Friday, October 26, 2012

Goethe's Blog: Coffee Shop

I am in a coffee shop.

Sipping Lipton tea, because I do not have enough money for a cappuccino.
And because I can get free hot water refills without having to buy more teabags.
As long as I keep on sipping my tea, they cannot kick me out and I get to use their free Wi-fi.

I think I have hit rock bottom.

I have $ 370,000 in student loans – not a big surprise after getting a B.A. in philosophy, attending four years of medical school, two years of law school and even a Master of Divinity.

But no real job. Probably because I have never applied for a full-time job.
I get by, teaching at community colleges as an adjunct professor and tutoring some lazy high school students who are not very bright but happen to have rich parents. This is enough to pay my rent, but I do not have health insurance and I cannot defer my loan payments any longer.

I know that I am smarter than all the other professors and students, and I do not care that they do not recognize my brilliance. The fact that they think I am a loser is the best proof for my superiority. The unrecognized genius. 

The sad thing is that I am so smart that I know I am ignorant. They are so ignorant that they think they are smart. I like these two sentences. Maybe one day I will turn them into an aphorism.

The lady at the counter is glaring at me. I do not care. 

I keep on sipping my homeopathic Lipton tea. I think it is my sixth hot water refill, all from one teabag. If homeopathy works, than the tea buzz should get stronger with every refill. No buzz yet, but I probably just need to dilute it further. 

I think I know why I am so lazy. I am not afraid. Once I realized that I was smarter than every other person, I lost both - my ambition and my conscience.

As I am going through my email on my laptop, I see one email that does excite me. it bears the symbol of the elite hackers. Hacking into databases, uncovering secrets that nobody else has access to, this sounds like something I want to devote myself to. True knowledge, occult knowledge. I might make some money, too.

 All I need to do is to click on this link and I will join the ranks of the greatest hackers that have ever lived on this planet.  

I think I am going to be a hacker.

Image via WikimediaPainting by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787 

Thursday, October 25, 2012


The word "blog" is a portmanteau derived from "web" and "log", because the earliest "blogs" were simply online diaries or online logs. I thought that it might be fun to create fictional blogs for famous literary or philosophical figures that are living in the present and sharing their personal thoughts with the world in the form of blog posts. I therefore proudly coined the portmanteau "flog", derived from "fictional" and "blog", but the “f” could represent a number of other f-words, such as "frustration", “funny” or “fake”. The words "flog" and “flogging” would also evoke images of literary characters being flogged by the challenges of contemporary life, i.e. imagine Goethe struggling with the fact that he has just written down a brilliant poem, but for some unfathomable reason, Windows Vista has crashed, his USB flash drive has become unreadable and the poem is lost forever. 

I googled the term "flog", just to make sure that it was truly unique and novel, but Wikipedia revealed that the word has already been taken. In digispeak, “flog” is used in a whole host of contexts, including “fictional blog”, “food blog”, “fake blog”. I then decided to coin a new portmanteau (I only recently learned what this word means, so I have the urge to keep on using it) – “phlog”, derived from “philosophical blog”. It turns out that “phlog” is already in use, apparently for a blog written with a Gopher protocol. I don’t really understand what that means, but I know that I cannot use it.

I have finally come up with a truly original portmanteau: “Phflog” – philosophical fictional blog. It is pronounced /fflɒɡ/ and the only way to distinguish it from just plain old “flog” is that “phflog” has a prolonged “f” sound in the beginning. I will soon start with some phflog-posts, probably some for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and for Friedrich Nietzsche, both of them living in the present day USA. The phflogs will contain fragments of their writings or quotes from their books, intermingled with some present day events. This is a bit of an experiment and I would like to see where it goes.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Finding the Beauty of Atheism During Ramadan

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims all around the world fast by abstaining from food and drink during daytime hours. In addition to participating in these physical aspects of fasting, Muslims also see the month of Ramadan as an opportunity for spiritual growth. How this spiritual growth is achieved varies widely between cultures and individuals. Many Muslims devote an extraordinary amount of time to performing prayers, set aside time and money for charitable activities or study the Quran. My own approach to spiritual growth during Ramadan is to study the Scriptures and writings of other faiths and belief systems. I also like to engage in such interfaith readings outside of the month of Ramadan, but during Ramadan, my desire to learn about other faiths and beliefs intensifies.

The most plausible explanation for this is that my glucose-starved brain and dehydrated body are impatiently nudging me toward other belief systems as a reaction to depriving my body of food and drink for 17 hours. Nevertheless, plausibility does not necessarily make an explanation appealing. I have developed a personal, idiosyncratic explanation, which is (partly) grounded in the Muslim tradition. According to the Muslim narratives, God places the devils in chains during the month of Ramadan as a mercy to humans so that they can grow spiritually and are less likely to be lead astray by devils. The image that always comes to my mind is that of Mephistopheles from Goethe's Faust, in the classic performance by Gustaf Gründgens. I imagine Mephistopheles in an orange jump-suit, all chained up in a prison cell, cracking witty jokes and making snide comments, but unable to reach his target audience. I envision the devil leading humans astray by dampening our curiosity and our willingness to engage in dialogue; by preventing us from learning about what lies beyond our intellectual, spiritual and creative horizon and by creating a false sense of comfort. I believe that once the devil is placed in shackles during Ramadan, he is forced to release us from our cozy narrow-mindedness. My personal mythical narrative that I have developed around how the imprisoned devil fosters my interest in other faiths may not hold up to rigorous psychological testing or to traditional Muslim theology, but I want to stick with it.

In the course of studying non-Muslim writings and Scriptures during this past Ramadan, I came across the excellent essay "What I Believe" by the great atheist philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. This essay can be found in a collection of essays, including the famous or perhaps infamous "Why I Am Not a Christian". I remember reading this essay collection a number of years ago, but as with many of Bertrand Russell's writings, it does not hurt to continuously re-read them since one is bound to find new facets of wisdom each time. In "What I Believe" Russell formulates some of the key principles of his humanist and atheist philosophy.

