Western Culture


About five years ago I decided to pen a missive to my future teenage daughter – the reasons for which, deserving a post of their own, will come later. I had in mind that the content would potentially benefit others, so I decided I would write it as a book.

The first draft of the book was coming quickly and I had to decide which tools to use to publish the book. I chose self-publishing because I wanted full control of any future changes / corrections /edits that I might wish to apply – the content deals with some sensitive subjects and I might well wish to improve the clarity of some parts at a later date. What seems clear to the author when written may be ambiguous or misleading to some readers. I was very keen that the presentation of the book be to a high standard, and experience with the usual word processors has taught me that they are a poor choice for those wanting detailed control over the final printed page. I had previously used LateX, a free typesetting package suitable for the more technically oriented, and I was confident that LateX (the X is the upper case of the Greek letter χ (Chi), roughly pronounced as a K, so LateK) would allow me to have the control of the final printed results that I desired.

The book was also to contain a small amount of Arabic content and using Linux I found that the installation of the software together with its many accompanying packages, including Arabic support, was a snap. On its own LateX is a command line tool so I needed to select a GUI based program to actually type out my book into. I chose Kile, a LateX editor based on Qt and from the KDE family of applications. I’m a long time user of Linux and KDE, from the very early days in fact, and have generally had a good experience of it.

So, a couple of chapters written, it was time to have a peek at what the final presentation quality would be. In just a few seconds and using the QuickBuild option I had a pdf document to look at. There were lots of very strange warnings in the program log, but the final results looked great – this was going to be easy, I though to myself! Yes, dear reader, if this was TV or radio and not a piece of italicised text then right now you would hear some deep laughter echoing around the distant hills

bellBefore continuing this particular lamentation, allow my superego to interject. I was ultimately able to produce a very nicely presented book and the pdf that LateX created for me was just right for printing the paperback book via the self-publishing route, so to be fair – LateX did a great job. Now, continuing where I left off…

I completed the main body of the book in a couple of months. I really did write it for my daughter, and I needed time to consider if I would actually publish it for others to read. Over the course of the next few years I would occasionally amend or add to the text, and gave some preliminarily printed copies (using Inky Little Fingers, a UK based printer who I can recommend) to friends to look over. I received some great feedback from them, and they encouraged me to go ahead and release the book.

During this extended period of mullation (OK, that’s not a real word) I designed the front cover, using Inkscape. Inkscape works with vectors (lines, rather than pixels) so the designs that you create can be easily scaled to any size. I then saved the graphic design to pdf and fired up Scribus, which is desktop publishing software, to complete the cover (back page etc.).

This is where my natural lethargy kicked in. Tarek, you are right, I never finish anything. Look, I’m not a completer-finisher. I’m an ideas man. However, this time was going to be different. I would finish it, this was important to me.

So, the time came. This was it. I was going to publish. I had printed a few dozen more copies to give to friends etc., and to send in the post to anyone who wanted to buy it. However, how would anyone know about it? Also, I realised very late in the day, if anyone outside of the UK were interested in buying the book then the P&P would in all likelihood put them off any purchase. I needed an international distributor – Amazon suddenly started looking like my only realistic option. This meant going through  CreateSpace , an Amazon company that specialises in self-publishers. I submitted my pdf and cover design, and before long (through a fairly simple process in fact, kudos to the developers of their web site) I had a copy for review in my hands – just after Christmas 2015 in fact. The front cover image was a little offset to the left, but apart from that it was good.

Now, what about the ebook version? I felt at this late stage that the price I would have to charge for the paperback would be off-putting to too many potential readers. I needed an ebook version. It was here that the pain, unexpectedly, really kicked in. I’m a software developer, by profession and for the love of it. I would write a converter program that would take my source document (in LateX) and convert it to the HTML needed to create an EPUB format file. How hard could it be? Now, when developing IT systems, and software in general, you should never assume anything. It’s always in the assumptions that disaster falls. In this case, I assumed that the LateX document format was logical, consistent, even straightforward. After all, I hadn’t noticed anything untoward when using LateX, and I’m a highly experienced software developer. How wrong we can be! I started writing a parser for LateX sources, to analyse the overall structure of it. This is when it really hit me – LateX might look fairly sensibly structured at first glance, but if you are using various extra packages then the structure very quickly becomes, well, kind of unstructured :-). Each developer of each package can invent his own weird syntax for controlling the extra features. Sure enough, weird syntax abounds. My parser program and the algorithms to process the parsed document quickly became a horrendous mess.

