Monday, 23 December 2013

Human beings are members of a whole

بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضوها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

(From Gulistan of Sa'di, Chapter 1, Story 10 - displayed in the entrance of the United Nations Hall of Nations)

Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Happiness is contagious

It is said that some people have a natural gift of making pleasant or valuable discoveries just by accident. There is a special word for such ability and it is called serendipity. Well, I don’t have that talent, but yesterday I came across an article about happiness while searching for something entirely different. You might say this is a natural course of events if someone is not focused while surfing on the net. I won’t argue about that but the findings are certainly worth sharing. 

According to this research article, thousands of people were studies for more than twenty years to assess the spread of happiness within social groups. The participants were asked to evaluate their level of happiness on the following four item scale.

How often during the past week:
1. I enjoyed life.
2. I was happy.
3. I felt hopeful about the future.
4. I felt that I was as good as other people.

The results, on the hindsight, seem quite obvious. People’s happiness depends on the people they live or connect with. Clusters of happy and unhappy people were visible on the network. Apparently, happiness can spread from person to person like an infectious disease. So, if you want to be happy, just hang around someone euphoric and try to avoid the company of gloomy ones. I would recommend checking the level of happiness on the above four item scale once in a while if not every week. After all, happiness and unhappiness both are contagious.

Image credit:

Monday, 7 October 2013

The five biggest unanswered questions

Globular Star Cluster Omega Centauri - Image courtesy: NASA

The leading scientific magazine Physics World in its 25th anniversary issue has listed the following top five unanswered questions in physics.

  • What is the nature of the dark universe?
  • What exactly is time?
  • Is life on Earth unique?
  • Can we unify quantum mechanics and gravity?
  • Can we exploit the weirdness of quantum mechanics?

Some of these eternal riddles might get resolved within the lifetime of current generation, while others may continue to haunt scientists in the centuries to come. 

The question, I would like to know the answer to in my life-time, is about the rarity of life. According to the legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke "Two possibilities exist; either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."

To me, both possibilities are equally exciting.

On facing death

"Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not. The absence of life is not evil; death is no more alarming than the nothingness before birth." 

I was reading an article about ancient Greek philosophers a few days ago when I came across these lines by Epicurus. The ideas of this 3rd century B.C. philosopher were indeed unique. To him, the purpose of philosophy was to lead a happy and tranquil life with freedom from fear. Living such a self-sufficient life surrounded by good friends was considered the ultimate achievement by his school of thought.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The mind of God

 Pillars of creation and other star forming regions in the Eagle Nebula (constellation Serpens)

"If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God."

Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time - concluding passage)
Image courtesy: NASA

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Seicho-no-Ie – The House of Growth

I wanted to sit quietly on the backbenches and watch the whole proceedings from there. But that was not possible in a big hall filled with just eleven people. Japanese priest welcomed me and I have to introduce myself. Then in his halting English, he talked about this new age religion and philosophy. This Japan based movement was started by Dr. Masaharu Taniguchi in 1930. It combines the basic elements from Buddhism, Christianity and Shintoism (which is the ancient spiritual tradition of Japan).  Seicho-no-Ie or the house of growth puts emphasis on gratitude for nature, the family and ancestors. Above all, they believe in one universal God. This facility is located just a few steps from where I live. After watching it day after day, finally curiosity got better of me and I ventured in. 

The atmosphere inside this Japanese style wooden temple was that of calm and serenity. After the service, every one thanked and hugged me as I was some long lost friend or a family member. This was rather a strange and moving experience for me. There is such an infinite variety of human beliefs and faiths. Just a different set of believing can change one’s whole perspective about this world, life and fellow beings.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

What I remember is what I am

The world begins and ends in memory;
what I remember is what I am. 

Did that blade of grass I plucked
as a boy to vibrate with my breath 

really burst the air with shrillness?
A remembered world holds truth 

and realities far clearer than echoes.
In the cupped hands of remembrance 

the thin green reed of what we are
trembles with a sound so rare. 

