Recalling Nazira Zayn al-Din’s Unveiling and Veiling

Also in the Asia Times, a look at censorship, blasphemy, and another moment in the history of Islam.

Seventy years ago, in April 1928, a 20-year-old girl named Nazira Zayn al-Din wrote a book called Unveiling and Veiling, saying she had read, understood and interpreted the Holy Koran. Therefore, she said, she had the authority and analytical skills to challenge the teachings of Islam’s clerics, men who were far older and wiser than she. Her interpretation of Islam, she boldly said, was that the veil was un-Islamic. If a woman was forced to wear the veil by her father, husband or brother, Zayn al-Din argued, then she should take him to court. Other ideas presented by her were that men and woman should mix socially because this develops moral progress, and that both sexes should be educated in the same classrooms. Men and women, she said, should equally be able to hold public office and vote in government elections.

They must be free to study the Koran themselves, and it should not be dictated on them by an oppressive older generation of clerics, she said. Finally, Zayn al-Din compared the “veiled” Muslim world to the “unveiled” one, saying the unveiled one was better because reason reigned, rather than religion.

Her book caused a thunderstorm in Syria and Lebanon. It was the most outrageous assault on traditional Islam, coming from Zayn al-Din, who was a Druze. The book went into a second edition within two months, and was translated into several languages. Great men from Islam, including the muftis of Beirut and Damascus, wrote against her, arguing that she did not have the authority to speak on Islam and dismiss the veil as un-Islamic. Nobody, however, accused her of treason or blasphemy. They accused her of bad vision resulting from bad Islamic education.

Some clerics banned her book. Some, however, such as the Syrian scholar Mohammad Kurd Ali, actually embraced it, buying 20 copies for the Arab Language Assembly and writing a favorable review.

But despite the uproar, which lasted for two years, the Syrians and the Muslim establishments did not let the issue get out of hand. They did not lead street demonstrations for weeks, as if the Muslim world had no other concern than Nazira Zayn al-Din. Zayn al-Din was still free to roam the streets of Syria and Lebanon, without being harassed or killed by those who hated her views.

Losing Afghanistan

This past week’s international versions of Newsweek all had covers that said “Losing Afghanistan”, whereas the US edition had a cover of Annie Liebowitz. In the Asia Times, a critical and pessimistic look at the war against the Taliban.

[T]here is a fundamental issue of the legitimacy of state power that remains unresolved in Afghanistan. At a minimum, in these past five years there should have been an intra-Afghan dialogue that included the Taliban. This initiative could have been under UN auspices on a parallel track

The inability to earn respect and command authority plus the heavy visible dependence on day-to-day US support have rendered the Kabul setup ineffective. Alongside this, the Afghan malaise of nepotism, tribal affiliations and corruption has also led to bad governance. It is in this combination of circumstances that the Taliban have succeeded in staging a comeback.

What lies ahead is, therefore, becoming extremely difficult to predict. Even with 2,500 additional troops it is highly doubtful whether NATO can succeed in defeating the Taliban. For one thing, the Taliban enjoy grassroots support within Afghanistan. There is no denying this ground reality.

Second, the Taliban are becoming synonymous with Afghan resistance. The mindless violations of the Afghan code of honor by the coalition forces during their search-and-destroy missions and the excessive use of force during military operations leading to loss of innocent lives have provoked widespread revulsion among Afghan people.

Karzai’s inability to do anything about the coalition forces’ arbitrary behavior is only adding to his image of a weak leader and is deepening his overall loss of authority in the perceptions of the Afghan people, apart from strengthening the raison d’etre of the Afghan resistance.

Third, it is a matter of time, if the threshold of the Taliban resurgence goes unchecked, before the non-Pashtun groups in the eastern, northern and western regions also begin to organize themselves. There are disturbing signs pointing in this direction already. If that were to happen, NATO forces might well find themselves in the unenviable situation of getting caught in the crossfire between various warring ethnic groups.

Has Physics Turned Keatsian with String Theory?

