Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Management plan approved for telescopes on sacred Mauna Kea

This is an update of the controversy over the presence of observatories on Mauna Kea, Hawaii (for background, please see here and here). The State of Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) has unanimously approved a new management plan by University of Hawaii to protect the resources (scientific, cultural, and environmental) at the 14,000 foot summit - home to some of the best observatories in the world. While there are many who support the continued presence of astronomy on the mountain, there are a number of groups who oppose any new construction and distrust the new management plan.

This is an emotional issue. For many Hawaiians, the mountain top is sacred and connected to their identity. But astronomy is also one of biggest economies of the island. In fact, Mauna Kea has been picked to host the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - the largest in the world (though Europeans are planning their own comparable one in the high desert of Chile) - and is expected to bring in substantial capital to Hawaii. Furthermore, it ensures the prominence of Mauna Kea as a premier place for astronomy for at least the next couple of decades.

The vote in favor of the management plan was unanimous. However, do check out these three short videos (about 5 minutes each) of the testimonies before the vote. These will give you not only an idea of the issues involved, but also a glimpse of the raw emotions involved - both in favor of and against the observatories. Especially, listen to the person that starts testifying in the middle video, starting about 3min and 30 seconds in. He encapsulates the complexity perfectly: the silver rainbow he saw recently on Mauna Kea was not pure silver anymore - but "it was still there".

I think the management plan is a good effort and addresses many of the past concerns about cultural and environmental issues. I hope astronomers genuinely appreciate the complexity of issues on the mountain. This is definitely a case of overlapping magesteria - and not NOMA. The least we (astronomers) can do is acknowledge it.

I will keep you posted about the status. You can read about the BLNR decision in Star Bulletin here.

Related posts:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Journal Nature starts up a Middle East portal

There are some really interesting efforts being made about the promotion of science in the Muslim world. US Science envoys for the Islamic world appointed by the Obama administration, the opening of several campuses of US universities (such as NYU-Abu Dhabi, Cornell-Qatar, etc), and even Saudi Arabia getting into the action with KAUST. Now the prestigious science journal, Nature, has started its Middle East edition. If utilized appropriately, this could end up as a fantastic effort!

Couple of quick comments that came to my mind while exploring their website. First, it is great that Nature is providing Arab translations for some of the articles. Second, it provides a selection of articles that are relevant for Middle East - such as papers about agriculture in dry climates, or about archaeology, etc. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it provides a sense of inclusion of Muslims into the world science community. Let us be realistic here. The contributions of Muslim countries to world scientific literature are negligible. Predictably, scientists from these countries feel left-out of conversations about much of ongoing research. Now, Nature-Middle East is not going to resolve this particular issue. However, it does represent an effort of the developed world to connect to the scientists working in the Middle East, and that by in itself may inspire some young minds.

Of course, much will depend on keeping the content relevant for a Muslim audience, and for establishing itself as the key place for scientific discussions in the Middle East - especially for the increasing numbers of educated middle-class Muslims. I hope they also stay away from the standard nostalgic narrative about medieval Muslim science (it gets tiring very quickly) - except for dealing with direct history of science. Here is the rationale for the establishment of this edition:

Nature Middle East has been created with an understanding of the potential of the Arab world to once again be an important centre of science. It covers a diverse group of 18 nations: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Nature Middle East is about recognizing the contribution of many different peoples working together, united by a common language.

Okay - so Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, etc. are left out. Apart from the language issues, I can see why Nature Middle East as a regional edition would be more feasible than say Nature Muslim - with an identification with a particular religion. This is also consistent with Nature's two other recent portals: Nature-India and Nature-China.

Nature Middle East is a comprehensive portal site for information on scientific and medical research in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, the research community and its activities. It is a site with a broad scope that caters for scientific and medical researchers at all levels, from students to post-doctoral fellows to principal investigators. Most importantly, Nature Middle East will be a unique online platform for the scientific and medical research community to connect, network and exchange information or ideas, to promote good science and stimulate research and debate.

Explore Nature Middle East here. You can also read the press release here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Masdar - Abu Dhabi: The Silicon Valley of Renewable Energy?

A few weeks ago I had questioned the point and contribution of Dubai's Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, can potentially provide a fascinating and productive counter example. Meet Masda City - an eco-city in its early developmental stage, located 11 miles from Abu Dhabi. It is planned to be a zero-carbon city - with no cars and no skyscrapers, and it will utilize mostly solar energy. It is expected to be a compact walled city with about 50,000 inhabitants and a university. The price tag, $22 billion, is indeed high - but if this experiment of renewable energy works, then what a breakthrough! In fact, it is expected to host the headquarters of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). In addition, it is providing opportunities for Arab students to locally work in cutting-edge science & technology. The project started in 2006 and it is expected to be finished by 2014, though some sections will soon start habitation.
The architects are turning the desert's greatest threat - the sun - into their greatest asset. They have built the biggest solar farm in the Middle East to power the city and to offset the inevitable burning of diesel and baking of cement in construction.

They are also experimenting. One project involves a circular field of mirrors on the ground, all reflecting towards a tower in the middle.

That, in turn, bounces the light down in a concentrated beam about a metre (3ft) wide to produce heat and drive generators.

But I was told firmly not to wander over and feel the warmth, as it could fry me in seconds.

The international team of engineers have real pride in their work.

This is more than building to them, it is a lab bench with the freedom to get it wrong, and Masdar's chief architect Gerard Evenden loves the concentration of expertise: "What Abu Dhabi is beginning to generate is the Silicon Valley of renewable energy."

And here are some common sense measures for the city along with some ambitious ones:

Masdar will have to be low temperature and low carbon.

Part of the solution is apparent the moment you walk in. And you do "walk in" because this is a city surrounded by a wall, a defined boundary.

Unlike the upward and outward sprawl of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Masdar is compact like ancient Arab cities.

Streets are narrow so buildings shade each other, and the walls and roofs of buildings will do their bit to shed heat too.

The vertical faces are dressed with screens which look like a terracotta mesh. They keep the sun out but let the breeze in.

And as architect Gerard Evenden says: "Lunar technology has begun to influence our thinking."

One idea being tested is using a thin foil surface covering, a gas or vacuum blanket, to keep the heat out. It is an idea dreamt up for a moon base.

To encourage a breeze, wind towers are being built, drawing draughts through the streets without using energy.

Masdar will still use electricity for gadgets, some air conditioning and, most crucially, to desalinate sea water but, when it comes to power, the city has a simple mantra: "Only use energy when you have exhausted design."

