Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

A short history of short messages: What technology means for Iran

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, Politics, Society, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on June 16, 2009

The Iranian revolution of 2009 is being co-ordinated through an American company called Twitter. Their web site,, allows people to send short messages, each no longer than 140 characters. These messages are shared with everyone in the world, available for anyone to read.

At the moment, a lot of people are interested in whether or not the Iranian elections were rigged, and what to do about it. And a lot of these people agreed, through short messages on Twitter, that someone did cheat and that everyone should gather in Tehran to protest.

This is not the first time that short messages had big consequences. In 2001 many Filipino citizens were angry over the corruption allegations about President Joseph Estrada. When the impeachment trial’s Senators refused to look at crucial evidence, the voters got angry. A simple mobile phone SMS message was sent and forwarded from one citizen to another: “Go 2EDSA. Wear black”. In four days, one million people gathered in the EDSA square. President Joseph Estrada resigned.

Twitter allows even more efficient co-ordination through short messages and police in the Middle East understand this. Egypt’s Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian programmer, democracy activist and blogger, knew that the police were following his profile on Twitter when they came to arrest him. As one police officer approached, Abd El Fattah sent out a message about the approach but also saying that he had many friends close by and that they would protect him. This was not true, but the police responded as he thought they would: they sent so many police cars for the arrest that they blockaded the first police car. And by that point a large crowd of citizens gathered. He did have friends after all.

Myanmar and China heeded the risks. In 2007 Myanmar’s government shut down all access to the Internet and all mobile phone networks. Photographs and reports gradually leaked out about the regime’s crimes, but the ability of the protesters to co-ordinate their efforts was hampered. Last week, on the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Chinese government temporarily switched off access to sites like Twitter.

But herein lies the dictator’s dilemma. “Switching off the Internet is a double-edged sword,” said Bahraini Professor Omar Al-Ubaydli*, an economist specializing in political economy. In today’s world switching off access also means switching off the economy. Countries like Myanmar can tolerate this as their economy is so primitive, but China’s cannot do so indefinitely. And for any government in the Middle East that is pretending to be democratic, switching off access uncovers their pretenses.

Which brings us to the short messages of Twitter. Stop pretending. Step aside. Power to the people.

* Yes, that’s my brother. Isn’t he cool!

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Saudi Arabia’s free speech violations #78: you cannot even discuss football

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, People / organisations, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 6, 2009

Here is a wonderful video featuring Prince Sultan bin Fahad, سلطان بن فهد, the first person in a long time to get me interested in football:

A little background for those who cannot understand Arabic. Saudi Arabia’s football team lost against Oman’s in the Gulf Cup. Not every team is as great as Bahrain’s.

The video shows some post-match commentary on Saudi Arabian television. Now, personally, I think that watching a football match is a waste of my time, but watching commentary about a football match is a far worse use of my time. Most commentary is low quality, and when you consider the topic of football…

Still, in a country like Saudi Arabia, football is one of the few outlets of free debate. In this case, the commentartors began critiquing the strategy, or lack thereof, of the football team. Then they opened up the phone lines for viewers. One of the viewers was Prince Sultan bin Fahad, president of the kingdom’s Youth and Sports department, i.e. the sports minister.

You do not need to understand Arabic to understand the thoughts of the commentators by watching their facial expressions or hearing the Prince’s shouting. He ended by saying: “If you’re not well-mannered enough, then let me educate you myself”.

Bahrain Medical Bulletin is Bahrain’s first open access journal

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, Medicine, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on December 23, 2008

Here is a press release we sent out recently to journalists in Bahrain. I hope to announce more good news soon.

Issued: 23 December 2008

For Immediate Release
With support from Ministry of Health and Kuwait Finance House.

TITLE Bahrain Medical Bulletin is Bahrain’s first open access journal

Today, the Bahrain Medical Bulletin (BMB became an open access journal. What this means is that the journal is now free to read online, and is published under a progressive copyright that allows readers to reuse the articles provided they cite them correctly.

Dr. Jaffar Al-Bareeq, Chief Editor of the BMB, said “This change is part of BMB‘s belief that medical research is an international public resource and should be provided with a copyright license that supports sharing of scientific knowledge.” Dr. Al-Bareeq founded the journal in 1979 to provide a forum for medical research in the region.

Starting with the December 2008 issue, all BMB articles are freely available online and deposited in a public archive immediately upon publication. Anyone is free to copy, distribute, and reuse BMB content as long as he or she credits the original author and source.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, a Senior Editor at the BMB, said “Open access publishing brings the same revolution to the publishing of scientific information that open source software brought to the creation of software”. Dr. Al-Ubaydli led the conversion of BMB to an open access journal. He is author of the book Free Software for Busy People ( which discusses the use of open source software in health care.