Part of the essay is devoted to critiquing religion, such as when he says: 

"Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad."

Russell acknowledges that fear is found not only in religion, but in many aspects of our society.

"Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion."

Fear of human beings continues to dominate much of our lives today, nearly one century after Russell wrote these prescient words. When we look at sensationalist descriptions of infectious super-bugs, looming economic catastrophes, fear of wars and attacks -- our media and politics engulf us in a blanket of fear. Russell's comments about the emphasis on fear in religion are primarily directed toward the Christian faith, but I think they are applicable to the Muslim faith, too, since the recent Friday sermons that I attended all seem to harp on the importance of fearing God and hell-fire. Russell then offers us a vision of a "good life" without fear:

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."
 This sentence encapsulates the beauty of atheism. Contemporary best-selling books and debates on TV often like to portray atheism as a form of anti-theism, as if its sole purpose were to fight religion. This feeds on the sensationalism of the public, thus boosting book-sales and guaranteeing large audiences, but it does not always do justice to the beauty and depth of atheism. At its core, atheism is not so much an anti-theism, but a life-affirming philosophy that celebrates the human spirit and intellect without relying on a supernatural force.

The remainder of the essay highlights the importance of cultivating courage as a means of overcoming fear, and clarifies what is meant with courage:

"But courage in fighting is by no means the only form, nor perhaps even the most important. There is courage in facing poverty, courage in facing derision, courage in facing the hostility of one's own herd. In these, the bravest soldiers are often lamentably deficient. And above all there is the courage to think calmly and rationally in the face of danger, and to control the impulse of panic fear or panic rage."

After reading the essay, I felt a sense of joy and hope. Joy because I had read an excellent essay with profound insights into human nature and hope because Russell eloquently reminded us that there is a path to the "good life" for all humans, as long as we are able to help each other overcome our fears and are guided by knowledge.

Sir, You Are Mental!

Monroe County Insane Asylum

I received a phone call this morning. The caller ID showed "Private Caller", so I could not discern who it was, but on a whim I picked up the phone. The person on the other line said "Asalamualaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu". I responded with my salam, but I started feeling uneasy. The full, prolonged salam greeting including the "warahmutallahi wa barakatu" instead of just the more common brief "Asalamualaykum" ( or the even shorter IndoPak "Slamalaykum") has generally been a poor prognostic sign. It evokes images of bearded men, sermons, lectures and pronouncements about hell-fire. It usually also indicates that I am about to begin an unpleasant or boring conversation. 

The man on the other line then started speaking in Urdu and told me how this day would change my life. He also kept on mentioning AT&T, which I found rather distracting, since I do not associate this multimedia conglomerate with life-changing events. I figured that it was some sort of a scam or a telemarketer trying to get me to switch my telephone service and I pretended that I did not understand the Urdu. In a thick IndoPak accent, he then said "No problem!" I envisioned a head-bob with the "No problem!", then I heard a few clicks, some voices whispering to each other, and strangely enough, David Bowie's "Absolute Beginners" playing in the background. 

If it hadn't been for David Bowie, I would have probably hung up, but the combination of AT&T, David Bowie and conspiratorial whispers was just too tantalizing. Then another voice came on the line, speaking English with an equally thick IndoPak accent. He used the more universal and secular "Good morning, Sir!" greeting and introduced himself as "Ashok Verma". He then proceeded to say that I was extremely lucky, because the AT&T lottery had chosen me to receive $40,000.

From there on, the conversation went downhill.

"Why have I won $40,000?", I wanted to know.

"That is not your problem, Sir. This is the AT&T lottery and every day we pick one person to win $40,000. You are the lucky one today."

"I never entered a contest. How can I win money?", I asked.

"Don't worry about this, Sir. Just give us your account number and we will transfer the money into your account."

Obviously, this phone call had nothing to do with AT&T, which does not run a lottery. At first I thought it was a prank call, but this request for my bank info was quite specific. This was probably just the plain old 419-scam (named after section 419 in the Nigerian legal code), like the ones we normally find in emails. These 419-emails ask to give our account number so that large amounts of money can be transferred into them from obscure, jilted politicians, claiming that they are based in Nigeria or other West African countries. Unsuspecting (and greedy) folks occasionally fall for this and hand out their bank information, but instead of receiving millions of dollars from West Africa, they see money disappearing from their own bank account. I know about the email scams, but this was my first 419-phone call.  

The background song "Absolute Beginners" had ended and now I heard some Bollywood music song playing, while the person on the other line was patiently waiting for my account details. I decided to play my own game and said:

"I work with the Naperville police fraud detection unit and I am supposed to report any fraud attempt to them. Can you please give me your exact name, number and address so I can report you?"

I do not think that the small town of Naperville has a fraud detection unit, but I figured this small lie was not as outrageous as my request for the caller's phone number and address.

Suddenly the background music was turned off.

"What you say?", he asked, with an even heavier IndoPak accent and some anxiety.

I calmly repeated my request.

Then he became very agitated and started yelling:

"Sir, you are mental! I am giving you money and you bring the police into this!"

I told him that we routinely receive calls like this and in our town, we have been told by the police to immediately contact the fraud detection unit so they can start the investigation. 

He first yelled at me and said "You do not need a police station, you need to go to a mental hospital. You are saying no to free money. Sir, you are mental!"

Then someone in the background yelled something and the line went dead.


Friday, October 19, 2012

The Prize in Biology in Memory of Alfred Nobel

The days leading up to the announcements of the Nobel Prizes as well as the aftermath are gossip heaven for us scientists. We love to speculate who will win and after the announcements, we exchange wild conspiracy theories, talk about the painful snubs and pontificate on whether or not the recipients deserve the honors. Our dark side also tends to chime in and we exhibit some Schadenfreude when the more pompous leaders in a field are snubbed and some of us also salaciously look forward to another Nobel scandal.

The announcement that John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka are the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was a special treat for me. Usually, when I hear about the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prizes, the discoveries for which the recipients are honored either occurred decades ago or were in areas of biomedical research that are not directly my area of interest.

