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, www.twitter.com, 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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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:

rtnews

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.

rtnews02

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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Now that you can believe in change, what are you going to do?

Posted in Politics, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on November 6, 2008

I witnessed a wonderful thing on Tuesday with the election of Obama. America’s brilliance is not presidency, but process. It is America’s ability to change. No other nation does this so well and for that it can justly be proud.

Jesse Jackson crying

Read this passage[1] below from the diary of Henry Seward as he journeyed with his wife through Virginia in 1835 and saw ten black children:

Ten naked little boys, between six and twelve years old, tied together, two and two, by their wrists, were all fastened to a long rope, and followed by a tall man, gaunt white man, who, with his long lash, whipped up the sad and weary little procession, drove it to the horse-trough to drink, and thence to a shed, where they lay down on the ground and sobbed and moaned themselves to sleep.

On November 5th 2008, Virginia was one of the states that voted for Obama as president. America was one of the worst countries in the world when it came to treating with dignity those of African descent. It still has a long way to go. We all do. But on Tuesday its citizens took leadership by giving leadership to an African American.

The USA has an extraordinary infrastructure for change. It is well worth listening to Gavin Newsom discuss how he changed San Francisco law to allow gay marriage. America was one of the least progressive in the West for the rights of homosexuals, but individual states are beginning the change. Hearing Robert Klein talk about how Californians voted to provide $3 billion worth of funding for stem cell research taught me about so many initiatives that were not discussed in the press. America had one of the worst policies for stem cell research, but California’s initiative alone meant the USA had world leadership in government funding.

But it is not just that California made progressive choices that I liked. After all, they elected Schwarzenegger, who I hate. Rather, listen to the speakers discuss the opposition they received – strong, vociferous, and passionate – and how they overcame it – with more passion from more people.

Obama captures that passion. “Change we can believe in”, he said, and “Yes we can”, he chanted. And along with millions of Americans he achieved what millions of non-Americans thought was impossible.

So. What are we non-Americans going to do? Will a European country give her highest office to a citizen of color? Perhaps the UK, as a Bahraini doctor and I were discussing on Tuesday, will elect and British Asian. And will Bahrain do something similar? Or more relevantly, will Arab voters be able to vote outside of their tribe or sect? Will we able to vote for the common good and the higher cause?

More immediately, what can we do today? In the UK, there is a crisis of politics as the rich are too scared to give any money to parties, the middle classes refuse to pay, and the working classes occasionally funnel money through the few remaining unions. The major parties are running on deficits and teetering on bankruptcy. And in Bahrain, most of the non-religious candidates have been overwhelmed and over-run. The results in the UK and Bahrain are not the moral majority at work but the apathetic majority failing to work.

Obama has shown that citizens paying $5 can make a $500 million difference. No matter how bad you think your local party or representative is, look at your options, pick the best, and pay them money so they can work better. Turn up to their meetings. Explain to them what you want and help them explain to others what needs to be done.  Yes. We. Can.


[1] I read this quote in the book Team of Rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book describes how, Lincoln, another unlikely lawyer from Illinois became president, running on an anti-slavery platform. It also describes how this brilliant man was so brilliant that he felt confident enough to hire all three of his election rivals (including Henry Seward) into his new cabinet and to use them to steer the nation through difficult times. I wonder who Obama hires.

Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science

Posted in Medicine, Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 7, 2008

A proud day for me: not only is my brother’s new paper published, but it is also the first time that we have published in the same journal. (My own paper was from 2005.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science by Al-Ubaydli et. al.

The current system of publication in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic. This system can be studied by applying principles from the field of economics. The “winner’s curse,” a more general statement of publication bias, suggests that the small proportion of results chosen for publication are unrepresentative of scientists’ repeated samplings of the real world. The self-correcting mechanism in science is retarded by the extreme imbalance between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). This system would be expected intrinsically to lead to the misallocation of resources. The scarcity of available outlets is artificial, based on the costs of printing in an electronic age and a belief that selectivity is equivalent to quality. Science is subject to great uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to anticipate a highly unpredictable future. In considering society’s expectations and our own goals as scientists, we believe that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

Update: and now he is on the cover of in the Economist and the back page of Al-Waqt newspaper!

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Could MI6 please stop following me?

