Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I am a National Enlightener

Yesterday, Nov. 1, was the Day of the National Enlighteners (Den na narodnite buditeli) in Bulgaria. National Enlighterners are, above all, the people who led the Bulgarian National Revival during the 19th century which culminated in the April Uprising of 1876 and the restoration of the Bulgarian independence after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. However, Enlighteners in a broader sense are considered all who have contributed to the cultural advancement of the Bulgarian nation, including all conscientous teachers and scientists. For that reason, schools and universities have a day off on Nov. 1. I am proud to say that I qualify to be called a National Enlightener not only owing to my occupation but also by the merit of my own deeds.

Of course this pompous statement is tongue in cheek, but it is based on a real recent achievement. Not that I have written a good educational text popularizing science or that some research manuscript of mine has been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal with impact factor (or be it even a journal without impact factor). Nope. Keep in mind, however, that all this intellectual activity associated with "enlightenment" is, as Marxians would call it, a superstructure. To be possible at all, it requires a base - a set of material preconditions. If a person isn't fed, dressed and comfortably positioned, he is totally unable to engage in any intellectual activity. Our students, thankfully, come to us fed and generally well dressed. However, when we come to the comfortable position, we have problems.

The microscopic observation in our teaching labs requires lab chairs with variable height. For many years, it has been impossible for our Department to buy such chairs. The Bulgarian law requires all equipment for government institutions to be bought by a complicated procedure, so our demands must be sent "above", to the Rector's office. The aim of this procedure is to prevent corruption, but the actual result is what you can expect if you let clerks disconnected from teaching and not too interested in its success to buy all items needed for teaching. The most urgently needed things somehow get cancelled from the list, the rest are supplied with great delay (up to a year) and usually in a form unsuitable for the purpose. In the case of lab chairs, some were indeed bought with variable height as required, but the maximum height was about 35 cm. We cannot even figure out how could such close-to-mother-Earth chairs be produced in the first place. Our only reasonable guess is that they have been meant for kindergartens.

So I have for years used some of my time at work to try and repair our available old lab chairs that become fewer and more valuable with each passing semester. Some of them still have their labels indicating that they were produced in the 1950s. I receive little acknowledgement for these efforts. Most colleagues mock me, and the students never think that someone may be doing hard work so that they have something to sit on. However, I know I am doing the right thing. My maternal grandfather, who was a carpenter, would be proud of me if he could know. Unfortunately, sooner or later every chair has its metal part broken, and at that point I give up, because I haven't the equipment and skills needed for welding.

This semester, we have another problem. Our building has been in renovation for more than a year already, with no end in sight. While this process is taking place, normal teaching and research is all but impossible, and if you at least save your things needed for work you are lucky. We have already lost reagents for many thousands euro because of incompetence of some electricians who disconnected the power supply to a freezer full of antibodies. Now, the workmen have come to the task of renovating the central heating. It is a rule in Bulgaria to renovate and repair the heating systems in the autumn-winter season when heating is actually needed. In our building, this was done last in the cold and hungry winter of 1996-97. At that time, apart from writing about cell cycle and protesting against government, I was busy to manage some heating at my workplace. Happily, the room where I spend most of my time had a glassware dryer suitable also as a heater. The same was true for one of our four teaching labs. But what about the other three?

I found two electric heaters which were dispensable at home and brought them to work. One of them was initially not working. I had recently re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig, which claims that everybody has the mental skills necessary to repair moderately complex technology such as motorcycles. I was young, trusting and stupid, so I thought that electric heaters are even simpler than motorcycles and tried to repair it myself. After the attempt, when I plugged the heater into the socket, there was a "puff" and some sparkles, then everything went dark. So I strongly advise readers not to follow Pirsig's theory with any electric device (or anything significantly more complex than a chair).

Close to my workplace, there was a garage turned into a shop. It was conveniently selling and repairing simple electric equipment. I brought there my blackened heater. The electrician said that a short circiut had destroyed all parts of the heater except for its corpus. He added, however, that due to the ongoing hyperinflation, it was still more advantageous to buy and install all these parts than to buy a new heater. So my poor old heater got a new life. Indeed, it had lost its legs long ago, but we are putting it on a metal test tube stand and it is OK.

This autumn, as weather turned cold, I placed the two heaters in two of the teaching labs. But what about the fourth lab? I don't remember how we managed it in 1996-97, but now I am in charge of the practical teaching and feeling responsible for it. My mother had mentioned that a heater had stopped working and she had bought an electric radiator. She immediately agreed to give me this heater for my workplace, as she had given me the two older ones.

Unfortunately, my friends at the garage-shop were no longer in business. The garage was not their but municipal property. The Mayor's office had raised the rent to some ridiculous level (about EUR 350 per month, they said). They could not afford it and moved out. Nobody rented the garage-shop after then. It is locked and slowly deteriorating, illustrating how government attempts to manage business invariably turn to slaughtering the egg-laying hen. I don't know whether the electricians have found a new place, but the fact is that our giant Medical University campus is deprived of their services. Who would repair my heater now?

To cut the long story short - finally, my husband did it. He is a man of technology, not some inspired Pirsig reader. So on Monday I gladly informed my colleages that we already have a heater in every teaching lab. I only asked them (and I keep praying) that nobody forgets to unplug the heater when leaving the room. Otherwise, a fire could easily ensue, we could share the fate of the Department of Pathophysiology, and to cap it all, I would be held responsible for bringing the heaters in the first place.

But let's not think of disasters likely to happen. At least, now we can let Grannie Winter come with all her merry white granddaughters (as a Bulgarian nursery rhyme says) without worrying that we have to teach at Celsium 5. And I have all right to call myself a National Enlightener, haven't I? Just try to say I haven't, to see your comment moderated :-).

Saturday, October 01, 2011

How to love

Today's date is special to me, and this post marking it is very personal.
I am now thinking of two loved ones who recently returned from emigration.
Love is not just a feeling. It is a skill that is not always easy. It is expressed in acts that, like all our acts, may have results different from those wished.
When something goes wrong with someone we love, we start the "What if..." thinking. We see grave mistakes in what we have done or not done 15 or 20 years ago. I don't know if this sometimes teaches us to avoid future mistakes; but what is sure is that it is felt as devastating.
I usually respect other people's privacy and rarely try to impose my opinions on them and to tell them how to live. I wish to live my life and understand that others want and deserve the same. When a friend or a relative makes a step I would not make, I do not rush to label it a mistake, because different people want different things. However, when something bad happens , I feel guilty for having done nothing to prevent it.
A month or two ago, I heard of a composer in the city of Varna who set up his own music studio and so gained independence. Because my loved people were musicians, I immediately thought that they could possibly do the same and nobody would need to emigrate. This imagined picture of what might have been, and the feeling of guilt for not having given enough support (to be precise, any support) to make other solutions possible, almost made me cry.
It is especially difficult to decide how to behave if you are in the position of an aunt (uncle) or an in-law. Because people don't choose their aunts and in-laws and we all know how arrogantly some of them intrude into our lives, I prefer not to be intruding. So I do not call those whom I love - and then sit and think that maybe they wish I had called.
If they are reading this, I hope they know that I love them and I am thinking of them, despite not calling. If I can help them in any way, I wish they just tell me. Of course I hope they won't be in any need of help, but if this happens, I'll do what I can.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ten years since Sept. 11, 2001

Three days ago, the world marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.
It is good that the mastermind of this horrible massacre was killed and deprived of the opportunity to celebrate. It is bad that there are still plenty of other people eager to advance his cause. Because, unfortunately, the advocates of Grand Zero Mosque have not yielded to public pressure to build it somewhere else - anywhere else, - this post will be a blog action against Islamism. To honour also the beginning of academic year in Bulgarian schools tomorrow (Sept. 15), I have copied from the Faithfreedom site a text which should interest everybody having a touch with education. Let me warn Muslim readers that they are likely to be offended by the following text.

Sabrina's story

Dear Dr. Sina,

Your site brought tears of joy to my eyes. It is so great to realize I am not alone!

