A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘science’ Category

a pox on you: Ottomans and the cure for smallpox

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 2, 2009

Last week I was asked to take a look at the John Carter Brown Library‘s exhibit “Islamic Encounters”, which is available for viewing both in-person and online. Its a very sweet exhibit, and an impressive effort by the library to encourage its collection, which focuses on books and manuscripts written by Europeans traveling abroad, to speak more broadly and to new audiences.

While looking at the artifacts selected for the “Exchange of Knowledge” section, I learned something that utterly blew me away:

Amid a smallpox epidemic in the city of Boston, Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston fought deep public resistance in order to implement smallpox inoculation as a public health measure. Mather cited the customary use of inoculation in Constantinople, and was deeply impatient with those who objected to adopting any practice used by the Turks. Mather knew the Koran well and cited it often in his theological writing.

I suspect that Mather’s Quranic citations were used for rather partisan purposes – but I had no idea that the idea of smallpox inoculation came to us from the Ottomans. Where was this story when I was taught that it came from Jenner’s study of milkmaids whose exposure to cowpox made them resistant to smallpox?

Naturally, I turned to Google for more information. I found further confirmation in an article on Edward Jenner published in Baylor University’s medical journal, which states:

Inoculation, hereafter referred to as variolation, was likely practiced in Africa, India, and China long before the 18th century, when it was introduced to Europe. In 1670, Circassian traders introduced variolation to the Turkish “Ottoman” Empire. Women from the Caucasus, who were in great demand in the Turkish sultan’s harem in Istanbul because of their legendary beauty, were inoculated as children in parts of their bodies where scars would not be seen. These women must also have brought the practice of variolation to the court of the Sublime Porte.

Well, I think the characterization of the Ottoman Empire as a Turkish “Ottoman” Empire is questionable, but the Circassian women and their “moon-faced” beauty is certainly a part of the Empire’s history. Who knew that they brought health along with good looks!

The article continues:

Variolation came to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century with the arrival of travelers from Istanbul. It was the continued advocacy of the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague that was responsible for the introduction of variolation in England. In 1715, Lady Montague suffered from an episode of smallpox, which severely disfigured her beautiful face. Her 20-year-old brother died of the illness 18 months later.

In 1717, Lady Montague’s husband, Edward Wortley Montague, was appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte. A few weeks after their arrival in Istanbul, Lady Montague wrote to her friend about the method of variolation used at the Ottoman court. Lady Montague was so determined to prevent the ravages of smallpox that she ordered the embassy surgeon, Charles Maitland, to inoculate her 5-year-old son. The inoculation procedure was performed in March 1718. Upon their return to London in April 1721, Lady Montague had Charles Maitland inoculate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of physicians of the royal court.

Mather and a few other Boston-based physicians had heard of inoculation through European contacts, and brought the practice to the American colonies; Jenner’s work on vaccination began in the later 1700s, and drew heavily upon earlier practices of inoculation/variolation.

What a delightful bit of historical knowledge: I love that it shows “my” Ottomans in a favorable light, and I love that it was the courage and ingenuity of a woman that brought the practice West.

Its a lovely start to my week – happy Monday to you all 🙂


Posted in childhood, health, research, science, time, women | 3 Comments »

the slow pace of innovation in Jezzine

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 3, 2008

I love the English-language news services in Lebanon. Between Naharnet, Now Lebanon, and the Daily Star, there is always at least one article or news update that leaves us torn between scratching our heads and laughing out loud.

Yesterday, the Daily Star was the big winner, with a ridiculous piece on how Jezzine’s cafe and restaurant owners have discovered a “new way” to prepare argilehs: through a hollowed-out fruit.

Here’s the article:

“Narguileh takes on new flavors in Jezzine”

Owners of cafes and restaurants in the Southern region of Jezzine have found a new way to serve narguileh – the traditional Lebanese water pipe – as part of this summer’s tourist strategy to attract additional visitors.

“Making narguilehs is no longer limited to their different flavors and sizes,” Youssef, a waiter at Jezzine’s Sakhret alShalal restaurant, told The Daily Star on Monday.”We now use fruits instead of the heart of the narguileh that is usually filled with water.”

According to Youssef, fruits like watermelon, muskmelon, coconuts and even lemons are being used to smoke flavored tobacco. The fruit, Youssef explained, is pierced from the top and the traditional narguileh pipe and hose are then inserted.

“We [also] fill the emptied fruit with any juice flavor upon [the] customer’s request,” he added. “These are fresh and natural water pipes.”