Wikimedia / Marcela
This year’s Nobel Prize was awarded to Gurdon and Yamanaka for their ground-breaking work, which showed that adult, mature cells can be reprogrammed to an immature, stem cell state. This discovery is the basis of much of the work in my own laboratory and as I write this, I know that stem cells are being cultured in my laboratory using the methods that Yamanaka developed only six years ago. When I read the paper by Takahashi and Yamanaka published in the journal Cell in 2006, I knew that I was witnessing a land-mark discovery by brilliant scientists, and many of us in the stem cell field have been expecting that Yamanaka would receive the Nobel Prize for his work, we just seemed to disagree about the year in which he would receive it.

John Gurdon’s work dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when he showed that nuclei from adult cells of the Xenopus frog could be transplanted into an enucleated egg and give rise to healthy frogs – the first example of animal cloning. Gurdon challenged the older paradigm that once a cell becomes mature, it cannot go back. His work was a conceptual revolution and many of his colleagues were initially resistant to embracing this paradigm shift. Gurdon’s seminal findings gradually convinced many other scientists to embrace his ideas and he inspired numerous other scientists to attempt cloning of other animals. The mechanisms of how the reprogramming occurred remained a mystery. How could a nucleus of an adult cell suddenly activate the transcriptional program of its embryonic past simply by being transplanted into an egg cell without a nucleus?

This type of nuclear reprogramming was also rather cumbersome, especially in adult mammals. Extracting the nucleus of an adult cell and then injecting it into a single egg cell required a lot of expertise and was not ready for a widespread use in stem cell laboratories. When Yamanaka published a method nearly 50 years later in which the reprogramming to the embryonic-like state could be initiated by merely implanting four genetic regulators into an adult mouse cell, the idea of reprogramming adult cells suddenly caught on. Within a matter of months, other laboratories confirmed the findings and his paper became one of the most highly cited papers in recent history. In a period of just six years, Yamanaka’s paper has been cited more than 4,000 times! Yamanaka then published a second paper in 2007, showing that adult human skin cells could be reprogrammed to the embryonic-like induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) state and this has lead to the generation of stem cell lines from numerous patients.

I think most stem cell biologist will agree that both Gurdon and Yamanaka deserve the Nobel Prize for their discoveries. Some may ask why the first author Kazutoshi Takahashi on the landmark 2006 paper was not a co-recipient. Others may wonder about whether the scientists who developed techniques to culture human embryonic stem cells should also have been honored, because without their hard work, Takahashi and Yamanaka may not have been able to culture the human iPSCs. Such questions common after all Nobel Prize announcements, and are in part due to the stringent requirement that the Nobel Prize can be shared by no more than three researchers, a requirement that should perhaps be reconsidered in our age of collaborative and networked discovery.

The question that bothers me, however, is why John Gurdon had to wait so long for his Nobel Prize. He had published many of the papers that convincingly documented successful reprogramming of adult Xenopus cells nearly 50 years ago. This was a pioneering discovery that challenged the paradigm of irreversible differentiation during development and had a major impact on the thinking of not just developmental biologists, but biologists from numerous disciplines.

The Lasker Foundation also recognized the importance of John Gurdon’s work, when it awarded the prestigious Lasker Basic Medical Research Award to both, Gurdon and Yamanaka in 2009. I think the obvious reason for Gurdon’s recognition in recent years is that Yamanaka’s method of reprogramming allowed for a much broader application of Gurdon’s idea to mammalian and human cells, in a manner that can will likely be used for regenerative therapies, disease modeling and screening of patient specific pharmaceutical agents.

If Yamanaka had not published his work on reprogramming mouse and human cells, would Gurdon have still received the Nobel Prize? This is a speculative question, but I think the answer is “No”, because the awarded Nobel Prize is in “Medicine or Physiology“. The title of the prize implies that the discovery has to have a link to medicine or normal physiology, but this makes it difficult to justify awarding the prize for ground-breaking discoveries in biology without a direct relevance for medicine or physiology. When the Nobel prizes were established more than a century ago, biology as an independent science was still in its infancy. The past century has brought us remarkable discoveries in biology, such as those in the areas of evolution or photosynthesis, which do not have a direct medical application. Just like the Nobel Prize in Physics honors great intellectual feats in the field of physics without documenting that these discoveries will lead to new technologies, biological discoveries should be similarly recognized without having to await imminent medical relevance.

Even though Nobel did not establish a Nobel Prize in Economics, the Sveriges Riksbank responded to the recognition for the need of such a Nobel Prize by donating the required money to the Nobel Foundation to establish “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel“. It has this convoluted name, because it is technically not a “Nobel Prize” and was not part of Nobel’s will, but it is still administered by the Nobel Foundation like all the other Nobel prizes and this is why in common parlance, we all refer to it as the Nobel Prize in Economics. I think that we have to realize there is a similar need for a Nobel Prize in Biology, to honor outstanding biological discoveries that stand on their own, without having to prove their medical relevance. Establishing the “The Prize in Biology in Memory of Alfred Nobel“, would be one way to recognize discoveries in biology and also foster even greater interest in this field, that will likely become one of the most important sciences of the 21st century.

This article was originally published on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

Lady Gaga's Brother May Convert to Islam

OCTOBER 19, 2012 GOTHAM CITY, NY - Joey Germanotta is not as famous as his older sister Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, who is also known as "Lady Gaga". This could change in light of Joey's recent press conference in the Gotham City Public Library. In a meeting room packed with 29 tweeters, 14 bloggers and one journalist, Joey announced that he was considering a conversion to Islam. While most of his audience stared at him with obvious shock and incredulity, the first tweets regarding the announcement were already being transmitted to the outside world, together with the new Twitter hashtags #joeymuslim and #ladygagabrotherislam.

Lady Gaga in Japan
via Wikimedia / Giorgio Zeniquel 
One blogger immediately asked: "What is it that attracted you to the Muslim faith? Have you met Muslims and read books about Islam?" Joey responded by saying, "I do not really know any Muslims and haven't read any books, but I kind of know that Muslim men get to boss around women and blow up stuff, which sounds pretty cool!"

