Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The film autopsy of "50/50" and "Drive"

by Salman Hameed

How does one deal with the threat of death? Most religions have major components that deal with the topic of death. The film, 50/50, addresses the topic of cancer and death in an intelligent manner. You must be thinking right now that you really don't want to see a movie about cancer. However, trust me - this is a smart and funny film that respects its characters. Give it a chance! Here is its film autopsy:

Film Autopsy of 50/50 from kevin taylor anderson on Vimeo.

And if you are truly looking for a fantastic film, check out Drive. It is one of the most interesting films I have seen this year. The best way to describe Drive is "cool". While it is a fantastic film, be warned, that it is also quite violent (see the trailer below). It is rare that one comes out of the theater and says "wow - I haven't seen any thing like this before". Do check out the film, and here is its film autopsy:

Film Autopsy of Drive from kevin taylor anderson on Vimeo.

To give you a taste, here is the trailer for Drive:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A cornucopia of articles about the complexity of Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Pakistan is again in the news - this time for the NATO strike that killed 24 soldiers inside Pakistani territory. I have written couple of times before that the US policy towards South Asia is short-sighted and is going to bite-back in the long run. For example, the drone attacks may be effective in gaining an upper hand over the militants, but a combination of collateral damage, violation of Pakistan's airspace and the nature of technology itself - and all on dubious ethical grounds - has stoked anti-American sentiments even in the segments of Pakistan that have traditionally been pro-American. The Raymond Davis case and the Bin Laden raid exacerbated the situation. If after a decade of military involvement, US ends up exchanging a troubled Afghanistan (population - 34 million) with an anti-US Pakistan (population 170 million), would that be considered a success?

But the public opinion in the US has also become quite anti-Pakistan. For example, 55% of Americans consider Pakistan to be an enemy of the US compared to only 7% that consider it to be a friend. Part of the reason is the newspaper coverage that fails to convey the complexity on the ground (On this particular matter, see my post for The Scoop: Popular Science as a Guide for Popular Geo-politics).To balance it out, here are a couple of articles about Pakistan and Pakistan-US relations that take a more nuanced approach to the topic.

First of all, check out this fantastic 2 hour radio show: Pakistan Aslant. The first hour deals with the living history and the dynamic past of Pakistan, and the second looks at the resilience of the people that live there. I know this is long - but it provides a fascinating look in what makes Pakistan - Pakistan.

Then if you are interested in US and its policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, then you should check out Reading Shakespeare in Kandahar (tip Tariq Hameed). In this article, Nick Shifrin find US foreign policy parallels (and a cautionary tale) in Titus Andronicus.
A U.S. official once admitted to me that, for years, "U.S. policy in Pakistan came from Langley rather than Foggy Bottom," implying that the CIA (and the Pentagon) ran the show and that drones and counterterrorism tactics were more important than the diplomats and development experts.
In Titus Andronicus, Titus gets halfway through the play before he realizes that not only do his historic enemies -- the Goths -- seek revenge; his fellow Romans may as well. "Rome is but a wilderness of tigers," Titus says. "Tigers must prey."
Elsewhere in Pakistan, where the United States sought not to avenge but to assist, the population doesn't blame its ills on Americans. A few months before the Peshawar attack, I visited the Government Centennial Model High School in Dadar, a school destroyed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. One student was killed and more than a dozen injured when the buildings crumbled on top of them. By 2009, the school was filled with shiny new classrooms, one of which displays a large plaque from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The principal, Mohammad Irfan, said he was proud to have received U.S. help.
"We were destroyed. We were ruined at that time," he told me. "Now, we feel very, very happy with America. We now feel, 'Long live America, long live USA, long live Pakistan!'"
ut these vignettes are sadly rare. In most areas of Pakistan -- where people perceive their lives as less secure and less developed since 9/11 -- there is still a strong anti-American narrative, from the streets of slums to elite drawing rooms.
That feeling extends even to Islamabad, the capital. In September 2008, I arrived at the swank Marriott hotel on a Ramadan evening. Rubble was piled 10 feet high, electric wires sparked against pools of water and gas, and mangled iron gates poked out of the mud. I saw at least eight bodies. As one police officer walked outside, he threw up into his own hand, sick with the stench of death. Inside the lobby, the reception desk had been crushed, a piano was thrown against a wall, and a fish flopped against the marble, its glass aquarium lying shattered nearby. Twenty minutes earlier, militants had exploded 2,200 pounds of military-grade explosive at the outside gate.
Even then, some of my fellow Islamabad residents -- who opposed the Taliban and their suicide attacks -- blamed America. "It's not a good thing what they are doing, but they're doing it out of compulsion," said one Islamabad resident of the Taliban, asking me not to print his name. "If my home was bombed," he continued, "and my parents and brothers were killed, wouldn't I become a suicide bomber?"
For Pakistanis, the war launched to avenge the 9/11 attacks had created a vicious cycle of revenge. 
Then reflecting on the past few days, Simon Tisdall accurately gauges the anger in Pakistan, and rightly points to the long-term effects:

Since 2001, when the Bush administration bluntly told Islamabad it must take sides, be either "for us or agin us" in the newly declared "war on terror", Pakistan has struggled under a plethora of imperious American demands, démarches and impositions that are at once politically indefensible and contrary to the perceived national interest.
The last year has been another humiliating one at the hands of the country's principal ally. Pakistanis have looked on impotently as US special forces flouted its sovereignty and killed Osama bin Laden under the army's nose; as the US stepped up drone terror attacks in Pakistani territory despite repeated protests; and as people-pleasing US senators and Republican presidential candidates have taken to picking on Pakistan and its aid bill in uninformed foreign policy rants.
The belief that weak, impoverished, divided Pakistan has no alternative but to slavishly obey its master's voice could turn out to be one of the seminal strategic miscalculations of the 21st century. Alternative alliances with China or Russia aside, Muslim Pakistan, if bullied and scorned for long enough by its western mentors, could yet morph through external trauma and internal collapse into quite a different animal. The future paradigm here is not another well-trained Indonesia or Malaysia. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This may be a bit too far - but I think he is correct in the overall spirit of the argument. 

And here is another article that at Pakistan's policy decisions beyond total irrationality: Pakistan's Alternate Universe. In fact, this article is on the money in saying that much of the root of Pakistan-Afghnistan issue lies in relations with India: 

This is an opportunity for Washington. Unless it is prepared to risk the disastrous consequences that could flow from armed confrontation with Pakistan, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan may be the best outcome it can reasonably hope to achieve. To accomplish this, it will almost certainly need to collaborate with the Pakistanis, who are the only party with any real influence over the Afghan Taliban. But recent U.S. efforts to demonize the Haqqani network work directly against this objective because the Haqqanis are the Afghan Taliban group most favored by Islamabad and over whom it has the most control.
It would be a bitter pill to swallow if the United States were forced to abandon Afghanistan without destroying the group that gave bin Laden sanctuary in the years before 9/11, but there are worse outcomes. Bin Laden is now dead, and even Washington admits that the primary al Qaeda threat to U.S. interests has moved elsewhere. The United States should begin shifting its priorities in the region to promoting a sustainable peace between Pakistan and India. Their decades-old dispute over Kashmir is the reason that the Pakistanis began supporting jihadi groups in the first place, and they are unlikely to sever their final links with them until it is resolved.
We may like simple problems that require simple solutions. But the world is messy, and sometimes the solutions are messy as well. But if we don't understand the problem, we cannot even hope for a solution. The articles above are not perfect, but at least they do make an effort to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Well, that's a start.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Important Work(s) by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