In the New Yorker, Jim Holt looks at two new books assailing string theory, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory and Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.

In their books against string theory, Smolin and Woit view the anthropic approach as a betrayal of science. Both agree with Karl Popper’s dictum that if a theory is to be scientific it must be open to falsification. But string theory, Woit points out, is like Alice’s Restaurant, where, as Arlo Guthrie’s song had it, “you can get anything you want.” It comes in so many versions that it predicts anything and everything. In that sense, string theory is, in the words of Woit’s title, “not even wrong.” Supporters of the anthropic principle, for their part, rail against the “Popperazzi” and insist that it would be silly for physicists to reject string theory because of what some philosopher said that science should be. Steven Weinberg, who has a good claim to be the father of the standard model of particle physics, has argued that anthropic reasoning may open a new epoch. “Most advances in the history of science have been marked by discoveries about nature,” he recently observed, “but at certain turning points we have made discoveries about science itself.”

Is physics, then, going postmodern? (A Harvard, as Smolin notes, the string-theor seminar was for a time actually called “Postmodern Physics.”) The modern era o particle physics was empirical; theor developed in concert with experiment. Th standard model may be ugly, but it works, s presumably it is at least an approximation of th truth. In the postmodern era, we are told aesthetics must take over where experimen leaves off. Since string theory does not deign t be tested directly, its beauty must be th warrant of its truth.

Feynman’s Lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics

Via DeLong, here are videos of the lectures by Richard Feynman that became QED.

Feynman gives us not just a lesson in basic physics but also a deep insight into the scientific mind of a 20th century genius analyzing the approach of the 17th century genius Newton.

For the young scientist, brought up in this age of hi-tech PC / Power Point-based presentations, we also get an object lesson in how to give a lecture with nothing other than a piece of chalk and a blackboard. Furthermore we are shown how to respond with wit and panache to the technical mishaps that are part-and-parcel of the lecturer’s life.

New Woodward Book Says Bush Ignored Urgent Warning on Iraq

From The New York Times:Bush_8

The White House ignored an urgent warning in September 2003 from a top Iraq adviser who said that thousands of additional American troops were desperately needed to quell the insurgency there, according to a new book by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter and author. The book describes a White House riven by dysfunction and division over the war.

The warning is described in “State of Denial,” scheduled for publication on Monday by Simon & Schuster. The book says President Bush’s top advisers were often at odds among themselves, and sometimes were barely on speaking terms, but shared a tendency to dismiss as too pessimistic assessments from American commanders and others about the situation in Iraq.

As late as November 2003, Mr. Bush is quoted as saying of the situation in Iraq: “I don’t want anyone in the cabinet to say it is an insurgency. I don’t think we are there yet.”

More here.

Genomic Evolution: Building the Body from Genes

From Science:

Genes Our organs tell stories. A pathologist, for example, can look at a lung and recognize a lifetime of toiling in a mine. Our genes tell stories, too. By comparing the genomic sequences of an ever-increasing number of organisms, we are now uncovering how our bodies came to be the way they are. Evolution, it seems, is a tale of détente: The need to adapt to changing environments is in a tug of war with the demand for precisely functioning biological machinery. The stories presented in the special section emphasize different facets of this complex saga. They are not just historical lessons; they have implications for understanding disease mechanisms as well as basic physiology.

When it comes to the story of the human brain, we are still stuck on the preface, Pennisi explains in a News story. Researchers are turning to comparative genomics to identify the main genetic characters that helped differentiate our brain from those of our primate cousins. They are finding evidence of positive selection for genes that are key to the size and complexity of the cortex, as well as provocative changes in gene copy number and expression.

More here.

