Nawaz Sharif Your Latest Friend -- For His Sake

Oh God, it's happening again.

It happened to Dear Leader Pervez Musharraf, an otherwise hugely popular president who, under the weight of his alliance with the U.S. and his panga with Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, had to leave office. It has happened to Asif Zardari, who people forget was quite popular about twelve months ago. It would have happened to his late wife had she managed to stay alive. And, make no mistake, it will happen to Nawaz Sharif.

There are rumblings within the U.S. that the Lion of Punjab, Champion of the Judiciary, Savior of Democracy, and Hero to the People is being considered a worthy ally in the fight against the Taliban. Two basic facts are pushing this line of thinking. First, the Zardari government has not managed to fight this war with any great efficacy. Second, the old "only Nixon could go to China" argument; the idea that what is key to making difficult choices is the fact that the person or institution making them cannot be outflanked or be considered traitors. Thus, it is no coincidence that the senior leadership of Pakistan's military and the BJP were the only actors that embarked on a meaningful peace process between India and Pakistan: both had street cred.

Now, I am sympathetic to both ideas, even if the logical conclusion of them ("Nawaz Sharif will be a worthy ally in the fight against the Taliban") is a little iffy to me. Be that as it may, I have one message to the U.S:


You would have thought that by now, the Americans would have learned that anyone they designate as an ally becomes instantly unpopular in Pakistan. Clearly, you would be wrong. Even if they are correct in thinking that Nawaz Sharif can fight this war, they should not say so. They should not send representatives to his Raiwind estate. They should not mention him in press conferences other than to castigate him, and they should stop leaking these ideas to the New York Times. Use email, webcams and teleconferences; do whatever you want behind closed doors, but dear Lord don't do this in public.

I promise you, Nawaz Sharif may be ridiculously popular right now, but there's a very easy way to change all that: have America tell the world -- and Pakistan -- that they like the dude.

Don't do it, America. I beg you, don't do it. Don't destroy the career of another Pakistani public figure.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We Meet Again: Barcelona, Chelsea Play For Champions League Final Spot; Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger Renew Acquaintances

Before I go any further, I beseech you to watch this video. With the volume up. And if you're not pumped up by the end of it, there's something wrong with you.

By the way, Messi was eighteen at the time. No, seriously.

So, this is it. Barcelona and Chelsea. Again. Some of the familiar faces are no longer present (Mourinho, Rijkaard, Ronaldinho), and some of them have switched sides (Deco, Gudjohnsen), but one thing hasn't changed: this is going to be a fucking blast.

Since I don't read Spanish or Catalan, I get all my football coverage in the English press. Doing so, I have come across a few myths recently. I would like to dispel these myths systematically here.

Myth number one: Barcelona's defence is weak

It is true that none of Barcelona's back four would challenge for a World XI, except for Dani Alves, who would do so for reasons other than his defence. It is also true that Victor Valdes is a clumsy keeper, whose positioning is always jittery.


Such an analysis misses a few key points. First, Barcelona take the approach that the best defence is attack. More specifically, Barcelona take the following approach to defence: you can't score if you don't have the ball. They regularly keep possession in excess of 55%, even against top teams (at times against Bayern and Lyon, those numbers reached 70%). When you do finally win the ball off them, they hound you until they get it back, throwing three players at the ball at all times, even (especially?) in the opponent's half.

Second, Pique is no joke. He is now easily Barca's best defender. What Man United were doing when they gave him up is beyond me. But no, you're right: Jonny Evans is an adequate replacement.

Third, Yaya Toure is effectively another defender, sitting deep and snuffing out any and all attacks. There are not many defensive midfielders who have done a better job than him this year; there are fewer still who can get an attack started both with an incisive pass or run.

And if all that isn't enough to convince you, please understand (a) that Barca have the best defensive record in La Liga, and (b) have the same goals-allowed-per-game average as Chelsea and Liverpool, those bastions of organization, in the Champions League,

Myth number two: Barcelona have not been challenged yet, either in Spain or in Europe

This one is especially funny. We heard it before the first run of Sevilla-Valencia-Real-Villareal games (consecutively) in December. That tidy run, featuring two at home and two away, finished with twelve points, and 11-1 on aggregate. Then we heard it before the first knockout stage in Europe. Of course, Lyon were held in France, before being destroyed in about thirty five minutes of orgasmic football at the Camp Nou. Then we were told Lyon did not represent a real test, and that the Bundesliga-leading (at the time) Bayern, who had slotted twelve goals past Sporting, would be more competitive. Well, they weren't saying that by half-time in the first leg, by which time it was 4-0 and really should have been six or seven.

Now we're being told that Bayern were overrated, and that La Liga is a weak league (based on Real losing to Liverpool). Such tortured and twisted logic is not worth considering. It is true that teams 1-4 are probably stronger in England than in Spain. But teams 5-20 are significantly stronger in Spain than in England, and Barca have brushed them all aside.