I left Islam before your site came into existence. I kid you not; I left Islam when I was 7 years old or so! My apostasy was triggered by a very interesting incident.

Kids usually regard textbooks as something sacred and believe every word it says. If an author says that the French revolution is good (or bad), then most students will parrot it. They won’t use their own brains.

My teacher wanted us to use our brains and stop “worshipping” textbooks. She gave us an assignment to write our own book. When we finished, she said that we could now publish it. Some kids wrote that every parent has to buy an ice-cream every day, others wrote that schools and education as a whole must be banned. Nobody could prevent us from publishing our books. If we had released our masterpieces without mentioning our ages, some people would have certainly believed every single word in our books. If we had added the magic abbreviation “PhD” to our creations, many people would have started worshipping it.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that Mohammed, a man whom my parents named “a perfect man”, could have made up the Koran! Why should I believe him? I can create my own religion and claim that I’m the prophet of the only true God.

Since then I have never named myself “a Muslimah”. When I became a big girl, I studied Islam thoroughly and came to a conclusion that Islam is a load of crap. My parents left Islam too. We all now are safe and sound in Paris .

I advise all Muslims to read articles in this site. You don’t need to worship Ali Sina or believe him. He could think out every accusation he has leveled at Mohammed. In my opinion, he is just a man who studies Islam critically. If Ali Sina didn’t exist, Islam would still be a load of crap. Friends, you have your own brains, so use them. How could a prophet marry a 9-year-old girl? How could a prophet have more than 20 wives and concubines but at the same time command his followers to have only 4 wives? Isn’t it strange that God permitted Mohammed to have more than 4 wives? Decide for yourself. Make your own investigation. AND USE YOUR BRAINS!

Today I believe in God. But, I’m afraid, Mohammed had nothing to do with God.

Dear Ali Sina, I am very happy that you exist! Yes, without you Islam would still be trash but it feels so go(od) with you.

Kind regards,


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Unreasonable doubt

Undated photo of the late Caylee Anthony (copied from ABC News, originally provided by the Florida police).
"Caylee's law" is a draft considered by several US states that would make it a felony not to report to authorities the death or disappearence of a pre-teenage child within a short time. It is named after Caylee Marie Anthony (2005 - 2008) from Florida who disappeared shortly before her third birthday. Her skeleton, with duct tape on the facial skull, was found six months later in a swamp. Caylee's mother, Casey Anthony, did not report her daughter's disappearance, enjoyed endless parties, then lied to investigators that the child had been kidnapped by a nonexistent nanny. At her trial, the defense claimed that Caylee had drowned accidentally. The jurors acquitted Casey of murder, manslaughter and child abuse - of everything they could, so she was released only days after the trial. The purpose of Caylee's law is to prevent similar cases to be solved this way in the future.
Opponents to the proposed bill argue that laws voted emotionally in the aftermath of high-profile cases are known to have undesired consequences and that such a law, if enforced, will harm innocent people. Of course it will; most laws do it all the time. The real question to me is whether the pros outweigh the cons or, to put it more emotionally, whether America can afford not having such a law after Casey’s “not guilty” verdict.
I admit I fail to understand the meaning of reasonable doubt in Casey Anthony’s case. My head just whorls when I read the opinions of jurors and legal experts that the burden of proof was on prosecution and the prosecution did not produce enough evidence that Casey had killed her daughter. It seems that the jurors demanded the same amount of evidence as if the defendant had been a stranger to the victim. My opinion, however, is that there are some situations when the burden of proof is on you to prove that you are innocent, and this is when you have accepted certain responsibility beforehand. If you are appointed to guard some property or person and you fail to protect the guarded object, you will be expected to prove that you have done your best. And if you become a parent and accept your parental responsibility by bringing your child home, instead of giving her for adoption, you are to prove your innocence if something bad happens to her. Even if she suffers an accident, you still have to answer questions, because young children cannot protect themselves from accidents – this is the duty of their caregivers.
I think that any doubt in Casey Anthony’s guilt was unreasonable because I cannot imagine any reasonable hypothesis (except insanity) under which she could be not guilty. Let’s believe the defense that Caylee drowned accidentally and her panicked grandfather put duct tape on her face to make the accident look like murder (?!) and threw the body into the swamp. Well, wasn’t Casey obliged to protect her 2-year-old daughter from accidental drowning? Recently, a 1-year-old boy named Joseph drowned in the bath while his mother Shannon Johnson was facebooking. Although his death was undisputed accident, the mother was sentenced to 10 years. The judge told her, “(Joseph) was a human being that had a right to life. And you, as his mother, had a responsibility to make sure he got that chance. That was your responsibility.” I think this judge was right. I also think there are deep flaws in a system severely punishing a negligent mother who generally acts as a good citizen while allowing a negligent or (more likely) murderous mother to be rewarded with freedom for her lies.
Let me repeat – I agree with the opponents of Caylee’s law that it will be costly and will harm innocent parents. However, I fear that its absence may spell death for many young children, viewed by their parents as unwanted burden rather than joy. Seeing Casey Anthony acquitted and commentators praising the verdict as a victory for the US justice system, other people may be tempted to emulate her. Things are bad enough as they are. Opponents say Caylee’s murder is a single, isolated case. This not only makes me ask how many cases must happen before something is done – it is simply untrue. Unfortunately, when a child is murdered, parents are the first suspects, and in two-thirds of cases there is no need to look elsewhere.
If you disagree with me, I can only apologize for wasting your time. But if you agree with me and live in the USA, you can consider signing a petition for Caylee’s law. I cannot sign it myself because I am not an American. It is difficult even to explain why I still have so much interest in this country after my brother's family no longer lives there. Perhaps because I believe that in a world where nothing can undo the evils of the past, our only hope can be for a better future, and our deeds are the only way to make it come true.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Debating evolution and God

While preparing for a debate on evolution vs. creation scheduled for next week, I stumbled upon this post or, to be precise, upon a comment on it directing me to a Hugh Hewitt's interview with Richard Dawkins. Below is a quote from the interview - enjoy!

"RD: Okay, do you believe Jesus turned water into wine?

HH: Yes.

RD: You seriously do?

HH: Yes.

RD: You actually think that Jesus got water, and made all those molecules turn into wine?

HH: Yes.

RD: My God.

HH: Yes. My God, actually, not yours. But let me…

RD: I’ve realized the kind of person I’m dealing with now...

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins’ brand new book is The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution. It’s linked at Professor, I have one last question, it’s very important for me to ask this, because I just kept coming back to it. You argue in the book at one point that the retina is so poorly designed, that it argues against the idea of a designer, because it’s such a messed up job. Conversely, though, if the object of the designer was to create a world in which faith was possible, but also disbelief, in order to make faith a choice and not an obligation, wouldn’t then you have to say that the world was wondrously constructed to that end, to preserve free will and the choosing?

RD: You mean that God deliberately made mistakes so as to deceive us?

HH: Not mistakes, that God created a world in which faith was possible by an order of its complexity, to allow for the Richard Dawkins of the world to exist, and be completely, absolutely convinced that He did not, that that’s the only situation in which faith is real.

RD: So in order to make that the case, God said well, now let’s make the eye look like a botched up job so that…are you saying…

HH: I think you understand what I’m saying, and you’re saying no, you don’t believe that, that it would not in fact fit that, a giant…for example, have you read the Harry Potter novels?

RD: No.

HH: Do you read any fiction at all?

RD: Of course.

HH: What’s the most complicated bit of fiction you’ve read? Like War and Peace?

RD: Yeah, what’s your point? What point are you making?

HH: That complexity in design, and counterintuitive steps, et cetera, don’t disprove the idea of genius at work. Genius at work often works through complexity and through misdirection.

RD: I think that what you’re kind of saying is that God made the world look as though it had evolved in order to test our faith, when it didn’t evolve.

HH: No, not test our faith. I’m saying that the world has been made as it is to allow for faith, because if it was made too easy for the simple-minded, it would simply be routine, and everyone would believe, and then there would be no faith.

