Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A spectacular animation showing the movement of Western culture over the past 2000 years

by Salman Hameed

Posts have been light this summer and will continue to do so for another week (just in time for the beginning of classes!). In the mean time, I ran across this fantastic animation that maps the births and deaths of culturally significant figures. A blue dot signals a birth and the red light signals a death. From NPR:
To make these movies, art historian Maximilian Schich and his colleagues mapped the births and deaths of more than 150,000 notable artists and cultural leaders, such as famous painters, actors, architects, politicians, priests and even antiquarians (people who collect antiques).

This is quite amazing and we can clearly see the changes in cultural and intellectual centers over time. You can also see Cordoba starting to light up from 10th century onwards. The same groups also plans on extending this to non-western societies as well and it will be fascinating to the see a global picture. Here is a 5-minute video that shows more details (sometimes with names) and includes the US as well. If you have five-minutes (and yes you do!), then take a look at it as it is quite stunning:

You can find out more about the project here.

Looking at immigration histories, I'm quite surprised by their finding that people still do not move that much:
And the model isn't just fun to look at. The data also reveal trends and patterns in human migration over the past two millennia. 
"From a very small percentage of the population ... we get out these general laws of migration that were defined in the late 19th century," Schich says. 
One law was unexpected: People don't like to move too far from home, even in the 21st century. Despite the invention of trains, planes and cars, artists nowadays don't venture much farther from their birthplaces then they did in the 14th century. The average distance between birthplace and where a person dies hasn't even doubled in 400 years, the team found. (It's gone from 133 miles to 237 miles.)
Or may be it is the famous people who don't like to move! But I think 133 miles is quite a bit. I think for most of human history, people probably would have stayed within a few miles of their birth. And while we are on the topic of immigration, here is another fascinating interactive graphic that uses UN census data from 150 countries to show immigration routes. For example, you can check out what and where is the movement of people to and from Pakistan or Iran or Egypt, amongst other the other 150 countries. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

US Muslims and Atheists together again in a recent Pew poll

by Salman Hameed

A few months ago I had pointed out that Muslims and atheists in the US may have a lot more in common than they think. For example, according to a Gallup poll, Americans are least likely to vote a Muslim or an atheist for President (well, except for the secret Muslim and the secret atheist President Obama). Then a Pew survey found that most Christians in the US will be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. They ask about Muslims, but I'm sure the unhappiness would be at a similar level.

Now a new Pew poll uses a thermometer scale (really!?) to gauge how people of different faiths in the US feel about each other. The scale is from 0 to 100, with zero the coldest and 100 the warmest. Well, it seems that on average Americans are the coolest towards atheists and Muslims at 41 and 40, respectively, and warmest towards Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews:

But this includes people's feelings about their own religious group as well. And surprise, surprise. People feel warmly about their own kind. So here is how the various religious groups rate each other:

Geez - White Evangelical Christians have to lighten up a bit about Muslims and atheists! Too bad, it doesn't include Muslims in the sample, but there is some reciprocity from atheists on their dislike of Evangelicals. This is the same dynamic that was apparent in an earlier Pew poll as well. But there is some hope as well. Younger Americans are warmer towards atheists and Muslims and that may be a result of growing diversity in the US:

The outlook is different when we look at this through political affiliations. Republicans are much cooler towards both atheists and Muslims, but Democrats are the coldest towards Mormons (and then atheists and Muslims). I think the scale is going to get even more extreme if it is for the viewers of Fox News versus the viewers of MSNBC. Nevertheless, here is the 'feeling' scale divided but the two political parties:
You can read the full report here (pdf). 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Getting closer...the Abdus Salam Documentary

by Salman Hameed

A behind the scenes photograph from the making of the Salam documentary

I have posted periodic updates on the production of the documentary film about Dr. Abdus Salam, led by Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver (see pictures from the shooting here). It is a fantastic project and a true labor of love for these passionate guys. In today's Dawn, both Omar and Zakir talk about Dr. Abdus Salam and also the process of making the documentary. You can watch this 7-minute clip here:

The life and strife of Pakistan's only Nobel... by dawn-news

And in case you haven't seen this before, here is the teaser for the film (and yes, you can still contribute to the making of the film at Kailoola pictures):

The creation of Muslim terrorists by FBI in "The Newburgh Sting"

by Salman Hameed

If you have a chance, check out a new documentary on HBO, The Newburgh Sting. It is sad and tragic. Here you have an FBI undercover agent recruiting 3 African Americans and one Haitian immigrant - all from a poor upstate New York town of Newburgh - into a terrorist plot. The FBI agent is sleazy and drives around in a Mercedes or in his one of two BMWs. Oh - and this undercover agent happens to a Pakistani (oh why oh why??) who was convicted on some petty crime. The problem is that the people at the local mosque immediately saw through his sleaziness and did not want to engage with him. But he managed to lure four other people - unrelated to the mosque - for a plan that he (and the FBI) concocted in exchange for $250,000! Furthermore, it is the FBI agent (and the FBI) that comes up with plan and the means to acquire weapons and bombs to carry out with the plan. The four suspects on their own could not have managed anything! So the FBI created the terrorists and then caught them, thus justifying the very existence of the FBI. Whoaa!?

But this is not it. The sleaziest part of the FBI sting is that it is the FBI agent (and the FBI) that insisted on picking the Jewish cultural center in NYC as its main target. This provided the perfect headlines, and one of the suspects provided the requisite anti-semitic remarks. And the media, of course, went nuts over the case. It was too tempting. Here are Muslim terrorists, who met at the local mosque, trying to blow up a Jewish cultural center. One slight problem: They never met at the mosque, were not practicing Muslims, and the plan was hatched by the FBI. Furthermore, the FBI agent made sure that they go out of state (to Connecticut) to obtain "weapons", so this can be turned into a federal case for the use of FBI. Oh - and it is the FBI agent who insists that the hired guns have to be Muslims. This all sounds like bad fiction. Unfortunately, this is a documentary that features much of FBI's own footage.

Here is the trailer:

Here is the full movie: Sorry it got pulled down. You will have to watch it on HBO or some other service.

