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Thinking Density Differently

What if density is not the evil it is often cited to be? Cities by their very nature are the epitome of human interactions and innovations; and in doing so, they have made a remarkable contribution to improving the state of our lives and communities. No other platform enables a critical mass of humans to interact, work and live in close proximity, and to generate innovation, creation and collaboration on a large scale as cities do. For all these to function properly, density is a key factor.

George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist directed the famous Grant Study[1][2] from 1972 to 2004 to understand the secrets to happiness and a fulfilling life. The study shows that embracing social connections helps us live longer, and be happier. It concluded that the core of human happiness lies in these interactions and relationships. The question is: How do we enter this world of interactions? How do we meet people beyond our family and neighbours?

It is cities that offer us the opportunity to belong to several communities at one time. These opportunities often come randomly and serendipitously. Sometimes they also arise through organised formality which is perhaps the beauty of large formal groups or fraternities. Whether random or formal, accidental or organized, all these are very much conditions of the urban phenomenon. 

It is often argued that a fast paced urban lifestyle is killing human interactions. The opposite also might be true, as we in one way or another belong to some large fraternities, perhaps an alumni group, club, neighborhood groups, pubs, coffee shops, fairs, festivals, or even international networks of organised communities. Communities that gather, exchange group messages virtually and physically, take up new initiatives, organise charity events, or put up protests. We might be hardly in close relationship with, for instance, two or three people of these large groups, but the possibility that these fraternities offer is important. A little event, a get-together, a picnic, an excursion, or a workshop possibly can add new close relationships with almost completely random people whom we would have otherwise never met. We have to agree that such modes of connections and relationships are made possible by the urban lifestyles that are offered and practiced in cities. Eventually this contributes to our overall happiness and well being, and arguably, happiness is what we are all pursuing. 

Cities offer the greatest opportunities of public interactions, Photo: Mohammad Tauheed

Population density plays a big role in the size, nature and diversity of these fraternities. The sheer number of random possible encounters at a coffee shop in Dhaka is incomparable to a small town in Northern Ontario, and it is because of the density of the place. Often people talk about the charm of knowing everyone in a town or neighbourhood. We fantasise the past for this, however, in the long run, it may not assure happiness! A small town of tightly woven communities offers little individual freedom, and much less random encounters which could lead to new meaningful relationships.

The idea of going back to the isolation of nature sounds magical, but it miserably fails when it comes to human interactions. You can fancy a vacation in a remote island for a few weeks, but settling there would not necessarily make you happier. There is also a good chance that it wouldn’t help the environment either. Every new settlement on every new island in history alters the ecosystems forever, often bringing development which results in extensive damage. Commonly-known examples include Madagascar[3][4] and Australia[5] where human settlement wiped out about 90% of the big mammals of both these islands in just a few years of humans settling in. 

For many of us, cities are the future, and they can be good for the environment and us, if we know how to design them well. How? Concentrate, form tightly knitted diverse clusters, avoid sprawls, and think about how to foster more and more of this uniquely urban phenomenon, the new fraternities.

Density makes possible public transportation, mobile networks, Internet, water and sanitation facilities, and human interactions to be more efficient. Never before did we know how dense is unbearably dense, until Dhaka happened. This city is the fastest growing, densest city on earth. Interestingly enough, Dhaka is not sprawling that fast as it is ‘growing’; it is rather growing in density, and not quite in physical size. Such a condition brings in some inherent problems which are possible to be solved. 

Photo: Mohammad Tauheed

We need to stop pandering to the idea of decentralisation and reduction of density as a solution to all our problems. We have to give density a chance. Embrace it for a few more decades, see where it takes us. We never knew mobile phone service can be this dirt cheap, serving this huge number people using the same infrastructure. We didn’t know that it is possible to supply water to fifteen million inhabitants using only about 2000 km long pipelines charging only 6.6 Taka ($0.08 USD) per cubic meter (1000 litres)[6]. Dhaka WASA has about 300,000 domestic and commercial connections. This may seem low, but in most of the areas of Dhaka, each connection may serve up to 1,000 households. The magic behind this, is density. If keeping our ‘footprint’ small on the planet is a concern, why don’t we take the idea literally, and pack ourselves in places that is as dense as the future technology allows us to be? Leave our rainforests and oceans to flourish and regenerate, and function as the lungs that our sick planet needs, and be the spaces that animals need. In that way, the natural conditions will be there when we need them too.