(Aide Memoire by Glen Sorestad from Leaving Holds Me Here: Selected Poems)

I came across this beautiful poem while riding TTC Public transport. A cultural initiative places such short verses on every TTC subway car, bus and streetcar in the city. It is a wonderful idea. Sometimes small things like that can have a profound effect on a reader.

... I would like to add to the poet that we are only alive until someone remembers us in this world. We are truly gone when the last vista about us fades away in a person's mind. On this account, being a writer, philosopher, thinker, inventor or any other kind of creative talent is a path to eternal life.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A day in ROM

Main entrance – The Crystal building
Last time when I was in Toronto, I visited Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) twice. But still there was so much to see and discover. This time I arrived early in the morning and tried to cover the whole museum in a day. A lot has changed in the past three years. New collections have been added and the old ones have been rearranged. Despite all the effort, when closing time was announced in the evening, nearly half a floor was still there to be explored and my knee joint pain was off the charts.

A huge skeleton of Futalognkosaurus now adorns the main lobby. This tongue twisting name actually means “giant chief lizard”. Despite their imposing structures, these were plant eating Sauropods dinosaurs. I don’t need to tell you that now a days even pre-school children know all about Sauropods. These are at number three in favorite dino list by my little nephew Shaheer after T-Rex and Triceratops.

 Chinese, Korean and Japanese civilization sections are at ground level.

Mithras was a god of light, truth and promised word in Persian Zoroastrianism.
To me, visiting a museum is relevant and quite a humbling experience on two accounts. One, its natural history sections tell us that human life and civilization covers just a tiny bit when measured against the immensity of time on this planet. Secondly, relics from different civilization are testament of the fact that ours is just one of the many possible ways of being. Names of once powerful gods and god like rules are now just restricted to few reference in books and displays.

Islamic and Middle Eastern sections are at level 3. This is a kind of sight that made our Allama Iqbal quite depressed actually when he was visiting Europe. Nevertheless I would like to differ with him at this point. I think that these artifacts are much better preserved and cared for here than in the native countries.

A section on the same level is devoted to Gandhara Civilization. According to museum plaque most of the works were purchased in 1930s by the first director of the museum, from a single dealer in Peshawar named Ram Das.

Flight - Nature section
This T-Rex doesn't seem too happy about this photo op with the author.
It is said that Rome was not built in a day. On the same note, this ROM also needs more than a day, may be a full month to be explored in totality. I plan to buy its annual membership on the next visit.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Glass Floor

The Tower
Billy Bishop Toronto city airport as seen from the observation deck
CN Tower is the icon of Toronto. A trip to this city is never complete without a visit to this towering monument. View of the city from its observation deck is certainly grand but any tall building can offer such a sight. However, there is one thing in this tower that makes its tour a truly breathtaking experience. Standing on its glass floor and looking down to more than 1100 feet below is enough to trigger acrophobia or fear of heights in most people. It is a kind of eerie feeling. Your eyes would tell that you are safe but your mind finds it hard to believe. I would recommend visiting it early in the morning on weekdays when very few people are there. You will need to muster some courage to be first on the glass floor.

Glass floor and the hesitation of grown-ups
But on second thoughts, this is not too important either. You would see children and teenagers jumping on the floor while it would be hard for older persons to overcome their apprehension. Now, statistically speaking, a child or a younger person has more to lose in term of the average number of year left to enjoy, while an older person has very little to lose in this context. So logically, a senior person should be more of a risk taker, but practically very opposite happens. This is a paradox to me. What do you think?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Black Squirrels

On the watch

When I first spotted a black squirrel here in Toronto, I thought, wow this is another strange thing about Canada. I added this to my collection of other peculiar items like vehicles driving with lights turned on during daytime, inverted power switches and door handles, absolute lack of honking et cetera. But weirder was the sight of black and grey squirrels playing and running side by side. Different species usually don’t mingle together and symbiotic relationships are rare. A little research (googling) and an afternoon at Queens Park showed that black squirrels are just a melanistic version of regular grey squirrels. Now melanism is the development of black pigmentation in the skin. It is direct opposite of albinism where lack of pigmentation gives appearance of white skin. While albinism is known to express in large number of animals including humans, melanism is rare. Black Panther is one example which is a pigmented form of leopard. 