The Annual Book Fair here in Sharjah (UAE) just ended. It’s a great opportunity for thousands of people to go bulk up on books of all kinds and various languages – often at greatly reduced prices. It is also a great occasion to browse through the book shelves of various publishers, from very low to very high brows, and to meet and/or listen to authors who are invited for talks, interviews, readings, and book signings… And last but not least, the Sharjah Book Fair organizers put strong efforts in making it attractive to children and families: a large section (hundreds of square meters) is reserved for kids, proposing books and activities. There is a good, extensive website for the fair, here.
A year ago, I reported here on Irtiqa about the gems I had found in the Sharjah Book Fair, books that presented some of the important scientific contributions made by Muslim scholars in the classical era (Ibn Al-Haytham, Al-Biruni, etc.). Those gems have been published by the London-based Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, which produces quality works in the area of Islamic Heritage.
This year, I found some gems produced by an important UAE institution, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, and I here would like to highlight the great work that’s being done by this center, work which includes the publishing of dozens of books and hundreds of booklets, not to mention journal publications. As you will see below, the agenda and activity of the center are quite remarkable, and if this were not enough, they sell their books at the Fair at amazingly low prices.
Let me first mention the 3 books (edited volumes) and 1 monograph (from an invited lecture) that I purchased, to give you an idea:
·       Nuclear Energy in the Gulf
·       Education in the UAE: Current Status and Future Developments
·       Future Arabian Gulf Energy Sources: Hydrocarbon, Nuclear or Renewable?
     Nuclear Program: Security Implications for the UAE and the Gulf Region – authored by Richard L. Russell
The Center (ECSSR) publishes books, monographs, and occasional papers in both Arabic and English. Oftentimes, the same title is published in both languages, to maximize benefit to researchers, policymakers, and students. And in order to suit different budgets, the books are published in hardcover and paperback. The full list of publications can be found here, with “quick links” (in the sidebar) to books, occasional papers, etc., in English and in Arabic.
Let me now give an abbreviated description of the center, its objectives and activity, in an effort to help readers of Irtiqa (researchers, policymakers, students) take advantage of this institution and its resources.
ECSSR was established in March 1994 by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then Crown Prince and now President of the UAE. The mission of the center was/is to provide in-depth strategic studies and analyses of political, economic, and social issues of relevance to the UAE. The center is also meant to provide continuing and vital training to researchers, particularly Emiratis, in fields that the country will need solid expertise to address.
Hence, the activities that ECSSR carries out (to achieve those objectives) include:
·    Conducting studies and research on topics of national security and socio-economic importance to the country and the region;
·    Providing consultative services to official institutions (governmental departments, in particular), in part by preparing reports and memoranda on best policy scenarios;
·    Providing educational services to the public at large through: a) convening symposia, lectures, and conferences on topics of great relevance to the country and the region (such as “Education and the Requirements of the GCC Labor Market”, held in February 2010) and through training programs; b) publishing books and studies, as well as monographs and academic journals; c) supporting authors and researchers and producing translations of important works published in the region and beyond;
·    Giving out awards for outstanding work (research, book, etc.).
To help interested researchers and other potential participants in the Center’s various programs achieve the above objectives, the Center provides a number of useful documents, such as:
·       Application forms for:

I hope the above information is useful to researchers and students everywhere. This can be relevant to a variety of fields and disciplines, from education to sociology, economic policy, military issues, and many others. The books are often of high quality, both in content and in production standards, and prices vary from $3 (for booklets and papers) to $100 (thick hardcover volumes). But in book fairs, such as Sharjah’s, one can get discounts of up to 80 % …

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Copernicus and the decline of astrology

by Salman Hameed

Astronomy and astrology got separated out a few centuries ago. Today, we - astronomers - only get a bit annoyed when someone calls us astrologers. Ugh. Many of the leading Muslim scholars in the medieval times also worked as astrologers (this was a respectable field). The foundations of Baghdad were laid by Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansur, based on an auspicious day (July 30, 762 C.E.) based on Zoroastrian astrology. And yes, cities used to have horoscopes as well. London and Paris had horoscopes as well. The horoscopes would predict the weather and the fires - both highly unpredictable in the medieval times - in the large cities.

