Thursday, 30 October 2014

Internet access boost

Internet.org Logo.jpg
"Internet.org Logo" by www.internet.org.
Licensed
via Wikipedia.
The number of people in Africa who now have access to the internet just got a big boost. Yesterday, Facebook announced the launch of the Internet.org app in Tanzania, partnering with one of the country's popular mobile carriers Tigo, to bring free access to essential websites with absolutely zero data charges.

The Internet.org app was first launched back in July this year in Zambia in partnership with Airtel. The app features popular websites like Wikipedia and (surprise!) Facebook as well as news sites (BBC in english and swahili), resources for basic health, family planning, education (mostly for junior and high school level which is quite useful), important information for expectant mothers and even weather forecast and a platform for job seekers. Users need only a sim card from the partner carrier to use the Internet.org app on their phones.

Overall, one cannot complain; the app's packed with a great deal of cool resources (who doesn't need Wikipedia in this day and age) and it also exposes lots of local NGO projects to more people than ever before. Go check it out now. It's absolutely fab!

No doubt the app has space to grow and Facebook has hinted at just that in a recent news bulletin. Although some question whether Facebook's plan to bring the internet to more people is based on purely altruistic motives or otherwise, I would say that that is almost certainly a naive question. Facebook is a web business. It's profits margins grow when more people sign up for its services. If it can benefit from having more people using its services for free without significantly damaging their already meager finances then why not? Mark gets more eyes for ads and the poor Tanzanian gets free Wikipedia. It's a perfect mutual relationship.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ambition

Whenever humankind attempts to do something, it usually ends up in failure on the first go. But we keep trying, for eternity lies in our hearts. We are ambitious creatures for better or for worse and that trait has allowed us to become the most successful creatures on this side of the universe, capable of subverting natural processes if we wished and molding things to our desires,

This is illustrated well in 'Ambition', a short sci-fi film that screened on 24 October 2014 during the British Film Institute’s celebration of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, at the Southbank, London. A collaboration between the European Space Agency and Platige Image, 'Ambition' also features a cameo of Europe's the recently successful  cometary mission Rosetta. You can catch updates on this singular mission to comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko (I kid you not, that is its name!) here.

Enjoy and stay curious!


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Make Your Own Chess Piece

Wonderful video! That's a knowledge harvester right there! Always looking for the edge.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sun setting on the Knowledge Society? Part 2

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
What can Plato tell us about
today? (Commons)
In yesterday's post, I presented a set of scenarios with a common theme; a misinformed or downright lying erudite claims to know a way out of life-threatening problems (or 'professionally' dismisses the problem entirely) that is at odds with logic. Are we to treat such thinking as equal to that of our poor problem solver? Can such a society survive?

Enter Plato, who attempted to define what exactly makes up true knowledge, or he sometimes put it, 'justified true belief'. Without delving into too much technicalities (I'm only a generalist/medical student after all), Plato detailed in one of his well known works Republic the analogy or theory of the divided line. In it he imagines a line that can be divided into two parts; the upper part represents knowledge or absolutes grounded in such things as mathematical reasoning and philosophical understanding (these actually represent subdivisions of the upper line and are a matter of some controversy but in short the upper line is generally as such).

The lower line represents the visible, perceived world. It constitutes belief and opinion based on mere perception. To understand this, consider the blue sky above. You could imagine that the sky is indeed a solid dome of blue sapphire (maybe even seven heavens for that matter) that encloses our space and prevents demons from entering our realm of existence. But we all know that's not true but how?

Plato also detailed similar ideas in the allegory of the cave which you can watch in the following short video:
The shadows on the walls of the prisoner's cave represents the lower part of the divided line. I suspect that if someone were to leave people to view perceptions with just mere beliefs (of visible things), they would end up with a lot of undesirable conclusions. Likewise, we see this playing out in the world today. The sight of one's healthy family in West Africa leads an educated people (or admittedly non-educated but sane at least) to conclude that Ebola doesn't exist. Or the sight of dead children on the streets of Gaza can lead one to believe that Israel doesn't care where it hits (which is obviously false) and so on.

These undesirable conclusions open up a Pandora's box of troubles. The enormity of this year's Ebola outbreak may have something to do with such sentiments on an individual as well as a regional level. The perpetual conflict in the Middle east and North Africa may be because we are looking at the shadows and not looking for the old men to lead us to the answers. We (the international community) think we know the truth because we focus on the shadows (the mass media reports and the social media reports). Given the advances in media technology, this is dangerous because the prisoners can shout down the enlightened more effectively, a capability well exploited by the ISIS group in Iraq.

So here's what could happen; we could all get wiped out by Ebola, whole civilisations can get destroyed (cue the mass exodus in Iraq) and there could be a slow slide into stagnation. I would like to revisit this last possibility in a future post.

How can we save the knowledge society? I sincerely don't know but I guess it will involve a lot of perseverance and backing up of books, files and other materials.

