Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yima, the Iranian Prometheus

The killing of Yima/Jamshid, illustration from an old Persian manuscript, copied from his Wikipedia page.

In a number of mythologies, the primordial state of mankind is a blissful Golden Age of plenty, joy, universal love, harmony and often immortality. Then humans do something they shouldn't, usually in violation of an explicit divine order. They taste a forbidden fruit of knowledge, or steal the fire, or become greedy for gold, or something of this sort. This leads to a Fall - an abrupt termination of the Golden Age and establishment of the human condition as we know it.

These recurrent tales are more related to psychology than to anthropology. An age when "the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly" (quote from Works and Days, by ancient Greek poet Hesiod, translation by Evelyn-White) of course never existed in reality. Moreover, anthropologists have not found a single primitive human society, ancient or modern, to rely on the "fruits born by the fruitful earth". So it is striking that in Golden Age myths, humans are invariably plant eaters.

Besides animal food, our mythic ancestors are deprived of another human trait - consciousness. They are peaceful and vegetarian as oxen, and almost as intelligent. They have everything they need, because they lack the mental skills needed to figure out that they need more than they have, nor can they plan how to acquire it. Small wonder that these wretched pea-brained humans usually cannot manage even the Fall on their own and need a snake to tell them that knowledge is power, or a Prometheus to bring them the stolen fire.

The earliest text about Prometheus, Hesiod's Theogony, actually mentions another sin besides the theft of fire: tricking Zeus to take only the bones of a sacrificed ox and to leave the edible parts to humans. The quote below is from Evelyn-White's translation:

"(507-543) Now Iapetus took to wife... Clymene, daughter of Ocean... And she bare him... clever Prometheus... and scatter-brained Epimetheus who from the first was a mischief to men who eat bread; for it was he who first took of Zeus the woman, the maiden whom he had formed... 

And ready-witted Prometheus he (Zeus - M.M.) bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver... That bird Heracles... slew... Though he (Zeus - M.M.) was angry, he ceased from the wrath which he had before because Prometheus matched himself in wit with the almighty son of Cronos (this is again Zeus - M.M.).  

For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. Then the father of men and of gods said to him: 

(543-544) `Son of Iapetus, most glorious of all lords, good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions!' 

(545-547) So said Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting... But wily Prometheus answered...:

(548-558) `Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.' 

So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars. But Zeus who drives the clouds was greatly vexed and said to him: 

(559-560) `Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!' 

(561-584) So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to... mortal men who live on the earth. But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire..."

To cut the long story short and spare you a larger dose of the cumbersome Hesiod's narrative, let me just mention that the "evil thing" was the woman. With or without an accompanying jar of other evils, she was given to Prometheus' stupid brother, Epimetheus. Pay attention that, although the pious poet stresses that Zeus "whose wisdom is everlasting" saw through the trick from the beginning, he was actually duped; otherwise, it is difficult to explain why "wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out".

Prometheus was made popular by a later play, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, which concentrated on the theft of fire and other contributions to civilization and omitted (and even negated) the sacrifice trick; this is why the latter is not known to the general public. It is clear that the deceptive sacrifice and the theft of fire were initially independent elements. They do not fit well together because animal sacrifice requires fire (a more logical combination would be theft of fire first, sacrifice trick second). The theft of fire, though present in many mythologies, is not typical for Indo-Europeans. It is likely to have been borrowed from the Caucasus, where different variations of it exist, some including the eagle and some without it. As for the sacrifice, scholars tend to dismiss it as a local "etiological myth" to explain why humans eat most of the sacrificial animal and burn only the bones at the gods' altars. Some even suspect that it is Hesiod's invention. Therefore, I was surprised to read that as early as 1975, Bruce Lincoln had written the following:

"I attempted to trace out a myth of Indo-European provenance that detailed the events which were believed to have been crucial in the establishment of the world as the Proto-Indo-Europeans knew it. There I argued that this myth told of two brothers, *Manu- "Man" (Sanskrit Manu, Avestan *Manus, Germanic Mannus being linguistic correspondences; Old Norse Odinn and Latin Romulus being structurally related) and *Yemo- 'Twin" (Sanskrit Yama, Avestan Yima, Old Norse Ymir, and Latin Remus being linguistic matches; Germanic Tuisco being a semantic match; Sanskrit Mandvi and Purusa, Pahlavi Gayomart being structurally related). Originally, this myth told of how *Manu, a priest, sacrificed *Yemo, a king, together with a bovine animal, and then created the world from their respective bodies..."

This setting - two brothers, a bovine, and a sacrifice - immediately reminded me of the Mecone scene, which, if not world-creating, was at least world-shaping. Because "Prometheus" and "Epimetheus" are clearly epithets and not true names, it does not matter that they do not sound like "Yemo" and "Manu". "Prometheus" means "Forethinker", various authors have tried other etymologies using the Sanskrit words for "fire-stick" or "steal", but if we leave aside the non-Indo-European theft of fire, we can easily derive it from "prototype sacrifice", which can be reconstructed in Sanskrit as "pra-medha". As for Epimetheus, he assaulted nobody and we don't know whether he was even present at Mecone. However, after the sacrifice, he got a role by becoming a puppet of his brother's enemies and a tool of their revenge.

I looked for more information about other "Yemos". Only the Indian and Iranian versions are preserved well enough. The oldest Indian sacred text is the Rig Veda. In it, there is a remark about Yama finding and bringing fire:

"3 In many places, Agni Jātavedas (Agni is the god of fire - M.M.), we sought thee hidden in the plants and waters.
Then Yama marked thee, God of wondrous splendour! effulgent from thy tenfold secret dwelling...
(Rig Veda, Book 10, Hymn 51, translated by R. Griffith.)

Yama initially was a man, the first man who died and traced the path for others. Then he became god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. However, neither in the Rig Veda nor in later texts you will find how and of what he died. The only clue seems to be this:

"4 He, for God's sake, chose death to be his portion. He chose not, for men's good, a life eternal
They sacrificed Bṛhaspati the Ṛṣi. Yama delivered up his own dear body
(Rig Veda, Book 10, Hymn 13.)

The hint may be that Yama accepted death so that to find or build an underworld for other souls to inhabit. However, it is also possible that he died in some suicide mission which the authors of the scripture preferred not to specify.

More information comes from Iran, though it has passed through not one but two reforms imposing monotheistic religions, first Zoroastrianism and then Islam. The counterpart of Yama is named Yima in the oldest texts (the Avesta) and Jam or Jamshid ("King Jam") in later ones. It seems that Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was not altogether happy with Yima, but had to accommodate him somehow, because he was too popular to be simply left out. The Avestan references to Yima are fragmentary, maybe because Yima was well known to Zoroaster's original audience and no detailed descriptions were needed.

The earliest and most important information is given in the Yasna, a part of the Avesta that includes mainly lithurgical texts. In Chapter 9, he is described as the king of mankind in the Golden Age at the beginning of the world:

"4... Yima, called the brilliant, (he of the many flocks, the most glorious of those yet born, the sunlike-one of men), that he made from his authority both herds and people free from dying, both plants and waters free from drought, and men could eat inexhaustible food.

5. In the reign of brave Yima was there neither cold nor heat, there was neither age nor death, nor envy demon-made. Like teenagers walked the two forth, son and father, in their stature and their form, so long as Yima, son of Vivanghvant ruled, he of the many herds!"