Okay - I'm a total sucker for space exploration and science fiction. So I'm totally sold now that they mention influences from Lunar technology. Yes, there will be a gulf (ha!) between planning and reality. However, I think this is the right direction to invest, even if for only experimentation. Hopefully this will not turn into a gimmick for the rich and the celebrities.

Read the full article here. Here is the official website of Masdar City (the videos are a bit erratic there).

Extremism and the complex education landscape of Pakistan

Much of the battle for Pakistan will be fought over the direction of the rising youth population of Pakistan. To make things worse, the education system has been a mess for quite some time. There is the Cambridge system for the elites, english-medium education for urban population and/or the middle class, urdu medium for the lower-middle class, and madrassas for the rest. The future prospects for a successful career strongly align in this particular descending order. The madrassas have gained a lot of attention in past decade or so for their possible role in radicalizing Pakistani youth and in providing recruits for suicide bombings. But the picture is more complex - and we need an effort to systematically understand the dynamics (please see an earlier post Madrassas vs private schools in Pakistan).

So here is an article in today's Washington Post that talks about a reform school near the Swat Valley in Pakistan, that is trying to provide education to those young students who were earlier under the Taliban. This is a small effort, but it goes to the heart of the problem:

At a new school tucked near the fragile peace of the Swat Valley, peach-fuzzed veterans of Taliban camps wear burgundy sweaters to math classes, counseling sessions and religion lessons, where they hear that Islam favors democracy over suicide. Teachers work in fear of militant attacks and of hardened students -- but also in hopes of de-radicalizing the gangly boys who make up a growing part of Pakistan's insurgency.

Analysts say there is an urgent need. Pakistan is home to the toxic mix of a significant youth population, few job prospects and a rising Islamist insurgency. Military officials say most suicide bombings are now carried out by males younger than 20. The 86 adolescents at this army-sponsored school are a drop in that ocean, a fact that its director, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, said she tries not to dwell on.

"It can have a ripple effect," Peracha said, as her students, ages 12 to 18, quietly took exams. "We are a time bomb if we don't do this."

Though child soldiers have toted guns in conflicts worldwide, international experts say their indoctrination and reform has been poorly researched. Organizers of this boarding school -- the first of its kind in Pakistan -- say it is providing a valuable, if small, window into the backgrounds of Pakistan's young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants.

All of the students came to the school after being captured by the army, or were brought here by their families. Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.

What is interesting about these students is the fact that they are not motivated by ideology nor were they brainwashed in any madrassas. Rather, many of them are just like troubled kids elsewhere in the world, and the Taliban (or whatever group wants to use them) find them and exploit them for their own purposes. They don't even know much about Islam or even about Pakistan:

More significantly, she and other teachers said, most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.

In that regard, Peracha said they seem more like the juvenile delinquents she has counseled in Pakistan and Britain than religious zealots -- an observation that points to Pakistan's even more deeply entrenched problems of dismal schooling and profound poverty.

"The civil society and the rest of Pakistan, we didn't really react until it nearly hit Islamabad," Peracha said of the militant movement that last year seized territory located within 60 miles of the capital. "And we still aren't reacting [in] the education system, which is frozen in time."

That has created a vacuum that militants are increasingly exploiting. In lawless South Waziristan, poor boys attended an insurgent school painted with murals of the paradise awaiting martyrs, said Brig. Syed Azmat Ali, a military spokesman. In Swat, where the main Taliban leader rose to prominence through radio sermonizing, children were ill-equipped to challenge the notion that Pakistani troops were infidels who deserved death.

"They knew extremely little about the world or about Islam," said Mohammed Farooq, a Swat University vice chancellor and religious scholar in charge of Islamic education at the school for former militants. "They had just a superficial knowledge that we are Muslims and we have to fight America and their stooges."

He and Peracha said they believe the program, which combines tough love and discipline with a standard curriculum and regular counseling, is working. To assess the boys' risk levels, Peracha performs standardized neuropsychology tests and gently pries out their stories over several meetings.

Read the full article here. Pakistan needs a massive education reform. There are some fantastic individuals who have started up schools in some of the poorest parts of the country (for example read about Mortenson's schools here), but there has to be a bigger and more coordinated effort informed by research about the undercurrents madrassas and public school system. It is not going to be easy - but this may be essential for the future stability of Pakistan.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Orson Welles reads from Moby Dick

Oh - this is so captivating, even though it is less than 2 minutes long. Absolutely fascinating (tip from Open Culture). I should mention that Orson Welles is a bit paraphrasing from the introductory chapter (Loomings) of Moby Dick. Unfortunately, he did not read the whole book - what a treat that would have been! However, you can listen to all of Moby Dick here (but you may have to get over the fact that it is not being read in this dramatic manner and by somebody other than Welles).



If of interest, you may want to check out an excellent recent film, Me an Orson Welles, a movie about Welles' early career and his brilliant adaptation of Julius Ceasar at The Mercury Theater.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Christian Science Church - Reform or Perish

How far can a religion go against modern science? I'm not talking about philosophical issues about origins or the meaning of life. But rather about the practical issues of modern medicine. Christian Science Church relies on prayer and rejects modern medicine - and its members have successfully prosecuted for the death of children from preventable diseases (see Faith Healers Convicted and Reliance on Prayer and Death of Children). The membership of the Church, justifiably, has been going down - not just because of these unnecessary deaths, but because people are rejecting their attitude towards modern medicine. Guess what? Now Christian Science Church is reforming its attitude towards medicine and is showing some flexibility:
Since the founding of their church 131 years ago, Christian Scientists have been taught to avoid doctors at all cost. It is a conviction rooted so deeply in church dogma that dozens of members have endured criminal prosecution rather than surrender an ailing person to what they see as the quackery of medical science.

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church’s reputation caused by its intransigence concerning medical treatment, even for children with grave illnesses, Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.

This is a small religion by numbers. But this also reminded me of the rejection of evolution by many Evangelical Christians and also by many in the Muslim world. Evolutionary science is already playing a significant role in modern medicine (antibiotics, of course, is the most obvious example), and its role is only going to increase. If a country is successful in banning the teaching of evolutionary science and in rejecting all evolution-based medical products - an unlikely scenario, but still a possibility in some cases - then it will be interesting to see how long will it take for a reform to kick-in. If such a rejection persists in the face of all the scientific evidence, they may face a future similar to the Christian Science Church. But of course, most people are practical. Even when they reject evolution, they are okay in using the treatment for evolution-based medicine. But the Christian Science Church has been more consistent (at least in the past):
Church officials recently permitted two practitioners and two patients to talk about Christian Science treatments with a reporter from The New York Times — a rare public discussion that they said they hoped would demonstrate the commitment to transparency, and would help people understand their beliefs.

