Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three fantastic upcoming talks at Hampshire College

by Salman Hameed

If you live in Western Massachusetts, then you are in for a treat. We have three fantastic talks coming, including our next Science & Religion Lecture.

So lets start with tomorrow (Thursday, March 5th). The Culture Brain and Development (CBD) program at Hampshire is hosting a talk by Darrin McMahon:


Pursuing Happiness in the Past and in the Present
by Dr. Darrin M. McMahon

Thursday February 28th 5:30-7:00 p.m. in Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall

Bio: Dr. Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University. Educated at Berkeley and Yale, he is the author of Enemies of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 2001) and Happiness: a History (Atlantic Monthly, 2006), which has been translated into thirteen languages, and was awarded Best Books of the Year honors for 2006 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate Magazine, and The Library Journal. Dr. McMahon?s writings have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. He is currently writing a history of the idea of genius, forthcoming with Basic Books in 2013.

Abstract: Professor McMahon will sketch some of the principal ways human beings have thought about happiness in the past. Examples will draw primarily from the Western tradition, but the discussion will open out to encompass other traditions as well. McMahon will then discuss the ?Revolution in Human Expectations? that occurred in the 18th century, and explain how its consequences--for better and for worse--are still with us today. The lecture concludes by looking at some aspects of the recent "science" of happiness to explain how a good number of its central insights are consistent with truths long understood by the world's major religious and wisdom traditions.


Then we have Glenn Greenwald next Tuesday:



Endless War, Radical Presidential Power, and a Rotted Political Culture
by Glenn Greenwald

March 5 (Tuesday) 2013 at 5:30pm

Main Lecture Hall, Franklin Patterson Hall, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA


Glenn Greenwald will be speaking at Hampshire College about the U.S.’s “Endless War, Radical Presidential Power, And A Rotted Political Culture.” Greenwald was a constitutional lawyer, and is now a columnist for the Guardian and a best-selling author who writes critically and powerfully about the war on terror, national security, the expansion of executive power, and other pressing political issues. He has published several books on us politics; his most recent book is With Liberty And Justice For Some: How The Law Is Used To Destroy Equality And Protect The Powerful. Greenwald was named by the Atlantic as one of the 25 most influential political commentators in the nation. He has won numerous awards for his investigative journalism.

After a brief talk, he will participate in a roundtable conversation with moderator Falguni A. Sheth, Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College.  The event will be held on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 5:30 pm, in the Main Lecture Hall in Franklin Patterson Hall, Hampshire College.  It is open to the public, and members of the community are warmly invited to attend.


And next Thursday, March 7th, we have our next Science and Religion Lecture:

Spinoza's God (or Nature)
by Dr. Steven Nadler


Thursday, March 7 at 5:30 p.m. in Main Lecture Hall, Franklin Patterson Hall

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

Speaker bio:
Professor Nadler is William H. Hay Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on philosophy in the seventeenth century, particularly issues in metaphysics and epistemology, as well as conceptions of reason and happiness. He has written extensively on Descartes and Cartesianism, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He also works on medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy. His two most recent books are a collection of his papers, Occasionalism: Causation Among the Cartesians (Oxford, 2011); and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011). His new book, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes, will be published by Princeton in spring 2013. He is currently the editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Declining fertility rates and changing demographics in the Muslim World

by Salman Hameed

We most hear about population explosion in much of the Muslim world. This then also gets tied to factors affecting social and economic conditions in these developing countries. So it was fascinating to see an article about a study that highlights not only declining fertility rates in much of the Muslim world, but the fact that they are declining a stunning pace. And while we are seeing a youth-bulge right now (and its impact is already being felt with the changes taking place in the Arab world and elsewhere), but the situation will change dramatically in the next few decades:
Something startling is happening in the Muslim world — and no, I don’t mean the Arab Spring or the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. According to a leading demographer, a “sea change” is producing a sharp decline in Muslim fertility rates and a “flight from marriage” among Arab women. 
Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, documented these findings in two recent papers. They tell a story that contradicts the usual picture of a continuing population explosion in Muslim lands. Population is indeed rising, but if current trends continue, the bulge won’t last long. 
Eberstadt’s first paper was expressively titled “Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still Curiously Unnoticed.” Using data for 49 Muslim-majority countries and territories, he found that fertility rates declined an average of 41 percent between 1975-80 and 2005-10, a deeper drop than the 33 percent decline for the world as a whole.
Here is a plot (click on the figure to enlarge it) from the paper by Eberstadt and Shah (get the full pdf paper here):

In several of the countries, the declines are more than 60%, with Iran getting as high as 70%:

Twenty-two Muslim countries and territories had fertility declines of 50 percent or more. The sharpest drops were in Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Libya, Albania, Qatar and Kuwait, which all recorded declines of 60 percent or more over three decades. 
Fertility in Iran declined an astonishing 70 percent over the 30-year period, which Eberstadt says was “one of the most rapid and pronounced fertility declines ever recorded in human history.” By 2000, Iran’s fertility rate had fallen to two births per woman, below the level necessary to replace current population, according to Eberstadt and his co-author, Apoorva Shah.
Just as a comparison, here is a plot that looks at fertility rates of individual US states and that in Muslim countries (click on the image to enlarge it):

This is actually quite stunning. But this is not it. There is also a decline of marriages in the Muslim world, along with the rest of the world:
Accompanying this fertility decline is what Eberstadt calls a “flight from marriage,” which he described in a paper presented last month in Doha, Qatar. His data show that in many areas of the world, men and women are getting married later or remaining unmarried. Divorce rates are also rising, especially in Europe, along with the percentage of extramarital births. 
The decline of marriage in Europe is well-known but still striking: The female marriage rate fell in Germany from 0.98 to 0.59 from 1965 to 2000; it fell in France over that period from 0.99 to 0.61; in Sweden from 0.98 to 0.49; in Britain, from 1 to 0.54. 
Marriage is also plummeting in Asia: In Japan, the percentage of women between 30 and 34 who have never married rose from 7.2 percent in 1970 to 26.6 percent in 2000; in Burma, it rose from 9.3 percent to 25.9 percent; in Thailand, from 8.1 percent to 16.1 percent; in South Korea, from 1.4 percent to 10.7 percent. 
Marriage rates in the Arab world are higher, but they’re moving fast in the same direction. What’s “astonishing,” says Eberstadt in an e-mail explaining his findings, is that in the Arab world, this move away from marriage “is by many measures already as far along as was Europe’s in the 1980s — and it is taking place at a vastly lower level of development than the corresponding flights in Europe and developed East Asia.
“Something really big is under way — and practically no one has noticed it, even in the Arab world,” argues Eberstadt.
I don't what will be the specific impact of these changes - but we can be sure that we will be seeing a lot more changes in the Muslim world in the coming decades. Mass education and globalization via the internet and other sources is already bringing up unprecedented questions about the nature of being a Muslim in the modern world. The traditional structures are being challenged and new answers are being tested. But, in addition, this demographic shift would mean that the youth bulge of today (more than half of the Muslim population today is under the age of 25) will turn into an aging society, and that will bring a whole set of new challenges.