The radical New York urbanist Michael Sorkin in a conversation at Bengal Institute once said: “To cross the street in Dhaka is kind of a constant negotiation, as the traffic is slow, it is somewhat democratic and autonomous, it simply just works, without much of modernist controlled or rigorously zoned techniques. Every means of movement is isolated in the modern western cities. I find it problematic, they need to negotiate organically and find ways.” Renowned urban designer Gary Hack made the point quoting a model designed by the famed Dutch architecture practice BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), that in near future we do not have to segregate and control the vehicles and pedestrians anymore; autonomous vehicles can simply find their ways automatically, in a pseudo-organic fashion. That would bring back the belongingness and ownership of the city to its citizens. We want to walk, and we want to walk freely, everywhere. Moreover in a highly dense mixture of urban clusters, we all want to walk to work, shop, play, learn and live. We want to walk keeping our heads high, and not looking for zebra crossings or pedestrian signals. As pedestrians, we set our own rules of walking about. Let the vehicles find their ways on their own, make them intelligent enough to leave us alone freely enjoying a walk. That’s the future city we would like to head to.

Photo: Mohammad Tauheed

Half of the world’s population is now living in cities. Many fear mongering “think-tankers’ are busy making headlines describing this as our biggest problem. We should rather be focusing on creating densely efficient yet green and happy urban clusters. Living, working, production and interaction should happen within a few walkable blocks of cities. The cost of rent in the city-center versus commuting cost from the periphery is a constant battle. We should focus more into creating autonomous, dense clusters of various mixes, rather than a centralised CBD and far away residential areas. We also have to be careful about the potential danger of so-called ‘smart cities’ with a centralised brain, that has the possibility of affecting the diversity and autonomy of communities. Everyone working in a neighbourhood must be able to walk to work, and live in the neighbourhood; here ‘everyone’ means everyone, including the domestic helps and janitors for example, otherwise it would be a failed neighbourhood. These clusters should have access to their own funds or means of raising its own operating capital by crowdsourcing, with a ‘people first’ attitude.

Invoking the ‘S’ word here, if we want a sustainable and happy world, we need to foster more interconnected large fraternities that offer random and diverse personal connections, in densely populated autonomous urban clusters. With, of course, a focus on continuous social and technical innovations. We need to start believing in cities. We have to embrace their growth and density, they are not the culprits, rather the key to improving the state of our lives. We have to look into the conundrum of density for Dhaka, and find the virtues in it. 

References:

  1. Mineo, Liz. “Over Nearly 80 Years, Harvard Study Has Been Showing How to Live a Healthy and Happy Life.” Harvard Gazette. April 11, 2017. Accessed 2018. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.
  2. Waldinger, Robert. TED: Ideas worth Spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness.
  3. Merz, Thomas. “Creating PDF Files.” Web Publishing with Acrobat/PDF, 1998, 35-56. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-72032-1_4.
  4. Allnutt, Thomas F., Simon Ferrier, Glenn Manion, George V. N. Powell, Taylor H. Ricketts, Brian L. Fisher, Grady J. Harper, Michael E. Irwin, Claire Kremen, David C. Lees, Timothy A. Pearce, and Jean‐Noël Labat. “A Method for Quantifying Biodiversity Loss and Its Application to a 50‐year Record of Deforestation across Madagascar.” Freshwater Biology. August 22, 2008. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00027.x.
  5. Clarkson, Chris, Zenobia Jacobs, Ben Marwick, Richard Fullagar, Lynley Wallis, Mike Smith, Richard G. Roberts, Elspeth Hayes, Kelsey Lowe, Xavier Carah, S. Anna Florin, Jessica McNeil, Delyth Cox, Lee J. Arnold, Quan Hua, Jillian Huntley, Helen E. A. Brand, Tiina Manne, Andrew Fairbairn, James Shulmeister, Lindsey Lyle, Makiah Salinas, Mara Page, Kate Connell, Gayoung Park, Kasih Norman, Tessa Murphy, and Colin Pardoe. “Human Occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 Years Ago.” Nature News. July 19, 2017. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature22968.
  6. Khan, Taqsem A. “Http://ljournal.ru/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/a-2017-023.pdf.” Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority: Performance and Challenges, 2017. doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

