December 31, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 3)

This is the third post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

The Overkill Backfire Effect

One principle that science communicators often fail to follow is making their content easy to process. That means easy to read, easy to understand and succinct. Information that is easy to process is more likely to be accepted as true. Merely enhancing the color contrast of a printed font so it is easier to read, for example, can increase people’s acceptance of the truth of a statement.

Muslim writers face similar problems in that we have our own jargon, often Arabic-based, that non-Muslims frequently do not comprehend. We use this jargon in part because we understand the nuances of meaning in the words we use, whereas, to non-Muslims, these same words may have other connotations that may be only partially correct or not correct at all. The classic example is the word jihad. I’m not saying that we Muslims should not use our terminology when explaining Islamic concepts to non-Muslims but that we may wish to simplify what we have to say so as to increase understanding. More on this will be discussed below.

The point about enhancing color contrast is a good one, and I’ve done this in my own blogging for a number of years. For example, I normally use black font on a white background. However, if I’m quoting something that I think is stupid or reprehensible, I will change the font color to red, while blue is used for points that I agree with and want to highlight. Qur’anic verses are printed in dark green font, and ahadith are printed in teal (i.e., blue-green). Use whatever system works best for you.

When it comes to refuting misinformation, less can be more. Debunks that offered three arguments, for example, are more successful in reducing the influence of misinformation, compared to debunks that offered twelve arguments which ended up reinforcing the myth.

The Overkill Backfire Effect occurs because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few. A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.

I don’t see this problem too often, at least among Muslim writers, although I do see it occasionally in political essays. Essays that just keep going on and on. Keep your essay short and sweet. Use three points at the most, and save the best for last. If you have more arguments you want to use, put them in a separate essay.

The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read. Making your content easy to process means using every tool available. Use simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs. Avoid dramatic language and derogatory comments that alienate people. Stick to the facts.

All very good suggestions. In particular, avoid ad hominem attacks. If you resort to ad hominems, you’ve lost the argument.

End on a strong and simple message that people will remember and tweet to their friends, such as “97 out of 100 climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warning”; or “Study shows that MMR vaccines are safe.” Use graphics wherever possible to illustrate your points.

This is a very good suggestion, in my opinion. Give your allies the hook they need to pass your message on through social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular. Doing so can work to your benefit, spreading your message to other people whom you might otherwise have never reached.

[T]oo much information can backfire. Adhere instead to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Sage advice, but all too frequently forgotten (myself included).

Writing at a simple level runs the risk of sacrificing the complexities and nuances of the concepts you wish to communicate. At Skeptical Science, we gain the best of both worlds by publishing rebuttals at several levels. Basic versions are written using short, plain English text and simplified graphics. More technical Intermediate and Advanced versions are also available with more technical language and detailed explanations. The icons used on ski runs are used as visual cues to denote the technical level of each rebuttal.

This is an interesting suggestion, but one that requires more time and effort in order to be successful. In essence, you are rewriting your message several times, in increasingly more complicated (or simplified) ways. Perhaps we might look at this in terms of the amount of Arabic-based terminology that we use. A simple version would be Arabic-free, the type of writing we would send to a non-Muslim relative or friend who doesn’t understand Islam at all. The advanced version, on the other hand is the one where we use all of the Arabic terminology that we normally include because it’s like writing to a fellow Muslim who would understand all the nuances we are using in the language.

The use of the ski run symbols is interesting, but I wonder just how effective these symbols would be for various readers. I personally am not familiar with these symbols; there aren’t a tremendous number of ski runs here in Singapore, you know. ;) Still, if it works for you, use it.

Next: The Worldview Backfire Effect

December 30, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

The Familiarity Backfire Effect

The driving force is the fact that familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true. Immediately after reading the flyer, people remembered the details that debunked the myth and successfully identified the myths. As time passed, however, the memory of the details faded and all people remembered was the myth without the “tag” that identified it as false. This effect is particularly strong in older adults because their memories are more vulnerable to forgetting of details.

This section referred to a psychological experiment in which people were asked to read a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines. What the experiment showed was that, instead of helping to debunk the myths, as was intended, the way in which the flyer was written actually helped to reinforce the myths that the author intended to debunk. How we discuss Islam and the Muslim world to non-Muslims becomes critical, and most, if not all of us, are probably guilty (including myself) in terms of answering non-Muslims the wrong way.

How does one avoid causing the Familiarity Backfire Effect? Ideally, avoid mentioning the myth altogether while correcting it. When seeking to counter misinformation, the best approach is to focus on the facts you wish to communicate.

In other words, instead of trying to debunk the myth by stating the myth prominently in our essays, the best thing to do is to avoid mentioning the myth altogether. We continue to debunk the myth using our facts, but we avoid mentioning the myth if at all possible.

Not mentioning the myth is sometimes not a practical option. In this case, the emphasis of the debunking should be on the facts. The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do. Instead, communicate your core fact in the headline. Your debunking should begin with emphasis on the facts, not the myth. Your goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.

Thus, if you have to mention the myth at all, bury it deep within the essay so that the focus is on your facts. The following is an example the authors provided of an essay debunking a climate myth; notice where the myth is discussed in the essay:

Sun and climate are going in opposite directions

Over the last few decades of global warming, the sun has shown a slight cooling trend. Sun and climate are going in opposite directions. This has led a number of scientists to independently conclude that the sun cannot be the cause of recent global warming.

One of the most common and persistent climate myths is that the sun is the cause of global warming.

This myth cherry picks the data - showing past periods when sun and climate move together but ignoring the last few decades when the two diverge.

The myth is not discussed until the third sentence, after the core facts being presented are brought up in both the title and first paragraph.

Next: The Overkill Backfire Effect

December 29, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 1)

I've come across a very short but interesting pdf file called The Debunking Handbook, written by two Australian professors, John Cook (University of Queensland) and Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Western Australia). This handbook is written in a general manner and the techniques discussed can be applied to any type of misinformation. The example presented in the handbook is with respect to climate change and those people who deny that climate change has come about from human activity; however, I think the techniques can be applied just as easily to Islam and the Muslim world. Thus, I hope to provide excerpts from the handbook and write some commentary so that we Muslims can better debunk the misinformation that people spread about our religion.


Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements.
First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

The three "backfire effects" discussed in the handbook will be discussed at length in future posts.

Debunking the first myth about debunking

First, let's be clear about what we mean by the label “misinformation” - we use it to refer to any information that people have acquired that turns out to be incorrect, irrespective of why and how that information was acquired in the first place.

I think this definition is fairly straightforward; I also think we Muslims have a very good grasp as to the types of misinformation we come across on a daily basis from a very hostile non-Muslim world.

The evidence indicates that no matter how vigorously and repeatedly we correct the misinformation, for example by repeating the correction over and over again, the influence remains detectable. The old saying got it right - mud sticks.

