Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Nature Middle East has been created with an understanding of the potential of the Arab world to once again be an important centre of science. It covers a diverse group of 18 nations: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Nature Middle East is about recognizing the contribution of many different peoples working together, united by a common language.
Okay - so Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, etc. are left out. Apart from the language issues, I can see why Nature Middle East as a regional edition would be more feasible than say Nature Muslim - with an identification with a particular religion. This is also consistent with Nature's two other recent portals: Nature-India and Nature-China.
Nature Middle East is a comprehensive portal site for information on scientific and medical research in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, the research community and its activities. It is a site with a broad scope that caters for scientific and medical researchers at all levels, from students to post-doctoral fellows to principal investigators. Most importantly, Nature Middle East will be a unique online platform for the scientific and medical research community to connect, network and exchange information or ideas, to promote good science and stimulate research and debate.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
The architects are turning the desert's greatest threat - the sun - into their greatest asset. They have built the biggest solar farm in the Middle East to power the city and to offset the inevitable burning of diesel and baking of cement in construction.
They are also experimenting. One project involves a circular field of mirrors on the ground, all reflecting towards a tower in the middle.
That, in turn, bounces the light down in a concentrated beam about a metre (3ft) wide to produce heat and drive generators.
But I was told firmly not to wander over and feel the warmth, as it could fry me in seconds.
The international team of engineers have real pride in their work.
This is more than building to them, it is a lab bench with the freedom to get it wrong, and Masdar's chief architect Gerard Evenden loves the concentration of expertise: "What Abu Dhabi is beginning to generate is the Silicon Valley of renewable energy."
And here are some common sense measures for the city along with some ambitious ones:
Masdar will have to be low temperature and low carbon.
Part of the solution is apparent the moment you walk in. And you do "walk in" because this is a city surrounded by a wall, a defined boundary.
Unlike the upward and outward sprawl of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Masdar is compact like ancient Arab cities.
Streets are narrow so buildings shade each other, and the walls and roofs of buildings will do their bit to shed heat too.
The vertical faces are dressed with screens which look like a terracotta mesh. They keep the sun out but let the breeze in.
And as architect Gerard Evenden says: "Lunar technology has begun to influence our thinking."
One idea being tested is using a thin foil surface covering, a gas or vacuum blanket, to keep the heat out. It is an idea dreamt up for a moon base.
To encourage a breeze, wind towers are being built, drawing draughts through the streets without using energy.
Masdar will still use electricity for gadgets, some air conditioning and, most crucially, to desalinate sea water but, when it comes to power, the city has a simple mantra: "Only use energy when you have exhausted design."
Okay - I'm a total sucker for space exploration and science fiction. So I'm totally sold now that they mention influences from Lunar technology. Yes, there will be a gulf (ha!) between planning and reality. However, I think this is the right direction to invest, even if for only experimentation. Hopefully this will not turn into a gimmick for the rich and the celebrities.
At a new school tucked near the fragile peace of the Swat Valley, peach-fuzzed veterans of Taliban camps wear burgundy sweaters to math classes, counseling sessions and religion lessons, where they hear that Islam favors democracy over suicide. Teachers work in fear of militant attacks and of hardened students -- but also in hopes of de-radicalizing the gangly boys who make up a growing part of Pakistan's insurgency.
Analysts say there is an urgent need. Pakistan is home to the toxic mix of a significant youth population, few job prospects and a rising Islamist insurgency. Military officials say most suicide bombings are now carried out by males younger than 20. The 86 adolescents at this army-sponsored school are a drop in that ocean, a fact that its director, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, said she tries not to dwell on.
"It can have a ripple effect," Peracha said, as her students, ages 12 to 18, quietly took exams. "We are a time bomb if we don't do this."
Though child soldiers have toted guns in conflicts worldwide, international experts say their indoctrination and reform has been poorly researched. Organizers of this boarding school -- the first of its kind in Pakistan -- say it is providing a valuable, if small, window into the backgrounds of Pakistan's young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants.
All of the students came to the school after being captured by the army, or were brought here by their families. Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.
What is interesting about these students is the fact that they are not motivated by ideology nor were they brainwashed in any madrassas. Rather, many of them are just like troubled kids elsewhere in the world, and the Taliban (or whatever group wants to use them) find them and exploit them for their own purposes. They don't even know much about Islam or even about Pakistan:
More significantly, she and other teachers said, most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.
