Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Black Day - 16 Dec 2014 - #PeshawarAttack

Left feeling absolutely saddened, shocked and angry at the attack by the Pakistan Taliban on a school in Peshawar.

They killed 141 people, 132 of them children.

What the Pakistan Taliban did :
15 yr old Shahrukh Khan, 15 was shot in the legs and told Reuters "One of my teachers was crying, she was shot in the hand and she was crying in pain...One terrorist then walked up to her and started shooting her until she stopped making any sound. All around me my friends were lying injured and dead."

The same article describes how, at a local hospital "One distraught family member was given a wrong body because the faces of many children were badly burned as a result of the suicide bomb explosions."

Another article quotes Irshadah Bibi, whose 12-year-old son was among the dead saying "What is the sin of my child and all these children?”

How the Pakistan Taliban justified the attack:
They told BBC Urdu "that the school, which is run by the army, had been targeted in response to military operations."

They told The Daily Beast "The parents of the army school are army soldiers and they are behind the massive killing of our kids and indiscriminate bombing in North and South Waziristan...To hurt them at their safe haven and homes—such an attack is perfect revenge.”

According to the Guardian, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) "claimed the attackers were under orders to kill only boys beyond the age of puberty."

How can Muslims kill other Muslims?
How can it be that Muslims cold-bloodedly and very methodically, kill Muslim civilians (never mind that fact that a civilian is a civilian, irrespective of faith)?

BFTF suspects it is because the murderers involved used a one-two punch of :

a) Believing that those who leave Islam can be killed, and

b) Deciding that these children had indeed left Islam (Because their parents were soldiers? Because they went to the wrong school? Because they were not devout enough? Who knows)

More on this in a different post, but worth mentioning the words of Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain ,who has previously said:

“The position of many a scholar I have discussed the issue with is if people want to leave, they can leave...I don’t believe they should be discriminated against or harmed in any way whatsoever. There is no compulsion in religion.”

So what can practically be done?
BFTF doesn't know what a Muslim living in the UK can most usefully do to combat this, literally, killer combination of beliefs, so has asked the MCB, MAB, MINAB and local Imams this question:

Shocked, saddened and angry at the cold-blooded murder of schoolchildren in Peshawar. It is my suspicion that the murderers who did this rationalised their actions by firstly, believing that those who leave Islam can be killed and secondly, that the children and staff in that school had indeed left Islam.

But what do I know? I'm no expert. So I am hoping you can answer three questions related to this sickening incident.

i) Can you please help me understand how these murderers, operating under the banner of Islam, managed to rationalise the killing of schoolchildren as a praiseworthy act?

ii) What role can leaders in the UK's Muslim community practically do to counter the mindset that these murderers had?

iii) What can ordinary Muslims do to practically do to counter the mindset that these murderers had?

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Talk : Muslims in Britain

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Dilwar Hussein (see also his very interesting blog here). Dilwar's recent work includes a major report on Muslims in Leicester for the Open Society Institute; he was Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Inquiry on Prevent (2010); involved in the Cambridge-Azhar Imams Training Project; and on the steering group of the Contextualising Islam in Britain Project.

Dilwar began by describing how Muslims were constantly having to defend themselves, with non-Muslims naturally wondering whether it was their Muslim work colleague or ISIS that best represented what Islam stood for.

Dilwar added that he felt it was always best to confront these issues rather than brushing them under the carpet and that Muslims had perhaps been more vocal in what they were AGAINST rather than what they were FOR.

Muslim Scouts getting ready for litter picking

A summary of the history of Muslims in the UK followed, which mentioned the following points:

Mention of Muslims in Canterbury Tales
Treaties with Muslims during reign of Elizabeth 1
Chair of Arabic, Oxford University, 1636
Translations of the Quran (Ross, 1649,Sale, 1734)
First Mosque, 1860
Post WW1, WW2 immigration

Dilwar then described how, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslims around the world looked at their relative weakness and asked themselves "How did we get here?". The various answers to this question, together with responses to the challenge of modernity were the drivers to the main Islamic movements of recent decades.