I also think this point is well known to us. This is the never-ending battle we Muslims face when dealing with both the Islamophobes who actively work to spread misinformation and an ignorant non-Muslim public who, while their intentions may be well-meaning, have little knowledge about Islam and the Muslim world that may cause them to be gullible about the misinformation produced by the haters.

Not only is misinformation difficult to remove, debunking a myth can actually strengthen it in people’s minds. Several different “backfire effects” have been observed, arising from making myths more familiar, from providing too many arguments, or from providing evidence that threatens one’s worldview.

What the authors provide are some very practical techniques that we Muslims can use to help debunk the misinformation that is aimed at Islam and the Muslim world. These techniques help to minimize the three "backfire effects" that are next discussed in the paper: the "Familiarity Backfire Effect," the "Overkill Backfire Effect," and the "Worldview Backfire Effect." I will discuss, insha'allah, each of these effects in separate posts.

Next: The Familiarity Backfire Effect

December 24, 2011

Watts Best of Summer 2011

I normally put up the Watts "Best of" compilation video at the end of every year, but am not able to find this year's video so far. Instead, I found the "Best of Summer 2011" video, which will suffice for the time being. :) Warning: NSFW - no nudity, but plenty of female skin.

December 22, 2011

Footsteps in Heaven

It is related by Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (s) once said to Bilal at the time of fajr: "Tell me about your act from which you expect the most in your Islam, for I have heard the sound of your footsteps in heaven."

"I have done nothing," replied Bilal, "which could give me hope, except that when I perform the wudu' in any part of the day or night I try to offer as much of salah with it as I can." (al-Bukhari)
-- from The Four Pillars of Islam by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi

December 2, 2011

Persuasive Words

The following are the 16 most persuasive words in the English language, in no particular order (keep them in mind): own, investment, best, guaranteed, proven, save, new, free, freedom, money, easy, good, discover, health, and safe.

December 1, 2011

America's "Arrogant Ignorance"

The following appeared in the November 19th edition of the Arizona Republic. I completely agree with Dr. Michael Crow's assessment of the situation in the United States. Dr. Crow mentioned the idea of Americans resting on their laurels; in my opinion, not only is this true, but the problem is exacerbated by many Americans' believing in "American exceptionalism." I can tell you that not only do other people around the world not believe in the idea of how "exceptional" the United States is, but that they are working as hard as possible to be better than Americans in all sorts of fields: education, commerce, industry, and so forth. Too many Americans would rather be fat, stupid and lazy, then complain about why the rest of the world is passing them by and taking "their" jobs. Dr. Crow's message should be a wake-up call to Americans that they need to rethink how American society should operate before the so-called "American exceptionalism" turns permanently into "American mediocrity." The United States is already on its way there.

More than 200 people at a Peoria conference got a jolt of reality along with their caffeine from Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who said a collective "arrogant ignorance" holds the nation back.

He cited an education system that's not innovative enough, a lack of awareness or acknowledgment of global competition and lack of long-term vision.

Crow, the morning keynote speaker Thursday at the city's second annual Positive Action through Civic Engagement conference didn't mince words in his hourlong address, taking on what he called the "800-pound elephant sitting in the room."

The state of the economy.

Crow said the country needs to work toward a common goal of economic success and global competitiveness, which would help achieve other goals of social, cultural and community development.

He outlined "realistic assessments" of the United States, often forcefully, thumping the lectern on stage at the Arizona Broadway Theatre.

The ASU president said the country is resting on its laurels, which is not enough to come out of the economic morass.

"We don't understand the rise and the development of the rest of the world as competitors; we feel it but we don't understand it," he said. "We are going to have to look ourselves in the mirror, pull ourselves together as a community and literally re-think many, many things."

Crow said looking to the federal government for all the answers is not the solution. He urged the audience, comprising business, education and community leaders, to understand that the solutions to problems come from communities.

"Communities and states are the laboratories of democracy," he said. "We are the means by which solutions will be derived, new pathways will be engineered."

Crow also criticized the K-12 and higher-education systems for being "insufficiently innovative," and stifled by the "model of the past."

He said the focus should be on how K-12 schools are doing, "not compared with the school down the street or the school up in Flagstaff," but with schools internationally.

"We're not where we should be," Crow said.

He took on his peers, other research university presidents, for thinking narrowly only of the elite students and educators. They must be more inclusive to better educate the country.

"The level of arrogance among these individuals and these institutions is beyond belief," Crow said.

He spoke of the need to think big, not in the narrow prism of growth within a city or company but regionally, to compete not with Tempe or Tucson but with Singapore or Shanghai.

For that, he singled out the need to think about growth in the context of the larger Sun Corridor in Arizona, one of 10 megapolitans identified as hubs for growth because of their collective infrastructure and resources. The corridor stretching from Prescott to Tucson, across Yavapai, Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, has a collective economy the size of Finland, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates, he said.

To compete globally, leaders would have to take the long-term view and make decisions regionally.

Crow said it doesn't help to just focus on dealing with people who no longer have jobs and how to keep them going in the short-term with unemployment benefits. Leaders must focus on how the unemployed are being prepared for the jobs that need filled going forward.

"By being economically competitive, we can build from that the societies we want," Crow said.

The speech impressed several audience members.

AARP Arizona volunteer Virginia Correa Creager told Crow she would work to spread the word. "It's incumbent on us not to just listen to you today, not to just take notes from you today but it's incumbent upon us to reach out into the community and spread the message that you gave us today," she said.

The message of working collectively for the larger cause of economic prosperity hit home for Sandy Mendez Benson of Washington Elementary School District. She said that's something she works on at the local level, "trying to pool resources and ideas" between schools and the local businesses and community residents.

November 28, 2011

Four-and-a-Half Years

I put up a similar video on this blog years ago, but this one is still fun to watch.

November 26, 2011

Cowardly Editors

What is Time magazine's American editors afraid of? Cowards!

H.T.: Crooks & Liars

Update: As was out on Izzy Mo's Facebook wall, this nonsense of cowardly editorship at Time is nothing new. Just within the past few months, Time has used different covers for the American edition than what it has used for the rest of the world. In both of these situations, the International covers deal with substantive issues that, apparently, Time's editors feel would hurt delicate American sensitivities. The issues in question are Travels Through Islam (August 8, 2011; American cover topic: "Chore Wars") and Why the U.S. Will Never Save Afghanistan (October 24, 2011; American cover topic: "The Return of the Silent Majority"). Now I will admit, the last topic there (Silent Majority) is about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is worthy of being a cover story. But the other three Time covers for that week (on Afghanistan) is also very important for Americans to read, especially when they need to wake up to the fact that the Afghanistan War has cost them so much in terms of blood and treasure.