And for a recent fictional take on Muslims and anti-terror agencies in Germany in A Most Wanted Man, based on John le Carre's novel. It is one of the last films of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and once again, he gives an amazing performance. Here is the trailer:

Friday, July 25, 2014

A history without Darwin...

by Salman Hameed

Peter Bowler is a leading historian of Biology. I enjoyed his talk at Darwin's bicentennial conference in Alexandria, Egypt back in 2009. After the talk I had a brief chat with him and he mentioned that he was working on a book that imagines history without Darwin and the Origin of Species. The book is now out and it is called Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin. It looks fascinating and makes some interesting claims about the relation between science and religion. Here is a review from Science:
Since the 1920s, the idea of evolution has generally been equated with what has been termed Darwinism, a particular evolutionary theory that explains the origin of biological
diversity by means of natural selection. Largely as a result of the dominance of that theory, most scientists today would find the thought of a history without Darwin unimaginable. In Darwin Deleted, Peter Bowler invites readers to imagine a world in which Darwin never existed. Using counterfactual history and carefully dissecting the history of evolutionary thought, Bowler looks into the past to illuminate prominent debates we face today. 
Bowler starts by refuting the “in the air” thesis: the idea that without Darwin, someone else would have come up with the same or similar ideas and history would have unfolded about as it did. Drawing on the historical record, he demonstrates that although the idea of evolution was becoming widely accepted by the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), natural selection was by no means part of mid-19th-century thought. Bowler argues that only Darwin, with his unique combination of diverse interests, was able to piece together all of its key components. Thus, it is very plausible that in Darwin's absence other theories would have come to play more important roles in our understanding of evolution. In fact, into the 1920s, non-Darwinian theories were the dominant explanation for evolutionary changes—which substantiates the viability of Bowler's counterfactual world. 
As Bowler writes, it is unquestionable that “Darwin presented his contemporaries with the harshest possible version of nature.” That contributed to his becoming the figurehead of what was perceived as an attack on traditional values. Bowler's analysis makes it clear that without Darwin's revolutionary in-put, evolutionism would have developed in a less confrontational manner. Darwin-like ideas would not otherwise have gained currency for another 30 or 40 years, by which time the general idea of evolution would not have posed a threat to most religious thinkers. Thus, Bowler argues, the antagonism between evolutionism and religion might well be a “product of particular historical events rather than an inevitable conflict of irreconcilable positions.”
This is an interesting point - though it Darwin himself had a polite personality, which mitigated to some of the science/religion antagonism, at least related to evolution. Perhaps more importantly, ideas linked to social Darwinism may not not have developed in the same way:
In addition, Bowler's mental experiment leads us to realize that many of the alleged consequences of what has been called social Darwinism would likely have taken place in a world without Darwin. In fact, “most of the effects … labeled as ‘social Darwinism’ could have emerged in a world that had no inkling of the theory of natural selection” and “some of those effects … might well have been even more strident in the absence of the Darwinian theory.” Far from being a consequence of Darwinism, the idea of progress and the allied theories of directed evolution were grounded in wider social and cultural forces. It is undeniable that Darwinism is a product of its time, with the apparent materialism of a theory based on random variation and struggle. But the simplistic identification of Darwinism with harsh social policies is mistaken, argues Bowler, as most of what is called “‘social Darwinism’ could be justified equally well through rival theories of evolution.” 
Darwin Deleted offers a journey into the history of evolutionism well worth taking. Through his scenario in which the Origin never appeared, Bowler improves our ability to think about the assumptions underlying contemporary debates.
This looks like a fascinating book and is on my reading list. The last two chapters, "Evolution and Religion: A Conflict Avoided" and "Social Evolutionism" specifically deal with the issues presented in the review. For more, here is the description of the book:
The ideas and terminology of Darwinism are so pervasive these days that it seems impossible to avoid them, let alone imagine a world without them. But in this remarkable rethinking of scientific history, Peter J. Bowler does just that. He asks: What if Charles Darwin had not returned from the voyage of the Beagle and thus did not write On the Origin of Species? Would someone else, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, have published the selection theory and initiated a similar transformation? Or would the absence of Darwin’s book have led to a different sequence of events, in which biology developed along a track that did not precipitate a great debate about the impact of evolutionism? Would there have been anything equivalent to social Darwinism, and if so would the alternatives have been less pernicious and misappropriated? 
In Darwin Deleted, Bowler argues that no one else, not even Wallace, was in a position to duplicate Darwin’s complete theory of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary biology would almost certainly have emerged, but through alternative theories, which were frequently promoted by scientists, religious thinkers, and moralists who feared the implications of natural selection. Because non-Darwinian elements of evolutionism flourished for a time in the real world, it is possible to plausibly imagine how they might have developed, particularly if the theory of natural selection had not emerged until decades after the acceptance of the basic idea of evolution. Bowler’s unique approach enables him to clearly explain the non-Darwinian tradition—and in doing so, he reveals how the reception of Darwinism was historically contingent. By taking Darwin out of the equation, Bowler is able to fully elucidate the ideas of other scientists, such as Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley, whose work has often been misunderstood because of their distinctive responses to Darwin. 
Darwin Deleted boldly offers a new vision of scientific history. It is one where the sequence of discovery and development would have been very different and would have led to an alternative understanding of the relationship between evolution, heredity, and the environment—and, most significantly, a less contentious relationship between science and religion. Far from mere speculation, this fascinating and compelling book forces us to reexamine the preconceptions that underlie many of the current controversies about the impact of evolutionism. It shows how contingent circumstances surrounding the publication of On the Origin of Species polarized attitudes in ways that still shape the conversation today. 
You can buy the book here

Thursday, July 17, 2014

UFO sightings explained in the Economist

by Salman Hameed

I didn't know the Economist had a sense of humor. There was a random box in one of its recent issues and has this figure (thanks to Jim Miller for the tip):

And here is the description:
On July 2nd avid watchers of the skies celebrate World UFO day—the anniversary of the supposed crash of a flying saucer near Roswell in 1947. Helpfully, the National UFO Reporting Centre, a non-profit, has catalogued almost 90,000 reported sightings of UFOs, mostly in America, since 1974. It turns out that aliens are considerate. They seldom disturb earthlings during working or sleeping hours. Rather, they tend to arrive in the evening, especially on Fridays, when folks are sitting on the front porch nursing their fourth beer, the better to appreciate flashing lights in the heavens (see chart). The state aliens like best is Washington—a finding that pre-dates the legalisation of pot there. Other popular destinations are also near the Canadian border, where the Northern lights are sometimes visible. UFOs tend to shun big cities, where there are lots of other lights, and daylight hours, when people might think they were just airplanes.
Note that the state of Washington is already leading in the number of UFO sightings, but the number of alien visitations may only increase now that marijuana is legal there. Also, see here for our own Massachusetts sighting in 2013.

Yes, this coming fall semester I'm teaching my favorite class Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind, and so expect to see more posts on UFOs and religion.

For your entertainment purposes, here is a Pixar short film called "Lifted":

Monday, July 14, 2014

Following the sails of Sinbad

by Salman Hameed

 Figure from Science

A few weeks ago, one of the feature stories in the journal Science focused on the impact of the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. In particular, how that trade connected various parts of world. In fact, it looks like that this trade had a larger impact than the famous trade route via the Silk Road. That is all well and good and the discussion is part of debates within archaeology and history. However, I liked the fact that the article started with quotations from the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. When I was growing up, I read the Urdu translation of the Sinbad's Seven Voyages, and absolutely loved them. I can't recall too many details, but I still remember that in one of the voyages, Sinbad and the ship's crew and passengers landed on what they thought to be an island. It even had trees. But it turned out to be a gigantic whale! Now many many years have passes since I read that. But even now, when I see a whale (in pictures or live), my first thought goes to that story and wonder - how big must have been that whale for them to have mistaken it for an island? And trees!! Okay - so here is a nice example of how good imaginative stories can just stick with you for your whole life.