RD: That would be a pretty unpleasant sort of God. I think, I would say you’re welcome to believe in a kind of God who would do that, but it’s not the kind of God that would appeal to me.

HH: Well, it’s not about what appeals to us, it’s about what is. And you also write that a beneficent designer might, you’d idealistically think, minimize suffering. But not if the soul was infinite, and suffering was necessary for its wisdom

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden killed

As we are approaching the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 massacre, we heard unexpected good news: Osama bin Laden was killed "in his luxury hideout" in Pakistan by US commandos.
As we Bulgarians say in such cases, God finally collected his bad debts (Gospod nai-setne si sabra veresiite).
Below, I am copying the entire May 1 post Yes We Can by British-Libyan writer Soad El-Rgaig:

"Today the world rejoices the death of an evil man and his twisted ideology, Osama Ben Laden. This man and his evil ideology brought so much suffering and pain to everyone. Today the sun will shine on a world free from one evil man.
Tomorrow, I hope the world will celebrate the demise of another evil man called Muammer Gaddafi who is killing innocent people because they said no to his evilness, his hate-mongering ideology, his forces of destruction.
Any chance those Special US Operators who carried out the honorable job in Pakistan will pass by Libya on their way to home :-)

Friday, April 29, 2011

I support EU ban on non-evidence-based medicine is an international organization which mounts civil pressure for causes regarded by its leadership as good. Some of them are good indeed, such as the no-fly zone in Libya. However, as often happens with activists, they also advocate things that anyone of the meanest understanding would call foolish at best. See what I found in my Inbox today:

"EU: 3 days to save herbal medicine!
Dear friends,
In 3 days, a new EU directive will ban much of herbal medicine, denying us safe remedies and feeding the profits of big pharma. Let's raise a massive outcry to push the Commission to fix the Directive, and our national governments to refuse to implement it. Let's get to 1 million voices to save herbal medicine:
In 3 days, the EU will ban much of herbal medicine, pressing more of us to take pharmaceutical drugs that drive the profits of big Pharma.
The EU Directive erects high barriers to any herbal remedy that hasn't been on the market for 30 years -- including virtually all Chinese, Ayurvedic, and African traditional medicine. It's a draconian move that helps drug companies and ignores thousands of years of medical knowledge...

It's hard to believe, but if a child is sick, and there is a safe and natural herbal remedy for that illness, it may be impossible to find that remedy.
On May 1st the Directive will create major barriers to manufactured herbal remedies, requiring enormous costs, years of effort, and endless expert processes to get each and every product approved. Pharmaceutical companies have the resources to jump through these hoops but hundreds of small- and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses, across Europe and worldwide, will go bust...

There are arguments for better regulation of natural medicine, but this draconian directive harms the ability of Europeans to make safe and healthy choices. Let's stand up for our health, and our right to choose safe herbal medicine."

I am omitting the lines directing the reader to the online petition. If you want to sign it, you can easily find it by a Web search.
I have bashed the EU bureaucracy on numeral occasions on this blog and elsewhere, but I support it whole-heartedly in this case. It is high time to stand for evidence-based medicine and to ban all snake oils being sold us under the label of "traditional medicine" in pharmacies. There is no such thing as "thousands of years of medical knowledge" - the threshold when medical knowledge advanced enough to bring more good than harm is probably the turn of the 20th century, and it was passed only in the West. If someone thinks that a particular "traditional" remedy works for a certain condition, he has to prove his case to the appropriate drug administration, as with any other proposed remedy. I do not care that the "small and medium-sized herbal medicine businesses" may not have the resources for this, and I do not think their lack of resources is an excuse to let them sell whatever snake oil they wish without proving its efficacy and even safety. If they cannot do their business properly, let them file for bankruptcy, the sooner the better. And please, if you want me to hate Big Pharma which has saved my life more than once, give me at least one rational reason why Big Pharma must be hated, except that it works for profit (as if the snake oil salesmen work pro bono publico).
There is a myth among foolish people that traditional, "natural" and particularly herbal medicine is both effective and safe. To begin with, a remedy that is both effective and safe is a Holy Grail. There are a number of placebos that are safe but not effective, plus a number of effective drugs that are generally not quite safe but, if properly used, have benefits far exceeding the risk. Traditional medicine generally relies on placebos. However, we should not assume that it is always safe. Numerous plants contain potent toxins (take just the fact that Socrates was executed by herbal poison). Some of these toxins have found their application in evidence-based medicine and are being sold by Big Pharma; for the rest, you have only the toxic effect without any proven therapeutic effect. To make things worse, for many traditional Eastern remedies the natural toxicity of plants is not enough and they contain also well-known chemical toxins such as heavy metals (Orac and Skeptico have blogged about this).
Some hardline supporter of individual freedom may argue that consumers should have the right to make choices, even if they are not "safe and healthy". I disagree. A consumer should not be forced to be on a permanent alert in order to avoid buying useless and dangerous things - at least not in civilized Europe. Moreover, while responsible adults could at least in theory make their choices, there is no way to prevent parents from pushing placebos and poisons down the throats of their poor defenceless children. The Avaaz letter particularly stresses the need to keep "safe and natural herbal remedies" available for sick children. I even know parents who treat their own illnesses by effective evidence-based drugs but, when their children are ill, give them traditional medicine because of concern about the side-effects of drugs.
So let's hope that the ban will be enforced and EU pharmacies in the future will sell us only remedies that actually help, according to the best available knowledge.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Questions to the "green" Libyans

On Apr. 14, published a post titled Video: State TV claims to show Gaddafi touring Tripoli this afternoon. A "green" Libyan (i.e. a Qaddafi supporter) joined the discussion to put his twopence. Here is a quote from his comments:

"KADDAFI IS A REAL LEADER! AND SIMPLE PEOPLE LOVE HIM! MILLIONS OF LIBYANS LIKE HIM!... I know that Kaddafi makes a lot of mistakes! Specially last years when his son Saif al Islam brought to him the list of reforms he was planning to make but Kaddafi canceled all of them! Also it was no free press. But you have to understand that he is a man of ideology and he was opposing USA! The most powerful country of the world..."

My own comments in that discussion aren't worth a copy-paste, because this guy pushed up my blood pressure and I called him names. This is not a good thing to do in any discussion, though he deserved it well. However, another commenter with the simple nick "a" (the same one who visited my previous post) made better contributions. I am giving a part of them below, advising all my readers - and especially the "green" Libyans - to have a look.

"You know what? I am from Germany. I know this kind of stupid babble from some of our delusional grandfathers, -mothers... In Gaddafi, we only recognize a very poor Mini-Hitler... The “simple people” you speak of, he just betrays them. They are human material for him, he will not shed one tear if you die... It's your own decision: Be part of a past that is despised, attach yourself to a murderer without honor. End up in history's dustbin together with him. Or be part of the future of Libya.
Gaddafi... claims he made a revolution in Libya, and brought direct democracy, and spread the wealth of the oil money. Sounds good. But it is not the truth:
What kind of revolution is this, where only one family rules for 40 years and every opposition voice is silenced? It's like a monarchy. 
What kind of “direct democracy” is this, where citizens cannot even express their demand that after 40 years they want another government?
Why is no free press and no critizism allowed? If Gaddafi's ideas were so good, he needn't be afraid of competition with other ideas.
What happened to all the money, where is it, why do the Gaddafis own billions and spend Libya's money as they please?
What kind of real revolutionary would buy mercenaries and have them shoot at his own people? Even Mubarak stepped aside, Ben Ali quickly took an airplane. Gaddafi chose to kill people who do not agree to him. This is unacceptable, no matter what ideology he claims behind this.
And I am sick of people putting ideology or religion over human lives and the self-determination of others. Saif had the chance of reforming things, he was weak and lazy, and chose to have lavish parties in Europe instead. He had his chance, now it's Game Over.
But. At least you try to argue, and I try to understand you. That's a good start, isn't it? Instead of hatred. You have already risen above your dictator by doing that.
If you think there is anything good in Gaddafi's ideas, you will always be able to stand up for such ideas and raise awareness for them in a real democracy. Found a party that supports direct democracy and spreading Libya's natural wealth – I have no problem with that. But stop supporting a dictator who will impose only his own ideas over 6 million people and kill anyone who does not agree. Can’t you see that this is fundamentally wrong?"