November 24, 2011

Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.

I am sorry to read that science fiction author Anne McCaffrey, one of my favorite writers, passed away three days ago (on the 21st) of a massive stroke. She was 85.

I've read Anne's work for many years now. I'm not sure exactly what year I began reading her novels, but it was around 1980. While I didn't care much for her non-Pern work (and some of her series, such as the Crystal Singer books, I've never read), I have read most of her Dragonriders of Pern series. (I've only read one of her books co-written with her son, Todd, Dragon Kin, which I didn't find that good.)

In the early 90s, I found out that Anne would be visiting a bookstore near Arizona State University; the only problem was, she was visiting on a Sunday and the Phoenix area at that time had no mass transportation on Sundays. All I had to get around town at that time was a bicycle. Now riding the bike that distance (about 13 miles) was no big deal for me... except that it was a very hot summer's day. So I rode down to the bookstore and arrived fairly sweaty, which Anne couldn't help but notice ("for the run in the sun"). :) Anne was gracious enough to autograph one of her books for me (the above image), which I've kept all these years. So, thank you, Anne, for many hours of reading pleasure all these decades. Insha'allah, I will continue to re-read your books and introduce them to my daughter when she's a little older.

November 15, 2011

Time Lapse Views of the Earth

Another great video compilation of the Earth from the International Space Station. The photos were taken by Ron Garan, Satoshi Furukawa and the crew of Expeditions 28 & 29 from August to October, 2011. Below is a list of the different sequences and the ground they cover:

1. Aurora Borealis pass over the United States at night
2. Aurora Borealis and eastern United States at night
3. Aurora Australis from Madagascar to southwest of Australia
4. Aurora Australis south of Australia
5. Northwest coast of United States to central South America at night
6. Aurora Australis from the southern to the northern Pacific Ocean
7. Halfway around the World
8. Night pass over central Africa and the Middle East
9. Evening pass over the Sahara Desert and the Middle East
10. Pass over Canada and central United States at night
11. Pass over Southern California to Hudson Bay
12. Islands in the Philippine Sea at night
13. Pass over eastern Asia to Philippine Sea and Guam
14. Views of the Middle East at night
15. Night pass over Mediterranean Sea
16. Aurora Borealis and the United States at night
17. Aurora Australis over Indian Ocean
18. Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia at night

Images credit: NASA; Editing: Michael König; Music: Jan Jelinek | Do Dekor, faitiche back

November 13, 2011

A Road to Mecca

From: Al-Jazeera World/Al-Jazeera English:

In A Road to Mecca, filmmaker George Misch sets out to explore the frontline between the Muslim world and the West. His guide for this journey is a man from the past - somebody who, 80 years earlier, crossed all boundaries between countries, cultures and religions.

Leopold Weiss was born a Jew on the edge of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900. But his story would unfold far away in the deserts of Arabia.

Feeling restless and unhappy in Europe, in 1922 Weiss accepted an uncle's invitation to join him in Jerusalem. But what began as a family visit soon turned into a life-changing journey.

Weiss enjoyed the hospitality of the Arabs he met in the Middle East and was enchanted by their lifestyle. With the passion of an explorer, he began to travel across the region.

His travels and encounters nurtured in him a sense that Zionism was causing a great injustice to the Palestinian Arabs. In Jerusalem, he got into heated arguments with the leaders of the Zionist movement and began to feel at a greater distance from the religion of his ancestors than ever before.

"Islam should be presented without any fanaticism. Without any stress on our having the only possible way and the others are lost. Moderation in all forms is a basic demand of Islam."

Muhammad Asad

As he discovered the Muslims of the Middle East, Weiss also discovered Islam - studying the Qur'an and finding not only the answer to the spiritual emptiness he had felt but also an alternative to the materialism of Europe's Roaring Twenties. In Saudi Arabia, Weiss felt truly at home, writing: "I am no longer a stranger."

In 1926, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Asad. Full of enthusiasm, he embarked upon his first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Curious to get to know other Muslim communities, in 1932 Asad left Saudi Arabia - traveling to Turkistan, China and Indonesia. In India, he met poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal dreamed of creating a separate Islamic state as a solution to the bloodshed between Indian Muslims and Hindus. Iqbal's vision of Pakistan quickly became Asad's own dream.

Asad campaigned for the creation of Pakistan by writing books, giving public lectures and hosting radio programs. He also drafted the outline for an Islamic constitution in which equal rights for women were secured.

In 1951, Asad became Pakistan's envoy to the United Nations. But to his dismay he was forced out of the position after just one year. Deeply disappointed, he turned his back on politics, deciding instead to write his autobiography in the hope that it would promote better understanding between Muslims and the West. The Road to Mecca quickly became a bestseller.

By 1970, Asad had grown increasingly concerned that the Qur'an was being misinterpreted and misused for political goals. This motivated him to undertake his biggest challenge: a new translation of and commentary on the Qur'an. He settled in Morocco and estimated that it would take him four years to complete. Seventeen years later it was finished. He dedicated it to "people who think."

"Every age requires a new approach to the Qur'an for the simple reason that the Qur'an is made for all ages. It is our duty to look for deeper meanings in the Qur'an in order to increase our knowledge and experience. The Qur'an wants your intellect to be always active and trying to approach the message of God. God himself dedicated this book to people who think."

Muhammad Asad

Despite the fact that Asad today has a loyal following among those who share an interest in his writings and an intellectual affiliation with him, his translation was not embraced by all. Rumor has it that there were even book burnings of Asad's Qur'an.

Emotionally and financially exhausted, he withdrew to Europe - settling in Spain in 1987. He planned to revise his translation once more but old age and prolonged illness prevented him from completing it. On February 20, 1992, he died, alone and secluded.

October 31, 2011

An Open Letter to the Squires Alumni

Between 1998 and 2001, I was involved in the start-up of the Copper Star drum corps (both the senior corps, which started first, and the junior corps). I hope you won't mind, then, if I give you all some friendly advice about trying to start up a drum corps.

First and foremost, do know that this will be a time-consuming endeavor. It's amazing just how much time drum corps takes up, and the world is not the same as it was in the 70s when there were much fewer distractions. So be prepared to take this activity on as the equivalent of a second job if you're wanting to do this right.

Second, treat the organization like a business. One of the most important activities corps personnel are going to undertake, especially at the beginning, is fundraising. Do everything you can to raise money. Because this will be an adult activity as opposed to a youth activity, fundraising will be more difficult; people will donate to help out kids, but not for other adults. Expect to work hard for the money. Likewise, be creative in your fundraising. The old, traditional methods for raising money are difficult to use today (e.g., bingo). How else can you earn money? (Another thing: keep out of debt as much as possible. Use cash for all corps purchases.)