So it comes as no surprise that Copernicus was also interested in astrology. What is fascinating, however, is that some of his motivations for a heliocentric universe may also have been due to astrology. A new book by Robert Westmnan, The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order, addresses this question directly. Here are a couple of excerpts from a review in Science:
Robert S. Westman has now brought us a hefty and enormously erudite treatment of Copernicanism. While nonetheless wearing its learning lightly, The Copernican Question presents a historical picture that puts Copernicus where he belongs: in his own time and place. Copernicus was a 16th-century astronomer in a European world where astronomy and astrology were not really separate in either disciplinary identity or respectability. “The science of the stars,” as Westman compendiously dubs the endeavor in which Copernicus participated, sought an understanding of the physical universe that incorporated the effects of the heavens upon the Earth, whether in the form of regional prognostications concerning such things as the weather, famines, plagues, and wars or predictions concerning individual people (often called “judicial” astrology, although these categories and labels were endlessly variable). Astral effects on the Earth were taken as a given: the great ancient authority Ptolemy had not only written the geocentric masterpiece of mathematical astronomy, the Almagest, but also the astrological Tetrabiblos, the latter as fundamental in its way in this period as the former. Copernicus, Westman argues, had become immersed in the prognosticatory aspects of the science of the stars while a student in Bologna, and he brought this understanding of the basic astronomical problematic back with him to Polish Prussia. 
He also brought back knowledge of considerable difficulties. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (“Disputations against divinatory astrology”) had appeared in 1496, and the work's arguments against astrological prediction remained current for over a century. Part of Pico's criticism concerned the theoretical mathematical astronomy of the planets, on which astrological forecasts depended. Ptolemy's geocentric Almagest and Tetrabiblos, on which astronomers, Greek, Arabic, and Latin, had based their work, discussed important themes concerning the order of the planets: How were the sizes of the orbs that carried them to be determined? From a central Earth, one can only measure the direction of a planet, not its distance. Ptolemy had simply assumed that the longer a planet appeared to take in completing its celestial circuit again the backdrop of the stars, the further away it must be. But this rule ran aground in the cases of Mercury and Venus, because each takes, on the average, the same time for its circuit: one year, the same time as that needed by the Sun. Although the other planets took longer, how could any distinction of distance from the Earth be made for these two? Pico identified this as a problem for the prognosticators because knowledge of the ordering of the planets played a crucial role in determining the astral qualities possessed by each. As the Tetrabiblos showed, which bodies neighbored which others affected the properties of each and hence the effects of each on terrestrial affairs. If this knowledge was compromised by uncertainty, so would be the reliability of the astrological forecasts made on its basis. 
Westman thus makes a concern with the reliability of prognostications central to Copernicus's new approach, which claimed as one of its great advantages the ability to measure the relative distances of the planets from the new center of the universe, the Sun. This could now be done by using the Earth-Sun distance as a triangulatory baseline: now that the Earth moved, planetary directions could also yield distances. Hence, one of Pico's serious attacks on the divinatory potential of the science of the stars had been disarmed. Copernicus's close follower and promoter, Georg Joachim Rheticus, provides Westman with good evidence for Copernicus's concern with these questions despite the master's own silence on prognosticatory issues (itself convincingly explained in terms of the contemporary discourse of disciplinary subdivisions in astronomy).
And a few decades later, Kepler was also looking at the motion of the planets to detect the music of the spheres. But it was Newton that, in many ways, ended the effectiveness of astrology. This is particularly ironic, as Newton himself was also interested in all sorts of occult sciences, alchemy, and some unorthodox religious worldviews: 
Kepler's physico-theological ideas for explaining the motions and form of the universe included attempts to restructure the physical basis of astrological prognostication. But, ironically, The Copernican Question presents the decline of astrological forecast as the long-drawn-out consequence of the increasing success of Copernican astronomy in the decades following Kepler's Rudolfine Tables of 1627. The distinctions between astrological practice and its theoretical substructure became too problematic, too difficult for a Copernican science of the stars. Newton's work answered the Copernican question in a way that simply ignored astrology.
Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access the article).                    

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Video: Sagan on A Reassuring Fable

by Salman Hameed

This short segment is a good demonstration of the difference between Sagan and somebody like Dawkins. In many ways Sagan is saying the same things,  but he is not assuming that those who follow religious beliefs are simply idiots. Furthermore, he adds a larger humanistic tone by mentioning skin color and ethnicities alongside with religion. Enjoy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A nice nod to Darwin on a Pakistani channel

by Salman Hameed

I'm not completely surprised that one of the television stations in Pakistan have run a short nice historical piece in Darwin. I have encountered numerous educated Pakistani who have no problem with evolution. At the same time, there is a general perception in the same population that everyone rejects evolution in Pakistan. This disconnect is interesting - and is perhaps due to the vocal opposition of religious-political parties (who do not win seats in the elections, but manage to dress their opposition in religious clothes). Similarly, I visited the Pakistan's Natural History Museum last summer, and it does a very nice job of presenting evolution, including that of humans. I even had a chance to talk to the curator who is an enthusiastic supporter of science and science education. Kudos to all these efforts.