In that regard, Peracha said they seem more like the juvenile delinquents she has counseled in Pakistan and Britain than religious zealots -- an observation that points to Pakistan's even more deeply entrenched problems of dismal schooling and profound poverty.
"The civil society and the rest of Pakistan, we didn't really react until it nearly hit Islamabad," Peracha said of the militant movement that last year seized territory located within 60 miles of the capital. "And we still aren't reacting [in] the education system, which is frozen in time."
That has created a vacuum that militants are increasingly exploiting. In lawless South Waziristan, poor boys attended an insurgent school painted with murals of the paradise awaiting martyrs, said Brig. Syed Azmat Ali, a military spokesman. In Swat, where the main Taliban leader rose to prominence through radio sermonizing, children were ill-equipped to challenge the notion that Pakistani troops were infidels who deserved death.
"They knew extremely little about the world or about Islam," said Mohammed Farooq, a Swat University vice chancellor and religious scholar in charge of Islamic education at the school for former militants. "They had just a superficial knowledge that we are Muslims and we have to fight America and their stooges."
He and Peracha said they believe the program, which combines tough love and discipline with a standard curriculum and regular counseling, is working. To assess the boys' risk levels, Peracha performs standardized neuropsychology tests and gently pries out their stories over several meetings.
Read the full article here. Pakistan needs a massive education reform. There are some fantastic individuals who have started up schools in some of the poorest parts of the country (for example read about Mortenson's schools here), but there has to be a bigger and more coordinated effort informed by research about the undercurrents madrassas and public school system. It is not going to be easy - but this may be essential for the future stability of Pakistan.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Since the founding of their church 131 years ago, Christian Scientists have been taught to avoid doctors at all cost. It is a conviction rooted so deeply in church dogma that dozens of members have endured criminal prosecution rather than surrender an ailing person to what they see as the quackery of medical science.
But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church’s reputation caused by its intransigence concerning medical treatment, even for children with grave illnesses, Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.
Church officials recently permitted two practitioners and two patients to talk about Christian Science treatments with a reporter from The New York Times — a rare public discussion that they said they hoped would demonstrate the commitment to transparency, and would help people understand their beliefs.
They would not discuss the care of children or let a reporter witness a treatment session. And neither practitioner was willing to discuss the new flexibility described by Mr. Davis.
But in conversations liberally supplemented with citations from “Science and Health,” they explained their basic beliefs: In Christian Science, they said, sickness and suffering are misunderstandings — or as Mrs. Eddy wrote, “a mistaken belief” in the “power of ill health.”
One of the practitioners, John Q. Adams of Manhattan, said a patient who came to him with a lump under his arm was experiencing “a manifestation of fear, not a lump.”
The other practitioner, Rebecca Odegaard of Boston, said that if a patient had a bleeding gash in his arm, “I would try to calm this person, and help him overcome the fear.” Such a patient is suffering anxiety over the illusion that something has injured his “true self,” when the gash has only happened to his “material self,” Ms. Odegaard said.
In both cases, said Mr. Adams, healing requires engaging in “an argument with yourself to restore the truth.”
And then they pray for the patient. There you have it. All good.
Read the full story here.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Although more than one billion people suffer from neglected tropical diseases, the corresponding vaccines have essentially no commercial market, relegating their development to nonprofit product development partnerships funded by sources such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Recently, the pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Merck also initiated global health vaccine development partnerships. But more needs to be done. Joint scientific cooperation between the United States and technologically advanced member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—especially the Asian OIC nations of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia, and selected Middle Eastern countries—could advance vaccine development for treating neglected tropical diseases in Islamic countries. Indeed, leishmaniasis vaccines are under development in Iran, but these efforts would benefit from greater cooperation with scientific institutions in the West.
I completely agree with the sentiment above - and it would be absolutely fantastic if the US can establish a positive relation with Iran. Even if not Iran, I'm quite hopeful that this kind of cooperation will take shape - and some of the groundwork has already been laid with the appointment by the Obama administration of Science Envoys to the Muslim world, and the Science editorial rightly points to the avenue:
Last year, the Obama Administration launched a new Science Envoy program to Islamic nations to foster scientific collaboration in ways that address economic, social, and ecological challenges.** In that connection, a vigorous new program of vaccine R&D diplomacy could create opportunities for the United States to address the world's most terrible disease scourges while simultaneously creating a new foreign policy venue. The globally beneficial legacy of the oral polio vaccine should spur the United States and its international product development partnerships to connect with scientists in the Islamic world and produce a new generation of life-saving products. The incentive and opportunity to improve international public health, reduce poverty, and promote global security have never been so clear.
