Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Bahrain’s government and bloggers

Posted in Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 21, 2005

Spirit of America recently prepared a “worst five” list that aims to target the countries with the worst “regime that was hostile to free expression and which had an active blogging community”:

Iran
China
Peninsular Arabia (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain)
Malaysia
Zimbabwe

The third item on the list is “Peninsular Arabia” – it seems silly that they have lumped Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and Syria. The latter is not part of the peninsula and the other countries that are part are not included on the list. And however bad Bahrain is it is not as bad as Saudi Arabia or Syria. Still, anything that names and shames the Bahraini government’s recent actions against bloggers is fine by me.

Incidentally Spirit of America seems shifty to me – their website include the kind of vague statements that no one can disagree with:

Spirit of America helps American military and civilian personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as people who call to Americans for help in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Then we come to what is perhaps their real point, i.e. a little propaganda:

We contributed equipment to Iraqi-owned television stations to establish a better alternative to Al Jazeera.

Or as it’s now called, “perception management“. Still their blog entry does (mis)quote the Open Net Initiative’s report about Bahrain’s internet censorship. This is a topic dear to my heart as back in 2003 I found out that my own site (yes, the one you are reading now) was being blocked in Bahrain. It is interesting to read the details in the report and wonderful to know that someone is studying this area:

Bahrain filters a very small number of Internet sites to prevent its citizens from accessing them. The OpenNet Initiative’s (ONI) testing of more than 6,000 targeted sites revealed only eight sites blocked from those seeking access from within Bahrain. Three of the blocked sites were pornographic. The other filtered sites covered political and religious topics. When a site is blocked in Bahrain, the person seeking to access it is served one of two “block pages” – Web pages with text indicating that the requested content cannot be accessed. This modest filtering regime is supported by both a legal context and a technical infrastructure. The legal context includes extensive potential controls of media, telecommunications, and the Internet, while the technical infrastructure includes a single primary Internet Service Provider (ISP) and a state-mandated Internet exchange point (IXP); the combination of both the legal context and the technical infrastructure makes filtering relatively easy to implement.

Infant mortality

Posted in Medicine, Places by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 17, 2005

Some shocking numbers from the IMF’s recent report on Iraq, as quoted in the Economist:

Infant mortality is over 10% of live births, compared with 3% in neighbouring Jordan; and 193 out of every 100,000 births in Iraq end with the mother dying, against 41 in Jordan.

That means 10 out of every hundred children born in Iraq will die within their first year. Jordan is supposed to be the healthier country, with 3%, but I still find this depressingly high.

The very wonderful NationMater has the league table along with a map. Bahrain’s rate is 1.7% while the USA is 0.65% and UK 0.52%. It is worth scrolling down the bottom of the page to see the debate on the reasons for the USA’s high rate give its developed world status.

“Free speech and witch hunts”

Posted in People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 14, 2005

Another fascinating article about South Korea, the land that lives in the future:

Earlier this year, the photograph of a young South Korean woman who failed to clean up after her dog in a railway carriage appeared on the internet. Web-users throughout the country co-operated to reveal her identity, and for weeks the woman, quickly dubbed the “dogshit girl”, became the number one hate figure among the country’s cyber community. Vicious and defamatory messages appeared on the internet and her university website was bombarded with hate mail.

To many technologists around the world South Korea is the ultimate social laboratory. What happens there is what will begin to happen in other countries in a few years’ time. That is because the country has the world’s highest percentages of the population using broadband internet access and 3G telephones.

This is what happens when everyone is on the internet all the time, and when so many people know how to publish their thoughts.

Of course, this is a side effect of a good thing. In the the Philippines, the corrupt Estrada government was peacefully removed simply by citizens forwarding SMS text messages to each other – “wear black and come to the main square” – and then carrying out the instructions of the message. That was in the ’90s. And in the ’80s the spread of video cameras amongst citizens meant the Rodney King’s beating was documented and shared amongst citizens, creating pressure for reform at the Los Angeles Police Department.

Good things can happen when citizens have the tools to fight governments.

But what happens when they use those tools to attack each other? Over the last century democracies have developed laws for regulating the media to stop slandering and libel. In some cases those laws may be too harsh – Britain’s laws are notriously pro-plainitif, meaning that the defendant must prove that she or he did not commit libel. But over time and repeated lawsuits the media and those in the public eye have established a truce over what can and cannot be said.

What can laws do to produce such a truce amongst citizens? The South Korean government is trying out som laws:

One proposal would require Korean web users to register their personal information before leaving messages on bulletin boards[…] However, critics of the “real-names system” oppose the plan, saying it undermines the freewheeling nature of the internet and would suppress legitimate criticism and minority opinions.

But I do not think these will work. Perhaps what will evolve are social norms. In the USA today people do not spit in the street – while they still do so in China. In the 19th century there were anti-spitting laws in the USA, along with numerous street signs reminding people of this. Today the signs are unnecessary – if I were to spit in the streets of Bethesda the suburban stares would be considerable punishment. And when a couple kisses in the USA passers by give them privacy – while in the Gulf they would be stared at and reprimanded.