When Joey was asked whether his decision had anything to do with Lady Gaga, he screamed, "This is my press conference and this has nothing to do with Stef! I hated growing up as her little brother, because she always wanted to be the center of the attention. She got to be in all the high school musicals and wear those great costumes. I also wanted to be in the musicals but nobody cared about me. It used to be all about Stef, Stef, Stef! But this will change now, and my decisions have nothing to do with her." In closing, Joey said that he had not decided if and when he would eventually become Muslim, but he would hold another press conference once he had made up his mind. He also encouraged everybody to follow him on Twitter @joeykingoftheworld.

In a rare display of harmony, two rival Muslim organizations COCA (Central Organization of Compassion in America) and COLA (Central Organization of Light in America) issued a joint statement following Joey's press conference:
 "We hope that Joey will soon join the Muslim faith and we see this as a reward for the great work that our organizations have done during the past years. We realize that becoming part of our faith is enough of an incentive, but Joey and other people should know that new celebrity converts receive a free iPad 2, preloaded with Muslim apps such as iHumility. We would also like to use this opportunity to remind Muslims that they need to increase their donations to our organizations in order to support our tireless efforts." 
Joey's announcement also elicited very critical comments. An organization of conservative American fathers called "Don't Ask, Don't Sin" (DADS) issued the following statement: 

"It is the culture of feminism, Marxism, fascism, homosexuality and Darwinism that is propagated by our liberal elites which makes victims like Joey convert to Islam. If Joey were able to assert his manhood in our own culture, we would not lose him to Shariah-wielding Islamists."

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Huffington Post 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Porkophobia": A closer look at the Muslim culture of disgust

A puzzling phenomenon in contemporary Muslim culture is that of “porkophobia.” Porkophobia describes a syndrome that includes many symptoms such as severe disgust, waves of nausea with occasional vomiting or increased heart rates and sweating when Muslims encounter pork or pigs. Importantly, these reactions do not require the ingestion of pork, they are even observed when Muslims see pork or pigs. In more severe forms of porkophobia, the mere image of a pig on TV or the realization that one has touched (not snacked on!) pig skin leather elicits similar reactions of revulsion. This severe form of porkophobia is not restricted to Muslims growing up in pig-free Muslim countries, but is also found amongst Muslims living in countries where pork is commonly eaten and pigs are used as important farm animals.

I suffer from moderate to severe porkophobia, even though I sometimes have difficulties admitting how severe my ailment is. For example, I tried to laugh it off when some family friends gave us the movie “Babe: A pig in the city” as a present and inquired if it was a problem that the starring role was played by a pig. I have a hard time telling friends that according to the Chinese astrological calendar, I was born in the year of the pig even though the characteristics attributed to this astrological sign include fine qualities such as honesty, diligence and kindness. I also sympathized with a Muslim father who was being asked by his 3-year old daughter what the name of the small pink plastic animal was that she was holding in her hand. He first said this toy had no name, he then tried to kick it under his chair so she could not reach it, and because she persisted, he ended up saying it was a pink goat.

These reactions amongst Muslims to images of pork are not completely surprising. Muslims often point to the prohibition on eating pork found in the Quran and the Jewish kashrut laws. However, even though the Qur’an prohibits eating pork, it does not necessarily prohibit seeing talking pigs in a movie, owning pig-leather shoes or reading a Dr. Seuss book entitled “Green Eggs and Ham”. The porkophobic culture that is prevalent in many Muslim households has created an anti-pork and anti-pig culture that by far exceeds the actual religious prohibitions on ingesting pork.

It is remarkable how a whole culture of disgust evolved from a straightforward dietary law. When I have addressed this issue with fellow Muslims, they suggest that instilling porkophobia into the subconscious minds of Muslims prevents them from even considering the ingestion of pork. I have to agree that this strategy is very efficacious. I have virtually never seen anybody who refers to himself or herself as a Muslim ever eat pork. But what is most puzzling, however, is that this simple dietary law has lead to a whole culture of disgust, whereas other Islamic laws and Qur’anic prescriptions have not. One is much more likely to encounter a Muslim who drinks alcohol, commits adultery or collects interest on his loans than one who eats a bacon sandwich. While some argue that the prohibition of alcohol is more vague in Islam than the prohibition on pork, there is no doubt that Islam is very clear on prohibiting adultery and exploiting poverty-stricken people by charging interest on loans.

Why have other Islamic prescriptions and prohibitions not lead to a similar culture of disgust? Avoidance of pork has fairly minor sociopolitical relevance, it is not part of the five pillars of Muslim faith and it has never been a central message of Islam. In short, it is not a defining characteristic of Islam. The phenomenon of porkophobia has given a dietary law such a high level of importance that if a compassionate and generous Muslim were ever observed to be eating pork in public, he or she would be ostracized by the Muslim community. In contrast, contemporary Muslims have not developed a similar culture of revulsion when they see the un-Islamic practice of exploitation. Many Muslims would have no problems watching a movie with Michael Douglas acting as an aggressive CEO whose actions can have disastrous effects on the lives of his employees, while they might indeed have a problem if they saw Michael Douglas eating five strips of bacon in that same movie.

One answer to this puzzle is that porkophobia allows Muslims to maintain their identity especially when living as a minority in a predominantly non-Muslim culture with a straightforward criterion: Do you eat pork or not? The avoidance of pork is not that difficult. Even in Southern Germany, which is the heartland of pork sausages, one can easily avoid eating pork without disrupting one’s life or social relations. Therefore, the avoidance of pork does not have many untoward social or economic consequences for Muslims but it still allows them to feel a connection to their perceived religious identity.

On the other hand, “exploitophobia” would cause major problems for Muslims. Much of the modern economy is built on exploiting workers and charging excessive interest rates. If the thought of how Islam prohibits the charging of interest on loans or the exploitation of fellow humans were to lead to a culture of disgust, Muslims would have a hard time working in most parts of the modern economy. Thus, it is more convenient to allow the pork-prohibition to become a faux-principle of faith.

