Friday, November 29, 2013

NYT Review of Sachal Jazz Ensemble at the Lincoln Center

by Salman Hameed


A while ago, I had posted a video of jazz classic Take Five by Lahore based Sachal Studio. Their jazz arrangements include sitar, tabla and flute and gives it a South Asian flavor. Just this past Friday and Saturday, seven musicians from Sachal Jazz Ensemble joined the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a joint performance. Here is the review from NYT:
 Mr. Marsalis is tireless, and very effective, in explaining the connections between different kinds of music around the world. In this concert he leaned hard on the idea of the habanera rhythm — common in one way or another in African, Antillean and new-world popular music — being one of those affinities. And so the two ensembles piled in on Morton’s “New Orleans Blues,” arranged by Victor Goines, of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and they figured out a way to build the habanera rhythm together. 
The Pakistani musicians, on the left, played on the beat with precision and intent; the Americans, on the right, played behind it. But there was enough flexibility and amassed sound to approximate something like the rolling feeling of swing. 
One of the ways to use your ears in Saturday night’s concert was to notice when and how well each side bent toward the other. The orchestra’s drummer, Ali Jackson, getting light and quiet on his instrument and listening hard, was all-important to the process. But so was the Pakistani flutist Baqar Abbas, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble’s clearest and most house-wrecking virtuoso, who bent and warped notes as an absolute matter of course rather than for effect. In one of the concert’s best stretches, he traded solos with Ted Nash, from the orchestra, playing piccolo. 
They got around to “Take Five,” a song with another linking agent — its five-beat rhythm cycle, fairly common in Carnatic and Hindustani music. In a solo, the sitarist Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury stretched out in his own technique in a more jazzlike melodic improvisation. The technique was exact and contained, the tempo stately enough that every note could be heard.
Read the full review here.         

I haven't seen good quality footage from this particular event, but here is Wynton Marsalis Quintet with Sachal Jazz Ensemble performing "Rythmesque" at Marciac festival a few months ago: 



And once again, here is the video of their fantastic version of Take Five:



And if you want to move in the direction of R.E.M, here is Sachal Studios' take on Everybody Hurts (here is the original):

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Burka Avenger Beyond the Burqa

by Salman Hameed


The super-hero animated series, Burka Avenger, was broadly covered in the press when its first episode aired in Pakistan back in August. The creators of the show argue that the burka superhero would empower young women by serving as a role model. Furthermore, one of the main goals of the show is to emphasize education for women - especially young girls. The first episode had the shades of Malala versus the Taliban.

So how successful has the show been in achieving its goals beyond publicity and the selling of show-related merchandize (while I haven't yet found any follow-up episodes, I know I can shell out $20 for aBurka Avenger t-shirt - something that I doubt most women in Pakistan would be wearing)?

I don't know the answer, but I think it would be an interesting project to see the show's impact, if any. Here are two articles that talk about two different aspects of the show: education and the use of burka as a costume.

Here is Hani Yusuf in Valerie magazine talking about Burka Avenger's goal of spreading education:
While Burka Avenger may be a valuable addition to local television entertainment, it is far from an effective education awareness program. With its lack of understanding of the nuances and complexities of regional politics, culture and economics, it falls short of reaching its target audience in Pakistan.

Burka Avenger aims to raise education awareness in a country where half the population is illiterate and over a quarter lives below the poverty line. According to the media brochure, the TV show offers “positive social messages and morals.”

But Urban Pakistanis who speak Urdu and English are often those who already have access to formal education. And, English is only really spoken by a small fraction of Pakistanis who can afford private schools.

Government schools in Pakistan suffer from various budgetary and infrastructural problems. The current government’s spending on education is an abysmal 2 percent of its total spending.

So any effective education awareness campaign must target parents and government officials as well and must be region-specific, as the country’s micro regions have very different economic, cultural and social concerns.