Sun setting on the Knowledge Society? Part 1

Imagine a situation where you are confronted with a grave problem. So grave that solving it in a smart and concise manner becomes a life and death situation. Can't think of any? Allow me to offer some scenarios; on an International level the current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is one. On a regional level the current crisis in Iraq would qualify as a life and death situation for many people living there and even beyond. Or at an even smaller scale, the current escalation of conflict between Israel and the Hamas-led political entity in Gaza would constitute a life and death situation for the Israelis as well as the local Palestinian Arab population.

Now imagine further that you, the knowledgeable problem solver in one or more of the above situations, in the course of fulfilling your analytical duties are interrupted suddenly by someone of equal or even greater erudition than you and is told by said person that you are solving all this wrong and that you will fail. He even offers an alternative plan and insists that you use follow it instead. 

Now you being of good sport decide to listen to his idea and quickly decide that is in error due to perhaps some erroneous or even naive assumptions and you engage your polemics gear and start to explain to him the true nature of the problem. But your friend remains resolute. In fact he might even engage in ad hoc arguments or throw around straw man arguments and after a long, tiring and utterly pointless battle (meanwhile the problem persists), you finally shout:

Now what just happened? Lets look at our erudite friend's assumptions that so pissed off our knowledgeable problem solver; for the Ebola scenario, the erudite declared unabashedly that Ebola doesn't exist. What?! 'You must be mad', you say. This has unfortunately happened before with regards to the AIDS pandemic in South Africa, a most embarrassing scene to say the least.

Scenario two, the Iraqi problem; ISIS, the Islamist militant group that has resurrected the old Islamic Caliphate is declared a Zionist plot (without evidence) to make Islam look bad. But anyone who reads about ISIS's origins knows that that cannot be true.

Scenario three, Hamas isn't a problem; it is the Israelis who are doing indiscriminate killing. While we can acknowledge that the war's civilian casualties on both sides are regrettable (while remembering that it is a war and wars are always cruel no matter the guidelines), we must also acknowledge that this statement is utterly false not just because of what the Israelis say but because of what objective statistical evidence says. 'But look at the dead children', you might shout at our poor problem solver but he might have every right to tell you to look at the evidence and reconsider your stance objectively.

All these examples (and there are plenty more in various fields) are based on real life, not fiction and they serve to illustrate what a certain ancient Greek philosopher said over 2300 years ago and to explain why we might have left our burgeoning knowledge society open to potential calamity. We shall see what Plato had to say about our problem solver's....um... societal problem in part 2.

Good day to you all.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Look up versus look down

Take a look at this video if you haven't seen it yet (or you could just skip and cut to the text below it).

The video is a poetic piece extolling the virtues of looking up at life and participating in it more rather than looking down at our little smartphones all the time. Its quite impressive really and it is proving to be quite popular on youtube (available ironically on the same devices that we are told should be left home). 

The video's message has been widely praised although there have been some angry posts about it. I guess we could say that the video is sort of self contradicting as it is now the one of the hottest trending topics in social media circles. The same system that it tells us to look away from. And just like that, here comes a video response/parody titled "Look Down" by YouTuber Spencer Owen and Alex Osipczak, was posted on YouTube on May 9.

When I see these videos, they remind me of what I experienced during our class' recent community medicine rotation; my group was assigned to a place called 'Kitomondo', a village located around 60km south of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On reaching the place, we discovered to our horror that the dispensary where we would be staying for a week had only a single power socket connected to one solar panel. That one socket had to power all our modern gadgets (with voltage well below the 240V requirement) in order for us to do our course work and write our reports, not to mention study for the course exam next week.

On top of that, we also discovered that getting a decent signal for our phones was a little like a game of easter egg hunt; find the best spot for the bars to appear. Enough for a chatting or smsing but not enough for data intensive services like plain old surfing, facebook or even whatsapp. The place was like a modern technological desert!

This forced us to engage in an unusual amount of small talk, casual discussions and board/card games. Honestly, I don't remember ever having that many chess matches with other students! In contrast, life went back to normal once we moved on to other locations with better connectivity; each one to his own screen.

So what does that all mean? I sincerely think that social media and IT technology has revolutionised our lives but I also sincerely think we can make better gadgets that will not consume whatever is left of our social lives in the 'meatspace' aka the real world. If we can't then the video will stand as a prophetic warning to the modern world.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Humanity's traitors

After a long hiatus, here we go again!

Life is delicate, that much is made clear to me everyday I go to see the children and newborns in the wards at hospital during rounds. Death hangs like a shadow in such places, always ready to pounce when the time is opportune. Modern medicine has helped us to reach previously unimaginable levels of improved existence and survival odds. Such hope abounds in plenty that it should be regarded as a treachery to humanity to withhold such hope if it is/can be made available to all.