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Free world coming to rescue

My last post about the situation in Libya is dated March 17. So much has happened since then. On that same evening, the UN Security Council approved a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures to protect civilians". The draft was prepared by Lebanon, backed by France and Britain and approved by a total of 10 states. Five states abstained: China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany. Bravo to Russia and China - they could impose a veto but they didn't. As for the other 3 - let me not call names but I don't want to hear a word about any of them becoming a permanent Security Council member in the foreseeable future, OK?

By the way, my Bulgaria also behaved in a shameful way. Our Prime Minister Borisov said that the intervention in Libya was a "reckless adventure" (avantyura) and he would never send Bulgarian military pilots to join it - as if anyone would want our Russian MiG planes that couldn't be reliably distinguished from Qaddafi's air force. Happily, Bulgaria is not in the Security Council now, so few people noticed; but we Bulgarians have to remember this next year when we go to the ballots.

Qaddafi declared a ceasefire almost immediately after the resolution, but it was only for external consumption. His troops, on the contrary, intensified fighting in an apparent attempt to win before anyone managed to implement the resolution. I remember how in the morning of March 19 I saw Benghazi shown in the Wikipedia map with the yellow colour of "ongoing fighting", and Al Jazeera reported that Qaddafi's tanks were entering the city.

Mohammed Nabbous was ready to meet them. This 28-yr-old blogger and citizen journalist had founded Libya Al-Hurra (Free Libya) TV in the early days of the protests. With his wife pregnant for first time, he had every justification to take shelter behind a thick wall. However, he decided to report what was going on in order to expose Qaddafi's lies to the world. As he was recording the attack with his cellular phone, he was shot in the head. Either Qaddafi's soldiers realized what he was doing, or - more likely - they simply regarded every human-shaped object as a target. Mohammed died several hours later.

Meanwhile, the coalition formed to implement the UN resolution finally stepped in. The first strike came from a French plane. Benghazi was saved, but in Musrata and some smaller towns the situation is still dire, people have ran out of everything and are being murdered by Qaddafi's mercenaries every day. I have no idea how this will end, I hoped for a swift and happy ending, but apparently things are not proceeding quite this way.

I am not going to describe the war in detail, let me just mention that I am disappointed both by the Coalition and by the rebel army. It seems, unfortunately, that the "Happy Arab" is right to call the operation "a mess" and "likely the most mismanaged operation in NATO's history". Indeed, this could be expected after the bitter experience of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq made Western powers so reluctant to intervene in Muslim countries that now everyone is trying to hide behind his allies' backs. However, this is nothing compared to the armed forces of the Libyan opposition. Most of the foot soldiers are civilians turned into combatants overnight. They lack weapons, training and discipline. The commander, General Abdul (Abdel) Fatah Younis, was Qaddafi's interior minister until February. Let's leave aside his involvement with the regime - it is clear that you cannot begin anew and appoint 18-yr-olds to all positions. What is more worrying is his military experience and expertise, or the lack of it. Nobody says whether Gen. Younis prior to February 2011 had ever fought an enemy actually able to shoot back. We do not know anything about his military education and service, if any. He is not trying to build infrastructure of defence, so Qaddafi's tanks roll, roll, roll gently down the roads as they wish and advance hundreds of kilometers per day. Instead of thinking how to retake the lost territory, Gen. Younis is delivering press conferences, telling how NATO is a problem rather than an asset for not fighting all the Libyans' battles for them. He is apparently the sort of buraucrat who, instead of doing his job, will produce a brilliant explanation why it is your fault that his job has not been done. I hope somebody soon reappoints him to organize the traffic lights or do some other job where he would be less harmful.

The good news is that my blogger friends in Tripoli gave a sign that they are OK.

Let me finish with a quote from the post Libya and the International Moral Question by Libyan-British writer Ghazi Gheblawi: "Libya didn’t come into existence as a nation until after 1943 when the allied forces of WWII occupied the country, and with the help of many nations and the newly formed United Nations, declared its independence in 1951. It was through the help of the international community that Libya was liberated from the horrors of Italian colonialism, and as the Libyan representative to the UN said few weeks ago on the floor of the security council ‘Libya was established through a United Nations resolution, now once again it needs the United Nations help’." Let's hope this help will become more effective.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

ADHD quackery in scientific journal, again

I was not intending to blog on scientific themes these days, but sometimes duty calls. Carelessly browsing the Web, I suddenly found a link that switched all my alarms on. Briefly, it refers the reader to an article by Pelsser et al. titled Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomised controlled trial and published in the February issue of the Lancet. I have no access to the full text, but the abstract tells us that from 100 children with ADHD aged 4-8, a randomly chosen half were left as controls and the other half were put for 5 weeks on a restricted elimination diet. There is no mention what this diet was, and the results are described in such a messy way that it is impossible to understand exactly what is claimed. Happily, the same Web site directs the reader also to a LA Times article by Jill Adams discussing the study. It informs us that the restricted diet consisted of "short list of ingredients that included water, rice, turkey, lamb, lettuce, carrots, pears and other hypoallergenic foods". "At the end of the study, 64% of the kids on the limited diet showed significant improvement on a variety of standard rating scales. Though the initial scores for all of the kids in this group put their ADHD symptoms in the moderate-to-severe range, after the diet intervention their symptoms were classified as either mild or nonclinical."

Three years ago, I wrote a post titled I am skeptical about food additives - hyperactivity link. It questioned another publication in the Lancet claiming that "artificial food colous and additives" were causing ADHD symptoms. If you are interested in the subject, you can read that old post, too. In the present post, I will not try to keep the same line of composed argumentation. I am furious and not going to hide it.

Are you worried about the quality of the food you consume? Are you anxious to obtain healthy food and to give it also to your family members? And if so, what are you thinking of yourself? Perhaps you think you are a responsible person and everybody should be like you. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with the truth. You are victim of a disorder which turns your life into hell and endangers your physical health - and that of any child with the poor luck to be under your care. The obsession with healthy foods is a disorder called orthorexia by some psychiatrists. It is not an official diagnosis but is easily accommodated under the umbrellas of eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. My observations show that many people with real or imagined health problems, and particularly parents of chronically ill and disabled children, develop orthorexia. They swear that their or their child's condition has been caused by unhealthy eating and is currently ameliorated by some particular "healthy" diet. Here, "healthy" diet typically means one that, if given to convicted felons, will lead to prison riots and charges with inhumane treatment. The list of publications of the first author of the study in question - Dr. Pelsser, is not too impressive but clearly shows that she has orthorexic obsession about ADHD.

People of science have a saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Any claims for successful treatment of a socially important condition are extraordinary, and so are any claims based on an insane working hypothesis. If you ask me what hypothesis I call insane, I'll answer that I cannot give a definition but the hypothesis of foods causing abnormal behaviour is a brilliant example.

I would ask again, as I did in my old post, why wasn't the study done first on animal models? And if someone thinks animal models of ADHD are not satisfactory (i.e. fail to produce the crazy results wanted and expected by the researcher), why wasn't the experiment done first on adult volunteers with ADHD? Maybe because no adult, except some patients with much more severe diagnoses than ADHD, would agree to participate in such a study; but parents eager to streamline their disabled or just different children easily fall into the trap of wanting the child "either cured or dead". In the LA Times article, Dr. Pelsser says, "The children said they felt so different, as if some mad thing in their head wasn't there anymore". Eh well, if your 5-yr-old experimental subject talks of "some mad thing in his head", you should bury your own head in your hands, then abort the study and pray that your institution's ethical committee never hears of this. Has the whole world gone crazy?

