Sunday, July 31, 2011

On "The Bill Newman Show" Monday morning

I haven't had a chance to post comments on latest Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life, but I really liked it and will still have a post on it later. In the mean time, I have a chance to talk about this film and about astronomy with Reverend Peter Ives of First Churches of Northampton tomorrow (Aug 1st) morning on The Bill Newman show  at 9:30am (eastern time) on Northampton's WHMP AM1400/1250 or FM 96.9 (If you can't find the live streaming, you can access the podcast later). 

In the mean time, here is a podcast from the show from last month when we talked about Pluto, astronomy, and NASA's future (it starts about 10 minutes into the podcast). 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Video: A glimpse of Yemen

It is getting harder and harder to track all the developments in the Middle East. While there is a lot of coverage of life in Egypt and Tunisia, we don't hear much about Yemen (though you can find some excellent posts on Yemen at Tabsir). Here is a TED conversation with Nadia Al-Sakkaf: See Yemen Through my Eyes.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Advantages of being an academic

I'm at Abu Dhabi airport on my way back from Pakistan (yes, yes, I still have to post about Pakistan Natural History Museum). At the Islamabad airport, as expected there are numerous places where they check passports, and luggage is often checked quite thoroughly. The first guy inside the terminal asked my profession, and I told him that I'm a professor and I teach at a college in the US. He said several positive words about astronomy and other things and asked us to go straight through. Then, the drugs control called, and when I told him  that I was a professor, he went on and on about his gratitude to his own teachers. In fact, he said that he wouldn't be at his job, and the person that he is, without the teachers he's had over the course of his life. It was really great to hear that and loved his positive approach. We often hear negative things about Pakistan, but the place and the people are of course much more complex. I just wanted to post a few words about this wonderful experience at the Islamabad airport.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Spirits and Souls...

This is from Calamities of Nature and takes a clever dig at the concept of spirits and souls. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A fact-check on Zakir Naik's rant against evolution

by Salman Hameed

Two years ago I had posted some comments on Zakir Naik's rant against evolution. There is nothing new in it - and it basically rehashed creationist arguments embellished with some incredible misinformation. Here is that earlier post: Zakir Naik's Rant Against Evolution. Now somebody has actually gone through his often-incorrect statements and have done a fact-check on them. The fun part is to listen to Zakir Naik throw some made-up names at the audience. But my favorite is his declaration that homo sapiens are extinct species. But all fun aside, we have to realize that guys like Zakir Naik still hold substantial influence over audiences in the Muslim world (though not as much as they often claim). While many will still follow him no matter what, videos like this one (below) are useful in exposing some of their craziest statements. Enjoy! (tip - from the much saner Zakir: Zakir Thaver)

 [I have some minor quibbles with the corrections. For example, Newton, Boyle, etc. were lumped-in as Catholics, instead of Protestants, or something else altogether in the case of Newton. But overall these are minor issues.]

Also see:
Dr. Israr Ahmed on Evolution
Ghamidi on Islam and evolution
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Zakir Naik's rant against evolution
Yusuf Estes' ignorance and hilarity combo about evolution
Maududi on evolution
"Islamtoday" on evolution

Monday, July 25, 2011

An excellent analysis of the Oslo attack coverage in the NYT

by Salman Hameed

The recently Oslo attack is horrendous. For a while it also seemed that Europe will be gearing for another anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant backlash. However, it seems that the attacker is a right-wing, anti-Muslim nut job. It has been interesting to see the evolution of reporting in this regard. I do not have time to comment on it right now, but please check out this excellent analysis in Salon: The Omnipotence of Al Qaeda and the meaninglessness of "Terrorism":

But now it turns out that the alleged perpetrator wasn't from an international Muslim extremist group at all, but was rather a right-wing Norwegian nationalist with a history of anti-Muslim commentary and an affection for Muslim-hating blogs such as Pam Geller's Atlas Shrugged, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch.  Despite that, The New York Times is still working hard to pin some form of blame, even ultimate blame, on Muslim radicals (h/t sysprog):
Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda's brutality and multiple attacks.
"If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington.
Al Qaeda is always to blame, even when it isn't, even when it's allegedly the work of a Nordic, Muslim-hating, right-wing European nationalist.  Of course, before Al Qaeda, nobody ever thought to detonate bombs in government buildings or go on indiscriminate, politically motivated shooting rampages.  The NYT speculates that amonium nitrate fertilizer may have been used to make the bomb because the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, owned a farming-related business and thus could have access to that material; of course nobody would have ever thought of using that substance to make a massive bomb had it not been for Al Qaeda.  So all this proves once again what a menacing threat radical Islam is.
Then there's this extraordinarily revealing passage from the NYT -- first noticed by Richard Silverstein -- explaining why the paper originally reported what it did:
Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.
There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.
In other words, now that we know the alleged perpetrator is not Muslim, we know -- by definition -- that Terrorists are not responsible; conversely, when we thought Muslims were responsible, that meant -- also by definition -- that it was an act of Terrorism.  As Silverstein put it: 
How's that again? Are the only terrorists in the world Muslim? If so, what do we call a right-wing nationalist capable of planting major bombs and mowing down scores of people for the sake of the greater glory of his cause? If even a liberal newspaper like the Times can't call this guy a terrorist, what does that say about the mindset of the western world?
What it says is what we've seen repeatedly: that Terrorism has no objective meaning and, at least in American political discourse, has come functionally to mean: violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes, no matter the cause or the target.  Indeed, in many (though not all) media circles, discussion of the Oslo attack quickly morphed from this is Terrorism (when it was believed Muslims did it) to no, this isn't Terrorism, just extremism (once it became likely that Muslims didn't).

The Faraday Institute Summer Course(s)

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.

I just took part in the latest summer course offered by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (FISR) in Cambridge, UK. FISR, which has existed for a number of years now, aims at addressing various issues of intellectual and cultural engagement (or contention) between Science and Religion, by ways of courses, conferences, lectures, seminars and media. In addition to quasi-weekly seminars, its most notable offering is the yearly summer course.
The course gathers about 40 participants for 5 (very full) days of lectures and discussions. Each day, 4 lectures are given; each lasts an hour plus thirty minutes of Q & A. And in the evening, the lecturers of the day (usually grouped by theme) are gathered for an evening’s general panel discussion.
The list of lecturers and the topics addressed this year can be found on this webpage. I must say that I was fascinated by several lectures as well as by the quality of the participants. It is unfair to other speakers for me to highlight a few and not others, but I cannot resist mentioning the fascinating stuff that Dr. David Lahti presented in his two lectures on: a) Is Human Behaviour in the Genes?; b) Has Religion Evolved (going back 100,000 years)… Do check out his website and the various issues he and his students are working on. One other special mention goes to the joint presentation made by Drs. Jeff Schloss and Michael Murray on ‘Evil in Nature: scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives’. As you can see from just these examples (and more from the full list), it is a great opportunity for anyone, including those of us who have been dealing with Science and Religion issues for a while, to listen to, question, and interact with experts who have very thoughtful things (and sometimes data) to bring.
Now, the participants came from a good dozen countries, including a few from as far back as Brazil, Lithuania, Egypt, and Indonesia, though most came from the UK and Europe. A significant number of them were doctorate holders, but the spectrum of background was very broad, with at least one TV producer, one retired lady who is an avid reader and a life-long learner, and one or two clergymen. The most interesting part was that not everyone was religious, by any measure; in fact, one person stated openly that he is an atheist, though he enjoys such gatherings and has attended FISR courses several times. Moreover, during the discussion session, it became clear that not everyone was a believer and not everyone was convinced by the ideas that were being presented, although very often no conclusions were drawn, and it was left up to the listener to try to integrate that additional knowledge into his/her own worldview.
Indeed, the format of the discussions was quite interesting. First, the course makes sure that topics are addressed and explored in enough time: lectures are all one-hour long, followed by 30 minutes of Q &A; most importantly, and in order to make sure that people’s inner thoughts are expressed without reticence, a box is made available where people put in their (often pointed) questions, which are then addressed in an anonymous way in the evening. Also, the speakers themselves are encouraged to attend as much of the course as they can (I only missed one afternoon in the whole week) and participate in all the discussions by asking questions, making comments, and helping answer any questions that may fall in their province of expertise. Finally, lunches and dinners are taken together in a very down-to-earth atmosphere amongst all, during which time more discussions take place. I must also say that I was quite impressed by the fact that few of the participants ever disappeared (for touristic or other reasons), even though many had come from far away; this certainly says something about both the intentions of the participants in coming to such a course and the quality of the content they found.
Please note that FISR video-records the lectures given there and posts them on its multimedia page, which right now has 360 entries. This year’s lectures won’t be there until later, but in the meantime, if you can find the time, do check out a number of great lectures and topics there.
I thus would like to recommend this course to anyone interested in the whole Science & Religion field. The courses are not free, but the fees are more than reasonable, especially for students, considering that one gets to spend a whole week in Cambridge. For people who live in Europe, the trip may not be too expensive (especially by train), but for people from far away, they can either apply for FISR course bursaries or get their institutions to support them.
Last but not least, I would like to highlight the fact that FISR has started giving short versions of its courses in various corners of the world: in Ireland last month; in Australia later this summer; in New Zealand in September; other courses will also be conducted in India and elsewhere. So perhaps you can catch one near you in the future.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Schools and dinos in the Himalayan foothills

by Salman Hameed

I'm in Pakistan (Rawalpindi) these days visiting family. Yesterday we had a chance to take an overnight trip to a small village named Malot in the Himalayan foothills (it is about 60 kms or 2 hours from Rawalpindi). It is close to Murree - one of the busiest tourist destinations in Pakistan - but thankfully, it is slightly off the beaten path. First here are two pictures of the place to give you an idea of the view from the location:

Here is a picture of the back wall of a public secondary school for girls.

There are often complaints about the ruinous state of public schools. But this one looked quite good, and so did the boy's section (I did not get a chance to take a picture of that). I discovered that the boy's school was completely destroyed in the 2005 earthquake - and it has been built again completely from scratch.  I have blogged about girl's schools destroyed by the Taliban, so here is also a picture of a thriving school in the northern regions of Pakistan. And what a beautiful location!

There were also couple of unexpected things on the way. First, there was a fiber-glass shop that had models of different animals outside, including dinosaurs. It was just odd to see dinosaurs right off the main road, right next to a toll-plaza:

But a stranger thing was this statue/model of an unidentified animal right in front of a residential area:

This is a huge model. I mean this picture is taken from the highway and it still looks big. Now we have a dispute going on in our family if this is a horse, lama, or some sort of (perhaps yet undiscovered) dino. We did not take the time to stop and examine it (this picture is from a moving car). Nevertheless, we did agree that is an odd gigantic structure to be in front of a residential area. Has anyone else seen this animal model on this road and do you know what it is and why its there?

And in case you are wondering, yes, I have been eating mangoes every day here. And here is a piece of BBQ from Saturday night, and the picture of a devilish cat wanting a slice of it:

I also had a chance to visit the Pakistan Natural History Museum in Islamabad. More on that and Lok Virsa: Pakistan National Heritage Museum later.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review for "Nostalgia for the Light"

by Salman Hameed

"Nostalgia for the Light" is small but wonderful documentary film. I had a chance to introduce it at Amherst Cinema last month and it was a pleasure to see it on the big screen. It is hard to describe it in a few words, but it captures an essence of what makes us human. It is set in Atacama Desert of northern Chile, but the story will resonate with people from different cultures and different places.

I now have a review of the film in this week's Science. I have an excerpt and the link below. In addition, here is my conversation about the film (and other astronomy-related things) on the Bill Newman Show on WHMP (AM1400, FM96.9) - second half of the podcast.

Here is the beginning of my review for the film: 
Searchers in a Desert
In 1990, the camera of Voyager 1 turned toward Earth to take one last picture of its home planet. By then, the spacecraft had traveled 4 billion miles from Earth—a vast distance by human standards but puny on a cosmic scale. Earth appeared as a dot, captured on a single pixel of the camera. This image, dubbed the pale blue dot, inspired Carl Sagan to write: “Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot” (1).
Dictator Augusto Pinochet of Chile was one such general. During his 17-year reign, he was responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of political prisoners, many of whose bodies were dumped in the vast Atacama desert. Patricio Guzmán's gorgeous documentary Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light) brings together the cosmic perspective of the pale blue dot with the pain of those who sift through the desert sands to find remains of Pinochet's victims, without diminishing the importance of either.
The Atacama, the world's driest place, lies at the center of the film. Its arid climate and clear skies have drawn astronomers from around the world. Over the past four decades, state-of-the-art telescopes have bloomed in the desert, helping these astronomers to scan the universe's outer reaches and piece together its history.
Similarly, the desert's dry climate has allowed archaeologists to study pre-Columbian drawings and recover startlingly well-preserved thousand-year-old mummies. The Atacama also harbors the remains of laborers from brutal 19th-century silver and saltpeter mines as well as the bodies of Pinochet's political prisoners. The Pinochet regime may have ended in 1990, but some women are still searching for the remains of their loved ones who “disappeared.” Just like the astronomers, these women are also working in the Atacama desert to uncover the past—some of them in the shadows of the great observatories.
Visually stunning, Nostalgia for the Light manages to capture the desolation of the desert and the beauty of the Milky Way passing through the Chilean sky. The shots of abandoned mining villages are chilling; the contrast with futuristic-looking observatory domes, jarring. The past and the future of Chile collide in the Atacama. At one point, there is a wonderful scene of a train piercing the vast landscape, perhaps announcing the arrival of modernity—both for good and for bad.
Read the full review here

Here is the trailer for the film: 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In Pakistan for a few days...

I'm enroute to Islamabad for a few days. Blogging intermittently continue from there. In the mean time, here is a video from the band Hold Your Horses that I absolutely love:

If you are looking for the name of the paintings in the video, here is the list.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Ramadan crescent issue – this year's edition

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.

Ramadan is just around the corner (in two weeks’ time), and so we’re all gearing ourselves for the usual crescent saga… Last year I wrote twice here about the crescent problem, which to me is really a calendar problem: “Ramadan by CCD” and “For a Real Islamic Calendar...

Now, there are two reasons why I’m writing about this again: 1) the folks at Huffington Post have invited me to be a regular contributor to their slate of columnists/commentators, and my first article was about the Islamic calendar issue (the “Ramadan problem”); 2) I thought perhaps some of our readers here might want to know about the situation this year.
Here’s the core of my article at Huff-Po:
Now, one of the difficulties lies in the fact that the Islamic month is based on the new crescent, not the "new moon" (the moment of passage of the moon between the earth and the sun). The latter is a purely astronomical moment, and it can be calculated with great precision, but the appearance of the thin new crescent (some 15 to 30 hours after "new moon") is rather complicated matter, as it also involves atmospheric and meteorological effects, not to mention the ability of the human eye, or of a telescope, to see a thin crescent. Still, astronomers have made huge progress on this problem and can now confidently predict in which regions of the world the crescent will be seen (by naked eye or with optical aid) on any given night.
But then, if this can be determined ahead of time, why should there be a problem at all? Can't we simply tell people when the crescent will be seen and thus when the month will start or end, and then both the religious occasions and the civil functions (appointments, travels, etc.) can be taken care of all at once? Yes, indeed, we could -- if this calendar calculation is accepted by the authorities (religious and political.)
And so we come to the crux of the matter: the need to move on from the old injunctions and their literal applications ("sight the crescent with your eyes") to a more objectivist interpretation of the intention ("use your best tools, including telescopes and computers, to ascertain the start of the month") on the part of the Muslim authorities.
Now, for those who may be interested to learn about the situation this year, that is when and where the crescent is expected to be seen, whether by naked eyes or with optical aids, and hence when Ramadan should start (though this depends on the rules that each state upholds), I present below a crescent-visibility map for July 31. (The map is extracted from the ‘Accurate Times’ software that was constructed by Mohammad Odeh and is freely available for download from the ICOP website.)

 The regions in blue are where the crescent can only be seen with optical aid; the pink zone is where the crescent could be seen with naked eyes if the atmospheric conditions are excellent and the observers are experienced; the green zone is where the crescent is easy to observe.
In Mecca, for example, the crescent will be visible with optical aids only. Below is a diagram (produced with the Starry Night software) showing the situation there just before sunset:

Considering that the crescent will be impossible to see anywhere on Earth on July 30 and visible either with telescopes, binoculars, or naked eyes in various regions of the globe on July 31, it is easy to predict that Ramadan this year will start on August 1 almost everywhere, except in places (like Pakistan and India, as far as I know) that require local observation.
The situation concerning the end of Ramadan (Eid-ul-Fitr) is a bit more complex; I may come back to it later.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Video: The Genius of Omar Khayyam

I remember seeing the 1957 Hollywood version of Omar Khayyam. It is entertaining in the way of the early Hollywood. There is a mention of astrolabe once in the film and that already elevated the film :)

But now there is also a new BBC documentary Omar Khayyam. Part 1 (10 minutes) is below, and you can find part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Religious motivations for the Crimean War

I'm currently in the middle of lectures on The Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC and really enjoying those. The war hasn't started even after 14 lectures, but I love the really detailed set-up (okay - so Persian and Greek wars were mentioned in the earlier lectures, but then those were important for setting the stage). It was therefore a pleasure to read the review of a new book on Crimean War that took place in the 19th century. I think apart from the mention of Florence Nightingale, the war not part of our history curriculum in Pakistan - and I can see justification for that. So here is a new book, Crimean War: A History, that brings out the importance of Crimean war and considers it a religious war being waged by Russia against the Ottomans. Here is the the review from last week's New York Times:

In “The Crimean War: A History,” Orlando Figes restores the conflict — which predated the American Civil War by eight years — as “a major turning point” in European and Middle Eastern history. He argues forcefully that it was “the earliest example of a truly modern war — fought with new industrial technologies, modern rifles, steamships and railways, novel forms of logistics and communication like the telegraph, important innovations in military medicine and war reporters and photographers directly on the scene.” The ferocious yearlong siege of Sevastopol “was a precursor of the industrialized trench warfare” of World War I.
The war itself was initiated when religious squabbles over holy places in the Ottoman towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem prompted Russia to march troops into present-day Romania, threatening the partition of Ottoman lands. In response, the Ottoman Empire declared war, and Britain and France rallied to its defense. The devastating combat around the Black Sea proved unbearable for Russia: two-thirds of the soldiers killed in the war were Russian. After losing Sevastopol, Russia accepted a humiliating peace.        
The book goes on to make a stringer case for religious motivations:

This is history with an argument. Figes maintains that the conflict was essentially a religious war, and he is frustrated that most writers have neglected that theme: “If the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fueling wars.” Figes writes of Russians and Turks clashing over “religious battlegrounds, the fault line between Orthodoxy and Islam,” and explains that “every nation, none more so than Russia, went to war in the belief that God was on its side.” The Crimean War “opened up the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire to Western armies,” and “sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day.” The title of the British edition of the book is “Crimea: The Last Crusade.”
Figes presents czarist Russia as a deeply religious state, on a “divine mission” to recapture Constantinople and deliver millions of Orthodox Christians from Ottoman rule. More than anyone, he blames the war on Czar Nicholas I: a militaristic reactionary, a pioneer in the use of secret police and censorship, who Figes also suggests was mentally ill. In the decisive hours of 1854, as Britain and France threatened war against him, Nicholas failed to make “any calculation” about his military strength or give “any careful thought” to British and French military superiority; he chose war in a “purely emotional reaction,” based “perhaps above all on his deeply held belief that he was engaged in a religious war to complete Russia’s providential mission in the world.”
Figes makes a powerful, if not entirely convincing, case. Russia could be a fickle friend to the Orthodox peoples. It blew hot and cold in its support for an earlier Greek revolt against Ottoman rule. And it had some pragmatic reasons to try to dominate the Ottoman Empire. As Figes notes, Russia needed Black Sea ports for its trade and to project naval power.
As Figes himself emphasizes, ideologues, whether Islamist or Christianist, who seek historical evidence of a permanent war between Islam and Christianity will have to look elsewhere. Britain and France fought for the Ottoman Empire. And Western and Eastern Christians despised each other, sometimes more than they loathed Muslims. Nicholas, declaring himself the champion of Slavs throughout the Balkans, hoped that Britain would not dare “continue to ally with the Turks and fight with them against Christians.” He was dead wrong. If Britain was on a crusade, it was against Russia, not the Ottoman Empire. Britain spent most of the 19th century trying to thwart Russian expansion, with some Britons feverishly dreading Russia as the only land power that might be able to threaten India; Disraeli once claimed, “Constantinople is the key of India.” Figes depicts Britain as obsessed with the Russian menace to liberty and civilization — an obsession, he adds, that partly shaped cold war attitudes about the Soviet threat.
This  looks like a fascinating read (hey - but where's the audio version?). Check out the full review here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Global Innovation Index 2011

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 Global Innovation Index for 2011 was released last week. It was produced by INSEAD, a world-renowned international graduate business school and research institution, in collaboration with a number of institutions, including some multi-national companies as well as the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations.
This GII Report covers 125 countries, representing 93.2% of the world’s population and 98.0% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. It includes 16 countries from the Middle East and North Africa, two of which, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, were ranked overall among the top 40 (26th and 34th, respectively). Other Gulf countries ranked reasonably well: Bahrain (46th), Kuwait (52nd), Saudi Arabia (54th), and Oman (57th), several Arab and/or Muslim-majority states fared miserably: Bangladesh (97th), Pakistan (105th), Syria (115th), Yemen (123rd), and Algeria (125th). 
In the top spots, we find the usual suspects: Switzerland is the most innovative country in the world, gaining three places from its position a year ago, then come Sweden, Singapore Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Denmark, the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. China (29th) is the top-ranked emerging economy, while India is ranked 62nd.
Karim Sabbagh, a Senior Partner in this endeavor, was quoted as saying: “The ability to innovate is the great equalizer in the global economy. In the industrial era, nations relied on their natural resources to compete. Today, any country can advance with carefully focused investments in talent and R&D. The performance of some emerging economies in this year's GII shows what nations can accomplish with a focus on building 21st century economies.”
The Global Innovation Index is calculated by averaging scores from a number of “input” indicators, which are supposed to describe the enabling environment for innovation in each country as well as “output” indicators, measuring actual achievements in innovation. Five indicators constitute the Innovation Input Sub-Index: Institutions, Human capital and research, Infrastructure, Market sophistication, and Business sophistication. The Innovation Output Sub-Index is composed of two indicators: Scientific outputs and Creative outputs. The Innovation Efficiency Index, which is calculated as the ratio of the two (Input and Output) Sub-Indices, simply shows the extent to which each state is able to leverage its input factors to extract innovation results.
There are a number of interesting analysis chapters to read, including ‘Making Cities Smart and Sustainable’ and ‘The Global Footprint of Innovation’. But, as usual with such reports, there are loads of data on a variety of indicators, for which a ranking can be produced (online here). Such indicators include: Education expenditure, Pupil-teacher ratio (secondary level), Tertiary enrolment (gross percentage), Graduates in science (percentage), Graduates in engineering (percentage), Researchers headcount (per million), Gross expenditure on R&D (percentage of GDP), Quality of research institutions, Share of renewables in energy use (percentage), Ecological footprint & biocapacity, number of PhDs, research articles produced, research centers created, Quality of research institutions, patents issued, etc.
I invite readers, particularly students, to examine this database from a variety of angles, indicators, etc., and to report their findings. I would especially like to see comparisons between data found in this Report and those (sometimes on the same indicators) that can be found on the websites of the World Bank, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, and the Global Information Technology Report I recently wrote about.
The full Global Innovation Index 2011 Report can be downloaded here; an Executive Summary can be obtained here

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Saturday Video: Maz Jobrani on Persians and Arabs

by Salman Hameed

For a lighter Saturday, here is a hilarious bit (about 5 min) from Maz Jobrani on the difference between Persians and Arabs (tip from Leyla Keough). This is from his Axis of Evil tour from a few years ago:

And here is a TED talk by Maz Jobrani from 2010:

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Adjustment issues for Muslims in UK and Germany

by Salman Hameed

There is a thoughtful oped in today's NYT that talks about adjustment issues of Muslims in Europe - in particular in UK and Germany. It criticizes the already-maligned multiculturalism approach that had been adopted by both of the countries, but then it also presents a thoughtful analysis of why so many Muslims feel alienated there. This is of interest to me because we are looking at attitudes to evolution amongst Pakistani physicians in UK and Turkish doctors in Germany - and we suspect that for some a rejection of biological evolution may have become entangled with their identity of being a Muslim.

This article makes an interesting point about the appropriation (with ample help from the British government) of the "Muslim position" by some of the more extreme groups in UK:
Thirty years ago, Britain was a very different place than it is now. Racism was vicious, visceral and often fatal. “Paki bashing,” the pastime of hunting down and beating up Britons with brown skin, became a national sport in certain circles. I remember organizing patrols on the streets of East London during the 1980s to protect South Asian families from rampaging racist thugs. Workplace discrimination was endemic and police brutality frighteningly common. Anger at such treatment came to an explosive climax in the riots that rocked London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and other cities during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was in response to this rage that Britain’s multicultural policies emerged.
The British government developed a new political framework for engaging with minority groups. Britain was now in effect divided into a number of ethnic boxes — Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, African, Caribbean and so on. The claims of minorities upon society were defined less by the social and political needs of individuals than by the box to which they belonged. Political power and financial resources were distributed by ethnicity.
The new policy did not empower individuals; instead, it enhanced the authority of so-called community leaders, often the most conservative voices, who owed their positions and influence largely to their relationship with the state.
 Politicians effectively abandoned their responsibility to engage directly with minorities, subcontracting it out to often reactionary “leaders.”
If the prime minister wanted to get a message to the “Muslim community,” he called in the council or visited a mosque. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens, politicians preferred to see them as people whose primary loyalty was to their faith and who could be politically engaged only by other Muslims. As a result religious — and Islamist — figures gained new legitimacy in their own neighborhoods and came to be seen by the wider society as the authentic voice of British Muslims.
But along with this, the moderate voices have gotten sidelined:
More progressive movements became sidelined. Today “radical” in an Islamic context means someone who is a religious fundamentalist. Thirty years ago it meant the opposite: a secularist who challenged both racism in the streets and the power of the mosques. Secularism was once strong within Muslim communities, but it has been squeezed out by the new relationship between the state and religious leaders.
Many second-generation British Muslims now find themselves detached from both the religious traditions of their parents, which they often reject, and the wider secular society that insists on viewing them simply as Muslims. A few are drawn inevitably to extremist Islamist groups where they discover a sense of identity and of belonging. It is this that has made them open to radicalization.
I think this makes overall sense. However, we have to realize that secularism lost its strength in the 1990s in several (most?) Muslim countries. This does not mean that the causality implied in the article is wrong,  but just to keep in mind this additional bit of complexity.

And as far as Germany is concerned, there experiment in multiculturalism failed for completely different reasons:
A similar process has taken place in Germany. Postwar immigrants, primarily from Turkey, came not as potential citizens, but as “gastarbeiter,” or guest workers, who were expected to eventually return to their native countries. Over time, immigrants became transformed from a temporary necessity to a permanent presence, partly because Germany continued relying on their labor, and partly because they — and especially their children — came to see Germany as home.
The German state, however, continued to view them as outsiders and to refuse them citizenship. Unlike the practices in Britain, France or the United States, German citizenship is based on blood, not soil: it is granted automatically only to children born of German parents. Germany has nearly four million people of Turkish origin today, many of them born there, but fewer than 25 percent have managed to become citizens. Instead, multiculturalism became the German answer to the “Turkish problem.”
In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, the state “allowed” immigrants to keep their own culture, language and lifestyles. One consequence was the creation of parallel communities. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many Turks became dangerously inward-looking. Today, almost a third of Turkish adults in Germany regularly attend mosque, a higher rate than elsewhere in Western Europe and higher than in many parts of Turkey. The increasing isolation of second-generation German Turks has made some more open to radical Islamism.
This is a tough issue. Unfortunately, France's assimilation policies are not helped much by its ban on burqas nor does Switzerland with its prohibition of minarets. I think the US has so far done relatively well in assimilating different cultures, including Muslims, but we are seeing increasing hostility to the building of mosques and Islamic centers in the States. If this stays as a political weapon for the Tea Party Republicans, we may see a deeper entrenchment of the Muslim community. But I don't see the problem getting as bad as UK or Germany for three reasons: 1) the ties to home countries are looser here than in UK and Germany, 2) Muslim immigrants to the US are close to the national average in socio-econmic factors, whereas they are lower than average in most of Europe, 3) perhaps, because of the first two factors, there might be a larger fraction (key word is "fraction) of progressive (plus politically and culturally astute) Muslims in the US than in UK or Germany.

In any case, read this excellent article here.

"Arabick Roots" Exhibition at the Royal Society

by Salman Hameed

If you are in London, you can check out the exhibit Arabick Roots at the Royal Society. It looks at various scientific links of European scholars with the various parts of the Muslim world at the time of the founding of the Royal Society in the 17th century. The exhibition runs until November. Here is a short blurb from Science about Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius and his request for the star maps of Ulugh Beg - a 15th century astronomer and a ruler from Samarkand:
When Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius began working on his 1687 map of the stars, he wrote to German theologian Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society in England. The request: to locate the 15th century star map of astronomer Ulugh Beg of Samarkand and translate it from Persian. The Royal Society fulfilled his request, and the map guided Hevelius's new observations. This frontispiece to Hevelius's map pays homage to Beg; as Hevelius presents the book to Urania, muse of astronomy, the top 10 astronomers of all time look on. Beg is third from left.
“He crossed many centuries with that image, putting many people shoulder to shoulder,” says astrophysicist Rim Turkmani, curator of Arabick Roots, which opened 9 June at the Royal Society in London. “It's a nice gesture from him to say thank you.” The exhibition's letters, manuscripts, diagrams, and instruments chronicling the flow of scientific knowledge from the Arab world to Europe in the 17th century will be on view until November.         
Here is the website for Arabick Roots. This scientific interaction should not really come as a surprise, and I had a post a few years ago about that: Science versus Humanities in the European Renaissance

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Tim Minchin's animated movie: Storm

by Salman Hameed

I have to admit that living in Northampton/Amherst area, I have been stuck in numerous new-agey conversations at gatherings and at coffee shops. Alternative healing practices are certainly quite popular here - and one can get their chakras right at a number of local places. It is sad to say that I've had conversations here about energy healings, mind-shifts, quantum-related babble, and of course astrology and psychics. And this happens to be a college town! So yes, some of my conversations about these topics have indeed taken an awkward turn in the past. So here is a nice short film (about 10 minutes) that speaks for all us who have been stuck in such conversations (tip Zakir Thaver). It is a bit over the top - but then it does have a good excuse. And the music and the words make up for the rest.