This elevation of comparatively less important aspects of Muslim faith to become the new core principles is not just limited to the avoidance of pork. It seems that the practice of Islam is often reduced to issues such as clothing, language or diet. These can be more conveniently implemented and monitored than the complex pursuits of knowledge, social justice or spiritual growth, which lie at the core of the faith.

Porkophobia therefore seems to have emerged as a convenient way for people to “feel Muslim,” by developing a whole culture of disgust around a dietary law. Muslims could perhaps consider whether one should use the power of revulsion to convey ideas that are more central to Islam rather than the mere avoidance of pork. Wouldn’t it be better if Muslims felt a porkophobia-like revulsion when encountering race and gender-based discrimination, domestic abuse, poverty or social injustice?

An earlier version of this article was originally published on the Altmuslim blog.

Whistling Pigs: German Adventures with Google Translate

Bilingual or multilingual friends can be quite annoying. Especially if you’re stuck at a social gathering with the ones who repeatedly mention their language skills and utter phrases such as ”Well, if only you could read this novel in the original, you would have a much more profound understanding of what the author wanted to express…..”. Or the ones who like to cite French, German and Arabic language newspaper articles and then remind you with a thinly veiled pomposity that you may have a very narrow view of the world if you only rely on English-language news.

Via Bert Kaufmann (Creative Commons license)
However, this latter group is becoming more rare, possibly because a formidable foe is taking the wind out of their sails: Google Translate. The excellent book “Is That a Fish In Your Ear” by David Bellos has a chapter entitled “The Adventure of Automated Language-Translation Machines”, which is especially thought-provoking, because it explains some key concepts about Google Translate and the future of automated translation.

If a user enters a text into Google Translate, the linguistic search engine scours the Internet for multilingual texts, ranging from official documents posted by the European Union to articles and books that are available online in bilingual or multilingual versions. Using pattern recognition algorithms and statistical methods, Google Translate matches words and phrases contained in the user-entered text with those found in the large online repository of previously translated texts.

The underlying assumption of Google Translate is that any new text requiring translation contains phrases and word patterns that have been adequately translated in the existing online collection of bilingual or multilingual texts. Anyone who has used Google Translate can appreciate the success of this approach. While old-fashioned automated word-for-word translation often resulted in garbled paragraphs, the pattern recognition method of Google Translate does a rather impressive job of creating intelligible translations within seconds. For better or worse, this tool permits news-addicts to follow international major news stories in real-time as they develop by reading Google Translate’s renditions of local media, without having to wait for translations by bothersome multilingual friends. Google Translate allowed us to receive up-to-date information from the Japanese media as the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan was unfolding, and it also allowed us to read newspaper articles and editorials written in Arabic by journalists in Egypt or Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

I have often tested Google Translate by letting it translate newspaper articles from my native German into English and found the translations to be remarkably accurate. The English translations not only convey the gist of the original German article, but also include lucid and accurate translations of details contained in the original articles. However, most of these German newspaper articles are fairly functional and terse in terms of the vocabulary and phrases that are used. The few times that I’ve entered German essays or editorials written by linguistically gifted authors into Google Translate, the outcomes have been rather comical, especially if the German texts contained idiomatic expressions, puns or proverbs.

This may not come as a big surprise, because the efficacy of Google Translate is heavily dependent on the presence of consistent patterns of translation in the bilingual text repository that it accesses. Figurative expressions and idioms may not be that common in the existing catalogue of Google Translate texts. Even if figurative or idiomatic expressions are present in the Google Translate database, the translators may have used very context-specific methods to translate the expressions. German idioms often reflect historical events or cultural traditions, often reaching back to medieval history. It can be challenging to translate these idioms into a language with a different set of idioms which reflect a distinct history or culture. Some translators may choose to translate an idiom in the German text with a matching idiom in the target language. Other translators, on the other hand, may instead focus on translating the imagery or historical associations evoked by the idiomatic expression. Inspired by Bellos’ book, I decided to choose some of my favorite German idioms and see how Google Translate would translate them into English.

The judgmental staff

  • German original: Du kannst doch nicht den Stab über ihn brechen!
  • Google Translate: You can not break the rod of him!

The literal translation of the German phrase would be “You cannot break the staff over him!“ and is not too different from the one suggested by Google Translate. However, without the proper historical context, the translation appears to be rather incomprehensible. The German idiom refers to the medieval tradition of a Stab (staff or rod) being a symbol of power, especially in a courtroom. A judge would hold the staff during a trial, but if the defendant was sentenced to death, the judge broke the staff, possibly indicating that the defendant’s fate was now beyond the judge’s hands. The expression is used today if someone pronounces a negative judgment or condemns a fellow person. This expression is used to emphasize the importance of necessary caution before making pre-emptive judgments that may have irreversible consequences. In our contemporary culture and immediate access to online information, we are often tempted to judge the words and actions of fellow humans. I like this German idiom because invoking the image of a judge breaking a staff and pronouncing a death sentence may help promote the ideas of restraint and introspection.

Itchy ideas

  • German original: Du hast ihm einen Floh ins Ohr gesetzt.
  • Google Translate: You have him put a flea in his ear.

Google does a fine job of providing a literal translation of this German idiom, but it does not necessarily convey its meaning. The idiom is used to describe an idea or thought that we may have heard and are unable to let go. I enjoy the image of the “itching flea” in the ear, because I often obsess about certain ideas and I feel that I cannot easily disassociate from these “itching” thoughts. I have occasionally seen the translation of this German idiom with the English expression “bee in the bonnet”, however, the sensation of “itching” is perhaps a more intimate and painful description of an obsession rather than the buzzing within a hat.

Illicit stupidity

  • German original: Er ist dümmer als die Polizei erlaubt.
  • Google Translate: He is dumber than the police allowed.

