Monday, April 25, 2016

An Excellent Video Essay on the Film "Ex Machina"

by Salman Hameed


If you are looking for a thoughtful discussion of the film, Ex Machina, then definitely check out this video essay, Questioning the Human Machine. It talks about the Turing Test, the structure of the story, and nature of  and questions of intimacy. However, the most fascinating part of the essay deals with the representations of fembots in the film and to ask the question if those are meant to be a critique of gender stereotypes in Hollywood (including fembots in films like Blade Runner), and if yes, then if the critique is successful. I really liked the film and I do think that a key scene towards the end of the movie makes the gender commentary quite clear. Nevertheless, as is the case with satire, such critiques can also end up reinforcing the stereotypes.

But no matter what, you should check out this video essay. It contains spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film, you should do that first. Here is Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine:


For an opposite position on this, check out this essay from Wired: Ex Maxhina Has a Serious Fembot Problem

In case you haven't seen the trailer: 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Charges scaled back for Turkish academics accused of "spreading terrorist propaganda"

by Salman Hameed

The last few years have been harsh for Turkish academics. But things got even worse this past March when several academics were arrested simply for signing a petition. They were charged with "spreading terrorist propaganda" (see this earlier post: Strong Nature Editorial on Turkey). Now four of the accused academics were released by a Turkish court on the first day of their trial when prosecutors scaled back the charges. They are not out of hot water yet - as they still face the charge of "denigrating Turkishness", but this is still progress. From The Guardian:
The four, on trial for signing a petition denouncing the government’s military operations against Kurdish rebels, were released “pending permission from the justice ministry” to change the charge, lawyer Benan Molu told Agence France-Presse. 
Under the original charge, Esra Mungan, Meral Camcı, Kivanç Ersoy and Muzaffer Kaya faced up to seven and a half years behind bars. 
But prosecutors want to bring charges against them under under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code that states that “denigrating Turkishness” is a criminal act. The offence carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail. 
Supporters in court applauded as the four walked free, with the judge setting setting the next hearing for 27 September. 
Earlier, Kaya had fiercely defended the petition, telling the court that the state had “not managed to stifle the voices of our conscience” and that he and the three other academics had been arrested for criticising political power, Dogan news agency said.
...
The petition had urged Ankara to halt “its deliberate massacres and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region”, infuriating the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused the academics of falling into a “pit of treachery”. 
The four stood accused of engaging in “terrorist propaganda” and “inciting hatred and enmity” for signing the plea and making a statement on the same lines on 10 March, a day before the petition was published. 
They had been held in high-security closed prisons in Istanbul since their arrest last month. 
As well as signatories from more than 90 Turkish universities, the petition was also endorsed by dozens of foreigners, among them the US linguist Noam Chomsky and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Read the full article here.



Saturday, April 23, 2016

Some glimmer of hope for the ancient ruins of Palmyra

by Salman Hameed

Things looked quite bleak for the ancient city of Palmyra just a few months ago. It looked like nothing will be left under the occupation of ISIS (ISIL or Daesh). The city has now been taken back by the forces of the Syrian government and some new assessments offer a glimmer of hope. But before we get to the hope part, here are some pictures of Palmyra destruction (for more pictures, see The Senseless Destruction of Palmyra):

The Arch of Triumph in 2010

The Arch of Triumph in April 2016

But couple of hopeful things. First, most of the museum artifacts were moved to Damascus before the arrival of ISIS. Second, some of the sites were spared, including the spectacular Roman Theater (below):
The Roman Theater in April 2016