The Lancet is a top scientific journal with an impact factor of 30 (for lay people - this is sky high). Such a journal, especially if specialized in clinical medicine, is expected to have a take-no-prisoners peer review that would not let any crap sneak in. However, this journal 13 years ago published the disastrous (now retracted) study linking the MMR vaccine to autism, it published the mentioned article linking food additives to ADHD 4 years ago, and has now published another nonsense about ADHD. When will the respectable Lancet raise its bar for quacks and stop shouting "Fire!" in crowded theaters?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Why do otherwise sensible adults portray the difficult period of childhood as a Golden age of happiness?
Possibly because at that time we are together with people who are later separated from us forever.
I remember that, when my brother and I were children, the spring was a season of awaiting cherries. We both liked fruits, and they were practically absent from the spring market until the appearance of cherries in late May. My mother was always telling us that there would be cherries after May 24. This is a Bulgarian holiday which she had set as arbitrary threshold to add accuracy to our expectation.
Once, when we were having a full dish of cherries, my brother pulled out a particularly large and red one, called it Count Cherry after a character from Gianni Rodari's Adventures of the Little Onion and suggested we make a contest and use the cherry as a prize. He won the contest but then laughingly said that "Count Cherry" was rotten inside. Life always brings nasty surprises...
Like many other siblings, we had a quasi-language just for us two. This now extinct language included a special anagram for grapes, another favourite fruit.
What else did my brother like to eat? It is difficult to remember, because he hadn't the sin of gluttony and always cared for the others. He liked chocolate but never ate more than his fair share of it while I sometimes took from his share. There is a traditional Bulgarian dish, meat-and-eggplants hash (musaka sas sini domati). It is considered a refined dish because it is difficult to prepare, but actually few people like it. My mother thought he liked it, and he was duly eating it in order to make her happy. It took years for him to confess the truth.
Unlike him, I have always refused to eat things I do not like and never resisted the things I like. To me, no great painting or symphony can compare with the pleasure given by the tasty roasted meat, the sweet chocolate and ice-cream, the fresh fruits and other tasty foods.
I admit I have the sin of gluttony. But there may be more to it. Taste is our tool to evaluate the substances that will build and power our body. Hence, of all our senses it is the only one directly related to our self-perpetuation, to the machinery of being alive.
And now, when I enjoy some piece of tasty food between my tongue and palate, often a quick thought pierces my mind that my brother will never again taste anything.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

About the situation in Libya

Unfortunately, things are not developing well in Libya. Qaddafi's mercenaries have retaken a number of cities and are now threatening the very capital of the opposition, the valiant city of Benghazi. You can check and Wikipedia for the actual state on the battlefields.
I am outraged by the so-called international community. Indeed, France has recognized the opposition Council as legitimate government of Libya and, together with Britain, pressed for a no-fly zone. However, USA was reluctant, and Germany openly supported the Libyan dictator.
In fact, now may be too late for a no-fly zone. Different people are repeating this, including Saif al-Islam, the most disgusting offspring of Qaddafi. “It’s too late,” he said in an interview with EuroNews television, according to a transcript on its website. “In 48 hours, we will have finished our military operation. We are at the gates of Benghazi.” (Source: Business Week.) I wonder, why didn't all free people of the world press their governments to help the free people of Libya?
Azarmehr has written a very good post explaining why he backs military intervention against the Libyan regime, let me quote from it:
"If Gadaffi and his clan regain the control of the rest of Libya, there will be a massacre. If the world sits by and allows Gadaffi to bombard its own people in order to survive, it will send a devastating message to other dictatorships, use maximum brutality, do not give any concessions and you will survive."
Will he indeed be allowed to survive?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Greeting to Libyan rebels

This is The Song of the Rebels of (the town of) Panaguirishte, a popular song from the 1870s - the age of Bulgarian struggle for independence; lyrics by Ivan Vazov, the author of music is unknown. Below is a slightly compressed translation:

The fight is starting and hearts beat loud.
Our oppressors are coming now.
Courage, my loyal friends, show the world
We are no longer submissive herd!

Show we have broken the dirty chains
And we are free men, rather than slaves!
Let us begin the glorious fight
And God will help us with all His might.

Come on, brothers, all like one - to the fight we rush!
Come on, brothers, all like one - enemy to crush!
Oh you my mother, dear my homeland,
Lovely as Eden on this earth you stand.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Libya still struggling for freedom

Top: An opposition supporter at a rally in Benghazi. Photo Asmaa Waguih/Reuters.

Bottom: Map showing the current disposition of forces in Libya. Source: Wikipedia.

This post is an update to my Feb. 22 post Libya struggling for freedom.

The political situation in Libya, after starting as classic tyrannical crackdown on the peacefully protesting citizens, escalated into civil war when some units of the Libyan army took the side of protesters, and some rebels apparently managed to arm themselves. The opposition fairly quickly established control over the eastern part of the country around the city of Benghazi and some western regions. At one time, the situation was unclear even in Tripoli -Qaddafi's stronghold. Now, he is attempting to retake the country but I think his efforts are doomed and can only bring more deaths and inflict more damage. (The southern regions are desert, so the green dots there are not as important as they seem.)

The regime continues to shoot ruthlessly unarmed people wherever it can and to abduct injured protesters from hospitals.

The Q-man said in a speech, "If I were president, I would have resigned, but I have no position to resign from." Indeed, he is not a President, not a Prime Minister, he occupies no normal position in a government - he is "just Leader of the revolution". More and more often, I am thinking of this "leader" as translated to German - "Fuehrer". Other people also make the same parallel. Let me quote Sky News: "Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Shalgham, a childhood friend of Gaddafi and former foreign minister who has turned against the regime, pleaded with the Security Council to act against the 'atrocities' by Gaddafi.
He spoke of... Nazi leader Adolf Hitler... Now Gaddafi was telling his people, 'either I rule over you or I kill you, destroy you,' the ambassador added. 'Please, the United Nations, save Libya...,' he said.

The world, however, has been too slow to react. The first concern of various countries, of course, was to evacuate their nationals from Libya. Now, several powers are discussing a no-fly zone to prevent Qaddafi from air attacks on Libyan citizens, but Russia ruled out this idea. Indeed, how could we expect Russia to be against killing protesters, after this has always been a tenet of its own policy?

I keep paying worried visits to Libyan blogs, notably those of Highlander and Khadija-Teri who are in Tripoli. Below, I am copying a small poem Khadija-Teri posted on Feb. 27:

"Day and night we are not safe in Tripoli


There have been helicopters today

up over head.

More than ever before.

All of them are moving

toward the coast.

I'm afraid to go outside to photograph them,

in case I turn into a target.

The dogs growl and bark.

The sun is setting now.

Tripoli is a nocturnal place.

Day or night,

we are not safe

in Tripoli."

Let me try to end this post in a more optimistic mood - quoting from the Happy Arab's Feb. 24 post:

"The unforgettable show this blog was promising to the readers in Libya has surpassed all expectations. In a spectacular outburst of madness Gaddafi ordered his air force and navy to bombard Libian cities. The death toll is running in thousands. Now it seems to be only a matter of time before the opposition storms Tripoli and dangles the Brother Leader from a lamp post. The opposition will have no other choice as attempting to try Gaddafi is risky of leading to hours long orations that would decimate the court and audience and overwhelm translators from Arabic assigned an impossible task... As the time to bid Shalom is approaching, let me praise the Brother Leader by saying that he was one of those rare individuals who could either bore the living daylights out of his audience or leave you rolling on the floor laughing for hours. There seemed to be little left between these two options."

Of course, for the unfortunate people under Qaddafi's rule the show has not been so funny. Let's hope for an end, the sooner the better.

Why call "dominant" traits that are not?