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Zone Reading Jonathan Franzen always reminds me of the day in sixth-grade math when Miss Worrell explained binary systems to us: twofold worlds alternating between on and off. Franzen’s new book, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, a collection of essays about his life, offers the same kind of whipsaw reading experience. It’s hilarious and it’s painful. It’s sharply insightful and it’s also frustratingly obtuse. No human being should have to experience the self-loathing that Franzen appears to feel for his youthful self. But then again neither should anyone be so exhaustingly and blindly self-involved. And yet Franzen is, and somehow manages to convey that to us in equal measures of humor and painful acuity. The six essays (at least half of which were previously published in The New Yorker magazine) begin with Franzen as an adult arriving in suburban St. Louis to sell his mother’s house.

For readers of The Corrections this is familiar territory. The house, in which “each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photographs had accumulated” and in the kitchen of which a brisket has lain in the deep freeze for nine years, is immediately recognizable — as is the psychic pain that surrounds it. (“Need I add that it didn’t last?” Franzen writes of the brief happiness he experienced there as a child.) The essays then jump back to Franzen’s childhood and adolescence, on through some high school pranks, and then to college lit classes (Franzen’s parents fret as he renounces calculus for a German major but he mostly obsesses about women) and finish with the collapse of his marriage even as he embraces bird-watching.

More here.

Immune response vital in cancer fight

From Nature:

Cancer_3 How can you tell how bad a cancer is, and how likely the patient is to survive? New evidence suggests that the best way may sometimes be to look at how well the immune system has attacked tumours, rather than focussing on how far the tumours have spread. It has long been known that the immune system can home in on cancerous cells and that immune cells can take up residence within tumours. But it hasn’t been clear whether such cells have much of an impact on the progress of the disease.

A study by Jérôme Galon, Franck Pagés, and a team of researchers at INSERM in Paris, France, has brought the significance of these immune-system invaders to light. “We found that there is an importance of natural anti-tumour immunity against human cancer,” says Galon. Whether a cancer recurs or not after treatment, he adds, may have more to do with the immune system than with the tumour itself. Even patients with small tumours that have not spread, says Galon, will have a bad prognosis if they have a weak immune response to the cancer.

More here.

Our Revolution Was Not A Movie


About the two giant billboards in Times Square, from the Hungarian Cultural Center (

This October 23rd commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The Hungarian Cultural Center in New York celebrates this event with a billboard campaign in the heart of Times Square. Displayed from September to November 2006, two billboards with photographs by professional photographer Erich Lessing and amateur Hungarian photographer Jenő Kiss, display the phrase “Our Revolution Was Not A Movie”. They deliver a message that the revolution in Hungary had global significance and that the country is still proud of this historic event. The billboard presents history-as-advertisement, presenting provocative images in a commercial format that both tries to sell history as sexy and relevant while critiquing its own agenda. But perhaps most importantly, these poignant photos and the message they portray the notions of courage and democratic freedom.

What is the relevancy of revolutionary ideas in 2006? Can mass movements lead to positive social change anymore? This past June President Bush traveled to Hungary to speak about ’56; his visit touched on what the role of the West can or should be in popular uprisings in other nations and the different ways the concept of ‘freedom’ is viewed. Although the ’56 Revolution took place in Hungary, the repercussions transcended time and place. It is often viewed in the context of the Cold War, which in some aspects confines the realities of the Revolution. However, the intention of the billboard and the surrounding programming is to bring this historical event—its ideas and feelings, and the philosophical investigation of revolution—to the doorstep of the American public.

Much more information here.  [Thanks to Stefany Ann Golberg.]

The State of Violence Against Abortion Providers

It may no longer be in the headlines and the trend may be moving downward, but attacks against abortion providers and clinics continue. A new study suggests that laws don’t seem to affect the incidence of violence.(Via EurekaAlert.)

During a wave of anti-abortion violence in the early 1990s, several states enacted legislation protecting abortion clinics, staff and patients. Some experts predicted that these laws would provide a deterrent effect, resulting in fewer anti-abortion crimes. Others predicted a backlash from radical members of the anti-abortion movement, leading to more crimes in states with protective legislation.