The difficulty was further compounded by the fact that the ebook format is really designed for novels, where there are no complex layouts or odd languages. Technical text books are way out of reach for the format, which is why they tend to look so bad – it’s not entirely the publishers fault. In my case I worked around it by converting the hard parts (mainly decorative Arabic for quranic verses) to images, automated using my program.

Now, if this was a process that I was going to repeat then I would have stopped about half-way and re-written my parser from scratch, using the knowledge I had gained so far through the process. But this was a one-off job, I was nearly finished, I reasoned. Just the footnotes and bibliography left to do, I thought. But no, each last part of the LateX that I converted to HTML just made my program worse and worse. Still, I finally got an EPUB file that was a fair reproduction of the real printed book, Arabic content, pictures, footnotes, bibliography and all.

Using an Amazon provided utility I converted the EPUB file to a MOBI document (which is the ebook format that Amazon requires) and could then email it to my Amazon account, so that I could view it in an Amazon reader. Again, it gets funky. It turns out there are a dozen different Amazon devices and applications that readers could be using – it’s not just plain old Kindles. Each device can render things differently. If you want to keep your readers happy, you need to test your MOBI file on every one of them. Fortunately Amazon provide a device emulator, however it doesn’t work too accurately (overlines and dots under letters are just not rendered as they do on a real device) and recent versions don’t emulate the Kindle! Yes, in the end, despite Amazon providing a device emulator, I had to buy a Kindle just to test how the book would finally look on it. Even now I don’t know how the book will look on older Kindle devices, which run older versions of the software.

Finally, one last task – the ISBN number. I invented a new publisher, being me, which I named Westbury Hill Press. In the UK ISBN numbers can only be bought in batches of 10, and I only needed one (the ebook does not need an ISBN number). It is a simple process if a little pricey (around $150). Using some more free software I created a bar code that I added to the back cover, together with a suggested RRP and a publishing categorisation to make life easier for bookstore owners and librarians (as if they will ever see one! – I wish).

Finally then, I can push the Publish button. The softback is available on Amazon via CreateSpace, and the ebook via Kindle Direct Publishing. I don’t expect many sales, just a handful maybe. But that is not why I wrote the book and I don’t mind, I feel that the responsibility is fulfilled and my job is done.  الحمد لله, Thank God!

Oh, a sample of the  book? Head over to Amazon and download the sample, you can view it in the Amazon Kindle app on your tablet.

Learn more about the book at Westbury Hill Press – A Message For Tuqa.

P.S I’m now ready for further punishment – now to write my book about Madhhabs, Maps and Metaphors – I’ll be back in 5 years :-).

 

 


 

 

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AlHamdulillaah I’ve finished my book A Message For Tuqa.

When a muslim sets off on the straight path he can be overwhelmed with the amount of information available and be left confused by divergent and sometimes controversial opinions.
Originally written by the author for his daughter, this book helps clear the confusion. It provides guidance on how to approach the huge body of knowledge presented to the muslim, understand why opinions diverge, and helps the seeker to keep focussed on the priorities.

What is terrorism?

A few points up front:
1) Killing innocent people is abhorrent and as muslims we totally shun it.
2) There are many things worse things than the ‘terrorism’ we see now – Hiroshima, the fire bombings of Dresden, Hamburg etc., large scale female infanticide etc., etc.
3) There is no universally agreed definition of terrorism vs murder.

Terrorism has been elevated as the worst sort of evil when in fact it is not. It has been elevated in this way because it becomes a convenient ‘justification’ for (particularly) when the government want to attack and/or invade a country or e.g. launch a massive spying operation on the general population.

In terms of our own internal reasoning about the world and what is right and wrong, for me terrorism is when a small group of people get together and attack the larger group of people to achieve a goal, often political. This is wrong and a disaster for the entire society.