They would not discuss the care of children or let a reporter witness a treatment session. And neither practitioner was willing to discuss the new flexibility described by Mr. Davis.

But in conversations liberally supplemented with citations from “Science and Health,” they explained their basic beliefs: In Christian Science, they said, sickness and suffering are misunderstandings — or as Mrs. Eddy wrote, “a mistaken belief” in the “power of ill health.”

One of the practitioners, John Q. Adams of Manhattan, said a patient who came to him with a lump under his arm was experiencing “a manifestation of fear, not a lump.”

The other practitioner, Rebecca Odegaard of Boston, said that if a patient had a bleeding gash in his arm, “I would try to calm this person, and help him overcome the fear.” Such a patient is suffering anxiety over the illusion that something has injured his “true self,” when the gash has only happened to his “material self,” Ms. Odegaard said.

In both cases, said Mr. Adams, healing requires engaging in “an argument with yourself to restore the truth.”

And then they pray for the patient. There you have it. All good.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vaccine diplomacy

Last week's Science has an excellent editorial that suggests cooperation about vaccination research as a potential opportunity for the US to work with the Muslim world. Many of the neglected tropical diseases inflict population in Muslim countries - in fact, members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) account for 40% of the global burden of intestinal helminth infections. Similarly, polio has been eliminated from most of the world, with only remaining cases found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria (see Between fatwas and polio and "Infidel Vaccine": Polio vaccination controversy in Pakistan). So it makes total sense for the US to help out research institutions in the Muslim world dealing with some of these diseases. This will not only be a smart political move, but will also help advance nascent research programs in the Muslim world and help eliminate some of the nasty diseases from the world:

Although more than one billion people suffer from neglected tropical diseases, the corresponding vaccines have essentially no commercial market, relegating their development to nonprofit product development partnerships funded by sources such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Recently, the pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Merck also initiated global health vaccine development partnerships. But more needs to be done. Joint scientific cooperation between the United States and technologically advanced member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—especially the Asian OIC nations of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia, and selected Middle Eastern countries—could advance vaccine development for treating neglected tropical diseases in Islamic countries. Indeed, leishmaniasis vaccines are under development in Iran, but these efforts would benefit from greater cooperation with scientific institutions in the West.

I completely agree with the sentiment above - and it would be absolutely fantastic if the US can establish a positive relation with Iran. Even if not Iran, I'm quite hopeful that this kind of cooperation will take shape - and some of the groundwork has already been laid with the appointment by the Obama administration of Science Envoys to the Muslim world, and the Science editorial rightly points to the avenue:

Last year, the Obama Administration launched a new Science Envoy program to Islamic nations to foster scientific collaboration in ways that address economic, social, and ecological challenges.** In that connection, a vigorous new program of vaccine R&D diplomacy could create opportunities for the United States to address the world's most terrible disease scourges while simultaneously creating a new foreign policy venue. The globally beneficial legacy of the oral polio vaccine should spur the United States and its international product development partnerships to connect with scientists in the Islamic world and produce a new generation of life-saving products. The incentive and opportunity to improve international public health, reduce poverty, and promote global security have never been so clear.

What more can be said. Engage! Read the full editorial here.

Also, read these related posts:

Tropical Diseases in the Muslim World

Between Fatwas and Polio

"Infidel Vaccine":Polio vaccination controversy in Pakistan

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Observatories and Monasteries


Perhaps the best part of being an observational astronomer is that one gets to visit some of the world's most remote and astonishing places. For my thesis work I went to Chile multiple times to observe at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Andes (pictures above) - and I saw some of the most spectacular sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. But then most observatories are located in these amazing locations. It is thus not surprising that many of the same mountain tops are also considered sacred or are used for religious purposes. I have written about the conflict over observatories at Mauna Kea before (for example, see here and here). But to give you an idea of the place, here is a nice time lapse video of observatories on the mountain:
On related note, here is a review of a book, The Edge of Physics, by Anil Ananthaswamy that talks about observatories and monasteries. In fact, the author, after spending some time at Mount Wilson, also decided to stay at a nearby monastery:
Confessing that his journey is a pilgrimage, Ananthaswamy begins and ends his tale at observatories that share peaks with monasteries. The first site is Mount Wilson in California, where Edwin Hubble measured the expansion of the Universe in the 1920s. Ananthaswamy explains how a reverential attitude was expected from astronomers working there, and how for many years women were banned from the site because they were considered a distraction. Reflecting this austere atmosphere, the astronomers' basic sleeping accommodation is still called The Monastery. Ananthaswamy stays on for a few nights with the neighbouring community of Camaldolese monks to contemplate the site in solitude and silence. One of the monks, a distant relative of George Ellery Hale who founded the observatory in 1904, explains how he too seeks “a deep experience that one can't express”.
I have not been to Mount Wilson - but I would love to read about Ananthaswamy's experience with the monks. In an interesting way, the books ends with an observatory/monastery connection in India:
Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour. Ending his journey, and his story, at India's Hanle observatory in the Himalayas, he again notes the confluence of an observatory and a monastery at a remote location. He urges that these sites must be protected from environmental threats such as climate change and oil pipelines.
Yes, that is totally fine. But interesting issues come up when there are others who find observatories themselves to be responsible for local environmental damage (as in the case of Mauna Kea).

Observatories are not the only places Ananthaswamy explores. He also goes to Antarctica, visits neutrino-detector mine in Minnesota, and flies to Siberia. He is interested on understanding the people who are conducting these experiments. Looks like an interesting read. If you are interested in this topic, also check out Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Encounters at the end of the world.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Still no sense from Saudi Arabia on sorcery death sentence

A few months back I had posted about a ridiculous court case where a Lebanese TV host, Ali Hussain Sibat, had been sentenced to death on sorcery charges in Saudi Arabia (he is pictured above with two of his five children - image from CNN). This is a serious issue. In 2007, an Egyptian pharmacist, working in the Saudi Kingdom, was executed on sorcery charges. Ali Hussain Sibat appealed the decision - but now it seems that he is facing the death penalty again despite the appellate court finding the initial verdict premature:

According to El Khansa, Sibat appealed the verdict. The case was taken up by the Court of Appeal in the Saudi city of Mecca on the grounds that the initial verdict was "premature."