“We tested these competing hypotheses and found no support for either one,” Pridemore [associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University Bloomington and co-author of a new study] said. “In other words, states with laws protecting abortion clinics and reproductive rights are no more or less likely than other states to have higher or lower levels of victimization against abortion clinics, staff or patients.”

He pointed out that there are still valid reasons to have such laws. “For example, state laws protecting abortion clinics and reproductive rights provide constitutional support for a woman’s right to choose and retributive justice for those who employ violence or intimidation to discourage the exercise of this right,” he said.

A New Genetic Database


A vast database showing how human genes react to drugs and diseases could be used in a scheme to find new therapies. A pilot project has now proved that such a project could work and has already revealed potential drugs to fight cancer and other diseases.

To build the pilot database, Todd Golub of the Broad Institute mdash a collaboration involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts — and his colleagues threw 164 different drugs or other chemical compounds onto human cancer cells, particularly breast cancers. They used DNA microarrays — small chips that expose in one swoop the activity of every known human gene in a particular tissue — to record which genes were boosted or repressed by each drug.

The team entered the results of these microarrays into a database. They could then search it for patterns in gene expression caused by other diseases or drugs (or the opposites of these patterns), in a similar way to forensic fingerprint matching.

Enemy of the State, Actually of All of Them

In the Moscow Times,a review of Mark Leier’s new biography of Bakunin:

In his new biography of Bakunin, Mark Leier concentrates less on the anarchist’s mesmerizing personality “or his appetites for tobacco, food, and alcohol, inevitably described as voluminous” and more on his ideas and the context in which they developed. This approach, featuring an in-depth analysis of Bakunin’s writings in chronological order, as well as a detailed examination of Bakunin’s relationship with Karl Marx, is less entertaining than Carr’s biography. But Leier hopes it is more enlightening, for he is critical of most earlier presentations of Bakunin, including that by the playwright Tom Stoppard in his recent trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” due to be performed in Moscow next year. Leier directs the Centre for Labour Studies at Canada’s Simon Fraser University and has written books on labor history. He views Bakunin favorably as one who was sympathetic to working men and women and critical of capitalism, which Leier also often criticizes with such terminology as “the particularly brutal capitalism we face today.” He believes that Bakunin’s writings still offer valuable insights and advice for modern-day rebels against capitalism, and his biography is filled with references to contemporary subjects, mainly American ones. For example, after referring to Tsar Nicholas I as “the leader of reaction and destroyer of nationalities,” he adds, “roughly analogous, some argue, to George W. Bush at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Declassified Sections of the NIE’s Report on Terrorism

The NIE has one odd conclusion, that anti-globalization and anti-US leftists, inspire by jihadists, may turn to terrorism, as Lindsay notes. Declassified sections of the National Intelligence Estimate report, “”Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States””.

• The jihadists’ greatest vulnerability is that their ultimate political solution—an ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a-based governance spanning the Muslim world—is unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims. Exposing the religious and political straitjacket that is implied by the jihadists’ propaganda would help to divide them from the audiences they seek to persuade.

• Recent condemnations of violence and extremist religious interpretations by a few notable Muslim clerics signal a trend that could facilitate the growth of a constructive alternative to jihadist ideology: peaceful political activism. This also could lead to the consistent and dynamic participation of broader Muslim communities in rejecting violence, reducing the ability of radicals to capitalize on passive community support. In this way, the Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror.

• Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.

Islamism, Secularism, and Beer in Palestine

With Hamas in power, everyone seems to be taken with the story of a brewery in Palestine. In Der Spiegel:

Taybeh the beer is crisp, clean and very drinkable. It comes in light and dark versions, with a label that proudly reads “The Finest in the Middle East.” Its makers seem to have tapped an unlikely region for venturing into the beer business.

“Everybody thought I was nuts to build a brewery in a Muslim region,” said Nadim Khoury, the company’s master brewer, regarding the glaringly obvious problem that the Quran forbids the consumption of alcohol.