Youssef said that these improvised fruit narguilehs were attracting scores of smokers, whom he said “prefer them to the ordinary ones.”

“The Lebanese people are known for their innovation skills,” he said. “They always create something new to draw tourists and promote the tourist season in their country.”

Oh, those innovating Lebanese. I’m sure that I’ve never heard of argilehs run through fruits before – not in Syria, not in Egypt, and not in the Gulf. Thank goodness those restaurateurs in Jezzine put their thinking caps on.

I can’t wait to see what they might think of next – the Internet, perhaps?

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, food, internet, Lebanon, media, nightlife, science, travel, vanity, words | 6 Comments »

adventures in machine translation

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 21, 2008

As I noted yesterday, I’ve been taking advantage of the mid-August slow-down to address long-neglected housecleaning tasks at my new organization, like the computer defragmenting I mentioned yesterday and backing up our shared files. Neither of which have been done before. Ever.

My colleagues have a fine collection of advanced degrees from well-regarded universities around the US and Europe – which is just another way of saying that we confirm the cliche that some of the brightest people have the least common sense.

Anyway. In between bouts of hausfrau’ing, I have been busily investigating the latest advances in machine translation. When I mentioned this online to our friend B, he responded in kind:

01010111011010000110000101, B wrote.

111001100111? he asked me.

I have absolutely no idea what he was saying – although I’m hoping it was something along the lines of:

Hi Diamond. I’ll be back in New York this weekend – let’s all try to meet up for another spicier-than-anything-nature-intended Punjabi dinner on Curry Row.

In any case, this wasn’t what I meant. Machine translation doesn’t refer to the way in which computers translate ones and zeros into human language – it refers to the way in which computers manually translate one human language to another. You’ve probably had some experience with this, whether through Google’s automatic page translation service or that first-generation standby, Babelfish.

Machine translation is usually a poor substitute for human translation – even when moving between relatively close languages like French and Spanish, or English and German. And when it comes to translating between Arabic and English, most manual translators give the would-be reader only a glancing sense of what the original text might say. Individual words translate well, but coherent phrases are relatively rare. (Try translating Al Jazeera’s homepage via Google and you will see what I mean.)

But, as can often be the case with mis-translations, some of the translations that the system I was testing out offered (English to Arabic and vice versa) made me think – like “plastic surgery”.

(This wasn’t a Freudian choice of phrase, honestly. We had been talking about plastic surgery the other day, and I was testing out technical terms – compound nouns or noun-adjective phrases that as a whole meant something different than the sum of their parts.)

The phrase in Arabic that I use for “plastic surgery” is:

عملية التجميل

I’ve never really thought about its literal meaning – so when the machine translator came up with

الجراحة البلاستيكية

my initial reaction was to laugh. After all, a jur7 is a wound, and “plastique”, as in English, refers to explosives. So I thought that the site had erred, coming up with “explosive wounding” – which sounded like a pretty fine critique of plastic surgery to me. (And when I pulled out my dictionary, I learned that “jira7a” means surgery. Also an appropriate term, since surgery does involve making deliberate wounds in the human body.)

But when I thought further, I realized that the “normal” term for plastic surgery is a bit odd, too. 3amiliya al-tajmeel literally means “beautifying operation” – a phrase that lays bare the primary function of today’s plastic surgery procedures.

I’m still not sold on machine translation, but in this particular case, it gave me far more to think about than I had anticipated.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, fashion, friends, health, Lebanon, media, research, science, vanity, words | 3 Comments »

the road to Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 19, 2008

Last week, Moose commented on my post about watching Tripoli with:

What amazes the Moose is that life goes on as usual in Beirut as if Tripoli was on the other side of the world.

Tantalus pointed out that Lebanon has a long history of compartmentalizing, noting that from Gemmayzeh to Batroun, the 2006 war did little to dampen the spirits of nightlife-lovers.

Tantalus is right, although he puts a stronger spin on the partying by calling it “denial”. But there’s also something to what Moose said – something I’ve been mulling over for a few months now.

If I said that Beirut is the driver for Lebanon, I imagine that many people would agree with me. Beirut is not only the governmental capital, but also the center of commerce, education, and finance – not to mention the ‘headquarters’ for several religious sects.

Beirut’s centrality has made it the engaging city (and major draw) that it is, but it has also had serious drawbacks for the rest of the country. Before the Civil War, government figures’ and corporate heads’ tendency to focus exclusively on the capital meant that the rest of the country received very little in the way of commercial, educational or even infrastructural build-up.