Let us be very upfront about this: It is not (yet) a crime to be stupid in Germany. We currently do not have Colonel Klink-type policemen patrolling the streets and administering IQ-alyzers to weed out potential offenders, even though this idiom may suggest that we do. In everyday parlance, this idiom expresses the frustration resulting from someone’s ignorant behavior or actions.

The joy of stealing horses

  • German original: Mit dir kann man Pferde stehlen!
  • Google Translate: With you is a good sport!

The literal translation of this German phrase is “I could steal horses with you”, and it denotes great friendship and trust. The punishment for being caught stealing horses in medieval times was quite severe and one would only undertake such a task with a truly trustworthy friend. It also implies that this particular friend is open to exciting adventures, and this may be the reason why Google Translate suggests the “good sport” translation. However, “good sport” misses the core ideas of deep trust and friendship that thieving comrades would need to plan the grand theft of horses. The English expression “thick as thieves” may be a more suitable match.

It comes down to the sausage

  • German original: Jetzt geht es um die Wurst!
  • Google Translate: Now it comes to sausages!

When describing critical decisions, we Germans do not strive for world domination as some Hollywood movies would like you to believe. The expression literally translates to “Now it comes down to the sausage!” and it conjures up images of our not-so-elegant cuisine which primarily consists of meat and potatoes. During traditional German county fairs and folk festivals, games were held in which young men or boys would compete for the coveted Grand Prize: a large sausage. The allure of this prize created this expression which refers to crucial life-defining moments.

Whistling pigs

  • German original: Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!
  • Google Translate: I think my rocker!

This German idiom literally translates into “I think my pig is whistling” and is meant to signify tremendous surprise (i.e. “I am really, really surprised!”), because most German pigs do not have a habit of whistling. The Google Translate choice of “rocker” probably refers to the English expression “off my rocker” and is an example of the search engine’s pattern recognition of this German idiomatic expression, which may have been translated using the English language idiom “off my rocker” in some texts. However, “off my rocker” may not be the best choice, because it not only avoids the endearing images of whistling pigs but also because “off my rocker” tends to have a connotation of transient insanity, confusion or craziness, more than a state of marked surprise.

Mysterious Bohemian villages

  • German original: Für mich sind das böhmische Dörfer.
  • Google Translate: For me, the Bohemian villages.

The literal translation of the German phrase above is “These are Bohemian villages for me” and this German idiom is used to indicate a state of confusion, comparable to the English “This sounds like Greek to me”. This phrase was popularized during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648) which engulfed a large portion of Europe. Bohemia, which is now referred to as the Czech Republic, has always had a long-standing multi-lingual tradition due to the linguistic and ethnic diversity of its citizens. While Czech was the language of the majority population, German became a second official language and was widely spoken in Bohemia. The Bohemian Revolt is considered to be one of the triggers for the Thirty Year War. During this devastating war, armies marched through and destroyed numerous European towns and villages. Large portions of the civilian population were uprooted and forced to settle elsewhere. Amidst this chaos, many German-speaking soldiers or refugees ended up in Bohemian villages which had signs that were printed only in Czech, and thus may have had difficulties deciphering them. This wartime upheaval probably gave birth to the German idiom about mysterious or confusing Bohemian villages.

 The yoke of the yolk

  • German original: Das ist nicht das Gelbe vom Ei!
  • Google Translate: That’s not exactly brilliant!

Once upon a time, people used to love egg yolks. The egg yolk was considered to be the most nutritious and tastiest part of an egg. The German phrase “Das ist nicht das Gelbe vom Ei!” literally means “This is not the yellow of the egg” and is used as a way to express dissatisfaction, because the essence or the best part (i.e. the egg yolk) is missing. This idiom is still often used in contemporary German, but I wonder whether future generations will retain it. Since the adverse effects of high cholesterol on cardiovascular disease are highly publicized, many of us suppress our desire for cholesterol-rich egg yolks and instead opt for egg white omelets with a side of organic tofu.


Schadenfreude is a German word that probably needs no translation since it is commonly used by English speakers. It refers to the Freude (joy or satisfaction) that one feels in light of someone else’s Schaden (damage or misfortune).  It is by no means a purely German emotion. Most people have probably experienced Schadenfreude at some point in their lives, but perhaps it takes German bluntness to give this universal human emotion an actual name. I have to admit that I felt quite a bit of Schadenfreude, when I saw that Google Translate was giving rather inadequate English translations of the German idioms. I think my Schadenfreude about Google Translate’s failings is based on the fact that it does such a good job with most texts that it makes people who take some degree of pride in their bilingual or multilingual skills feel superfluous. When we see that Google Translate struggles with figurative and idiomatic expressions because they elude the statistical pattern recognition algorithms of Google Translate, it allows us to feel that human translation skills aren't obsolete yet.

While Google Translate’s algorithms may be able to perform the grunt work of translation, we still need quite a bit of human creativity to translate puns, jokes, puzzles and idioms. In its present format, Google Translate offers multiple potential translations of phrases and words. The English translations I chose for the German idioms above were among the most suitable options that Google Translate offered, but even these were not able to properly convey the meanings of the idioms. However, Google Translate is still in its infancy. It is very likely that its repository (or that of other pattern recognition based automated translators) will be substantially expanded over the course of the next years as increasing amounts of bilingual literary texts will be available online. Once this repository incorporates a variety of translations of literary texts, it may become more adept at offering appropriate translations of challenging idioms and figurative expressions.

My initial Schadenfreude about Google Translate’s failings is gradually being replaced by a sense of anticipation in regards to the evolution of online translation. We often enjoy reading translations of books, but we have to keep in mind that superb translations usually represent a composite piece of literary art, co-created by the author of the original text and the translator. When I compare multiple translations of an original text, I not only marvel at the creativity of the respective translators but I also appreciate how different translators interpret the original text by way of choosing how to translate the original. Offering a gamut of potential translations for certain phrases may give the reader a much better sense of what the author of the original text may have wanted to convey.