Yet Palestinian Christians, who make up just under 2 percent of the total population of the Occupied Territories, aren’t the only ones drinking Taybeh beer. “We produce 600,000 liters a year,” said Khoury. “Of that, 30 percent sells to Israel and the remaining 70 percent within Palestine.” Sales of Taybeh, he added, account for only 15 to 20 percent of total beer sales in the West Bank.

“I don’t want to say exactly that the Muslims enjoy the beer more than the Christians — but they do,” said Sayib Nasser, a member of the Fatah Party and deputy governor of the local council in nearby Ramallah.

Is Terrorism Morally Distinct?

In the Journal of Politcal Philosophy, Samuel Scheffler argues that terrorism is morally distinct from other kinds of violence directed against civillians and noncombatants.

[I]t does seem that terrorism is morally distinctive, at least insofar as it conforms to the pattern of what I have been calling “the standard cases.” In these cases, at least, it differs from other kinds of violence directed against civilians and noncombatants. By this I do not mean that it is worse, but rather that it has a different moral anatomy. By analogy: humiliation is morally distinctive, and so too are torture, slavery, political oppression and genocide. One can investigate the moral anatomy of any of these evils without taking a position on where it stands in an overall ranking of evils. Many people are pluralists about the good. We can be pluralists about the bad as well.

In the “standard cases,” some people are killed or injured (the primary victims), in order to create fear in a larger number of people (the secondary victims), with the aim of destabilizing or degrading the existing social order for everyone. The initial act of violence sets off a kind of moral cascade: death or injury to some, anxiety and fear for many more, the degradation or destabilization of the social order for all. Nor is this simply a cascade of harms. It is, instead, a chain of intentional abuse, for those who employ terrorist tactics do not merely produce these harms, they intentionally aim to produce them. The primary victims are used—their deaths and injuries are used—to terrify others, and those others are used—their fear and terror are used—to degrade and destabilize the social order.

Women and Electronic gaming

In Ms.:

[A]t an NSF-sponsored conference called “Girls ’N’ Games,” feminist academics, game designers and die-hard “grrl gamers” convened to discuss why women and girls cannot afford to ignore electronic games. Electronic gaming, they say—which includes computer games as well as video or “console” games—has become a huge cultural force. Studies show that 50 percent of Americans and 80 percent of American children play video games, and the heaviest gamers—8- to 10-year-olds—average over an hour a day in front of a console.

The rise in gaming has provoked debates over whether games are good or bad for us, but these tend to focus on whether the violence found in many games leads to real-life aggression. Less discussed is race and gender stereotyping: People of color are largely absent from video games, and when they do appear it’s as criminals or “bad guys.” Women are rarely protagonists, and instead serve as “prizes.” Almost without exception, women in electronic games are thin and large-breasted.

Despite the current state of girls ’n’ games, Harvey Mudd computer-science professor Elizabeth “Z” Sweedyk, a conference participant, envisions gaming as a medium for broad social critique in which women can participate. Students in her classes create alternative games that slyly call attention to racist and sexist tropes, as in one adventure game that follows an 11-year-old girl as she repeatedly saves her bumbling brother from doom—only to watch him get all of the credit.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Girlfriends

From The Village Voice:

Girl I once dated a 31-year-old who was also (simultaneously) dating a 19-year-old I used to babysit when she played with my little sister. I once dated a guy who decided he didn’t like me after I had traveled four hours by bus to see him and expressed this by ignoring me for the weekend that I was visiting. I dated another guy who tried to convince me to have an open relationship—because, as he put it, “dating other people is fun!” I dated a guy who loved to take me to the best restaurants in Manhattan but tended to forget his wallet; later I learned of his running mental log of money he had spent on me. And how could I overlook the guy who confided in me that he had been diagnosed as a nonviolent antisocial sociopath. He’s the same guy who became enraged when he learned I investigated nonviolent antisocial sociopathic behavior, only to discover it didn’t exist.

I am Rosie the Riveter of comatose love.

More here.

Was Mona Lisa pregnant when she posed?