This conversion is funded by grants from the Kuwait Finance House and the Ministry of Health. H.E. Dr. Faisal Al Hamar, Minister of Health, said “We supported this work because of its importance to medical research in the region”. Mr A. Al Khayat, from Kuwait Finance House, said “As an Islamic Bank we are delighted to provide funding for work that will ultimately improve patient care”.

Although some journals in the region already allow readers free access to their journal website, BMB is the first to allow readers to reuse the content in other ways through the open access license.

Such reuse has many powerful applications.  For example, anyone will be free to distribute any article in BMB, make translations, put the articles into course packs in universities, and make derivative educational works.  If a minister of health reads an important study in BMB, they are now free to send a copy to every health professional in the country.

This commitment to access to knowledge by a Bahraini journal complements Bahrain’s existing medical infrastructure. For example, the only Cochrane Center in the Middle East is in Bahrain. Cochrane is the international collaboration between medical scientists around the world to evaluate and identify clinical treatments for patient care.

بيان إخباري، 23 ديسمبر 2008

[بدعم وزارة الصحة والتمويل الكويتي]

مجلة البحرين الطبية: أول مجلة علمية مفتوحة في البحرين
أصبحت مجلة البحرين الطبية ومنذ اليوم (Bahrain Medical Bulletin (BMB), أول دورية علمية مفتوحة، وبهذا باتت متاحة للقراءة على الإنترنت بلا كلفة، وتنشر حسب شروط حقوق نشر متقدمة بحيث أصبح ممكنا للقراء إعادة استعمال المقالات بشرط الإشارة الصحيحة للمصدر والكاتب.

ويقول الدكتور جعفر الإبريق رئيس تحرير المجلة: “ينطلق هذا التغيير من الاقتناع بأن البحث الطبي هو مصدر عالمي عام ويجب أن تترافق طبيعته مع الترخيص باستخدام حقوق النشر الداعمة للتشارك في المعرفة العلمية.” وكان الدكتور الإبريق قد أسس المجلة عام 1979 لإيجاد ملتقى للبحث العلمي بالمنطقة.

وبدءاً من عدد ديسمبر 2008، فإن كل مقالات مجلة البحرين الطبية ستكون منشورة للاستخدام المجاني عبر الإنترنت وستُخزّن فوراً في أرشيف عام وقت النشر. وسيحق لأي مستخدم أن ينقل أو يوزع أو يعيد استخدام محتويات المجلة طالما قام الشخص بالتوثيق للمؤلف الأساس وللمصدر.

وقال الدكتور محمد العبيدلي أحد كبار المحررين بمجلة البحرين الطبية إن “النشر المفتوح يحقق بعالم نشر المعلومات العلمية نفس الثورة التي أدخلها برامج المصدر المفتوح لعالم إبداع برامج الحاسوب.” وكان الدكتور العبيدلي قد قاد عملية تحويل المجلة إلى نشرة مفتوحة. وهو مؤلف لكتاب “البرامج المجانية للأناس المشغولين” ( والذي يناقش استخدام برامج المصدر المفتوح في العناية الطبية.

ولقد موّلت عملية التحويل بمنح قدمها بيت التمويل الكويتي ووزارة الصحة. وقال الدكتور فيصل الحمر، وزير الصحة: “موّلنا هذا البحث لأهميته للبحث الطبي في المنطقة.” وقال السيد عبدالحكيم الخياط من بنك التمويل الكويتي بأنه وبالنظر: “لكون البنك مصرفاً إسلامياً فإننا سعداء لتوفير تمويل لعمل سيحسن بالنهاية العناية بالمريض.”

وعلى رغم من أن بعض المجلات الطبية بالمنطقة قد بدأت بالسماح للقراء بالاطلاع الحر على مواقعها، فإن مجلة البحرين الطبية هي الأولى في منح حق استخدام المحتويات وبأية طرائق أخرى عبر منح ترخيص الاستخدام المفتوح.

ويمكن لهذا الحق أن يمكّن من تطبيقات قوية متعددة. مثلاً، يمكن لأي شخص أن يوزع  أي مقال بالدورية أو يقوم بترجمته، أو يضمن مقالة ما بأي مقررات للتدريس بالجامعات، وأن يحقق أية أعمال مشتقة من تلك المقالات. ويحق بذلك لأي وزير صحة اليوم وحينما يقرأ دراسة مهمة بالمجلة أن يرسل نسخة منها لأي محترف للعناية الصحية بالبلد.

ويكمل الالتزام بحق استخدام المعرفة الذي تمنحه مجلة بحرينية، البنية التحتية الطبية البحرينية القائمة. وعلى سبيل المثال فإن فالبحرين تضم مركز كوكرين الوحيد بالشرق الأوسط. وكوكرين هو تعاون دولي بين العلماء الطبيين حول العالم لتقييم وتحديد العلاجات السريرية للعناية بالمريض.

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Bahrain tops Cochrane league table in the middle east

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, Medicine, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 29, 2008

By October 2008 Bahrain’s Cochrane center had published 10 evidence-based medicine reviews, topping the output of Egypt (8), Pakistan (8), Iran (6) and Saudi Arabia (4). In fact, in the Middle East, only Israel has produced more reviews, with 24 published to date. But Cochrane Bahrain only started publishing in 2004 and with 4 reviews published this year to Israel’s 2 I have high hopes for the future.

Why is this important? Cochrane reviews themselves are important because they represent the medical profession’s consensus evaluation of what treatments work and what other treatments to avoid. Its authors look at all existing research for each disease and treatment. The output of this international body of clinical scientists improves patient care every day.

Bahrain’s performance is important because of what it says about the country’s integration with rigorous international scientific work. But its relative performance to that of its wealthier and larger neighbours is what impresses me the most. If you take reviews per capita, Bahrain manages to top even the output of Israel.

I hope that the Bahraini government increases its funding of Cochrane Bahrain, the only such center in the Arab world and one which is becoming a model for other centers around the world.

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BabelMeSH and PICO Linguist in Arabic

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, Medicine, My publications, Peer-reviewed papers, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 10, 2008

For AMIA 2008, Dr. Paul Fontelo and colleagues presented this poster.

BabelMeSH is a multilanguage search for MEDLINE/PubMed. We created a database of Arabic translations of MeSH terms and other medical terms using MySQL and developed a Web interface for searching MEDLINE/PubMed in Arabic. We evaluated the accuracy of BabelMeSH using a list of medical terms from BMJ Clinical Evidence.  The accuracy was 58% (machine scoring) and 65% human review.) The result obtained may be explained by variations in expressing medical terms in Arabic.

My name is down as one of the authors but my contribution is minor relative to those of the others, especially Paul’s, as he has created and championed BabelMeSH for some time now. At any rate, I highly recommend the Arabic language BabelMeSH.

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Amazon Kindle in Arabic

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 18, 2008

My father just sent me these photographs which appeared in his Saturday article at Al-Waqt newspaper.

If you have not guessed yet, my father is as obsessed with the Kindle as I am. His only regret is that it does not handle Arabic text, much less have any participating Arabic language newspapers. Still, this has not stopped him from mocking up what he would want it to look like. It is worth downloading the PDF of the full-page article.

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Linguistic consternation

Posted in Arabs and Arabic, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 23, 2008

Spellings continue you fascinate me for a number of reasons. The most recent one is this amusing story from an article in the Economist about modernizing English spelling:

Residents in Cologne once called the police after a hairdresser put up a sign advertising Haarflege, rather than the correct Haarpflege (hair care).

In my younger years I used to argue with my English friends about the superiority of American spelling. As I lived in the USA and learned more, I saw plenty of inconsistencies fossilized in American spelling as well. Connecticut and Tuskegee spring to mind, but even centre seemed more attractive than center because it preserved the French origin of the word. I guess I got more sentimental with age.

But this excellent article from TechCrunch UK was a timely wake-up call as it discussed starting a company in the UK and aiming it as US customers.

5. Always write in US English

Dates, spelling and phrases – UK readers are generally used to reading both UK and US English. Many US readers aren’t so don’t make understanding your product harder for them. Also US English will be better for your SEO.

So, from today I hope to stop writing in British English on my websites and stick to the American spelling. This is not so much modernizing as as it is pragmatism, as I make my US hospital CIO customers more comfortable with my company’s products.

But modernization of languages is also important as I consider my experiences teaching Arabic in DC. One student was particularly reticent about telling me where she had learned her Arabic.

In the end, she confessed that she had studied in Israel. I was fascinated to contrast her experiences in learning Arabic and Hebrew. Apparently, because of the migrations of Jews from all over the world who did not speak Hebrew, Zionists tried to modernize the language to ease its study. The result, my student and friend told me, was that she learned Hebrew much more quickly than she did Arabic.

This is a shame for Arabs need friends now more than ever.

But it is also a difficult problem to solve. One of the wonderful principles introduced in Islam is that the every Muslim should be able to read and understand the Quran. Long before Luther demanded that Christians be able to read the Bible without needing help from Latin-speaking priests, Muslims all over the world were learning to read so that they could understand their religion.

But such a progressive principle requires a conservative approach to enforce it. If the Quran is sacred text that no one must change, and all Muslims must understand it, then their language must not be allowed to change lest they cease to understand the Quran.

This is a serious issue, one that continues to hamper the learning of Arabic even as it rightly preserves the continuity of the Quran.