El Khansa tells CNN that the Mecca appeals court then sent the case back to the original court for reconsideration, stipulating that all charges made against Sibat needed to be verified and that he should be given a chance to repent.

On March 10, judges in Medina upheld their initial verdict, meaning Sibat is once again sentenced to be executed.

"The Medina court refused the sentence of the appeals court," said El Khansa, adding her client will appeal the verdict once more.

...

According to Arab News, an English language Saudi daily newspaper, after the most recent verdict was issued, the judges in Medina issued a statement expressing that Sibat deserved to be executed for having continually practiced black magic on his show, adding that this sentence would deter others from practicing sorcery.

Arab News reports that the case will now return to the appeals court in Mecca.

If a human life was not at stake, we would have simply shook our heads in disappointment and perhaps walked away. But now the consequences makes the whole issue disgusting. I know that Jahiliyya is a loaded term - but this action of the Saudi court would qualify as such in any contemporary society - the Taliban excluded.

Read the full story here. Here is an appeal from the Amnesty International to write to the Saudi King (you will also find more details about the case there):

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in Arabic, English or your own language:

  • Urging the King to halt the execution of ‘Ali Hussain Sibat and the man sentenced to death on “apostasy” charges in Hail in July 2009, if their sentences are upheld by the Supreme Court;

  • Calling on the authorities to release ‘Ali Hussain Sibat and the other man immediately and unconditionally if they have been convicted solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression;

  • Urging the authorities to desist from charging and convicting people for “apostasy,” as it violates the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 28 APRIL 2010 TO:

King and Prime Minister

His Majesty King ‘Abdullah Bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Al-Saud

The Custodian of the two Holy Mosques

Office of His Majesty the King

Royal Court, Riyadh

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Fax: (via Ministry of the Interior)

+966 1 403 1185 (please keep trying)

Salutation: Your Majesty


Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior

His Royal Highness Prince Naif bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Al-Saud, Ministry of the Interior, P.O. Box 2933, Airport Road

Riyadh 11134

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Fax: +966 1 403 1185 (please keep trying)

Salutation: Your Royal Highness


And copies to:

President, Human Rights Commission

Bandar Mohammed ‘Abdullah al- Aiban

Human Rights Commission

P.O. Box 58889, King Fahad Road, Building No. 373, Riyadh 11515

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Fax: +966 1 461 2061

Email: hrc@haq-ksa.org

Salutation: Dear Mr al-Aiban

Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. Please check with your section office if sending appeals after the above date. This is the first update of UA 328/09. Further information: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE23/036/2009/en

Please do take a minute to write these letters.

On Violence: Pinker and The White Ribbon

Over the weekend I had a chance to see The White Ribbon (it was nominated for a foreign language Oscar last year). It is absolutely wonderful! Shot in gorgeous black & white, the story is set in a German village a few years before the onset of World War I. On the surface, the movie is a crime thriller, but underneath it says a lot about violence, change, class structure, and human nature. Or may be it is about the randomness of the existence of evil. The movie is directed by Michael Haneke, who also made the riveting French film, Cache (released in many countries with the title, Hidden), in 2005, where he explored the psychology of violence and class politics in modern day France (in case you are interested, Cache is being remade by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead). Here is the preview of The White Ribbon:



While we are on the subject of violence, here is a short (about 20 min) Ted talk by Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence. It just reaffirms my desire not to use a time machine to go into the past. This is a very good talk - and I happen to share his viewpoint, but I wish he had also addressed the increasing lethality of weapons, i.e. how a few people can now cause disproportionate harm (for example the use of a nuclear weapon), and that this curve is going in the opposite direction. But a fascinating talk. Do check it out.



Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Burj Khalifa: A cathedral for the affluent?

In a few weeks residents will start moving into the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa. Cultures have often built imposing structures to show-off their strength and innovation - from Egyptian pyramids to mosques & cathedrals to the sky scrapers of the 20th century. Since a considerable amount of innovation and investment goes into the creation of such structures, these buildings often map onto the existing political and military powers.

So how should we see Dubai's Burj Khalifa in the 21st century? There is no denying the technical prowess associated with the building. But those responsible for the feat are not associated with Dubai or even the Middle East - rather they are integrated in the global econ
omic system. Perhaps, in this sense Dubai - a commercial free port - may be an appropriate symbol of buying its way to host the world's tallest building. Far from projecting political, cultural, or military power, the Burj Khalifa may just be a monument for the affluent. May be that's okay. However, if there was so much money to be spent on a building, I would have voted for a Hilton in space.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pakistan public opinion on Taliban

Well, if we go by the narrative in the newspapers in the US, Pakistan is crawling with bearded males & burqa-clad women and there is strong support for the Taliban in Pakistan. However, polls show a different story. Here is a recent Gallup poll (tip from Tabsir) that shows a continuing decline of Taliban popularity in both Pakistan and Afghanistan - but much more so in Pakistan:
In fact, the Taliban have lost support in all parts of the country - most strikingly in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) - the province where much of the battle with the Taliban is taking place. But note that the survey does not include the tribal FATA area where tribes sympathetic to the Taliban reside and where the military is engaged with the Taliban fighters. However, this area represents less than 5% of the population - so the overall results are not impacted.

Colbert on the Texas textbook mess

Of course, we can't miss a commentary by Colbert on the Texas textbook mess. Enjoy! (except for in countries where you can't access it - sorry :( )

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Religious experience and chopping wood

In graduate school, I found cosmology to be one of the toughest classes. We used Structure Formation in the Universe by T. Padmanabhan as our textbook. It is an excellent text for graduate level astronomy - though some of its parts will now have to be modified because of the discovery of the acceleration of our universe in the late 1990s. Perhaps, the reason I have affection for this book is because I remember spending sooo much time on each page trying to understand physical concepts underlying loads of equations and, of course, in trying to solve the related homework problems. One of the questions in my oral qualifying exam, in fact, was directly from this book (oh...even after so many years, I can still feel the tension). In any case, here is an interview with Padmanabhan in which he talks about gravity and fundamental forces in the first half, and then about science & religion in the latter half. He takes an experiential approach to religion, akin to William James, and endorses NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) as his position regarding science & religion:

Q You combine your interest in science with pursuits that can loosely be termed ‘spiritual’. Are these not at odds? What do you make of the assault on religion by someone like Richard Dawkins?

A Dawkins has erected a straw man and knocked it down. I have no respect for this. It is very easy to knock down a particular class of models for God and religion. Russell and others, for example, have already done this a long time ago and far more effectively.