Instead of mainly awaiting the evolution and improvement of automated translators such as Google Translate, one could also consider exploring another possible avenue for online translation: The creation of collaborative translation platforms. Such a translation platform could build on the success of Wikipedia, where individual users are able to edit encyclopedia entries. Challenging literary texts or essays that are rife with idioms, puns and humor would be excellent candidate texts for a collaborative translation. An automated translator such as Google Translate could create a rough draft which would serve as a starting point. The Wikipedia-like platform would then allow multiple bilingual or multilingual users to edit the translations, ideally offering multiple translations of the more challenging expressions and phrases. As with Wikipedia, these collaborative translations would be performed on a volunteer basis. Original texts that are either in the public domain or are freely accessible to the public would be very well suited for such a platform, and the collaborative translations could be made available under a Creative Commons License.  Such an integration of automated translation and collaboration between numerous users would likely create a plethora of translations of beloved literary texts.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Open Science and Access to Medical Research

Juggling on the Berlin Wall
Wikimedia / Yann

It is rather odd how often I hear the expression paradigm shift during contemporary scientific presentations and seminars. The expression was popularized by Thomas Kuhn’s book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". In that book, Kuhn referred to ground-breaking and revolutionary changes in scientific thought as paradigm shifts, but the expression is so over-used today that even minor discoveries are sometimes marketed as paradigm shifts.

However, once in a while a true paradigm shift does come along and I believe we are currently witnessing such an emerging paradigm shift: open science. This concept entails that research results should be freely and openly accessible to the broad scientific colleagues as well as the public.

The idea of open science goes beyond merely providing public access to published scientific articles because it also includes offering access to the original research data. This would permit fellow researchers to help evaluate and analyze the results, so that the broader scientific community as well as the public can weigh in on the interpretation of the scientific findings. This aspect of open science likely does qualify for being a true paradigm shift, because it will require that we think of ourselves as part of research communities and usher in “networked discovery”, as has been described in a recent book by Michael Nielsen and discussed by Bora Zivkovic.

There are still many obstacles that need to be addressed before “open science” becomes generally accepted. Academic publishers currently reap significant profits from selling high-priced annual subscriptions to academic institutions, and they would lose this income if scientists started publishing their results in open-access journals that freely provide articles to readers without charging for subscriptions or per-article fees. Furthermore, academic institutions and individual scientists may be concerned about how they would apply for patents, if the discovery process is networked and involves score sof collaborating scientists.

Marc Kuchner recently wrote about how individual academic careers are currently built on marketing or branding oneself as a leader in defined research areas. If data and research methodologies are openly shared, it becomes much harder for individual investigators to take credit for discoveries and succeed in the competitive academic rat-race. Therefore, the current academic environment does not reward or provide incentives for openly sharing data or research methods.

Nevertheless, under pressure from the public and funding agencies that rightfully demand public access to the results of the funded research, it is likely that our current research culture will change. We will gradually tear down the walls that exist in our current scientific culture. It will not happen overnight, and we will have to develop new infrastructures to share scientific data, novel ways to assess academic success and reward contributions of individual scientists as well as establish high quality open access journals in a variety of scientific areas.

However, one has to keep in mind that certain areas of research are associated with unique challenges when it comes to the implementation of open science. The obstacles presented openly sharing original data and results in biomedical research may be very different from those in astrophysics.

Clinical research is often funded by the private industry and may thus evade mandates of public funding agencies or not-for-profit foundations to publish in open access journals and openly share results. But even publicly funded biomedical research is characterized by some unique challenges.

One such challenge is the importance of maintaining patient confidentiality when it comes to data sharing. Institutional Review Boards monitor the ethics of studies involving human subjects or patients at all academic institutions and one of their biggest concerns is how personal data of subjects or patients is handled. Usually, the data is de-identifed for the purpose of publication so that any kind of description of the disease state, symptoms, mutations or other findings cannot be linked to individuals.

Only a very small group of trained professionals have access to the names of the subjects or patients and usually only these review the medical charts or personal questionnaires of the participants. If the data-sets are made publicly available, it is imperative that appropriate safeguards are put in place to assure the participants that the data will only be shared in a de-identified format and that anybody seeing the data-set will not be able to link the diseases to the individual identity of the participants.

There is another critical obstacle that needs to be addressed when open science is implemented in medical research. The primary target audience for basic research that is not related to medicine or health consists of fellow scientists and science journalists.

I remember that I started my research career working as a chronobiologist on the circadian rhythms of the unicellular marine algae Gonyaulax polyedra. I doubt that anyone other than fellow scientists or science journalists would have been interested in accessing or interpreting our original data, even if all the data and results had been presented in an open access format.

On the other hand, my research in recent years has shifted to areas that have a more direct medical relevance, such as metabolism and stem cells in vascular disease, heart failure and cancer. My research approach is still focused on basic biological mechanisms, but due to the change in my research topics, I have encountered much broader interest from patients as well as healthcare providers.

Patients with severe chronic illnesses and their loved ones scour the internet for possible new therapies, even if these therapies have not been proven to work. The burden of disease makes them emotionally vulnerable so that they may selectively read and interpret the scientific literature in a manner that gives them false hopes.

For example, I remember talking to one of my heart failure patients who wanted to pay out of his own pocket for a trip to Thailand so that he could receive adult stem cell injections to improve his heart failure. He had found out about this experimental therapy through the internet. Since he did not qualify for any of the ongoing adult stem cell therapy trials in the US, he was extremely interested in trying out this therapy that was being offered overseas (for a substantial fee). He was not aware of the potential side effects of invasive stem cell injections or the importance of quality control and he assumed that it was proven that they work for heart failure. It was only after extensive counseling that he understood there was no clear evidence supporting the therapy and decided to avoid subjecting himself to the questionable therapy.

Many healthcare providers such as practicing physicians do not have a scientific background and are not necessarily trained to critically evaluate research data. They currently rely on review articles or meta-analyses published in respected journals, but they are also influenced by scientific data that are presented to them by representatives or consultants for the pharmaceutical industry.