Instead, Burka Avenger targets its education awareness campaign at children, but it is only able to reach children in urban centers.
And here is Daniel Martin Varisco at Tabsir on the use of burka as a super heroine costume:
At first glance this seems like a sound idea, importing a Western theme and inserting a Muslim character. There are quite a few video games that do this for men. But does it really work? As I watched the online first episode, it seemed like the Burqa Avenger was more like a Halloween witch, flying without the broom but decked out in black, than anything else. It may work as comedy, but I doubt this really empowers women who choose to wear a burqa. If the point is to show that there are tough Muslim women, would it not make more sense to show some real life examples? The make-believe aspect of the Burqa Avenger suggests that it could not happen in real life, like the Kuwaiti women in the wake of Saddam’s invasion back in 1990. The veiled cartoon heroine works as fantasy, but this only serves to reinforce the stereotype that there is a disconnect between the Islamic rhetoric about the value of women and the cultural practices that sometimes do not allow women any choice. 
The commercial interest of the site is quite evident. The marketing is clearly for young people who like hip hop, as can be seen in the music videos, which are in English… So here is an in-your-face dj-type saying “Don’t mess with the lady in black, when she is on the attack.” I kind of doubt this will empower young Pakistani girls, but it may scare the hell out of young Pakistani males.
I think both Hani and Daniel have raised excellent issues with the show, and I share these concerns (and as mentioned above, find marketing campaign quite over-the-top). However, I do not want to dismiss its impact out of hand. Popular culture, after all, has a long reach and carries weight in both urban and rural areas of Pakistan. I think some of that will have to depend on the quality of story-telling as well - especially if the writers can move beyond "message" stories to tales that resonate with deeper human connections (I guess, I'm wishing for a more literary Burka Avenger…). Based on the one episode we've had, the prospects are not that great on this account - but then Marvel and DC Comics have also crossed many cultural boundaries to have become a global phenomena.

But the question of impact is an empirical one. I think it will be a neat (and useful) comparative project to do focus-groups and/or individual interviews with women and men of the intended target age-group across different areas of Pakistan (there is a huge variation within urban centers as well, and I would throw in diasporic Pakistani community as well) to see how they view Burka Avenger and its goal of empowering and educating women with this female superhero.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

RSOP Short Film Competition

by Salman Hameed

Here is an announcement from Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSOP) about a short film competition. And there is no cost to submit an entry:

RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions! This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! Forced Marriages Faith Healers Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution Integration: The way forward Entry is free. The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014 Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras. Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film. Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music.
RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions!
This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! 
  • Forced Marriages 
  • Faith Healers 
  • Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions 
  • Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year 
  • Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution 
  • Integration: The way forward Entry is free. 

The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014. Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras.
Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film.
Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music.
The competition is open to UK and Pakistani Residents. You can see the other guidelines here.
RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions! This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! Forced Marriages Faith Healers Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution Integration: The way forward Entry is free. The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014 Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras. Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film. Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music. Terms & Conditions The competition is open to UK and Pakistani Residents. All entries must be the original work of the entrant and must not infringe the rights of any other party. The working Languages should be English and/or Urdu. The entrants must be the sole owner of copyright in all videos/short films entered and must have obtained permission of any people featured in the entry or parents/guardians if children are less than 16 years. Entrants must not have breached any laws when filming. The films will be property of RSOP who will retain the right of using them in whatever way they deem suitable . Entrants can submit as many short films/videos as they wish. The videos may be uploaded on Vimeo and the link will be sent to editor@rationalistpakistan.com with subject “Short Film Competition Submission” to be specifically mentioned. The competition closes at Midnight (GMT), 10th of January, 2014. Winners will be announced on 20th of January, 2014. The winner of top three videos among all topics will be awarded honorary prizes of amount 100 UK Pounds for first three positions. The winners will be announced on the website. For any queries undersigned can be contacted on the mentioned email. Editor Rationalist Society of Pakistan editor@rationalistpakistan.com www.rationalistpakistan.com

Read more at: RSOP Short Film Competition | Rationalist Pakistan: Rationalist Society of Pakistan | http://www.rationalistpakistan.com/rsopfilmcompetition/RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions! This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! Forced Marriages Faith Healers Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution Integration: The way forward Entry is free. The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014 Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras. Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film. Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music. Terms & Conditions The competition is open to UK and Pakistani Residents. All entries must be the original work of the entrant and must not infringe the rights of any other party. The working Languages should be English and/or Urdu. The entrants must be the sole owner of copyright in all videos/short films entered and must have obtained permission of any people featured in the entry or parents/guardians if children are less than 16 years. Entrants must not have breached any laws when filming. The films will be property of RSOP who will retain the right of using them in whatever way they deem suitable . Entrants can submit as many short films/videos as they wish. The videos may be uploaded on Vimeo and the link will be sent to editor@rationalistpakistan.com with subject “Short Film Competition Submission” to be specifically mentioned. The competition closes at Midnight (GMT), 10th of January, 2014. Winners will be announced on 20th of January, 2014. The winner of top three videos among all topics will be awarded honorary prizes of amount 100 UK Pounds for first three positions. The winners will be announced on the website. For any queries undersigned can be contacted on the mentioned email. Editor Rationalist Society of Pakistan editor@rationalistpakistan.com www.rationalistpakistan.com