Here is the Dunya News piece on Darwin. It takes a positive stance on his ideas even though it mentions some early religious opposition to the publication of Origin of Species. Overall, a  nice 1-minute segment (tip from Ali Kazim Gardezi):

The economic entrenchment of military versus democracy

by Salman Hameed

Protests in Egypt are boiling up again. As has been the case in so many countries, we are seeing the military refusing to let go of the power into the civilian hands. Here is a short interview (about 6 minutes) with Vali Nasr where he talks about Egypt and compares it to the positive case of Turkey and the negative case of Pakistan. One key factor: How entrenched is the military in a country's economy.

Listen to the interview here. For the Pakistan case, Ayesha Siddiqa provided some stunning details in her well researched book, Military, Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. I know the context is very different (especially because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan), but may be changes in Turkey and Egypt may also prove to be an inspiration for a civilian movement in Pakistan - perhaps rekindling the original spirit of the Lawyer's Movement of 2007. 

What would Neanderthals be doing today?

by Salman Hameed

We know now that we all have a bit of neanderthal DNA as part of our genome. But what did our hominid cousins think of the world around them? What did they dream about? What was the structure of their social life? We know that they did have some burials. Did they also develop a concept of afterlife? Well, here is a book that tries to answer some of the questions: How to Think Like a Neanderthal, by Thomas Lynn and Frederick L. Coolidge. From a review from last week's Nature:
Yet cognition certainly took place in the Neanderthal brain — the largest in human evolution, housed in a long, distinctively shaped skull. In How to Think Like a Neandertal, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge provide one of the most rounded portraits yet of a fossil human. The book covers familiar areas — diet, symbolism and language — but also includes innovative assessments of Neanderthals' capacity to tell jokes, and even speculations on what they might have dreamed about. The authors use the Neanderthals as a means of discussing the evolutionary reasons for such cognitive abilities as humour and deception. 
We have learned much about Neanderthals in the past 150 years. They were powerfully built and top carnivores. Their stone tools are found across Eurasia. We know from their genome sequence that the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and ourselves lived some half a million years ago. They became extinct in southern Spain as recently as 30,000 years ago. 
Yet understanding these remarkable people is hard. There is a veneer of common prejudice about primitives and progress that first has to be stripped away. Then there is the awkward fact that what they made and left behind is unimpressive. Their tools changed little over time and space. They had fire and, on occasion, a way of disposing of their dead that accords with what we understand as burial. But they made no art in the form of painting or carving, just a few perforated and pigmented shells.
So how should we try to understand them:
If we really want to understand our earliest ancestors, we need to question the model of the mind we use to investigate them, as Wynn and Coolidge have done. What emerges from their book is that modern humans are the biggest obstacle to understanding these people. We are the point of comparison, and because we are so similar to Neanderthals in terms of anatomy, genetics, brain size and, during the Pleistocene epoch, stone technology, the differences become exaggerated. As a result, the Neanderthal 'brand' suffers. 
Nevertheless, Wynn and Coolidge show that Neanderthals had a family focus and almost certainly laughed when someone accidentally trod in the fire. They would have recalled that moment among themselves, sharing in the fun through mime and language.
They list nine Neanderthal personality traits. On the negative side, they read the archaeological and fossil evidence as indicating that Neanderthals were xenophobic, resistant to change and dogmatic — direct, but also laconic and unimaginative. The lack of imagination is shown, for instance, in their unchanging tool designs; wariness and xenophobia are indicated by their high mortality rate and interpersonal violence; and their laconic approach is suggested by the fact that they rarely travelled out of their home territory. 
On the plus side, the evidence points to Neanderthals as supremely pragmatic, stoic, risk-tolerant when it came to getting food, and both sympathetic and empathetic, caring for disabled individuals in their communities.
And then, creatively, they guess what kind of professions neanderthals have in the modern world:
Wynn and Coolidge conclude that today, Neanderthals would be commercial fishermen or mechanics, based on their enormous strength and ability to learn the motor procedures needed. Their capacity for empathy might even have made them competent physicians, the authors say, although a lack of mathematical ability means that they would never have been able to graduate from medical school. Neanderthals would also make excellent army grunts, with their high levels of pain tolerance, and would be good tacticians in small combat units. They would never rewrite the tactical manual — although tearing it up, however thick, would not be a problem. 
Underpinning this appreciation of Neanderthals are two models of how thinking works: expert and embodied cognition. In expert thinking, working memory is not just a short-term store for verbal information. It is important in the planning and execution of complex tasks such as hunting and making tools, as it retains the information necessary to focus the mind and resist interference. 
The hand-held technologies of the Neanderthals lead us to embodied cognition. Neanderthals did not think only with their minds but, like us and other primates, through the senses and emotions of the body as well. The tools they used were, Wynn and Coolidge say, “extensions of perception, and hence extensions of mind”. Studies of artisans today indicate that a Neanderthal wielding a tool would have learned to respond flexibly through that tool, which effectively became as much a part of their mind as their brain cells. 
Embodied cognition is a radical departure in the way the early mind is studied, overturning a long tradition of rational approaches to the mind as a problem-solving machine. In that view, Neanderthals, with their limited technology, did not solve much. However, introducing embodied cognition means that we begin to see many similarities in the emotions they must have felt and the way they dealt with others. The evidence remains the same, but the insights fundamentally change what we believe our distant relatives are capable of.
Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access the article). And if you want to know how would you look like as a neanderthal, check out this app from the Smithsonian.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Al-Azhar Manuscripts Online

