Thursday, October 01, 2015

Drowned while seeking a better life

A month ago, on Sept. 2, three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy Alan (Aylan) Kurdi drowned together with his 5-yr-old brother Galip and their mother Rehana after the overcrowded inflatable boat by which they left Turkey and were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos capsized. The victims' bodies were washed ashore back on the Turkish beach. There, a reporter photographed Alan's body and the images shocked the world. I don't post any of them here, because I don't want to absolutely ruin the day of my few readers. Let me just mention that the beautiful little boy lying face down on the sand looked to be just sleeping, which inspired artist Mahnaz Yazdani to draw the above cartoon titled exactly so, Just Sleeping.

As a hopeless cynic, I mention in passing that the strong reaction to the photograph was largely due to the fact that Alan and Galip in appearance - face, haircut, clothes and all, were quite like native Western children, like my sons at that age. The BBC admits the same: "David Cameron echoed many reactions on Twitter when he said that, "as a father" he had been deeply moved. Nicole Itano oversees all creative work for Save the Children, including photography. She is also the mother of a one-year-old girl. "My first reaction was, my god, that could be my child, who has the same colour hair, the same chubby legs," she says... "He looks like he could be any of our children."" If the victim was a dark-skinned child, or a slightly older girl in a headscarf, I doubt that we would have been moved the same way.

I have written elsewhere about the unfortunate events that made millions of Syrians refugees. However, Alan's family was no longer fleeing the war and genocide in Syria. They had lived in Turkey for years - for almost all of his short life - in miserable yet safe conditions. So their story is part of the broader, universal narrative of Seeking a Better Life. Alan became known to the entire world, but there are many others who drown, literally or metaphorically, while seeking a better life, and you never hear of them, unless they happen to be someone you love.

By "seeking a better life", I don't mean the efforts to improve one's life but the drive to move to another place and solve all problems by finding a ready-made better life there. My opinion and experience is that, while trying to improve one's life is admirable even when not quite successful, the attempts to find a better life elsewhere are usually destructive. This "better life" is always said to exist in another, far-away place. This is a hint about its true nature: it is a mirage. And, similarly to physical mirages which are unreal but based on real objects and phenomena, this one is based on real places and facts. You'd better not believe that a better life is awaiting you in some Blessed Realm just because you possess photos, presents and other artifacts from this place. Even if you have visited it or have relatives living there - as Alan's father had - you'd better not believe that it is your dream incarnated. If you believe it, you sever your connection to the real world and get detached from reality. Only this can explain why an otherwise sensible person such as Alan's father could think that putting his most precious possession - his wife (who was unable to swim) and his young children - into an overloaded rubber dinghy supplied by unscrupulous modern pirates was a good idea. And even the lucky majority of better-life seekers who reach their destination safely find there not cloudless happiness but ordinary human life burdened with home-sickness and the strain of adaptation.

Seeking a Better Life is in the folklore of all nations. Remember Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk etc. The penniless hero finds a treasure lying in some cave without an owner, or a castle owned by some wicked being fully deserving to be killed and dispossessed. We read these tales to our young children, as if mixing poison into their breakfast milk. I wish to give examples of other folk tales, of heroes building better lives by work and ingenuity, creating prosperity where none existed before. However, there are too few such stories and they are obscure.

After the destruction of his family, Alan's father talked to some fellow refugees planning to embark on the perilous sea journey and dissuaded them. I am glad for them. Meanwhile, however, masses of thousands give their savings to the smugglers and sail the unfriendly sea to reach an unfriendly land. And I know that it is inevitable. Because to seek a better life is apparently ingrained in human nature.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Ugly Animals by Simon Watt

This spring, I translated to Bulgarian The Ugly Animals by Simon Watt. I've just written a post about it in my Bulgarian blog (better late than never), and here is the announcement by the Bulgarian publisher. I admit I am proud to read at the Ugly Animal Preservation Society website (the above screenshot) that the book is "available in all good bookshops in the UK, USA and Bulgaria" (emphasis mine).

The cover of the Bulgarian translation shows a Galapagos marine iguana - a charmingly ugly animal that can inspire horror-movie screenwriters. I like it very much, though I still prefer the blobfish on the cover of the original which won the viewers' vote for ugliest animal on the planet (to me, this "ugly" fish is even cute, and I definitely like it and the other animals in the book better than the panda).

The Ugly Animals is devoted to species that are both ugly and more or less endangered. Each animal is presented by a nice large photo occupying as much space as the text. I think this is the correct way to address today's overworked, ever-tired readers - with a lot of beautiful pictures and a carefully controlled dose of text. Nevertheless, there are many things to be learned from this book. It is written with much humor, which I have tried to preserve in the translation but I don't know whether I have succeeded.