Back to the Science article (unfortunately, you will need subscription to read the full article). Here is the beginning:
“One day, the old desire entered my head to visit far countries and strange people, to voyage among the isles and curiously regard things hitherto unknown to me,” recalls Sinbad the Sailor in The Thousand and One Nights, first compiled in the 9th century C.E.

Until recently, Sinbad's tall tales held little interest for scholars of ancient and medieval East-West relations. They focused instead on the more than 6000-kilometer Silk Road far to the north, made famous by Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who traveled across the Central Asian steppes from Europe to China in the 13th century. Most researchers ignored the fact that Polo returned to Europe via the Indian Ocean, in the waters plied by real-world Sinbads. Glimpsed only in the odd Roman coin found in an Indian village or in medieval Chinese ceramics washed up on a Kenyan shore, the southern maritime road was easy to overlook.
“Also, the trading habit rose in me again.” This wily Odysseus of the Indian Ocean told fantastic stories of shipwrecks, cannibals, and exotic lands rich with gems and heady spices.

Now, this busy trading route is emerging from the shadows. Researchers are picking through Southeast Asian swamps, diving off Sri Lankan reefs, and digging on African beaches. The artifacts they are finding—glass beads, potsherds, seeds, animal bones—reveal a lost story of Indian Ocean trade that went far beyond the simple exchange of gems and spices. “Finally we are moving beyond just talking about trade to the making of cultural identity,” says archaeologist and historian Himanshu Prabha Ray of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The work, still in the early stages, is shifting archaeologists' focus from the great empires at either end of the Silk Road—Rome and China—to the trade and influence of the vibrant societies in between. Until recently, many historians would have agreed with a 20th century French scholar who dismissed the world's third largest ocean as “scarcely more than an extension of the eastern Mediterranean.” A paucity of ancient texts and archaeological digs reinforced this parochial view.

But the new evidence shows that from 2000 B.C.E. until the arrival of Europeans in 1498, the Indian Ocean network linked diverse societies on three continents, catalyzing industrial development and cultural changes from early Southeast Asia to medieval coastal Africa. It all sounds unexpectedly modern, says J. D. Hill, an archaeologist at the British Museum in London. “The surprise is that the world was interconnected long ago.”
Here is a bit in the article about the birth of Swahili:
In the early centuries of Indian Ocean trade, “East Africa is the missing story,” says Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Few ancient texts clarify Africa's role, and archaeology there lags behind work on Asian coasts. The Periplus mentions extensive trade between Mediterranean and African ports. But excavators have yet to identify any ports predating 700 C.E., and “Greco-Roman” beads found on the African coast turned out to be medieval, according to analyses by archaeologist Marilee Wood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Evidence is growing that East Africa south of Somalia did not play a major role in Indian Ocean trade until after that time.
The Indian Ocean trade did eventually leave one of its most enduring legacies on the African coast from Kenya to Mozambique: an entire culture based on the trading way of life. The Swahili way of life includes the Muslim faith, an Arabic-laced language, and culinary and mercantile traditions strongly reminiscent of the Middle East. The word “Swahili” itself is Arabic for “coastal dwellers.”
What about the maritime trade at the time of Sinbad?
What kind of vessels made these voyages? Based on the few wrecks found to date, Lucy Blue, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, says that a typical vessel of Sinbad's era carried 1000 times the weight a camel can bear and required far less human labor than a Silk Road caravan. One example, a 9th century ship wrecked off the coast of Indonesia in the Java Sea, epitomized the protoglobalization of the medieval Indian Ocean. The vessel was crafted in an Arab style, carried a load of Chinese goods, and was built with timbers from Africa, according to Horton. Another wreck turned up just last fall on a shrimp farm on the southwest outskirts of Bangkok. A team co-led by Erbprem Vatcharangkul, chief of Thailand's underwater archaeological division, began excavating and revealed a vessel at least 35 meters in length, built in Arab style and dating to about the 8th century. Sailors or looters have scavenged the cargo, but they left behind an ivory tusk, wood that likely comes from India, and Chinese ceramics.

The sailing culture that these ships spawned left its mark on the societies that ring the ocean. Southern Indian Tamil poetry from the first 3 centuries C.E. warns young men not to leave home for dreams of wealth in distant ports, notes archaeologist Veerasamy Selvakumar of Tamil University in Thanjavur. That's a sign of societal stress as people shifted from traditional farming and fishing to mercantile pursuits, he says. Later inscriptions and stone carvings suggest that ship owners grew into an influential and wealthy class, according to archaeologist Pierre-Yves Manguin of the National University of Singapore. A Javanese shipmaster, for example, served as ambassador from a Javanese kingdom to the Chinese court in 993 C.E. “They played a big role as cultural diplomats and in propagating” faiths like Buddhism and Islam, Manguin says.

The tales of Sinbad reflect this status. In his final voyage, the Iraqi-born merchant acts as a diplomat for the Baghdad caliph, carrying precious gifts to a distant ruler and earning the caliph's gratitude.

By 1400 C.E., the geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean began to change as Chinese and European consumers tired of buying expensive foreign goods through Arab, Indian, and Southeast Asian middlemen. Fleets of massive Chinese ships, some carrying 500 people, cruised as far west as Arabia and Africa, rattling the locals (Science, 9 May, p. 572).

Less than a century later, Europeans followed suit, mastering the trip around Africa. Over the succeeding centuries, the Indian Ocean trade fractured into more local exchange as the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British, equipped with better military technology than the regional powers, carved up the waters well into the 20th century. Today, however, the ocean is humming with international trade again; two-thirds of the world's trade goods move through it.

Sinbad retired comfortably to Baghdad after his seventh voyage, pledging never to set foot on a ship again. Archaeologists, however, are only at the beginning of their effort to recover the long-lost chronicle of the Indian Ocean. “We are rewriting history,” Wood says.
This is a fascinating multidisciplinary research project that received a 5-year,  $1.5 million, from the European Research Council to piece together the neglected history of Indian Ocean trade. You can find out more about this research at their website, Sealinks Project.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Avoiding Miracles and Emphasizing Naturalism in Science Teaching

by Salman Hameed

Muslim Science website has started to call for thematic articles. Last month it was on environment and sustainability (check out this editorial by Saleem H. Ali on Environmentalism as an Interface for Science Education in Muslim Societies and on a slightly different topic, Space Travel: Marred by the lack of a Consensus by Parandis Tajbaksh).