And disparities between Beirut and the rest of the country are visible today – in the number of hours per day of electricity cuts; in the quality of the roads (not that Beirut doesn’t have numerous potholes, but they don’t dominate the roads as in some parts of the country, north and south); and in the relentless concentration of finance, commerce and other corporate headquarters there and nowhere else.

For the past forty-odd years, scholars have followed Albert Hourani in diagnosing Lebanon as an almost city-state: a state run much on the model of the city-states of ancient Greece or medieval Italy. This sounds good on the surface – after all, Athens and Venice were each major success stories in their day.

But in both cases, territories and people outside Athens and Venice were expected to contribute to the well-being of the city. Resources and revenues were not allocated equitably, because in the city-state model, only the city really matters.

Hence when there were bombs in Beirut in May and June 2007, it was a national catastrophe. When there was shooting on the streets this May, it was seen as a mini-civil war, and a portent of the possibility of much larger disaster.

But when there are bombs in Tripoli, or even a mini-war, it is merely a matter of concern – a news item, but not an existential threat to either Lebanon in toto or people’s individual lives. The government continues to (dys) function; the finance, commercial and services sector all hum along; and the much-celebrated summer season continues.

Well, continues for now. I don’t think the city-state model helped Lebanon in the past, and I don’t think it aids it now. Tripoli to me seems to need much more attention than it is receiving, and much more consistent direction than actions like:

7:18pm VOL: The Lebanese army removed the barbed wire erected between Bab el-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts in Tripoli.

1:15pm The Lebanese army erected a barbed wire between Baal al-Darawish, which straddles Bab al-Tabbaneh, and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods to stop security breaches.

suggest (thank you, Naharnet, for those intriguing updates).

Below are a few photos I took on the road up to Tripoli – the new road.

Its exponentially less built up in terms of advertising and shops than any road entering Beirut:

And the first sign of impending urbanization is not billboards but massive industrial complexes on both sides of the highway. This one is on the right:

And this one is on the left, a bit further down:

And when it comes to regulation (labor, environment, restrictions on stripping of natural resources via mining, etc.), “Rome is far away”.

Or, as the city-state model might say:

out of sight, out of mind.

Posted in Beirut, citizenship, economics, Lebanon, politics, science, travel, Tripoli, words | 2 Comments »

The dangers of sunscreen

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 27, 2008

After spending Monday skiing, H and I stopped for an apres-ski lunch at the Inter-Continental Mzaar. The avant-ski peanut butter panini I had scarfed down at the charmingly named Ski Widow cafe was a distant memory by then, and in any case I am almost always ready to eat.

But when we pulled up to the hotel, H’s car failed the security check. Apparently, we were carrying explosives – or something equally dangerous. I began fretting, but the security guard didn’t look alarmed. He just looked bored. Who knows – maybe bomb-bearing skiers are an ordinary sight in today’s Lebanon.

Every hotel, mall, office building and even some private parking lots/garages has its own security staff, who screen incoming cars for explosives. Usually, they work in two-men teams.

One man takes a mirror on a pole – basically, a human-sized version of the instrument your dentist uses to inspect your teeth for plaque – and uses it to check the under-side of the car.


(Photo courtesy of SDMS Security Products. Just in case you are in the market for a vehicular “plaque” detector, a similar product can be ordered from American Security for $865.)

And yes, it does bear a strange resemblance to the old crumb-scooper vacuums that Wendy’s used to use.

The second man on the security team has the more glamorous job: he shuffles his feet carefully to produce an electric charge and walks past the car, from engine to trunk, carrying what looks like the mutant child of a car antenna and a corrugated metal box.


(Photo courtesy of ATSC UK. The photograph shows the mini, hand-held version.)

The antenna responds to the ionic charges that explosives give off (I’m getting this from my uncle, not any deep scientific knowledge of my own, so please direct any hard-hitting technical questions to him c/o IntlXpatr.) by swinging around in the direction of the car. If the car has no explosives, the antenna remains pointing directly ahead.

In other words, it works just like a dowsing rod, but without the New Age music and dream-catchers.

Lebanese security firm ProSec uses the ADE-651, and describes it as follows:
This equipment detects traces of both particulates and vapors, allowing for non-invasive searches of luggage, personnel, mail and containers without the use of radioactive source or external carrier gas. The working principle is based on electrochemical (Thermo-Redox) detection. The range of detection is around 50 meters with obstacles and up to 650 meters in outdoor parking lots, the unit can also detect explosives submerged in water or buried underground. Detection from a hovering helicopter is also possible.