My take is that my concept of fundamental reality does not require any support from science or vice-versa. The two things lie in different domains and represent different types of knowledge. One is by its nature introverted, an inner knowledge, and the other is extroverted. Together, they complement each other.

Q Where does this other knowledge come from?

A The idea of direct experience lies beyond Aristotelian logic. It is born out of a personal knowledge—say, through a meditative experience. It is not translatable into the normal grammar of ideas, but nothing in ordinary logic precludes its existence.

And in case you are wondering about the chopping wood reference:

Q Once you step beyond Aristotelian logic, what keeps you interested in physics? Does it not then become just a game?

A There was an enlightened Zen master who was asked what he did before enlightenment, and he replied, “I used to fetch water and chop wood.” And asked what he does now after gaining enlightenment, he said he fetches water and chops wood. Nothing external changes. Doing physics is like chopping wood and fetching water!

Read the full interview here. Also see an earlier post about some problems with NOMA.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Texas messing with textbooks

At least now we know that the "murder of history" in textbooks is not the sole domain of Pakistan. A Texan dentist, Don McLeroy, is doing his best to include his own historical fairy tales in social studies textbooks. In case you are wondering, yes, he also believes that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and has been fighting to weaken any mention of biological evolution in textbooks. Now I'm no anti-dentite - but this guy is an idiot! Here is a short (about 5min - but it may only play in US) ABC report on the proposed textbook changes (enjoy his logic about why men should get the credit for women voting rights):



Wow! But there is a silver lining: He was booted out in the last election. But he can, and probably will, do significant damage to textbooks before he leaves the office.

Update (Mar 16): Here is an editorial on this mess in today's NYT: Rewriting history in Texas

An update on the Abdus Salam Documentary


A while back I had posted about an ambitious effort to make a documentary about Abdus Salam - Pakistan's only Nobel Laureate (he shared the 1979 physics prize with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for their work on the unification of electromagnetic and weak forces). It seems that things are moving along. I recently got an e-mail from one of its Executive Producers, Zakir Thaver, who informed me that they have finished filming in Pakistan and are planning on doing the European bit (London, Oxford, Cambridge, Trieste, and Geneva) in August 2010. The Friday Times also has this excellent piece about Abdus Salam and the efforts behind this documentary.
However, most importantly, the film makers are trying to raise funds for the project. The whole project is expected to cost in the range of $500,000 - a modest budget for an ambitious project. Why would raising funds be difficult in Pakistan? Well, sadly it is in large part because of Salam's faith. He belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect - a sect whose members are openly discriminated against in Pakistan. As I have pointed this out before, in order to get a Pakistani passport, one has to declare that
Ahmadi's are non-Muslims (yes - this open discrimination in the 21st century). Salam's own gravestone was defaced: the epitaph read "First Muslim Nobel Laureate", but the word "Muslim" was later erased on the orders of the local magistrate (see picture on the right - click to enlarge it and then see the erased part in english). So it is not surprising that it has been difficult raising funds for the project:
With Salam’s picture hanging in their classrooms, these students and teachers at Government High School, Jhang, are the epitome of dedication to Salam’s dream. As Zakir and Omar describe to me just how much these children who have never even seen Salam are in awe of the man, I begin to wonder why everyday Pakistanis find it difficult to put their money where their mouth is. People completely willing to donate back off the minute they discover Salam’s faith. Despite the option of donating anonymously at the documentary’s website, few have used that option to donate even a few dollars to this cause.

Still, Zakir and Omar do not lose hope. They continue to ‘work by day and hustle by night’, as filmmaker Mira Nair advised them to. Just when they are about to lose hope, a small $50 donation coupled with a friendly, supportive email sends the two onto cloud nine, and they are back, working with the same fervour as before
. Former students of the ICTP regularly email them telling them how Dr Salam has ‘changed their life’. “Just a $20 donation with a nice email makes us so happy, we spend the next hour online talking about how good it feels,” chuckles Omar.

“Ramanujan inspired a generation of Indian scientists. Madam Curie, a woman from Poland continues to be an inspiration to this day. Salam’s story has the potential to do the same,” Omar points out. Zakir and Omar plan to do just that: one of their dearest plans is to show the documentary to the children at Salam’s old school in Jhang.

With the likes of Sabiha Sumar (director of Khamosh Pani), Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, Dr Ahmed Zewail (the only other Muslim Nobel Prize winner besides Salam), Dr Moeen Qureshi and Charles Townes (another Nobel Laureate) on board for their project, one can expect a lot from Omar and Zakir, provided they have the finances in the future to continue with their project uninterrupted.
This project is more than just about documenting a personality. It is also about tolerance, pluralism, and seeing beyond one's beliefs. I wish the film makers all the success! Please check out the website for the film and if you find the project worthy, please donate here - even if it's only $20. You can also see Behind the Scenes pictures here. Also, read The Friday Times article here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Technology, music, and freedom of expression

A while back I had posted about a fascinated book Heavy Metal Islam by Mark Levine. The book talked about the popularity and the cultural significance of many heavy metal and rock groups in various Muslim countries. On a related note, I just came across Mark Levine's recent post about the way the music of an underground Iranian group, The Plastic Wave, was performed in Brooklyn by another group, Cruel Black Dove. Banned at home and denied visa by the US consulate (in Dubai), members of The Plastic Wave watched their music being performed live in Brooklyn, over the internet:

The Plastic Wave is one of an ever growing number of rock, metal and hiphop groups forming in Iran whose innovativeness and talent easily rivals the emerging crop of bands in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London or Berlin. Indeed, if music clubs were allowed in Tehran there is little doubt the city would become as important a center for rock innovation as any of these cities, with clubs and bands popping up like mushrooms across Tehran's urban landscape.

The band's blend of electronica, ethereal yet catchy rhythms and melodies, and crunchy guitars brings to mind Portishead and even bits of PJ Harvey but with a more psychedelic and techno edge. As important is the fact that they are the first band in the Iranian scene to have a female lead singer, the hauntingly beautiful, siren-voiced Maral, whose alternatingly languid and intense English phrasings would make them a natural fit in the US music market.

The fact that The Plastic Wave is led by a female singer, eliminates any possibility of the band playing live in Iran outside of clandestine parties, as women are not allowed to sing alone in front of mixed audiences. The concert where the band members was actually crashed by the police, who arrested 230 audience members and saw Maral and keyboardist/producer Natch spend five days in prison on charges of satanism and immoral behavior.

Well, the group was invited to perform in US, but the US consulate decided not to grant the members a visa.