Similar sentiments must have been going through Dr. Salk's mind when he decided to give away his poliovirus vaccine in 1955. The results were dramatic; annual reported cases fell by almost 30,000 in a span of just 4 years in the US. A real human triumph, one that has continued to be repeated around the world with beautiful results. The rate of vaccination was helped considerably by the introduction of easier to administer oral polio vaccine (developed separately by Albert Sabin) in 1961.

Armed with the vaccine and the desire to replicate the successful eradication of the smallpox virus in 1979, the world set 2000 as the deadline for global eradication of the poliovirus. Now it (i.e. the deadline) is 2018. Why is it taking us more time than it took to eradicate the smallpox virus (which was eliminated in just 15 years)?
Countries in red are where the disease is endemic i.e. where
a large number of new cases appear annually. Note blue denotes places
with vaccine-derived virii are circulating in the population
and green denotes areas with imported virii (Commons, 2013)
Already we see a pattern unfolding before our eyes in the map above. The global eradication effort is being frustrated by circumstances in 3 countries; Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All three have one thing in common; they are all battling religiously inspired groups who keep attacking health workers who come to vaccinate children. And its not helping the situation on the ground. Countries that were recently declared free of the disease like China and Syria now have to battle the virus once again as it spills over from endemic neighbours.

If Salk were around, I am sure he would agree with me when I say that these Islamist groups are directly threatening humanity's existence. By this I mean a level on par with a killer asteroid slamming into the earth and killing us all kind of threat. Sure, poliovirus won't push us to extinction if it were to reemerge as a global threat once again but my point is that it would add a burden that is absolutely unnecessary for everyone in the world. especially the children who can develop motor paralysis from infections. We're talking children being denied a decent life. You can't build a  more perfect human civilisation on cripples. Yet that is apparently exactly what Nigeria's Boko haram ('western education is bad' in the local language) and the Taliban want; a Shariah compliant nation of ignorant cripples! How much more pathetic can you really get?

Before I end this angry piece, let me remind those of you who keep mentioning the Bin Laden-vaccine undercover fiasco as a reason for the eradication program's troubles in Pakistan that there were plenty of killings made even before that. We are dealing with traitors of humanity here, pure and simple. Politics has no place when it comes to a child getting his or her vaccine. 

To date, I have not seen a single polio case in the ward I'm attached to or during community medicine rotations. I don't want to ever have to deal with it for real. I want it to become like smallpox today; a distant nightmare that's over forever.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Calendars, Clocks and the joys of Time keeping

A sundial (Photo taken by Alexandre Mirgorodski)
I'd like to wish all the readers of this blog a very happy and prosperous New Year and would like to indulge a little of your time to talk about the very thing that allow us to have these celebrations in the first place; the science of chronometry; the science of timekeeping. This is not to be confused with horology which is the study of the instruments used to measure time.

Time keeping is a very fastidious sort of activity you can ever engage in. This is because time is but a continuous value; you can keep on dividing it till you end up with extremely small measurements like microsecond (millionth of a second), nanosecond (billionth) or even picoseconds (trillionth), depending on the level of accuracy you want.

What's worse, we have come to realise that the time is not an absolute dimension, but a relative one, i.e. it changes in the rate of progression due to the distortion of the space-time continuum (imagine reality as a fabric with time being one of the threads; gravitational distortion changes the appearance of reality as well as the time in said reality). These distortions are not very noticeable when we measure time with your dependable Rolex watch for two reasons: first, it's not accurate enough. You need to have a pretty high level of measurement to detect the subtle changes in the flow of time due to the gravitational distortion brought about by Earth. Global Positioning Satellites have such exquisitely accurate clocks that they have to take this discrepancy into account when calculating positions on the ground where time moves slightly slower.

Also, just to muddy the waters a bit, the standards used to measure time and to set our various clocks to may tend to gain or lose time as they keep on ticking. These errors can accumulate with time and cause us to become hopelessly disconnected from reality.
A chip-sized atomic clock; these
are some of the most powerful
time keepers around. (Commons)

Speaking of reality, we do like it if these tick-tocking standards march to the tune of our everyday lives; we wish to wake up when the sun's actually up and not before or we would like the clock to be accurate enough to tell our computers to start trading with the stock markets the moment the opening bell rings. And astronomers would like the little star in the sky to be right there when they expect it to. It is incredible to realise how much humans have been dependent on clocks to measure and predict so many regular aspects of our lives. With time, our clocks have become more elaborate (think computers) but we are still vexed by the need to accurately match this regularity to human nuances (think time zones, calender types and the bizarre day light savings). Our desire to mark out cyclical events in our lives (the calender or almanac) sometimes forces us to make reconcile natural temporal variations with our more accurate ability of timekeeping. This brings out very interesting problems.

Consider for example a software developer trying to write up an app that needs to do some accurate international time keeping. The result is illustrated very well in this video. Happy 2014 everybody!


P.S. That little reference about Google's way of dealing with some of the issues mentioned can be found here.