Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

How an Amazon tribe approaches evidence-based medicine

Posted in Books, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 18, 2009

Don't sleep, there are snakesI am saving a rant about the excesses of evidence-based medicine for another day, but first, I am reading a hilarious about what we can learn from an Amazonian tribe. The Piraha tribe’s language includes a laudable emphasis on searching for evidence behind each statement. The book, Don’t sleep, there are Snakes, is by Daniel Everett who went to live with the tribe as a Christian missionary and returned… an atheist.

Here is a quote from a lecture he gave explaining why it was they who converted him. It is worth listening to Everett’s amusing rendition.


Three suffixes are very important, and they tell you how you got your evidence. So every verb has to have on it the source of the evidence. Did you hear about it, did you see it with your own eyes, or did you deduce it from the local evidence. So if I say “Did John go fishing?”, they can say “John went fishing pee-eye”, which means “I heard that he did”, or they can say “John went finishing sibiga”, and that means “I deduced that he did”, or they can say “John went fishing tah”, and that means I saw.

In some respects they are the ultimate empiricists. Or, like people from Missouri, The Show Me State.

Part of this culture value of the Piraha, the immediacy of experience, is reflected in this word imitpeeo, produces a value to keep information slow, and to keep it verifiable. It must be witnessed.

So, as a Christian Missionary, which I no longer am, and if you read the book, you will find out what they did to me. They actually demanded evidence for what I believed. And then I realised I couldn’t give it as well as they wanted me to give it. So this changed me profoundly.

But I remember telling them about Jesus one time. So they said, “So Dan, this Jesus, is he brown like us or is he white like you?”
– “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.”
– “So what did your dad say, your dad must have seen him.”
– “No, he never saw him.”
– “Well what did your friends say who saw him?”
– “I don’t know anybody who saw him.”
– “Why are you telling us about him then?”

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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World Entrepreneurship Summit 2009

Posted in Entrepreneurship, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on March 20, 2009

On Friday I attended a great conference by the World Entrepreneur Society: World Entrepreneurship Summit 2009. I took some videos of the early speeches and they are below but the most interesting session could not be captured with a camera. As these two pictures hint, the staff at Group Partners create a wall of ideas, beautifully coloured and helpfully structured to facilitate useful group work. I would love to be able to use them in the future.


Introductory speech by Dr. Rebecca Harding:

Keynote speech from Microsoft:

Keynote speech about sustanability:

Panel about “What keeps you awake at night”:

Annals of globalization and Google

Posted in People / organisations, Politics, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 8, 2009

Here is the latest gem of an advert to reach me on GMail’s advertising:


The translation is “Read now what happened in Iraq between Bush and the reporter Muntathir Al-Zaidi”. I have no idea why they advertised this to me (or this, or this), but I was so fascinated by who “they” were today: Russia Today’s Arabic edition. It seems RT has an entire web page devoted to the shoe incident, with news stories from all over the Arab world.


This morning I was considering paying for Relenta (started by another Russian) as a serious producitivity improvement, but honestly the thought of losing out on the entertainment of GMail adverts saddens me.

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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”.

I am one of Courvoisier’s Future 500

Posted in Awards, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 30, 2008

I have been accepted as one of “The Future 500” for Courvoisier’s competition because of the work I am doing at UCL medical school and Patients Know Best. The full list of 500 is published in Today’s Observer newspaper and on Thursday I get to meet them in London.

Launched in 2007, Courvoisier The Future 500 is an exclusive private members network for rising stars across the UK. It is your own private rolodex linking you with talent that ranges from the arts to business.

Selected by a panel of inspirational judges, all members have achieved significant success in their field – be it as an artist, businessman, entrepreneur or activist.

Courvoisier has created a platform for Britain’s brightest talents to connect, share their vision, inspire one another and ultimately collaborate to achieve even greater success…

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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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HealthCamp UK 2008

Posted in Medicine, People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 18, 2008

Want to know what happens to this balloon at HealthCamp UK 2008?


Read all about it on the Patients Know Best blog page.

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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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The real Stark Reforms

Posted in Medicine, People / organisations, Politics, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 2, 2008

Although in a former life I took part in writing a book about it, I never liked the Stark Law “Reforms” of 2007. They initially seemed attractive because they mandated that electronic medical records software be interoperable to qualify for subsidies. But the subsidies from hospitals to physicians’ offices had the wrong incentives. It made for a land-grab that would institutionalize silos for many years to come.

According to the law, a hospital is allowed to cover some of the costs of buying and deploying and EMR at a physician’s office without this subsidy counting as a bribe. However, once one hospital sets up the software, no other hospital is allowed to set up their own software. If a second hospital wants to link their records to the physician’s office records, they have to go through the first hospital.

In 2008, most US hospitals are spending on a land-grab. If they do not align with offices now, their executives worry that they will not be able to do so later. So much for interoperability.

So it is with great pleasure that I read about the real reforms from Representative Stark, HR 6898, no less. Not only is it pushing for software that uses open standards, it even makes the case for open source software. This is a personal obsession of mine so I am happy to include some propaganda from the CEO of MedSphere, a company that provides the open source VistA software:

[CEO] Doyle used the implementation of OpenVista at the Midland Memorial Hospital in Midland, Texas, as an example of the potential savings. Over five years, Midland invested $18,000 per bed in getting OpenVista to work with its existing system and across its facilities. The average for 16 hospitals of comparable size to install a new system and reach the same level of implementation over five years is $71,500 per bed, Doyle said. The installation has to meet certain quality measurements, such as reduction in length of hospital stay, improvement in quality of care, reduction in the number of infections, before it can be declared to have reached stage six.

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