This article is from the upcoming issue of VAS. Click here to see the previous issues.

We are already naked

We are already naked, to some of the tech giants. Now before you signup with another new service or install another new app on your phone that asks for a lot of unreasonable access, you must think twice, before you undo your pants to yet another company.

There are two approaches for amateurs for hiding their asses across online ecosystems.

1.You sell yourself to a maximum two tech companies and their ecosystems. Give them everything, drop your pants. And never use these services to login to other websites.

Personally I somewhat trust two companies, Google and Apple. I’m naked to them. And I’ve learned to accept it, for the ease and services they provide. But I am very careful about giving access to certain things to any other service. Those are my contacts book, my live-location, shopping and search habits.

I still hide two things from Google in particular. 1. my search habit, I always use incognito VPN enabled windows for searching, and I often avoid Google for searching altogether. I try to use DuckDuckGo (they suck) or Bing (they suck a little less). When I must use Google, I take precautions. 2. My voice. I recently have completely shut down microphone access to all Google owned services. I don’t trust Google with my voice.

2Divide and rule: Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. If you are giving away your location to one company, don’t give them your voice. If you are giving away your camera and photos to one, don’t give the same one your location. So that there is always less than enough meta information and data points about you, if one system is compromised. Similarly, when you are communicating individual set of sensitive information, split the communication, i.e: send the username via iMessage and give the password over a phone call or a Signal text, without giving much context to any of the individual communications.

Bluetooth’s uncomfortable position and two simple questions

Bluetooth vs USB DongleSome technology just won’t pick up! Bluetooth being one of the prime examples. It is there, with an uncomfortably inept attitude in the technology world. Bluetooth is not dying anytime soon, it is not picking up the momentum either, for quite a long time, almost ever since its birth in 1994 at Ericsson.

Without going into the big discussion of Bluetooth ecosystem and where is it heading; two annoying questions that bug me more than anything else about this matter are:

1. Why do we still have 2.4Ghz USB dongles to connect mouse, keyboards and other peripherals? I’d really like someone to enlighten me about this! There is Bluetooth for decades, then who came up with this ridiculous idea of the USB dongles for connecting ‘wireless’ peripherals? Why can’t they simply connect over Bluetooth? Why do I have to waste a valuable USB port for a task that could have been done without any physical object pushed through my computer’s ports?

The Bluetooth SIG Adopter Membership is free, you don’t have to pay a price to use Bluetooth logo or branding or declaring your product as a Bluetooth device. Then why on earth the 2.4 Ghz dongles were ever invented?

2. Why don’t the desktop boards come with a Bluetooth chip built in?Desktop boards have no issue of space per se, they have plenty of real-estate for adding additional cards, chips, ports etc. Still, none of the typical desktop motherboards come with any wireless network chips built-in! I always wondered why, and couldn’t find any answer. It takes less than 0.25 square-inch space to install a Bluetooth chip, and also a WiFi chip, still they won’t. You will have to buy USB dongles for these wireless protocols to use on clone desktop machines. The height of absurdity that won’t just die.

If you have any insight or answers about these please add those in the comments! Thank you 🙂

Can artificial intelligence correctly profile humans?

If yes, then what is it based on? What are the parameters?

I read faces. I profile based on facial expression, and appearance. And I am almost always correct. I do not know how do I do it, I do not know what’s the rational a technique. This is somewhat the pure work of intuition.