(Readers without interest and background in biology or medicine are advised to skip this post.)
I am now preparing a lecture about Mendelian genetics and I included there the hereditary disorder achondroplasia as an example. All textbooks known to me describe it as a "dominant" condition, so I automatically put it under the headline "complete dominance". Then I started thinking on the subject and finally moved the slide below, to "incomplete dominance".
Why did I change my mind? Because, by definition, an allele is dominant when homozygous and heterozygous individuals having it are indistinguishable. However, in the case of achondroplasia, they are very much distinguishable: homozygous achondroplasia brings early death caused by "breathing failure due to constriction by a tiny chest cage and neurologic problems from hydrocephalus". So the surviving heterozygotes have a phenotype intermediate between that of the two homozygotes - the classical situation of incomplete dominance.
It is clear that, to determine whether we are dealing with complete or incomplete dominance, we must know the phenotype of both heterozygotes. However, in medical genetics, "dominant" is often used to designate any condition caused by a single allele, even if nobody has an idea what the mutant homozygotes would look like. In fact, medical geneticists have a working definition of "dominant" as "a pattern of inheritance in which an affected individual has one copy of a mutant allele and one normal allele". This is understandable in the context of past decades, when there was little chance to study the mutant homozygotes. However, with today's vast database of cases from all over the globe and the opportunity to create transgenic animal models, studying them has become quite realistic. So I think it is high time to sort out this matter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Project for alphabet-teaching tool

I have a project for a set of pictures forming a tool to teach the alphabet to preschool children.
Of course, it is a standard method to teach the alphabet by illustrating each letter with an image of an object with a name beginning with it. However, in almost all cases the shapes of objects have nothing in common with the shapes of the letters they illustrate. The only exception known to me is the story How the Alphabet Was Made by Rudyard Kipling. However, even he illustrates only one letter by a common English word beginning with it (s with snake); the other examples in the story are either exclamations or words of an artificial language invented ad hoc.
I have thought for a long time that the alphabet can be better taught if each letter is illustrated by an object that not only has a name beginning with the letter but also resembles it in shape. I have realized this idea for the Bulgarian alphabet. You can see the result at my Bulgarian blog. The letters given in the column are linked to images that will give the general impression even to a reader who speaks no Bulgarian. The illustrations are of rather poor quality because I have used photos done by myself. However, technical perfection is not the important thing - any artist knowing his job could achieve it. It is the idea that is important.
Now, I am offering the same idea concerning the English alphabet for sale. Above is shown a sample - h illustrated with horse. If you are interested in the project and you represent a publisher, a foundation, a rich philanthropist or a 501(c)(3) public charity able to provide fiscal sponsorship, you can contact me at mayamarkov [at] gmail [dot] com.

Libya struggling for freedom

This flag of the kingdom of Libya with the inscription "Free Libya" is taken from Anglo-Libyan's Feb. 18 post. As he wrote earlier, most freedom-loving Libyans still identify with this pre-1969 flag and do not recognize the "all green rug" Qaddafi forced on them.

The bottom photo is again taken from Anglo's blog - Libyans reacting to the speech of Qaddafi's son Saif.

After Tunisians and Egyptians and other Arab nations, Libyans also rose up, demanding freedom.
But Muammar Qaddafi (Gaddafi) is far worse than your average Mideast dictator. Not only is he 100% unscrupulous - many people, including me, have thought for years that he is mentally ill.
Yet, after he surrendered his employee Megrahi to be tried for the Lockerbie bombing and the sanctions against Libya were lifted, Western countries rushed not only to buy oil from Libya and to supply it with foods and textiles and photo cameras, but also to sell arms to it. Why? Isn't it clear that selling arms to a crazy dictator like Qaddafi is the equivalent of selling a gun to a psychopath like Jared Loughner, and that in both cases you can expect the same lethal result, just on a different scale? Now, as Qaddafi is committing a massacre on his people, the Independent reports, "Britain halted military exports to Libya last week but sniper rifles, which may have killed protesters yesterday, were amongst equipment exported to Tripoli last year".
It is difficult to know exactly what is happening in Libya now, because the regime keeps international media out and does its best to prevent its own citizens from reporting any information. Today, Reuters cites witnesses that "Muammar Gaddafi used tanks, helicopters and warplanes to fight a growing revolt". The uprising began in Benghazi - the residents of this city are among the most valiant people on Earth! - and then spread to Tripoli where, according to reports, there are now bodies of scores of killed protesters lying on the streets.
Libyans appeal to the world for help, but what can we, what can even our governments actually do? I just check the media and Libyan blogs time and again, hoping to find some good news.
What we hear sound all but comforting, yet I think that Qaddafi has lost control beyond the point of no return and his days as ruler are counted.
Update (several hours later): Qaddafi gave a hysterical speech in which he said, "I am not going to leave this land. I will die here as a martyr."
Come on, sir! Please do it! Do your nation and the world a favour!
Update (March 2): Unfortunately, Bulgaria has also supplied Qaddafi with weapons. A report by the Guardian reveals that in 2009, we sold to Libya ammunition and fuses for EUR 3,730,000. I recommend you to visit that page and shed a tear or two over Europe's travesty. As a commenter has written below, "Gaddafi laughed when asked if he would step down.
"As if anyone would leave their homeland," he replied, accusing western leaders of betrayal and of having "no morals". And he is absolutly right, we are the people who wanted to be his friend so we could buy his oil and sell him arms knowing full well that he was an unhinged tyrant - but it didn't matter, there were guns and oil!"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Well done, Egypt!

Top: Egyptian protesters, many days before their victory. Copied from Feb. 1 post of Jordanian blogger Roba, original source Reuters. For other beautiful photos of the protests see Roba's Feb. 6 post.
Bottom: One of the fallen Egyptian freedom fighters - 23-yr-old Sally Zahran. Copied from, original source unnknown.

When East-European countries, including my Bulgaria, suddenly freed themselves of communism in the "Autumn of the Nations" of 1989, I enthusiastically thought that my adult life would coincide with a global reign of freedom.
Some years later, I started to think exactly the opposite - that 1989 was not a dawn but a rare spark in a realm of darkness, and I would not live long enough to witness another similar spark.
But it is here and now - the so-called "the Arab Spring" is sweeping the North Africa and the Middle East, and it seems that nothing there will ever be the same again.
All began in Tunisia by a hitherto unknown man, 26-yr-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. For many years, he had been harassed, humiliated and blackmailed by arrogant and corrupted police and municipality officers during his overwhelming work to feed his family. When they confiscated his goods and beat him in December last year, this was the straw that broke his back, and he publicly set himself on fire. And then, the whole country caught the fire. Protests escalated, until the dictator Ben-Ali was forced to resign and flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
This was an awakening for other Arab nations who suddenly realized that their dictators were not invincible. In one country after another, protesters filled the squares. The events are still ongoing and the balance of forces uncertain, with one honorary exception - Egypt, where the protests beginning on Jan. 25 on the Tahrir ("Liberation") square in Cairo and in other cities forced the dictator Hosni Mubarak to resign on Feb. 11.
I wish I could welcome the Egyptian Revolution with my whole heart but, to be honest, I must admit that my feelings are mixed. I admire the courage of the protesters and their love for freedom, and I wish them and their whole nation all the best. However, I am afraid that events may take an unfortunate turn - and I am not alone. Because the main opposition force in Egypt is the infamous Muslim Brotherhood, many Western commenters see the shadow of the 1979 Iranian revolution - which also began with striving for freedom, and ended with establishment of a grotesque theocracy and slaughter of freedom-loving people. Tunisia is a tiny country, so nobody seems too bothered by the rumours that a motley crew of Islamists and Communists is heading for the elections there. However, Egypt is an important state, a regional power; and while the threats/promises of the Muslim Brotherhood to make a war with Israel may well be empty words, nobody is willing to bet on it.
Of course, I feel uneasy with this opinion, as a supporter of a wrong cause. Any statements that a nation is not yet ready for democracy and could not apply it correctly smell of racism and are usually voiced by enemies of mankind and civilization. Which, unfortunately, does not always guarantee that they are untrue... My opponents may ask, and will be right - how could a nation under a dictator teach itself to master democracy? How can you ban a person to immerse his foot in water, and then claim this is for his own good because he cannot swim? As the Benghazi Citizen (I hope he is OK) said, "No nation throughout history was ready for democracy, because those who ruled made sure that their people (or their subjects) are never ready."
In the particular case of Hosni Mubarak, he presented himself as a friend of Israel and the USA (enjoying a nice $1.5 billions of aid per year; as someone commented in the Ha'aretz forum, "real friends don't need to be bribed"). At the same time, he used his goverment-controlled media to enhance the antisemitic and anti-American feelings of Egyptians. Sandmonkey, who himself took part in the Egyptian revolution, wrote on Feb. 3: "A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews... State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos." So, whatever happens, I am not going to miss Mubarak. I cannot even call him what Paul Johnson called the former Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, "a loyal if disgusting ally of the West". Mubarak was disgusting but did not come anywhere near being a loyal ally. The best I can say of him is that he did not order a crackdown on his people and stepped down when the number of victims was "only" in the three-digit range (365 as currently reported by Wikipedia). However, I have all reasons to think that this was not Mubarak's merit; rather, the military sensed the direction of wind (as we say) and forced him to resign in time.
To continue the analogy with the swimming - normally, people are trained to swim under the supervision of skilled swimmers. When some country is stepping on the path to democracy, someone else must keep watch, give directions and be ready to intervene if things go terribly wrong. Outside Europe, this "someone" can be only the USA. What a pity that the Arab Spring had to happen exactly when the White House is occupied by a man able only to talk. As a person who makes her living almost entirely by talking, I know very well the limitations of what you can achieve this way.
But let's leave all these worries for another day. When a tyrant is oustered, it is time to celebrate. Well done, Egypt, congratulations! I remember a poem, by an unknown author, written in the unruly days of late 1989:

"Не бой се, народе, в тебе е силата,
днес си изграждаш нова съдба.
Добри или лоши - Бог знае ги новите,
но старите трябва да паднат сега!"

Don't be afraid, people, you have the strength
To build your new destiny today.
God knows, good or bad the new rulers will be,
But the old ones must step down now!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Gypsy adoption

I have been planning for a long time to write a post about adoption of abandoned Bulgarian Gypsy children by non-Gypsy Bulgarians and foreigners. (I prefer to call them Gypsy, not the politically correct Roma.) Gypsies in Bulgaria, as in other European countries, have always occupied the low end of the socio-economic ladder. They still have a high birth rate, many of the babies are unplanned and some of them are left in orphanages. And because the abandoned "white" non-disabled babies are fewer than the families seeking to adopt a child, the overwhelming majority of non-disabled children in Bulgarian orphanages are of Gypsy origin.
You can ask why the prospective "white" adoptive parents don't take these children as well. Essentially, the answer can be summarized by a confession that we white Bulgarians are damn racists. The former Communist government in the 1980s tried to integrate (as we would call it today) the Gypsies by denying their existence as an ethnic and cultural minority. The success of this pretence was zero, and from that time is the saddest story about racism I have ever heard. A childless couple from my city adopted a baby, allegedly without knowing that he was of Gypsy origin. In the beginning, everything was wonderful. The local diagnostic and medical center had a special wall to show photos of children best cared for, and the adopted boy had his image put on this parents' wall of fame. However, as he grew, his Gypsy appearance became apparent. For that reason, the adoptive parents decided they wanted him no more and left him back at the orphanage.
Traditionally, Bulgarian couples wishing to adopt tend to have unrealistically high requirements to the child being adopted. An employee at a child protection agency ironically described children wanted for adoption as "5-6 months old, healthy, beautiful, white, blonde, intelligent, having a university student as biological mother and, if possible, her professor as biological father".
Happily, things are changing and the same employee added that more and more white families not only take the chance to adopt a Gypsy child but later call to say how happy they are and offer their services to encourage other couples to adopt a Gypsy. Couples from other countries have less racial prejudice, but there is so much bureaucracy and obstacles to international adoption that too few children can benefit by it.
Recently, a family "indirectly known" to me adopted a Gypsy toddler. A friend was a bit worried and asked whether the child was predisposed to become a thief after growing up. I was happy to assure him that this has nothing to do with the biological ethnic origin. (I mentioned the case also in my Bulgarian blog.)
Another concern of prospective adoptive parents is that their child may never grow up to be close to their level of intelligence. This reason to worry is more legitimate. I do not believe that there are significant differences in IQ between different ethnic groups, but there are other possible factors affecting the intelligence of children available for adoption. These children may have had suboptimal prenatal development (a malnourished or even substance-abusing mother), they may have had a difficult birth, and they may be already damaged by their stay in an orphanage prior to the adoption. Anybody adopting any child, especially a child coming from a disadvantaged group such as the Gypsies, must prepare himself well for the possibility that he may never brag about the academic achievements of the child.
Of course, anybody deciding to become a parent must be ready for this possibility. People become parents for selfish reasons, for their own happiness, and always have an idealized image of the future child which must gradually be adjusted to reality. So, if a parent of a younger child tells me that his child, biological or adopted, has disappointed him, I could only say - welcome to the club!
However, there is a difference between birth and adoptive parents, and let's not trivialize it. Whatever our biological children bring to us, we still see "our blood" in them. In adoption, spirit triumphs over biology. And when a white person adopts a child, he needs a bigger heart if the child is Gypsy. He has to come to terms with the fact that his baby is so much unlike him. He has to face his own prejudice, conscious and subconscious. And if he lives in Bulgaria or another East-European country, he knows that he must also confront the racist society, stand up for his child and teach the child to stand up for himself. Therefore, I admire those white people who adopt abandoned Gypsy children. They and their children are trailblazers who, I hope, will in the coming years catalyze the integration of the entire Gypsy community.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


My district is called Zaharna Fabrika, which means Sugar Factory. It was named after the first sugar factory in Bulgaria, built in 1898 by the Belgian Solvay company. At that time, it was located at a railway crossing 4 km away from the city of Sofia. The city grew and eventually reached the factory. In the early 1940s, the district was built as accommodation complex for the factory workers.
The sugar factory itself stopped work decades ago. I have never seen it working, but have always liked the simple beauty of its buildings. It had the status of a cultural landmark. Unfortunately, Bulgarian government after 1989 abdicated from its duty to protect cultural and historical landmarks. Officials perceived democracy as an opportunity not to spend time and efforts on performing standard government functions, the functions that justify the very existence of government. Law and order deteriorated, education deteriorated, landmarks were sold away to private individuals and companies. In theory, the law required any owner of a landmark object to care for its maintenance. However, there was nobody to execute the law. Predator "investors" started buying landmarks and deliberately letting them to deteriorate by all means short of openly calling a wreckage crew. After some time, the landmark in question reliably turned into ruin, its disappearance was documented and the owner was free to do whatever he wished on his cleared land.
On Jan. 7, the Trud daily reported on its 2nd page:
"Greeks are appealing a fine for the Sugar Factory
The owners of the former Sugar Factory in Sofia are appealing in court the fine of 100,000 lv. (about EUR 50,000 - M.M.). It was imposed on them by the Municipality of Sofia because the building was dangerous. In December 2009, collapse of a concrete plate in the factory killed two Roma (Gypsies - M.M.). The Greek company TAB Real Estate, which owns the building, says that the fine is too high..."
I remember that day in 2009 (it was actually November, not December). My mother in-law came back from shopping and said, "I have passed by the Gypsy ghetto, people had gathered there, women were crying. Something has happened. Let's watch the TV news to find out." The same evening, TV channels reported that three young Gypsy men, two brothers and their brother in-law, had gone into the sugar factory building to collect iron pieces to sell them for scrap (many unemployed Gypsies try to feed themselves and their families in this way). However, the iron rail they took turned out to be a supporting part, so the building collapsed over them. The brother in-law managed to escape, but the two brothers were buried under the ruins and later found dead by the rescue team. gives their names as Dimitar and Stefan and their ages as 31 and around 40.
It was immediately reported that the owner was a Greek entrepreneur who not only failed to take the measures prescribed by the municipality to strenghten and guard the building but actually encouraged the local Gypsies to remove metal parts from it in order to accelerate its deterioration. The quotes below are from a Nov. 19, 2009 report by the BNT TV channel:
"Two brothers die in Sugar Factory building collapse
...Minko Gerdzhikov, Deputy Mayor of Sofia, said, "Owner of the building is TBA Real Estate (most other sources give it as TAB - M.M.). This is a Greek company, the owner's name is Kafalis. At present, he is hiding from us, does not want to speak. He is clearly aware that he is guilty of negligence. On the other hand, he apparently wanted this property not as a sugar factory but as a piece of land to be used by him for other purposes. I was informed by police sources that the owners even encouraged those living in the vicinity to demolish the building."
The locals quickly found whom to blame. The victims' sister said, "My brothers came to earn 5 leva, to buy food for themselves and their children, because they are unemployed. The owner came himself here in front of us and told us to demolish the building and told the police not to harass us, but policemen gather and only want money from us. They stop our horse carts and take 20, 30, 50 leva and this is why my brothers died here."