A recent issue of Science has an article that talks about the path to recovery for Palmyra:
Archaeologists are getting their first look at how a nearly year-long occupation by the group known as the Islamic State (IS) has affected the World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria. Government forces retook the historic city late last month, and although satellite images and recent photos show substantial damage to the city's ancient art and architecture—some of it deliberate— researchers are encouraged that the destruction was not worse. “I'm cautiously optimistic,” says Michael Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a scholarly organization based in Boston, which this week released an assessment of the damage. 
Officials are already discussing plans to restore damaged sites to their former glory. But some experts disagree about how restoration should proceed, whereas others worry that such talk is premature given that IS still poses a threat to the city and that there is no end in sight to the 5-year-old Syrian conflict. “Things in Palmyra went from frying pan to fire, and now it's back to frying pan,” Danti says. 
Palmyra has long held a special place in Middle Eastern studies. The city, which sits in central Syria about 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, reached its cultural peak in the first through third centuries C.E., when it was a Roman empire trading center that attracted Greek, Persian, and Arab merchants. The cultural blending left a distinctive mark, including unique sculptures, tombs, and temples.
Interestingly, we can also get some useful information about the ISIS pattern of destruction:
IS fighters destroyed many of these cultural treasures after they captured Palmyra in May 2015, and researchers are beginning to tally the losses. Danti says the path of devastation documented by satellite images and local residents reveals the group's priorities. First, IS fighters destroyed Tadmor prison, a 20th century structure where the Syrian regime jailed political prisoners, perhaps in a bid to curry favor with city residents. Then, the group's focus became “cultural cleansing,” Danti says. It razed ancient sites that were holy to Islamic groups whose beliefs IS rejects, including the tomb of the Sufi saint Shagaf as well as a number of Sufi and Shia cemeteries and shrines. IS fighters then targeted prominent sites with less direct religious connections, including a massive Roman triumphal arch and a famous statue of a lion in the Palmyra museum that had once adorned a temple of the Semitic goddess al-Lat. The battle to retake the city took an additional toll, with bombs and artillery shells hitting mosques and other major structures. “A whole landscape has been attacked, not just the World Heritage Site,” Danti says. 
Still, the destruction could have been even greater, researchers say. Many important sites appear to have survived, including a military camp and theater dating to Roman times, a historic tax collecting center, and a temple to the Babylonian god Nabu. 
Thorough field assessments are not yet possible, because crews are removing thousands of mines and booby-trapped explosive devices left behind by IS group fighters. In the meantime, Danti and his ASOR colleagues have been examining recently released satellite images. They show that at least a dozen Roman-era towerlike tombs, built to house the dead of wealthy families, have been destroyed, according to the forthcoming ASOR report. Five of the stone tombs were destroyed within the past 5 months, the images suggest.
You can read the full article here (though you may need subscription to access it). 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Growing Islamophobia in the US and its impact on the sciences

by Salman Hameed

I came to the US in 1989. Despite the Afghan war (oh the one with the Soviets), many people I encountered had little idea about the exact location of Pakistan. So I had a prepared answer: It is between Iran (which they knew well because of the hostage crisis) and India. That worked well. Unfortunately, things are a bit different now and the tide of rising Islamophobia in the US is not only sad and dangerous, but it will also impact the sciences as well. So three things here:

First, a UC Berkley student was booted off the Southwest flight for speaking Arabic! Yes - a woman reported him to be a threat and he was asked by an airline employee, why was he speaking Arabic. From NYT:
A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic. 
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley,
was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. 
“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.
He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said. But the conversation seemed troubling to a nearby passenger, who told the crew she overheard him making “potentially threatening comments,” the airline said in a statement. 
Mr. Makhzoomi, 26, knew something was wrong as soon as he finished his phone call and saw that a woman sitting in front of him had turned around in her seat to stare at him, he said. She headed for the airplane door soon after he told his uncle that he would call again when he landed, and qualified it with a common phrase in Arabic, “inshallah,” meaning “god willing.” 
“That is when I thought, ‘Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,’ because it was so weird,” Mr. Makhzoomi said. 
That is exactly what happened. An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent came to his seat and escorted him off the plane a few minutes after his call ended, he said. The man introduced himself in Arabic and then switched to English to ask, “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?”
Read the full story here.

This is not the only incident. There have been at least five instances just this year where a passenger has been removed from the plane for being "suspicious". What impact do you think it will have on Muslim students coming to the US to study or for Muslim research collaborator? And remember, you don't even have to be a Muslim - you just have to look and sound like you are from the Middle East. And if we are hearing this many high-profile instances, then there must be far more low level of Islamophobic episodes taking place every month. And I cannot imagine what would be happening to people who have a beard (the non-hipster type :) ) or if you wear a hijab.