What more can be said. Engage! Read the full editorial here.
Also, read these related posts:
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Confessing that his journey is a pilgrimage, Ananthaswamy begins and ends his tale at observatories that share peaks with monasteries. The first site is Mount Wilson in California, where Edwin Hubble measured the expansion of the Universe in the 1920s. Ananthaswamy explains how a reverential attitude was expected from astronomers working there, and how for many years women were banned from the site because they were considered a distraction. Reflecting this austere atmosphere, the astronomers' basic sleeping accommodation is still called The Monastery. Ananthaswamy stays on for a few nights with the neighbouring community of Camaldolese monks to contemplate the site in solitude and silence. One of the monks, a distant relative of George Ellery Hale who founded the observatory in 1904, explains how he too seeks “a deep experience that one can't express”.
Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour. Ending his journey, and his story, at India's Hanle observatory in the Himalayas, he again notes the confluence of an observatory and a monastery at a remote location. He urges that these sites must be protected from environmental threats such as climate change and oil pipelines.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
According to El Khansa, Sibat appealed the verdict. The case was taken up by the Court of Appeal in the Saudi city of Mecca on the grounds that the initial verdict was "premature."
El Khansa tells CNN that the Mecca appeals court then sent the case back to the original court for reconsideration, stipulating that all charges made against Sibat needed to be verified and that he should be given a chance to repent.
On March 10, judges in Medina upheld their initial verdict, meaning Sibat is once again sentenced to be executed.
"The Medina court refused the sentence of the appeals court," said El Khansa, adding her client will appeal the verdict once more.
According to Arab News, an English language Saudi daily newspaper, after the most recent verdict was issued, the judges in Medina issued a statement expressing that Sibat deserved to be executed for having continually practiced black magic on his show, adding that this sentence would deter others from practicing sorcery.
Arab News reports that the case will now return to the appeals court in Mecca.
If a human life was not at stake, we would have simply shook our heads in disappointment and perhaps walked away. But now the consequences makes the whole issue disgusting. I know that Jahiliyya is a loaded term - but this action of the Saudi court would qualify as such in any contemporary society - the Taliban excluded.
PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in Arabic, English or your own language:
Urging the King to halt the execution of ‘Ali Hussain Sibat and the man sentenced to death on “apostasy” charges in Hail in July 2009, if their sentences are upheld by the Supreme Court;
Calling on the authorities to release ‘Ali Hussain Sibat and the other man immediately and unconditionally if they have been convicted solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression;
Urging the authorities to desist from charging and convicting people for “apostasy,” as it violates the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 28 APRIL 2010 TO:
King and Prime Minister
His Majesty King ‘Abdullah Bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Al-Saud
The Custodian of the two Holy Mosques
Office of His Majesty the King
Royal Court, Riyadh
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: (via Ministry of the Interior)
+966 1 403 1185 (please keep trying)
Salutation: Your Majesty
Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior
His Royal Highness Prince Naif bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Al-Saud, Ministry of the Interior, P.O. Box 2933, Airport Road
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 403 1185 (please keep trying)
Salutation: Your Royal Highness
And copies to:
President, Human Rights Commission
Bandar Mohammed ‘Abdullah al- Aiban
Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 58889, King Fahad Road, Building No. 373, Riyadh 11515
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 461 2061
Salutation: Dear Mr al-Aiban
Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. Please check with your section office if sending appeals after the above date. This is the first update of UA 328/09. Further information: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE23/036/2009/en
Please do take a minute to write these letters.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
So how should we see Dubai's Burj Khalifa in the 21st century? There is no denying the technical prowess associated with the building. But those responsible for the feat are not associated with Dubai or even the Middle East - rather they are integrated in the global econ
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|I's on Edjukashun - Texas School Board - Eric Foner|
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Q You combine your interest in science with pursuits that can loosely be termed ‘spiritual’. Are these not at odds? What do you make of the assault on religion by someone like Richard Dawkins?
A Dawkins has erected a straw man and knocked it down. I have no respect for this. It is very easy to knock down a particular class of models for God and religion. Russell and others, for example, have already done this a long time ago and far more effectively.
My take is that my concept of fundamental reality does not require any support from science or vice-versa. The two things lie in different domains and represent different types of knowledge. One is by its nature introverted, an inner knowledge, and the other is extroverted. Together, they complement each other.