Third, accept everyone. Don't limit yourself to actual alumni of the Squires and Pages. Bring in as many people as you can. Consider various levels of commitment, a la the Empire Statesmen, who had three levels (those marching in the DCA shows being in the third and most committed level). Likewise, don't limit yourself to adults. If you compete, make the organization an all-age corps so that you can help keep the drum corps activity in upstate New York alive.

Fourth, build up the organization as you can. Don't think that you have to have a full-blown competitive DCA corps in your first season. Equipment is expensive, especially horns. Build up the guard and drum line first; those two groups have the most opportunity to perform in the off-season through WGI events. Uniforms aren't a must have, not at this time. Nice polo shirts in the corps colors will work just as well for the time being.

Five, use momentum to help you build the corps. Competition is key. You're located in the heart of DCA country: take advantage of that. Build up by performing in as many venues as possible (WGI, DCA/Minicorps, parades, other exhibitions). The more exposure you get the easier it will be to recruit; the bigger the itinerary, the easier it is to retain membership. People will drop out if there are no events coming up in the future.

I may update this if more points come to mind. Don't be afraid to ask specific questions; I can respond publicly or privately.

Keep up the good work!

Scary Lake Superior

Just in time for Halloween, NASA's Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra satellite presents this "false color" view of portions of Wisconsin and Michigan, acquired on October 30, 2008. Many of the small lakes in the region have supernatural-sounding names, including Devil's Lake, Druid Lake, Ghost Lake, Spider Lake, and Witches Lake in Wisconsin; and Bat Lake, Corpse Pond and Witch Lake in Michigan. The area is bordered on the north by the scarily shaped Lake Superior, where the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald mysteriously sank on the evening of November 10, 1975, during a fierce seasonal storm known as the Witch of November. Legendary sightings years after the wreck occurred, make the Fitzgerald the most famous ghost ship of the Great Lakes.

The area covered by the image measures 275 miles by 403 miles (443 kilometers by 649 kilometers).

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

October 16, 2011

The Grand Canyon

Arguably one of America's most magnificent national parks is the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The Advanced Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft captured this 3-D view on July 14, 2011, created by draping the ASTER image over a Digital Elevation Model produced from ASTER stereo data. In this perspective view looking to the northeast, the buildings and roads in the center foreground are Grand Canyon Village. The Bright Angel Trail can be seen descending 3,000 feet (914 meters) to Indian Garden, before continuing to the Colorado River far below. Completing the 25-mile (40-kilometer) rim-to-rim hike takes the hiker to the North Rim and the North Rim Lodge. The ASTER image is located near 36 degrees north latitude, 112.1 degrees west longitude.

The Advanced Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft provided this spacebird's-eye view of the eastern part of Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona in this image, acquired July 14, 2011. In this perspective view looking to the west, the tourist facilities of Grand Canyon Village are visible in the upper left. The higher-elevation North Rim is seen on the right. The canyon is up to 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) wide and 5,600 feet (1,707 meters) deep, attesting to the power of moving water to carve Earth's surface. This 3-D view was created by draping the ASTER image over a Digital Elevation Model produced from ASTER stereo data .The ASTER image is located near 36 degrees north latitude, 112.1 degrees west longitude.

Photo credit (above): NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team; photo credit (below): NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

September 25, 2011

Danger Planet

This is a nice little animation about a space explorer who runs into and ultimately fights to save another explorer (female) on an alien planet. It's very Wall-E-ish in its art design. Be careful about the sound, though: the video starts off loud and becomes very loud toward the end.

September 20, 2011

Flying Over the Earth

A rare time-lapse clip showing a bird’s-eye view of our planet from outer space in one minute has surfaced on the Web.

The video shows a collection of 600 images downloaded from NASA’s astronaut database and merged together by science blogger James Drake.

During the clip, storms over the Pacific Ocean, the Earth’s ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars in our galaxy are illustrated as the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth.

Heavily populated urban areas can be seen beautifully lit up in the dark of night.

The 62-second montage begins over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 220 miles and continues over North and South America before sunrise near Antarctica.

Mr. Drake notes in order of appearance a few of the places that can be seen in the stunning clip, including Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, the Amazon, Peru and Chile.

The images were hand-picked from the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth which contains over a million snaps of the planet dating back to the 1960’s.

Text credit: Yahoo! News; video credit: NASA/James Drake

September 18, 2011

Four Corners

There is only one place in the United States where four states come together: the four corners area in the western United States. At a barren, desert location, the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico share a common point. Due to surveying inaccuracies in 1875, the coordinates of the junction are 36.999 degrees north latitude and 109.045 degrees west longitude. The image covers an area of 16.3 by 17.6 kilometers, and was acquired on June 11, 2001.

Note: Although I lived in Arizona for 20 years, I have never visited the Four Corners Monument. However, with the help of Wikipedia and Google Maps, I can give some information about the above picture and the exact location of the four corners. First, the river that flows through this picture is the San Juan River, which flows from the southeast to the northwest (north is up in this photo). The long thin line that runs from the south toward the northeast is US 160. South of the river, there is a very fine black line (a road) that extends toward the northwest from US 160; the end terminus of that line is the Four Corners Monument. Colorado, of course, is to the northeast, New Mexico to the southeast, Utah to the northwest and Arizona to the southwest.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

August 28, 2011

Hurricane Irene

NASA's Terra spacecraft passed over Hurricane Irene while it was just north of the Bahamas on August 25, 2011, at 11:45 a.m. EDT. At the time, Irene was a category three hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph (185 kph), and a minimum central pressure of 951 hPa, according to NOAA's National Hurricane Center. The storm made landfall in North Carolina on the morning of August 27 as a category one hurricane.

This set of images, acquired by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on Terra on August 25, highlights geophysical parameters important to scientists studying these storms.

MISR uses nine cameras to capture images of the hurricane from different angles. The leftmost image is taken from an angle of 46 degrees. The storm is visible to the north of Cuba, which is located in the lower left of the image. Irene's eye is covered with clouds. Strong storms in the eyewall and the outer rain bands appear as bright, textured regions.

The multiple angles of MISR's cameras provide a stereographic view of Hurricane Irene. This information can be used to determine the height of the storm's cloud tops. As shown in the center image, these heights exceed 11 miles (18 kilometers) in the center of the storm, and in the outer rain bands, where the vertical motion is strongest. Lower clouds, at an altitude of about 5 miles (8 kilometers), are visible along the storm's northern edge.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument also flies on Terra and measures cloud top temperatures. Higher clouds are colder, and the highest clouds in Hurricane Irene on August 25 had temperatures less than minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 73 degrees Celsius).

While there is good correspondence between the MISR cloud top heights and the MODIS cloud top temperatures, these two observations provide different insights into the behavior of clouds near the core of the storm. Researchers are studying how the two measurements can be used in combination to estimate hurricane intensity.