This month's focus is on science education and you can check this article by Rana Dajani, Is Science Education the Real Issue? I also contributed an article titled Avoiding Miracles and Emphasizing Naturalism in Science Teaching. I focus on the issue of origin(s) of life to look at the tension between a belief in miracles and good science education:
Some of the most challenging and exciting areas of research, deal with various forms of ‘origin’ questions. Origin of life. Origin of the Earth. Origin of human beings. Origin of consciousness. And of course, the origin of the universe. These are not only hard problems, but also represent some of humanity’s biggest questions. It is no wonder then, that these ‘origin’ questions not only capture the attention of scientists and general public alike, but often also serve as the conduit into science for budding scientists, in high schools around the world. 
But these questions also straddle the boundaries of science and religion. There is perhaps an inherent tension here, between the limits of knowable science and the beginnings of unknowable mysteries. For most people, this tension doesn’t impact their daily lives. Since the belief in miracles is quite common, not just in Muslim societies, but all around the world, it is easy to ascribe origin mysteries, and other unexplained occurrences, to the Divine. A medical doctor or an engineer may still approach their work in a pragmatic way, without being affected by their outlook on ‘origin’ miracles. 
For a scientist or a scientist in training, such an approach poses problems. I have run into students and educated individuals, who take pleasure in the failure of science to provide answers. The origin(s) of life, in particular, is an area in their crosshairs. I can understand the desire for this. To use a sports analogy, science has been so successful in explaining physical phenomena, that there is an urge to root against it. If for nothing else but to say “See – science doesn’t have all the answers”. Unfortunately, they often go one step further and ascribe God’s miraculous action, as the default alternative to the as yet unsolved problem, thus unwittingly creating an either/or relation between science and religion. 
Indeed, scientists do not know how life started here on Earth. But science usually thrives on the boundaries of failures and unknowns. After all, it is these very areas of unknowns, that become fertile grounds for future PhDs, that end up solving hard problems. A resort to a belief in miracles in such instances, would in fact, be anathema to this whole enterprise. 
We can take lessons from history of science. Just a few centuries ago, the origins of the Earth and the Solar System were considered problems beyond the limits of science. Today, we have an excellent scientific understanding of the formation of the Sun and the planets that make up our Solar system. No gaps, no miracles. In fact, I find the ‘nebular theory of the formation of solar system’ to be quite beautiful, as it elegantly explains not only the origins of rocky and gaseous planets, but it also elucidates the reasons why planets have particular rotations around their respective axes, and the origins of asteroids and comets. If one desires, the elegance of the physical laws behind the explanations, can indeed be attributed to the Divine, but the rest is fully explained in a naturalistic framework. 
In order to produce good scientists at a consistent level in the Muslim world, we have to instill a mindset in science classrooms, that eschews the notion of miracles when it comes to the physical world. All unsolved problems, including those at the boundaries of science and religion, may then be approached within the framework of methodological naturalism – an assumption that for practical purposes, all causes are empirical and natural. At the same time, we must appreciate, that beliefs in various historical miracles, are also central to most religions, including Islam, and numerous rituals, tenets, and practices revolve around these very beliefs. In this sense, a belief in miracles is about religion and not about seeking a physical explanation, of how the world works. 
But this is a fine needle to thread. After all, how does one demarcate the domains of miracles and science? And if one accepts that there is a precedence of violation of physical laws (I’m using miracles here in this particular sense) in history, it is easy to extend such explanations to the present as well. Furthermore, for many, the questions of ‘origin of life’ fall squarely in the miraculous domain, and it is the encroachment of science, that is the problem. And yet, the introduction of miracles as an explanation, is an end to scientific inquiry. 
This is a hard problem. But a Deistic/naturalistic approach to the physical world may be essential to building an effective scientific culture in the Muslim world. There cannot be an end to inquiry – especially when it comes to ‘origin’ questions. A belief in miracles, in this sense, will have to be banished from any scientific question, but may still play a role in religious life. When it comes to the future of science in the Muslim world, this is an important needle to thread. I hope that the scientific answer to how life began on Earth (and perhaps on other planets), comes from a laboratory somewhere in the Muslim world.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sacred Engine and the preservation of order in "Snowpiercer"

by Salman Hameed

The movie is much better than its trailer. If you can stomach graphic violence, then check out Snowpiercer, directed by Korean director, Bong Joon-ho. The premise is outlandish. After a failed experiment to fix global warming, all of humanity is extinct except for those who boarded a global train, the Snowpiercer. It has been running for 18 years now, but there are tremendous inequalities in amenities available on the train. The front of the train has parties, greenhouses, good food (including sushi), music, and even a school with fascinatingly creepy education. The back of the train, however, lives in misery, and it is unclear if they are really that better off being on the train at all.

The above description may not seem that interesting. However, the movie then plays with the theme of human survival in different ways. For example, the engine is considered "sacred", as the all powerful engine (and its inventor and operator) is the only thing keeping the humans alive (it is so cold outside, that humans cannot go more than few feet from the train before freezing). But more interestingly, there is an insistence on the maintaing of the status quo, including keeping the population at a certain level. Everything is preordained. Those who are in the back of the train, should always be in the back of the train (and remain underprivileged), and those at the front of the train should always remain at the front. An effort to change this will result in chaos and to the extinction of these remaining humans. The heart of the film lies in asking if humanity is worth preserving such an unfair system?

The movie also reminded me of Aronofsky's Noah, which I absolutely loved. In Noah, God was disgusted with humans and wanted to wipe out all of humanity. The fact that humans survived (oops - a spoiler for the flood story) was because of Noah's humanity (his failure to kill his own grandchildren) and not necessarily because of God (this ambiguity is what makes Noah fascinating). In Snowpiercer, we also have an ark, but God (or at least the operator of the sacred engine) wants to preserve humanity and that will exact a high cost on the humans (and/or human dignity).

The film is claustrophobic but keeps you involved. Better still, you don't where the story is going. There are some fantastic shots of a traversing train through a frozen world. If you have a chance, see the film in a theater. Here is the trailer:

'Snowpiercer' Theatrical Trailer from J.D. Funari on Vimeo.

Also see this article on designing the train sections of the film. Also, the movie is a fantastic product of globalization: The film is based on a French graphic novel, has a predominantly American cast, and has a Korean director working with a Czech production designer. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Nature editorial on the grim situation of academic freedom in Egypt

by Salman Hameed

Grim is perhaps a soft word. Hundreds of people have been handed death sentences in mass trials and thousands others are languishing in jail for political dissent. Nature does a fine job of providing numbers for those affected in the academia. Here are some chilling facts:
The network [The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies] has also expressed concern that, among 41,000 prisoners arrested since the coup, around 1,000 are engineers, physicians and scientists.

