Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

O’Cracy: D.E.M., died 26/06/1976

Posted in Books, History, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on April 10, 2009

Here is another story from Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in India. It is only in the last couple of months that I have been learning about this period in India’s history and this quotation is also from Rafiq Dossani’s India Arriving.

The Emergency marked both the low point of press freedom and a turning point. With the exception of the Statesman and the Indian Express, the English-language press scraped and groveled to accommodate the state during the Emergency. Even the former had to be very careful to escape the censor’s eye. In what are now iconic tales of defiance, the Indian Express got away with the following message in its obituary section in 1976: “O’Cracy: D.E.M. O’Cracy, beloved husband of T. Ruth, Father of L. I. Berty, father of Faith, Hope and Justice, on June 26.”[1] And a library in Calcutta issued a notice in the Statesman in December 1975, stating: “On and from 1st January 1976, newspapers will be found in the fiction section.”[2]

1. Indian Express, Mumbai edition, June 27, 1976
2. Statesman, Calcutta edition, December 31, 1975.

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The only time Ghandi condoned violence

Posted in History, People / organisations, Places by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on April 8, 2009

I came across several fascinating stories about Indian women recently and grouped them into one blog post.

India ArrivingFirst, here is the story of India’s first woman stock trader:

It was a man’s world in those busy days. The arrival of the first female stockbroker on the floor of the stock exchange in the late 1980s created a sensation. A tall woman in a sari, she confidently strode toward a particular counter to make her first trade. I was on hand and, to my consternation, the brokers treated her like one of their own. Like any male newcomer, she was disregarded initially; when she tried to force her way into the center of the counter, she was again disregarded, meaning that she had to fight her way in along with two dozen others competing for the jobber’s attention. As I watched her getting pummeled along with the rest as she drilled into the center of the crowd, I wondered how she felt and whether she would be back the next day.

She returned and had her strategy perfectly worked out. She came with a megaphone in hand. Her sari was firmly draped around her so it would not come undone! Standing on the periphery of the counter, she calmly turned on the megaphone to full volume and called on the jobber. The jostling crowd was momentarily stunned into silence, the jobber called out the information she had sought and she made her trade. Since then, she has become a very successful broker.

This is from the charming book India Arriving by Rafiq Dossani which is full of other such accounts from his experience as an investment banker, technocrat and journalist in India.

The next story is from a wonderful two-part interview from Australia’s Philosopher’s Zone radio interview with American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In the first interview she discussed the social contract in human societies, and in the second she discussed the implications for animals.

Philosopher's Zone

I know that there was a lawyer, the first female lawyer in India ended up defending an elephant, because she wasn’t hired by the usual bar association, and so she ended up working for a Maharajah and he just thought it was fun to put the elephant on trial for trampling the bamboo grove. But I think that was just an entertainment.

Imagining IndiaThe final quote is from Imagining India, the deliciously intellectual book by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani. It is from the chapter about population growth, now understood as a demographic dividend, but in the last century interpreted as an impending disaster. In 1960 India consumed one eighth of the USA’s wheat production, and by 1966 it consumed one fourth. In frustration the government tried all kinds of actions, beginning with persuasion and culminating in the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi and her forced mass sterilizations in the country side. One of the earlier, gentler, acts of persuasion was to teach women the rhythm method. From this teaching comes perhaps the only statement from the great man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, advocating violence:

Wives should fight off their husbands with force, if necessary.

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Just say no to C, X and Q

Posted in History by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 12, 2008

As the markets crash rumbles on, it is time for a little fun with forecasting. Of course I have to begin with the traditional quotation that “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future.” I believe that came from the philosopher Yogi Berra. Today on the BBC’s Business Daily I heard ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont quoting a statistician who said “the past had its own uncertainty, though on the whole, it wasn’t as great as that of the future”. That is because statistics about the past also change and come with their own uncertainties.

But I would like to turn to the Ladies Home Journal December 1900 issue which ran an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”. I heard about this in a lecture by Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research, about the quality of predictions.

Many of the predictions came out close, for example, that “Trains will run two miles a minute, normally”, “There will be air-ships” and “Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance”. Some are sad because they once were true but are now slipping away: “A university education will be free to every man and woman”. And others are worrying because they might come true  – “There will be no wild animals except in menageries” – although at the time the prediction was made as an advance waiting to happen.

But my firm favorite is:

There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other.

It is time for this prediktion to kome true!

Notes on Nursing

Posted in Books, History, Medicine, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on September 11, 2008
Book cover for Notes on Nursing

Book cover for Notes on Nursing

In my opinion, England’s greatest contributions to medicine were the creation of the nursing profession by Florence Nightingale, the invention of the hospice by Cicely Saunders, and the discovery of antibiotics by Alexander Fleming.

The main reason I include Fleming is that his discovery was only possible because he was so sloppy in his lab work, giving me hope that I too can one day do something useful. Saunders started as a nurse, trained as a doctor so that her reforms would be accepted, and eventually became Dame Sicly in recognition of her work. But if I understood correctly Nightingale was vilified by anti-feminists in her lifetime.

So it is with great delight that I finally sit down and read Notes on Nursing by Nightingale. The Univeristy of Pennsylvania has the complete version on the web, nicely hyperlinked, but I am reading the Kindle Edition of course. I usually highlight interesting and noteworthy sentences on the Kindle but I find myself highlight almost every sentence within the first few pages.

This is a charming book and I recommend you read it.

Here is my favorite quotation so far, a footnote about the fact that “one in every seven infants in this civilized land of England perishes before it is one year old? That, in London, two in every five die before they are five years old? And, in the other great cities of England, nearly one out of two”.

Upon this fact the most wonderful deductions have been strung. For a long time an announcement something like the following has been going the round of the papers:–”More than 25,000 children die every year in London under 10 years of age; therefore we want a Children’s Hospital.” This spring there was a prospectus issued, and diverse other means taken to this effect:–”There is a great want of sanitary knowledge in women; therefore we want a Women’s Hospital.” Now, both the above facts are too sadly true. But what is the deduction? The causes of the enormous child mortality are perfectly well known; they are chiefly want of cleanliness, want of ventilation, want of whitewashing; in one word defective household hygiene. The remedies are just as well known; and among them is certainly not the establishment of a Child’s Hospital. This may be a want; just as there may be a want of hospital room for adults. But the Registrar-General would certainly never think of giving us as a cause for the high rate of child mortality in (say) Liverpool that there was not sufficient hospital room for children; nor would he urge upon us, as a remedy, to found an hospital for them.

Her grasp of what to do with statistics is better than that of most doctors. I see from the Wikipedia article about Nightingale that she had “had exhibited a gift for mathematics from an early age and excelled in the subject under the tutorship of her father and later the tutorship of mathematician James Joseph Sylvester“.

I am struck by two other ideas from the beginning of the book. First, she keeps on putting forward the view of disease as a reparative process

disease, at some period or other of its course, is more or less a reparative process, not necessarily accompanied with suffering: an effort of nature to remedy a process of poisoning or of decay, which has taken place weeks, months, sometimes years beforehand, unnoticed, the termination of the disease being then, while the antecedent process was going on, determined?

It took me a few repititions before I understood what she meant because I was still in the mindset that disease is a pathological process that doctors treat. Instead her thinking is of diseases as the manifestation of the body’s attempts at healing, attempts that nurses try to help along. This reminded me of a program to help the elderly look after themselves during the winter months as so many die from hypothermia. The social workers tried to teach that, since 25% of heat is lost through the head, wearing a hat indoors is a good thing to minimze heat loss. Few wore a hat. But when they rephrased this as 25% of cold gets through the head, and that a hat prevents entry of the cold, many more of the elderly participants put their hat on.

Second, I am fascinated by her insistance on good ventillation

The very first canon of nursing, the first and the last thing upon which a nurse’s attention must be fixed, the first essential to a patient, without which all the rest you can do for him is as nothing, with which I had almost said you may leave all the rest alone, is this: TO KEEP THE AIR HE BREATHES AS PURE AS THE EXTERNAL AIR, WITHOUT CHILLING HIM. Yet what is so little attended to? Even where it is thought of at all, the most extraordinary misconceptions reign about it. Even in admitting air into the patient’s room or ward, few people ever think, where that air comes from. It may come from a corridor into which other wards are ventilated, from a hall, always unaired, always full of the fumes of gas, dinner, of various kinds of mustiness; from an underground kitchen, sink, washhouse, water-closet, or even, as I myself have had sorrowful experience, from open sewers, loaded with filth; and with this the patient’s room or ward is aired, as it is called–poisoned, it should rather be said. Always air from the air without, and that, too, through those windows, through which the air comes freshest. From a closed court, especially if the wind do not blow that way, air may come as stagnant as any from a hall or corridor.

Her book was published in 1860, so soon after Pasteur was forumlated germ theory and a year before Semmelweiss lost his sanity from trying to explain to doctors how germs spread to patients. (Hint: it’s was iatrogenic.) This was a wonderful woman, well ahead of her time.

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Socializing software

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on July 30, 2008
Book cover for The Social Life of Information

Book cover for The Social Life of Information

I am currently reading The Social Life of Information, another Harvard Business School text that critiques the IT industry. It is annoying me like IT Doesn’t Matter did, but is full of interesting historical background like The Big Switch is, so as a history junkie I am hooked. I guess the fact that I find the book annoying marks me as the techno-jingoist that they are critiquing.

The book’s main thesis, so far in my reading, is that there is a lot more social context around information and its technology than information technology enthusiasts (e.g. me) would claim. Furthermore, that social context is important and overlooked leading to problems in deployment. I will not be cruel enough to say that MIT invents the future while Harvard publishes scholarly critiques of it (oops, but Dan Bricklin’s audience agrees with me).

There are, as you might expect from the strong praise the book has received, lots of good stories and fair points. For example, there is the hilarious account of the attempt by Chiat/Day’s senior management to create the office of the future, documented by Wired News in issue 2.07, and then fittingly recanted in 7.02. The dystopian visionary CEO created office space with no offices, where hierarchy was “eliminated” as each employee had access to any desk at the beginning of the day that they wanted to take.

The reality was the employees had to rush to grab desk. Field staff would arrive in the middle of the day with no idea where the rest of their team had sat. Team members could not sit together, and turf warfare began as senior managers tried to pull rank over junior members of other teams so that they could get their own team members to sit together. These same post-hierarchical managers sent their secretaries to grab desks for them in advance. Amongst all this bullying the CEO would walk around asking people if they were sitting in the same place they had sat yesterday. If they answered yes, he would move them to another place.

And the computers, of course, were a pain to recustomize each day for each worker’s preference. No employee had any personal computer, instead they would pick up a fresh device each day. And it turns out that desks are more than just place on which to pile paper, instead the location of each pile of paper had meaning and value. You get the idea.

By contrast, I was surprised to learn how keenly socially aware Alexandar Graham Bell was with the new technology he invented, the telephone. His investors were dismayed at how useless the telephone seemed compared to the telegraph and tried to sell the patents to Western Union at rock-bottom prices. Western Union turned them down and I recently discovered (see Brunelleschis Patent in the sharing medical techniques post) that these are still the most valuable patents to date.

Instead, Bell tried to get his telephones into hotels and encouraged hotel guests to use the phones to call reception staff. He also put the phones into offices so that office staff would experience the advantages of telephones. Such social interactions must have been great for creating his market of home customers.

It is interesting to me to contrast Bell’s approach with Day’s when thinking about doctors learning and the Department of Health’s plans for modernising education. Six years ago, as I was beginning my residency, Modernising Medical Careers included bold talk of restructed teaching that fit the increasingly unstructured schedules of doctors. As junior doctors worked fewer hours with fewer overlaps with other doctors’ shifts the idea of time- and place-shifted teaching was attractive. Each doctor could watch each lecture alone.

At the time it sounded good and I was heavily in favour of it. But now, after reading this annoying book, I am annoyed to admit that I am rethinking the advantages.

As I read the rest of the book I am curious to see what else it covers. Certainly, the index does not include Google, and it has only one mention of GNU, and thus open source software, a highly social technology endeavour. And as far as I can tell, there will not be any mention of social software as the book was published in 2000, around the same time that web 2.0 began to crystalize. Social software may not fix the social problems that the book describes, but it does provide a variety of social solutions to problems that were previously intractable.

On sharing medical techniques

Posted in History, Medicine, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on July 27, 2008

As happens to most people who visit him, I learned a lot of things from Dr. Eran Bellin when I met him last week. One story he told stayed with me because of a mild obsession I have with the social pressures around sharing information.

The story he told was the one told to him by his father, Lowell Bellin as a medical student. It was about the secrecy surrounding the invention of the obstetric forcep, a tool that would have saved many lives had other physicians known about it earlier.

I am not sure if I have the exact story he was talking about, but a little Googling around led me to the Chamberlen family. For perhaps a whole century only the Chamberlen family knew and kept the secret.

Apparently Peter the Elder was the inventor of the forceps. The brothers went to great length to keep the secret. When they arrived at the home of the woman in labor, two persons had to carry a massive box with gilded carvings into the house. The pregnant patient was blindfolded as to not to reveal the secret, all the others had to leave the room. Then the operator went to work. The people outside heard screams, bells, and other strange noises until the cry of the baby indicated another successful delivery.

Eventually, different members of the family sold the secret to other people, and then someone leaked the secret to the public.

What is interesting to me is how late the dates are: the 16th and 17th century, well after patents had become common in Europe. Dr. Bellin’s mention of the story, and its implicaitons for patient care, inspired me to scan two articles I have that cover the invention of patents in 15th century Florence (Brunelleschis Bargain and Brunelleschis Patent). The idea was to give inventors a way to make more money from sharing their inventions rather than they would from hiding them.

Fillippos Brunelleschi, the architect of Florence’s remarkable cathedral, won the world’s first patent for a technical invention in 1421. Brunelleschi was a classic man of the Renaissance: tough-minded, multi-talented, and thoroughly self-confident. He claimed he had invented new means of conveying goods up the Arno River (he was intentionally vague on details), which he refused to develop unless the state kept others from copying his design. Florence complied, and Brunelleschi walked away with the right to exclude all new means of transport on the Arno for three years.

The reason that Dr. Bellin mentioned the forceps story is the same that he had created Clinical Looking Glass software and joined the Emerging Health Information Technology company. He wanted doctors to learn from each other what works, and then to use what they learned to help patients. For that I congratulate him.

But the story of Chamberlen family saddens me, and I would go further to say that a doctor doing this today would be acting unethically. I hope, at least, that there are enough incentives that such a doctor would also be acting foolishly.

Update: Dr. Bellin kindly corrected a couple of mistakes I made in this post. First, he heard the story about the Chamberlens not as a medical student, but from his own father, also a physician committed to the duty of physicians to share knowledge. And second, Emerging Health Information Technology was created by its current CEO, Jack Wolf, who in the words of Dr. Bellin “had the vision to realize that the only way to afford cutting edge technology in the health care sector was by creating virtual cooperative communities of hospitals sharing infrastructure costs through a trusted outside entity”.

The geek shall inherit the earth

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

Another character from “Justinian’s Flea” is Anthemius, one of the two architects who built the extraordinary Hagia Sophia. The building was one of the reasons for his wealth and thus in Constantinople he lived amongst notable neigbours like Zeno, a famous orator. Apparently the two quarreled over something, Zeno sued and won. Anthemius was a geek, however, and so “he took his revenge like a proper engineer, first simulating an earthquake with a steam line that he surreptitiously ran into Zeno’s apartment, then exploding noisemakers to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm”. What really made me laugh was his next trick:

[E]mploying a pivoting parabolic reflector to shine light at all hours into Zeno’s sleeping chamber. When Zeno asked Justinian to intervene, the emperor decline to punish his architect, writing that even he “cannot intervene against Zeus the Thunderer and Poseidon the Earth-Shaker”.

The world’s first Laffer Curve?

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

For my birthday this weekend my wife gave me a voucher for my Kindle. This gave me a blissful weekend reading “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe“. It is full of charming anecdotes about characters from antiquity, including emperor Anastasius:

In what is almost certainly the first documented exercise of what would come to be called trickle-down economics, Anastasius abolished a wide range of taxes that fell heavily on the empire’s most productive classes, its craftsmen and merchants. The emperor had argued, it turns out correctly, that a prosperous merchant would pay even more in fees that the treasury lost in taxes. Thus, despite three major wars, and several revolts by subjects opposing the emperor’s Monophysitism, the treasury at Anastasius’s death was richer by 320,000 pounds of gold than it had been at his accession.

On The World’s Most Toxic Value System

Posted in History, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 12, 2008

A good friend of mine from the USA sent me a link to a page titled The World’s Most Toxic Value System. The author has an interesting background, and the stories he has from the Arab world sound plausible to me and are great to read about as people usually only talk about them in private.

But the article is full of historical statements and interpretations that I disagree with, and they betray misunderstandings that I find common in the USA. All of which make me bristle against the author’s suggestion of introducing the word thar into the English language.

Let me start by saying that I agree with the author, and Ralph Peters that he quotes, that the following values are bad, that my own countrymen should get rid of them, and that I find these values more prevalent in the Arab world than I do in the West:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

But for the rest of this I wanted to focus on correct usage of the Arabic language properly. Here is a short glossary of, and rant about, misuses, starting with:

Thar, which the article suggests as the new name for the toxic value system for revenge that is only so virulent in Arabic and Islamic societies. First of all, it should be tha’r, not thar. The apostrophe should be pronounced like the u is in “unbelievable”. Otherwise, “thar” is closer to the word for the past participle of the verb to get angry.

Second, tha’r in Arabic means revenge, it does not mean “the most toxic revenge system in the world”. So let us not use an Arabic word to associate a concept in the English language with with a race or culture, which this article seems to want to.

Finally, the article itself reminds me of a charming book I am now reading, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay. In particular, the chapter on dueling. The author of the article is a fan of chivalry, but to be honest one man’s chivalry is another man’s sexual jealousy. I had known that dueling was a problem that afflicted the leadership of Western countries for many years, costing them dearly in manpower. The Burr-Hamilton duel killed off Alexander Hamilton, my favourite founding father, and opponents of Andrew “Jacksonian Democracy” Jackson tried several times to kill him by insulting his wife to force him into duels. What is so interesting in the dueling chapter of the book is how he describes the evolution of this custom as a way of wresting power from the clergy, who have given us such judicial innovations as trial by water: if you drown you were innocent, if not, you are guilty, so must be executed.

Madrasa, which is assumed to mean nursery school for terrorists. It actually means school, which is why my parents named their school Al-Madrasa for Arts. What the Arab world needs is more madrasas, enough to teach all our children about arts and sciences, and how to speak English, as my parents learned in their own madrasas (i.e. schools) when they were young. A small minority of madrasas use a curiculum that is Qur’an-focused, which is bad, and a tiny minority are focused on misteaching from the Qur’an that the West should be attacked, which is very bad. But the solution is more funding for better madrasas.

Incidentally, education has a high value in Islam, even if many Muslims today are undereducated and poor. The first word that came to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qu’ran was “Read”, an order that all Muslims should learn how to read. The Prophet also introduced the custom of releasing a prisoner of war if the prisoner taught ten Muslims how to read – the customs of the times had been to release in exchange for money or prisoners from your own side. Most of the texts that Europeans read during their Renaissance were actually in Arabic, even the ones that were translations of ancient European texts, because Muslims had been busy translating the teachings of all other civilizations so that they could read and learn from them as good Muslims. And Al Azhar is the world’s first university, with studies beginning in 960 A.D.

Fatwa, which is assumed to mean a death sentenced from a Muslim leader. It actually means a religious ruling, a regular and common occurrence on by different leaders on many difference regular and common aspects of modern living.

Incidentally, I say different leaders because Islam has a long tradition of many leaders as opposed to the Pope in Christianity. Long before Martin Luther came up with the revolutionary idea that ordinary men should be able to read the Bible, and that they should make independent interpretations of its meaning, Islam asked of its followers that they learn to read Arabic, so that they can read the Qur’an. And making an independent interpretation of the Qur’an is called ijtihad, which brings me to…

Jihad, which is assumed to mean an attack on the West, Infidels, and Freedom. It actually comes from the verb “to expend effort” or to struggle. Think of it as you do the US War on Drugs, War on Cancer and War on Poverty. As far as Arabs and Muslim are concerned, the word for religious attack on a civilization by religious zealots is cusade, not jihad. The chapter on this topic in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is also well worth reading.

First Tuesday

Posted in History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 12, 2008

Here is another reminder of how society changes over time. When I was in college, at the height of the dot-com boom in England, my dream was to attend a First Tuesday meeting. The company’s founders organized a meeting on the first Tuesday of every month in many major cities, starting with London. Attendees would get one of three badges identifying each person as an investor, an entrepreneur or a technologist, if I remember correctly (the Wikipedia article looks like it has been mutilated by company’s current PR department). The ideal was for conversations involving people with different colour badges.

I never got to attend any of those events as college lectures always got in the way and then the hospital work began. And then the crash came, and the current First Tuesday company is a shadow of its former self.

I remembered them yesterday because my brother, who regularly spends time browsing the Wikipedia, sent me this extract about Bethlem Royal Hospital, AKA Bedlam, used to have its own first Tuesday meetings:

Bethlem Royal Hospital became famous and infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the mentally ill. In 1675 Bedlam moved to new buildings in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke, outside the City boundary. In the 18th century people used to go there to see the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the “show of Bethlehem” and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights. Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month. Visitors were permitted to bring long sticks with which to poke and enrage the inmates. In 1814, there were 96,000 such visits. The lunatics were first called “patients” in 1700, and “curable” and “incurable” wards were opened in 1725-34.

Funny how times change.