Read more at: RSOP Short Film Competition | Rationalist Pakistan: Rationalist Society of Pakistan | http://www.rationalistpakistan.com/rsopfilmcompetition/RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions! This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! Forced Marriages Faith Healers Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution Integration: The way forward Entry is free. The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014 Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras. Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film. Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music. Terms & Conditions The competition is open to UK and Pakistani Residents. All entries must be the original work of the entrant and must not infringe the rights of any other party. The working Languages should be English and/or Urdu. The entrants must be the sole owner of copyright in all videos/short films entered and must have obtained permission of any people featured in the entry or parents/guardians if children are less than 16 years. Entrants must not have breached any laws when filming. The films will be property of RSOP who will retain the right of using them in whatever way they deem suitable . Entrants can submit as many short films/videos as they wish. The videos may be uploaded on Vimeo and the link will be sent to editor@rationalistpakistan.com with subject “Short Film Competition Submission” to be specifically mentioned. The competition closes at Midnight (GMT), 10th of January, 2014. Winners will be announced on 20th of January, 2014. The winner of top three videos among all topics will be awarded honorary prizes of amount 100 UK Pounds for first three positions. The winners will be announced on the website. For any queries undersigned can be contacted on the mentioned email. Editor Rationalist Society of Pakistan editor@rationalistpakistan.com www.rationalistpakistan.com

Read more at: RSOP Short Film Competition | Rationalist Pakistan: Rationalist Society of Pakistan | http://www.rationalistpakistan.com/rsopfilmcompetition/
RSOP is organizing a film competition, which is now open for submissions! This is a great opportunity to share your work on following topics! Forced Marriages Faith Healers Secularism: Dispelling Misconceptions Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting: Muslims at loggerheads every year Evolution: An Idiot’s guide to evolution Integration: The way forward Entry is free. The closing date for entry is 10th of January, 2014 Films should be no longer than 10 minutes and can be shot on any equipment including DSLRs, iPhones and video cameras. Permission must be sought from organisations/owners of buildings before filming in them and from all individuals shown in the film. Copyright permission must be agreed before using any stock video, images or music. Terms & Conditions The competition is open to UK and Pakistani Residents. All entries must be the original work of the entrant and must not infringe the rights of any other party. The working Languages should be English and/or Urdu. The entrants must be the sole owner of copyright in all videos/short films entered and must have obtained permission of any people featured in the entry or parents/guardians if children are less than 16 years. Entrants must not have breached any laws when filming. The films will be property of RSOP who will retain the right of using them in whatever way they deem suitable . Entrants can submit as many short films/videos as they wish. The videos may be uploaded on Vimeo and the link will be sent to editor@rationalistpakistan.com with subject “Short Film Competition Submission” to be specifically mentioned. The competition closes at Midnight (GMT), 10th of January, 2014. Winners will be announced on 20th of January, 2014. The winner of top three videos among all topics will be awarded honorary prizes of amount 100 UK Pounds for first three positions. The winners will be announced on the website. For any queries undersigned can be contacted on the mentioned email. Editor Rationalist Society of Pakistan editor@rationalistpakistan.com www.rationalistpakistan.com

Read more at: RSOP Short Film Competition | Rationalist Pakistan: Rationalist Society of Pakistan | http://www.rationalistpakistan.com/rsopfilmcompetition/