Dismiss our competition all you want. No skin off our back.

Myth number three: Eto'o, Messi, and Henry have inflated numbers because they are given too much space in La Liga

Laughable. Most of their goals actually come from being given too little space, rather than the opposite. Opponents try to get right up to them, leaving them vulnerable to quick bursts of pace and one-twos in and around the box with each other and guys like Xavi and Iniesta. I would venture to suggest that less than 5% of any of their goals come from outside the penalty area, so the question of being given too much space doesn't even come about.

Myth number four: The story of Barcelona's beautiful and dominant play is an old one, and has a familiar ending -- that of losing to an English side

It is true that Barcelona's last three defeats in the Champions League knockout stages have come to English teams (1-0 on aggregate to Man United in the semis last year, 2-2 on away goals to Liverpool the year before, and 5-4 to Chelsea in 2005). But the only people claiming that this is a similar Barcelona team are people who've not actually watched them play this year. Everything -- the pace of passing, the spacing, the understanding between players, the effort, the work rate, the chasing down of opposition defenders, the relentless wave-after-wave form of attack -- is different. Everything. This is not your elder brother's Barcelona team. It is your father's.

The dismissing of these myths does not necessarily mean that Barcelona will win. Far from it. But it is important to note how Chelsea might win. Chelsea will not win banking on the fact that Barca are overrated, or that their defence is terrible, or anything ludicrous like that. But here's how they can win:

1. Make it an alley-fight

A common mistake that teams have made this year against Barca is to sit back and hope to play on the counter. This is the most obvious and traditional of strategies against attacking opponents, but it fails miserably because you never actually get the ball playing this way. I'm not exaggerating -- you simply don't see the ball outside your own half this way.

The only teams that have given Barca trouble all year are ones that get in their face, that make it a physical contest, that are not afraid of picking up a multitude of yellows, and that try to rough up the midfield. Fortunately for Chelsea, they have the personnel to do just that, especially in Essien and Ballack. They make this a boxing or rugby match, and they become the favorites, because Barcelona, for all their versatility, cannot play that style.

2. Take Xavi out of the game

Messi is the best player in the world, Iniesta is the man most in form, Eto'o is the top goal-scorer in La Liga, Puyol is the heart and soul, Yaya Toure is the rock, but Xavi...Xavi is the fulcrum. It is actually quite astonishing to watch Barcelona play either without Xavi or with a Xavi who's been neutralized (for example, against Valencia today). They simply look a different side. If Hiddink has a brain, which he does, he will use Essien to man-mark Xavi a la Steven Gerrard at Anfield a few weeks ago, and hope the rest of the midfield can keep up with the rest. Xavi is that important.

3. Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces

Chelsea are very good in the air. Barca are quite terrible. The thought of Drogba attacking a cross with Valdes coming out to punch makes me shiver in my seat. In fact, I'm willing to wage that more than half of Chelsea's goals in this tie will come from free kicks or corners. And that's a pretty safe bet.

4. Hope the schedule catches up with Barcelona

Again, Barcelona are playing something like eight games in twenty days, all of them deathly crucial. Sandwiched in between the Chelsea games is a visit to the Bernabeu. Today, Barcelona visited the Mestalla and were quite lucky to walk away with a 2-2 draw with Valencia. Last week, they played twice in La Liga, both difficult games. At some point, these games are going to catch up with the squad, which doesn't have the depth of the English squads. Barca have a top-class XI, and two or three decent (not spectacular) replacements for their midfield. Bojan is the only guy who can adequately sub for anyone up front, and Guardiola simply doesn't trust him as much as Rijkaard did. And that's it. Barca effectively have a squad of 15, not 22 the way the English teams do.

I will say this though: while it is true that Barcelona have not played a team quite like Chelsea this year (physically dominant, set piece experts), it is also true that Chelsea have not played a team quite like Barcelona. You know how Champions League ties are meant to be played over 180 minutes? Well Barca's last two have basically been decided in 45 -- and if you don't believe me, you can ask Franck Ribery, who was quite literally reduced to tears after the Camp Nou demolition. At times, it looks like Barca simply switch a gear, and kill a game before the opponent even knows what's happened. And the quality of football they have played this year is something that Italian poets and Chinese philosophers will write pages upon pages about for posterity's sake.

My head wants to go with Chelsea, but my heart (and not just the Barca-fan part of my heart) says Barcelona. You just get the feeling watching them that they are a team of destiny; where things have fallen in place for one transient period; when the stars and planets have aligned, when Messi has remained fit, and Deco and Ronaldinho aren't around to wreak havoc in the dressing room; when Guardiola has worked magic beyond anyone's expectations in his first year; where each game has represented a tribute to the footballing gods, each an aesthetic and sporting symphony in its own right, each player partaking in this wonderful experience that we shall all remember for the rest of our lives, so that we can all tell our grandchildren: I was there when Messi and Xavi and Iniesta and Eto'o reduced opponents to tears and brought untold joy to the world, and indeed changed it in their own indomitable way; I was there when all excellence -- and not just the concept of excellence, but the very form of excellence, the way Plato meant the term -- found itself embodied in the Blaugrana; and perfection, that ever unattainable of goals for humankind, was just once flirted with, and brought within touching distance of us all, close enough so that we actually felt its presence, the same way Abelard and Heloise felt the other's presence, even if it was only in their imagination. You just get the feeling.