If the state goes about the systematic killing of civilians then that is often labelled as state terrorism, perhaps because people have come to think that the biggest accusation/crime is ‘terrorism’ and therefore it’s best to call it that to get the best effect.

The word has become totally degraded to the point of being useless. It’s just a jingoistic expression to lump all resistance into the same group as mindless murderers of civilians – e.g. compare what Hamas do to WWII bombings etc., and what Israel does. Hamas is labelled terrorist (and they do target civilians) but the UK/US/Israel (who also target civilians) are not.

To my mind all targeting of civilians by whatever actors is to be abhorred. Modern warfare is an abomination, nail bombs, cooker bombs, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, daisy cutters, barrel bombings, automatic weapons, drones, tanks, mass killing, destruction of entire cities – a truly foul collection.

Year by year the many ways of communicating with others, both friends and strangers, increases and become easier. Likewise the media has an increasing impact on our lives, to the extent that it can now introduce serious and challenging problems. I want to talk about four areas, that are increasingly overlapping:

  • The Television
  • The Internet
  • The Mobile Phone
  • The News

The Television

24:30

Surat anNur, 24:30-31 – “Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do.”

and in the next ayat:

“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed”

Here I’m talking about video content designed for mass consumption. Until recently this has almost exclusively been viewed in the home through the television, but this content is now available through many other channels such as the internet and mobile phones. It is largely paid for by advertising (the content producers and broadcasters are selling eyeballs to the advertisers) or by subscription or tax (such as in the UK with the TV licence).

With the many changes in attitudes in recent decades, firstly in the sixties with the so called ‘sexual revolution’ and more recently with the widespread consumption of pornography, the images and story lines being presented to us are further and further from Islamic norms. If we allow ourselves to consume a steady diet of this type of programming we become accustomed to such debased material and our standards can, internally, sink to the same level.

On a more mundane note, but also very serious, we can end up wasting large amounts of time in front of these programmes, gaining no benefit whatsoever.

The Prophet (pbuh) said:
“Take benefit of five before five:
your youth before your old age,
your health before your sickness,
your wealth before your poverty,
your free-time before your preoccupation,
and your life before your death.”

My advice regarding the TV and related programming:

  • Try to watch less and less TV, replacing it with reading. The ultimate goal is to stop watching these types of programmes altogether.
  • Avoid watching programmes that contain sexual content – this information is now available in the TV guide so use it.
  • Be very conscious of the younger members of the household, you’re giving tacit approval to them of the behaviour that you sit and watch on TV for entertainment. It’s no good condemning something to them and then paying rapt attention to the bad behaviour on the TV that you condemned before.
  • Don’t watch the adverts – I achieve this easily by only watching recordings on a PVR where I can skip the adverts with the touch of a button. If you can’t do that the turn off the volume when the adverts are running. It’s amazing how the effect of the advert is reduced when there is no sound.

The Internet

We all know the obvious dangers of the internet.

  • Marriages have broken up when spouses create new relationships on the internet with strangers they have never met physically. Men and women in particular can mix much more freely and easily, and inappropriate emotions can develop unexpectedly.  Chat rooms and instant messaging make illicit communication simple and quick.
  • The internet is choc-a-bloc with images that are totally forbidden for a muslim to view. It is so prevalent on even ‘everyday’ web sites that it is very easy to become accustomed to seeing men and women in many states of undress, and ultimately become totally mentally saturated and desensitised to these images.

There are other privacy related dangers too:

  • All the web sites that we visit, and searches that we conduct, are stored by the ISP for a few years, in case the police request access to it. You can be prosecuted now for simply reading some material, and what you viewed can be taken out of context and used against you, especially if you are a muslim.
  • Such data is also routinely intercepted by GCHQ and the NSA, together with, no doubt, numerous other spying agencies. Some of the largest data centres in the world are maintained by these people.
  • As we know from the PRISM scandal much of our data such as private emails that we trust to Google, Apple, Microsft, Yahoo etc., is available to these same agencies. The SSL certificates of these organisations are almost certainly known to the main spying agencies, meaning that even when we are supposedly engaging in encrypted transactions (where the URL starts https:// instead of http://) the spying agencies can read it clearly.
  • Social media posts on sites such as Facebook can’t be really deleted and can prove a source of future embarassment, or even can cause problems with future employment as prospective employers seek out your social media postings.