These images cover more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) in the north-south direction, and are centered near 27 degrees North latitude, 75.5 degrees West longitude.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

August 6, 2011

Tea Party Gives Boehner a Budget Headache

I'm a little late in getting this video posted, but I think it's a good representation of how the Teabaggers are coming across internationally: like immature and reckless babies. From NMAtv in Taiwan.

"Muslamic Ray Guns"

Now, to get full enjoyment from the second video, you should watch the first video first. This first video is a brief interview with some EDL skinhead done by Press TV and was originally aired on March 9, 2011.

Now, allegedly, this guy is complaining about "Muslim rape gangs," but it comes out garbled as "Muslamic ray guns." :) Enjoy!

July 30, 2011

Arranged Marriages

I came across this story earlier today about arranged marriages. I know a lot of Americans have a negative attitude toward arranged marriages, which I attribute largely to culture shock, having the idea that the only way one can marry is through love and any other reason is largely anathema. However, as the article points out, even Western cultures practiced arranged marriages up through about 200 years ago:

Worldwide, families of many religions have arranged marriages throughout history as a way to strengthen the community or join families for economic, political or social positioning.

Even in Western European society, arranged marriages were the norm until the late 1700s, when "personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriages as a social ideal, and individuals were encouraged to marry for love," according to Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History."

Personally, I don't have a problem with arranged marriages although I will admit that Milady and I didn't have our marriage arranged. Without getting into the details of how we met or why we married, I will say that it did take us some time to adjust to living with each other, which is an important key to the success of any marriage. Part of our problem, of course, was that we came from two very different cultures and lifestyles. It took us some time to work through our differences, but we have managed to make our marriage a happy one. Like the couple mentioned in the article (two children in 12 years of marriage), we have been married for over eight years now and have our wonderful daughter. (I will also add that what really helped our relationship is that we both have similar goals and values; for example, we both wanted to have children, and we both believed very strongly in living by and raising our child with Islamic values.)

One point the article made that I wasn't aware of is that Orthodox Jews also have similar attitudes with Muslims toward dating:

In Jewish Orthodox practice, dating in the Western sense is prohibited. Young couples are discouraged from being left alone before marriage.

"You don't go out to private places," said Rabbi Avi Finegold, a Chicago educator who describes himself as Orthodox but also acknowledges being skeptical about the success of arranged marriages.

The Orthodox community favors using hotel lobbies and New York's Times Square for public meetings between the sexes, he said. "You will see the guy dressed in his finest and the girl all prim and proper and they are not touching each other, and are in a public place," Finegold said.

The next time someone complains that Muslims don't date, we should point out to that person that Orthodox Jews follow the same practice.

July 29, 2011

MISR Mystery Image Quiz

Welcome back to another chance to play geographical detective!

This image was taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), and represents an area of about 1800 kilometers by 900 kilometers. Please note that due North may not be at the top of the page. These questions refer to a landmark, area or province within the pictured region. Please answer the questions below and tell us where on Earth you think the location is. You may use any reference materials you like to answer the quiz.

From the statements below, please indicate which are TRUE and which are FALSE.

1. Located within the lower third of the image is a dramatic landmark that has lain dormant for thousands of years.

2. The southwest part of the region pictured overlooks a capital city.

3. This area was once rich in biodiversity. However, urbanization over the past several decades has reduced the wealth of flora and fauna in the region by nearly 30 percent.

4. One of the seven natural wonders of the world lies to the northeast of this region, less than a week away by car.

5. The highest point in this region, located near the peninsula shown in the image, was first successfully climbed in the 16th century, according to records.

6. The country in which this region is located is home to one of the world's largest (by volume) rivers.

7. On the west coast of the region pictured lies a World Heritage Site surrounded by water.

What location is shown in this image?

Quiz Rules

Send us your answers, name (initials are acceptable if you prefer), and your hometown by the quiz deadline of Wednesday, August 3, 2011, using the Quiz answer form. Answers will be published on the MISR web site. The names and home towns of respondents who answer all questions correctly by the deadline will also be published in the order responses were received. The first 3 people on this list who are not affiliated with NASA, JPL, or MISR and who have not previously won a prize will be sent a print of the image.

A new "Where on Earth...?" mystery will appear periodically. The image also appears on the Earth Observatory,, and on the Atmospheric Sciences Data Center home pages,, though usually with a several-hour delay.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

July 27, 2011

The Scourge of Peak Oil

The scourge of 'peak oil' - Features - Al Jazeera English

An interesting article from Al-Jazeera on peak oil.  The fact that we, humanity, are coming to the peak in oil production worldwide is not surprising to me.  What makes this article interesting, though, are the sections that describe how lifestyles, especially in Western countries are going to change.  Some excerpts:
Whipple is blunt about what life will look like in a post-peak oil world.

"You're going to see major changes in industrial civilisation," he said, adding that he expects oil to once again approach $150 per barrel in the next 18 months. "In the US, where we aren't used to paying $10 for a gallon of gas like they do in Germany, that [$150 per barrel of oil] will really slow things down."

He believes discretionary driving will basically stop, and added: "Anything with a parking lot out front is going to be in trouble."


"It [peak oil] is a crisis in the sense that someone is going to have to change their expectations about mobility, and the idea that anyone can go anywhere is unlikely to continue. Sooner or later, people are going to start wondering how they will get from place to place without their cars."

Due to rising fuel costs, Perl sees flying becoming less of an option for the global population.

"I tell people to go to their favourite travel website like Expedia, and pick your destination and dates, and hit the fare selector for first class, because that's the price it will be in the future for travelling. And ask yourself if you will make the trip. Flying cheap will no longer exist as an option."


Professor Michael Bomford, a research scientist at Kentucky State University, said that, in the US, far more energy is used when food leaves the farm than the amount of energy required to grow it.

"The long supply chain with food makes consumers particularly vulnerable to spikes in energy prices," Bomford told Al Jazeera.

Evidence of this is clear.

On June 23 French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged world leaders to take action against the "plague" of food price surges. World food prices have risen 37 per cent in a year, driving 44 million more people into poverty.

Wheat nearly doubled in cost during the past twelve months, as Russia and Ukraine cut exports after droughts decimated crops. The UN estimates nations will spend $1.29 trillion on food imports this year alone, making it the most money spent on imports in one year, and a 21 per cent increase over 2010.

Heinberg believes oil prices are now acting as a cap on global economic activity.

"Every time the economy starts to recover it pushes [the price of] oil up, and then the economy falters," he said, "We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. If oil price declines, it is because the economy is in the toilet. Global oil scarcity has triggered the limits to growth scenario and we've seen the last of economic growth as we know it, at least in the US."