Q Where does this other knowledge come from?
A The idea of direct experience lies beyond Aristotelian logic. It is born out of a personal knowledge—say, through a meditative experience. It is not translatable into the normal grammar of ideas, but nothing in ordinary logic precludes its existence.
And in case you are wondering about the chopping wood reference:
Q Once you step beyond Aristotelian logic, what keeps you interested in physics? Does it not then become just a game?
A There was an enlightened Zen master who was asked what he did before enlightenment, and he replied, “I used to fetch water and chop wood.” And asked what he does now after gaining enlightenment, he said he fetches water and chops wood. Nothing external changes. Doing physics is like chopping wood and fetching water!
Monday, March 15, 2010
Wow! But there is a silver lining: He was booted out in the last election. But he can, and probably will, do significant damage to textbooks before he leaves the office.
A while back I had posted about an ambitious effort to make a documentary about Abdus Salam - Pakistan's only Nobel Laureate (he shared the 1979 physics prize with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for their work on the unification of electromagnetic and weak forces). It seems that things are moving along. I recently got an e-mail from one of its Executive Producers, Zakir Thaver, who informed me that they have finished filming in Pakistan and are planning on doing the European bit (London, Oxford, Cambridge, Trieste, and Geneva) in August 2010. The Friday Times also has this excellent piece about Abdus Salam and the efforts behind this documentary.
With Salam’s picture hanging in their classrooms, these students and teachers at Government High School, Jhang, are the epitome of dedication to Salam’s dream. As Zakir and Omar describe to me just how much these children who have never even seen Salam are in awe of the man, I begin to wonder why everyday Pakistanis find it difficult to put their money where their mouth is. People completely willing to donate back off the minute they discover Salam’s faith. Despite the option of donating anonymously at the documentary’s website, few have used that option to donate even a few dollars to this cause.
Still, Zakir and Omar do not lose hope. They continue to ‘work by day and hustle by night’, as filmmaker Mira Nair advised them to. Just when they are about to lose hope, a small $50 donation coupled with a friendly, supportive email sends the two onto cloud nine, and they are back, working with the same fervour as before. Former students of the ICTP regularly email them telling them how Dr Salam has ‘changed their life’. “Just a $20 donation with a nice email makes us so happy, we spend the next hour online talking about how good it feels,” chuckles Omar.
“Ramanujan inspired a generation of Indian scientists. Madam Curie, a woman from Poland continues to be an inspiration to this day. Salam’s story has the potential to do the same,” Omar points out. Zakir and Omar plan to do just that: one of their dearest plans is to show the documentary to the children at Salam’s old school in Jhang.
With the likes of Sabiha Sumar (director of Khamosh Pani), Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, Dr Ahmed Zewail (the only other Muslim Nobel Prize winner besides Salam), Dr Moeen Qureshi and Charles Townes (another Nobel Laureate) on board for their project, one can expect a lot from Omar and Zakir, provided they have the finances in the future to continue with their project uninterrupted.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Plastic Wave is one of an ever growing number of rock, metal and hiphop groups forming in Iran whose innovativeness and talent easily rivals the emerging crop of bands in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London or Berlin. Indeed, if music clubs were allowed in Tehran there is little doubt the city would become as important a center for rock innovation as any of these cities, with clubs and bands popping up like mushrooms across Tehran's urban landscape.
The band's blend of electronica, ethereal yet catchy rhythms and melodies, and crunchy guitars brings to mind Portishead and even bits of PJ Harvey but with a more psychedelic and techno edge. As important is the fact that they are the first band in the Iranian scene to have a female lead singer, the hauntingly beautiful, siren-voiced Maral, whose alternatingly languid and intense English phrasings would make them a natural fit in the US music market.
The fact that The Plastic Wave is led by a female singer, eliminates any possibility of the band playing live in Iran outside of clandestine parties, as women are not allowed to sing alone in front of mixed audiences. The concert where the band members was actually crashed by the police, who arrested 230 audience members and saw Maral and keyboardist/producer Natch spend five days in prison on charges of satanism and immoral behavior.
Well, the group was invited to perform in US, but the US consulate decided not to grant the members a visa.