Read the full article here and you can find the full study here.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Argo" may win tonight - but the movie's problems remain...

by Salman Hameed

We just finished watching the first season of the Showtime series Homeland. While it has garnered critical appraise as well as awards at both the Emmy's and the Golden Globes, there are serious problems with the way it depicts Islam and violence. (A spoiler alert in the next sentence) Yes - it does try to make things more complicated by having American marines as potential terrorists - but they are still being controlled by an evil Middle Easterner. This might have been okay too - but there have been too many times where Muslim prayers were juxtaposed with violence or violent intentions. But the problem is that this kind of imagery is totally okay in the mainstream - even amongst the liberals here.


This brings me to Argo, which has been winning award after award, and is the front-runner for the best picture Oscar tonight. Just like Homeland, it tries to present a more nuanced picture of Iran - but instead reinforces all the stereotypes. In fact, there are no sympathetic Iranian characters in the film other than in the role of a loyal servant. This would have been okay if the movie was directed by Michael Bay and starred Chuck Norris. The problem is that it is coming from the more progressive crowd in the Hollywood (George Clooney is one of the Executive Producers) and most people that this is a nuanced portrait of Iran.

Kevin Anderson and I had a discussion about Argo and we talked about some of these issues. Here is our Film Autopsy:



Also, this point has also been made about Argo in Jingoism as History (tip from Vijay Prashad). In fact, it brings up another fascinating piece of history ignored in the film:
On November 4, 1979, radical Iranian protesters breached the walls of the United States Embassy in Tehran and took the U.S. diplomats working there hostage. They demanded that the U.S. send the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then receiving treatment in a New York hospital for terminal cancer, to Iran to stand trial in exchange for the release of the hostages. 
On November 6, 1979, The New York Times reported that the civilian government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his 20-member Cabinet had resigned “after the Ayatollah’s advisers supported the student occupation of the U.S. Embassy despite assurances by the government that it would end the seizure and obtain the release of the hostages”. 
In resigning, The New York Times reported, Bazargan was “conceding power to the Islamic authority of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini”. The resignation of the civilian government in protest over the embassy takeover, which came after months of internal struggle between the revolutionary factions that had overthrown the Shah, was a watershed moment in Iranian history. It gave the Khomeinists unchecked power at a critical time, shaping the contours of Iran’s government for decades to come. 
Ben Affleck’s hit movie Argo carefully details the takeover of the embassy. But it leaves that critical part of the story out even though it is documented well by mainstream American news outlets. In Affleck’s film, Iranians are, for the most part, dangerous and anti-American. Only one character, a meek maid, seems to have some sympathy for the hostages; she ultimately risks her life to cover up their hiding place from the Revolutionary Guards. 
It is a lost opportunity for an allegedly progressive Hollywood film-maker to tell that part of the history as well. The embassy takeover was, in the view of many Iranians like myself, a most ignominious episode, a clear violation of international law and an abrogation of accepted norms of decency. Argo introduces an entire new generation of U.S. moviegoers to the Hostage Crisis. In the end, it introduces a new chapter in the larger story without fundamentally changing the narrative.
...
As of the first week of January 2013, Argo grossed over $166 million in worldwide distribution. During the Oscar season, it is bound to garner even more viewers. Those who go to see Argo may leave the theatre thinking they have just learned some history. But, really, at the end of the day, they have seen a heart-wrenching historical episode giving way to a political thriller complete with bad sideburns, car chases, and a watered-down version of history. As a reviewer in the Chicago Reader wrote, “...making an anti-Iranian action flick in Hollywood isn’t exactly a daring act”. Ultimately, whatever the film-maker’s intentions, Argo comes across as liberal jingoism.
Read the full article here.

Also - here Kevin Anderson and I express our views on best picture nominations and how to fix some of the mistakes of the Academy for our Film Autopsy on Switchboard Magazine:



And while we are on the subject of controversial and problematic films, here is our film autopsy of Zero Dark Thirty:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Video: Sci-Fi short film "Grounded"

by Salman Hameed

You can say a lot even in less than 8 minutes. Here is a fascinating short film, Grounded, about an astronaut landing on an extrasolar planet. What do you think is going on in here?

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Friday, February 22, 2013

An excellent oped by Mohsin Hamid on Pakistan and India

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fantastic and thoughtful oped by Mohsin Hamid on how Pakistan's focus on fighting India has sowed the seeds of its own intractable sectarian problems. It is titled To Fight India, We Fought Ourselves. Of course, he thinks that the increasing cultural and economic exchanges between the two countries are a positive signs for the future relations and for the stability of Pakistan itself. But he also presents a set of challenges for both sides of the border. However, I think we should add scientific collaborations as well. I know that there were some efforts in astronomy going on - but it will be great to see more collaborative projects taking place.

The article that starts with the recent killings of Shias in Baluchistan. Mohsin makes an interesting point that the persecuted minorities combined together constitute a majority in Pakistan:

Minority persecution is a common notion around the world, bringing to mind the treatment of African-Americans in the United States, for example, or Arab immigrants in Europe. In Pakistan, though, the situation is more unusual: those persecuted as minorities collectively constitute a vast majority. 
A filmmaker I know who has relatives in the Ahmadi sect told me that her family’s graves in Lahore had been defaced, because Ahmadis are regarded as apostates. A Baluch friend said it was difficult to take Punjabi visitors with him to Baluchistan, because there is so much local anger there at violence toward the Baluch. An acquaintance of mine, a Pakistani Hindu, once got angry when I answered the question “how are things?” with the word “fine” — because things so obviously aren’t. And Pakistani Christians have borne the brunt of arrests under the country’s blasphemy law; a governor of my province was assassinated for trying to repeal it. 
What then is the status of the country’s majority? In Pakistan, there is no such thing. Punjab is the most populous province, but its roughly 100 million people are divided by language, religious sect, outlook and gender. Sunni Muslims represent Pakistan’s most populous faith, but it’s dangerous to be the wrong kind of Sunni. Sunnis are regularly killed for being open to the new ways of the West, or for adhering to the old traditions of the Indian subcontinent, for being liberal, for being mystical, for being in politics, the army or the police, or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
At the heart of Pakistan’s troubles is the celebration of the militant. Whether fighting in Afghanistan, or Kashmir, or at home, this deadly figure has been elevated to heroic status: willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, able to win the ultimate victory, selfless, noble. Yet as tens of thousands of Pakistanis die at the hands of such heroes, as tens of millions of Pakistanis go about their lives in daily fear of them, a recalibration is being demanded. The need of the hour, of the year, of the generation, is peace. 
Pakistan is in the grips of militancy because of its fraught relationship with India, with which it has fought three wars and innumerable skirmishes since the countries separated in 1947. Militants were cultivated as an equalizer, to make Pakistan safer against a much larger foe. But they have done the opposite, killing Pakistanis at home and increasing the likelihood of catastrophic conflicts abroad. 
Normalizing relations with India could help starve Pakistani militancy of oxygen. So it is significant that the prospects for peace between the two nuclear-armed countries look better than they have in some time. 
But he is right about the challenges as well on both sides of the border:

 India and Pakistan share a lengthy land border, but they might as well be on separate continents, so limited is their trade with each other and the commingling of their people. Visas, traditionally hard to get, restricted to specific cities and burdened with onerous requirements to report to the local police, are becoming more flexible for business travelers and older citizens. Trade is also picking up. A pulp manufacturer in Pakistani Punjab, for example, told me he had identified a paper mill in Indian Punjab that could purchase his factory’s entire output. 
These openings could be the first cracks in a dam that holds back a flood of interaction. Whenever I go to New Delhi, many I meet are eager to visit Lahore. Home to roughly a combined 25 million people, the cities are not much more than half an hour apart by plane, and yet they are linked by only two flights a week. 
Cultural connections are increasing, too. Indian films dominate at Pakistani cinemas, and Indian songs play at Pakistani weddings. Now Pakistanis are making inroads in the opposite direction. Pakistani actors have appeared as Bollywood leads and on Indian reality TV. Pakistani contemporary art is being snapped up by Indian buyers. And New Delhi is the publishing center for the current crop of Pakistani English-language fiction.
A major constraint the two countries have faced in normalizing relations has been the power of security hawks on both sides, and especially in Pakistan. But even in this domain we might be seeing an improvement. The new official doctrine of the Pakistani Army for the first time identifies internal militants, rather than India, as the country’s No. 1 threat. And Pakistan has just completed an unprecedented five years under a single elected government. This year, it will be holding elections in which the largest parties all agree that peace with India is essential. 
Peace with India or, rather, increasingly normal neighborly relations, offers the best chance for Pakistan to succeed in dismantling its cult of militancy. Pakistan’s extremists, of course, understand this, and so we can expect to see, as we have in the past, attempts to scupper progress through cross-border violence. They will try to goad India into retaliating and thereby giving them what serves them best: a state of frozen, impermeable hostility.
They may well succeed. For there is a disturbing rise of hyperbolic nationalism among India’s prickly emerging middle class, and the Indian media is quick to stoke the fires. The explosion of popular rage in India after a recent military exchange, in which soldiers on both sides of the border were killed, is an indicator of the danger. 
So it is important now to prepare the public in both countries for an extremist outrage, which may well originate in Pakistan, and for the self-defeating calls for an extreme response, which are likely to be heard in India. Such confrontations have always derailed peace in the past. They must not be allowed to do so again. In the tricky months ahead, as India and Pakistan reconnect after decades of virtual embargo, those of us who believe in peace should regard extremist provocations not as barriers to our success but, perversely, as signs that we are succeeding. 
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nick Cave - Higgs Boson Blues

by Salman Hameed

Well, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are back to their top form with their new album, Push the Sky Away. It reminds me of The Boatman's Call and yet it is quite different (Murder Ballads and The Boatman's Call were two amazing back-to-back albums). Nick Cave usually writes about death/murder, love and God (yes, he is inspired by Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits), but this time he also has a spectacular song related to science, Higgs Boson Blues. Well, no - there isn't any science in it. Instead, it seems like a surreal romp on a drive to Geneva. Here it is:



There are a lot of meandering pop culture and historical references. One reference is about a cone-shape Jewish hat, that was enforced - among others - by one of the Abbasid Caliphs. In another excellent song, Mermaids, he mentions seventy-two virgins (along with his belief in God, mermaids, and the Rapture). And on a completely unrelated topic, do check out the video Jubilee Street (the uncensored version here - hey you better be over 18 to view it!). This video is directed by John Hillcoat, who has directed two Nick Cave written films - the fantastic The Proposition and the not so good Lawless (also see our Film Autopsy here).

Well, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds will be performing in Boston on March 24th - but the show is sold out. Don't hesitate to let me know if you have tickets to the show and don't want to go...  :)

And while we are on the subject of awesome aging singers, here is the spectacular new song and video from David Bowie: Where Are We Now?

Doodle vs Doodle: Copernicus and al-Tusi

by Salman Hameed

Perhaps, appropriately, Persian polymath Nasir al Din Tusi (1201-1274 CE) decided to have his birthday on February 19th, a day before Copernicus. Google then decided to have a Tusi doodle on the 18th, but kept it away from the non-Arab world. Here is Tusi doodle that appeared only on Arabic Google (tip from House of Wisdom):

So why care for Tusi? Well, like other natural philosophers of his time, he contributed to many different fields. He even waded in on idea of the development and evolution of species, including that of humans. But it is his Tusi-Couple that ended up changing the face of astronomy (he also formed the important Marageh Observatory in 1259 CE). Something very similar was used by Ibn al-Shatir in his geocentric model and Copernicus in his heliocentric model. Historians now believe that Copernicus must have known about the Tusi-Couple and adapted it for his model (for clarification, al-Tusi or Ibn al-Shatir did not place the Sun at the center of the solar system).

Here is the Tusi-Couple:


And on queue, February 19th was the 540th birthday of Copernicus. Here is the Google doodle for that:


Happy belated birthdays!

Hoodbhoy on science in Pakistan and on the immorality of nuclear weapons

by Salman Hameed

This is from the recently concluded Karachi Literature Festival. Unfortunately, he is right about nuclear weapons. It will take a tragedy to wake people up on the indiscriminate evil of the bomb. Here is a sobering clip from Pervez Hoodbhoy:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Okay - done with the cold weather...

by Salman Hameed

This winter has been brutal! After several storms and cold spells, we again have temperatures plunging tonight to 8F (-13C) and with windchill, it will feel like -10F (-23C). Noooooo! Oh I mean - Khaaaannnn! I protest.

And the prettyness of snow is just not enough to overcome these inhumane temperatures. This is how our house looked like after last week's snow-dump, Nemo:


And the backyard "winter wonderland" after another few inches of snow on Friday night (this is a color picture - but because of the clouds and snow, it looks B&W):


And here, one of the trees is pondering about its existence in the northeast:


Saturday, February 16, 2013

RSoP event in Islamabad: Science, Rationality and Modernity

by Salman Hameed

I won't be in Islamabad, but here is your chance to attend a seminar organized by Rationalist Society of Pakistan and Khudi on February 21st:
Science, Rationality and ModernitySeminar, Islamabad, Pakistan (15:00 PST, 21st of Feb, 2013) 
The speakers are Dr. Mobarak Haider (Author Civilizational Narcissism aka Tehzeebi Nargasiyat) and Dr. Khalid Masood (Ex-Member Pakistan Ideological Council and Judge Shariat Court). The authors will speak on the history, advantages and the need of Rationality for Muslims for the advancement in Science and solution of contemporary problems in the context of modern world.
You can find more information about the event and about registration here. If you attend the event, write about it in the comments. And here is the poster for the event:


Saturday Video: A discussion on US Drone Killings

by Salman Hameed

It is a topic that is finally being discusses more broadly in the US press. I usually find Chris Hayes a bit smug, but here is a good discussion from last week that includes couple of lawyers, an ACLU activist, and the filmmaker behind the new documentary, Dirty Wars: The World as a Battlefield. One of the interesting comments made in the discussion is that fact that legally, one cannot distinguish between US and non-US citizens when it comes to the access of due-process (in reality, of course, courts have made distinctions). Here is the full program:


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Friday, February 15, 2013

Great to see a focus on science in dealing with the Siberian meteor...

by Salman Hameed


Unless you are living under a rock (ha ha!), you probably have heard about the spectacular meteor that went through the Siberian skies earlier today. It is absolutely breathtaking to see the videos of the meteor. Initially I thought - oh it is just another fireball. But no - this is quite amazing! Here is one as an example (and you can find lot more at this NYT site):


So couple of thoughts. First of all, it is unfortunate that over a thousand people have been injured because of the damage (mostly shattered windows) caused by sonic boom. But if you have to get injured, how cool would it be to be injured by a meteor?

Second, what an amazing world we live in today. We often complain about lack of critical thinking and a lack of appreciation of science amongst general public. Yes - that is often a justifiable complaint. But look, it is so cool that much of the coverage and the discussion around it has been informed by astronomy. And this I this is very cool! If the same event had happened a few hundred years back, people would have attributed to divine causes and/or to premonition (plus, only a handful of people in Siberia would have actually known about it. A big thank you in this instant to our communications ability and globalization). And while some people will still come up with crazy ideas, the dominant narrative is about fact that this is a meteor and part of solar system. These rocks have crashed on Earth before and they will crash on Earth again. This is a natural part of living on a rock in a solar system.

And thirdly, an important question: why the heck are there so many cameras on the dashboard of Russian cars? Well the answer is actually quite funny and comes from a NYT blog:

Some of the numerous videos that quickly emerged of the incident highlighted a distinctly Russian phenomenon: the dashboard cam. As the blogger Marina Galperina explained last year, they are commonplace in Russia partly because of the dangerous driving conditions that lead to so many accidents, and with an unreliable police force such cameras can provide valuable evidence following a crash. 
"The conditions of Russian roads are perilous, with insane gridlock in cities and gigantic ditches, endless swamps and severe wintry emptiness on the backroads and highways. Then there are large, lawless areas you don’t just ride into, the police with a penchant for extortion and deeply frustrated drivers who want to smash your face. 
Psychopaths are abundant on Russian roads. You best not cut anyone off or undertake some other type of maneuver that might inconvenience the 200-pound, six-foot-five brawling children you see on YouTube hopping out of their SUVs with their dukes up. They will go ballistic in a snap, drive in front of you, brake suddenly, block you off, jump out and run towards your vehicle. Next thing you start getting punches in your face because your didn’t roll up your windows, or getting pulled out of the car and beaten because you didn’t lock the doors. 
These fights happen all the time and you can’t really press charges. Point to your broken nose or smashed windows all you want. The Russian courts don’t like verbal claims. They do, however, like to send people to jail for battery and property destruction if there’s definite video proof."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Shakespeare would have said of Galileo...

by Salman Hameed


Next year will be the 450th birth anniversaries of Galileo and Shakespeare. Last week's New Yorker has a beautifully written piece by Adam Gopnik on Galileo that wonders what Shakespeare would have written about his contemporary. Actually he delegates that responsibility to Bertolt Brecht and his famous play, Galileo. The article is very good but it also reinforces couple of misperceptions.  For example, it uses the famous 19th century painting of a defiant Galileo above as the set-piece for the article. The problem is that from what is known, Galileo was a frail old man when he came up in front of the inquisition and he did not want to offend them. And the inquisition itself wanted a way out as well and struck a plea bargain with him that would have let him off with a slap on the wrist. It was the Pope - the former friend of Galileo - who overrode the plea agreement. This is not to say that the treatment of Galileo was not shoddy and unjust. But that it is always good to read an article that also gets smaller thing right. The painting more reflects the view of the Church in the 19th century than a depiction of Galileo in front of the inquisition. Gopnik also implies that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake because of belief in the plurality of the worlds. While Bruno did believe in the plurality of the worlds, and that was indeed considered heretical by the Church, there were also many more reasons for the Church to be angry about. It would be misleading to cherry-pick the reasons four centuries later (See this earlier post: Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?).

But these critiques aside, this is a fantastic and highly enjoyable article:

Although Galileo and Shakespeare were both born in 1564, just coming up on a shared four-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday, Shakespeare never wrote a play about his contemporary. (Wise man that he was, Shakespeare never wrote a play about anyone who was alive to protest.) The founder of modern science had to wait three hundred years, but when he got his play it was a good one: Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” which is the most Shakespearean of modern history plays, the most vivid and densely ambivalent. It was produced with Charles Laughton in 1947, during Brecht’s Hollywood exile, and Brecht’s image of the scientist as a worldly sensualist and ironist is hard to beat, or forget. Brecht’s Galileo steals the idea for the telescope from the Dutch, flatters the Medici into giving him a sinecure, creates two new sciences from sheer smarts and gumption—and then, threatened by the Church with torture for holding the wrong views on man’s place in the universe, he collapses, recants, and lives on in a twilight of shame. 
It might be said that Brecht, who truckled to the House Un-American Activities Committee—“My activities . . . have always been purely literary activities of a strictly independent nature”—and then spent the next bit of his own life, post-Hollywood, accessorized to the Stalinist government of East Germany, was the last man in the world to be pointing a finger at someone for selling out honesty for comfort. But then the last man who ought to point that finger is always the one who does. Galileo’s shame, or apostasy, certainly shapes the origin myth of modern science, giving it not a martyr-hero but a turncoat, albeit one of genius. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes,” his former apprentice says at the play’s climax to the master who has betrayed the Copernican faith. “No,” Galileo replies, “unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” It is a bitter valediction for the birth of the new learning. The myth that, once condemned, he muttered under his breath, about the earth, “But still, it moves,” provides small comfort for the persecuted, and is not one that Brecht adopted.
Interestingly, Gopnik sees a closer connection of Galileo with that of Michelangelo:

Although the twinship of Shakespeare and Galileo is one that we see retrospectively, another, even more auspicious twinning was noted and celebrated during Galileo’s lifetime: Galileo was born in Pisa on the day that Michelangelo died. In truth, it was probably about a week later, but the records were tweaked to make it seem so. The connection was real, and deep. Galileo spent his life as an engineer and astronomer, but his primary education was almost exclusively in what we would call the liberal arts: music, drawing, poetry, and rhetoric—the kind of thing that had made Michelangelo’s Florence the capital of culture in the previous hundred years. 
Galileo was afflicted with a cold and crazy mother—after he made his first telescope, she tried to bribe a servant to betray its secret so that she could sell it on the market!—and some of the chauvinism that flecks his life and his writing may have derived from weird-mom worries. He was, however, very close to his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a lute player and, more important, a musical theorist. Vincenzo wrote a book, startlingly similar in tone and style to the ones his son wrote later, ripping apart ancient Ptolemaic systems of lute tuning, as his son ripped apart Ptolemaic astronomy. Evidently, there were numerological prejudices in the ancient tuning that didn’t pass the test of the ear. The young Galileo took for granted the intellectual freedom conceded to Renaissance musicians. The Inquisition was all ears, but not at concerts. 
Part of Galileo’s genius was to transfer the spirit of the Italian Renaissance in the plastic arts to the mathematical and observational ones. He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky. The intellectual practices of doubting authority and trying out experiments happened on lutes and with tempera on gesso before they turned toward the stars. You had only to study the previous two centuries of Florentine drawing, from the rocky pillars of Masaccio to the twisting perfection of Michelangelo, to see how knowledge grew through a contest in observation. As the physicist and historian of science Mark Peterson points out, the young Galileo used his newly acquired skills as a geometer to lecture on the architecture of Hell as Dante had imagined it, grasping the hidden truth of “scaling up”: an Inferno that big couldn’t be built on classical engineering principles. But the painters and poets could look at the world, safely, through the lens of religious subjects; Galileo, looking through his lens, saw the religious non-subject. They looked at people and saw angels; he looked at the heavens, and didn’t.
And he gets back to the question of Brecht's hero towards the end, and I love the way Gopnik then connects it to science in general:

Could he, as Brecht might have wanted, have done otherwise, acted more heroically? Milton’s Galileo was a free man imprisoned by intolerance. What would Shakespeare’s Galileo have been, one wonders, had he ever written him? Well, in a sense, he had written him, as Falstaff, the man of appetite and wit who sees through the game of honor and fidelity. Galileo’s myth is not unlike the fat knight’s, the story of a medieval ethic of courage and honor supplanted by the modern one of cunning, wit, and self-knowledge. Martyrdom is the test of faith, but the test of truth is truth. Once the book was published, who cared what transparent lies you had to tell to save your life? The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real. 
So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, Any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there. It may be no accident that so many of the great scientists really have followed Galileo, in ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered. In the roster of genius, evasion of worldly responsibility seems practically a fixed theme. Newton escaped the world through nuttiness, Darwin through elaborate evasive courtesies and by farming out the politics to Huxley. Heisenberg’s uncertainty was political—he did nuclear-fission research for Hitler—as well as quantum-mechanical. Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.

There is a lot more in the article. If interested in the subject, please read the full article here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Polio workers killed - now in Nigeria

by Salman Hameed

There are only three counties left with active polio cases: Pakistan (58 cases last year), Afghanistan (37 cases) and Nigeria (121 cases). This is a disease that has no cure, but can only be prevented. But alas, it seems that it may be harder to eliminate it from theses last few countries. Last month, nine polio workers, mostly women, were killed in different cities in Pakistan. The effort is back on with increased security, but one of the security policemen was killed late last month.

Now comes the news that 9 female polio workers have been killed in northern Nigeria:
Nine female polio vaccinators have been killed in two shootings at health centres in northern Nigeria, police have told the BBC. 
In the first attack in Kano the polio vaccinators were shot dead by gunmen who drove up on a motor tricycle. 
Thirty minutes later gunmen targeted a clinic outside Kano city as the vaccinators prepared to start work. 
Some Nigerian Muslim leaders have previously opposed polio vaccinations, claiming they could cause infertility. 
On Thursday, a controversial Islamic cleric spoke out against the polio vaccination campaign, telling people that new cases of polio were caused by contaminated medicine.
Such opposition is a major reason why Nigeria is one of just three countries where polio is still endemic. 
But this is believed to be the first time polio vaccinators have been attacked in the country.
It is tragic for the children there and it is tragic for the workers. Especially, what have the workers done to die like that? It is suspected that Boko Haram is behind the attacks. The name of the group literally means "Western Education is Forbidden" in Hausa language. According to the Wikipedia entry on this group, they oppose man-made laws and modern science. There you have it. I have no idea, but I'm curious to know if they use any modern medicine at all - from drugs against malaria to simple antibiotics.

In any case, read this polio story here.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Saturday Video: That Mitchell and Webb Look on "Aliens" and "No God"

by Salman Hameed

Here are two short That Mitchell and Webb Look skits that are very funny and also promote critical thinking:

Aliens:



And Proof of No God:

Friday, February 08, 2013

iOrientalism and Muslim women in comic books

by Salman Hameed

On a day of Snowmageddon in Massachusetts, here are posts from two excellent websites. One talks about images of Arab women in a video game and the other of Muslim women in comic books.

Here is Tabsir on iOrientalism - Fooling Around with Arab Princesses:
The late Edward Said lamented the biased representation of the “Oriental” in his influential Orientalism, published 35 years ago. Most of the scholarly and voyeuristic tomes he critiqued are rarely read these days, although his intellectual nemesis Bernard Lewis is well represented in your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.
...
 The ugly ethnocentrism, racism and sexism that once could be found in the broad (far too broad) discourse labeled “Orientalism” is still quite evident, although moreso in the media, political punditry on the right and rantings of career Islamophobes than by serious scholars. But we are now in the digital age and iOrientalism is now propelled through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube via iphones, ipods and their technological clones. 
One Youtube video that recently appeared on a Youtube search that had nothing to do with the subject I was searching is a mock video-game fight between three hefty-bosomed and bursting-at-the-bra-straps Arab princesses and a swarthy Mike Tysonish evil guy. This appears to be a promo for Poser Pro Animation rather than a cultural statement per se. The three Arab princesses are so scantily clad that it is more the tile-glazed architecture and palm trees that orientalize than the costume or look. Of the three kung-fu trained ladies, one has red hair, one is a blond and the other is wearing what looks to me like the kind of aviator helmet worn by Amelia Earhart in the 1930s. The bully wears a leather waist band, but otherwise the shaft he was endowed with by nature is visible to the three princesses, but not to those of us viewing the video. Ironically, this parallels Said’s choice of the Gérôme’s painting that graced the cover of the original paperback of Orientalism: this features a naked boy with a snake wrapped around him and a group of grizzled Walnetto perverts staring at his organ, while we voyeuristic viewers can only see the glistening buttocks of the youth.
The “Arab princess” in the video is a makeout-makeover of the depiction of Yasmin in Disney’s Adaddin. Far from the damsel in distress, these three are damn dangerous out of dress. They not only can kick the ass who attacks them, they can knock him out cold. I suppose a preliminary look at the video could suggest that this is a feminist response to “Arab” patriarchy. As a demanding male, you should think twice before fooling around (or trying to fool around) with these three beauties. Any one of them could take you on and win. That is one message of the video. Of course, the fact that the three warrior princesses are almost naked, except for the military boots on two of them, makes this kind of “feminism” the wet dream variety of male porn addicts. As the video does not actually have a wardrobe malfunction, letting a nipple slip into view, it is pc in a formal sense. 
But let us not fool ourselves. This thoroughly sexist rendering of a so-called “Arab princess” is about the erotic manipulation of all female bodies. It is perhaps easier to accomplish this when there is also the background bias that these “Arab” women are usually veiled and compliant to male orders. But liberating women from veils, as odious as the notion of forcing a woman to cover up due to male inability to respect the natural beauty of the human body, in this video only frees them to be objects for male fantasy. 
And on the flip side, a burqa-clad super-heroine joins the world of Marvel comics. Well, it also ends up feeding many of the stereotypes of Muslim women. Here is an insightful article by Jahanzeb Dar on Islam and Science Fiction website: Female, Muslim and Mutant - Muslim Women in Comic Books:

Immediately, the gust of sand swirls into a tornado and swallows the leader’s hand and disarms him of his assault rifle. The sandstorm retracts while the Taliban leader screams and looks at his skeletal hand in horror. Finally, the Taliban rush to their jeeps and speed off from the town. The desert wind and sand transform to reveal the city’s invisible hero. 
Meet “Dust,” or Sooraya Qadir, a burqa-garbed adolescent Afghan girl who has the ability, as shown in the scene above, to shape into sandstorms and tear the skin off her enemies. She has been a member of Marvel Comic’s X-Men since her first appearance in 2002 and she currently appears regularly in the Young X-Men comic books. 
 
In the male-dominated world of comic books where female characters are depicted with large breasts and skimpy skin-tight (or lack of) clothing, it’s interesting to examine whether or not Dust and other Muslim super-heroines escape the sexual objectification and sexism that women often suffer in comic books. Are the Muslim women subjected to stereotypes? Are they doomed to the same fate of other female characters? Does the “male gaze” still apply?
...
Grant Morrison, the X-Men writer who created Dust, said in an interview, “It can only happen at Marvel. As Wolverine comes closer to unlocking the dark secrets of his past, an Afghan Muslim mutant joins the X-Men. You want daring? You want different? Then meet Dust as New X-Men challenges the rules again.” Though the word “awesome” may initially spring to mind when one reads this statement, it can be strongly argued that the male gaze is still in effect. 
For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, the “male gaze” is essentially female characters being depicted and presented in ways their heterosexual male writers, artists, and audiences would like to see them. In the case of Dust, we can make an argument for the Western male gaze: an “oppressed” Muslim girl is rescued from Afghanistan by Wolverine, a Western male mutant. Wolverine is told that the Taliban were trying to remove Dust’s burqa, obviously to molest her, and since there don’t seem to be other Muslims around to take a stand against the Taliban’s perverted behavior, who better to rescue her than Wolverine, or rather, “Western democracy?” The scenario of Dust fighting the Taliban, as admirable as it is, occurs enough times in later issues that it makes one question if this is how Western male writers, artists, and readers want to see a Muslim super-heroine, i.e. to rebel against her oppressors, the mutual enemy of the U.S. government? 
To support this argument even further, there are many factors to consider, including political context. For example, Dust makes her first appearance in New X-Men # 133 which was published in December 2002, a little over a year after September 11th, 2001. In the issue prior to her debut (issue # 132), Morrison writes a tribute to the victims of Genosha, a fictional mutant homeland, where 16 million mutants were killed. 
There were two direct references to September 11th used in Marvel’s advertising of the comic book, calling the Genosha tragedy “the X-Men’s own 9/11.” The final page of the comic book shows the X-Men team crying at their loss. Next month, in issue # 133, we open to a full page of Wolverine slaughtering Taliban militants. Even worse, we see Pakistani terrorists hijacking an Air-India plane while Professor Xavier and Jean Grey are aboard. Xavier uses his psychic abilities to convince the Pakistani hijacker, whose name happens to be Muhammad, to put down his weapon and surrender to the Indian authorities. Muhammad begins to cry and as he is arrested, he says, “It’s true, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!” Morrison takes revenge on Muslim extremists by (1) brutally slaughtering them (via Wolverine), (2) passively using mind tricks on them (via Xavier), and (3) rescuing an “oppressed” Afghan Muslim adolescent girl and taking her home (via Wolverine again)! 
Well, almost “home.” Wolverine carries Dust back to an X-Men headquarters in India (no X-Men headquarters in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, I take it), where Jean Grey invites Dust to reveal herself from concealment. “It’s ok, Sooraya,” Jean says, “You can turn back into human form now.” Finally, Dust appears in her black burqa saying “Toorab! Toorab!” Wolverine remarks, “It means ‘dust.’ It’s all she says.”
Wow, the Arabic word for dust, “toorab,” is all she says? Not only does Morrison introduce us to a super-powered Muslim girl, but also to somewhat of a doll that exclaims “Toorab! Toorab!” whenever she gets excited about transforming back into human form. 
Is it possible to imagine Wolverine’s conversation with her flying to India? “So kid, what’s your story?” 
“Toorab! Toorab!” 
Dust can be easily compared to the hooded Jawa creatures from “Star Wars” who live on the desert planet of Tatooine, always bustling around and saying the same things over and over again in their alien language. 
We not only see a political bias here, which in turn justifies the Western male gaze, but we also see a female Muslim character that doesn’t have much of a personality. In other words, Dust is a token character. Morrison doesn’t even return to her character after this issue; instead he hands her over to other writers, but perhaps for the better, since they make significant improvements. 
Male dependency is another element at work here. Although one could argue that Wolverine is practically an indestructible character with his adamantium skeleton and rapid healing factor, it’s hard to believe why Dust would need any rescuing, considering her superpowers and her human enemies. If she was being recruited, the situation would be different and we wouldn’t see any sign of male dependency, but since we see a man rescue her, we assume that Dust’s superpowers are inferior: she is not nearly as powerful as male characters like Wolverine. We have seen female characters rely on their male counterparts in comic books many times before: Super Girl, Bat Girl, Spider Girl, the Huntress, She Hulk, Lois Lane, and so on. 
Importantly, there is not a single positive Muslim male character in Dust’s debut issue. There are the Taliban militants that want to molest her, and there are the Pakistani hijackers, but the Muslim women, who Morrison couldn’t possibly kill off since they are “victims” in the Muslim world, are innocent, good, and “waiting to be saved” by Western men. The racism and sexism work hand-in-hand.

If you are interested in the topic, there is a lot more in the article. It also talks about images of women in Muslim superhero series The 99 and in AK Comics, an Egyptian-based comic company considered as the first large scale super-hero genre in the Middle East.

"Design Activism" to Counter Iranian Internet Censorship

by Salman Hameed

Here is literally a beautiful depiction of the Iranian internet by graphic designer Maral Pourkazemi. She considers herself a design activist and has used art to show how the Iranian government has been controlling and censoring the internet. All governments are controlling the internet to various degrees (and those degrees do vary a lot), and Iran just last year formed the Supreme Council of Cyberspace for this very purpose. While the name sounds cool, it seems to belong to a future from a Philip K. Dick novel.

Here is Pourkazemi explaining the purpose of her design (via Slate):

In six panels, Pourkazemi breaks down the Iranian government’s curated/policed Internet experience, the dissident acts of users seeking the free Internet, and the paradoxical nature of the state’s stances on open internet access. In March of 2012, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace was formed to supervise all activity online. The group aims to combat “websites that have been set up to battle our regime, promote worshipping Satan, and stoke sectarian divides,” according to Hamid Shariari, a member of the council. 
Pourkazemi hopes that by illustrating this information artistically, the true internet can become more accessible. 
“This is the power of design. This is the power of emotionalizing,” she explains. “I wanted to inform people: What is the Iranian internet? Who is the Iranian user?”
And here is a short video (3 minutes): The Iranian Internet Between Freedom and Isolation


 

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book Recommendation: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

by Salman Hameed

Actually, I want to make two recommendation. In December, I had a chance to read Pankaj Mishra's fantastic new book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia. It uses the Japanese defeat of the Russians in 1905 as a fulcrum to talk about the response of Asian intellectuals to 'Western' colonialism. Apart from a broad historical perspective of the epoch that was shaping the modern world, Mishra focuses on the intellectual odyssey of three influential writers: Jamal al-din Afghani (in Iran, India, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire), Liang Qichao (in China), and Rabindarnath Tagore (in India).

From the perspective of this blog, the long section of Afghani (1838-1897) would be of interest. He has been a bit of a mystery. His writings say different things in different places. But, apart from his Pan-Islamic movement, he is also responsible for creating the narrative of Islam and science narrative, arguing that Islam is a 'modern' religion and that science is essential for the progress of Muslims. However, he rejected evolution - at least in the 1880s, but his rejection was more aimed at Sayyid Ahmad Khan than an intellectual response to evolutionary biology. In fact, he changed his mind later and not only appropriated evolution by attributing it to medieval Muslim scholars, but by also calling Darwin "a mere specimen collector".

Mishra's book does not focus on Afghani's views on science or education, but it does a fantastic job of taking us around the world with him. Afghani must have been an amazingly charismatic guy. He managed to gain access to sultans, kings and the czars, while also fomenting popular uprisings in most of the places he went. His rate and span of travel is quite incredible for 19th century. But his writings can only make sense if we see them through the lens of his single-minded opposition to the British colonial rule (both direct and indirect). Mishra's section on Afghani is riveting as he takes us on an intellectual roller coaster ride with this fascinating character. Later he does the same with Liang Qichao and Tagore - but I think the Afghani section really stands out.

If you have a chance, do check out Mishra's book. Also read this fantastic review by Vijay Prashad: Under Eastern Skies.

But while I was reading this book, I was also listening to a Teaching Company course titled The Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917 by Prof. Robert Weiner. Now I'm a Teaching Company junkie, and have listened to over 30 of their courses. The bar is very very high, but I can still say that this is one of the best courses I have listened to (the three lecture set on Middle Ages by Prof. Philip Daileader also comes close to perfection).

What was really cool about this were the two different vantage points. Weiner's 36 lectures provided a detailed look into the making of the modern world from the European perspective, and Mishra's book complimented that view with the perceptions of those who were affected by European imperialism. I absolutely loved the combination. If you have a daily commute longer than 15 minutes, I would highly recommend The Long 19th Century, and reading Mishra's book, when not driving.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Nobel nomination and Malala's message in English and Urdu

by Salman Hameed

Well, Malala's name has been nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, this might be good for the Nobel committee, after giving the prize to the drone-happy Obama and then last year to the European Union(!). A win for Malala may actually restore some of the lost luster.

In the mean time, she has made her first public statement and has mentioned the establishment of a fund dedicated for girls' education. In many instances, this kind of coverage overwhelms the subject in the middle. But it is different with her. She has always been confident and self-assured. So check out the video of her statement in English (first one below) and in Urdu. Often people focus on the religion of her attackers. But, as you can see from the video, religion plays a major role in her life as well - and it is that that she credits for her well-being. This is the reason why it doesn't make much sense to make blanket statements - both good or bad - about religions. The way people inhabit and interact with religion is complex, and it is the specifics that matter. And there really isn't much redeemable about those Taliban who found any kind of justification (religious or tribal or political) in attacking a 14-year old girl. [On the crazy spectrum of things, please check out this earlier post: Crazy Conspiracy Theories: From Malala to Newtown, CT]

I hope Malala recovers her spunky-self. To remind you of her (and her charming father's) sprightly personality, I have also posted the short NYT documentary from a few years ago.

Here is Malala's statement in English:

Here is her statement on Urdu:


Here is the NYT documentary:


Monday, February 04, 2013

Virtual star parties and other good stuff from Science Online 2013

by Salman Hameed

It is always a fantastic learning experience to attend ScienceOnline conferences. This was my third time attending the conference (see my posts on ScienceOnline conferences from 2010: Highest Flip-cam/Participant Ratio, and 2008: Coffee, Food and Great Conversations). While it is difficult to sign-up for the conference (it fills up its 450 slots within a few minutes of registration opening time), the operation itself is now a well-oiled and efficient machine. Especially now that it has a non-stop supply of coffee!

Couple of quick thoughts from this year's conference:

I attended a few sessions on science communication, and it was heartening to see the conversation go beyond "knowledge-deficit models" (more simply: the reason for rejection of science is simply because the public doesn't understand it or that they don't have enough knowledge). In fact, there was a whole session devoted to that, though I think they went too far in dismissing the knowledge-deficit model (I think it is a correct assumption in some cases, and we have to do a better job of assessing the multitude of ways people interact and form opinion about science). Couple of other sessions addressed similar issues and at one point there was a call for more data and sociologists at the meeting (Amen!).

The highlight for me was the Friday morning "Converge" session (you can see the whole session here - it is about an hour long). The first talk was  by Frasier Cain, on the use of Hangouts in Google+ to conduct virtual star parties. Basically, it allows everyone to have a live view of amateur telescopes located around the world. This is absolutely amazing and it has tremendous potential for global conversations (also see Cain's useful Tips and Tricks for Hangouts on Air). The success of these virtual star parties on Google+ Hangout led to a wonderful promo by Google. It was shown at the conference, and it has a bitter/sweet moment. It includes Umair Asim from Pakistan. Now if you follow this blog, you know that Umair has made some phenomenal contributions to the popularity of astronomy in Pakistan, but he is currently facing some tough times as he and his family are embroiled in blasphemy charges, and their school was burnt to the ground in late last October (see my Guardian article on Umair: Blasphemy Laws are Darkening Pakistan's Skies). In any case, with this mind, here is the Google promo:



Virtual star parties were followed by the rap of Baba Brinkman. He performed couple of songs that dealt with different concepts of evolution, and biology, in general. This is part of his Rap Guide to Evolution. Here is one on the origins of all human in Africa, I'm A African (and for a catchy-tune but with problematic Oriental tropes, you can watch the song DNA here):



The conference was as usual friendly and it was easy to strike up conversations with individuals. On the constructive criticism side of things, I was a bit disappointed that the conversations about science and science-communication were predominantly US-centered. Now, at one level, it makes sense. The conference is taking place in the US, and this is the context that most people are familiar with. However, the reach of science is now truly global and so are the conversations about science around the world. I'm not simply advocating a token session on "science in other parts of the world" but rather to have a more integrated discussion of scientific roles and perceptions across the globe - from India, Brazil and Italy to China, Thailand and Egypt - when addressing science communication.

This last point aside, it was an excellent conference and looking forward to attending more in the future. Thanks to Bora, Anton and Karyn for doing a spectacular job of organizing it and for anticipating and taking care of the needs of the participants. 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Saturday Video: Attenborough's 60 years in the wild

by Salman Hameed

I have just returned from spending couple of days at the Science Online conference (more on that later). Ironically, because I was there, I didn't get time to post here on Irtiqa. But things will resume back here to start with Saturday VideoBBC recently did a fantastic 3-part series to celebrate 60 years of David Attenborough's explorations of nature  and natural life. It looks back at how what we know and how we know has changed over the past decade. I could not find the first episode to embed, but the last minutes of that were about filming snow leopards in the northern areas of Pakistan. However, here is the fantastic second episode on "Understanding the Natural World". Enjoy!