Prediction: Barcelona to go through 4-2 on aggregate.

Oh, yeah, the other one. Well, I'll leave it to our loyal Arse and United fans to fill up the comments section with their thoughts and prognostications. Without pretending to know a whole hell of a lot about this tie, I just have a few questions:

1. Exactly how many first-choice Arsenal players are actually going to be fit? Isn't, like, half their team injured or something?
2. Is that lazy-30-million-pound-waste-of-space actually going to play in a tie that will be as fast paced as this one will invariably be?
3. How long before Wenger and Ferguson make us all be thankful this is no longer 2003?
4. If United go out, is this the last time we see Ronaldo and Tevez in United colors in Europe?
5. Don't you feel like it's written in the stars that Arsenal and Barcelona advance to the final, and Henry scores in a 1-0 win?

Prediction: Arsenal to go through on away goals, after tie is drawn 3-3.

UPDATE: Some additional reading material for you guys, starting with this piece on the Arsenal-United rivalry:
Vieira called United his ­"favourite enemy". In his first season in ­England he witnessed Ian Wright having to be restrained from thumping Peter ­Schmeichel by police and a subsequent ding-dong in the tunnel. His most maddening flare-up occurred in 2003 when he was sent off at Old Trafford for aiming a retaliatory kick at Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had stamped on him. Despite the lack of contact the Dutchman writhed around until the red card was ­flourished. "Personally, I can't stand the sight of Van Nistelrooy," wrote Vieira in his auto­biography. "Everything about him annoys me. He's always ­complaining, whingeing. The man is a cheat and a coward. Everyone thinks he's a nice guy but in fact he's a son of a bitch."

Indeed. Meanwhile, a number of ejaculatory pieces on Barca from the English press. Sid Lowe, as always, is brilliant. This piece in the Times is an awesome profile of Lionel Messi. And here's a piece on how Chelsea might try to stop him.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Taliban Problem

You may forgive the world and Hillary Clinton -- I know: same thing, right? -- if they betray more than mere concern at the status quo in Pakistan. The threat from the Taliban and their various local surrogates is growing, not abating, and there seems to be little that state institutions can do anything about it. What follows is my best attempt to think through the problem, how we got here, and the key concerns as we try to get out of this predicament.

There have been three basic components of the growing Taliban problem: the political, the military, and the geopolitical.

The political problem has centered on a lack of willingness of Pakistan's political elite, as well as wide swathes of the public, to clearly and unequivocally identify the Taliban as a force to be opposed. This is for a number of reasons. First, the rampant anti-Americanism that runs through the country has made it easy for the Taliban to be conceived of as the lesser of two evils -- the enemy of my enemy, if you will. Second, given the failure of Pakistan's traditional governing structures -- the military on the one hand, and feudal and business-oriented politicians on the other -- to actually deal with the problems of the average Pakistani, there has been a growing sympathy to the idea of "Islamic democracy", whereby the state is run on religious principles. Since everything else has failed, the logic goes, why not give this a try? By this logic, only the methods, and not the goals, of the Taliban are truly problematic. Third, the Taliban are often looked upon as the "second-movers" in this war, whereby they merely responded to the aggression showed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and former President Musharraf in Waziristan. Notwithstanding the empirical questionability of each of these claims, they make for a firm foundation of countenancing the Taliban, if not outrightly supporting them.

The military problem centers on the fact that Pakistan's armed forces are not terribly well-equipped to fighting wars, especially counter-insurgency wars against a primarily Pashtun enemy. Pakistan's military has lost every war it has launched or, at the very least, it has not won any of them. More to the point, the military is not trained to fight counterinsurgency wars on its own soil. It is trained to fight the Indian military across the plains of Punjab. Finally, given the Pashtuns are the second-largest contingent in terms of ethnicity in the Pakistan military -- they are seriously overrepresented in this regard -- the questions of morale and willingness amongst the troops are serious ones, keeping in mind that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement. More generally, militaries which have been excessively involved in a country's politics are sometimes unable to perform their primary role due to their adopted power positions; the erosion of Argentina's military in the 1970s and 1980s is a good example.