My advice regarding the internet is:

  • Protect everyone in the family from inappropriate browsing and chatting on the internet by keeping the main internet device such as the PC in a place such as the lounge, where doors are not closed and the whole family can see what is going on. The default policy for waht we do on the internet is Public – we should not be ashamed for anyone to see what we have said or (harder) seen on the net.
  • Don’t maintain email or messaging accounts that your spouse cannot see. Keep these easily viewed by the spouse, and it protects you and your spouse from even thinking about sending inappropriate messages.
  • Install plugins such as AdBlock and FlashBlock that cut out adverts, both static and dynamic. The web site will load much more quickly too. You can also disable the loading of all images if you wish.
  • Think very hard before posting social material on the internet, could it pose a problem or be embarrassing to anyone now or in the future?

The Mobile Phone

  • The mobile phone, or smart-phone, has become a route to the TV programmes and internet activities such as chat and messaging that I have already mentioned. Because the phone can be carried to private places it presents all sorts of dangers. Be alert to those for yourself, spouse and children. One brother said to me, when I warned him about it, ‘but muslim kids wouldn’t do that!’. I don’t agree that being muslim gives us invulnerability to such things, so be vigilant, particularly for ourselves.

The News

49:6

“O you who believe! if an evil-doer comes to you with a report, look carefully into it, lest you harm a people in ignorance, then be sorry for what you have done.”

We should be aware that the western media tends to pick up stories about muslims, and then casts an anti-Islamic stance over the story.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the news (as excellently expressed in the original article http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli) :

  • News misleads – A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car.
  • News is irrelevant – Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.
  • News has no explanatory power – Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements
  • News is toxic to your body – It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones (chronic stress)
  • News increases cognitive errors – News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias
  • News inhibits thinking – Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes.
  • News works like a drug – As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore
  • News wastes time
  • News makes us passive – News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence
  • News kills creativity – Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age

A few years ago I gave up reading the news because I felt it was stressing me out, and offered little if any benefit. Today I read a great piece on how there are so many negative effects to reading the news, with so little positive, such as:

  • News misleads
  • News is irrelevant
  • News has no explanatory power
  • News is toxic to your body
  • News increases cognitive errors
  • News inhibits thinking
  • News works like a drug
  • News wastes time
  • News makes us passive
  • News kills creativity

I strongly recommend you read the full article.

I enjoyed reading this article about the home office setups of journalists and editors working for Ars Technica. I thought I’d share mine, largely as a kind of personal history:

(With all photos, click to see full detail)

I’m using Ubuntu Linux, I’ve used linux as my primary OS for a very long time, and am using Ubuntu through laziness on my part. The prayer time widget in the top left hand corner of the left screen is one I developed myself (kprayertime). Below it is a moon phase widget, you can see it was just after the middle of the lunar month when I wrote this (in the blessed month of Ramadan). You can also see a weather widget that tells me it’s raining a lot in Bristol – well, I already knew that. Various items belonging to my daughter and wife are scattered on the desk, every few days I have to ‘send’ things back to their owners, usually by throwing them onto the respective bed. The desk lamp was given to me by my friend Zubair. There’s an uber mouse mat with the map of the world, that is now up-side down. An IKEA clock and Aldi watch can be seen, together with some Kumon homework.

Here you can see my wife’s books, and others about science, the philosphy and history of science and other miscellanea. Notable books for me in terms of my personal development are “Godel, Escher and Bach” and “Complexity, Entropy and the Physics of Information”.