Under normal circumstances this would have proved the end of the story, but Freemuse, joined by the Center for Inquiry, and a new organization, the Impossible Music Sessions, teamed up to provide a forum that would highlight the band's plight. Unlike the major human rights organizations, all three understood that while we might take the freedom of music for granted, creative expression is limited by censorship, intimidation, and cultural pressures in many places, and so those of us lucky enough to have that freedom need to help expose -- and in doing so, offer at least some protection for, artists who cannot appear and the music that they are not free to make.
If there was one band that could do justice to The Plastic Wave's unique sound it's the Brooklyn-based electronic rock group Cruel Black Dove. With a sound that is at once rich and sheen yet also dark and haunting, the band was the perfect group to step in and help bring the Plastic Wave's music to an American audience.
While relatively small in size, the concert, at one of Brooklyn's premier performance spaces, Littlefield, will certainly go down in the annals of rock history for being the first time that a rock group has watched another group perform its music on system like ooVoo because it was not allowed either to come themselves to perform. And it was clear that the artists and audience understood the significance of the evening.
From the moment the night started with a short film introducing the audience to The Plastic Wave and their situation everyone was hooked to the screen. When members of the Cruel Black Dove, joined by Impossible Music Sessions creator Austin Dacey and Raam, lead singer of the celebrated Iranian rock band Hypernova -- the first Iranian rock group to get a visa to perform in the US -- sat down in a living room-like set in front of the stage to talk live with band members Maral and Natch, the whole room became part of an intimate conversation about The Plastic Wave's origins, creative process, the impossibility of giving up making music despite the challenges of doing so in Iran, and hopes for the future.
In this slow, drawn out struggle, culture will play an increasingly important role in the battle for the hearts and minds of the tens of millions of young Iranians who are the country's future. And Iran's burgeoning youth music scenes clearly understand, as the great Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti declared, that "music is the weapon of the future."
The more they can engage with each other, and with fans world-wide through software like ooVoo, the more powerful the impact of the music will be, and the greater the chance that in five or ten years time, bands like The Plastic Wave will live in an Iran where playing music live is no longer a crime.
Read the full article here. Here is a nice short video about this affair and it allows you to put faces to this story:
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents
Understanding the path and barriers to political violence
Dr. Scott Atran
Thursday, March 25, 2010
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Many creatures will fight to the death for their close kin, but only humans fight and sacrifice unto death for friends and imagined kin, for brotherhoods willing to shed blood for one another. The reason for brotherhoods-- unrelated people cooperating to their full measure of devotion--are as ancient as our uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species. Different cultures ratchet up these reasons into great causes in different ways. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end... especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. This century's major terrorist incidents are cases in point.
Dr. Scott Atran is a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. Dr. Atran's books include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and The Native Mind: Cognition and Culture in Human Knowledge of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin).
For more information, please visit our Lecture website.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
What, if any, is the desirable intersection of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the divine? That’s the question John Banville asks in his latest novel. Or perhaps that metaphysical query is only a bluff. Perhaps what “The Infinities” is really about is how much you can get away with if you’re a genius, a game-changer, a master (literally) of the universe.Okay. But then you add the genius of the theoretical mathematician and an alternative history where the theory of relatively (which one?) and evolution have been overturned:
The novel takes place over the course of a single summer’s day in the confines of a big shabby house in the middle of Ireland. On an upper floor, in what the residents call “the Sky Room,” Adam Godley, a theoretical mathematician, lies apparently insensible and on the verge of death after a stroke. His family — wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law — has assembled for the occasion of his passing. Two more guests, one expected and one not, will arrive shortly. And two more, the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus, are also present, although no one but the family dog can see them. Hermes, whose job it is to usher the souls of the dead to the underworld, narrates most of “The Infinities,” but his point of view hitches rides from character to character as they move through the house, ruminating on how they feel about one another and the failing paterfamilias upstairs.
“The Infinities” is based on the myth of Amphitryon, a Theban general whose wife, Alcmene, was seduced by Zeus while her husband was off fighting a battle. Since Zeus came to the virtuous Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon, she can hardly be called adulterous; all the same, Amphitryon was cuckolded. Was Alcmene wronged by the god or honored?
And here’s something odd: The family the Godleys bought the house from are descended from a soldier ennobled by Mary, Queen of Scots, after she had “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor” beheaded. The younger Adam drives a car powered by sea water. “Wallace’s theory of evolution” has been recently overturned, and so has the theory of relativity, thanks to Godley’s own work. In his youth, the dying mathematician was responsible for “a series of equations, a handful of exquisite and unimpeachable paradoxes” that “unlocked the sealed chamber of time,” revealing, among other things, the infinite number of infinities and “a multitude of universes.” The universe in which “The Infinities” takes place, it seems, is not our own.An infinite number of infinities? Now that's a lot of infinity. So what about the intersection of humans and immortals?