Oh yes, because Lebanon has so many helicopters to spare.

Does the antenna box work? Not everyone thinks so. There’s a blog dedicated to questioning whether these explosives detectors do anything more than part governments and security firms with taxpayers’ and clients’ money: Sniffex Questions. Another critique can be found at Schneier On Security.

What I can tell you is that these detectors also detect the presence of other items.

Are you carrying perfume? the security guard asked H. Cream?

Both the guard and H turned to look at me, a sad case of female stereotyping … especially since it was true. No, I wasn’t carrying a bottle of perfume (“this is a ski trip, not a fashion show!” I can hear my father saying), but I did have a travel bag filled with two types of sunscreen, one anti-wrinkle cream, and some ordinary hand lotion – all in FAA-unfriendly size tubes.

I handed over my unguent collection, blushing, and the guard tested us again. Bomb-free, we continued on our merry lunch-ward way, one of us sporting freshly lotioned hands.

If you want to test the ADE-650/1 yourself, you can purchase one here. No word on how much it will cost you, but I hear that they go for quite a bit more than the traditional divining rod.

Posted in Beirut, economics, explosion, food, friends, humor, Lebanon, science, skiing, travel, vanity, words | 4 Comments »

World enough and time: the World Clock

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 3, 2007

G sent me a link to the World Clock this morning – a fascinating automated look at all kinds of statistical information, from the global birthrate to disease fatalities from diarrhea, and from the number of species lost to the number of bicycles produced.

You can look at the statistics starting from the beginning of the year, the month, the week, the day, or “now”, which resets all but the world population number to zero. The “now” function really brings to life how quickly the numbers change.

The clock is mesmerizing. I’ve had the site up all morning, and each time I tab over to it I am enthralled again.

Posted in art, economics, education, media, politics, research, science, time | Leave a Comment »

what’s in a name? cleaning products in bad taste

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 12, 2007

After lunch this afternoon (a rather delicious lentil salad that I make whenever I feel the urge to be at once lazy (its very easy) and French (it reminds me of Paris)) I decided that it was time to bid adieu to my kitchen sponge.

I knelt down and opened the doors to the cupboard below the sink and grabbed what I took to be the bag of replacement sponges, left over from the renovation work done before I moved in here.

After standing back up, I looked at the bag and saw …. this:


In the United States, “steel wool” is an old, unflattering and deeply judgmental term used in the early and mid 1900s to describe African-American hair.

Sometimes the explicit racism of this region leaves me speechless.

At other times, of course, it sends me to the internet.

Negro Steel Wool is sold by Oscar Weil, a German company which sells steel wool products under several different brand names to various markets around the world.

Although Negro is not listed under the company’s “brands”, it does appear in a product suite photograph:


Negro, Oscar Weil’s only Middle Eastern market product, is also absent from the company’s “countries” map, which shows Oscar Weil brands and the countries in which they can be found. I find it appalling that this company still sells a product under the brand name “Negro”. No doubt there are arguments centering on ‘brand equity’ and ‘market-share’ – none of which impress me.

As for Lebanon and the rest of the region, this to me seems at once a terrible exporting of Americana and a classic case of what we call “the pot calling the kettle black”.

After all, this is hardly a region known for its abundance of naturally straight hair.

As for me, I’m throwing out the bag and putting the remaining steel wool pads into an FAA-approved, quart-sized clear plastic bag.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, art, Beirut, guilt, Lebanon, photography, politics, science, words | Leave a Comment »

What a waste it is to lose one’s minds: reversing the Arab world’s brain drain

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 10, 2007

On Wednesday, the Oxford Business Group published a briefing on Qatar’s efforts to reverse the Arab world’s decades-long “brain drain” of scientists and other trained professionals. The Qatar Foundation has been at the vanguard of creative, problem-solving approaches to build a better future for the region, and its latest two initiatives, the Qatar National Research Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park, look equally promising.

Qatar’s efforts are admirable because they address not only the problem of training, but also, and more importantly, that of retention. As conference proceedings published by the Dialogues Project last year indicate, many Arab world scholars would like to return home, and put their talents and professional experience to work for their countries of origin. However, these countries have done a remarkably poor job of supporting scientific research and – worse – scientific inquiry.