Of course, much of this is also due to the political rhetoric or Trump and Ted Cruz (don't forget Cruz - I think he is far more dangerous than Donald Trump). This past week's Nature has an article that talks about the possible impact on science. It starts with Razi Nalim, who is Associate Dean of Research at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. I have had a chance to meet him as well and he is a genuinely nice person and passionate about science:
Razi Nalim has lived in the United States for 30 years. An engineer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, he often travels around the world to recruit science and engineering students to his university. But last week, on the cusp of a recruitment trip to India, he hesitated when asked whether he would still encourage foreign, Muslim students to work or study in the United States. 
“I would still say the opportunity for doing cutting-edge science here is unmatched,” said Nalim, who is Muslim. “Where I think I would caution people to think more carefully is
longer term: where would they want to live and raise a family? That’s a harder question to answer.” 
For Nalim and others, the roots of such concerns are apparent. In December, US presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has campaigned against immigration, boasted that he would ban Muslims from entering the country if elected. (On 30 March, Trump — now the Republican front runner — said that he would make exceptions for some Muslims, notably his wealthy Muslim friends.) 
Science advocates worry that Trump’s broader anti-immigration stance could pose a threat to US research dominance. Roughly 5% of all students in the United States hail from other countries — including more than 380,000 people studying science, engineering, technology or mathematics. “We’ve always been a nation which has welcomed scientific brainpower from other countries,” says Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a science-advocacy group in Alexandria, Virginia. “We don’t want that to turn around now.”
The article also mentions our friend Ehab Abouheif from McGill University:
But that rhetoric is having an effect, says Ehab Abouheif, a developmental biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who is Muslim. On a recent trip to be interviewed for a position in the United States, recruiters’ “constant question was, ‘Are you really sure you would want to come?’” he says. “My scientist colleagues are really scared.” 
To Abouheif, who fondly remembers completing his PhD and his postdoc in the United States, the current climate is surreal. “If you are trying to stop Muslims from coming in, it means that the ones who are there already are not going to feel comfortable either,” he says. “It would be a shame to alienate this big swathe of society.”
This is already happening - and this is not just a Muslim issue and should be of concern to everyone. On this note it is good to remember how 120000 Japanese Americans were detained during World War II and placed in concentration camps (see the video below about the problem in using "internment" for this case) - and the legal system was okay with that. Here is an excellent discussion at Democracy Now:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Call for papers: CyberOrient - Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in the representations of Islam and the Middle East, as well as the impact of new media and the internet in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts, then this is the journal for you. Here is a call for papers for the next issue of CyberOrient. The deadline for full paper is August 30, 2016:

CyberOrient
Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East
ISSN 1804-3194
What to Submit
Submissions are welcome from scholars in any discipline. Text style follows the current edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. 
CyberOrient publishes peer-reviewed articles (5000-8000 words) and book reviews (750+ words). 
For articles, please format your submission as follows:
  • Cover page with your name, affiliation, address, article title
  • Second page with article title, abstract (150-200 words) and three or four key words. Do not put your name on this page or on the pages of the following text.
  • Article with references at the end, following the Chicago Manual of Style.
Book reviews will be reviewed by the editor. You may suggest book which you would like to review. 
How to Submit
Please submit all materials electronically as attachments. Text should be in Word format, double spaced, in Times font at 12 point. Please do not submit in PDF format. 
Photographs and illustrations should be submitted in jpg or gif format with minimum 72 DPI. Send your submission to the editor-in-chief, at dmvarisco@gmail.com and to the managing editor, at vit.sisler@ff.cuni.cz. You should receive confirmation of your submission by email within a few days.  
Peer-review Process
Submitted manuscripts are subjected to initial checks to assess their suitability for review (e.g. completeness). After that, the manuscript proceeds to the reviewers. The double-blind peer review is applied, which means that the reviewers of the paper will not get to know the identity of the author(s), and the author(s) will not get to know the identity of the reviewer. The reviewers comment on the quality of the work, as well as on its originality and its importance. The turn-around time for the peer review process is a maximum of two months. 
Permissions and Copyright
The author is responsible for obtaining written permission to use photographs and illustrations not in the public domain. All illustrations should indicate the source and should have captions. Copyright will be held by the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Call for Papers
Vol. 10, Iss. 2, 2016
Submission deadline: 30 August 2016 (Full Papers)