Finally, the geopolitical problem centers on two key actors: the United States and India. Contrary to what some analysts believe, the Pakistan military establishment does not calibrate its actions to the expectation that the Americans will never leave the region. They function on the assumption that the Americans will leave, inevitably so, and soon. This assumption is born out of the partnership in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, when at the conclusion of the conflict, the U.S. left Pakistan to deal with the fallout of (a) an effectively open border with Afghanistan, and (b) many angry, unemployed, well-trained, and well-armed people who believed they were fighting Allah's war against godlessness. What this expectation of an American exit does is ensure that the military establishment in Pakistan may not wholeheartedly be behind the conflict against all elements of the Taliban. Why fight them today when they could come in handy tomorrow, once the Americans have left? This line of thinking is exacerbated by the perception of encirclement driven by India's close relationship to the Karzai government, and the growing strategic partnership between the two. Finally, America's actions themselves -- whether they be the drone attacks brought upon by the Bush/Mush partnership, and expanded considerably by the Obama/HaqqaniZardari partnership, or the promise of an even greater ground force by Obama in neighboring Afghanistan -- are effectively pushing the Taliban east, closer and closer to the heart of Pakistan.

These factors in conjunction have meant that the Taliban, far from being on the run, are spreading their tentacles further and further into the settled areas of Pakistan. Having moved in to Swat at the end of last year, they have now spread into Buner and are threatening the neighboring district of Shangla (reports suggest that they are evacuating Buner, though this may merely be a tactical ploy and not part of a longer-term strategic retreat). The Taliban now effectively control important districts within one hundred miles of Islamabad, the federal capital. They have made inroads in Punjab, the country's most populous and politically important province. And they are treading water in Karachi, the country's business, commercial, and financial hub, its port city, and its most (read: only) multi-ethnic city, where a substanstial Pashtun population resides (which would allow them ease in remaining undetected).

What do such developments mean for average Pakistanis and their prospects? First, they mean that local customs and leadership will be done away with -- and when I say the leadership is done away with, I really do mean it literally. Second, business and "usual" economic activity grinds to a halt; the only template we have, that of Afghanistan in the 1990s, does not hold a great deal of promise on this front. Third, women can expect to be subjected to even greater violations of basic human rights than they currently are deprived of in Pakistan. Fourth, all social and cultural freedoms -- such as those of speech, art, religion -- will be a thing of the past. It is important to note that these are not idle threats; they are based upon the basic facts upon the Taliban's stated worldview, and their past behavior. Everyone and their grandmother saw the infamous video of a teenaged girl being beaten in public by the Taliban, but that is the mere tip of the iceberg. By way of example, have you seen this photograph of a butcher being publicly beaten for (allegedly) not following correct Islamic law in cutting meat?

In short, if Pakistan wants to do anything about the Taliban, now might be a good time.

There are small but substantive encouraging signs that Pakistan and its public may finally be waking up to the threat. Coverage in the local media has lately been almost exclusively focused on the Taliban's bold ventures into Pakistan's territory, and their challenge to the writ of the state. Important figures, such as Fazlur Rehman (the leader of JUI, a religious party with a historical foothold in the areas currently overrun by the Taliban) and Nawaz Sharif (the country's most popular politician, a center-right figure who has hitherto shown little inclination to speak against the Taliban) have begun to publicly speak of the dangers that Pakistan faces. Both the head of the military and the Prime Minister have warned that the Taliban will not be allowed to indefinitely challenge the state.

More importantly -- and this is just a hunch, which will remain unconfirmed thanks to the absence of a Pakistani Nate Silver -- the tide of public opinion may finally be turning, from equivocation to outrage. I had a suspicion immediately after the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers last month that a turning point might have been reached but, truth be told, I was too afraid of saying so out of a fear of being wrong (again). Cricket was and is the one thing that unites this deeply divided country, and the Sri Lankans were the only international team that braved to tour the country amidst the spectre of security threats. Their targetting was an affront to all Pakistanis. The infamous girl-being-flogged video followed soon after, which were in turn followed by greater Taliban incisions in Pakistani territory. And I haven't even mentioned the as-yet unyielding campaign of violence against civilians and security forces. Given these events in the last eight weeks, it would not be surprising to find people more cognizant of the Taliban threat.

Despite these purported changes, however, the military -- as always in Pakistan -- holds the key. There can be no more coddling of Taliban elements for geostrategic reasons. India ceased to be a threat to Pakistan on May 28, 1998. Even if India is friendly with Afghanistan, and even if Pakistan's military establishment perceives encirclement, care must be taken to carefully evaluate the real threat, or lack thereof, that India poses to Pakistan's existential security. This is not 1914, and we are not Germany. Simply put, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal guarantees that India cannot overrun Pakistan, with or without an alliance with Afghanistan. The nuclear guarantee, unfortunately, does not extend to the prospect of the Taliban overrunning Pakistan. The military establishment must decide which is more likely.

Of course, this still ignores the very real possibility that even if Pakistan's military is willing to tackle the Taliban, it is not able to. And this is the scariest possibility of all. Consider, for instance, this editorial from the Daily Times the other day:
Finally, it is the army that has to step forward and face the Taliban. It has baulked so far because of adverse public opinion and an equally lethal media tilt. But now that the politicians are waking up to the danger and the media is increasingly disabused, the army must end its India-driven strategy and try to save Pakistan from becoming the caliphate of Al Qaeda.