At first glance, open access to original data sets should increase the transparency of research. However, if we remember the adage that “we only see what we want to see”, we have to realize that open access to research data will also create an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies or for-profit hospitals to promote medical therapies on the basis of limited scientific data.

Selective reporting of the publicly available data by special interest groups could find an excellent breeding ground among emotionally vulnerable patients or healthcare providers who may be easily swayed by the plight and hopes of their patients. One example of selective reporting or selective analysis would be when negative clinical trials are re-analyzed to identify some subgroups of patients that showed a statistically significant improvement with the experimental therapy.

Another example could be that the clinical significance of in vitro cell signaling studies or animal studies could be over-stated. In a traditional academic paper, most of our scientific colleagues (voluntarily or after peer-review) highlight the limitations of their studies. If the data is publicly available, the data would be open to variant interpretations, even by members of the community who are not trained to appropriately interpret the data.

The solution to these potential issues that may arise when we transition to an open science format is not to limit the access of the data. Instead, it is imperative that concomitant with the creation of an open science environment we also build independent institutions or organizations that help interpret the available the data in a manner that non-scientists are able to receive accurate and solid information about the nature and significance of the results.

“Consumer Reports” in the US or “Stiftung Warentest” in Germany routinely test consumer products for their quality and safety, and report them in a manner that members of public can understand the results. Consumers buy subscriptions to their websites or magazines and they enjoy respect among consumers, who have confidence in their unbiased evaluations of products.

One could envision similar institutions that evaluate the biomedical research data and can give solid advice to non-specialists. Ideally, such institutions would need to include independent expert scientists as well as independent experts at communicating science to the broader public. The reason for including expertise in science reporting and science communication is simply due to the fact that many scientists are “communicatively challenged”. It does not help the broader public if a group of scientists charged with providing independent evaluation of publicly available datasets produces reports that are full of technical jargon. As funding agencies and the public push for open access to scientific research data, they also need to push for developing and funding infrastructures that can help the public interpret the openly accessible data.

In summary, I believe that the time for open science and networked discovery has arrived and that it will definitely enhance the progress of scientific research, as long as we build institutions that help us process and understand the flood of scientific data that will be released in the new open science world.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Living Faith Needs Critical Voices

The dark fantasy novel "Kraken" by China Mieville starts off in a museum of natural history and describes in great detail how a giant squid preserved in formalin can appear alive in the large glass tank. The story weaves various aspects of faith, worship and mythology into the story of a mysterious theft of this giant squid that is glorified and worshiped by a group of believers in the city of London.

Giant Pacific Octopus - Wikimedia (Magnus Manske)
When I read the story, I realized that the formalin preservation of the squid itself can be a metaphor for the approach to religion. Just like living creatures are characterized by movement and change, so is a living faith. For a religion to be alive, it needs to self-renew and change, adapt and move. However, believers sometimes focus on preserving and glorifying their religion and religious traditions while neglecting the importance of change, growth and self-renewal. This desire to preserve and glorify can turn a religion into something that is reminiscent of relics and fossils, items that one stares at from behind a glass pane without touching and shaping them.

I was reminded of the Kraken metaphor for religion during this past week-end at the annual ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) convention, one of the largest conventions for Muslims in the United States. I avoided the ISNA convention in past years because when I attended it a number of years ago, I had been disappointed by the lopsidedness of the event. Most presentations had focused on extolling the virtues and greatness of Muslim faith, culture and history, but there had been few, if any, critical lectures and discussions. This past week-end, I was asked to participate in an informal discussion to help define the American Muslim identity and I accepted the invitation, since I am interested in differences between the American and European Muslim identities.

I arrived early, and I decided to take a stroll in the ISNA bazaar, looking at the booths which were displaying books for sale. The prominently displayed books were those which highlighted the beauty of Islam, the importance of Muslim culture and Muslim traditions. Notably absent were recent books that have raised some critical questions about traditional Muslim culture and interpretations of scripture, such as Amina Wadud's critique of the patriarchal readings of the Quran ("Inside the Gender Jihad: Women'sReform in Islam"), Leila Ahmed's discussion of the resurgence of the hijab ("A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East toAmerica"), the critical autobiographical memoir by Michael Muhammad Knight ("Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America") or the landmark analysis by Kecia Ali ("Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith and Jurisprudence"). Perhaps these books were there, just not in plain sight. However, these critical voices are the most important ones that ought to be promoted.

When I thumbed through the program, I found that the sessions again centered on the traditional narratives of Islam. There were definitely some new aspects in the convention program when compared to a few years ago, such as an increased emphasis on interfaith dialogue, the discussion of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and the frequent mention of the word "Islamophobia." But the overall message was still that of exaggerated positivity, presenting a "shiny happy people" version of the faith.

The sessions about prejudice focused on anti-Muslim prejudice, but there were no sessions to discuss the fact that Muslim communities in the USA can also be perpetrators of forms of prejudice such as homophobia.

There was a session on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but based on its description in the program, it centered on highlighting the parallels and not how Muslims can help overcome anti-semitic tendencies found within Muslim communities.

Even though the convention center was buzzing with activity, I was reminded of the Kraken novel and its metaphor of the formalin fixed squid. It seemed that at the ISNA convention, traditional interpretations of the Muslim faith were still being preserved and glorified, and I therefore decided not to attend any of the formal ISNA sessions.

The Muslim faith is not the only faith in America in which preservation and glorification of traditional faith narratives is emphasized over newer critical and dissenting narratives that could lead to change and self-renewal. Some of my Christian friends also struggle to embrace change and recent interpretations in matters of faith. The desire to preserve and glorify faith is understandable, but when this desire becomes the central goal of how to approach faith, it creates a lifeless version of the faith that is better suited for a museum.

Perhaps it is the missionary zeal that is found in both Islam and Christianity or perhaps it is the need to cling on to something familiar in a world that consists of constantly evolving and changing technological and sociopolitical environments that encourages the "museum approach." However, the obsession with tradition ultimately weakens the faith, since true strength comes from encouraging criticism and dissent, as they set the stage for the much needed self-renewal and change.