Under normal circumstances this would have proved the end of the story, but Freemuse, joined by the Center for Inquiry, and a new organization, the Impossible Music Sessions, teamed up to provide a forum that would highlight the band's plight. Unlike the major human rights organizations, all three understood that while we might take the freedom of music for granted, creative expression is limited by censorship, intimidation, and cultural pressures in many places, and so those of us lucky enough to have that freedom need to help expose -- and in doing so, offer at least some protection for, artists who cannot appear and the music that they are not free to make.

If there was one band that could do justice to The Plastic Wave's unique sound it's the Brooklyn-based electronic rock group Cruel Black Dove. With a sound that is at once rich and sheen yet also dark and haunting, the band was the perfect group to step in and help bring the Plastic Wave's music to an American audience.

While relatively small in size, the concert, at one of Brooklyn's premier performance spaces, Littlefield, will certainly go down in the annals of rock history for being the first time that a rock group has watched another group perform its music on system like ooVoo because it was not allowed either to come themselves to perform. And it was clear that the artists and audience understood the significance of the evening.

From the moment the night started with a short film introducing the audience to The Plastic Wave and their situation everyone was hooked to the screen. When members of the Cruel Black Dove, joined by Impossible Music Sessions creator Austin Dacey and Raam, lead singer of the celebrated Iranian rock band Hypernova -- the first Iranian rock group to get a visa to perform in the US -- sat down in a living room-like set in front of the stage to talk live with band members Maral and Natch, the whole room became part of an intimate conversation about The Plastic Wave's origins, creative process, the impossibility of giving up making music despite the challenges of doing so in Iran, and hopes for the future.

This is fascinating - and it again shows that the internet is changing the world profoundly and in ways that are difficult to predict. And change seems to be in the Iranian air as well - though the process and the pace may be uncertain.

In this slow, drawn out struggle, culture will play an increasingly important role in the battle for the hearts and minds of the tens of millions of young Iranians who are the country's future. And Iran's burgeoning youth music scenes clearly understand, as the great Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti declared, that "music is the weapon of the future."

The more they can engage with each other, and with fans world-wide through software like ooVoo, the more powerful the impact of the music will be, and the greater the chance that in five or ten years time, bands like The Plastic Wave will live in an Iran where playing music live is no longer a crime.

Read the full article here. Here is a nice short video about this affair and it allows you to put faces to this story:


Upcoming lecture: Scott Atran at Hampshire College on Mar 25th

This is a heads-up for the next lecture in our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion. Dr. Scott Atran will be our speaker on Thursday, March 25th. The topic will deal with the psychology of political violence - and is as timely as it can get. I will also post some of his relevant articles as a lead-up to his talk. If you are in the area, please join us for the talk. Here is the abstract:

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

For Friends & Faith
Understanding the path and barriers to political violence

by
Dr. Scott Atran

Thursday, March 25, 2010
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Abstract:
Many creatures will fight to the death for their close kin, but only humans fight and sacrifice unto death for friends and imagined kin, for brotherhoods willing to shed blood for one another. The reason for brotherhoods-- unrelated people cooperating to their full measure of devotion--are as ancient as our uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species. Different cultures ratchet up these reasons into great causes in different ways. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end... especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. This century's major terrorist incidents are cases in point.

Dr. Scott Atran is a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. Dr. Atran's books include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and The Native Mind: Cognition and Culture in Human Knowledge of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin).

For more information, please visit our Lecture website.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The intersection of finite and the infinite

Spring Break, finally! Posts here were slow last week - but then the week before spring break is usually the craziest. But why worry about such petty things when we can wonder about infinities. Here is a review of intriguing new book, The Infinities, by John Banville. I'm not sure if I want to read it, but it does have a fascinating premise:
What, if any, is the desirable ­intersection of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the divine? That’s the question John Banville asks in his latest novel. Or perhaps that metaphysical query is only a bluff. Perhaps what “The Infinities” is really about is how much you can get away with if you’re a genius, a game-changer, a master (literally) of the universe.

The novel takes place over the course of a single summer’s day in the confines of a big shabby house in the middle of Ireland. On an upper floor, in what the residents call “the Sky Room,” Adam Godley, a theoretical mathematician, lies apparently insensible and on the verge of death after a stroke. His family — wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law — has assembled for the occasion of his passing. Two more guests, one expected and one not, will arrive shortly. And two more, the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus, are also present, although no one but the family dog can see them. Hermes, whose job it is to usher the souls of the dead to the underworld, narrates most of “The Infinities,” but his point of view hitches rides from character to character as they move through the house, ruminating on how they feel about one another and the failing paterfamilias upstairs.

“The Infinities” is based on the myth of Amphitryon, a Theban general whose wife, Alcmene, was seduced by Zeus while her husband was off fighting a battle. Since Zeus came to the virtuous Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon, she can hardly be called adulterous; all the same, Amphitryon was cuckolded. Was Alcmene wronged by the god or honored?
Okay. But then you add the genius of the theoretical mathematician and an alternative history where the theory of relatively (which one?) and evolution have been overturned:
And here’s something odd: The family the Godleys bought the house from are descended from a soldier ennobled by Mary, Queen of Scots, after she had “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor” beheaded. The younger Adam drives a car powered by sea water. “Wallace’s theory of evolution” has been recently overturned, and so has the theory of relativity, thanks to Godley’s own work. In his youth, the dying mathematician was responsible for “a series of equations, a handful of exquisite and unimpeachable paradoxes” that “unlocked the sealed chamber of time,” revealing, among other things, the infinite number of infinities and “a multitude of universes.” The universe in which “The Infinities” takes place, it seems, is not our own.
An infinite number of infinities? Now that's a lot of infinity. So what about the intersection of humans and immortals?
According to “The Infinities,” the human and the immortal cannot live together, only intersect in fleeting, galvanic moments. These are our rare jolts of inspiration, a word derived from the Latin for “to breathe,” for when the gods breathe through us — or into us, as was the case with Alcmene. Her intersection with Zeus resulted in the conception of Heracles, the ideal man and Everyman, a chip of the divine embedded in what Godley calls “this frightful and exquisite world.”
Read the full review here. You can also read an excerpt from the book here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guest Post: Halal - Religion, Science, and Politics

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

Halal: Religion, Science, and Politics

“Halal” normally means “islamically permissible”; it’s an adjective which can apply to anything on which the Islamic Law (Shari`ah) has some prescription. Nowadays, and especially when used in English, it refers to Islamic dietary rules, particularly the requirement that animals be slaughtered – in the name of Allah – for their meat to be lawfully consumed. In recent years, and especially with the appearance of the mad-cow disease, some Muslim jurists added emphasis on the way the animals are fed, for their meat to be “halal”.