Mona Maybe they should call it the “Mama Lisa.” Researchers studying 3-D images of the “Mona Lisa” say she was probably either pregnant or had just given birth when she sat for Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century masterpiece. The clue was something she wore.Scans turned up evidence of a fine, gauzy veil around Mona Lisa’s shoulders — a garment women of the Italian Renaissance wore when they were expecting, a leading French museum researcher, Michel Menu, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

Tradition holds that the “Mona Lisa” is a painting of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, and that Leonardo started painting it in 1503. In France, the painting, on display at the Louvre Museum, is referred to as La Joconde — the French version of her married name. The name Mona Lisa is the equivalent of “Madam Lisa.” The veil “would confirm art historians’ hypothesis that Giocondo asked for a painting of his wife to celebrate the birth of his second son,” said Menu, chief of the research department at the French Museums’ Center for Research and Restoration, which has its offices in the Louvre.

More here.

Peak Oil

From the Energy Bulletin:

What is Peak Oil?

Peak Oil is the simplest label for the problem of energy resource depletion, or more specifically, the peak in global oil production. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one that has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half. The rate of oil ‘production,’ meaning extraction and refining (currently about 84 million barrels/day), has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves, production becomes ever more likely to decline, hence ‘peak’. Peak Oil means not ‘running out of oil’, but ‘running out of cheap oil’. For societies leveraged on ever increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences may be dire. Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.

Why does oil peak? Why doesn’t it suddenly run out?

Oil companies have, naturally enough, extracted the easier-to-reach, cheap oil first. The oil pumped first was on land, near the surface, under pressure, light and ‘sweet’ (meaning low sulfur content) and therefore easy to refine into gasoline. The remaining oil, sometimes off shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, or of lesser quality, takes ever more money and energy to extract and refine. Under these conditions, the rate of extraction inevitably drops. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically, no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless.

More here.

6 Debates at the Frontier of Science

In Scientific American:

Is String Theory Unraveling? ….Some string theorists, taking their cue from Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, argue that these manifold universes of string theory may coexist, evolving from one to another in a way that happens to leave universes like ours as a likely outcome…Skeptics see the landscape as an abandonment of centuries-old scientific practice, in which a successful theory is one that ultimately describes only one universe–the one we see around us

Is Global Warming Raising a Tempest?…[Kerry] Emanuel developed a measure, or metric, of the power released by a storm over its lifetime. As he played with the data he discovered a surprisingly tight match between the surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and the intensity of storms that had brewed atop it…What is more, according to his measure, storms in the Atlantic and western North Pacific were 40 to 50 percent more powerful in the last 20 years compared to the previous 20.

How Does A Planet Grow?…One puzzling detail is why Jupiter seems to have a relatively light core of no more than 10 Earth-masses, given that the core accretion model suggests a likely value of 20 to 30 Earth-masses. A decade ago, stimulated by this discrepancy and the discoveries of the first extrasolar planets, astronomer Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution resurrected an alternative idea.

Should Epidemiologists Swear Off Diet Trials?…The past couple of years have witnessed a string of disappointing results from long-term studies looking for the benefits of certain diets against chronic disease. First, fruits and vegetables showed no sign of protecting against cancer in general. Then high-fiber eaters found themselves as cancer-prone as the rest. To cap it off, a low-fat diet did nothing to ward off heart disease and colorectal cancer.

Does Sprouting New Brain Cells Cure Depression?…In recent years, researchers have discovered tantalizing evidence that antidepressants combat depression by promoting neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons in the brain. The evidence derives from several striking observations…[M]ost depression treatments, from drugs such as Prozac to a type of powerful magnetic stimulation, increase new neuron growth by up to 75 percent in rodents.

Was the Hobbit Just a Sick Modern Human?…Other researchers are not convinced, countering that the Hobbit was more likely a Homo sapiens with a broad pathological condition called microcephaly, in which the brain is abnormally small. Inbreeding could have made such individuals common…