According to “The Infinities,” the human and the immortal cannot live together, only intersect in fleeting, galvanic moments. These are our rare jolts of inspiration, a word derived from the Latin for “to breathe,” for when the gods breathe through us — or into us, as was the case with Alcmene. Her intersection with Zeus resulted in the conception of Heracles, the ideal man and Everyman, a chip of the divine embedded in what Godley calls “this frightful and exquisite world.”Read the full review here. You can also read an excerpt from the book here.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
“Halal” normally means “islamically permissible”; it’s an adjective which can apply to anything on which the Islamic Law (Shari`ah) has some prescription. Nowadays, and especially when used in English, it refers to Islamic dietary rules, particularly the requirement that animals be slaughtered – in the name of Allah – for their meat to be lawfully consumed. In recent years, and especially with the appearance of the mad-cow disease, some Muslim jurists added emphasis on the way the animals are fed, for their meat to be “halal”.
This has not created any difficulty in traditional Muslim lands, where industrial meat production and packing is still not mechanized enough for such rules to pose problems. In the west, however, slaughtering has largely disappeared from the mainstream market, and the meat production process disturbs many people (Muslims and non-Muslims – see the enlightening but depressing recent documentary “Food, Inc.”). This has opened up a huge area of discussion on various issues: (a) Why are Muslims required to slaughter animals to begin with? (b) What can Science and Technology tell us on this? (c) To what extent can the rules be relaxed a bit? (d) What roles do Religion (Jurisprudence), Sociology (immigration), and Politics (acceptance of religious vs. secular regulations) play on this? Etc.
And so, to the delight of some industrialists and conservative religious leaders, and to the horror of some right-wing politicians, the “halal” market exploded in the west in the past decade or so. And when the French fast-food chain Quick decided to open “halal branches” in some Muslim-dominated neighborhoods, a strongly polarized reaction occurred: applause from the Islamic corner, boos and panic from the right-wing corner, who saw this (purely commercial) decision as a sign that the Islamic tsunami was beginning…
Regarding the Islamic tradition’s requirement that the name of Allah be proclaimed at the moment of slaughtering, some more moderate scholars (e.g. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi) have stated that making that pronouncement just before eating the meat is equally valid. Al-Qaradawi also argues (and offers Qur’anic justifications) that the meat provided by Christians and Jews is lawful for consumption by Muslims, though others have argued strongly that the original permission assumed that Christians and Jews slaughtered their animals.
Furthermore, Muslims – especially in the West – have started to ask about the lawfulness of using new techniques, such as anesthetizing animals (see IslamOnline) or stunning them by electric shocks (see here) before the slaughter, both of which have been deemed acceptable or even advisable (by Al-Qaradawi and the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, respectively) in order to minimize the animal’s suffering during the slaughter, as long as those techniques do not end up killing the animal.
Muslim literalists (e.g. the famous Pakistani scholar Al-Mawdudi), however, have made it an absolute must for animals to be slaughtered (in the Islamic way) for their meat to be “halal” for consumption.
Now, not only have some modernist Muslims started to challenge that general agreement on the religious necessity of animal slaughter, some are doing it on scientific grounds. For example, Haoues Seniguer has argued (here and here) that one of the main reasons for the Islamic rules (prohibition of the consumption of blood and of any animal still containing blood, i.e. killed by a blow, as well as the requirement of slaughtering, i.e. draining of blood) is the attempt to get rid of all bacteria and viruses in the animal. This higher goal, he goes on, could not be explained to people at the time of Prophet Muhammad, but that was the principle behind the divine rule, although the Prophet obviously could not understand the scientific reasons behind it. Now, says Seniguer, we can achieve the same goals with more sophisticated and efficient techniques, so that the meat one buys at the supermarket is at least as good, if not healthier, than the meat of an animal killed in the traditional way. (When writing that, Seniguer had not watched “Food, Inc.”!)
Similarly, Tareq Oubrou asks: why does Islam refuse the consumption of meat that has not been cleansed of its blood? His answer: Precisely because the blood contains unhealthy germs. Therefore, if one is assured that a butcher is honest and has followed hygienic rules producing the same result (as the Islamic objectives), then the meat should be acceptable.