If it would have been done by an artificial intelligence then could it be a work of intuition only? Or would it have to be based on a set of parameters? Is my intuition also a set of parameters? How intuitive really my intuition is? 🤔

Why is the concept of ‘culture’ is problematic

The existence and use of the word ‘culture’ has a fundamental problem. It is inherently selfish and the brewing ground of stereotypes.

The word culture, quickly makes us self-conscious, defensive and proud. We jump into defining the boundaries of it and desperately try to promote its uniqueness.

I want to question the fundamental necessity of it. Why do we at all need to define it, promote it, push it? Isn’t this whole concept equally problematic as nationalism?

I am a Bengali. And I am proud of it. And because of the beauty of Bengali ‘culture’ of openness and pluralism, ironically, I also deny participating in any blatant marketing of it. I carefully judge the limits of celebrating a culture and pushing it to undermine others.

———

23rd April, 2018; 10:15

Then suddenly while reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

”Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host.

In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them.”

Is Donald Trump an accident or a planned accident?

Trump is an unfortunate accident, no matter what. But the question is whether it was a planned accident or it just happened and slipped through the cracks of democracy?

The first few chapters of Fire and Fury indicates that the campaign didn’t even want to win the election! They were genuinely surprised by the win and caught off guard, and completely dumb founded about how to handle the preaidency. If that’s the case, then I’d rather believe in what Bannon said about the Russian connection “It’s just a conspiracy theory. The Trump team wasn’t capable of conspiring about anything.”

They were just a herd of monekeys trying to buy fame out of a hastily run political campaign and disrupt the scene. ‘Accidentally’ they won.

Now, this accident is problematic, the existence of a character like Donald Trump doesn’t disturb me, but the fact that people voted for him and he became the POTUS is the scary problem there! This fact scares me that so many people were there to support this buffoon. That’s the single most depressing and scary part of this whole story.

If it was an accident then I would feel a little comfortable. But there are no accidents, as Master Oogway said 🤔

Why the phrase “search engine optimization” annoys me

Search Engine Optimisation, Google
Image: Shamelessly stolen from a search engine result without citing a source 🙄

The whole idea of search engine optimization is fundamentally lame. As the moral of the story is, search engines are still stupid and illiterate. They need to grow up, and they need to learn how to aggregate the content that I put up on the web the way I want, not the other way around. If they are not crawling my site and not understanding what I have put up, then it is their problem, their loss 🙄.

If my contents are worthy enough, then people will find it no matter what. And the search engines will eventually learn how to find it. If the don’t, then they will die. And that’s why my only focus is creating worthy contents, and not pampering the search engines. I don’t want to waste my time there.

It is all about discipline, it is about the discipline of putting the right text in right order, and optimising the images for better viewing, fast loading, I am up for doing all those just because that’s the right thing to do. But I am not going to listen to all the stupid advises about key words and modifying a writing based on crawlers’ taste. I write for humans. And humans are prioritised in my work rather than the search engine bots.

You better find me, or number your days. It is as simple as that. And true for anyone and any content and business.

A day with the curators and artists of Dhaka Art Summit

Fine Arts Department, Dhaka University, Muzharul Islam

Dhaka Art Summit is a rare festival of artists and curators from all over the world. The phrase ‘all over the world’ is not an exaggeration here! A group of around 60 artists and curators signed up for a tour of architecture by Muzharul Islam in Dhaka. Two of his masterpieces were in the list of places, the Department of Fine Arts and the Central Library of Dhaka University.

The Fine Arts building doesn’t need any selling, people immediately fall in love the moment they walk in here. Three bus full of guests showed up by 09:30 in the late winter morning at Charukala. The tour was originally supposed to be guided by Nurur Rahman Khan. Muhtadin Iqbal, Sujaul Islam, Farhana Nizam Chowhdhury and me had to take over the role as NRK had to suddenly travel to India.

I explained the group how radical it was when Muzharul Islam decided to design the Charukala building back in 1952. If you look around the works of that time of the world, very few architects were actually taking on the mission of modernism this way. This building was capable enough to compete with any work of that time and still today. With the help of the founder of the Institute Zainul Abedin, Muzharul Islam got the opportunity of freedom of thinking. Mr. Islam got this commission right after coming back from Oregon, and it was his first built project. Eventually it was also the first modern building of South Asia.