Then in Chapter 32, the Fall comes:

"8. Among these sinners, we know, Yima was included, Vivanghen's son, who desiring to satisfy men gave our people flesh of the ox to eat. From these shall I be separated by Thee, O Mazda, at last."
(Translation by L. H. Mills. Mazda is Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd, the Zoroastrian God.)

As the end of the verse shows, the author is quick to distance himself from the wicked deed of Yima. And for good reason; because the supernatural forces, watching humans eat beef, got as angry as Zeus at Mecone. The gates of Hell opened - literally: humans were made mortal, and the first person to die was Yima himself. He was brutally slain. The Yasna keeps silence about this but another part of the Avesta, Yashts 19 - Zamyad Yasht or Hymn to the Earth, tells the story in a few words. First, it reminds us of the Golden Age in chapter 7:

"30. We sacrifice unto the awful kingly Glory, made by Mazda ....
31. That clave unto the bright Yima, the good shepherd, for a long time, while he ruled...
32. ...In whose reign... aliments were never failing for feeding creatures, flocks and men were undying, waters and plants were undrying;
33. In whose reign there was neither cold wind nor hot wind, neither old age nor death, nor envy made by the Daevas, in the times before his lie, before he began to have delight in words of falsehood and untruth.
34. But when he began to find delight in words of falsehood and untruth, the Glory was seen to flee away from him... When his Glory had disappeared, then the great Yima Khshaeta, the good shepherd, trembled and was in sorrow before his foes; he was confounded, and laid him down on the ground."

I find it interesting that, in a sacrifice context, Yima is accused in "lie, falsehood and untruth". Did he, like Prometheus, outwit the gods? Unfortunately, we are not told this. And what happened to him after he was laid on the ground? The answer is in the next chapter 8:

"46... Azhi Dahaka and Spityura, he who sawed Yima in twain" (translation by J. Darmesteter).

Azhi Dahaka is an evil spirit that in pre-Zoroastrian Iran must have been in the ranks of gods. I find it noteworthy that, while Yima managed the deceptive sacrifice and the Fall all on himself, or at least Yasna 32:8 tells us nothing about supernatural help, such help was needed for his murder. And who was the murderer, that obscure Spityura? As we should expect from the proto-Indo-European template, he was a brother of Yima. This is mentioned in a later text (the Bundahishn or Creation), chapter 31:

"3. Yim, Tahmurasp, Spitur, and Narsih... were all brothers... 
5. Spitur was he who, with Dahak, cut up Yim" (translated by E. W. West).

Yima also had a connection with fire: he established a sacred fire called Farnbag (Bundahishn, chapter 17). The way he died may be echoed in the sharp weapon inserted into the body of Prometheus, which would of course kill him if he were mortal and which is absent from the Caucasian versions of the myth known to me.

What happened to Yima after his death? The Zoroastrian scriptures say nothing. However, the Pahlavi Rivayat, a work from the 10th century (i.e. already in the era of Islam), tells about it in chapter 31. Briefly, Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) summons the soul of Jam (i.e. Yima) from Hell to show him to Zoroaster. The latter finds the punishment too severe. Yima confesses to have called himself Creator of the world, repents and advises Zoroaster not to repeat his mistake:

"31c5 'And I said that I (had) created all the creatures and creations of the spiritual and material worlds. 
31c6 'For those lies which I uttered, glory and lordship were taken away from me, and my body fell into destruction at the hands of the demons. 
31c7 'You who are Zoroaster, if hardship (or) if prosperity should befall you, do not desist from proclaiming the religion...
31c8 When Jam had spoken in this manner, then confession and contrition came into his account, and he was forgiven by Ohrmazd..., and he went from the northern direction [i.e. Hell] to the state of Limbo and to the lordship of Limbo."
(Translation by A. V. Williams.)

This is maybe the only version where Yima finally becomes, like Yama, an underworld ruler.

Pious Zoroastrians are generally inclined to vegetarianism and sometimes blame Yima/Jamshid for giving people meat. This is no sin in Islam, so early Muslim authors have ascribed to him other crimes to justify his punishment, as evident from the above quote. Today, however, he is acquitted, like his relations - Prometheus, the Caucasian fire-thieves, and of course Eve and Adam. As B. Polka paraphrasing Kant says of the biblical story, it provides "a truly intelligible account of the transition of humankind from nature to freedom, from ignorance to reason, and so of the dignity of human beings who are to be treated as ends in themselves by all rational beings, including God." The same can be said of all mythic sinners who worked hard and took great risk to bring humanity out of the fools' Paradise.

(The outline of this post developed in a discussion on Bill Moulton's blog.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas ritual song

(Bulgarian readers can read this post here.)

When one is studying the mythologies of the Old Continent, he can mark Slavic lands as a giant black hole. Because Slavs had no alphabet before Christianization, and after it did not care to write down their old beliefs and legends. I suppose that this sad omission was due not so much to religious zealotry as to plain laziness and carelessness.

However, we can safely assume that Pagan Slavs worshiped the Sun. Traces of this can be found in the following Christmas tropar (ritual song):

We wrote the notes together with my father, who knows the melody from his father. The lyrics can be found also at the official site of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Its original text is in old Bulgarian, usually called "Old Church Slavonic" so that not to offend sensitivities of non-Bulgarian Slavs and other people. Here is a translation:

Your birth, Christ our God,
illuminated the world with the light of reason,
because with it a star taught star worshipers
to worship You, Sun of truth,
and to know You from the height of the East.
God, glory to You!

We see that the image of Christ fuses with that of the Sun rising again after the winter solstice.

The church recommends singing this song on Christmas. My grandfather did something else: on Christmas Eve he was singing it and making a tour around the house with an incense-burner in hand in order to chase any evil spirits away. Doesn't matter, merry Christmas to everyone and celebrate as you wish!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The case of Michael Brown

Michael Brown was an 18-yr-old black boy from Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri) who was shot dead by a white policeman on Aug. 9. He was unarmed. Initially, it was reported that Brown was shot multiple times while trying to surrender, with his hands up. Some said that he was on his knees and/or with his back to the policeman. The latter, who claimed self-defense, was not arrested. Heated protests by local blacks (who are majority in the population, but practically not represented in police and government) started immediately and continued for days.

In the beginning, I believed that the shooting was completely unjustified and that the policeman must have made a fatal mistake (mildly said), driven by anger, fear and possible racism. After all, such things do happen, don't they? However, 6 days later, the Ferguson police released two important pieces of information: the name of the policeman (Darren Wilson) and video evidence that Michael Brown, together with a friend who witnessed his killing, allegedly robbed a convenience store minutes earlier, taking some cigars. He used only his physical force to push the store clerk, no weapon. In US law, this is called "strong arm robbery".

As soon as I heard this, I changed my opinion. Nobody then could say whether Darren Wilson, who approached the two youths because of jaywalking, even knew about the robbery. However, I (and many others) immediately figured out that, regardless of whether Wilson knew or not, Brown knew perfectly well that he had just committed a robbery, and this influenced his behavior. I think that, if I were a Ferguson protester, at this point I would go home. Why? Because, first, it was quite possible that events had not developed exactly as Brown's friend and other witnesses had described them and the killing could be justified after all. When the size and weight of Michael Brown first became known - 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) and 292 lb (132 kg), his family and friends said he was a "gentle giant", so gentle that he could not play football. In the face of the new data, this now looked either deep delusion or, more likely, brazen lie; I was not happy with being lied, and wondered how many more lies were circulating.