Call for papers
Editor: Vit Sisler

AimThe aim of the journal is to provide research and theoretical considerations on the representation of Islam and the Middle East, the very areas that used to be styled as an “Orient”, in cyberspace, as well as the impact of the internet and new media in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts. This issue of CyberOrient aims to bring together the state of the art research dealing with the multifaceted social, cultural, and political aspects of the internet and new media in the Middle East. 
Submission
Articles should be submitted directly to Vit Sisler (vit.sisler@ff.cuni.cz) and Daniel M. Varisco (dmvarisco@gmail.com). Articles should be between 6,000 and 8,000 words (including references), and follow the AAA style in referencing and citations. Upon acceptance, articles will be published online with free access in winter 2016.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Strong Nature Editorial on Turkey

by Salman Hameed


Academic freedom has been taking a beating in Turkey over the past few years. The ruling AKP party, when it came to power in the early noughts, was doing well on a number of issues, including standing up to the military and on its reconciliation efforts towards the Kurdish minority. However, its demeanor has dramatically changed over the past few years and now it is cracking down on any dissent. It is in this context that we saw arrests of Turkish academics last month for simply signing an online petition! Here is an apt recent Nature editorial on the topic:
When he labelled outspoken academics as terrorists, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was probably not thinking of Voltaire’s eighteenth-century philosophical maxim: “To hold a pen is to be at war”. 
Erdoğan sent shivers down the spines of those who care about human rights by declaring on 14 March that those who support terrorists are as guilty as those “who pull the trigger”, and that Turkish law should be changed to reflect this. “The fact that an individual is a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist,” he said. 
One the same day, three academics from universities in Istanbul were hauled into police custody and then refused bail while prosecutors considered charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization. 
Their crime? In January, they had signed a petition that called for an end to violence in the southeast of the country, where government forces have been fighting Kurdish separatists. The petition was signed by 1,128 academics, mostly from Turkish universities, when it was publicly launched on 11 January. It immediately sparked Erdoğan’s rage. Many politically appointed university rectors leapt into line, launching disciplinary investigations into members of their staff who had signed — more than 500 so far. Dozens of signatories were brought in for police questioning. The harsh response attracted a shocked solidarity. Another 1,000 people signed the petition, including a large number of Western scientists, before it was closed on 20 January.= 
An atmosphere of uncertainty and fear prevails. None of the signatories knows whether they, too, will be arrested, and several have had death threats. Some have actively sought sabbaticals abroad; those working outside the country are afraid to return even to visit family.
All of this is happening at an extremely volatile time for Turkey when there is refugee crisis from the civil war in Syria, ISIS on the border, and we are seeing bombs exploding in major Turkish cities, while the government forces bomb Kurdish cities within its own borders:
Terrorist attacks in Turkey are intensifying, some carried out by Kurdish separatists, others by the Islamist group ISIS. Erdoğan’s controversial announcement followed on the heels of a deadly attack in Ankara, and on 19 March, a suicide bomber killed four in Istanbul. Kurdish separatist terrorism had abated during a two-year ceasefire, but that broke down last July. Erdoğan argues that the peace petition, by focusing only on government military attacks on Kurdish militants, which have killed many innocent civilians, and ignoring terrorist attacks and other serious human-rights abuses carried out by the separatists, actively supports terrorism. 
While appreciating the urgency of a call to peace, many scientists and academics themselves have reservations about the petition, seeing it as unhelpfully confrontational and even intellectually dishonest. But many have still bravely spoken up for the freedom of expression of the signatories. 
Turkey’s recently formed Science Academy published a strongly supportive statement in January. “The right to express one’s opinions — even if these might be annoying or minority views — is an essential freedom of every citizen and every academic,” it said. The academy should know — it was created by those who resigned en masse from the Turkish Academy of Sciences when Erdoğan took it over by decree in 2011. Scientists everywhere should use their pens and send their support.
Read the full editorial here.  

Sunday, April 03, 2016

New episode of Science ka Adda: Stars in our Life

by Salman Hameed

For those who speak Urdu, we have a new episode of Science ka Adda (SkA). Here it is:


We often talk about the large scales of the universe and the humility it evokes in us as small scale humans. Rejoice, as in this episode we talk about the fact that our bodies are constructed from elements that were processed inside stars or in the earliest few minutes after the Big Bang. Please join us in this episode of Science ka Adda where we talk about the role of stars in the making of life on our planet. For more videos in the series, please visit sciencekaadda.com or join us on Facebook at facebook.com/ScienceKaAdda. For more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit hamarikainaat.com