Such a position assumes that public opinion and the vascillating political leadership is holding the military back (which is true). But it elides the possibility that the military simply cannot do the job. Recall that from 2004 to 2006, the military under Musharraf went into Waziristan and came out with its tail between its legs. What makes us so sure that Swat, Malakand, and (gulp) Punjab will be so different?

Pakistanis of all stripes -- from the media to the public, from the political leadership to the military -- must unite in the face of this threat. It is time for action, not words. It is clear that concessions and negotiations do not work the Taliban. They are not reliable partners, and they have made a living on reneging on every single agreement they have made with the government (whether it be Musharraf's or Zardari's). Fortunately, they may just have overplayed their hand in recent weeks, and done the hard job of uniting Pakistanis for us. It is now up to the institutions of the state -- the civilians in parliament, and the men entrusted to protect our territorial integrity -- to do their job, and save Pakistanis from this madness.

We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yet Another Imran Khan Post

Regular readers will be aware (probably because we have told them so many times) that none of the contributers hold Imran Khan - to put it mildly - in very high regard. Doing another post on Imran Khan may be a bit pointless but no matter how many times you beat this horse it never seems to die. My reaction to this article he wrote dispelling 'myths' about terrorism, militancy and Pakistan was similar to Imran's reaction whenever he was hit for a boundary: a red mist descended and I felt nothing but pure rage.

Lets take it point by point.

Since no Pakistani was involved in 9/11 and the CIA-trained Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, how does it concern us?

Imran means this as a rhetorical question as it is obvious to him that Pakistan was in no way involved in 9/11. To believe that you have to ignore that:

1) Ammar-ul-Baluchi, who was born in Pakistan, is Khalid Sheikh Muhammed's nephew and was his chief operative in Pakistan did not send $12,000 to the 9/11 hijackers.

2) Omar Sheikh, who was released from an Indian prison after terrorists hijacked a plane and was living in Islamabad at the time, did not send $100,000 to Mohammed Atta.

3) Pakistan was, after Afghanistan, the most important training ground for Islamic militants.

It is only when General Musharraf buckled under US pressure and sent our troops into Waziristan in late 2003-early 2004 that Pakistan became a war zone.

Why wasn't Pakistan a war zone before then? Might it be because before 9/11 the Pakistani government had to incentive to try and stop the same terrorists from jumping across the border and making Kashmir a war zone?

To fully understand Musharraf’s treachery against Pakistan, it is important to know that almost a 100,000 troops were sent into the tribal areas to target around 1000 suspected Al-Qaeda members

This is so disingenous that I refuse to believe that Imran Khan is not willingly lying here. While it might be true that there were only 1000 Al-Qaeda members in the tribal areas surely he knows that the troops were also fighting thousands of Taliban members. When it comes to dealing with those that are responsible for challenging the writ of the state and carrying out attacks throughout the country, the distinction between the two groups is entirely meaningless.

The most shameful aspect of the lie that this is our war is that the government keeps begging the US for more dollars stating that the war is costing the country more than the money it is receiving from the US. If it is our war, then fighting it should not be dependent on funds and material flowing from the US.

This is another bit of stupidity. Both the Pakistan and US governments want to defeat Islamic militants, just as both the Allies and the US wanted to defeat the Axis powers in the Second World War. Did taking money from the US mean that Britian was not at war with Germany?

In fact, the reason the Taliban succeeded where the Mujahideen warlords failed, was because they established the rule of law - the Afghans had had enough of the power struggle between the warlord factions that had destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure and killed over 100,000 people.

This is where I think Imran Khan skips stupidity and ignorance and moves straight through to evil. Even previously he has made clear his admiration for the way the Taliban were able to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan. When that rule of law includes massacres of Uzbek villagers, rape of women and execution of boys, there really isn't much to applaud.

The reason was that while there was rule of law (based on the traditional jirga system) in the tribal areas, the people of Swat had been deprived of easy access to justice ever since the traditional legal system premised on Qazi courts was replaced by Pakistani laws and judicial system, first introduced in 1974. The murder rate shot up from 10 per year in 1974 to almost 700 per year by 1977, when there was an uprising against the Pakistani justice system.

Later in the article, Imran Khan comes out in favour of the jirga system, who certainly provide speedy justice - at least to those who want to marry minor girls and bury women alive. He might want to explain why he thought it was so important that the rest of Pakistan have the "Pakistani laws and judicial sytem" that are guarantueed by our constitution that he boycotted the last elections because we weren't getting them. Yet he doesn't believe that the tribal areas and Swat should come under this system.

Myth No. 4: That the next terrorist attack on the US will come from the tribal areas.

First, there is an assumption, based purely on conjecture, that the Al Qaeda leadership is in the tribal areas. In fact, this leadership could well be in the 70 % of Afghan territory that the Taliban control. More importantly, given the growing radicalisation of the educated Muslim youth - in major part because of the continuing US partiality towards Israeli occupation of Palestinian land - why can it not follow that the next terrorist attack on the US could come either from the Middle East or from the marginalised and radicalised Muslims of Europe, motivated by perceived injustices to Islam and the Muslim World.