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

Two months ago, I noted a news item about Al-Azhar (Arabic website here, but English website here still “under construction”), the oldest and most renowned Islamic university (at least in the Sunni world), had inaugurated an ambitious project aiming at digitizing 50,000 old manuscripts (some dating back 1,000 years) and making them accessible online through a search engine, in addition to another 53,000 printed books, the most recent of which dating back to 60 years ago. In total, some 8 million pages would be put online for the benefit of researchers everywhere.
I only got around to checking the website recently, but before I get to that, let me give some more info about the goals of the project, its patron, its cost, etc.

The project aims at “conserving the rich Islamic scientific heritage and propagating it around the world” in order to help “inspire interest in the Islamic civilization and its scientific legacy”. In total, some 125,000 references are to become accessible electronically though a dedicated website, similar to two other great ventures, those of the Library of Congress and of the Vatican Archives. In fact, IBM was selected to set up the technical infrastructure, as it did the same for the other two projects.

So far, about one third of the digitization has been accomplished: more than 16,000 manuscripts have been copied in high-resolution scans, totaling over 3 million pages.

The project was funded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, at a cost of $ 5 million.
Now, checking out the Al-Azhar Library’s website, where the manuscripts are supposed to be accessible, I got a few bad surprises.

First, the website’s contents are very poor, both in Arabic and in English; in the latter language, very scarce information can be found: the whole news section is empty, except for a few items in the “Imam news” section (news relating to the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar); the “Vers’s [sic] of The  Day” section gives a java error; the “Sectors” section (whatever that is supposed to refer to) is empty; the Prayer Times section gives times only for Cairo (likewise in the Arabic section); and there are search sections for the Qur’an (also misspelled!) and the Hadith, though when I searched for “knowledge” (the word) in both of them, I (ironically) got “No search results found”! I did similar searches in the Arabic section and got no results. In short, the site is for the most part not functioning.

Then, the more important section is, of course, the manuscript search one (in Arabic here, and in English here). I searched for Biruni (in English) and got no results. So I switched to Arabic and searched again for Biruni – no luck. So I thought perhaps I should search for a religious figure, and I tried Ibn Taymiyyah – still nothing. So I tried “Astronomy”, with the two terms used during the Islamic civilization (hay’ah and falak), and still no results!

OK, so the project is still not running, almost at all, even though it was inaugurated more than two months ago. But what is worrisome is not just that the search system for manuscripts is not yet operational, it is the fact that the whole website for the Al-Azhar Library is so poor, in Arabic and even more so in English.

In fact, the website for the Al-Azhar University itself is also very poor, though not as blatantly as the Library’s. Indeed, the English website for the University is still “under construction”, quite stunning for an institution that often reminds us that it is the oldest university in the world, and that there are, according to its Grand Sheikh, “9,000 Al Azhar Institutes around the world with more than 70 faculties and 2.5 million students”.

Clearly, this important Islamic university still has much work to do to bring itself to par with the digital standards of the day. This is evidently one symptom of the many ills that plague Muslim institutions, especially in learning and research, and I hope these deficiencies will get addressed and remedied fast.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Arab astronomer(s) on the Astronomical Clock of Lund Cathedral

by Salman Hameed

While in Lund, I had a chance to experience the announcement of Noon-time via a 15th century astronomical clock inside the spectacular Lund Cathedral. This is a pretty elaborate mechanical clock and twice a day, music flows out (two small figures raise their trumpets to give us the impression that it is them who are responsible for the music), followed by a procession of seven figures paying tribute to Mary and the baby Jesus. The central figure in the clock is Saint Lawrence, and we even have Cronos - the Greek god of time and cyclic movements to point out the exact time. Oh - and this whole thing starts when two knights at the top of the clock announce the time by clanking their swords equal to the hour of time. Unfortunately, one of the knights lost his sword the week before my visit (it must be a boring task doing it every day at the same time) and so...he was just waving his empty hand.

A few pictures would help. First, here is the cathedral from outside:

Here is the clock. The dueling knights are at the top. The top half of the clock gives information about sunrise and sunset times, solstices and equinoxes. There are also 4 figures at each corner. These are astronomers. Fascinatingly, they are thought to be (clockwise from top left corner): 1) Alfonso X, king of Leon and Castile (1221-84), 2) Ptolemy, Greek astronomer from Alexandria (2nd century CE), 3) Hali, an Arab scientist whose identity is uncertain, and 4) Albumaser, astrologer from Baghdad (787-886 CE).

Below is a close-up of the procession:

While over there, I also learned about a legend associated with the Cathedral. According to the legend, Finn the Giant built the Cathedral - but then due to a self-inflicted wound, he turned into stone (here is Wiki's help on this legend). Today, you can see this giant in the crypt (pic below). Looking at the giant's relatively small size, I think these Scandinavians call him a giant perhaps only sarcastically.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Video: NOVA's "What is Space"?

by Salman Hameed

I'm still in Ghent, Belgium and have had a fantastic time attending attending a workshop on analyzing creationist movements in Europe. Heading back to the US tomorrow.

In the mean time, here is the first episode of Nova's The Fabric of the Cosmos, "What is Space"? It is good and some of the graphics are fantastic. But I find the hyper-kinetic editing style a bit annoying after 10 minutes. However, the material is really good with clear explanations.

If interested, you should also check out this Fresh Air interview with Brian Greene. I think he does a great job in explaining the mathematical origins of some of the ideas for multiverses, and how can some of these be tested. Also, a good short bit where he explains how String Theory solves the problems of integrating General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Of course, we have to see if it turns out to be the way universe works. Good stuff!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

To the mythical Sweden

by Salman Hameed

I have been traveling for the past couple of days and internet access has been a bit spotty. Hence this blog silence for the past few days. But it has been fun and productive travel. I flew into Copenhagen and traveled to Lund University by train, and now I'm in Belgium. More on these travels coming up. But I have to say that Sweden was kind of how I had imagined it to be - calm, quite, beautiful, foggy, and a bit mysterious. On top of it all, I had this going through my head while I was in Sweden:

(okay - so the graphics are a bit old, but I remember this from grad school days...and it has its own appeal. By the way, you can also see the use of Immigrant Song in this trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However the movie may turn out to be, this is one kick-ass trailer!).

Okay, back to reality. Actually the train ride from Copenhagen to Lund over the water was quite spectacular. Both times (going and returning) there was fog all around and I could almost imagine Viking ships just beyond the visible.