Colonisation fed into anti-western feelings.
Loss of the Caliphate fed into distrust of nation states.
Modernity and Secular Government fed into anti liberal and anti-secular feelings.
Euro Election Hustings in Nottingham, organised by Muslims

Islamic thought took many forms:
Renewal / Reform movements (Liberal, Secular -e.g. Araturk)
Revival Movements (Sufi, Salafi, Islamism, Jihadism)

Dilwar mentioned the example of Muhammad Abduh, who famously said that:

"I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam"

This was in reference to that fact that, in Europe, countries had developed ways of transferring power without rivals assassinating each other, and had many of the social institutions and principles of Islam, whilst these were lacking in Egypt.

Dilwar also commented on how religion is always interpreted via local cultures, which affects how Muslim society around the world address issues such as identity, integration, realtionships with neighbours, human rights, gender equality, liberal values, discrimination etc.

Good to see a significant Muslim presence at Notts community organising events

Dilwar commented that, in his view, the only was of governing countries with multi faith communities was via some kind of secular state, so that the public space was available to all.

And also on some of the challenges that the Muslim community faces:
Dislocation resulting from rural migration,
Weak scholarship,
Alienation from the religious establishment,
Reduced religious literacy.

There was also comment on how countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia were vying to "own" minority Muslim communities in the West, not least because they are likely to have some significance in the future as they become established in their new countries. Related to this is the fact that Muslim minority communities in the UK are very aware of, and ffected by, global politics.

Dilwar has been part of a team that has looked at some of the above issues in a report entitled "Contextualising Islam in Britain"

More positively, Dilwar described how, in Islams "Golden Age", scholars devoured knowledge from wherever they could find it, translating everything into Arabic for the great libraries of Syria and Iraq.

Dilwar added that, today, Muslims are disproportionately generous in their charitable donations and that many Muslims around the country give up their time for community projects, one example being Dilwar himself who helps at a Foodbank.

Foodparcels ready for delivery at a Nottingham, Muslim run, foodbank

In the Q&A session, BFTF pointed out that he had been in a meeting of Muslims the previous day where, of the few people that BFTF knew, one was involved in a Scout group; another ran a Mum and Tots group (that had held MacMillan fundraisers); and a third person worked to provide support for the disadvantaged in society! Another person in the audience added to this by stating that Muslim grocery stores had been very quietly, but very consistently, giving fresh produce to a major local foodbank.

The "Deen Riders" raise money for a variety of charities

Related Links
Positive Muslim Stories
Stuff what the Imam said
Lots of suggestions on how mosques can interact with society

Friday, 7 November 2014

Talk : A Defence of the Monte Carlo Simulation

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Dr Nira Chamberlain on the "Monte Carlo" Simulation and how, in Dr Chamberlains view, it had been unfairly blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This post is based on the talk, with a little extra linkage thrown in.

Dr Chamberlain is a professional mathematician, has been named as one of the UK's 100 leading practical scientists, and is an advocate for mathematics (see also here).

The Monte Carlo simulation is a way of solving mathematical problems by taking multiple random samples rather than trying to "calculate" the answer. For example, rather than trying to calculate the average time to complete a maze, say, a Monte Carlo Simulation would repeatedly try to go through a maze, taking random decisions at each junction, and see how how long it took, on average, to get to the other side.

Perhaps the first use of a Monte Carlo simulation was by French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace, who used it to estimate the value of pi.

But it was only with the advent of electronic computers, which could quickly perform many thousands of calculations, that Monte Carlo simulations really came into their own, most famously to help the design of the first nuclear bombs in the Manhatten project. It was here that it was given the name "Monte Carlo Method" as it reminded one of the researchers of gambling behaviour in the famous Monte Carlo casino.

After WW2, Monte Carlo simulations were used in applications ranging from engineering to computational biology

An important use of the Monte Carlo simulation is in financial modelling. Dr Chamberlain explained their use, using the "maze" as an analogy for a financial product. Imagine two traders, Trader A and Trader B...

Trader A to Trader B : Here is a maze, and here is £60million pounds on the table. When the clock starts, you begin the maze and I'll start taking away £1million very minute. If you get through the maze in less than an hour, you keep any money left on the table - but if it takes you MORE than an hour, you have to give me £1million for every minute over an hour that it takes you. Do you want to take this bet? (optional evil laugh here)

Trader B (thinks) : The question I need to know the answer to, right now, is how long it takes on average to get through the maze.

And this is where the Monte Carlo simulation comes in. The simulation will have many attempts to get through the maze, and the results are likely for form some kind of frequency distribution like this :

That is all well and good - the problem comes if, in real life the maze is more complicated than the one in the simulation, and the probability distribution is actually like this :

Dr Chamberlain explained that this mismatch between theory and the real world is exactly what happened to financial models in the wake of the 2008 sub-prime defaults, and was a big factor in the resulting financial crisis.

And, worse that this, when the trades lost money the traders thought they had just been unlucky (because their simulation was wrong), so bet again...and again.

Dr Chamberlain commented that JP Morgan had released the Monte Carlo method to the financial marketplace in 1992 [as part of their RiskMetrics methodology] but, in doing so they failed to adequately warn the market about some of the dangers in using the method. The 2008 crisis left many wondering whether Monte Carlo simulations were to blame. Dr Chamberlain gave examples such as an article entitled "Is Financial Monte Carlo Simulation Dead"

However, as suggested in the talks title - Dr Chamberlain was here to defend the Monte Carlo method, and felt that the problem was more to do with poor inputs and assumptions rather than the method itself, commenting that :

i) When the underlying conditions change, so should the assumptions in any relevant Monte Carlo simulations.

ii) A crisis similar had previously occurred in 1998, when LTCM went bust having lost $4.6billion due to the Russian and Far Eastern economic crises distorting the market. [BFTF notes that LTCM was dripping with Economics Nobel Prize winners and that the subsequently bought out company went bust again in 2009].

iii) The market had been warned about the risks of unexpected marked events, for example in the Black Swan theory and in a paper presented at the International Congress of Mathematicians 2002

iv) The Winner Effect, where testosterone fuels increasingly risky trading behaviour.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Four Mosques

A blog charting the response received when emailing four local mosques to suggest (very simple) things they could do to improve engagement between the Muslim community and wider society, or ways people could act to stop conflict and injustice.

Before reading this post, you may wish to have a look at the more positive stories shown in :

i) Positive Muslim Stories
ii) Stuff what the Imam said

Sep 2014 :
"I've written a couple of emails to DEFRA challenging them on their failure to meet their own tree planting targets in recent years. And also on their failure to put into place a structure to protect the Nations ancient woodland, in trust, for future generations - something the Government promised to do back in 2013. With protection of the environment in general and trees in particular, being so prominent in Islam I wanted to suggest that perhaps your respective masajid could encourage the congregations to also be active in this area.

Details and background can be found here.

It is my strong belief that one factor in the alienation of young Muslims is that, in general, Muslim organisations do not provide practical examples (that the organisations have taken themselves) of how to engage with society, to achieve change, to challenge the government etc.And this lack of examples leaves young people frustrated, vulnerable to conspiracy theories and believing they are powerless. This is not a good thing."

Response : None

Jul 2014 :
"Can you please advise which organisations (e.g. local MP, Arab League, EU etc) I should pressure to act to stop the killing in Syria and, if you have a view, what actions you think those organisations should take?"

Response : None

May 2014

"This Friday, could you please, please, please mention the May Fest event at the University of Nottingham (Sat 10th May, 11am to 5pm) to your congregation and encourage them to take advantage of this free day of fun and education! It really is a great day out for all the family - and a wonderful chance to talk to researchers at the UoN about what they do. Lots of fun activities for kids and adults alike. You will not be disappointed inshallah. We talk, as a community about our committment to learning and the Islamic heritage of science - well here is a chance to demonstrate that we stil have that love of knowledge today. More info here: and here.

Response : One response from an Imam who said "Inshallah will spread the news...and will also try and come down"


Friday, 24 October 2014

Talk - Uri Gordon on Anarchism

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Uri Gordon on Anarchist Politics. This post is based on the talk, with a little extra linkage thrown in.

Uri stated that in contrast to MONarchy (one leader), the ideal behind ANarchy was to be free of rulers, and that the anarchy did not mean chaos, insecurity etc

Uri asked the audience to consider the many occasions at work and at leisure when people organised themselves without the need for leaders (e.g. going to the pub for lunch, a walk in the country, a charitable venture, a community garden etc, adding that "Humans can get along just fine without rulers" and that perceptions to the contrary were pushed by interests such as the state, patriarchal institutions, corporations who wish to exploit etc.

As an example of how anarchy can work in communities, Uri gave the example of aboriginal hunter-gatherer communities around the world, who have been found to have structures that do not have a leader, have cultural codes that look after the environment. They respect their elders - but all members of the community get this respect when they become old. However, Uri later added that this model could not work in todays world as there were too many people and the environment was too degraded.

According to Uri, anarchists seek to build a new society within the current one rather than being co-opted into existing power structures via conventional elections etc.

A protest by the Spanish anarchist trade union CGT,
who represent some 2 million workers

Anarchists also believe in direct action, without relying on intermediaries - hence movements such as Occupy, the Brazilian World Cup protests, the emergence of community gardens in run down areas, and cases of people tying themselves to trees to prevent construction projects.

(although a darker side of direct action can be seen in this article). Related to this is the concept of the "Propaganda of the Deed".

Uri also mentioned that he had a very pragmatic approach to anarchism, and little time for those who put the purity of the ideology over the practicalities of actually helping people and achieving social good. He also cautioned against conspiracy theories as "lazy thinking".
Uri also gave some pointers for further reading:

Emma Goldman (who Uri quoted from).

African Anarchism - The History of a Movement

Decolonising Anarchism

Tom Payne - Common Sense

Incidentally, researching for this post has revealed to BFTF the existence of the rather lovely anarchist phenomena of "Twinkles"

Image Sources

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Camping near Clipstone

At No3 sons repeated exhortation, spent a weekend camping in Nottinghamshire this September. Took the opportunity to have a look at the (now disused) Clipstone colliery....

The Clipstone Colliery, , produced coal from 1927 until 1993, and then again from 1994 to 2003. The imposing headstocks were amongst the tallest in Europe when built during upgrades in the 1950s and were given Grade II listed status by English Heritage in 2000 as being ‘special architectural or historic interest’.

The site is currently owned by Welbeck Estate, who would like to demolish the headstocks - although others are campaigning for the site to become an adventure park including a mile long zip line! (see also www.clipstoneheadstocks.co.uk)

Clipstone Colliery

There is an e-petition to save the headstocks. BFTF has signed it, and hopes you will too.

A history of Clipstone colliery here and some images of the colliery here and here.

Headstocks look like some kind of alien engineering
has been placed in the middle of the village

Meanwhile, next to the campsite was a farm - and BFTF was fascinated to see how quickly the farmer, armed with a tractor and a Lemken Solitaire 9 seed drill, was able to plant an entire field with seeds.

It left BFTF wondering if there was any information quantifying the impact of mechanisation on farming productivity

Mechanisation of seed planting

Amazing how quickly the whole field was planted

The best thing about camping, it seems, is cooking on a gas stove !

No3 Son made the dinner, bless him!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Top Trumps "Warships"

Whilst playing a game of "Warships" Top Trumps with No3 son, noticed that all the cards had little complimentary descriptions of their respective vessels (which were from the navies of nations ranging from the US to Italy to China).

Well, all the cards except one - the single entry for the Pakistan Navy (PNS Khaibar) was very disparaging. BFTF is struggling a bit to understand why...

The Cards (might be a couple missing)

Uniquely disparaging comments on the PNS Khaibar card

Title Card