Imran is arguing with a straw man here. No one is saying that it is 100% certain that the next attack on the US will come from the tribal areas. What they are saying is that is by far the most likely to originate from here given the sheer number of militants in this area, the relative free hand they have in operating there and the sanctuary it affords them. And even if the next attack is carried out by Muslims from Europe there is an excellent chance that they will have recieved training in Pakistan, as many of the 7/7 attackers did.

If Talibanisation is growing in Pakistan because of the covert support of ISI in the tribal areas, then surely the growing Taliban control over Afghanistan (70 % of the territory) must be with NATO’s complicity?

This again is dishonesty masked as stupidity. The ISI has a long relationship with these groups, going back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continuing through the 1990s when they were used as an instrument of the government's Kashmir policy. Now, before you feel the need to point out that the US supported militants in the 1980s, keep in mind that the US no longer has any reason, both ideological and political, to support Islamic militants while the ISI still has both.

Ideas should be fought with counter ideas and dialogue, not guns.

This may be the most ridiculous statement ever uttered by Imran Khan. Advice that should be given to the militants is instead proferred to the government. The chutzpah of it is too much to bear. Couldn't he tell his Taliban pals that they should go about promoting their idelogy by convincing us of its merits rather than advertising it through suicide bombings, beheadings and floggings?

Links For Thursday

Bloody hell, there's a bunch of links backed up. Settle back and prepare to procrastinate.

Hey, Pakistan's playing cricket again! And we actually won! Here's Osman's first line on our shaky run-chase:
It really didn't matter that Pakistan chased down their target tonight with all the assurance of a one-legged man roller-skating in quicksand with his hands tied behind his back.

I've subscribed to the feed for the series, but the games start at something like five in the morning for me, so I don't know why I bothered paying.

Speaking of cricket, what do you get when you combine Brian Lara and Barack Obama? My hero-worship sensors exploding due to overheating, that's what. (Courtesy Rishad)

Dear crazy right-wingers who're losing their shit because Obama shook Chavez's hand: settle down.

Here's some bad journalism on the seedy underbelly of Dubai (courtesy Sameer). And here's some worse journalism masquerading as a retort.

Glenn Greenwald, funny man.

Something about Indian socialist politicians and using donkeys as a mode of transportation (courtesy Nikhil). Make sure to read the last sentence.

Without endorsing all of the ideas encapsulated therein, this is a great piece from Mosharraf. If you're looking for some optimism, he'll give you some.

A couple of pieces on the recently released torture memos and the fallout. Here's one from Andrew Sullivan and here's one from Hilzoy.

A really chilling post from Juan Cole on some goings-on in the West Bank -- the putatively Palestinian bit of it.

Lindsey has a hilarious post on the things people say at the University of Chicago.

Speaking of higher education, Freakonomics tackles the causes of the astronomical rise in the cost of going to college in the U.S.

The Rethink Afghanistan people have released the third part of their documentary. Here's the trailer.

And finally, Pep Guardiola is bringing the hammer down on Barcelona, not allowing them to watch the Barcelona Open, where famous Real Madrid fan Rafa Nadal is the star attraction. It's amazing the extent to which the legacies of Ronaldinho and Deco have forced Pep to basically treat the team like schoolkids. No public appearances for 48 hours before any game? A bit draconian, no?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Taliban In Karachi

I have always viewed the 'Taliban in Karachi' stories with a great deal of cynicism. I still feel that the MQM is using them as political cover to strengthen their base - I'm not saying the threat to parts of Pakistan from the Taliban isn't real, but that Karachi isn't one of those places. But perhaps I've been unfair in the past because I can no longer deny that there is some truth to these stories.

I just finished a conversation with a peon Jawaid at the office who had come to ask us (we were having a partners meeting) if we had any contacts in the MQM and the media. Jawaid is a Christian and lives in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in Surjani Town and apparently last night a few armed, Pashtun men broke into their small local church, vandalised it and chalked Quranic text on the walls. They then informed the people of the area that they had thirty days to convert to Islam.

This is not the first incident of its kind that I've heard of, but the first where a direct witness has come forth.

A couple of weeks ago my brother told me that his former math teacher, Sir Victor, and his entire family suddenly left the country and sought asylum in Australia (or Canada, I can't remember) after armed men gave them three options by armed men: convert, leave or die. Sir Victor's family had lived in Pakistan since before partition, they've all left.

Jawaid is a poor man and lives in a poor neighbourhood in Surjani Town. Victor wasn't a poor man (taught at a top Karachi school, gave tuitions) and lived in a middle class neighbourhood in Saddar. Victor could leave. Javaid can't.