This has not created any difficulty in traditional Muslim lands, where industrial meat production and packing is still not mechanized enough for such rules to pose problems. In the west, however, slaughtering has largely disappeared from the mainstream market, and the meat production process disturbs many people (Muslims and non-Muslims – see the enlightening but depressing recent documentary “Food, Inc.”). This has opened up a huge area of discussion on various issues: (a) Why are Muslims required to slaughter animals to begin with? (b) What can Science and Technology tell us on this? (c) To what extent can the rules be relaxed a bit? (d) What roles do Religion (Jurisprudence), Sociology (immigration), and Politics (acceptance of religious vs. secular regulations) play on this? Etc.

And so, to the delight of some industrialists and conservative religious leaders, and to the horror of some right-wing politicians, the “halal” market exploded in the west in the past decade or so. And when the French fast-food chain Quick decided to open “halal branches” in some Muslim-dominated neighborhoods, a strongly polarized reaction occurred: applause from the Islamic corner, boos and panic from the right-wing corner, who saw this (purely commercial) decision as a sign that the Islamic tsunami was beginning…

Regarding the Islamic tradition’s requirement that the name of Allah be proclaimed at the moment of slaughtering, some more moderate scholars (e.g. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi) have stated that making that pronouncement just before eating the meat is equally valid. Al-Qaradawi also argues (and offers Qur’anic justifications) that the meat provided by Christians and Jews is lawful for consumption by Muslims, though others have argued strongly that the original permission assumed that Christians and Jews slaughtered their animals.

Furthermore, Muslims – especially in the West – have started to ask about the lawfulness of using new techniques, such as anesthetizing animals (see IslamOnline) or stunning them by electric shocks (see here) before the slaughter, both of which have been deemed acceptable or even advisable (by Al-Qaradawi and the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, respectively) in order to minimize the animal’s suffering during the slaughter, as long as those techniques do not end up killing the animal.

Muslim literalists (e.g. the famous Pakistani scholar Al-Mawdudi), however, have made it an absolute must for animals to be slaughtered (in the Islamic way) for their meat to be “halal” for consumption.

Now, not only have some modernist Muslims started to challenge that general agreement on the religious necessity of animal slaughter, some are doing it on scientific grounds. For example, Haoues Seniguer has argued (here and here) that one of the main reasons for the Islamic rules (prohibition of the consumption of blood and of any animal still containing blood, i.e. killed by a blow, as well as the requirement of slaughtering, i.e. draining of blood) is the attempt to get rid of all bacteria and viruses in the animal. This higher goal, he goes on, could not be explained to people at the time of Prophet Muhammad, but that was the principle behind the divine rule, although the Prophet obviously could not understand the scientific reasons behind it. Now, says Seniguer, we can achieve the same goals with more sophisticated and efficient techniques, so that the meat one buys at the supermarket is at least as good, if not healthier, than the meat of an animal killed in the traditional way. (When writing that, Seniguer had not watched “Food, Inc.”!)

Similarly, Tareq Oubrou asks: why does Islam refuse the consumption of meat that has not been cleansed of its blood? His answer: Precisely because the blood contains unhealthy germs. Therefore, if one is assured that a butcher is honest and has followed hygienic rules producing the same result (as the Islamic objectives), then the meat should be acceptable.

It should be noted, however, that Muslim jurists insist that the main argument for slaughtering is not medical but rather theological, namely that the taking of an animal’s life must be done in the name of Allah, whether that is done by slaughtering (the method prescribed by the Prophet) or by shots (bullets or arrows). The counter-argument is that the taking of the lives of fish (big or small) is exempted from both the slaughter and the uttering of God’s name at the time of killing.

Meanwhile, the Muslim communities and the politicians in Europe are having a tug-of-war over this issue, and the market is making a killing (no pun intended), with “halal” products (including even lipstick) and services (“halal” restaurants) everywhere now.

I find this issue very interesting, both because it raises theological and scientific (biomedical) issues and arguments and because it illustrates the current cultural crossroads the Islamic culture is at: between literalism and higher-objectives reasoning.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Old rituals - modern world

I think I'm fascinated by ways how people deal with millennia old rituals in the modern world. It appears that the recent snowstorms on the US east coast disrupted one such religious practice: Eruv. I must confess that this is the first time I read about it. Here is how it is related to the snow storms:

The storms have knocked down portions of the ritual boundary known as an eruv in Jewish communities in Silver Spring, Md., Center City Philadelphia, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Monsey in suburban New York, and Teaneck and Passaic in New Jersey.

Almost literally invisible even to observant Jews, the wire or string of an eruv, connected from pole to pole, allows the outdoors to be considered an extension of the home. Which means, under Judaic law, that one can carry things on the Sabbath, an act that is otherwise forbidden outside the house.

Prayer shawls, prayer books, bottles of wine, platters of food and, perhaps most important, strollers with children in them — Orthodox Jews can haul or tote such items within the eruv. When a section of an eruv is knocked down by, let’s say, a big snowstorm, then the alerts go out by Internet and robocall, and human behavior changes dramatically.

It is the last part that I love - the news is being delivered through some ultra-modern means. I'm assuming that they are using Twitter by now. But this is not the only place where ancient and the modern meets:

The damage to eruvim this winter evokes another kind of convergence, as well. It draws attention to the concept of the eruv itself, a combination of religious obligation, historical phenomenon and what academics call a social construction. In more than one way, an eruv is a through line.
...
“This symbolic boundary around the neighborhood requires interaction with the broader community, whether it’s asking permission, renting space, putting up strings and poles in front of someone’s apartment.”

An entire tractate, or volume, of the Talmud deals with the eruv. As a practical matter, though, Jews in antiquity lived within walled cities whose protective barriers doubled for religious purposes. The ghettos of Europe, which penned Jews inside, also served as eruvim.

But with their emancipation in various European countries, as Rabbi Mintz noted in a recent interview, Jews began to create eruvim, first using natural boundaries like rivers and later technological markers like telegraph poles. One of the first eruvim in North America, formed on the East Side of Manhattan in 1905, used both the East River and the Third Avenue elevated train.

Still, the entire continent had only three eruvim until 1970. To Rabbi Mintz, that paucity betrayed a Jewish reluctance to bring an abstruse matter of ritual observance into the realm of public policy — in the form of municipal zoning or planning boards, or city councils. Meanwhile, he said, an increasing number of Orthodox Jews were simply carrying on the Sabbath, eruv or not.