The entry to the building disappears in the space, there is no defined entry per se! You were walking in the street, you crossed a threshold and suddenly you get inside the premises! This subtlety of arrival at a place is uncanny, it gives me a feeling as if the moment I embarked on the plinth the architect gave a smirk smile from somewhere, saying “see what I just did there!” Damn you Mr. Islam!

Then it all flows around like liquid space. With gentle, tricky thresholds between public, academic and administrative spaces. Few subtle elements like the perforated jali walls and the spectacular stair, those two walls and the stair gives you an outsider an invisible instruction that this is your comfortable limit, you may not go beyond this area just like that. The fluid space flows around the curve walls of the galleries within the rectilinear flat-plate structure like a magic.

Then the academic spaces begin, the climatically oriented and intricately crafted elements of design! Look at those brick walls and the wooden louvers! He custom-made those bricks just for this building and closely supervised the masonry works throughout the project. The whole idea of pavilion-like structure that perfectly fits into tropical climate is visible all around. You keep going, then suddenly the building turns into an arc, embracing a pre-existing pond. The corridor takes a slight turn towards North, and abruptly ends at the walkway around the pond, with a stark beauty and surprise.

When he was asked how did he come up with this design, his answer was simple, he said that, he just followed the landscape. The site was like a garden full of large trees. His idea was to flow the fluid spaces in and around the trees without cutting any one of them, then embrace the pond. Unlike other projects where people design the landscape around the building after the design, here the landscape was already there, and he designed a building around it.

I showed one of my favorite spots in the compound, the ‘Sculpture pond,’ some curators took refuge there.

We all went to the Central Library of Dhaka University. Which originally was designed as the main public library for Dhaka City. Later the University acquired it as their own. And they have ruined it. This beautiful peace of architecture is now a place of disgust. Extremely poorly maintained, notoriously dirty with no respect to design and art, they have managed to kill everything that was beautiful about this building. For architecture enthusiasts, I’d say, don’t go there to see anything, if you go, then go there to protest. Such utter disappointment from Dhaka University management! Shame on them!

Penelope Seidler, Prajna Desai, Cara Manes, Jeanette Plaut, Jay Levenson Director of International Program and Martino Stierli the Chief Curator, Architecture and Design of MoMA wished to visit two more sites in Dhaka before going back to the hotel or the Summit. Martino’s interest was seeing the recently built mosque by Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, the Gulshan Society Mosque, and the Aga Khan Award winning project of Marina Tabassum, the Bait Ur Rouf mosque in the North of Dhaka. Along with that, they wanted to visit Bengal Institute and meet Kazi Khaleed Ashraf there. We all hopped on to the van I brought along with me with our driver Tamim. The route was ambitious, as both Bengal Institute and Marina Tabassum’s mosque are far away from the city.

Starting from Charukala towards Gulshan via Hatirjheel, we stopped at Holy Artisan Bakery for lunch. Holy Artisan relocated themselves at a small scale near the Gulshan-2 circle after the devastating incident in 2016. But they are still the best place to eat where I can blindly take any guest with confidence. Everybody loved Holey!

It was quick to reach the Mosque by Kashef. It’s a massive building in terms of being a mosque. Everybody was startled by the fact that it is multistoried and so big, vertically! Personally I am not a big fan of this project though.

The next architectural destination was Marina Tabassum’s mosque Bait Ur Rouf near Tongi. This is one of the project where I take anyone with absolute confidence that they will be blown. And it exactly happened that way. Everybody was stunned by the beauty of this little piece of architectural masterpiece in the middle of nowhere in a remote corner of Dhaka. This mosque is the answer to where modernism and religious structure should go. A perfect harmony of minimalist modernism with spirituality and local community. You have to see it to believe it.