The fact of the matter is that unconstrained capitalism as the primary worldwide business model based on continuing growth will ultimately need to be replaced by a lower-growth model that recognizes and works within the constraints provided by natural resources. This is not just an energy issue, but is also going to include issues such as food and clean water. "Business as usual" just isn't going to cut it anymore.

May 28, 2011

Singapore (Home)

The Republic of Singapore is a city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. An island country made up of 63 islands, the country is largely urbanized with very little rain forest left. Part of various local empires since the 2nd century AD, Singapore declared independence in 1965. Since then it has had a massive increase in wealth: Singapore is the world's fourth leading financial center, and its port is one of the five busiest in the world. About 5 million people live in Singapore, of whom almost 3 million were born locally. The image was acquired 22 June 2001, covers an area of 42.3 x 34.8 km, and is located at 1.2 degrees north latitude, 103.9 degrees east longitude.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

April 18, 2011

US Foreign Aid

A high school friend has started a spirited conversation on his Facebook wall with the following statement:

Before our "leaders" in Washington (and I use that term loosely) raise the debt ceiling, here's a thought: Let's stop all the aid money to foreign countries. It's time we kept it for ourselves, at least for awhile.

My response (slightly modified from the original):

I understand [this] sentiment over foreign aid; what he's saying is nothing new. I remember people making the same argument when I first went to college in the early 80s. So I went to the university library to look up the numbers and realized then that the occasional furor over foreign aid was never going to resolve issues with the federal budget. For example, in FY2009 (the last year for numbers that I've seen) total US foreign aid was just under $45 billion. Sounds like a lot. But out of the entire FY 2009 US budget ($3.1 trillion), it makes up only 1.45%. Foreign aid is really the proverbial drop in the bucket, and always has been.

The problem with trying to remove foreign aid is that it magnifies certain problems in other countries and limits the US government's ability to influence foreign policy. Foreign aid is split into two basic categories, military and economic assistance. Remove military assistance, for example, and all those "lily pads" the US military has set up in other countries will be closed by the local governments. Military assistance is often viewed by other countries as a form of rent for the US's military presence in that country. Remove economic assistance and you've begun to destabilize other countries,' economically and socially, often to the US's detriment (e.g., narcotics control and anti-terrorism efforts are classified under foreign aid). Remove any foreign aid, and you've lost a political poker chip, perhaps permanently. Countries won't necessarily do the US's bidding, especially if foreign aid has been removed. (The presence of foreign aid at least acts as a "leash" to help regulate what other countries do.)

Personally, I would prefer to look elsewhere for solutions to solving the budget. For example, the US spent $687 billion on the US military in 2010. The second ranked country, for military expenditure, was China at $114 billion. In fact, the US outspent countries 2 through 21 combined. Secondly, Americans are going to have to realize that US tax rates are low compared to other countries; Americans are under-taxed. According to one economic study, as a percentage of GDP, the US pulled in 25.6% of tax revenues (in 2003), whereas the G7 countries other than the US pulled in 33.9% and the OECD countries other than the G7 countries pulled in 34.7%. If you want the federal government to get its fiscal house in order, you're going to need to pay higher taxes.

[I want to add that I do understand that cutting the US military budget will bring about its own set of consequences, just as cutting the US foreign aid budget would. However, given the size of the military budget's bloat, it's an obvious place to start cutting back. When even the Teabaggers recognize the need to cut back on military spending...]

March 27, 2011

The Red Scarf

A strange and interesting hadith about a red leather scarf and how that led a black girl to Islam:

Narrated 'Aisha: "There was a black slave girl belonging to an Arab tribe and they manumitted her but she remained with them. The slave girl said, 'Once one of their girls (of that tribe) came out wearing a red leather scarf decorated with precious stones. It fell from her or she placed it somewhere. A kite passed by that place, saw it lying there and mistaking it for a piece of meat, flew away with it. Those people searched for it but they did not find it. So they accused me of stealing it and started searching me and even searched my private parts.' The slave girl further said, 'By Allah! While I was standing (in that state) with those people, the same kite passed by them and dropped the red scarf and it fell amongst them. I told them, "This is what you accused me of and I was innocent and now this is it."' 'Aisha added: 'That slave girl came to Allah's Apostle and embraced Islam. She had a tent or a small room with a low roof in the mosque. Whenever she called on me, she had a talk with me and whenever she sat with me, she would recite the following: "The day of the scarf (band) was one of the wonders of our Lord, verily He rescued me from the disbelievers' town."' 'Aisha added: 'Once I asked her, "What is the matter with you? Whenever you sit with me, you always recite these poetic verses." On that she told me the whole story.'"
- Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, Number 430

March 13, 2011

Before and After Images of the Inundation from Japan's Tsunami

The extent of inundation from the destructive and deadly tsunami triggered by the March 11, 2011, magnitude 8.9 earthquake centered off Japan's northeastern coast about 130 kilometers (82 miles) east of the city of Sendai is revealed in this image pair from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft. The new image, shown on the right, was acquired at 10:30 a.m. local time (01:30 UTC) on March 12, 2011 during Terra orbit 59731. For comparison, a MISR image from March 16, 2001, acquired under nearly identical illumination conditions during Terra orbit 6607, is shown on the left.

From top to bottom, each image extends from just north of the Abukuma River (which is about 21 kilometers, or 13 miles, south of Sendai) to south of the town of Minamisoma (population 71,000, located in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture about 70 kilometers, or 44 miles, south of Sendai), and covers an area of 78 kilometers (48 miles) by 104 kilometers (65 miles). Flooding extending more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) inland from the eastern shoreline is visible in the post-earthquake image. The white sand beaches visible in the pre-earthquake view are now covered by water and can no longer be seen. Among the locations where severe flooding is visible is the area around Matsukawa-ura Bay, located just north and east of the image center.

These unique images enhance the presence of water in two ways. First, their near-infrared observations cause vegetated areas to appear red, which contrasts strongly with water. Second, by combining nadir (vertical-viewing) imagery with observations acquired at a view angle of 26 degrees, reflected sunglint enhances the brightness of water, which is shown in shades of blue. This use of observations at different view angles causes a stereoscopic effect, where elevated clouds have a yellow tinge at their top edges and blue tinge at their bottom edges.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

March 6, 2011

Epic Voyage Through the Universe

This is a rather impressive video featuring different celestial objects within the universe. Can you name them all?

February 25, 2011


Karmakin, on the About "magic underwear" diary, wrote:

A good example is our cultural use of "god-fearing" as meaning a upstanding individual. (Ugly term really if you think about it)...

Now my purpose in writing this essay is not to call Karmakin out, but to give my reasons as to why "God-fearing" is, at least to me, a beautiful term.