To me, it is unfortunate that so many otherwise sensible people create a false dichotomy about what we must preserve, ourselves and our civilization or the living world as we know it. I think that we must preserve both, and I believe that we can.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kangaroo court of Ukrainian film director in Russia

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is now on trial in the Russian city of Rostov-na-Don because of his opposition to Crimea's annexation by Russia. Mr. Sentsov is a native of Crimea and was arrested there when the peninsula was taken over last year. He was reportedly mistreated in custody. The charge against him is... terrorism.

To me, the story is quite reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials from the 1930s. Unfortunately, it receives little coverage in international media. I heard of it from Bulgarian news sources.

Update: Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Striving for excellence versus free speech

How free should our speech be?

In theory, we are all for free speech. In practice, we conform to restrictions and self-restrictions all the time, and impose restrictions on others. All parents I know start to impose restrictions on their children's speech practically from the moment the child starts talking. The process is long, and many of us, despite our efforts, are periodically called to unpleasant meetings with teachers because of our children exercising too much free speech at school.

Every system striving for excellence restricts free speech. An example is the school. Another, even better example is the business. Have you been badmouthed by a waiter? And if you are, will you endure it in silence for the sake of the waiter's right to free speech?

What is true for the waiter or cleaner is equally true for the CEO. Executives do not allow themselves free speech (read: adolescent talk), because it harms the business. It repels customers and gives the entire company a bad name. Personally, I cannot imagine any businessman saying anything of this sort:

"I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really... Despite the desire that all human beings should be equal, people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

These words belong to James Watson, Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of the DNA double helical structure. After the gaffe, he was forced to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory which he had founded. And I think this was right. While scientific institutions stay apart from the market, they must strive for excellence quite like the companies trying to survive at the market.

Last month, another Nobel Prize winner put his foot in his mouth: Tim Hunt, honored for his important discoveries in regulation of cell division. Talking at a lunch for female journalist and scientists in Seoul, he said:

It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me."

For this, he was forced to resign from the University College London, where he had been Honorary Professor. And I think this was right. If a scientist not only harbors misogynist views but cannot keep them to a private, trusted circle of close friends, he must not hold any honorary position. Prof. Hunt damaged the reputation of his University and his country. I also suspect that, with these views and apparently nobody to criticize him through the years, Prof. Hunt has done a lot of damage to the "girls" to whom he has been superior, so his resignation was too little too late; still, better late than never.

I wasn't going to honor Prof. Hunt with a post, but Charles Steele, who disagrees with me and with whom we had a long discussion, suggested to me to write one. So this text owes its existence to him.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ancient Greek complaints of financial problems

When one reads ancient Greek texts, some parts of them seem strikingly actual.

"Strepsiades: Huge, huge debts! They’re all eating me up inside!... I get torn apart with worry as I watch the months go by, the interest mounting up and the payments getting ever closer!.. Bring me my accounts books. I want to see what I owe and to whom. Tally up all the interest... Now, here I am, I’ve got a whole lot of lawsuits and the creditors want to seize all the collaterals! Bloody interest!...

Come down, my dear friend, Socrates!  Come down now, Socrates and teach me what I’ve come to learn from you!

Socrates: You’ve come here to learn what, exactly?

Strepsiades: Oh, Socrates!  If only you knew how anxious I am to learn… to learn all I can about rhetoric.  How to argue convincingly… against all sorts of dreadful creditors who are after my very blood! I want to remove all my painful debts… they’re after all my possessions, all my money – I am… Collaterally Damaged!

Socrates: And how could this ever happen to you without your knowing about it?

Strepsiades: It was a fast thing. Like a horse race!  Such an awful thing, it damned near killed me!  Come, Socrates, mate, teach me one of those two arguments you know. The one that lets you escape debt. Come on, tell me your fees and I’ll… I’ll pay them in full. I swear by all the gods!"

(Aristophanes, Clouds, 423 BC, translated by George Theodoridis.)

"Zeus: Good, Hermes; that is an excellent proclamation: see, here they come pell-mell; now receive and place them in correct precedence, according to their material or workmanship; gold in the front row, silver next, then the ivory ones, then those of stone or bronze...