Mughals, pigeons and Darwin

by Salman Hameed

We didn't have pigeons when I was growing up in Pakistan. But I remember (granted that it is a somewhat foggy memory) that some of my relatives did have "pet" pigeons on the roof of their house. The use of carrier pigeons is also mentioned in numerous stories in Urdu literature. And totally unrelated to Pakistan, I also enjoyed Jim Jarmusch's brilliant film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, where a mafia hit man (played by Forrest Whitaker) communicated with the mafia mostly via carrier pigeons (oh - and he lived his life following his interpretation of the code of the Samurai. But I digress). Well, here is a fascinating Asian and African Studies blog post about the Moghul obsession with pigeon keeping:
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.”
And not just that, you also have a book of poems dedicated to pigeons (kabutar in Persian and also in Urdu):
One of the most visually attractive items in the exhibition ‘Mughal India’ is ‘The book of
pigeons’ (kabūtarnāmah) by Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī whose poetical name was Vālih. This work consists of a poem of 163 couplets, followed by a short prose treatise explaining the different types of pigeons, their colours and characteristics, and the art of pigeon-flying. It was written, as a gesture of friendship, for one Miyān Khūban who asked for an elegantly written account of pigeon flying.
Darwin knew about these pigeons and sought information about them:
Charles Darwin (1809-82) was himself a keen pigeon fancier and set up a breeding loft at his home in the village of Downe, Kent. In the course of his research he corresponded with Sir Walter Elliot (1803-1887) a naturalist and ethnologist working in the Madras Civil Service. Darwin knew about Abu’l-Fazl’s chapter on pigeons (see Darwin and Elliot’s correspondence 1856-59): "I should mention that I have heard that such exist in the Ayin Akbaree in Persian (I know not whether I have spelt this right) but as this work is translated I can consult it in the India House [i.e. India Office Library, now part of the British Library collections!]". Elliot supplied Darwin with skins of various birds from India and Burma in 1856 and also sent him an English translation of Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī’s treatise which Darwin referred to twice in The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London: John Murray, 1868 (vol. 1 pp.141 and 155).
Read the full post here.
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpufIn the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpufIn the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
One of the most visually attractive items in the exhibition ‘Mughal India’ is ‘The book of pigeons’ (kabūtarnāmah) by Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī whose poetical name was Vālih. This work consists of a poem of 163 couplets, followed by a short prose treatise explaining the different types of pigeons, their colours and characteristics, and the art of pigeon-flying. It was written, as a gesture of friendship, for one Miyān Khūban who asked for an elegantly written account of pigeon flying. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dp
One of the most visually attractive items in the exhibition ‘Mughal India’ is ‘The book of pigeons’ (kabūtarnāmah) by Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī whose poetical name was Vālih. This work consists of a poem of 163 couplets, followed by a short prose treatise explaining the different types of pigeons, their colours and characteristics, and the art of pigeon-flying. It was written, as a gesture of friendship, for one Miyān Khūban who asked for an elegantly written account of pigeon flying. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dp
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf
In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below).  - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/02/pigeon-keeping-a-popular-mughal-pastime.html#sthash.uMiacjxk.dpuf

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Video: Erol Morris' short film on the father of Fractals

by Salman Hameed

Erol Morris, of course, always picks up interesting topics for his short and long films. He did A Brief History of Time, but my favorite is his charming documentary, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. If you haven't seen it, check it out - it also somewhat related to science (and obsession with animals). But here I want to highlight his interview with Benoit Mandelbrot: The Father of Fractals. It is a wonderful short film under 5 minutes. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NYT mistakenly finds room to debate "natural disasters" or "acts of God"

by Salman Hameed

No seriously? NYT devoted a section of today's paper asking if God is responsible for natural disasters?? Next up in Room for Debate: Are lunar eclipses caused by Earth's shadow on the Moon or are they the result of the Moon being swallowed up by a large dragon, Bakunawa?

Look - of course, large scales disasters are not only horrible, but they also bring up existential questions to the fore. But then we also live at a time where we do understand many of causes of natural disasters. In fact, it is this very understanding that ends up saving thousands of lives. Just look at the cyclone that hit India last October. It could have been a major disaster, but timely measures contained the death toll in relatively low numbers. People were not so lucky in the Philippines. So should we evoke God in both cases and then try to explain the evacuation process in India and the killings of thousands in Philippines as God's plan?

All of this does not take into account that humans have been around only for the last few hundred thousand years or so, whereas storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions have been going on for the past 4 billion years or so. Heck - lava is being spewed out at this very moment on Jupiter's moon, Io, and several large storms, including the Great Red Spot, are covering Jupiter. Room for debate? No, these are all natural phenomena. You can certainly attribute God as the source of laws that govern these phenomena - but it would still make no sense to isolate specific typhoons as "acts of God". So - NYT: there isn't much room for debate on this one.