Here we have a distilled collection of IT books. Such is the ephemeral nature of IT books that recently I gave/threw away two thousand pounds worth (well, spent) of IT text books due to lack of space in the flat. Below those is the books I studied during my physics degree, and some travel books below them. In the early 1990s I bought the book “The Science of Fractal Images” at Foyles in London. I spent many Saturday afternoons up and down Charing Cross Rd (also eating far too many pizzas at the Pizza Hut there) and bought my first islamic book at The Middle-Eastern Bookshop at the south end of the road. I think it was ‘The Book of Knowledge’, the first book in Imam alGhazali’s Ihyaa’. I also bought various books by Muhammad Asad including his translation of the Qur’aan. I think it’s fair to say that these books still have a great influence on me. Subhaan Allaah when I look back at my life there are definitely times when I was guided like an arrow to the straight path, in terms of knowledge and people.

This bookcase largely contains miscellanea, including various books about language in general, which is an interest of mine. The maps are there because when I travel I like to keep the maps that I used, as a memento. A number of the linguistics books are my wife’s, whose PhD thesis (in arabic-english linguistics) can also be seen.

Here we have various islamic books and below them some arabic language learning resources. I now teach arabic to beginners and intermediate level, while continually trying to improve my own level of arabic too.

We’re getting on to pride of place now, these books and those you can see below are on either side of me when I am doing my prayers, reading the Qur’aan or meditating on life, the universe and everything :-). There are numerous translations of Imam alGhazali, particularly from his Ihyaa’. A notable book is Searching For Solace, a biography of Yusuf Ali. A sad tale but which somehow sums up the state of the muslim world at the moment. Various books by Charles Le Gai Eaton, who I think writes beautifully about islam and explains it so well to the Western mind. Because he has some heterodox views he is not promoted by the muslims, which is a shame.

We’ve reached some truly great books now. Bottom left in blue and white are some grammar and morphology books by Antoine Dahdah. I love those books. We then have various less technical books about iman and other important islamic topics. Above them we have Sharh wa Tahleel of alHikam al`Ataa`iyya by Dr Ramadan Buti (they’re up-side down too – how did they get like that!) which is an explanation of the great book by Ibn `Ataa’illaahi alIskandariyya. My wife chose many of these books when we came back from Syria. There are the five volumes of Sufficient For Seekers of the Path of Truth which is a fine translation of the great book AlGhunya.

Pride of place, of course, goes to the masaahif (copies of the Qur’aan) and tafaaseer (explanations of the Qur’aan). For those who can’t read arabic the red and gold volumes are Tafseer utTabari, an explanation of the Qur’aan largely based on hadith narrated about the meaning of each ayat. The black and gold volumes are Lisaan al`Arab, a wonderful (and huge) dictionary of arabic. There are hundred of thousands of words, often accompanied by arabic poetry (or hadith or ayats) giving an example of the word in use. At the top, physically and metaphorically, are the masaahif, copies of the noble Qur’aan.

Writing the above has made me realise why I cart some of these older books around, even though in a sense they represent a skin that has been shed. They are a part of my history and remind me of the times when I was reading them. They serve as a type of authentication that my islam is not based on an ignorance of the pinnacle of Western knowledge, but as an ascent from it to higher goals.

If you enjoyed this post then please do something similar yourself and let me know!

P.S. my wife is complaining about the mess in the photos, but I wanted it to be ‘as-it-is’ 😉

Recently a young Indian CEO died, possibly from lack of sleep, and it caused a lot of comment on a discussion forum that I read regularly (Hacker News). Although this forum is primarily for IT guys, this story generated a lot of interest because these guys, like so many of us, are very interested in maximizing their day, making the most of the time they have. Carpe Diem and all that. Hence they are very interested in techniques to minimise the amount of sleep required, and the possible side effects thereof.
This phenomena of trying to squeeze in as much as possible into the day manifests itself in many areas. Among parents in the UK there is a culture of trying to give your child exposure to so many activities – swimming, language lessons, maths tuition, horse riding – and the parents spend all their free time shuttling their kids from one place to another.
I myself suffer from this same problem of feeling that I don’t get enough done in the day, that too much is neglected. However, is this not the result of having the wrong priorities? As a muslim the most important thing is to do the right thing, not to do as many things as possible, many of which (frankly) have little benefit in this world, and none at all in the next. If we could just slow down and do a few good things well, that would be so much better for us.

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