Second, if a community is already stereotyped as pro-crime, the last things it needs is to rally behind a person shot by police in the immediate aftermath of a robbery. Making him a cause célèbre can only reinforce the stereotypes. Even if the shooting was unjustified, the way to help was by quietly donating to Brown's family to help them find good legal council - as I guess would happen if the victim was white, or of any other race. And it was time to end the meme of "police shooting the citizens they are to protect", because police are not to protect citizens like Michael Brown, but to protect other citizens from them. In fact, behavior such as Brown's on that day is the reason we need police in the first place.

However, Ferguson protesters were far from going home. On the contrary, their protests became more violent because police released Darren Wilson's identity too late (why in fact did they need the name earlier? to lynch him?) and because releasing the video of robbery was an attempt to smear Brown's character (though it was authentic). There had already been rioting and looting, but it became worse. What made in me a particularly ugly impression was that the store robbed by Brown was targeted (according to some reports, looters initially mistook it and looted another store first). I am not even talking about international reactions, whose indignation was proportional to their anti-Americanism (I've briefly mentioned the finger-pointing of Russia).

I still hoped, however, that reasonable people would stop defending the protesters and let the justice do its job. So it was unpleasant surprise for me when on Aug. 20 I found a strongly pro-protesters, pro-Brown post on Dr. Amy Tuteur's Skeptical OB, a serious blog devoted to the science of pregnancy, birth and child care. I posted the following comment:

"I disagree with this post. I do not think the police officer should have risked more serious injury than he allegedly already had in order to protect Brown. Would everybody be happy if he had not shot and was now in hospital with coma? I also wonder whether police guidelines say that you must check whether a suspect is armed before treating him as such. I guess they say quite different things. Because my common sense says that if police officers first check whether a violent person is armed, in too many cases they will not survive to finish the check.

I also think police was right to release the video. If Brown's character was of no importance, why were community members spreading lies about it? But the question is not even about the victim's character. The question is about his adequacy. If you are robbing a shop in your own town in broad daylight at 11 AM, this means you have completely lost touch with reality. And if the victim has done this minute before confronting the police officer, God knows what he did during the confrontation. Let's wait for the facts. But no, people rush to judgement based on the words of two or three biased witnesses, one of them allegedly Brown's accomplice in the robbery. We already know that some of the initial claims were false. They said that Brown was shot in the back, the autopsy shows all shots were from front. God knows how many more things will turn out different. But people have completely forgotten the "innocent until proven guilty", see themselves as a jury and have already convicted the policeman. Why should police apologize before it is proven that their man was wrong?

I think US citizens should support law and order and send a clear message that skin pigmentation does not put anyone above the law and does not entitle anyone to anything. Say that it is OK to attack a policeman as long as you use your bare hands only (never mind that many murders are done by bare hands and feet), say that looting and other property damage is legitimate expression of anger, and you are subscribing to more of the same

For this, I was called a racist with a tiny hateful brain (and many other names) and told to shut up and go away. In a word, my opponents, particularly those identifying themselves as non-white, were the most aggressive bunch of cyberbullies I've ever seen. For comparison, none of the Muslims to whom I have criticized their religion and their Prophet has come anywhere near this.

Among other things, protesters and other "progressives" demanded the case to be handled by a special prosecutor, because the local one was "biased" - his father had been a policeman and was killed by a black criminal some 40 years ago. (Someone commented that, by the same logic, this man should have been denied the job of a prosecutor altogether because he was likely to hold a general bias against criminals.) The only way the prosecutor could satisfy his critics was to indict Wilson. He, however, preferred to leave this job to a grand jury, a procedure existing within US law. Then, Brown supporters screamed that the jury was not adequate because it included 9 whites and only 3 blacks. The jury was constituted before the case and its "demography" matched that of the region; but apparently some people's idea of justice is to fill the juries with black racists who would pronounce verdicts based solely on the race of individuals involved, as in the O.J. Simpson case.

As time passed, more and more facts came out and the initial testimony of many witnesses turned out to be, as a deputy prosecutor put it, "a bunch of lies". Gradually, the following reconstruction of events emerged: In his last morning, Michael Brown was walking with his friend and showed the first sign of inadequate behavior by stopping to give a perfect stranger an unsolicited lecture about Jesus. Immediately after that, the two entered the convenience store. Brown took some cigars (worth a little less than $ 50) to use them for smoking marijuana. He was still under the influence of previously consumed marijuana. Contrary to those who describe the incident as "shoplifting", Brown tried to bring out the cigars openly, not secretly, and pushed back the store clerk who attempted to stop him.

The clerk never called police, a fact described by some clueless Brown supporters as a proof that the robbery had not taken place. Actually, it is an ominous sign that in Ferguson, the law of the jungle was overcoming the rule of law, and law-abiding citizens were submitting to criminals. However, in civilized societies, there is always resistance to the law of the jungle. Another customer called 911 to report the robbery.

After that, Brown and his friend did not use the sidewalk but walked in the middle of the street. This seems to be done by some young men for the sole purpose of harassing motorists. The two young men apparently were so used to it that did not realize how unwise it was in their situation. Darren Wilson, who had just heard about the robbery, saw them and told them to go to the sidewalk. Brown's friend, by his own admission, answered, "We are less than a minute to our destination" (translation: we'll leave the middle of the street when we want to, not when you tell us).

Wilson had driven a little away when he realized that Brown fitted the description of the robbery suspect and was holding cigars. He returned and tried to apprehend Brown. There was a scuffle in the car. Wilson, who shot Brown in the hand, claimed that Brown tried to take his gun, and the physical evidence was in agreement with this. Then Brown and his friend ran away. Wilson told them to stop. Brown stopped and turned around. It seems that at some moment Brown's hands indeed were up, but he was far from surrendering. He walked towards Wilson and the latter shot him several times. The last two shots, in the head, were fatal.

To my (and not only my) opinion, these facts showed that Michael Brown brought about his own death - as is said in such cases, committed "suicide by cop". However, when the facts didn't back his supporters' narrative, they dismissed the facts. And when on Nov. 24 the grand jury, predictably, decided not to indict Wilson, enraged protesters left Ferguson in shambles. I wonder, did they really expect the jurors to indict a probably innocent person just to appease rioters, looters and arsonists? I have little sympathy even to the peaceful protesters. They actually demanded mob justice. They wanted Wilson to be stripped of his right to self-defense, and of fair trial after successful self-defense. And, while accusing him and all whites of racism, they were themselves bitterly racist - because they would never protest if Wilson had been black. We never see protests against black police, although they are as likely as their white colleagues to kill a black citizen in the line of duty. The only good thing in peaceful protests was that their peaceful nature made it possible to ignore them. From moral point of view, however, these racist protesters against justice were hardly better than pro-lifers or religious fanatics protesting over cartoons.

Unlike some who place heavy blame on Michael Brown and his parents, I think that the problem lies deeper. It is an open secret that among too many black Americans, there is a subculture in which the proper way to get things is violence, and hard-working law-abiding blacks are "Uncle Toms" who must be despised for "acting white". This culture more than anything else keeps blacks behind. As the protests proved, it has deep roots in Ferguson; and I guess that only rare strong personalities can escape its grip, so it is not entirely fair to blame Michael Brown, an 18-yr-old with modest intellectual ability, for failing to do such a feat. Here, I wish to cite Brian Willingham, a black church pastor and policeman: “I now realize, that we who consider ourselves leaders in the black community can’t just be against racism. We have to also be against a portion of black culture that has become increasingly anti-authority and antisocial to a point of self-destruction. This is an enemy we’ve yet to engage in the black community."

I also think that those white "liberals" who supported the protests and keep lamenting about "white privilege" are doing a disservice to everybody. And especially to the black Americans they allegedly want to help. By encouraging social ills, these whites are behaving as bad neighbors and bad citizens.