Dawn and The News report the same incident today (can't find the Dawn link on their website), however as per their reports violence erupted after Taliban Zindabad had been chalked on the church's outer wall. There was no mention of the church being ransacked or the area residents being told to convert. So, maybe Jawaid was exaggerating, or maybe the papers are playing it safe. No matter though, there's no denying that there's added pressure on minorities.

Why Can't Nawaz Sharif Criticize The Taliban In The Pakistani Press?

Via this Daily Times report, I saw this interview of Nawaz Sharif in USA Today. Here's what he had to say:
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan's top opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, expressed concern Monday about a controversial peace deal with Islamist militants but backed off calls he made last month for a "revolution" to topple the government.

Unable to contain an insurgency through military force, Pakistan's government agreed last week to let Taliban militants impose sharia, or Islamic law, in the northern Swat Valley region. Sharif said militants there are trying to export their particularly harsh version of sharia, in which the hands of thieves are amputated, women are forbidden from going outside, and adulterers are stoned to death.

"How do we deal with the situation in Swat?" Sharif asked in an hour-long interview with USA TODAY at his palatial home on the outskirts of this city. "They are now threatening to get out of Swat and take other areas into their custody. So we've got to avoid that situation."

I wholeheartedly agree. Thing is, though, that we never see Mr. Sharif actually say anything like this in the local press, in Urdu, to a mass audience. Why not?

Look, I really don't want to be interpreted as picking on Nawaz Sharif. The reason why I want him to act a certain way is because I realize how important and how popular he is. He is very much a stakeholder in the politics of Pakistan -- unlike Mr. Imran "one seat in three elections" Khan.

Nawaz Sharif is very important to the future of Pakistan. His opinions matter, because he matters -- to tens of millions of people. So why can't he do the responsible thing and denounce the Taliban, their goals, and their methods in a forum where every Pakistani will hear him loud and clear?

The French Will Protest Anything

Thanks to reader Asad for sending this picture along:

Most non-French speakers will be able to deduce the words on the banner, but for those who can't, it says: "Against the new version of Facebook". Yes, Facebook is the new ancien regime. Well played, Frenchies. Well played.

I have one question, and I mean this in all seriousness: don't they have anything better to do? Like, you know, their jobs? Or maybe logging on to Facebook?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Photograph of the Day

From: Islamabad Metblogs

Health Minister Ijaz Ahmed Jakhrani being waited on by a flunky with a paper fun. Metblogs thinks its because of loadshedding. I'm guessing he's on a power trip and has a uniform fetish.

Courtesy: Metblogs says its either from Daily Times or Aajkal but I haven't been able to find it.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed Argues Completely Illogically, Rewrites History, Badly Needs To Be Introduced To Shift+F7

This is too easy, but I'm going to do it anyway: picking on Qazi Hussain Ahmed's latest op-ed in The News, titled "Islamisation: cure of all evils". Let's get started.

First, our dear old sage argues that in order to secure Pakistan against a movement that aims to introduce strict Islamic law in the country, we should introduce strict Islamic law in the country.
Complete Islamisation of Pakistan has been the genuine and long-standing demand of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis. Not only that, it is also the appropriate answer to the lurking fears of Talibanisation, growing rapidly with every passing day, as a natural response to the suppression of this public demand at the state level.

Then, he gets a number of basic facts wrong about the country's political history.
Those who believe that Pakistan can be secularised by separating the Islamic system from its state are suffering from a serious fallacy. What they conveniently ignore in their bias against Islamic codes is that Islamisation of the country is not just the demand of what they call some extremists but is the strong desire of an overwhelming majority of the people, millions of whom are ready to sacrifice their lives to achieve this objective, like those who laid down their lives in the Pakistan Movement.

That's curious, because one would imagine that if Islamization of the country was a "strong desire of an overwhelming majority of the people, millions of whom are ready to sacrifice their lives to achieve this objective", then, you know, they might have actually voted for political parties espousing these objectives every now and then. The evidence, however, seems to suggest that Islamic parties traditionally struggle to gain more than 10% of the vote, at best. Maybe Qazi saab subscribes to good ol' "silent majority" rule of politics, except in this case, they're so silent that you have to have overdosed on LSD to hear them.

Next, Qazi saab tells us the whys and hows of Pakistan's creation...
The entire debate that Islam should not be the system of governance in the country was the thinking paradigm of those who are mental slaves to the western culture and averse to the Islamic ideology. This is an undeniable fact that Muslims from the length and breadth of the subcontinent strove for the creation of Pakistan and rendered matchless sacrifices in human history.

...without being explicit about the fact that the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami actually opposed the creation of Pakistan. No worries though; he can't be expected to be a great thinker and have all his facts straight.

Finally, I would advise the dear Qazi saab to hire a better translator -- or, at the very least, hire someone who can use a thesaurus. The word "slave", or its variants, were used six times; "master" and its variants seven; and "elite" or "establishment" four times. Dude, it's shift+F7. Not that complicated.