Posted in Politics, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 4, 2008

I do believe that the adverts on GMail are a bug, not a feature. But a couple of weeks ago the following advert appeared for me:

MI6's first advert

MI6's first advert

I cannot figure out why this appeared, except that it was around a message written in Arabic. Now I get this advert:

MI6's second advert

MI6's second advert

Is anyone else getting these? And am I the only one that finds them creepy?

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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There is no money in change management

Posted in Management, People / organisations, Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on August 10, 2008

I really enjoyed the interviews with senior staff at The Advisory Board Company back in 2006. I think they decided to hire me after I said that “the early bird gets the worm, but only the second mouse gets the cheese”. Before that, I think they knew that I knew about IT and healthcare, but they worried that I was evangelical the use of IT in healthcare, and that I would not help hospital CXOs make the correct business decision.

 

Authoritas by Aaron Greenspan

Authoritas by Aaron Greenspan

I thought of this quote many times while reading Authoritas by Aaron Greenspan. I bought the book because I had heard that Mark Zuckerberg had stolen the Facebook from Aaron while they were both studying at Harvard. He did, and it is a juicy story, even though it only takes up the final fifth of the book. The price of the book was worth it just to understand how frivolous Mark is, and to read that he rejected Aaron’s full-featured site because it was “too useful”.

 

But if you are a change agent, please buy this book. It shows you why there is no money in change management.

Aaron does not seem to have any cunning or guile in him. He seems to be a really nice guy, just trying to do the right thing. I feel safe in saying this because he includes so many conversations that make him look really stupid. I have done many stupid things in my life, but like most people, I hide them from myself and from other people. Aaron just writes down, in detail, what he remembers happening.

This kind of writing is what I call the “dark matter” of research material. Most accounts of change management are by or about people who succeeded in bringing about change, and whom society has recognised and rewarded for these changes. But society fails to recognise most people who try to improve, and instead these unreasonable people are crushed and never get to write their story, much less have it read. We should be grateful that these people exist, irrational on their insistence for a better way, and irrational in their persistence against society’s irrational rejections.

The transcripts of Aaron’s arguments with Harvard’s faculty are priceless, and the discussions between Dean Jay Ellison are fascinating illustrations of The Social Life of Software‘s descriptions of how restrictive digital communication is. I should add that Aaron hates Jay, but I thought Jay was the most reasonable of the Harvard bunch, and that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, but that they spoke in different tongues. Aaron’s accounts reminded me so many times of transcripts of conversations in books by Deborah Tannen and John Gray. Except the conversations do not illustrate arbitrary differences between how women and men talk to each other, but how change agents talk and stupid people respond.

There, I said it. I think the people Aaron tried to help were stupid for what they did to him. But then again, it was stupid of Aaron to continue trying to help them. This book is not so much a description of Mark stealing from Aaron, as much as documenting how Aaron keeps on being the first mouse that has his neck snapped by the mousetrap while the other mice grab the cheese.

What is interesting to me is that Aaron admires Bill Gates, or Sir Bill, as the Queen calls him. Bill Gates was never a change agent, and is the richer for it. That is why Microsoft continued with DOS for so long, even though it was the first and largest company to develop software for the Macintosh. They fully understood the superiority of graphical user interface, but most people (“business buyers”) were too stupid to understand, so Microsoft continued to sell them what they wanted to buy. DOS. Microsoft and Bill Gates only try to make change after they have enough monopoly power and people have to obey them. And even then, even the mighty Microsoft can be stung, as the Vista debacle shows.

So what is the lesson? It would be a shame to deprive society from the benefits of change, so I hope that reading the book does not dissuade anyone from trying to make change happen. But you really should read the book to understand what can happen to you, and to at least figure out when to quit and protect yourself. Aaron, I salute your courage, and hope only that you can continue your efforts long after the world has moved on from Facebook.

A few Roman terms

Posted in History, People / organisations, Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 11, 2007

A charming aspect of the book “Imperium” is how the author teach Roman customs and words in the middle of an exciting narrative. A few of my favourites:

  • nomenclator, a person who walked closely behind a politician, telling him the name of the people they were meeting, so that the politician could greet them correctly.
  • pedarii, back bencher senators who we not allowed to speak, but instead spoke with their feet.
  • a whole team of players was involved in bribing voters to vote for particular politicians without getting caught
    • the interpretes were few and knew the identity of the buyer.
    • a sequester would hold the cash of the bribe and make it available for inspection.
    • a divisor would distribute the money after the election.