In October 2009, just a month before the tragedy, BTV channel reported that the cultural landmark could collapse any moment.
I would not lay any blame on the poor Gypsy men who struggled to support their families. You cannot realistically demand respect to cultural heritage from people who are hungry. And after the owner himself told them it was OK to demolish, how could they realize they were doing something wrong? I am sorry for them and their families, and I think the owner is guilty, and also our authorities.
I wanted to have the Greek nationality of the owner confirmed before writing this post, so I waited for quite a lont time. You see, it is dangerous even to report the truth in these matters, because it spawns xenophobia, let alone trust on rumous and unconfirmed hearsay evidence. Still I would not put "Greek" in the title as Trud did. One could assume that all Greeks have invaded Bulgaria en masse to destroy our heritage.
I wonder, what would happen to Mr. Kafalis (or whatever his name is) if he had tried the same business plan in his native Greece? Greek authorities would push him down a mouse burrow, as we say. And I think any government must deal with its nationals destroying heritage, whatever country they choose for their evil deed. Cultiral and historical heritage belongs to all of the world. And there is no hope to preserve it without international cooperation, exactly as it is impossible to defeat corruption without ensuring international transparency.
I made the first photo shortly after the tragedy, in January 2010. You see the collapsing builsing, and also the open unguarded gates. Anybody could enter there, any poor Gypsy scrap collector or bum seeking refuge or playing child could become the next victim. The next three photos are from July 2010. I made them to preserve the image of the Sugar Factory which I like so much, because it continues to deteriorate. It is already in a worse state that shown in the photos, and I guess it will be levelled to the ground in a few years. The last photo, like the first one, shows the crime scene. At least, the so-called owner has made it inaccessible. There is a fence and the gate is locked. Some minor buildings of the Sugar Factory complex have not been bought by TAB Real Estate and have remained outside the fence. They are illegally occupied by Gypsy families who maintain them as they can, and they are the only parts of the cultural landmark likely to survive.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Quacks of the world, keep your dirty paws off autism!

The text below is a translation (omitting some minor parts) of what I posted on my Bulgarian blog on Jan. 11 as a reaction to the dangerous export of autism quackery to Bulgaria.

The problem of children with autism is that they look quite like the others. When there is inborn malformation, chromosomal disease, sensory disability or another quite obvious problem, parents and society eventually accept the fact that this child is different and will remain so. But the inpredictable time course of autism, its still mysterious nature and the normal appearence of autistics mislead parents to hope that they will somehow be able to bring their child to norm. In fact, today the diagnosis of autism is handed around like candy, often by people who are not competent to diagnose but know well how to "cure" the incurable condition of autism (you ask how? - by relieving parents of their too abundant money). Many of the alleged autistic children actually have only speech delay and eventually catch up spontaneously. But pronounced autism is another thing. In the framework of an unaccepting society, it is perceived by parents not as a part of their child's personality but as an enemy to be faught. And then the quacks wishing to separate them from their money lure them easily and catch them on a hook without even a bait.
The last "achievement" of this sort belongs to Tokuda Hospital in (the city of) Sofia... They organized a conference on autism on Jan. 8-9. A special guest who presented a lecture on this conference was Dr. Arthur Krigsman, (advertised as) "a world-renowned gastroenterologist" from the USA...
A minute's Google check shows that he is indeed world-renowned. Have you a page in Wikipedia? Has your child's doctor or the hospital's director such a page? No? Eh well, Dr. Krigsman has one. You can read in it that he is known for his controversial and widely-criticized research in which he attempted to prove that the MMR vaccine caused autism. I love this little English word "controversial". It is used e.g. for Jeremiah Wright - the US president's favourite minister known for his statement that the USA deserved the Sept. 11 attacks. When a doctor is called "controversial" by a restrained source like Wikipedia, you can be sure that he is a top quack already fired from everywhere and awaiting only the prosecutor's subpoena, if not having received it already. I guess the coming of such a high guest to Bulgaria must be a reaction to some call "Quacks of the world, unite!".
From the conference at Tokuda Hospital Dr. Krigsman went to the At a cup of coffee TV show aired on the Nova TV Channel, so that the entire Bulgarian nation could enjoy his blessings. I owe thanks to my mother in-law who heroically watched the program and then retold it to me (I could not see it personally). To sum up, Dr. Krigsman explained for an hour how the neurological disability known as autism is due either to the digestive system or to the immune system or to heavy metal poisoning, how vaccines are to blame, how autistic children must be subjected to colonoscopy and biopsy (an invasive and not quite safe procedure) and how his method provides a cure for autism, described in all medical textbooks as incurable. And at the end of this hour, the gentleman said, "We are not curing autism, we are curing gastrointestinal diseases!" Ha-ha-ha. Western quacks always include such a disclaimer in order to avoid the heavy grip of law. Dr. Krigsman was unaware that in our part of the world, rule of law is a bit sickly and everybody can lie as he wishes without any disclaimers at all.
Unfortunately, (TV show host) Gala - this pride of Bulgarian journalism, really succeeded in advertising the US quack doctor. You can see the discussion in BG-Mamma (the major Web forum of Bulgarian mothers). I could endure only a brief glance on the first page. It looks to me like a chorus from the circles of Hell where gullibility is reinforced by positive feedback as it is handed from one desperate soul to another. But those who are really in the circles of Hell are the children (and adults) with autism. Not because of the autism itself but because of our attitude.
What do I mean? Imagine that you have a disability - let's say, you are blind or your legs are paralyzed. Imagine that society does not wish to accommodate to your disability, refuses to give you Braille books or a wheelchair and instead wants you to start seeing or walking. It suggests to you that if you fail to achieve this, you have no value, you are not a complete human, it is not clear whether you are human at all. Now imagine that your family members, on whom you have to rely because of your disability and your tender age, are not interested in your real needs but instead wonder how to cure you. They put you on a diet without bread, dairy products and everything you like, and they swear that, thanks to this diet, you already distinguish light from darkness or have slightly moved your left toe. (I am referring to the notorious gluten-free casein-free diet that not only does not lessen autism traits a bit except for the placebo effect, but deprives children of calcium and so makes their bones thinner.) Moreover, your relations bring you to some quack to poison you allegedly to detoxicate you from heavy metals, endangering your life. They also bring you to another quack to puncture your intestines, again endangering your life. They subject you to all sorts of experiments that are not even included in a legal experimental medicine study. They repent for the vaccines that have allegedly contributed to your condition, and swear not to vaccinate your little sister - which you take as a message that they'd prefer her to die of measles than be like you.
Unfortunately, right now I have no time to write a serious text about autism, which seems to be necessary. For those who can read English, I recommend the sincere tale of Dr. James Laidler how he himself got involved in quackery because of his desperation after his two children were diagnosed with autism, and then the blog of "Prometheus" - a molecular biologist and father of an autistic child. Meanwhile, to all who care for children or adults with autism, I wish high spirit, health, physical and emotional strength - and act cleverly!
(In an update, I added that Gala's guest was not only Dr. Krigsman but also his pal Dr. Anju Usman, who has direct responsibility for the death of 5-yr-old Abubakar Nadama by referring him to Dr. Kerry to be "treated" with the poison EDTA that killed him.)