Black and grey squirrels playing hide and seek at Queens Park

Black squirrels get their coloring from a mutant pigment gene and it can range from jet black to brown black. Environmental advantages like cold tolerance and better concealment from prey have resulted in their higher populations in eastern Canada but these are not common in other areas. Due to their rarity, several US educational institutions and towns are using black squirrel as their official mascot.

A black squirrel trying to meld with tree bark

Anyway, it was fun chasing and photographing squirrels under cool shades of cedar and maple trees at Queens Park. Both varieties of squirrels seem to go along rather happily like their human counterparts in multicultural Toronto.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Canada Day

July 1st is the Canada’s birthday so it was a federal holiday yesterday. In 1867, Canada became a kind of separate country instead of being a colony, although some powers remained with the British parliament until 1982. There were daylong celebrations all over Toronto. First, there was a 21 gun salute at Queens Park (actually three guns fired seven rounds each). One gun seemed a vintage from the Second World War and it was being manned by veterans.

Audience was given earplugs for the spectacle.

Then the orchestra played the ‘Looney Tunes Overture’. I am still unable to find the relevance but Uncle Dan says that is because we are a nation of loonies. (By the way, Dan is my neighbor here at Victoria Park and he believes in all kinds of conspiracy theories).

Afterwards, there were musical programs and other activities in the grounds of the legislative assembly of Ontario.

Then there were fireworks in the evening as usual.

Lyrics of the Looney Tunes Overture:

Overture, cut the lights
This is it, the night of nights
No more rehearsing or nursing a part
We know every part by heart

Overture, night of nights
This is it, we'll hit the heights
And oh what heights we'll hit
On with the show this is it!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

One coffee large double double

In this age of globalization, few things can be said to be uniquely Canadian. Tim Hortons is surely one of them. This chain of coffee houses was founded nearly fifty years ago by a Canadian ice hockey player (as you might have already guessed) Mr. Tim Horton. After so many years and thousands of branches, its presence is still mainly Canadian. Very few people know about it outside Canada. It has become a part of this culture and the expression ’double double’ has found its way into Canadian English. By the way, this double double just means 2 cream and 2 sugars in coffee, which is double the amount of a regular one. Everyone seems so addicted to it that a conspiracy theorist even suggested that they might be adding some special ingredient to keep people hooked (like some roadside tea hotels on GT road in Pakistan). Even the Canadian mission to Afghanistan, requested a Tim Hortons to be opened in Kandahar and Canadian Government has to subsidize this outlet for five years at the cost of around $5 million per year.

I think its appeal mainly lies in the freshness of its coffee and baked goods. They always serve fresh and after a certain amount of time, if goods are not sold, these are thrashed or perhaps given away. So, as soon as I landed in Toronto, I searched for a nearby Tim Hortons and ordered one coffee large double double. At that time, they were serving extra amounts of coffee under some promotional scheme. As a result, I got an extra large cup of coffee instead of large one that kept me awake for nearly a day. Well, jet lag was partly to be blamed on this one.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Casa Loma - House on the hill

Story of the Casa Loma is a tragic one. This fairy-tale like mansion was never completed and its owner Sir Henry Pellat died penniless in the house of his former chauffeur in 1939. But let’s start from the very beginning. Henry Mill, son of the Scottish immigrants, was exceptional from the early age. During his educational years, he held the North American record for one mile run as an athlete. He enlisted as a Rifleman with the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada at the age of 18. Left his studies early to pursue commerce and by the age of 23, he was a full partner in his father's stock brokerage firm. As a financier and industrialist, he was visionary. He was among the pioneers to invest in hydro electricity and aviation in early 20th century. His company harnessed the power of Niagara Falls and brought electricity to Toronto. At one point, he was controlling nearly one-fourth of the Canadian economy. He was knighted for his military contributions and retired as a Major-General.

The Conservatory or Green house at ground level
The Nora Brodeur Garden
War Museum at first floor

Casa Loma, house on the hill, was his dream and a place fit for the residence of kings. But along the way, things started to go wrong. He lost money in some bad investments. His hydro-electric company was taken away by the Government on the pretext that electricity should be free to all like air and water (imagine that). His aircraft industry was also taken over as part of the war effort during the First World War. His financial difficulties left him nearly bankrupt and he was forced to leave his beloved residence which was still at an unfinished state. Henry died at the age of 80, but during his final years he was alone, miserable and poor.

The story of Sir Henry Pellat is heartbreaking, but he certainly left his mark and lived his life to the fullest. So here is my question to the reader of this blog. Given the choice, what would you select, a life like Henry with its meteoric rise and fall or a life of relative comfort and mediacy. Me? … I am still thinking.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

At the Library

View from the 4th floor
I like the atmosphere at Toronto Reference Library located in downtown Toronto. I am spending considerable amount of my free time here these days (as expected, I would say). It is a bit informal. Students can be found doing their homework in groups. Teenagers are busy in texting on their phones using open Wi-Fi offered by the library. People are reading, people are talking in low voices, but there is no pin-drop silence. They are allowed to bring in coffee, soft drinks and fast food. It is a huge library. Its five-story building and a collection of 4 million items makes it the biggest public reference library in Canada. It has around one hundred sub-branches spread all over the city. It has its own art exhibit space, a computer learning center, a language lab, quiet study rooms and even a piano practice room. Native language collections include more than 60 languages. I wish we could have something like that in Islamabad.

Directional sound speakers and TV area on the ground floor in the Browsery
Urdu section at Toronto Reference Library

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Victoria Day

In some aspects, Canadians are more British in traditions than the British. Take for instance the celebrations and public holiday of Victoria Day. It all started in 1854, on 35th birthday of Queen Victoria when Canadian parliament officially recognized May 24 as the Queen's birthday. Canadian have remained steadfast on this tradition ever since (apart from the fact that it was shifted to Monday before May 25 in 1952 to mark a long weekend and Québécois renamed it to the National Patriots' Day in 2003).

In Toronto, its main event is the fireworks display on Ashbridge Bay Park at night. Display was at 10 PM but beach front was full by 8 O’clock. I have never seen such an influx of people here in Toronto before. All roads leading to Ashbridge were full to the capacity. I later came to know that people who started late were not able to reach the venue at all due to traffic jams. At beach, there was an atmosphere of great festivity. People were busy talking in groups, while children were active in playing. Police was also present in good numbers and even mounted police was on the call to prevent any breakdown in law and order. The display was colorful and worth waiting for. Unfortunately, my mobile camera was not equipped to capture it splendor in full.

It started to rain as soon as the event ended. For the first time, I witnessed a breakdown in TTC transport service. Buses were not able to reach designated points due to traffic gridlocks at intersections. Everyone has to walk in rain to seek shelter and reach buses that were trapped in traffic. Police was busy everywhere to resolve the situation and people also behaved quite reasonably with utmost patience. The air of celebration and joy continued during the whole time. When I reached house after two hours, it was well past mid-night. I was thoroughly soaked and extremely tired but on the whole it was a fun event and a thing to remember.

After going through the entire experience, I would say that for the new Canadians, Victoria Day is now just an excuse to have a good time and enjoy a holiday. As its traditional song says:

The twenty-fourth of May
is the Queen's birthday;
if they don't give us a holiday
we'll all run away!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Toronto again

Weather today is cold. Frost warning in effect.

     This is only my second trip to Toronto but as soon as I exited the airport, it felt like coming back to home. Air outside was clean, cool and a tad damp. At first pedestrian crossing, I stopped and waited for the traffic. I was busy looking around at signs and billboards so it took me sometime to notice that a large number of vehicles have stopped in my honor. Finally a limo driver signaled me to cross the road and I remembered that here, right of way belongs to the pedestrians. Metro service was efficient as ever, and it was full of humans in all shapes, sizes and colors. Toronto is a city of immigrants as nearly half of its population is foreign-born. But this time around, it is not like landing on an alien planet. Diversity is familiar and it feels good to be back.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Election 2013 Pakistan – Surprise Surprise

     Huge success of PML (N) in recent polls came as a surprise to everyone. All the results are not in, but it seems that PML (N) is on its way to form a government without the need for a coalition partner. Political analysts were unanimous in their view that Nawaz League would get NA seats in the range of 80 to 100 and they would require support of other parties to form a weak government at center. Even its staunch supporters were not that optimistic about such kind of success.

     Credit for galvanizing the youth and a higher turnout certainly goes to Imran Khan. He is right when he says that even those people who never voted in their life came out. He must be a little heart broken like most of his followers but making PTI the second largest party in the parliament is a tremendous achievement in itself. They are in a position to form a coalition government in KPK and if they can deliver some good to the people in that province, then the future belong to them.

     All the maneuvering, ploys and tactics by Mr. Zardari and Mr. Establishment failed quite spectacularly. People were starting to believe that our president is a genius par excellence when it comes to the politics. Mr. Zardari pulled one trick after another from his bag and played all kinds of cards. Mending fences with Q League, giving premiership of PPP Punjab to Mian Manzoor Wattoo, appointment of Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood as governor Punjab, Saraiki province card and vicious media campaign proved no substitute for bad governance, load shedding and corruption.

     Establishment was hoping for a split mandate and hung parliament. Something they could keep under their thumb. Things like covert support for Imran Khan, launching of Dr. Tahir ul Qadri and other measures also proved inadequate for the job.

     Now I hope that Nawaz Sharif shows some maturity, avoids confrontation at all levels and leaves accountability and treason cases to the judiciary… But then the future is an undiscovered country.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

There exists a world ...

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken from Apollo 17

There exists a world. In terms of probability this borders on the impossible. It would have been far more likely if, by chance, there was nothing at all. Then, at least, no one would have begun asking, why there was nothing.

(Jostein Gaarder - Maya)
Image courtesy: Wikipedia, NASA

Friday, 3 May 2013

God’s view

     I was standing at the edge of a wheat field in rural Attock. Crop was waist high and wind rushing through its spikes was creating a strange melody. Suddenly I looked down and found a line of worker ants busy in routine foraging activities. They seemed unperturbed by human activity in the vicinity. I wondered whether these are conscious about their place in this little patch of dirt. Can they understand about what is going on around them? Then I thought we humans might seem like these tiny ants to the higher powers in the universe. A supreme God, gods, ancient alien races or other powers might consider us as unremarkable as ants seem to us. Would we ever be able to rise above our puny existence and converse with gods? Would ants be able to communicate with us someday?

The north face of Eiger

     Eiger peak in Alps, Switzerland, is not very high by Karakorum or Himalayan standards. At 3,970 meters it would seem like a dwarf against K2 or Nanga Parbat. But it is called Eiger for a reason. Eiger is the German word for ogre or evil monster. Its iconic north face is around 1800 meters of snow filled cracks and precarious limestone. Since 1935, sixty-four climbers have died attempting to ascent this north wall. It is said that the climb is not impossibly difficult, but it needs a profound commitment. Once you embark on it, you need to keep going.

     I first read about it a few years ago and since then its images and legend have captivated my imagination. To me, tackling the deeper questions regarding existence, consciousness, universe and life are like scaling the north face of Eiger. Not many would consider it relevant to our mundane life. Some would give it a thought and then will move on. A lot would rely on ready-made answers available around us through our culture or religion. The ascension is riddled with pitfalls but once you start thinking about this kind of stuff, there is no turning back.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

I sent my Soul through the Invisible

I sent my Soul through the Invisible, 
Some letter of that After-life to spell;
And by and by my Soul returned to me,
And answered, “I Myself am Heaven and Hell”

Heaven but the Vision of fulfilled Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise! 
One thing at least is certain - This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies 
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who 
Before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (1050-1122)

Image courtesy: Alizee

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ladybirds, don’t go home

Ladybirds on Dill seed flowers

Lovely little ladybirds
sent from heaven above
please watch over my garden
and fill it up with love.
(Author Unknown)