Here is a 2006 article that I wrote on the first anniversary of the horrible earthquake in Pakistan that killed close to a hundred-thousand people. I think it is worth reposting here:
Nature and Natural Disasters
Earth has been moving and shaking indifferently for billions of years. One of its sudden motions jolted the northern areas of Pakistan in 2005, resulting in the death of roughly a hundred thousand people. Natural disasters of this magnitude always elicit reflections on life and the meaning of the world around us.

It is quite natural to look for causes for such a calamity. Up until recently, the best causal explanation available was some sort of Divine act in response to the actions of the victims. This not only provided order from a chaotic event but it also reinforced the centrality of humans in the happenings of the cosmos.

The last few hundred years, however, have seen the development of modern science that can successfully explain the causes of many natural disasters, such as earthquakes, without resorting to the Divine. While there is order in a scientific explanation, it is rather indifferent when it comes to ascribing meaning to an event. This tension between a theistic and a naturalistic explanation for disasters played a central role in European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and is becoming important in the discourse of modern Islamic societies.

It was another earthquake 250 years ago that shook not only the Earth but also the intellectual landscape of the time. At 9:20am on November 1st, 1755, a devastating earthquake struck the Portuguese capitol of Lisbon, one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world at the time. A tsunami struck the heart of the city within an hour and fire broke out in areas unaffected by the tsunami.

Out of a population of 275,000, about 90,000 perished in Lisbon. Some preachers, as usual, invoked Divine actions for the disaster. But public intellectuals of the day, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, rejected this as a Divine act and instead attributed the quake to a neutral natural world. This was the high point of Enlightenment and perhaps it opened the gates for scientific studies of disasters that will save lives in the centuries to come.

Compared to Voltaire and Rousseau we know a lot more about the causes of earthquakes today. We know that Earth’s crust is divided up into plates that are floating on top of molten magma. Earthquakes usually occur at the intersection of these plates. In fact a map of past earthquakes matches the outline of plate boundaries. This theory of plate tectonics is the backbone of modern geology and can explain virtually all of the geological features of the world. If we want to save lives, it is vital to understand the science behind earthquakes.

At the beginning of the new millennium, it is thus astonishing to hear some Muslim scholars invoke supernatural explanations for the Pakistan earthquake. While it was refreshing to see some open debate about treating earthquakes as purely natural phenomena, the dominant discourse continued to be about some sort of Divine warning or retribution. A few have gone as far as to blame the victims of the earthquake. It is as if the magma, which has been driving plates naturally and indifferently for billions of years, has suddenly become sensitive to the intentions of human inhabitants.

On the other side of the intellectual spectrum, even the idea of a scientific explanation appears threatening. For example, Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal has this to say in the winter 2005 volume of the journal Islam and Science: “… if earthquakes can be explained away in terms of the movement of plate tectonics, and all that happens on earth in terms of randomly occurring processes, then life on this ravaged planet itself becomes terminus ad quem, without any hope of a future life”.

Instead of seeing the potential for saving lives, Dr. Iqbal would rather shoot the messenger. Science, in fact, is the process that removes randomness from human perception. We no longer attribute lightening to Divine wrath. Rather, we put rods on top of tall buildings and direct the flow of electrons into the ground.

Hurricanes and cyclones are routinely predicted ahead of time and towns and cities evacuated. Thus, the disaster in the wake Hurricane Katrina has been blamed on the ineptness of the US government in the presence of ample warnings. And while it is awe-inspiring to know that the mighty Himalayas have been lifted because of the slow persistent push of the Indian plate against Asia, the same information can identify places of higher tectonic activity perhaps prompting the construction of safer buildings.

Far from losing hope, there is joy in discovering the workings of nature. Isn’t it uplifting to know that oxygen in our blood was once part of a star that exploded as a supernova – underscoring our profound relationship with the universe? What could be more intimate than our symbiotic relationship with the mitochondria – the once independent organisms billions of years ago that now provide energy to our cells in exchange for a safe haven?

It is indeed science that provides us with a deep connection to our surroundings. Some see a Divine hand in creating these connections and some see them as purely natural. But in both cases we gain an understanding of the natural world, appreciate its complexity, and in the case of plate tectonics, potentially save lives from this understanding.