In April, a group of Egyptian scholars published a report on the academic victims of the unrest that followed the military coup, documenting by name and affiliation those who had been arrested or killed by the Egyptian authorities. The tally includes 1,347 student arrests and 176 student deaths. Sixteen of the deaths took place during police raids on campus. Seven faculty members have been killed, 160 placed under arrest, 20 put on parole and 25 are on the run.
 This is unbelievably sad and the reaction of much of the world, including US, has been shameful. The Nature editorial then gets into the details of administrative and campus security changes under Sisi. These details are important as well, but I think any commentary on those details pale in comparison to the numbers above. Here are some of the details: 
What frustrated the hopes of the Egyptian Arab Spring? Morsi, an Islamist — who happens to hold a PhD in materials science — only narrowly beat his secular opponents to become the country’s first democratically elected president. But moves he made to empower the Muslim Brotherhood alienated many. He proved unable to control the economy, and the country descended once again into political chaos.

Impatient for change after the revolution, in September 2011 thousands of university faculty staff from around the country demonstrated in Cairo, demanding that university leaders — all appointed directly by Mubarak — be replaced. A system allowing faculty members to elect their own rectors and deans was introduced. The protesters had also called for police to be banned from campuses unless explicitly invited by university administrations — a reaction against the oversight of campuses by state security guards during Mubarak’s rule.
The new era has reversed both of these reforms. Almost immediately, police moved onto campuses to disrupt frequent demonstrations there against the regime, many organized by Islamist sympathizers angry at Morsi’s removal, and many of which interrupted teaching activities. As the new statistics show, the clashes too often ended in violence.
And last week, Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued a presidential decree that puts the appointment of university leaders once more under his control, a move that is widely believed will allow the regime to oust any supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who have been elected to the posts.
Democracy cannot be built in a day. Egyptian universities have on occasion been rather naive in their response to their new freedoms. The election of academic leaders by faculty members is common in Europe, but is increasingly being phased out as its obvious weakness — that rectors might be appointed on the basis of popularity or in exchange for favours, rather than on competence — has become apparent. More usually, rectors are selected by a university board, and faculty input is indirect. Still, faculty election is better than crude political appointment.
 Here is the full editorial (but you may need subscription to access it).

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval

by Salman Hameed

I have provided updates here on the controversy over the proposed constriction of a thirty-meter telescope on top of Mauna Kea (for a background, please see here and the links there in that post). I'm
torn on this issue as the possibility of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is amazingly exciting for astronomy. However, I also have tremendous sympathy for the arguments made by the native Hawaiian groups for the preservation of their sacred mountain and of environmental groups. Astronomy here finds itself in an odd role of being the Goliath. Nevertheless, at the heart if all this lies a fascinating question of who owns a mountain and how do prioritize competing interests of very different nature.

All that said, it looks like the TMT is getting close to its final approval. The telescope consortium, actually, has been quite good in getting things done by the book. Therefore, they haven't started any construction work until all of the appeals are over. Just last week, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) gave a tentative approval to the sublease to the TMT. However, the board will still consider a contested hearing case, but it looks like we are seeing the end of the road for the opponents of the construction of the new telescope. From Hawai'i Tribune:
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday approved granting the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project a sublease for land on Mauna Kea.
In concept anyway.
While the board voted in favor of the agreement, it won’t go into effect until several contested case hearing requests are resolved. That process could take from a month to as much as a year to complete, board Chairman William Aila said at the meeting in Honolulu.
TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson said she isn’t expecting a lengthy delay.
“I am very hopeful we will move forward at this point,” she said.
Construction of the large telescope won’t occur unless the sublease is officially granted, Dawson said.
The situation isn’t unfamiliar for the project’s proponents.
A contested case hearing was held following the board’s approval of a conservation district use permit in 2011.
A hearings officer upheld the permit, a decision the board accepted in April 2013.
Critics of the project, who note the cultural importance of the mountain to Native Hawaiians, say it’s wise for the state not to rush, particularly since the mountain is already home to several other telescopes.
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the contested case hearing petitioners, said there are still important issues that need to be resolved.
“These (hearings) don’t stop projects,” she said. “It’s a method of informing decision makers what the impact will be.   
Read the full article here. Here are links to earlier posts that might be helpful to get a background on the controversy:
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea

 Also, here is the location of TMT with respect to the existing observatories on Mauna Kea:

Oh, and if you are interested in checking out an amazing documentary about the intersection of astronomy, culture and politics, check out Nostalgia for the Light. It deals with telescopes in Chile, and is spectacular. See my review of the movie in the journal Science.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday approved granting the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project a sublease for land on Mauna Kea.
In concept anyway.
While the board voted in favor of the agreement, it won’t go into effect until several contested case hearing requests are resolved. That process could take from a month to as much as a year to complete, board Chairman William Aila said at the meeting in Honolulu.
TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson said she isn’t expecting a lengthy delay.
“I am very hopeful we will move forward at this point,” she said.
Construction of the large telescope won’t occur unless the sublease is officially granted, Dawson said.
The situation isn’t unfamiliar for the project’s proponents.
A contested case hearing was held following the board’s approval of a conservation district use permit in 2011.
A hearings officer upheld the permit, a decision the board accepted in April 2013.
Critics of the project, who note the cultural importance of the mountain to Native Hawaiians, say it’s wise for the state not to rush, particularly since the mountain is already home to several other telescopes.
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the contested case hearing petitioners, said there are still important issues that need to be resolved.
“These (hearings) don’t stop projects,” she said. “It’s a method of informing decision makers what the impact will be.”
- See more at:
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday approved granting the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project a sublease for land on Mauna Kea.
In concept anyway.
While the board voted in favor of the agreement, it won’t go into effect until several contested case hearing requests are resolved. That process could take from a month to as much as a year to complete, board Chairman William Aila said at the meeting in Honolulu.
TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson said she isn’t expecting a lengthy delay.
“I am very hopeful we will move forward at this point,” she said.
Construction of the large telescope won’t occur unless the sublease is officially granted, Dawson said.
The situation isn’t unfamiliar for the project’s proponents.
A contested case hearing was held following the board’s approval of a conservation district use permit in 2011.
A hearings officer upheld the permit, a decision the board accepted in April 2013.
Critics of the project, who note the cultural importance of the mountain to Native Hawaiians, say it’s wise for the state not to rush, particularly since the mountain is already home to several other telescopes.
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the contested case hearing petitioners, said there are still important issues that need to be resolved.
“These (hearings) don’t stop projects,” she said. “It’s a method of informing decision makers what the impact will be.”
- See more at:
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday approved granting the $1.3 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project a sublease for land on Mauna Kea.
In concept anyway.
While the board voted in favor of the agreement, it won’t go into effect until several contested case hearing requests are resolved. That process could take from a month to as much as a year to complete, board Chairman William Aila said at the meeting in Honolulu.
TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson said she isn’t expecting a lengthy delay.
“I am very hopeful we will move forward at this point,” she said.
Construction of the large telescope won’t occur unless the sublease is officially granted, Dawson said.
The situation isn’t unfamiliar for the project’s proponents.
A contested case hearing was held following the board’s approval of a conservation district use permit in 2011.
A hearings officer upheld the permit, a decision the board accepted in April 2013.
Critics of the project, who note the cultural importance of the mountain to Native Hawaiians, say it’s wise for the state not to rush, particularly since the mountain is already home to several other telescopes.
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the contested case hearing petitioners, said there are still important issues that need to be resolved.
“These (hearings) don’t stop projects,” she said. “It’s a method of informing decision makers what the impact will be.”
- See more at:

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Pew Survey: Not much support for Boku Haram in Nigeria or the Taliban in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

The Pew Foundation has a new survey out that there is an increasing level of concern in the Muslim world about Islamic extremism. This survey was in fact taken before the fall of Mosul in Iraq to ISIS - which I guess, now is just IS (The Islamic State). On a side note, I'm glad about the name change, as Isis reminded me of the nice Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and love, whereas the new ISIS is mostly deadly, brutal, and tragic. In any case, I think respondents would be even more concerned now with the all the recent developments in Iraq.

Before we look into some of the results which uses the word Islamic extremism frequently, please also read this excellent article by Nathan Lean: Stop Saying "Moderate Muslims". You Are Only Empowering Islamophobes".

Here are some of the key Pew findings. Yes, the concern is high about Islamic extremism in almost all Muslim countries surveyed, and it is to be expected. Many of these countries are experiencing it first-hand. Indonesia is a notable exception, and I'm surprised at the level of difference between Malaysia and Indonesia:

Here are the opinions on al Qaeda, and again it is to be expected. Nevertheless, it is surprising to see a quarter of Bangladeshi respondents seeing al Qaeda in a favorable light. In Pakistan and Malaysia, a sizable fraction did not provide an answer (and I do not blame them for being cautious on both sides):

And most Nigerians have an unfavorable opinion of Boku Haram - a really nasty group that kidnapped school girls and have been bombing market and other public places for the last few years. In fact, there was a bombing just this morning in northern Nigeria that killed 18 people.

And Pakistanis don't have much love for the Taliban either (and this holds for all flavors of Taliban). However, it will be interesting to see the break-down of numbers by provinces. On the one hand, I can see the Taliban enjoying broader support in the northern K-P province, but on the other hand, Peshawar is also a routinely struck by their bombings. I wouldn't be surprised if Baluchistan has higher support as there is a strong separatist movement that is not linked with the Taliban, but may have sympathy for the (current) enemies of Pakistan military.

Here are the numbers for support for suicide bombings against civilian targets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the numbers in Gaza are high. But then again, I'm surprised at the numbers in Bangladesh. What is going on there? In contrast, I think Pakistanis have seen enough suicide bombings and only 3% are okay with the use of such a tactic:

And here is the level of support for suicide bombings over the last 12 years. This is a good reminder that these views, of course, are driven by circumstances. Lebanon and Pakistan - both have been rocked by internal violence - have the most dramatic shift in views, with Lebanese support for suicide bombings going down from 74% in 2002 to 29% in 2014, and in Pakistan from 33% to just 3! So - next time when Sam Harris or Pamela Geller or Ayan Hirsi Ali start making normative claims on these issues, just point out that Muslims not only have diverse positions on this topic, but their positions also change with time (and then re-read Nathan Lean's piece on problematic use of "moderate Muslims").

Read the full report here

Monday, June 23, 2014

An excellent interview on scientific cosmology, fine-tuning, and theism

by Salman Hameed

There are different types of God-of-the-gap arguments, and I think fine-tuning argument is the latest fad. I have argued before that science should be left as science - even when it comes to the questions of the origins of the universe. One of the key reasons is that we don't know where the boundaries of our knowledge lie. If history of science is any guide, several of the unsolvable problems got solved with the passage of time. From that perspective, it might be useful to keep faith/religion separated from science - and definitely from religion seeking any validation from science. All of this still leaves the room for the ultimate "why" question - and that depends on faith (both for a theistic and atheistic positions).