Last but not least, let's remember that Brown did the fatal petty robbery in order to smoke marijuana, and he was under the influence of a previous dose of marijuana. He behaved like a person obeying a vital necessity, like someone dying of hunger who will break a shop window to steal bread. People say that marijuana is not addictive and does not cause violent behavior. However, we see that anecdotal evidence points otherwise. In my country, one of the most cruel and senseless murders in recent years was also over marijuana - in 2011, a 17-yr-old butchered his 12-yr-old friend for breaking a pot with the precious plant (link in Bulgarian). Marijuana is to be decriminalized in the USA. I am not firmly against it, but I fear that it will add fuel to the widespread opinion that it is innocent. Because people, even when claiming self-reliance and ability to make wise choices, usually regard the state as a nanny that will spin a safety net around them and protect them from their own stupidity. So it goes, "after it is allowed, it is not too dangerous". Let's keep in mind that it is a mind-altering substance with poorly known effects that have not been extensively tried in our culture and, as far as I know, in any culture.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

US official defends betrayal of Ukraine

From AFP via Yahoo! News:

"US rejects criticism of historic Ukraine nuclear deal

Kiev (AFP) - A top US official hit back on Friday against accusations the West has failed to live up to promises made exactly 20 years ago to Ukraine in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons.

The Budapest Memorandum that came into force on December 5, 1994 led to Ukraine voluntarily giving up the huge stockpile of nuclear warheads it inherited from the Soviet Union.

In exchange, Britain, the United States and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine's borders and ensure its security -- a promise which many Ukrainians see as unkept in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for eastern separatists this year.

But on a visit to Kiev on Friday, Rose Gottemoeller, head of arms control and international security for the US government, said her country "has gone every step towards continuing to defend and develop a means of bolstering Ukraine". 

Gottemoeller, who was a negotiator at the Budapest talks 20 years ago, sidestepped questions from reporters on whether Ukraine would have been spared a Russian invasion if it still had nuclear weapons.

"We regret of course that Russia has not lived up to its commitments," she said.

But she added that the failure to rid Ukraine of atomic bombs "would have contributed to a very unstable 20 years not only in Ukraine's history but also in the history of the entire world because it would have placed a barrier in the way of further nuclear disarmament elsewhere."..."

This is a perfect example of the impotent arrogance that creates anti-Americanism even in decent people.

It is clear to everybody that Britain and the USA were not to sign that they would not violate Ukraine's borders, because they were never likely to do so in the first place. Only Russia was a threat to Ukraine, and the signature of the USA was to guarantee that the USA would not let Russia attack Ukraine. (Small Britain was invoked only to prevent the agreement from looking like the bilateral deal it was.)

Ms. Goettemoller claims that the USA "has gone every step towards continuing to defend and develop a means of bolstering Ukraine". I'd wish to hear what these steps were. Because what I see is that Russia invades Ukraine and grabs its land with impunity, and the USA stands by and doesn't move a finger.

In the face of the relentless Russian attack against Ukraine, Ms. Goettemoller's statement that the continuing presence of atomic bombs in Ukraine "would have contributed to a very unstable 20 years... in Ukraine's history" sounds like cruel mockery. And it sounds so because it is so.

As for the opinion that such continuing presence "would have placed a barrier in the way of further nuclear disarmament elsewhere" - I haven't heard of any other country renouncing its nuclear arsenal. But even if any nuclear power had intention to disarm, it will surely renounce this good intention, seeing the consequences of USA tricking Ukraine to give up its only means for self-defense. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if some unstable countries are now conceiving their own nuclear programs for first time, and I would not blame these countries.

Of course, it is wonderful to wish a world without nuclear bombs. However, this doesn't justify using false promises to make other countries defenseless and then abandoning them to the mercy of their enemies. In a word, Ukraine was sold out by the great country that is too often tired of being the only civilized superpower.

If you think that Americans are not obliged to die for other countries, I'd answer - true, but then your government must not sign defense treaties with other countries, knowing all along that it does not intend even to begin "living up to its commitments". This is disgrace, and I think that US citizens should not ignore it.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

"Fruit of knowledge" was no apple

My elder son is now taught at school creation myths, including the Genesis. In one of his textbooks, the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge was described and painted as an apple, and this annoyed me. I do not claim any expertise on the Bible, but at least I know that the fruit is not identified in the original text. And naturally, having read some careless fiction narratives about pre-Columbian Europeans eating potatoes, I even asked myself whether apples were cultivated in the Middle East at that age.

Here is what I found:

"[T]he fruit of the tree in this passage has for almost 2,000 years been painted, sculpted and described as an apple. But the text speaks only of an undefined “fruit.” How did we get to the apple, of all things, which was unknown in the Near East until a century ago? In Jerome’s fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, the word for “evil,” with which the snake’s speech ends (Genesis 3:5), is malum. Malum can also mean apple, and so this false apple was projected back three lines, to end up ultimately in Eve’s hands, where it never was in the first place."

(Lapide, Pinchas. "Touching the Forbidden Fruit." Bible Review 4 (1988): 42-43, quoted by Paul J. Kissling, Genesis, p. 193.)

There may be other reasons besides being "lost in translation". The apple has an important place in Indo-European mythology (the golden apples of the Hesperides, the Judgement of Paris, the apples of Idun) and folklore (e.g. Snowwhite). So it was natural for Indo-European Christians, after appropriating the Hebrew Bible, to transplant this culturally important fruit onto it. However, I think today's authors of textbooks should be more accurate and explain old errors, rather than perpetuating them.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brief history of the Islamic State

On the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is sad that the free world hasn't yet scored a decisive victory over its Islamist enemies. Today, the most vicious Islamist terrorist organization is an Al-Qaeda offshoot called Islamic State and known also as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Half a year ago, the Islamic State was unknown to the general public. Now, it wins battles, takes control over large territories in Iraq and Syria, terrorizes residents, subjects religious minorities to genocide and posts on the Web decapitation videos of captive Western journalists. But how did it start? It is my conviction that the Islamic State, like its predecessor Al-Qaeda, is state-sponsored in one way or another. It is hardly a chance that it originated in the realm of the bloody Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who, like his friend and protector Vladimir Putin, won a license to do any atrocities with impunity by crossing the Western "red line" slowly and gradually. Assad systematically wiped out all opposition except the bloodthirsty psychopathic fanatics of the Islamic State in order to present himself as an acceptable ruler, better than the alternative. The following cartoon by Iranian artist Mana Neyestani (now living in France) says it all:

 I copied it from Vox and find it an accurate if brief history of the Islamic State.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ebola in Siera Leone: Lethal quackery

Quoting from today's report Sierra Leone's 365 Ebola deaths traced back to one healer (by Frankie Taggart, AFP via Yahoo! News):

"Kenema (Sierra Leone) (AFP) - It has laid waste to the tribal chiefdoms of Sierra Leone, leaving hundreds dead, but the Ebola crisis began with just one healer's claims to special powers.

The outbreak need never have spread from Guinea, health officials revealed to AFP, except for a herbalist in the remote eastern border village of Sokoma.

"She was claiming to have powers to heal Ebola. Cases from Guinea were crossing into Sierra Leone for treatment," Mohamed Vandi, the top medical official in the hard-hit district of Kenema, told AFP.

"She got infected and died. During her funeral, women around the other towns got infected."

Ebola has killed more than 1,220 people since it emerged in southern Guinea at the start of the year, spreading first to Liberia and cutting a gruesome and gory swathe through eastern Sierra Leone since May.