It should be noted, however, that Muslim jurists insist that the main argument for slaughtering is not medical but rather theological, namely that the taking of an animal’s life must be done in the name of Allah, whether that is done by slaughtering (the method prescribed by the Prophet) or by shots (bullets or arrows). The counter-argument is that the taking of the lives of fish (big or small) is exempted from both the slaughter and the uttering of God’s name at the time of killing.
Meanwhile, the Muslim communities and the politicians in Europe are having a tug-of-war over this issue, and the market is making a killing (no pun intended), with “halal” products (including even lipstick) and services (“halal” restaurants) everywhere now.
I find this issue very interesting, both because it raises theological and scientific (biomedical) issues and arguments and because it illustrates the current cultural crossroads the Islamic culture is at: between literalism and higher-objectives reasoning.
Monday, March 08, 2010
The storms have knocked down portions of the ritual boundary known as an eruv in Jewish communities in Silver Spring, Md., Center City Philadelphia, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Monsey in suburban New York, and Teaneck and Passaic in New Jersey.
Almost literally invisible even to observant Jews, the wire or string of an eruv, connected from pole to pole, allows the outdoors to be considered an extension of the home. Which means, under Judaic law, that one can carry things on the Sabbath, an act that is otherwise forbidden outside the house.
Prayer shawls, prayer books, bottles of wine, platters of food and, perhaps most important, strollers with children in them — Orthodox Jews can haul or tote such items within the eruv. When a section of an eruv is knocked down by, let’s say, a big snowstorm, then the alerts go out by Internet and robocall, and human behavior changes dramatically.
It is the last part that I love - the news is being delivered through some ultra-modern means. I'm assuming that they are using Twitter by now. But this is not the only place where ancient and the modern meets:
The damage to eruvim this winter evokes another kind of convergence, as well. It draws attention to the concept of the eruv itself, a combination of religious obligation, historical phenomenon and what academics call a social construction. In more than one way, an eruv is a through line.
“This symbolic boundary around the neighborhood requires interaction with the broader community, whether it’s asking permission, renting space, putting up strings and poles in front of someone’s apartment.”
An entire tractate, or volume, of the Talmud deals with the eruv. As a practical matter, though, Jews in antiquity lived within walled cities whose protective barriers doubled for religious purposes. The ghettos of Europe, which penned Jews inside, also served as eruvim.
But with their emancipation in various European countries, as Rabbi Mintz noted in a recent interview, Jews began to create eruvim, first using natural boundaries like rivers and later technological markers like telegraph poles. One of the first eruvim in North America, formed on the East Side of Manhattan in 1905, used both the East River and the Third Avenue elevated train.
Still, the entire continent had only three eruvim until 1970. To Rabbi Mintz, that paucity betrayed a Jewish reluctance to bring an abstruse matter of ritual observance into the realm of public policy — in the form of municipal zoning or planning boards, or city councils. Meanwhile, he said, an increasing number of Orthodox Jews were simply carrying on the Sabbath, eruv or not.
But now there 150 in North America. However, there is debate brewing within the Orthodox community:
With the boom has come some opposition — not, as Jews once feared, from intolerant gentiles, but from fellow Jews. Some Orthodox leaders maintain that urban eruvim are too large and populous to be legitimate. Less observant Jews in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have fought their installation, under the erroneous assumption that an eruv would coerce them in some way.
Read the full article here. I was thinking if there is an equivalent challenge for the Muslim community in the US. I couldn't think of one - except perhaps the insistence by some for goat/sheep sacrifice in their backyard for Eid-al-Adha. But a vast majority has been able to find an alternative in-line with the requirements of the society at large. Nevertheless, here is a link to a New York Times story from last September about a Pakistani drummer (not the rocker kind) in Brooklyn, who would bang his drum to wake people up before dawn during the month of Ramadan. This is more in the category of culture rather than religion. Still it is amusing. Perhaps, not surprisingly there have been more than a few complaints:
But New York City, renowned for welcoming all manner of cultural traditions, has limits to its hospitality. And so Mr. Boota, a Pakistani immigrant, has spent the past several years learning uncomfortable lessons about noise-complaint hot lines, American profanity and the particular crankiness of non-Muslims rousted from sleep at 3:30 a.m.
“Everywhere they complain,” he said. “People go, like, ‘What the hell? What you doing, man?’ They never know it’s Ramadan.”