Shouldn't stop you guys from reading ir though. In fact, I highly encourage you to do so. Who doesn't need a good laugh with their morning tea?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Top Ten Non-Fiction Books (Non-Academic)

As promised, I am running through three top ten lists: my favorite academic books, my favorite non-fiction books from outside academia, and my favorite fiction books. Yesterday, I went through my favorite academic books; you can click here to see that list. For the fiction list, you will have to wait a day or two.

Anyways, what follows is an unranked list of the best non-fiction non-academic books.

1. Bill Buford, Among the Thugs

The greatest book I have ever read. No, seriously. I blogged about this brilliant book a few months ago, but the short and sweet story is: this book is about the way crowds and mobs work, about football hooligans and weekends in England and Italy, and casual violence -- all woven together in arresting and captivating writing. If you don't follow my advice this one time, if you don't buy or borrow this book from your local library, if you don't wolf it down the way Harold and Kumar do those burgers at White Castle, then you are dead to me, and you should stop reading this blog. Seriously.

2. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs And Steel

A history of everything. Rather, an explanation of everything -- using basic facts about population settlement and geography as the tools to do so. Awe-inspiring in the breadth of human history covered.

3. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

Is there a better writer alive than Gladwell? If there is, I am unaware of their existence. This was Gladwell's best book, at least in my mind, because it didn't straw-man arguments as much as Outliers (does anyone actually believe success is merely the result of talent?) and more engaging than The Tipping Point (which tended to menader at times). And the chapter on the Bronx shooting of Amadou Diallo? Genius. Absolute genius.

4. Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day

Venkatesh was a sociology PhD student here at U of C, and spent his years here researching the gangs on the South Side. While he has a bunch of academic stuff published on his time living side-by-side with gangs in housing projects, this book is written for a more pop-type audience. It's super interesting, and contains information and anecdotes you really won't be able to find anywhere else. FYI, Venkatesh is now a professor of sociology at Columbia. And Freakonomics blog readers will recognize him as a regular contributor there.

5. David Halberstam, Playing for Keeps

The best book I've ever read on Michael Jordan. The level of research and the number of people interviewed is off the charts -- even Michael's roommates from North Carolina get their moment in the sun.

The book basically tells the story of Michael's life until his second retirement (1999), and the Chicago Bulls' rise from also-ran to dynasty. It's got some really fun anecdotes and is really well written. The only drawback is that it isn't edited particluarly well -- there are a couple of things said again and again -- but that doesn't take away too much from the quality of the book.

6. Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

Ok, I may be stretching the definition of "non-fiction" here, but whatever, it's my list. Colbert is, well, Colbert. If you enjoy his show, or his ballsy speech at the White House correspondents dinner a couple of years ago, then you will love his book. I understand Colbert is not for everyone, but I don't think I've ever laughed this hard reading a book.

7. Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I'm just going to copy and paste what I wrote about this book a year or so ago:

Truss is a grammar-phile. More accurately, she's a those-who-fuck-up-grammar-phobe. In a hilarious treatise on the state of grammar in today's world, Truss takes aim at all those who write incorrect or badly-written sentences. It's not just a railing against bad writing, however. Truss also describes in great detail the exact ways in which commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks should be used.

You should buy/read this book if: you want to laugh for three straight hours, or you're an adult and your grammar is terrible and you need help (ahem, AKS. Ahem).

You should not buy/read this book if: you don't think grammar is all that big a deal, or if you have no sense of humor.

8. Steve Waugh, Out of My Comfort Zone

The best sports autobiography I've ever read. The level of detail and care with which the book mirrors the level of detail and care Waugh took with his own career. It really is quite striking -- especially coming from the laissez-faire culture of preparation that all Pakistani cricket fans are used to -- how dedicated and hard-working this guy was. The determination to get better every single day may be a cliche, but for Steve Waugh, it was a mission statement. And the book has some great stories too. If you're a cricket fan, you have to read this book, if only to see how pathetic your favorite team/player looks when put up against Steve Waugh and his work ethic.

9. Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm

Absolutely and positively the best book I've ever read on Pakistan, its politics, and its history. The best thing about the book is how it appeals to different sorts of people: both those trying to learn something about the country for the first time, as well as area specialists and experts, can learn a great deal from this book. It's written by a former Pakistan correspondent for the BBC, and consequently is written as a long journalistic account than anything else. And its subject-by-subject breakdown is also useful more so than most writers' chronological accounts.

10. Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai

A gripping and powerful account by a woman caught up in China's cultural revolution in the 60s and 70s. Reading personal stories of people facing tyranny and torture in the face is always awe-inspiring to me. One thing that sticks out is the extent to which these people can be completely stoic and unyielding in such circumstances (Survival in Auschwitz is similar in this regard). Anyways, this particular book is about Nien's imprisonment and daily battle with Mao's Red Guards, the torture, hunger and pain she underwent on a daily basis, and how she refused to lose. It almost feels fictional at times -- which I suppose is testament to her struggle, and her courage in conquering it.