প্রযুক্তিতে বাংলার দুরবস্থা

আমাদের দেশ এমনই ডিজিটাল যে আজ পর্যন্ত ম্যাক এবং আইফোনের জন্য নির্ঝঞ্জাট বাংলা লেখার কোন উপায় বের হলো না। কোন রকমে, ঠেকাঠুকা দিয়ে লেখা যায়। কোন উন্নতি নাই অ্যাপগুলোর। আইফোনে রিদমিক ভালো ছিল, আপডেটের অভাবে এখন অকেজো। ম্যাকের জন্য যে অভ্র তারও একই অবস্থা। আপডেট নাই, কিবোর্ডের নির্দিষ্ট বিন্যাসগুলো অপরিচিত, ব্যবহার করা দূরহ, আমি ফনেটিক ভালো পাইনা।

ম্যাক এবং আইফোনে সরাসরি বাংলা ব্যবহারের কিছু ব্যবস্থা আছে, কিন্তু সেগুলোর আদ্যপান্ত বোঝা মুশকিল, কিবোর্ডের নির্দিষ্ট বিন্যাসগুলো এলোমেলো। অন্য ভাষার তো কম্পিউটারের সম্পুর্ণ পরিচালনা পদ্ধতিই সে ভাষাতে পাওয়া যায়। যেমন ফরাসি উইন্ডোজ বা ফরাসি ম্যাক পুরোটাই ফরাসি, সেখানে কম্পিউটারের আপদমস্তক সেই ভাষাতেই, ব্রাউজারের ঠিকানা লেখার যায়গা ছাড়া আর কোথাও কোন ইংরেজি নাই একটুও। উইন্ডোজ বা ম্যাক এর মত জনপ্রিয় কম্পিউটারের পরিচালনা পদ্ধতি কেন সম্পুর্ণ বাংলায় নাই আজও? কেন আমাদেরকে এখনো বিজয় বা অভ্র বা এমনকোন ‘সফটওয়ারের’ দারস্থ হতে হবে বাংলা ব্যবহারের জন্য? এই দায় কি মাইক্রোসফট আর অ্যাপলের একার, না কি আমাদেরও?

ভাষার সম্ভারে, সাহিত্যে এবং ঐতিহ্যে বাংলা দুনিয়ার যে কোন প্রধান ভাষার সমকক্ষ। ভাষা ব্যবহারকারির জনসংখ্যার দিক দিয়ে পৃথিবীতে আমরা দুনিয়ায় ষষ্ঠ। কিন্তু প্রযুক্তি এবং ইন্টারনেটের মেইনস্ট্রিমে বাংলার অবস্থান জঘন্য। এই দায় আমাদের প্রযুক্তিবিদ এবং উদ্যোক্তাদের।

আমাদের বড়মুখওয়ালা ‘উদ্ভাবনী উদ্যোক্তাবৃন্দ’ মুখ ব্যতীত অন্যকিছু কি নড়াবেন একটু দয়া করে, অন্তত এই ভাষার মাসের উসিলায়? না কি ফেব্রুয়ারি এলে “বাংলা চাই” স্লোগান দিয়ে আইপুনে ইংরিজি টিপতে বসবেন আবার? বাংলা তো শুধু চেয়ে বসে থাকলে হবে না, পাছাটাও একটু নাড়াতে হবে।

The haze you are seeing today in Dhaka is not fog, it’s pollution smog

No the above ranking is not an average. It is the situation of a specific time, right now at 22:43, February 3rd, 2018.

But it is 492 in PM2.5 air quality index! It means you need industrial-grade mask to breath outdoor, anything else is doing serious harm to yourself. Don’t take this lightly. Check the latest details here.

The accepted safe range of PM 2.5 index is 50, up to 100 it is somewhat ‘ok.’ When it goes beyond 100 you should take action to avoid outdoor exposure.

In Dhaka, below 100 is a luxury, you can see two digit ratings only during the monsoon. I have set my personal limit at 200. If it is above 200, I wear a mask, and I specifically avoid riding Pathao/bikes. If I’m Ubering, the windows are locked and AC running.

Install the AirVisual app or visit this page regularly before you go out in this city!