In this context, here is a non-nonsense interview with philosopher of science, Tim Maudlin, on modern cosmology and God. You should read the full interview, but I will highlight a few items of interest. He starts with the implication of modern cosmology for theology so far:
Gary Gutting: Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions? 
Tim Maudlin: That depends on the given theological account. The biblical account of the origin of the cosmos in Genesis, for example, posits that a god created the physical
universe particularly with human beings in mind, and so unsurprisingly placed the Earth at the center of creation. 
Modern cosmological knowledge has refuted such an account. We are living in the golden age of cosmology: More has been discovered about the large-scale structure and history of the visible cosmos in the last 20 years than in the whole of prior human history. We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn’t even exist until about 10 billion years later. 
No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since. 
G.G.: I don’t see why the extent of the universe and our nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it says anything about whether we have some special role in the universe. The major monotheistic religions maintain that there is a special spiritual relationship between us and the creator. But that doesn’t imply that this is the only purpose of the universe or that we’re the only creatures with a special relationship to the creator. 
T.M.: Yes, of course, there are, in theory, other possible hypotheses about the origin of the universe and our role in it. Someone might hold that the universe was created with humans playing some important role, but a role equally played by other living beings (not living on Earth); or that the universe was created with some living beings playing an important role, but that humans are not among them; or even that the universe was created with no particular regard for any living beings. 
If cosmology is to bear on any such hypothesis, then the hypothesis must lead to some expectations for the sort of universe a deity so motivated would create. The expectations following from the accounts, like Genesis, that make us the main purpose of the universe have, as I’ve pointed out, the great weight of evidence against them. (The other sorts of hypotheses have not been much advocated to my knowledge, and hence not developed to the point where one would know what sort of a physical universe to expect if any of them were true. My guess is that most religious people would not be especially interested in these hypotheses.)
Here is the second part of the conversation about the possibility of deriving theology from fine-tuning arguments, which Maudlin disagrees with:
G.G.: So are you saying that we don’t know enough about the relevant constants to get a theistic argument started? 
T.M.: Yes, since we don’t even know if the “constants” are constant, we certainly don’t know enough to draw any conclusions about the best account of why they have the particular values they have right now and around here. Since we don’t know how the various “constants” might be related to each other by deeper physics, the game of trying to figure out the effect of changing just one and leaving the rest alone also is not well founded. 
One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence. 
G.G.: Once again, that’s assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave. But suppose that a surprisingly narrow range of the relevant constants turns out to be necessary for humans to exist. Some critics would say that even so, cosmological inflation would provide a satisfactory explanation with no reference to a creator. What’s your view on that? 
T.M.: Not everything about cosmology is known. We do not know how to reconcile quantum theory and relativity yet, and such a reconciliation would be needed to investigate the nature of the Big Bang. In particular, we don’t understand the basic physics well enough to tell if anything preceded the Big Bang. Even the existence of an inflationary period is still controversial. 
One very speculative idea in cosmology is that the entire universe contains infinitely many “pocket universes” or “bubble universes,” in each of which the quantities we call “constants of nature” take different, randomly chosen, values. If so, then every possible combination of such values occurs somewhere, and living beings will obviously only evolve in regions where the combination of values supports life. Such an account predicts that intelligent creatures would arise in essentially random locations in a huge cosmological structure, just as we see. But this idea is highly speculative, and there is no direct evidence in its favor. 
G.G.: So is your view that we don’t currently know enough to decide whether or not fine-tuning for human life supports theism? 
T.M.: First, note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions. The attempt to put homo sapiens at the center of this discussion is a reflection of our egocentrism, and has no basis at all in the actual structure of the universe. 
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose that there is a deity who created the universe with particular attention to the fate of some creatures in a distant galaxy. The very existence of the Earth and the evolution of life on Earth was just an unintended byproduct of setting up the “constants of nature” for the sake of those creatures, not us. That would be a fascinating thing to find out, but not what most people with interests in theism were after. The actual values of the “constants of nature” certainly cannot provide more evidence for their (Genesis-like) hypothesis than for this hypothesis.
And two other important things. Maudlin corrects misconception that Lawrence Krauss provided an explanation of how universe came out of nothing (even though Krauss used that in his title) and points out the flaw in that strategy:
G.G.: Finally, let me ask about what I’ve called causal theism, which merely argues that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe, regardless of its purpose. Some cosmologists, like Lawrence Krauss, have suggested that current physical theory shows how the universe could have emerged from nothing — for example, by a quantum fluctuation. What do you think of this suggestion? 
T.M.: The more general claim that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe is a much, much weaker claim, and is consistent with humanity having had no particular significance at all to the creator. That’s why I say that just getting some creator or other is not what most people are after. 
In any case, does there need to be a nonmaterial cause as an explanation for the entire material universe? Causal explanation either goes on forever backward in time or it comes to a stop somewhere. Even people who want to postulate a nonmaterial cause of the material universe often see no need to invoke yet another cause for that nonmaterial cause, and so are content to let the sequence of causal explanations come to an end. But the initial state of the universe (if there is one) could just as well be the uncaused cause. Or if there is no initial state, and the universe goes back infinitely in time, then it can’t have a cause that precedes it in time. 
Krauss does not suggest that the universe came to exist “from nothing” in the sense of “did not come from anything at all,” but rather that it came from a quantum vacuum state. He seems to think that such a vacuum state would be a satisfying place to end the causal regress as the state with no causal antecedent. The vacuum state has many important symmetries, so if one could tell a physical story of everything coming out of a vacuum state it would have a certain appealing plausibility. But one could still ask, “Why start with the vacuum state rather than something else?” I think we don’t know enough to make any plausible guess about even whether there was an initial state, much less what it might have been. This goes beyond what we have good evidence or theory for.
And what about a minimalist theistic view - at least from a scientific perspective?
G.G.: You obviously don’t see scientific cosmology as supporting any case for theism. You also think that it refutes theistic religions’ claiming that the primary purpose of God’s creation is the existence of human beings. What, finally, is your view about the minimal theistic view that the universe was created by an intelligent being (regardless of its purpose). Does scientific cosmology support the atheistic position that there is no such creator or does it leave us with the agnostic judgment that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say? 
T.M.: Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role. Before the theoretical need for neutrinos was appreciated (to preserve the conservation of energy) and then later experimental detection was made, they were not part of the accepted physical account of the world. To say physicists in 1900 were “agnostic” about neutrinos sounds wrong: they just did not believe there were such things. 
As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act. If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon. The problem with the “minimal view” is that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds. Of course, as the example of quarks and neutrinos shows, scientific accounts change in response to new data and new theory. The default position can be overcome.
Read the full interview here

Monday, June 16, 2014

Atheists and Muslims may have a few things in common in the US

by Salman Hameed

The Pew Research Center has a new survey out that looks at the growing political polarization in the US. One of the questions asked if one would be happy if a family member married an atheist, and another question asked about a similar marriage to born-again Christian". Well, roughly half of all Americans (49%) say they will be unhappy if a family member married an atheists, and only 9% unhappy with a born-again Christian (including most atheists). Here are the results divided up by religious (and non-religious) denominations:

Now the Pew survey also asked about a member of another religious faith. But I was wondering how the numbers would look like for a family member marrying a Muslim. My guess is that they won't be that different from atheists. Here is a Gallup poll from earlier this year that showed that Americans are least likely to vote a Muslim or an and atheist for President:

This is the reason I think it will be interesting to see the marriage question for Muslims as well. I should add that this is also a temporary thing, as the same Gallup poll showed that the acceptability for atheists and Muslims go up for the younger generation.

Back to the Pew Survey. Here is the Pew marriage question again and now divided by political leanings:

Perhaps not too surprisingly, liberals (as defined in the survey) place importance on ethnic diversity, whereas conservatives lean towards a similar faith community when picking a place to live:

You can read the full Pew report here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Check out "Jodororowsky's Dune"

by Salman Hameed

This is a documentary about the crazily ambitious attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune to film. I loved the book, but was disappointed by David Lynch's 1984 adaptation (with Sting!). But I didn't know that before Lynch, Chilean director, Jodorowsky made an attempt to turn Dune into the mother of all science fiction films. He wanted Dali to play the master of the universe, and Dali's demands in return matched-up perfectly with the craziness of Jodorowsky. In addition, he convinced Orson Welles and Mick Jagger to be in the movie, and Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack (along with metal band, Magma - "they were awful" so Jodorowsky thought they were perfect for the darker elements of the film). Some of the artwork was done by Giger, who went on to create the alien of the Alien series of films. And yes, Giger himself comes off as a bit scary (by the way, he died just about a month ago).