The proceedings read a bit choppily but are worth slogging through for the issues they raise:

Mr. Bulliet launched this portion of the [panel] discussion by questioning the relationship between Western–trained Muslim scientists and scientific development in their home countries[, asking why so few return]. Just as the repatriation of U.S.–based Chinese and Indian scientists has contributed in no small measure to these countries’ recent economic successes, could the same not be true for the Muslim world? Mr. Ali responded that, at this point, many Muslim scientists return to their countries of origin only to find that they cannot make a significant contribution in the absence of a professional environment conducive to sustained scientific creation. With scarce research possibilities and a culture of bureaucratic and institutional impediments—and with no apparent leadership invested in resolving these problems—Muslim scientists often find it impossible to live and work in their home countries. The Islamic world must culturally reinvest in the sciences to stem this brain drain.

What I like about the Qatari initiatives is how broadly they define science and scholarship. During the month of February, the Qatar Foundation ran an advertisement here in the Lebanese press, requesting that scholars working in the field of Islamic studies (broadly, and self-, defined) send their cv’s to the Foundation. The Foundation is working to build a database of scholars, as the first step to establishing an ‘Islamic Studies Program’ – a think tank of sorts, with fellowships, scholarships, and conference programs promoting research and debate within the ‘diverse’ field of Islamic studies. Here is the (English language) advertisement:


And here is the OBG article:

Strategies for Scientific Development

In the past, the countries of the Middle East have had trouble holding onto their scholars, with the Arab world accounting for over 30% of the global brain drain from developing countries to the West. A 2004 study by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo found that 45% of Arab students who studied abroad did not return home after graduating, choosing to apply their skills not in the institutions of their homelands, but in the better-funded labs of the West, primarily in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

Speaking at the Founding Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha last year, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a senior research fellow at the London-based Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, attributed the lack of pro-active scientific research and development in the Middle East to political and social factors, the lack of inter-institution cooperation, and what he described as, A systematic pattern of didactic and innovation-discouraging of education. Harsh words, but are things now beginning to change?

Last year saw the establishment of the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which, it is hoped, will be able to steer the country along its intended path of becoming a knowledge-based economy, with a base of high-value industry to make up for the low population in the country. While an official strategy is expected to be announced in April, the QNRF stated the first phase will focus, primarily on goals related to building human capital, while the second and third phases will address other national needs and opportunities, expand non-QNRF funding and raise Qatar’s profile in the international research community.

We will have to wait until April to see the exact details of the strategy, but Qatar has been seen as developing a dialogue between the key players in the country – the government, academia and the private sector – in order to steer the development along a sustainable route. Anqi Qian, the director of Strategic Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, said: The challenge is to keep a balance between patience and urgency. Patience in that establishing research takes a whole ecosystem of universities, industry and governmental support. Urgency in that the future of Qatar will be shaped by when the national research strategy begins to bear fruits.

Qatar is also developing relations with other countries in the region and last year, the Qatar Foundation organised the 1st Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha, under the patronage of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. Abdulla al-Kubaisi, the chairman of the Qatar Science & Technology Park, said that Qatar was seeking to pool resources from its neighbours and the entire Middle East in a bid to make up the shortfalls of its own small population and limited human resources. The topics covered in the conference, which brought a number of highly-respected Arab scientists from across the world, were a clear indication of Qatar’s desire to diversify its industrial base, including working sessions on such matters as biomedicine, biotechnology, ecology and information technology, among others. While the traditional oil and gas sector in the country remains key to investors, 2006 witnessed a growth in investments in the electronics, minerals and processing sectors, as well as in tourism and property development.

However, the rest of the world is not standing still. In Europe, which trails far behind Japan and the US in terms of research spending, the European Research Committee (ERC) was pledged 7.5bn euros by the EU at the end of February this year to carry out fundamental, or blue skies studies up until 2013. The ERC said the types of projects it funds must be at the frontiers of knowledge, that it is looking for excellence and has directed its first grant call not at established names, but at emerging new talent, promising to hand out grants totalling 300m euros in 2007 to the most promising up and coming researchers. This may prove to be one more threat to Qatar in terms of brain drain that it can ill-afford.

While developing a long-term strategy is one element, the most forward-thinking strategy cannot succeed without financing and business incentives. To this end, in November last year, the Qatari government promised to pump 2.8% of GDP into scientific research (the US invests 2% of GDP) and offered incentives for firms involved in research work, including tax breaks and increased funding for schools and universities to improve education in sciences.

So the scene is set, and come April, the results of the labours of all those involved in setting up the strategy will become clear. The goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy may be a long hard climb, but the necessary elements of industry, finance, education and legislation are in place. How these are coordinated in the future will be the key to sustainability.

Posted in Arab world, economics, Islam, media, news, Qatar, research, science, travel | 4 Comments »