One more thing: the book is written with Tiro as the narrator. Tiro was Cicero’s most trusted slave, valuable because he invented shorthand. He also invented the ampersand. Because of his shorthand he was able to record all of Cicero’s speeches and these are available to us today. The real author of the book, Robert Harris, made heave use of the Harvard University Press Loeb Classical Library edition and an online version is also available.

“Imperium” and rule of law

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations, Politics, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 11, 2007

I have just finished reading “Imperium: A novel of ancient Rome“, and what a magnificent yarn it is too. It is the beautifully told story of Cicero and his life as a politician in Rome.

One aspect I had not expected to find is the Roman empire as an early Western democracy – not the just the colonialism and thievery parts, but also the voting and rule of law ones. The last one I found intriguing. All around Cicero are violent men stealing from others and using the proceeds to bribe their way around the courts of Rome. But there are laws against their wrongdoings – they are criminals – and Cicero uses his skills as a lawyer and politician to bring them to justice.

I can see why Hamilton read Cicero’s speeches.

But America’s founding fathers also learnt from the true founding fathers of rule of law: Iraqis, or at least, their ancestors the Babylonians. Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, wrote a set of laws and posted them in a public place. The code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence.

As the picture shows, Hammurabi is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. An image of Hammurabi receiving the Code of Hammurabi from the Babylonian sun god is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

It has been a long journey for rule of law to be established. As late as 1644, England’s Samuel Rutherford was convicted of writing “Lex, Rex“. “Law is king” was judged unacceptable in the day when king was law (rex lex). Today, too much of the world, including non-Iraqi Arab countries, maintains rex lex methods. In other parts of the world, like Putin’s Russia, the trick is to have to enough laws for everyone to be guilty of something all of the time, and then for the king (or “president”) to decide who to prosecute.

And yet, the world slowly gets better at this. To learn how one masterly statesman used the law to bring justice and good government in the face of the unjust and the evil, read “Imperium”.

Bridget’s Pill

Posted in Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on May 14, 2006

So the Catholic Church is finally considering permitting contraception, but only within a married couple where one of the partners is HIV positive. In a couple of centuries the Church will hopefully get round to apologising for having contributed to the deaths of millions of people from HIV around the world with its ban on contraception, but in the meantime, I chanced upon another charming ditty from Christy Moore. It is called “Bridget’s Pill” but I cannot figure out the words to the chorus. The remaining words, however, are below:

Now Bridget O’Reilly was a fine strapping girl,
Her skin was like ivory her teeth were like pearls
All the boys chased her in vain ’till one day,
She went and got married to Barry O’Shay.

[chorus]

And after nine months, to their pride and joy,
Along came a baby, a fine strapping boy,
After three years they’d two boys and a girl,
And to clothe them and feed them made Bridgette’s heard whirl.

[chorus]

So she went to the priest, in great desperation,
Becuase of this process of constant gestation,
Say father this business is making me ill,
Would it be a sin if I went on the pill?

[chorus]

Well the priest heard her story, and when he had heard it,
To higher authority perlplexed he reverted,
All the bishops they we baffled, the cardinals too,
No one could tell Bridgette of what she should do.

[chorus]

Two years they debated the holy profundity,
Of what should be done about Bridgette’s fecundity,
But by now her family amounted to five,
She scarcely was able to keep them alive.

[chorus]

Well they gave due attention to points theological,
To points philosophic and physiological,
Till in desperation the Pope said O sod,
There’s only one thing to do I’ll have to ask God.

[chorus]

So he sends him a letter in the three penny post,
And painful not paid addressed ‘Holy Ghost’,
Sayin’ send me your answer in double quick time,
You can get me at home just ring Vat’ 69.

[chorus]

Oh well the answer it came and the Pope he announced it,
Oral contraception he strongly denounced it,
Unethical means to prevent procreation,
Were banned under pains of eternal damnation.

[chorus]

And now the church is in ferment and great trepidation,
As such thoughts they might spread to the whole congregation,
They recorded an LP to prevent the schism,
‘tween the Pope and the hierarchy called I got rythm.

[chorus]