For centuries, societies around the world ascribed Divine motives behind eclipses. Today, astronomers can predict eclipses with high precision for thousands of years. One day we will be able to do the same for earthquakes. Such an understanding will only come when we stop seeking supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon. The Lisbon earthquake prompted such an intellectual shift in Europe. Will we see a similar shift in Muslim thinking around the world or did the Earth move too soon for an Islamic enlightenment?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday Video: Why is 'x' the unknown?

by Salman Hameed

Well, here is a good way to spend your four-minutes. Here is a short TED talk by Terry Moore on "Why is 'x' the Unknown":

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sulking and other things about contemporary Iran

by Salman Hameed

While we are waiting for some sort of resolution to the nuclear talks (and yes, it will be an absolute shame if the US Congress ends up sabotaging the talks by imposing new sanctions at this time), here is a fascinating Fresh Air interview with Hoomad Majd, the author of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay.

There are three things that I want to highlight. First, he talks about the "Death to America" chant. He attributes it to the problem of translation. Yes, it does literally mean "death to America" - but it would be more accurate to translate as "down with America". And that this term for death "marg" is actually used quite frequently in colloquial Persian when someone is upset at something (he gave the example of "death to potato").

Second, I'm fascinated by the political use of sulking in Iran. Here is a small excerpt from the interview:
When we were in Iran, President Ahmadinejad — not being able to get his way on one particular thing he was trying to do, which was to fire an intelligence minister — engaged in a sulk. He decided to go home and say, "I'm not coming to work," and he did that for about 12 days. And it reminded me of this characteristic that we have in Iranian culture where people do sulk, whether it's for something as simple as a social sulk or a family sulk, or ... it's political.

And it goes all the way back in Iranian history and, most famously, [to] Prime Minister [Mohammad] Mosaddegh, who was overthrown by the CIA and British intelligence in 1953, who was constantly engaging in sulks in order to get his way, and if he didn't get his way he would suddenly fall ill or faint and cry and take to his bed, and even have meetings from his bed wearing pajamas.
Oh - I have to so adopt it at Hampshire College. Too bad I'm no longer chairing the faculty committee. Otherwise, I would have definitely used a sulk to faculty on board on contentious issues.

And the last point is about trash in Tehran. Hooman points out that Tehran is a very clean city of 14 million people and that trash is picked up 7 days a week. Here is an excerpt about the city of Tehran:
The city of Tehran is a very modern metropolis, and there's an emphasis in the Islamic republic on science and advancement and technology. We see that with the nuclear issue. So you do see there's industry, there's heavy industry; they make everything from cars to refrigerators to electronic goods. So it's a very modern place and very European-looking in many ways. That emphasis is something you don't see in a lot of other Islamic countries as much as you do in Iran...


[Tehran is] superbly maintained, as well as it can be, given that it's a sprawling city of 14 million people. They collect the trash every single day, seven days a week. It's remarkably clean ... even though there's heavy, heavy pollution.
Okay sign me up: I would love to visit Tehran. Iran was actually part of NSF evolution survey. However, because of the tensions after the 2009 elections, we dropped the idea of going to Iran. But if the relations between Iran and the US thaw a bit, I will definitely be seeking a way to visit the country. 

Listen to the full interview here.

Way to go! ISNA supports LGBT anti-discrimination bill

by Salman Hameed

It is fantastic that the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) - the largest Muslim organization in the US - has come out in support of employment anti-discrimination act. This must have been a contentious issue, but it is great that they ended up on the more progressive side. Here is the article (tip from Amina Steinfels):
Last week, one of the clearest shifts in the decades-long debate over Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) came into light from the largest U.S.-based Muslim organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), joined a broad interfaith coalition, calling ENDA a “measured, common sense solution that will ensure workers are judged on their merits, not on their personal characteristics like sexual orientation or gender identity.”


In a historic advancement for the LGBT rights movement, the Senate on Thursday approved ENDA, a bill that protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite advances in anti-discrimination in the workplace, Muslims continue to face unfair job discrimination. Our shared experiences of discrimination can provide a common basis to work with one another to mold a more inclusive America.
Commenting on the shift of tone, Dr. Sharon Groves, Director of HRC’s Religion and Faith Program, regarded ISNA's support of ENDA as a major step in right direction.
“LGBT Muslims both in the U.S. and abroad need to hear from organizations like ISNA that their experiences as Muslims are recognized in the spirit of Islam’s emphasis on compassion and respect for all humanity,” said Groves.
The movement for greater acceptance of LGBT people in Islam is growing. LGBT Muslims continue to be at the forefront of cutting edge scholarship at the intersection of Islam and issues affecting the lives of LGBT Muslims. Around the nation and the world, LGBT Muslims and their allies are working to build an inclusive faith — and having some notable success.