The tropical pathogen can turn people into de facto corpses with little higher brain function and negligible motor control days before they die.

The virus attacks almost every section of tissue, reducing organs and flesh in the most aggressive infections to a pudding-like mush which leaches or erupts from the body.

The virus is highly infectious through exposure to bodily fluids, and its early rapid spread in west Africa was attributed in part to relatives touching victims during traditional funeral rites.

The herbalist's mourners fanned out across the rolling hills of the Kissi tribal chiefdoms, starting a chain reaction of infections, deaths, funerals and more infections..."

The common people of course helped the virus by adhering to their traditional funeral rites, highly inadequate during an epidemic. They forgot a basic common sense rule: Never, ever put honoring the dead above the well-being of the living! Or you may have more dead, and fewer survivors to honor them.

However, if that "healer" had not dropped the bomb with her claims, villagers could have continued to say farewell to their dead as they wished and would not be infected, because the virus was not there. She started it all.

This report shows very well why alternative medicine is not only useless but also can cause much harm and must be avoided.

It is not because patients turning to alternative "providers" waste valuable time to be helped by official medicine. For most of those who seek alternative medicine, official medicine either cannot provide much help or is simply unavailable.

However, alternative medicine not only is unlikely to be of any help. It is likely to be harmful. And this is not only because alternative "healers" have not gone to medical school and lack science education. The biggest problem is that they often lack what was there before any science: the critical thinking and the humbleness to admit that you don't know what you don't know. This lack is essential for their "qualification"; for if they admit what they don't know, this will cover pretty much everything.

Alt-med practitioners can be roughly divided into two types: greedy quacks who intentionally deceive their patients and delusional individuals who truly believe in what they are selling. And as the Sierra Leone example shows, the latter, though better from ethical point of view, can actually do more harm.

The self-proclaimed healer made up in her head that she had a cure for Ebola. Had she a mental illness? We shall never know. But she was clearly inadequate, out of touch with reality. She paid the ultimate price for her delusion. Unfortunately, so did hundreds of others.

Of course, official medicine also has no cure for Ebola yet. But at least it admits it. It will not lure you with a false promise to travel many miles, lowering even further your chance to survive. And those victims from Guinea who were doomed anyway would at least have the last comfort of dying at home.

A commenter posting as David says it all: "So much for alternative medicine."

It would be an exaggeration to say that it is worse than Ebola. But it certainly makes Ebola worse.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Supposition about why baby Gammy has Down syndrome

Baby Gammy is a 7-month-old boy with Down syndrome born in Thailand to Pattaramon Chanbua, a surrogate mother. He was ordered by Australians David and Wendy Farnell and has a twin sister named Pipah. When it turned out during Ms. Chanbua's pregnancy that one of the twins she was carrying had Down syndrome, the Farnells allegedly wanted the fetus to be aborted in the 7th month. The surrogate refused based on her Buddhist faith. After the birth, the Farnells took the non-disabled baby girl and returned to Australia.

Gammy remained in Thailand with Ms. Chanbua, his legal mother. She received no child support of any sort and claims that the surrogate agency even did not pay her the entire sum promised before. She had to quit work to care for Gammy but could not afford proper treatment when he developed pneumonia. At that point, she told his story to the world.

The case made an international scandal, especially after it came to light that the biological father David Farnell is a convicted pedophile who has served two prison terms for sexually abusing young girls. Some even speculated that the true reason for leaving Gammy behind was not his disability but his gender. Now, the Thai junta is cracking down on the country's commercial surrogacy business, banning a service for everybody because of the transgressions of a few and leaving in limbo hundreds of parents and babies currently undergoing the procedure.

Let me disclaim that, while I am disgusted to my bones by the Farnells, I have no sympathy to the surrogate mother, either. I see her as just another religious fundamentalist forcing her pro-life views on others. This is of course a minority opinion; most people lavish praise on Ms. Chanbua. Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison called her "an absolute hero" and "a saint". The latter qualification immediately reminded me of Gianna Beretta Molla, who preferred death to abortion and was officially made a Catholic saint in 2004. I'd wish that people stop turning women into role models for the "achievement" of carrying to term a pregnancy in situations where the most sensible choice (or, as in Dr. Molla's case, the only sensible choice) would be to terminate it.

However, the villain in Gammy's story is undoubtedly the father David Farnell. His wife seems to have accepted from the beginning the role of being totally subordinate to him. When media first reported that she is "Asian-born", some commenters immediately said that she must be a Chinese mail order bride ready to do anything for an Australian visa. I am sorry that I initially scorned them - they turned to be absolutely right: Mr. Farnell married Wendy in China, her country of origin, and then brought her to Australia. She knows about his past but says that he is a good man who has just made some mistakes as everybody does. So I agree with those who think that David, unwilling to be charged again for abusing girls outside his family, decided to produce an object within the family, married Wendy to use her as a cover and went ahead to obtain a daughter.

There is a technique called Ericsson method to influence the sex of the embryo by sorting spermatozoa before insemination. It is based on the difference in mass between sperm cells that will produce girls (carrying a big X chromosome in their nucleus) and those for boys (carrying a small Y chromosome). The success rate of gender selection by this method is about 70%. Now, look at the graphic below.

It is from Seidel & Garner's 2002 article Current status of sexing mammalian spermatozoa published in the Reproduction journal. Pay attention that the far right part of the curve is occupied by "aneuploid, e.g. trisomic spermatozoa". Actually, these are spermatozoa that have an additional chromosome and if fertilize an egg, will produce trisomic embryos. Of course, having an additional chromosome will increase the mass and, if the cell is an X spermatozoon, will bring it to the far right end of the curve for X spermatozoa.

There is, however, another opportunity not shown in the figure: if a Y spermatozoon has an additional chromosome, it will bring it to the far right end of the curve for Y spermatozoa... which will be pretty much within the median range for X spermatozoa! In simpler words, preference for X spermatozoa that will produce female embryos is expected to enrich the sample not only with X spermatozoa but also with abnormal Y spermatozoa made heavy by an additional chromosome. The latter sperm cells will produce male embryos with trisomy - an additional 3rd copy of a chromosome, e.g. chromosome 21 in Down syndrome. So I suppose that David Farnell may have used the Ericsson method to increase the likelihood of having a girl because he is not interested in boys. This led to selection of an X sperm cell that produced Pipah, and a Y sperm cell with an extra chromosome 21 that produced Gammy.

My "hypothesis" of course is on thin legs. It is not truly verifiable, unless some person engaged in the procedure opens his mouth. I guess, however, that if Gammy's chromosome set is studied, it will turn out that his extra chromosome 21 is of paternal origin, rather than of maternal, as usual. In a more general sense, I guess that using the Ericsson method to select females will result in a slight but statistically significant increase of the rate of male trisomic embryos.

Anyway, I hope that Australian authorities will keep an eye on the Farnells and find some justification to take little Pipah away from them. Ericsson method or not, a child is hardly safe in the home of a man with 22 child sex convictions.

Russia to USA: You are beating the Negroes!

Copying from the Aug. 15 report Ferguson riots play big in Russia, by Karoun Demirjian, in the Washington Post:

"MOSCOW — In the United States, days of rioting in Ferguson, Mo. over the police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown are a troubling reminder of how deeply racial tensions still divide the country.

In Russia, they provide an opportunity, in this era of sanctions and new Cold War-style sentiments, to accuse America of being a giant hypocrite.

In the United States, “which has positioned itself as a ‘bastion of human rights’ and is actively engaged in 'export of democracy' on a systematic basis, serious violations of basic human rights and barbaric practices thrive,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday, in a special commentary on the situation in Ferguson. “We would like to advise American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country, before imposing their dubious experience on other states.”...

The United States' problems with racism have long been a favored topic for Russians, dating back to the heyday of the Soviet Union.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet leaders pointed to the existence of Jim Crow laws in the United States as a way of asserting the moral superiority of the Soviet Union. Racism, which was illegal in the Soviet Union, was deemed a systematic byproduct of capitalism.

In the civil rights era, especially, the Soviet Union used American anti-black racism as fodder to challenge the United States’ claims to leadership of the “free world.”

Soviet and modern-day Russia alike have had their own problems with racism as well, of course – to the point where Russia was recently rated by one publication as one of the worst countries for people of color to travel in..."

A commenter to the report asks, "If Russia is so great at treating its people of colors, then why don't all the blacks in the USA immigrate to Russia."

The linked report rates Russia as second worst country for black people to travel. It states:

"Black visitors will also have to be extra careful when they venture outside of Moscow into the rest of Russia. In a chilling warning, the Russia expert of  New Republic, Julie Ioffe, said, “There’s quite a bit of violence against people considered to be Black” in Russia... Ioffe warned that nowhere in Russia is safe for a person of color to visit, outside of Moscow’s city center...  

Ioffe was asked by a Black college student whether it is safe for an African-American to study in Russia. Here’s her answer: “Hmmmm, that’s a tough one. I think that, for the most part, you’d be okay — if you consider people glaring at you and cracking racist jokes okay. (Russians are, er, not the most tolerant bunch.) There’s quite a bit of violence against people considered to be black, which includes, in the Russian mind, people from Central Asia and the Caucasus. My advice is go, but stick to the city center and try to go to a bigger city like Moscow. (St. Pete is crawling with skinheads.) Be extra, extra careful and make sure the American Embassy knows you’re there. They have a special unit to deal with threats to American citizens, so you should report anything that happens immediately.

I would ask the black college student in question, what is wrong with him, to even consider going to Russia voluntarily? If safe life is too boring for him, he'd better engage in some extreme sport.

Some beg to disagree with Ms. Ioffe that at least Moscow is relatively safe for blacks. The New York Times report quoted below, Moscow Journal; African Students' Harsh Lesson: Racism Is Astir in Russia, by Seth Mydans, is based on personal experiences:

"Mr. Diboi Kath, 23, is an exchange student from Cameroon, and like many other African college students in Russia he says he feels threatened by racist thugs every time he leaves his dormitory.

He has been abused, beaten and even shot during his five years at People's Friendship University, where about one-third of the students come from developing countries...

Racist attacks on foreigners here -- Asians, Arabs and especially blacks -- have been a continuing problem whose victims have included diplomats and American Embassy Marine guards as well as students.

Last year, ambassadors from 37 African nations appealed to the Foreign Ministry for protection for their citizens. Human rights groups have documented widespread harassment, often with the compliance or support of the police.

Racist attitudes lie deep within the Russian psyche and are growing even worse now, said Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, a private group that monitors discrimination. The driving force, he said, is the proliferation of white-supremacist skinhead groups, which enjoy widespread support and are fueled by nationalist political groups and publications...

''All this Nazi ideology gives rise to hatred of all non-Russians,'' Mr. Brod said. ''And so, many people even think skinheads are not bandits and hooligans but Russian patriots who are fighting for the purity of Russian society.''

As a result, he said, ''literally every week in Moscow and in other regions of Russia there are attacks by skinheads on members of minorities,'' some of which, he said, are fatal.

A suspicious late-night fire that took at least 42 lives at Friendship University three weeks ago has intensified fears among minority students here. A number of them -- particularly Chinese students -- have cut short their studies and headed home, fellow students said...

An attack can happen anywhere, Mr. Diboi Kath said, but some times and places are worse than others. ''Like the Metro Green Line,'' he said. ''If you want to die, you go there at 6 o'clock.''

National holidays and major sports events -- with their drunkenness and heightened passions -- are times to stay home, many students said. Mr. Diboi Kath said that although he loved sports, he had never been to a soccer stadium or a basketball game in Moscow. ''It's like a dream for me,'' he said. ''The cinema is like a dream. If you go to the cinema or to a stadium, it means you want to die.''

The report is old (from 2003), but I don't think anything has changed to better. We received a proof earlier this month. The image and quote below are from The Independent's Aug. 17 report Barack Obama's 53rd birthday marked with racist laser projection and banner in Moscow, by Kashmira Gander:

"As icy relations between the West and Russia show little sign of improving, protesters in Moscow marked Barack Obama's birthday by unleashing racist imagery in the city, comparing the US President to a monkey.

A YouTube video of the crude projection entitled “Obama “swallows” banana in Moscow” ashows “Obama Happy Birthday” cast in green laser across the US Embassy on Monday evening. 

The words are then followed by an outline of the US President wearing a striped party hat, as a banana enters his mouth.  

The Moscow Student Initiative - which describes itself as “an art group, a circle of common interests, activists, students, patriots,”- took responsibility for the stunt on VK, a social network similar to Facebook which is popular in Russia."

The incident reminded me of an old joke from the Soviet era: An American and a Russian brag about their homelands. The American says, "We are so free in the USA! I can stand in broad daylight in front of the White House and shout insults against the US President, and nothing bad will happen to me." The Russian replied, "Big deal! I can also stand in front of Kremlin and shout insults against the US President, and nothing bad will happen to me as well." To me, it is difficult to imagine that the racist spoiled brats who allegedly insulted Pres. Obama would dare to insult or even criticize publicly their own Pres. Putin, knowing what happened to the Pussy Riot girls and other critics.

Not that I am a fan of Barack Obama. I must admit that, hearing about the racist jokes in Moscow, I even gloated. To me, he will be remembered as one of the worst US Presidents in recent history; and I think that now he is reaping what he has sown, by his politics to be good and appeasing to all bad governments and groups worldwide and seriously hope that they would love America and him in return. If you appease bad people, they only despise you and attack you, interpreting your irrational goodwill as weakness.

At the end, let me return to one sentence from the Washington Post report: "The United States' problems with racism have long been a favored topic for Russians, dating back to the heyday of the Soviet Union." Back in those days, whenever one would point the advantages of the USA over the Soviet Union, Communists would reply, "Don't talk about this, you in the USA are beating the Negroes!" This "argument" was repeated so consistently that not only in Russia but throughout the Soviet block, "Why are you beating the Negroes?" became an idiom for an irrelevant and dishonest counter-accusation. Of course, today it is going out of fashion together with the very word "Negroes", due to political correctness. But we still remember it. And the nice people in Moscow will not let us forget it any time soon.

(Disclaimer: My own country also has an awful record of racism. But at least we are not as hypocritical as the Russians.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Comparing Putin to Hitler

From John Schindler's article Here's What Can Be Learned From The Putin-Hitler Comparisons
, published at Business Insider's site.

"...My loathing of the bad Hitler analogy notwithstanding, you have to be pretty ignorant of the history of Europe in the 1930s not to be more than a little creeped out by the similarities between what Adolf Hitler sought in Central Europe then and what Vladimir Putin is seeking in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, now.

In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war.
To fix that, you employ diplomacy, espionage, military power, threats, intimidation, and by far your best weapon is the unwillingness of your (actually far more powerful) adversaries to confront you in any sort of serious way. They fear conflict; you do not.

Hitler thereby managed to pull multiple diplomatic-cum-military rabbits from the hat in the latter half of the 1930s, remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936, occupying both Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 without bloodshed, then taking over the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939, meeting no resistance, after having promised London and Paris that was exactly what he would not do.

Only following that humiliation did Britain and France begin to take the German threat altogether seriously, and when Hitler finally pushed too far and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, at last encountering a victim who fought back, London and Paris had no choice but to declare war on Germany. Not that they lifted a finger to save their ally Poland, mind you.

In a not dissimilar vein, ever since his fiery speech in Munich in October 2007, where Putin informed the world how much he lamented the death of the Soviet Union while harshly accusing the United States of undermining global stability, plenty of Westerners have averted eyes from what the Kremlin has actually been doing. Georgia was invaded in August 2008, in a punishment expedition that allowed Moscow to demonstrate its continuing power, and the West did, well … nothing really.

Estonia was subjected to a serious cyber-attack that caused real pain and, yet again, this allowed the Kremlin to show it’s still there and will not be ignored. Again, the West didn’t do very much. The Obama administration tried its vaunted “reset,” an exercise in wishful thinking masquerading as strategy which history will judge harshly as the wrong policy at the wrong time, implemented by the wrong people.

That said, many Europeans were even more in the thrall of wishful thinking about the Kremlin than Washington DC, and the West did not really begin to pay attention to Moscow’s not-very-concealed agenda in the former Soviet space until this year, with naked Russian aggression in the seizure of Crimea..."

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Author predicted Putin's aggression

I am looking at Valerie Pager's review of a book by Marcel H. Van Herpen, Putin's Wars: The Rise of Russia's New Imperialism (Lanham, USA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Let me give an interesting quote from this review:

"The book, which Van Herpen finished writing late last year, ends with a quotation from former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who stated “I have said it so often: if the West does not stabilize the East, the East will destabilize the West” and is followed by Van Herpen’s commentary that “this is a warning that should be taken seriously” (p. 248). This comes during a section discussing Ukraine in 2013 and a prediction from Van Herpen that “if Ukraine were to opt for deeper integration into the European Union, a Georgia scenario could not be excluded, in which the Kremlin could provoke riots in Eastern Ukraine or the Crimea, where many Russian passport holders live” and could provide the Kremlin with the excuse it needs to intervene and “dismember the country” since they would be acting in defence of the “Russians” living there (p. 247)."

(Emphasis mine - M. M.)

The moral abyss of pro-Russian traitors in Ukraine

After occupying and annexing Crimea, Russia has launched full-scale war in Eastern Ukraine, using as excuse the wish of some of the ethnic Russian minority there to belong to Russia.

Some members of this minority proceeded to actual treason, raising arms against the pro-Western government of Ukraine, and Russia supplied them with military equipment and personnel from across the border. However, this became a huge PR problem for Putin when Russian equipment was used to shoot down a civilian Malaysian Airlines plane (MH17), killing all nearly 300 people on board.

While Putin and his supporters keep calling their opponents "fascists", it is they who have sunk to a moral abyss difficult to imagine. A civilian plane was mistakenly shot down in a war zone... and what happened later?

I am copying below a report from the Sidney Morning Herald:

"MH17: Ukrainian woman allegedly posts selfie using mascara looted from crash site

A young woman in eastern Ukraine has provoked outrage by allegedly posting a picture of herself on Instagram using a mascara wand looted from the crash site of Flight MH17.

Yekaterina Parkhomenko uploaded a photograph on Instagram of her hand holding the Catrice cosmetic with the caption: “Mascara from Amsterdam; to be precise, from the field. Well, you understand.”

Russian and Ukrainian media said it could not be ruled out that the post was a fake, but that it appeared to be authentic.

Asked by another user on Instagram where the mascara had come from, Ms Parkhomenko replied that she had got it “from a looter acquaintance”.

The woman, who apparently lives in the village of Torez near the crash site and employed the username “zolotosya”, defended her actions saying: “I’m a separatist and after the recent events everything Ukrainian makes me feel sick and really infuriated.”

Other users reacted to the picture with emotions from humour to shock and disgust.

One, “annahurma”, replied to the post saying: “Good thing you’re not eating up the in-flight food ... or whatever else you could find there.” To which “zolotosya” replied: “Do you want me to send you some food too? And underwear? And faeces?”

Ms Parkhomenko’s Instagram account was deleted today after a storm of criticism on the Internet.

Poor treatment of the dead and their possessions at the site caused international indignation after the Malaysia Airlines crash on July 17, killing 298 people.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said he was “shocked at the pictures of utterly disrespectful behaviour at this tragic spot”. Ukraine government officials claimed that “terrorist death hunters” were collecting victims’ cash and jewellery, while a Telegraph correspondent saw empty wallets and open purses strewn on the ground.

The family of one British victim said yesterday that they had cancelled his credit card for security reasons."

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/mh17-ukrainian-woman-allegedly-posts-selfie-using-mascara-looted-from-crash-site-20140726-zx723.html#ixzz39Uz7LZ6q

Sunday, August 03, 2014

EU member state Bulgaria arrests opponent of Putin, may hand him to Russia

Let me first copy a report from the site of Standart daily paper:

"Nikolai Koblyakov, a political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin was arrested at Sofia airport. This was announced by Nova TV which stated that the arrest took place on Tuesday evening.

Nikolai Koblyakov is wanted by Moscow and has dual Russian-French citizenship. He has a Paris-based organization called "Free Russia".

The man arrived in the Bulgarian  capital on a flight from Paris and was arrested at the border entry.

"The Russian side has requested custody for a criminal offense committed in 2004-2005. What it is exactly about is unclear as the order is very general, "said the lawyer of the detainee.

It turns out that a Moscow court has issued an arrest warrant on Koblyakov last year, but he has not been detained in France.

On the website of Interpol Koblyakov is not in the red bulletin, the lawyer of the political opponent of the Russian president emphasized.

Koblyakov remains in custody."

Meanwhile, Koblyakov was released and is now awaiting the decision of the court about whether he will be extradited to Russia, as Russian authorities demand. He talked to media, and what he says is worth hearing. Below I am translating from the dir.bg site:

"The City Court of Sofia declared "groundless" the demand of prosecution to keep the Kremlin opponent Nikolay Koblyakov in custody.

He is a physics and law graduate of Moscow University and has lived and worked in France for years.

While he has different business activities, Nikolay Koblyakov is known mainly as founder of the Free Russia organization which has for years protested against President Vladimir Putin and in support of Russion opposition activists and political prisoners.

He wonders why, after Interpol has issued a warrant for him, he has been arrested not in Paris but in Sofia.

"...I can much easier be found in Paris where I live and work... But I think that the Russians still feel that in Sofia it is much easier for them to do what they want," Koblyakov said.

According to the Russian federal investigation, in 2004 Koblyakov allegedly conspired with the former CEO of Russian Stankoimport foreign trade company to snatch some trans-border assets of the company.

"Before I was arrested here, I did not know I was charged! Russians say they have sought me since 2012, and I have even renewed my Russian passport in this period... Everybody knew where I was. Apparently, Russian security services just waited for me to leave France and to visit a country in which they could bypass the law," says the opposition activist.

"...What I liked especially was - if I were in Russia, I would have been severely beaten or even killed. (Here), despite my views, Bulgarian police officers behaved in a quite professional way."

...Nikolay Koblyakov will remain in Bulgaria for at least 40 days more, until the process about his extradition is over

I think the praise Mr. Koblyakov gives to Bulgarian police for not beating him is telltale for the reputation of EU member state Bulgaria, a.k.a. the "Trojan horse" of Russia in EU. I strongly hope that France and the international human rights watchdogs will press in favor of Koblyakov to eliminate all risk of extraditing him to Russia. There is now much talk on all levels about tougher sanctions against Russia. I think that there must also be a mechanism for sanctions against European countries if their eagerness to act as Russian puppets brings them to violations of common EU policy, human rights and international law.

Update: There is an online petition against the extradition of Mr. Koblyakov.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wood-carved portraits

Our family has a sort of a new enterprise: creating wood-carved portraits and other images from digital photos.

This is me (top left is the original photo):

And this is my family when our elder son was born:

Update: This undertaking, however, turned out to be more art than business. Now, we have specialized in plasma cutting and metal spinning.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My former domain estimated at USD 1,700

My personal site is currently at www.mayamarkov.com, but its original domain name was www.mayamarkova.com. I have already written how I lost this domain or, rather, how it was snatched from me by my former host-registrar company. They abused their position and told me that I either continue being their client or say goodbye to the domain. I preferred the second option. My opinion was that blackmailers should be said "no" and that, if the content of my site is of any use and value, readers will follow it anywhere.

These days, I visited my former domain to see what activity (if any) was going on there. To my surprise, it was offered for sale for $ 1,695. This is much more than my monthly salary. Actually, even in "Old European" and other prosperous countries there are many full-time workers with monthly income less than this.

Like most people, I often have doubts in what I am doing and achieving. I occasionally need something to bring up my self-esteem, and this was a good boost. Someone is hoping to make $ 1,700 from my abandoned domain! Whoever they are, I wish them good luck :-). The world isn't full of people named Maya Markova, and I don't think anyone else would want this domain.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Spiritual paperwork

When a person dies, there are so many things to manage that relatives get up to their knees in paperwork. Some is normal - the certificate of death, the will etc. Some is extra. The saddest thing I remember is how my mother, about 20 minutes after she heard about my brother's sudden death, composed herself enough to tell my father that he urgently needs a visa to attend the funeral.

However, one thinks that the deceased at least has no more worries about paperwork.

Well, he does not do anything more himself, but in most cultures it is thought that something must be done for his soul, or it will have suboptimal fate. In Orthodox Christianity, the religion of my ancestors, it is believed that the soul roams in and close to this world for 40 days after death. On the 40th day, God decides where it will reside permanently: in Paradise or in Hell. On that very day, family members must hold a memorial service - as one priest wrote (unfortunately, I cannot find the quote right now), to try to influence God's decision and lean it to the wished direction.

After my brother's death, I did not care about any churches and services. And because it was known that my family was "that sort of people", a Christian friend of my father's reportedly ordered a service.

After my mother's death, however, I knew that friends and colleagues would like to gather together and remember her at the 40th day. And because there is secular funeral ceremony but no secular 40-day memorial service, I invited them to a church on Friday.

I could actually invite them to the cemetery and offer some food without calling a priest. However, I think that the cemetery is land of the dead and the living should avoid going there. Especially if they are elderly people that would just look at each other and wonder who the next would be. So I prefered a small church not far from my mother's home.

I have many times criticized the church and the clergy, and I surely will do it again in the future... so let me now state that I am thankful. I admit the church was there when I needed it, and although I have surely done some things wrong, nobody made me feel uncomfortable.

Update: A Christian friend of mine who had been guest at my mother's home wrote to me that she has taken care for my mother's name to be mentioned during the church services for 40 days. I was really moved by this.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


Two or three days ago, my 7-yr-old son, like his elder brother, had an existential insight. He asked,

"Mom, why am I needed?"

"Because you are a person," I replied.

"I am myself. And I am real," he stated with a smile.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Roger Cohen on European (lack of) solidarity

I have just read in the New York Times site an excellent op-ed by Roger Cohen, Poor Angry Magnetic Europe. It is so good that it made me forgive the primitive anti-Bulgarian hate campaign carried out by the same magazine several years ago. I am advising you to read the entire column, and now I am quoting parts of it below:

"BERLIN — Europe at the centenary of the war that devoured it is voting in elections for the European Parliament that will no doubt reflect the anger, disillusionment and boredom of people inclined to cast their ballots for an array of protest parties, many from the xenophobic right, some from the pander-to-Putin left...

In some ways Europe’s mood resembles America’s. Focus has narrowed and solidarity atrophied. Europe, like America, does not want to die for anyone else. It has turned inward, wanting its own problems solved, and damn the Libyans and Syrians and Ukrainians and whoever else may be making demands through their plight.

Anyone who believes the spread of freedom, democracy and the rule of law matters is a “warmonger.” The sharing economy is in vogue because it affords a better deal on a car ride or a room. Sharing politics is not because it may involve sacrifice for faraway people with strange names...

The European Parliament election coincides with a critical election Sunday in Ukraine, where Putin has created havoc by annexing Crimea, dispatching thugs to stir unrest in the eastern part of the country, and inventing a “fascist” threat in Kiev to conceal his own growing affinities with such politics (his beloved, much lamented Soviet Union of course allied with Nazi Germany in 1939 before Hitler tore up the pact in 1941; attraction to fascism is nothing new in Moscow).

On Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, where Ukrainians died in numbers to escape the rule of an incompetent kleptomaniac backed by Putin, the European Union flag flies in several places. It is equally visible on surrounding streets. It is draped down the facade of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. It stands for something important in Kiev, something that seems almost unimaginable to Europeans in the confusion of their bile: the glowing possibility of freedom and dignity and pluralism, the possibility of a normal life...

But Europe is suddenly full of what Germans now call the Putinversteher — literally someone who understands Putin, more loosely a Putin apologist. Europeans of different stripes see him standing up to America, incarnating “family values,” countering a loathed European Union, and just being tough. Germans in surprising numbers are discovering their inner sympathy for Russia...

Europeans would do well to lift their gaze from the small world of their current anger toward those blue and gold flags fluttering on the Maidan, the better to recall what freedom means and with what sacrifice it has been attained."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

European fellow voters, think of Ukraine!

On May 25, EU citizens will vote to elect their representatives in the European Parliament. My vote will be dominated by considerations who will support the best policy with regard to Ukraine.

I am outraged that Russia is attacking other countries and grabbing land again, and EU is practically doing nothing. So I will vote for those who, in my opinion, will be most able to stand against Russia and to think long-term of European solidarity.

And I would advice you to consider doing the same, if you haven't already decided it. Forget your and your country's economic hardships, social problems, ethnic tensions etc. Because you at least enjoy peace and, when you go to bed, you know in which country you will wake up tomorrow. So let's think of Ukraine and not ask for whom the bell tolls!

Friday, May 09, 2014

I lost my mother

When my brother died 4 years ago, I feared that my mother would soon follow him. Happily, she proved strong enough to endure and somewhat recover. Although devastated, she still enjoyed watching her grandchildren grow, meeting friends, following the news, reading books. She never complained of her health, and I hoped she would have more years to live.

She died suddenly on Monday.

The day before, I had been with my sons at a dinner in her home. We did it every week. She always prepared much more food than we could eat and gave the rest in boxes, so that I would not need to cook the next day. Until her very last day, she always cared for her loved ones.

My friend once said the system with the boxes was nice but, as my mother was getting older, hopefully at some moment they would start to travel in the opposite direction, i.e. I would cook and bring food for her. My mother, however, dreaded the very thought of such reversal. She said, "I hope never to live to a day when my child would care for me." And she didn't.