Hermes: I see; property qualification, comparative wealth, is the test, not merit. - Gold to the front row, please. - Zeus, the front row will be exclusively barbarian, I observe. You see the peculiarity of the Greek contingent: they have grace and beauty and artistic workmanship, but they are all marble or bronze - the most costly of them only ivory with just an occasional gleam of gold, the merest surface-plating; and even those are wood inside, harbouring whole colonies of mice. Whereas Bendis here, Anubis there, Attis next door, and Mithras and Men, are all of solid gold, heavy and intrinsically precious.

Poseidon: Hermes, is it in order that this dog-faced Egyptian person should sit in front of me, Poseidon?

Hermes: Certainly. You see, Earth-shaker, the Corinthians had no gold at the time, so Lysippus made you of paltry bronze; Dog-face is a whole gold-mine richer than you. You must put up with being moved back, and not object to the owner of such a golden snout being preferred."

(Lucian, 2nd century AD, Zeus the Tragedian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler.)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Saving Greece in two quick, easy steps

To say that Greece is in trouble would be an understatement. In January, the Greeks elected the far-left Syriza party because of its promises to end austerity measures. The victorious leftists formed an incompetent government (led by Alexis Tsipras) that pushed the economy off the cliff. While the country was spiraling downward, Mr. Tsipras decided to use several millions of the last precious euros available in Greece to hold a rush referendum about whether to accept creditors' conditions (?!), though Greek constitution, maybe for a reason, explicitly bans referendums on fiscal matters. The vote took place on July 5. The majority of participants voted against the deal, as the Prime Minister had advised them. After that, all hell broke loose, and now Greeks are staying in lines in front of ATM machines to obtain a maximum of 60 euro per day.

Nevertheless, many Greeks are still out of touch with reality and are now railing that the creditors have "humiliated" them. "What is at play here is an attempt to humiliate Greece and Greeks, or to overthrow the Tsipras government," said Dimitrios Papadimoulis, Vice-President of the European Parliament and member of the Syriza party. When economist Megan Greene tweeted: "Earth to Greece: blackmail really really REALLY is not going to work. The ones with the dosh lost patience long ago", Greek users replied: "who is blackmailing who? I think ur a little bit lost", "very interesting the choice of the word "blackmail" to describe letting people decide for themselves (i.e., Democracy)", "Greece to earth:Greece is tired of blackmails too." They still don't get that Greeks are not entitled to having luxury lives at other people's expense, and that democratic vote cannot give you unlimited access to other people's money.

If you are a Greek and you have read thus far, you belong to the important minority of those who understand that income is determined by productivity of labor rather than wishful thinking. I guess, you are wondering what to do in this dire situation. I can offer an approach that proved successful during the Bulgarian crisis of 1996-97. Indeed, the situation in Bulgaria was milder, because nobody could accuse us in destroying an international currency (we had a hyperinflated national currency) and, besides, all sums relevant to Bulgarian economy, such as the debt and the GDP, were - from the viewpoint of international financial institutions - pocket money. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the method worked, and it is worth trying, especially after trying so many things that have never worked anywhere, nor have they been expected to.

Here is how to save Greece in two quick, easy steps:

1. The rant of touchy Mr. Papadimoulis contains a grain of truth: EU countries and financial institutions don't want to see Prime Minister Tsipras anymore. So Greek patriots should stop waiting in front of ATMs like sheep and instead take to the streets and riot until their parody of a government resigns.

2. After successfully implementing Point 1, some decent, credible person with sense and basic economic knowledge in his head should be appointed as caretaker Prime Minister and urgently sent to negotiate. (I think e.g. Mr. Samaras will do.) His difficult job will include, among other things, to convince the annoyed creditors that the Greeks have learned their lesson, have reformed and are now a brand new nation, nothing to do with the people who voted so foolishly at the parliamentary elections half a year ago and the referendum a week ago.

Good luck!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Russia's lie about NATO

From Luke Coffey's article For Eastern Europe, Moscow is an existential threat, published by Al Jazeera:

"Russia's myths
There is a common misconception that the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act prohibits the permanent basing of NATO soldiers in central and eastern European countries. Russia regularly perpetuates this myth. This is not true. 

In regards to the question of permanent bases the Act states:
NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.
Since this agreement was signed in 1997, Russia has failed to remove troops from Moldova as promised and increased troops in Ukraine, Armenia, and Belarus - all of which border NATO. 

During this same period, Russia has also conducted cyberattacks against NATO allies, invaded Georgia (and is still occupying 20 percent of that country), used energy resources as a weapon against its neighbours, and most recently, annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

Consequently, the "current and foreseeable security environment" has changed since 1997. Therefore, NATO is able to rightfully create permanent bases in its Eastern European member states."