And here is is the Pew survey on attitudes of American-Muslims on homosexuality:
 While their levels of acceptance are lower than the general population, the numbers in support are clearly on the rise, and not surprisingly, the youngest group is also the most receptive.

You can find the Pew report on American-Muslims here.

Also see this post from earlier: Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and a Washington imam for gay marriage.



Sunday, November 10, 2013

My review of "Europa Report" and "Gravity" in Science

by Salman Hameed

It has been uber hectic for the past couple of weeks, and hence the lack of posts here. There is a backlog of fascinating and relevant articles - and I will try to post some of those in this coming week. In the mean time, I have reviewed two recent sci-fi (or for the cool kids: Sy Fy) films, Europa Report and Gravity, for the journal Science. Both of these films take science seriously. But perhaps, more importantly, they both understand the spirit and desire for space exploration. Here is are some excerpts from the review, but if you want to read the whole review, you can find it here (pdf):

The Joy and Fear in Space Exploration
NASA's human space program is currently adrift. The space shuttle has been retired, and American astronauts now hitch rides to the space station. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the next big program will land people on the Moon (again), a nearby asteroid, Mars—or perhaps, for the foreseeable future, nowhere at all. Desperate, space enthusiasts have to settle for high-budget science fiction coming out of Hollywood showing aliens fighting with robots or a dumbed-down and militarized Trek universe that abandons the idealistic spirit of exploration created by Gene Roddenberry. In this context, two new films, the low-budget Europa Report and the visually stunning Gravity, offer a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Set sometime in the middle of this century, Europa Report recounts the journey of a multinational team of six astronauts to Jupiter's moon Europa. The mission is sponsored by a private company that mixes the adventure of space exploration with some of the exploits of reality television. Sebastián Cordero's film falls in the “found-footage” genre. From the beginning, we know that something went wrong with the mission. Cameras installed in the spacecraft provided footage of the astronauts' journey that allows us to piece together their fate.
A mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's four large moons, makes sense. Beneath its ice-covered surface lies an ocean of water (1) kept liquid through subsurface volcanism fueled by the tidal forces of Jupiter. Conditions near the volcanic vents, thought to be similar to those found here on Earth, may provide a fertile environment for the origin and sustainability of life.
The film and its characters have a restrained quality. The astronauts are all depicted as competent, rational individuals making hard decisions under high pressure, but they are also willing to sacrifice their lives to advance scientific knowledge. Watching Europa Report reminded me of the trials of Ernest Shackleton and other early-20th-century polar explorers. The film tries to balance the fear and the joy of the unknown, and it largely succeeds. 
And here is the beginning of the section related to Gravity:
Europa Report largely takes place inside a spaceship. The beauty of space itself is more clearly on display in Gravity, which tells a relatively simple story. Two astronauts on a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—yes, this is an alternative
universe in which astronauts still ride space shuttles to the telescope—are left on their own when debris from a Russian satellite damages the shuttle beyond repair and kills the crew members who had remained on board.
On its surface, this is a high-brow disaster film. However, director Alfonso Cuarón provides a spectacular immersive experience, with enough suspense to keep you at the edge of your seat throughout the film. The breathtaking 17-minute opening sequence (shot in a single take) warrants the full price of a 3D admission. Commenting to the New York Times about this sequence, Cuarón explained “[w]e wanted to slowly immerse audiences into first the environment, to later immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character that is floating with our other two characters in space” (2). Indeed, for most of us, this is as close as we can get to experiencing outer space. 
I did not have space to reference it, but there is another scene in Gravity which is just breathtaking. Sandra Bullock's character at one point relaxes in the confines of the space station. She is out of spacesuit but then she gets into a fetal position, and rotates because of zero gravity. The scene is gorgeous, and this is spectacular film-making. So is a scene where a tear from her eye floats in the space station. 

There is a bit more in the review about the balance between artistic freedom and scientific accuracy etc. You can read the full review here (pdf).

You should check out the website of Europa Ventures - the company that sponsored this human space mission to Europa. And by the way, you can watch this whole film via Amazon. Here is the preview of Europa Report

Europa Report from drsalmen on Vimeo.


And here is the preview of Gravity:

‘Gravity’ Trailer 2 from Daniel Kibblesmith on Vimeo.

And here is a discussion with Alfonso Cuaron about the sound of Gravity:

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Gravity from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.