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.