So my guess is that in five to ten years’ time the South Koreans will have developed an ettiquette for posting such photographs and for responding on online forums. They will be polite and give each other privacy (I hope).

But what happens when the rest of the world finally joins them in internet usage and begins to make the same mistakes again? Will their reaction to rude postings be the same as Bahrainis’ reactions to particularly bad drivers, i.e. that they must be foreign? Will they say “damn those American posters” as we say “damn those Saudi drivers”?

My latest paper, ” Using Search Engines to Find Online Medical Information”

Posted in Medicine, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 5, 2005

My latest paper, “Using Search Engines to Find Online Medical Information“, has just been published through PLoS Medicine.

The rise of the search engine Google (www.google.com), along with other freely available search engines, has made it easier to find information, although the clinical uses of Google have not been as well documented as those of PubMed [1]. Google will not point to the answer to every question, and often the articles it finds in response to your question are not freely available. But for many clinical scenarios, Google and other search engines can provide, quickly enough, an answer that is good enough. This article aims to provide tips that will help with these clinical scenarios, saving time that can be used with a medical librarian to answer more difficult problems.

“On Killing”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 5, 2005

I’ve been reading “On Killing” for a while now and I have to say I find it has given me hope about mankind. Everyone I’ve tried to explain this to so far has find it ghoulish, so I am probably about to lose you to this interpretation as well, but here goes.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman began as a Ranger, an elite US soldier. He has never seen combat but he has combined his military training with a career as an academic psychologist at WestPoint and some interesting historical research. He is part of a new field called, I kid you not, killology.

Bear with me. Grossman’s main point is that humans find it inherently difficult to harm or kill other human beings. And therein lies the hope it gives me about mankind.

The book has the following interesting statistics:

In World War II, only 15-20 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire their rifles. In Korea, about 50 percent. In Vietnam, the figure rose to over 90 percent.

I will repeat that: only 15-20 percent of combat infantry were willing to fire. Most soldiers found it plain unpleasant to fire, even as they were being shot at and bombed. The human instinct is not to kill or harm.

The rest of the book explains how this instinct can be overcome. The diagram below, from the book, is a good summary.

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The reason I find the book interesting is in using that summary diagram in reverse: what can each of us do to harness the instinct of doing no harm to other human beings? What should we be doing in our society to support peaceful behaviour?

One of the main points that struck me was the crucial role of seeing other human beings as human beings. A key part of military training – training to kill – is to teach the soldier to identify with the group and to distance him from the enemy group. The distance is both physical – aircraft bombers and other long-distance killing weapons – and emotional – propaganda to make the enemy seem inhuman.

This is why the increasing restrictions to travel scare me so much. My Arab and Muslim friends have given up on visiting the USA, humiliated by the security checks and lengthy procedures. And my American friends are too scared to visit the Arab world, convinced that they will be targeted and killed. The result, however, is physical and emotional distance: distance that divides these nations into sides, and allows the people on each “side” to disregard the other’s deaths.

But we are all on the same side, or at least we should be.

That is why I like the DC International – it is an organisation that introduces Americans and non-Americans to each other. It builds friendships and cements the idea that we are all on the same side. If you are in the DC area, I heartily recommend that you join.

Another interesting point from the book is that shock and awe campaigns do not work. The author describes the horrors of aerial bombings during World War II. These killed civilians in nasty ways – burns, shrapnel, buried by rubble – on an unprecedented scale. The theory behind it was that killing a certain number of civilians would induce mass lunacy in all the other civilians, crippling their country’s war effort and allowing a swift victory. This was based on the observation during World War I that the number of soldiers lost to psychiatric illness was greater than that of being killed by enemy fire.

However, the bombing had almost no psychiatric impact. It seems that civilians thought of bombing as impersonal as soldiers did. The same physical and emotional distance that made the act of bombing palatable to soldiers also made it psychologically survivable to civilians.

Which makes me angry about Rumsfeld’s claims about the shock and awe bombing campaigns to drive surrender – they do not, they only bring incredible physical suffering.

The final interesting point from the book is the term “Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome”. Grossman’s point is that the same techniques pioneered by the military to allow soldiers to commit violence have filtered through to civilian society through video games and films.

Which is why I find this week’s Economist article about games so disappointing. It begins with a critique of the industry but then concludes happily that research shows most fears are unfounded. In the book however Grossman accuses such research of being as morally suspect as the research that the tobacco industry funded – and then promoted in the media – about the safety of cigarettes.

I hope we can all learn from him to commit to reducing violence in our societies.

“IT Training Pays Off for NHS”

Posted in Medicine, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 1, 2005

Equipping staff with IT skills pays for itself, says report. Basic IT courses for NHS staff save the health service more than the cost of the training within the space of just one year, research claims.

One of the biggest barriers to the NHS Connecting for Health IT program is the IT illiteracy in the NHS: even if wonderful computer hardware and software is deployed wonderfully, staff are usually incapable of using it. The problem is worse because the clinicians often do not believe that learning to use the technology is a good use of their time.

This report is a useful counter-argument – not a rigorously powerful one, but still useful.