Here are two of Giger's images for Dune (the first one is Baron Harkonnen's palace in the shape of Harkonnen's face):

This documentary is about the unbridled enthusiasm for creating art for the sake of art. Jodorowsky is completely crazy and at 84, he still has amazing energy. His recollection of going to see David Lynch's Dune is also quite funny. If you have chance, do check out Jodorowsky's Dune. Here is the trailer:

Monday, June 09, 2014

Lifting bans on liberal and secular Facebook pages in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Couple of days ago, Facebook inexplicably banned the page of Pakistan's lefty, liberal, rock band, Laal. Following an international outrage, the page appeared again in Pakistan and the band posted this on their Facebook page:

Yes its true. We were banned. We fought back. And we won. We want to thank all our supporters who supported us on social media and the mainstream media. This was your victory. They say the people united can never be defeated. Today progressives proved their strength through their unity. They forced the authorities to retreat from the ban. This may be a very small victory in relation to all the problems that Pakistan faces today. But a victory nonetheless. Let us take confidence from this victory and continue our work to unban the other progressive pages that continue to suffer from censorship. And struggle for a progressive Pakistan. The struggle continues.
So why was their page banned in Pakistan? Here is a bit from NYT:
Facebook said on Friday that it had blocked users in Pakistan from access to the pages of a popular Pakistani rock band and several left-wing political pages, drawing sharp criticism from free-speech activists who accused the American company of caving in to government censors. 
Members of the band, Laal, whose members have frequently spoken out against the Taliban, confirmed that their Facebook page, which had over 400,000 “likes,” had been blocked. 
Following an outcry on social media and inquiries by reporters to the Pakistani government and to Facebook, the government reversed itself and Facebook restored access to Laal’s page. 
But advocates said late on Friday that at least six other Facebook pages that promoted progressive debate in Pakistan and that had been blocked during the week remained inaccessible.
A spokeswoman for Facebook in London said the company’s policy was to adhere to local laws, and that it blocked the pages after receiving an official request from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, which regulates Internet content in Pakistan. 
“While we never remove this type of content from the site entirely, like most Internet services, we may restrict people from accessing it in the countries where it is determined to be illegal,” the spokeswoman said, adding that questions about why specific pages were blocked were “best addressed to the authorities who issue these orders.”
There you have it folks. Facebook is a hapless company that is forced to please authorities everywhere. So while Laal's ban has been reversed, there are other pages that are still inaccessible in Pakistan. So here is a direct petition to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to lift their bans as well.

I will leave you with two Laal songs (with english subtitles), both featuring the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Here is Gham na Kar, and it is described by the band as follows:
Laal made this video in Afghanistan. We salute the bravery and fortitude of our nations against the gravest and most unyielding of odds. Let us re-build the broken bridges and heal old wounds for we are bound together by the memory of countless centuries. Let us strive forward together, for ours is the same struggle, the same fight. Against all those who seek to oppress and enslave us. And against tyranny everywhere.

Laal - Gham Na Kar (Faiz) by Taimur_Laal

And here is an earlier song featuring a famous Faiz poem:

By the way, there is a local connection as well. The former lead vocalist for Laal, Shahram Azhar, is currently pursuing his doctorate in economics from UMass-Amherst. I haven't had a chance to run into him yet, but I hope to dod so before he leaves the area.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Video of Saba Mahmood's lecture on "Religious Liberty, the Minority Problem and Geopolitics"

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in the question of human rights and religious minorities, then do check out this lecture by Saba Mahmood. She starts by providing a historical context for the origin(s) of this discourse, and its use and misuse for political reasons. For example, she points to the US (around 17 minutes in) for championing equal rights for all individuals, while at the same time refusing equal rights to African Americans. But she then spends a large portion of her talk on the case of Egypt, and the case of Coptic Christians in Egypt (in fact, check out the bit about the shifting identity of Coptic Christians in Egypt, about 26 minutes in). Towards the end of her talk, she makes an interesting point that the construction of a "minority" itself, creates a sense of being an outsider, which in turn can lead to hostility against the minority. But there clearly is tension as it is the majorities that also creates such conditions. She doesn't necessarily provide a clear-cut solution, but at least she provides with a set of questions, or as she puts it, "at least we should try to understand how the current system got established". With Q&A, the whole session is about an hour and twenty minutes, and I think it is worth your time if you are interested in the topic.

Monday, June 02, 2014

An excellent article on revoking Spinoza's 17th century excommunication

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent and thoughtful article on how should we think about Spinoza's 17th century
excommunication today. A panel of four scholars, including Steve Nadler, was asked to look into the possibility of lifting the ban on Spinoza. After all, the Catholic Church decided to exonerate Galileo in the 1990s, so why not Spinoza? The judgment came out against lifting such a ban, but in many ways, it is about respecting Spinoza and his ideas. If you have time, you should read the full article, but here is the bit about the differences in the cases of Spinoza and Galileo:
Moreover, if we were to ask Spinoza, “Would you like the ban lifted?” I am certain that his answer would be, “I could not care less.” It is clear that he did not have any interest in being reintegrated into Judaism, much less into the particular Portuguese community that banned him. You might even say that to want to reintegrate Spinoza into Jewish life by lifting the ban would be to misunderstand what Spinoza stood for, given his strongly negative views on organized religion, and on Judaism in particular. 
Here the analogy with the case of Galileo is misleading. Galileo was promoting a set of purely scientific doctrines, albeit doctrines that the Catholic Church had deemed inconsistent with biblical texts and religious dogma. Spinoza, on the other hand, was defending views that were direct and blatant denials of some core elements of the Jewish faith. It is one thing to insist that the Earth goes around the sun, and even to insist (as Galileo did) that the Bible should not be regarded as a source of scientific knowledge; it is quite another to claim that the observance of Jewish law is no longer valid or necessary, or that the biblical prophets were uneducated individuals who spoke not from understanding but only from imagination.
While there are may be good reasons for the ban to stay in place, the article ends with an argument against conformity of ideas and censorship, especially when it comes to the search for religious truth(s):
I think a larger, and more pressing, question concerns the wisdom and efficacy of enforcing orthodoxy, or conformity in the matter of ideas (as opposed to conformity in the matter of behavior), in religious communities. Presumably, religion, in addition to being for many people a source of identity, community, comfort and moral guidance, is also a quest for understanding and truth: truth about ourselves and about the world. As John Stuart Mill and many other thinkers have argued, exercising any kind of censorship over ideas and restricting freedom of thought and speech only make it less likely that, in the end, the truth will be discovered. Why should this be any less a matter of importance in the domain of religious belief than in philosophy, science and other areas of human intellectual endeavor? 
Spinoza believed that he had, through metaphysical inquiry, discovered important truths about God, nature and human beings, truths that led to principles of great consequence for our happiness and our emotional and physical flourishing. This, in fact, is what he called “true religion.” There is a lesson here: By enforcing conformity of belief and punishing deviations from dogma, religious authorities may end up depriving the devoted of the possibility of achieving in religion that which they most urgently seek.
Read the full article here.

Steve Nadler was also our Science & Religion speaker last year, and gave an excellent talk on Spinoza. Here is the abstract followed by the video of the talk, and the Q/A session underneath. Enjoy!

In 1656, the young Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community with extreme prejudice; by the end of his short life he was regarded as one of the most radical and dangerous thinkers of his time. Among his alleged "abominable heresies" was, according to one contemporary report, the belief that "God exists only philosophically." In this lecture, we will examine Spinoza's conception of God, whereby God is identified with Nature, and address the question of whether he is, as is so often claimed, a "God intoxicated" pantheist or a devious atheist, as well as the implications of this for his views on religion.

and here is the Q/A session: