Web 2.0 silliness

Unlike Hossam, I am slightly skeptical about Web 2.0 social software technology. It’s true activists in Egypt and elsewhere have made good use of Twitter and Jaiku to update each other about demonstrations and such, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that over time using these things too much reduces your brain to mush. I’ve already given up on Facebook, never found Doppler very useful, haven’t used LinkedIn in months, and only keep up to date with Jaiku because Hossam forced it upon me, although I don’t really post myself (in any case it would be along the lines of “having sardine and toasted cheese sandwich LOL!” I’d rather spare people.)

But yesterday someone registered a State Security account on Twitter, and this morning I received this:

Hi, arabist (arabist).

Habib El-Adly (ElAdly) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Check out Habib El-Adly’s profile here:

Habib al-Adly, of course, is Egypt’s interior minister.

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Don’t be evil, work for Google

A recruiter from Google has written to send the following job ad– they’re hiring software engineers and more who have fluent Arabic. The whole job listing is after the jump for those interested — good luck to those who’d apply, and if you get in please tell Google to allow filtering of Israeli ads in Adsense (I’ve had a long correspondence with them over this issue.) Oh, and that whole China thing.

Continue reading Don’t be evil, work for Google

Links for January 6th

Automatically posted links for January 6th:

Some thoughts on the YouTube ban

The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker has highlighted YouTube’s decision to block the Egypt torture videos page, which we recently covered. In his post Brian says points how this removes a crucial tool at the hands of bloggers to distribute and publicize cases of human rights abuses and build a campaign against Egypt’s systematic use of torture.

Reading the comments on the post, there is legitimate discussion that footage of gratuitous violence violates YouTube’s terms of use and that it may not be the most appropriate place for these videos for other reasons (since most of its content is essentially funny home videos). Fair enough. Some people suggested that rights groups should be hosting the videos, which seems like a good idea (although it might limit their reach, since way more people visit youtube.com than amnesty.org). That’s a good idea too, except that rights groups, even the big ones, don’t really have the kind of technology necessary to handle traffic spikes and maintain video databases (which I assume means buying license rights to various software, codecs, etc.)

So here’s an idea: why not encourage YouTube, Google Video and others to provide their expertise to maintain servers for activists, separately from their commercial products if necessary? This would be a great vote of confidence in web companies, especially after the fiasco of Yahoo and Google selling out to China in recent years. Don’t want their names on it? Fine. But they have technology and resources that have radically transformed the away activists can break news and mobilize international interest. So rather than sticking to just “don’t be evil,” how about some “be good”?

Del.icio.us links for November 21st

Automatically posted links for November 21st:

Yamli Search: Aywa Keda!

Yamli Search is very intriguing new search engine that transliterates Arabic written in the Latin alphabet into Arabic proper, and then runs that query through Google. It’s really quite neat — for instance if you type “ikhwan al muslimeen” it will search for “اخوان المسلمين“. You have to try it out to see what I mean.

The idea behind Yamli is that Arabic speakers often have to work without Arabic keyboards and are more used to English keyboards anyway. This is what they say in their press release:

The Arab world has one of the highest internet usage growth rates. Yet, access to and development of Arabic content has been difficult, mainly because of the complexity of typing Arabic. Although Arabic keyboards are available, the vast majority of Arabic-speaking Internet users are accustomed to an English keyboard. Users often resort to spelling Arabic words out phonetically using English characters, a process known as transliteration. Yamli allows users to convert these English characters into Arabic words.

Co-founder Habib Haddad explains: “I would often experience frustration trying to find Arabic news on the web. Like millions of users, I could easily express my Arabic words using English letters, but I had difficulty typing them in Arabic. The need for a technology that efficiently converted those phonetic spellings into meaningful Arabic words seemed natural to me. It would have to be so seamless that users would be able to write Arabic text and forget they were using English characters. This is how Yamli was born.”

Yamli’s patent-pending solution converts the user’s input into Arabic as he or she types. To maximize usability, Yamli accepts a variety of phonetic spellings and generates a list of suggested matches. Over time, Yamli will recognize popular patterns of spelling and word selection, increasing its accuracy.

I suspect that another reason is that with so many young elite Arabs educated in private, Western curricula school, many kids on the net don’t actually master written Arabic that well. On the other hand, they do master the SMS Arabic where “3” is ع and “7” is ح.

Some people will think this further erodes the quality of written Arabic, but hats off for innovation. And there’s also a standalone editor that will do the same “translation” for you. It’s a short step from that to translating transliterated Arabic into other languages altogether.

[Thanks Iason]

Total Falafel Awareness

FBI Mined Grocery Store Records to Find Iranian Terrorists:

Bay Area FBI agents wanting to find Iranian secret agents data-mined grocery store records in 2005 and 2006, hoping that tahini purchases would lead them to domestic terrorists, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein. The head of the FBI’s criminal investigations unit – Michael Mason – shut down the Total Falafel Awareness program, arguing it would be illegal to put someone on a terrorist watch list for simply sticking skewers into lamb, Stein reports.

Really this is getting ridiculous. Is that the best lead they can come up with? I also like the idea that would-be terrorist hiding in America are somehow exclusively eating their national foods. I bet Muhammad Atta and company ate tons of Twinkies, mexican food and loved the spicy chicken wings at Hooters.

Science and the Islamic world

Science and the Islamic world, an essay by a Pakistani scientist on the decline of science in the Islamic world in my favorite magazine (not really), Physics Today:

In the Islamic world, opposition to science in the public arena takes additional forms. Antiscience materials have an immense presence on the internet, with thousands of elaborately designed Islamic websites, some with view counters running into the hundreds of thousands. A typical and frequently visited one has the following banner: “Recently discovered astounding scientific facts, accurately described in the Muslim Holy Book and by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 14 centuries ago.” Here one will find that everything from quantum mechanics to black holes and genes was anticipated 1400 years ago.

Science, in the view of fundamentalists, is principally seen as valuable for establishing yet more proofs of God, proving the truth of Islam and the Qur’an, and showing that modern science would have been impossible but for Muslim discoveries. Antiquity alone seems to matter. One gets the impression that history’s clock broke down somewhere during the 14th century and that plans for repair are, at best, vague. In that all-too-prevalent view, science is not about critical thought and awareness, creative uncertainties, or ceaseless explorations. Missing are websites or discussion groups dealing with the philosophical implications from the Islamic point of view of the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, superstrings, stem cells, and other contemporary science issues.

Similarly, in the mass media of Muslim countries, discussions on “Islam and science” are common and welcomed only to the extent that belief in the status quo is reaffirmed rather than challenged. When the 2005 earthquake struck Pakistan, killing more than 90 000 people, no major scientist in the country publicly challenged the belief, freely propagated through the mass media, that the quake was God’s punishment for sinful behavior. Mullahs ridiculed the notion that science could provide an explanation; they incited their followers into smashing television sets, which had provoked Allah’s anger and hence the earthquake. As several class discussions showed, an overwhelming majority of my university’s science students accepted various divine-wrath explanations.