Mr. Boota, 53, who immigrated in 1992 and earns his living as a limousine driver, began waking Brooklynites in 2002. At first he moved freely around the borough, picking a neighborhood to work each Ramadan morning.
Not everyone was thrilled, he said. People would throw open their windows and yell at him, or call the police, who, he said, advised him kindly to move along.
As the years went by, he and his barrel drum were effectively banned from one neighborhood after another. He now restricts himself to a short stretch of Coney Island Avenue where many Pakistanis live.
Fearing that even that limited turf may be threatened real estate for him, he has modified his approach even further — playing at well below his customary volume, for only about 15 to 20 seconds in each location, and only once every three or four days.
Read the drummer article here.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
To get you into the mood for tonight, here are three items for you:
a) Evolutionary origins of The Uncanny Valley:
This is a fascinating issue. Apparently, you can make a robot that looks realistic (human-like) only upto a point: 95%. If it is more realistic than that then people get creeped out - i.e. a 96% realistic makes it more like a human with something seriously wrong. This is termed as The Uncanny Valley and animators in Hollywood keep this in mind when animating films - or you get boxoffice bombs such as Final Fantasy (too realistic). Listen to the NPR story on this here (about 8 minutes long). As it turns out, monkeys fall into the Uncanny Valley as well:
To test their preference, researchers showed macaque monkeys real pictures, digital caricatures and realistic reconstructions of other monkey faces. To the latter, the macaques repeatedly averted their eyes.
“The visual behavior of the monkeys falls into the uncanny valley just the same as human visual behavior,” wrote Princeton University evolutionary biologists Shawn Steckinfinger and Asif Ghazanfar in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Many explanations have been suggested for the uncanny valley, which has also been blamed for the box-office failure of movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy. Perhaps almost-real humans look a bit too much like corpses for our comfort; perhaps they’re so real that they engage our brains’ mate-recognition or disease-avoidance systems, which promptly identify poor partners or sick individuals.
The PNAS results don’t favor any one of these explanations, but do suggest that the uncanny valley has evolutionary origins deep in the primate psyche.
Read the full story here.
b) Some Serious Music:
Everything in a Coen brothers film is finely crafted and there no useless scenes. But their use of music is also extraordinary and they were at their best in A Serious Man (okay - O Brother may be even better). How did the music for the film come about - especially the brilliant use of Jefferson Airplane? Here is an interview with the film's composer, Carter Burwell:
The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, "Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky."
Okay. But here is how the movie's theme of uncertainty between life and death all gets connected:
Before the Coens had even cut more than a reel, they called me to say that they'd like me to start working on a piece of music that comes out of a story told entirely in Yiddish in some unspecified old world and leads right up to the opening bar of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It's a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it's the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane.
That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film. But for me, the film is really about a person who is balanced somewhere between life and death. Throughout the whole movie, death is hovering on the periphery. The metaphor of the movie is the first lecture that the university professor, Larry Gopnik, who is our main character, gives about Schrödinger's cat, which is a thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously dead and alive. It maintains that situation until you observe it to determine which it is.
I see Larry as being in that situation himself, so the question for me as the composer is what can I do musically to suggest that. I found it was useful to have a motif that would repeat endlessly, to suggest that no matter what goes on in the film, he's not really getting anywhere. He's blocked at every point in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. And there's something about the delicacy of the harp that I think on the one hand seems sympathetic to this character's travails, but on the other hand is a little bit funny, because in fact none of these characters reveals any delicacy whatsoever. In every way, they're indelicate. One thing I enjoy about this harp motif is that it's polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four. I personally enjoy that ambiguity. The piece is so repetitious, and yet you're not sure where the bar lines are, so it's kind of interesting.
Absolutely brilliant! Read the full interview here.
c) Of course, I couldn't leave you without some predictions by Maxine - the psychic, for today's Oscars (a big hat tip to Laura Sizer for this!). Actually, this covers not just the awards but also fashion. But my favorite part of the interview by Movieline:
So let’s start with the big one. You call Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture. Have you seen Inglourious Basterds?
Can we take the recording off for a minute?
Off the record, I haven’t seen any of the movies. So I think that makes them all the more psychic. I wait for everything to come on Home Box and Showtime. I feel terrible.
I can’t put that in the interview? I kind of like that.
You know, you can use whatever you want.
I think it enhances the psychic element.
Thank you, I think so too. So I haven’t seen any of the movies, but these are my picks!
Ha! Hope you are in the mood for the Oscars now.