But now there 150 in North America. However, there is debate brewing within the Orthodox community:

With the boom has come some opposition — not, as Jews once feared, from intolerant gentiles, but from fellow Jews. Some Orthodox leaders maintain that urban eruvim are too large and populous to be legitimate. Less observant Jews in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have fought their installation, under the erroneous assumption that an eruv would coerce them in some way.

Read the full article here. I was thinking if there is an equivalent challenge for the Muslim community in the US. I couldn't think of one - except perhaps the insistence by some for goat/sheep sacrifice in their backyard for Eid-al-Adha. But a vast majority has been able to find an alternative in-line with the requirements of the society at large. Nevertheless, here is a link to a New York Times story from last September about a Pakistani drummer (not the rocker kind) in Brooklyn, who would bang his drum to wake people up before dawn during the month of Ramadan. This is more in the category of culture rather than religion. Still it is amusing. Perhaps, not surprisingly there have been more than a few complaints:

But New York City, renowned for welcoming all manner of cultural traditions, has limits to its hospitality. And so Mr. Boota, a Pakistani immigrant, has spent the past several years learning uncomfortable lessons about noise-complaint hot lines, American profanity and the particular crankiness of non-Muslims rousted from sleep at 3:30 a.m.

“Everywhere they complain,” he said. “People go, like, ‘What the hell? What you doing, man?’ They never know it’s Ramadan.”

Mr. Boota, 53, who immigrated in 1992 and earns his living as a limousine driver, began waking Brooklynites in 2002. At first he moved freely around the borough, picking a neighborhood to work each Ramadan morning.

Not everyone was thrilled, he said. People would throw open their windows and yell at him, or call the police, who, he said, advised him kindly to move along.

As the years went by, he and his barrel drum were effectively banned from one neighborhood after another. He now restricts himself to a short stretch of Coney Island Avenue where many Pakistanis live.

Fearing that even that limited turf may be threatened real estate for him, he has modified his approach even further — playing at well below his customary volume, for only about 15 to 20 seconds in each location, and only once every three or four days.

Read the drummer article here.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Serious, Uncanny, and Psychic: A post for the Oscars

Under normal circumstances it would be difficult to justify a post about the Oscars on a science & religion blog. But this year we have two movies in the best picture category that have themes that intersect with science & religion: A Serious Man and Avatar. I loved A Serious Man - unfortunately, it doesn't have much of a shot to win best picture (see earlier posts: A Serious Man and Physics and Accept the mystery - go see A Serious Man). It still has a decent chance for winning the best original screenplay - though Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds may pick up this one, but that's okay - as that was also brilliant.

To get you into the mood for tonight, here are three items for you:
a) Evolutionary origins of The Uncanny Valley:

This is a fascinating issue. Apparently, you can make a robot that looks realistic (human-like) only upto a point: 95%. If it is more realistic than that then people get creeped out - i.e. a 96% realistic makes it more like a human with something seriously wrong. This is termed as The Uncanny Valley and animators in Hollywood keep this in mind when animating films - or you get boxoffice bombs such as Final Fantasy (too realistic). Listen to the NPR story on this here (about 8 minutes long). As it turns out, monkeys fall into the Uncanny Valley as well:
To test their preference, researchers showed macaque monkeys real pictures, digital caricatures and realistic reconstructions of other monkey faces. To the latter, the macaques repeatedly averted their eyes.

“The visual behavior of the monkeys falls into the uncanny valley just the same as human visual behavior,” wrote Princeton University evolutionary biologists Shawn Steckinfinger and Asif Ghazanfar in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
...

Many explanations have been suggested for the uncanny valley, which has also been blamed for the box-office failure of movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy. Perhaps almost-real humans look a bit too much like corpses for our comfort; perhaps they’re so real that they engage our brains’ mate-recognition or disease-avoidance systems, which promptly identify poor partners or sick individuals.

The PNAS results don’t favor any one of these explanations, but do suggest that the uncanny valley has evolutionary origins deep in the primate psyche.

Read the full story here.

b) Some Serious Music:

Everything in a Coen brothers film is finely crafted and there no useless scenes. But their use of music is also extraordinary and they were at their best in A Serious Man (okay - O Brother may be even better). How did the music for the film come about - especially the brilliant use of Jefferson Airplane? Here is an interview with the film's composer, Carter Burwell:

The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, "Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky."

Okay. But here is how the movie's theme of uncertainty between life and death all gets connected:

Before the Coens had even cut more than a reel, they called me to say that they'd like me to start working on a piece of music that comes out of a story told entirely in Yiddish in some unspecified old world and leads right up to the opening bar of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It's a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it's the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane.

That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film. But for me, the film is really about a person who is balanced somewhere between life and death. Throughout the whole movie, death is hovering on the periphery. The metaphor of the movie is the first lecture that the university professor, Larry Gopnik, who is our main character, gives about Schrödinger's cat, which is a thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously dead and alive. It maintains that situation until you observe it to determine which it is.

I see Larry as being in that situation himself, so the question for me as the composer is what can I do musically to suggest that. I found it was useful to have a motif that would repeat endlessly, to suggest that no matter what goes on in the film, he's not really getting anywhere. He's blocked at every point in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. And there's something about the delicacy of the harp that I think on the one hand seems sympathetic to this character's travails, but on the other hand is a little bit funny, because in fact none of these characters reveals any delicacy whatsoever. In every way, they're indelicate. One thing I enjoy about this harp motif is that it's polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four. I personally enjoy that ambiguity. The piece is so repetitious, and yet you're not sure where the bar lines are, so it's kind of interesting.

Absolutely brilliant! Read the full interview here.

c) Of course, I couldn't leave you without some predictions by Maxine - the psychic, for today's Oscars (a big hat tip to Laura Sizer for this!). Actually, this covers not just the awards but also fashion. But my favorite part of the interview by Movieline:

So let’s start with the big one. You call Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture. Have you seen Inglourious Basterds?
Can we take the recording off for a minute?

Sure.
Off the record, I haven’t seen any of the movies. So I think that makes them all the more psychic. I wait for everything to come on Home Box and Showtime. I feel terrible.

I can’t put that in the interview? I kind of like that.
You know, you can use whatever you want.

I think it enhances the psychic element.
Thank you, I think so too. So I haven’t seen any of the movies, but these are my picks!

Ha! Hope you are in the mood for the Oscars now.