But I was in Lund to give a talk at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). Here is the Center's swanky building with Stefano Bigliardi in front:

And just to give you an idea, I was around 1500 kms from Moscow, 8000 kms from Seoul, and 3600 kns from Tehran. Oh - this is an art exhibit, with a spectacular library building to the right. I have no idea what this gigantic ball doing up there on the tree. This is one of those ambiguous cases where this may be art or a case of vandalism, or a bit of both:

And this is how their philosophy building looks like. Now anyone can raise ethical and moral dilemmas while sitting in that building:

And if you don't believe me how quite and peaceful it was, check out this street not far from the town center and the university campus:

More to come...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hajj 2.0

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

In a previous post, I commented on the online “conference” that was organized by Amir Ahmad last April on “The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media, a “conference” which explored the impact that the new media (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) are having on the Islamic debates at a global scale.

In my latest Huffington-Post article, New Media and Islam’, I discussed how these media and social networks are changing social habits among Muslims today, and how religious leaders and educational institutions are reacting. Examples (which ranged from a fatwa by Ayatollah Khamenei to a long-deceased Saudi sheikh who tweets, via his students, to tens of thousands of followers) showed how some officials are panicking, others have jumped onboard and are trying to use the ‘new media’ for their own goals, and some thinkers are criticizing and ringing alarms on these new “shallow” tools for their “destructive” effects on the inner self.

In this post, I would like to comment on how Hajj (Pilgrimage), a major religious function of Islam which takes place in Saudi Arabia, is now being transformed by these new social/media tools.

Transformations range from the individual usage of Twitter to the utilization of YouTube and other tools by the Saudi officials, for information as well as security purposes.

In a story titled “Saudi goes hi-tech for hajj pilgrimage” reported by AFP last week, we learned that the Saudi government had implemented the following unprecedented actions: a) live-streaming of Hajj (which, may I remind you, goes on for several days, before and after the high-point of the whole-afternoon prayer at Mount Arafah) via YouTube; b) posting of videos and documents about Hajj for guidance to those who need it, also through YouTube; c) texting messages each day to 3.25 million mobile phones of pilgrims to guide them through the correct procedures for the Hajj rites in order to “prevent that which is harmful” (i.e. to insure that no heterodox practices seep in); the AFP story stated that “[t]he messages [were] managed by more than 3,000 clerics, translators and administrators aim[ing] to correct ‘errors’ made by some pilgrims”, though I am perplexed by the 3,000 figure…

Another story, titled “Hajj Pilgrimage Enters Digital Age” and published by Qantara, the German magazine for dialogue with the Islamic world, focused on the individual Muslims’ adoption of the new media in Hajj. For example, it related how people are now using their smartphones moment by moment for a variety of purposes: looking up information on Hajj rituals, locations and directions; keeping in touch with people within the Hajj and back home; sharing impressions and stories and relaying pictures and anecdotes live from Mecca; commenting on a variety of issues, including sometimes socio-political and economic ones (“shouldn’t the returns from Hajj be shared with poorer countries?” asked one pilgrim); asking forgiveness from family, friends, and acquaintances worldwide, as Hajj is supposed to be a full cleansing experience which focuses on seeking forgiveness (from God and people), giving forgiveness to those who may have erred against the person, and pledging to adopt a new, purer lifestyle in every regard possible.
One pilgrim decided to conduct a new media “project” on Hajj: blogging and tweeting live from Mecca (and other Hajj locations) to relate the experience instant by instant.

Last year I wrote a post titled “Ramadan Apps, High-Tech Islam”, in which I described the many new smartphone apps that have appeared with the goal of helping Muslims perform Ramadan (fasting) and other duties (finding the Qibla, the direction to Mecca); well, this year there are a number of apps for Hajj, in several languages and using a variety of formats (audio, e-books, etc.).

Last but not least, as I mentioned in my Huff-Po article, the new media are now used by Muslim clerics who try to keep strong connections with their audiences, offering guidance, rulings, and advice. One good advice tweeted by a sheikh was for those who have already performed Hajj to donate the equivalent cost of a pilgrimage trip to the needy, and freeing some space (literally and figuratively) for others, instead of performing it again (many affluent people like to repeat Hajj a number of times)…
I think this is only the beginning of the impact that new technologies will have on the practice and even understanding of Islam (and other religions). This is fascinating, and it calls for more studies and discussions.
Oh, and do check out this year’s photo essay on Hajj by TIME magazine and Foreign Policy’s slideshow on Eid-ul-Adha and Hajj.
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