One of the problems with the English language is that, although it is an extremely flexible language, it occasionally suffers from a blurriness of expression. The classic example is that of "hot." For example, your friend is eating Mexican food and he or she says the food is "hot." "Hot hot or spicy hot?" you might ask. But if you spoke Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, the friend would have originally said that the food was either panas (of a hot temperature) or padas (spicy hot). There would have been no linguistic confusion to begin with.

Arabic has a similar differentiation with regard to the word "fear." In Arabic, the word for what could be considered normal "fear," the "emotion caused by [an] actual or perceived danger or threat" (per Wiktionary), comes from the root خ و ف (khā wāw fā). The word for "fear" that comes from this root is "khawf." (The only other primary word that comes from this root that is used in the Qur'an is "threaten.") An example of a Qur'anic verse that uses "khawf" is 2:62:

Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

The Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians and any others who meet the conditions listed in this verse would not fear the potential physical torment of hell because, insha'allah, they would be going to jannah (heaven) instead.

However, when the Qur'an talks about "fearing Allah (swt)," the root normally used is و ق ي (wāw qāf yā). The most prominent word that comes from this root is taqwa; however, the meaning of taqwa is somewhat more complex than simply "fear" in the sense of "extreme veneration or awe." According to the Quranic Arabic Corpus, a fantastic concordance of the Qur'an produced by the University of Leeds (UK), taqwa has a number of meanings, including "protect," "righteous" and "righteousness," "save," "piety," "God-conscious" and, of course, "fear."

But the word taqwa, even among Muslims, can be difficult to fully comprehend. A number of people over the centuries have tried to define or describe taqwa. Yusuf Ali (1872-1953), an Indian translator of the Qur'an into English, wrote that the fear with regard to the fear of Allah (swt) should be "the reverence which is akin to love, for it fears to do anything which is not pleasing to the object of love" (footnote 427 to verse 3:102).

Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 598 - 661 CE), the fourth Caliph of the Muslim empire, defined taqwa as being "the fear of Jaleel (Allah), acting upon the tanzeel (Quran), being content with qaleel (little), and preparing for the day of raheel (journeying from this world)."

The Sufi Shaykh Hafiz Ghulam Habib (1904-1989) defined taqwa as "the shunning of everything and anything that causes a deficiency in one’s relationship with Allah."

However, the description I like the best comes from the following hadith:

Hadrat Umar ibn Khattab (R.A) once asked Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab (R.A) the definition of taqwa. In reply Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab asked, “Have you ever had to traverse a thorny path?” Hadrat Umar replied in the affirmative and Hadrat Ka’ab continued, “How do you do so?”

Hadrat Umar said that he would carefully walk through after first having collected all loose and flowing clothing in his hands so nothing gets caught in the thorns hence injuring him. Hadrat Ka’ab said, “This is the definition of taqwa, to protect oneself from sin through life’s dangerous journey so that one can successfully complete the journey unscathed by sin.”

So, for me, a God-fearing person is truly an upstanding individual. And there's nothing "ugly" about that.

February 19, 2011


I posted this on my Facebook page, which has already infuriated one woman I know who's a Republican... so it must be good. :) (Actually, I know it is. ;) ) From WTF Is It Now?!?:

February 17, 2011

Why Aren't Democrats Doing Health Care?

Last week, I published a comment about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) that discussed the MB's social services to Egyptians and wondered why the Democratic Party in the United States wasn't doing something similar:

I see groups like the MB, CAIR, MAS, etc., as organizations working for the greater good of humanity. The Democratic party in the US could learn a thing or two from the MB and their feet-on-the-ground social services. (Americans need health care? Why haven't the Democrats started up free or low-cost clinics for these people? Don't they think these people won't remember on election day?)

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the Muslim American Society (MAS) featuring an article in the Gainesville Sun that was originally published on February 9th. The article is about a free medical clinic that the Gainesville Muslim community is setting up (opening on the 26th) that will provide primary and preventative medicine, insha'allah, to adults and children, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. The clinic is being run by volunteers and paid for through donations.

Now, rhetorical questions I would ask of my fellow Democrats are: Do you think this clinic will become popular with the local community? Do you think the Muslim community in Gainesville will benefit from a PR-perspective by opening this clinic? Do you think the Democratic Party, which is much better funded than a small group of Muslims, would benefit with electoral support if they were to help fund/run these types of clinics nationwide? (Even if these clinics were not run or funded directly by the DNC, they could be run through a foundation created by the DNC, as Singapore's dominant political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), does with their charitable foundation.)

February 13, 2011

After Egypt, Who's Next?

Two weeks ago, I had posted on my Facebook wall a link to Dr. James Hamilton's blog post, Geopolitical Unrest and World Oil Markets. In that post Dr. Hamilton (of the University of California, San Diego) showed that there is a possible inverse relationship between a country's oil production and that country's political instability. Meaning, those countries with low levels of oil production were among the first to revolt, whereas countries with high oil production have shown greater stability. The implication is that the lack of petrodollars had not provided enough of a political safety net for the governments to cover their weak economies.

Hamilton's brief analysis covers (in the order of increasing oil production as a percentage of the world total) Lebanon (0.0%), Tunisia (0.1%), Yemen (0.3%), Sudan (0.6%), Egypt (0.8%), Libya (2.1%), Algeria (2.5%), Iraq (2.7%), Iran (4.9%), and Saudi Arabia (11.7%).

Now, if Hamilton's thesis is correct, then Egypt appears to be the last of the "low-hanging fruit" to have undergone political unrest. Theoretically, then, Libya and/or Algeria should be the next to revolt.

The potential problem with this analysis is that it doesn't explain all of the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa or the lack thereof. For example, Lebanon and Sudan have had long-standing government instability; that they should be undergoing problems now (such as the collapse of the government in Lebanon or the recent referendum in Sudan to split the country into two) are not terribly surprising given these countries' histories.

Likewise, I suspect that some countries that should have gone into turmoil may have had their chance but won't either because their societies are too stable (Morocco? Oman?) or because the state's security apparatus is too strong (Syria?).

What the professor also didn't mention was that Iran, which is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production, already had its instability in the Green Movement protests of June 2009 that were quashed. I'm not expecting another major uprising in Iran (a la Tahrir Square) anytime soon.

What I think the protests really point out is that standards of living matter. Even more so than a lack of democracy, the economic corruption that pervades certain countries' economies is ultimately the straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak. I say this with not only the Arab revolts currently going on in mind, but also the dissolution of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989, which underwent similar revolutions for similar reasons. Republicans in the United States, who seem hell bent on trying to lower American standards of living, should take note of the potential consequences for their actions.

February 11, 2011

Are Muslims Sexually Repressed?

The original question asked was:

Are American (or even non-Muslim Asian) cultures really more sexually repressed than Islamic cultures?

And I answered:

I'm not convinced that Islamic cultures (or, at the very least, Islamic culture here in SE Asia) are as sexually repressed as you might think. All these kids aren't delivered by stork, ya know! ;) However, Muslims generally believe that private matters between husband and wife stay within the family and are not discussed with others. And I think that this lack of discussion outside the family may be creating a perception among non-Muslims that Muslims are sexually repressed when we're not. (And the same reasoning may explain other groups, such as American conservative protestants who also have a perception of being sexually repressed.)

To which the followup question was:

How so -- isn't Islam pretty unequivocal about condemning homosexuality and sex outside of marriage?

Islam also requires a strict code of modest dress, and sex segregation is part of many Muslim cultures.

What definition of "sexual repression" are you using?

And my response is:

I don't view any of these things as being indicative of "sexual repression." Homosexuality and sex outside of marriage is forbidden especially so as to prevent the spread of various diseases; likewise, sex outside of marriage is forbidden so as to give any resulting child from any sexual activity the chance to grow up within a nuclear family, supported by both parents both emotionally and financially. As for gender segregation, this is done only to prevent improper behavior between the sexes.

The thing about "modest dress" and, indeed, the entire notion of "sexual repression" among Muslims is that what non-Muslims see is merely our public face, what we Muslims want you to see. What you don't see is the private face of Muslim life away from non-Muslims. The dress codes for both men and women are indeed about modesty, piety and avoiding improper behavior, but that has nothing to do with Muslim family life, when the hijab comes off. For me, sexual repression is about the fundamental attitudes people have toward sexual behavior: procreation only vs. procreation and pleasure vs. pleasure only. Islam definitely encourages the middle view: procreation and pleasure. We love to have sex for the pleasurable and loving experience, but we also love kids (and I think the demographic statistics bear that latter statement out; certainly the Christians are worried about Muslim birth rates).

So I would say, don't confuse what you see with reality. :) By this I mean, seek to understand the reasoning behind what the Qur'an and Sunnah command, whether that thing is allowed or forbidden. The biggest problem Islamophobes have in understanding Islam and Muslim culture is that they take almost everything at face value and react off of what they see. But they have little to no understanding of the deeper meanings or reasonings behind our concepts and behaviors. These people the Qur'an compares with the "lolling dog" (7:176) or cattle (7:179, 25:44, 47:12). The Qur'an really does expect Muslims to understand the deeper meanings, not just what lies on the surface.

February 4, 2011

Tropical Cyclone Yasi

The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft captured this infrared image of Tropical Cyclone Yasi at 11:11 p.m. EST February 2, 2011 (04:11 UTC). Yasi has moved further inland and is gradually weakening. At 10 p.m. EST Feb. 2, the storm had maximum sustained winds of 60 knots (111 kilometers per hour, or about 70 miles per hour, equivalent to a strong tropical storm. According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, despite crossing Australia's Great Dividing Range, the system has maintained clear organization, as seen in the AIRS image. The AIRS data show that the storm's cloud tops have warmed substantially and there has been a significant decrease in convection. The storm will continue on its course until dissipation deep in the Australian interior.

Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Note: For earlier satellite images (similar to the one above), see PIA13834: Monster Cyclone Yasi Eyes Australia in NASA Image and PIA13836: Yasi's Fury Rakes Northeastern Australia.

January 8, 2011

January Flooding in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia

On January 7, 2010, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft captured this image of the inundated city of Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. Torrential rains in northeastern Australia caused the Fitzroy River to overflow its banks and flood much of the city and surrounding agricultural lands. Both the airport and major highways are underwater, isolating the city. In this natural color rendition, muddy water is brown, and shallow, clearer water is gray. Vegetation is depicted in various shades of green, and buildings and streets are white. The image is located at 23.3 degrees South latitude, 150.5 degrees East longitude. The image covers an area of 22 by 28.1 kilometers (13.6 by 17.4 miles).

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Update: A newer photo, taken one week after the one above (January 14th), can be found here.

January 6, 2011

Modern vs. Islamic Values

I was asked the following question this morning:

How would you respond to those who attack the Abrahamic religions on the grounds that they promote a pre-industrial system of values which no longer makes sense today.

The first thought that came to mind is, "These people don't understand Islam (or shari'ah)." Or perhaps even the other Ibrahimic faiths. Not that that's anything new!

I talked to my wife about this topic during lunch, and I'll write down what she said first, before giving my own answer. Her thought is that Islam maintains a dynamism through ijtihad. As I'm sure you know, Muslims are constantly asking for fatawa from imams regarding the halalness of various issues. Although the Qur'an and Sunnah are static documents, both shari'ah and fiqh are dynamic. The novel situations presented for review make fresh interpretations a regular occurrence. Add to that the differences in opinion between different scholars. So, from her (and my) perspective, Islamic values make a great deal of sense today because the values are evaluated and applied in our post-industrial society.

My own perspective is that Islamic values are not time-limited, but timeless. The details of human life have changed greatly over the millennia, but the essence of human existence is more or less the same since the beginning of recorded history. Shari'ah today deals with the same issues that existed when the Qur'an was revealed 1400 years ago: marriage, divorce, inheritance, theft, murder, eating, drinking, adultery, sex, and so on. Nothing has really changed since the beginning of time. What Islam doesn't do is change its core principles, its values. The guidelines for determining what is right and what is wrong remain the same. The same cannot be said for modern values, and I think society is the poorer for it.

The message continues:

The Muslim preference for a religiously-based legal system is probably the strongest example, but I'll use natalism (famously promoted by Roman Catholicism) as my example.

In pre-industrial times, natalism made sense for two reasons:

1) The pre-industrial economy was poor and to first approximation a zero sum game, so the only way to get appreciably richer was to rob wealth from someone else thru aggressive war.
2) The state of military technology at the time meant that "victory belonged to the bigger battalions", so maximizing the birth rate was an effective way for a state to maximize its political power.

Today however, natalism is a bad idea financially (because of the huge cost of educating all those extra children to the standard which a modern society requires) and can no longer be justified by its original basis. Aggressive war -- at least against other major powers -- is now suicidal due to nuclear weapons, and industrialization now allows ample opportunities for positive-sum economic growth.

And then there's the environmental consequences of excessive population growth!

Regarding natalism, while there is nothing similar to the Biblical "go forth and multiply," there is a slight natalist attitude in the Qur'an. You mention the argument that "natalism is a bad idea financially (because of the huge cost of educating all those extra children to the standard which a modern society requires)." But from an Islamic perspective this argument is very weak because it is an argument based upon selfishness. (This is a good example of the weakness of "modern values.") Several Qur'anic verses (e.g., 6:151, 17:31) condemn the killing of infants and children from a fear of their becoming economic burdens. Indeed, according to one hadith, the killing of children "lest it should share your food" is the second worst sin, behind only shirk.

Update: This essay was cross-posted at Street Prophets, where it has already been promoted to the Front Page.