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."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ramadan makes no sense

Now is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are required not to eat and even to drink water (!) from sunrise to sunset.

This makes no sense and has no effect, except to make people feel miserable and interfere with their productivity. The requirement to fast during Ramadan is just another good reason to leave Islam.

Yesterday, the Islamic State caught two under-age Syrian boys eating and punished them by hanging them from a pole by their wrists. They were suspended at noon, and "they were still there in the late evening", according to an AFP report. I cannot yet find any information what happened to the boys in the end.

Commenter Mt. Pilot wrote the following:

"And we all know that all-ah is well pleased if you don't drink anything when it's a hundred degrees (Fahrenheit, roughly corresponding to Celsius 40 - M. M.) in the shade. He gets giddy and joyful when his creation is made to suffer for him.

Christ only asks that you believe in Him and make an attempt to follow His commandments... and even when we fail, all He asks is that you ask for His forgiveness.  His yoke is light and He is quick to forgive and slow to anger.  Follow Christ.

I'd add that you do not need to follow Christ, you can follow any deity you choose, or (what I prefer) try to find your path on your own. What is sure is that it is not a good idea to follow a God who demands you to torture yourself for no good reason. No wonder that so many intelligent Muslims leave their religion, if they can afford it, i.e. if they are lucky to live in a free land. Unfortunately, the two boys in the report are not so lucky.

Update: Reader Cat Brehme left the following comment to this post:

"My colleague is a Muslim and during Ramadan she just completely shuts down. She's tired, quiet and completely unproductive. Basically, you can just forget about her for a month and do her work for her. I don't follow any religion and I don't understand how intelligent people can enslave themselves to any religious rituals that don't make any sense whatsoever. This applies to any religion but especially Islam and Judaism. If I ran a company I would not employ any practising Muslims as they work a month less than anyone else does. It's completely unfair to your co-workers but just like anything to do with Islam, you cannot say anything because it's politically incorrect."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Unearthed: 7,000-yr-old tool workshop

In northern Bulgaria, there is a village named Kamenovo, close to the city of Razgrad.

(The map is from Bulgarian Wikipedia. I changed the bottom inscription to Latin, but kept Kamenovo with the original Cyrillic, because it is too difficult to change.)

It has been known for some time that stone tools found across the entire Bulgarian territory, and even beyond it in the southern Balkans, originate from the rocks in the vicinity of that village.

Now, archeologists claim to have found the prehistoric workshop for stone tools.

(The photo is copied from a DarikNews report, in Bulgarian, which is also the basic source for this post.)

The large-scale production of flint tools is thought to have started in early Chalcolithic age, about 4,800 BC. Between 4,500 and 4,200 BC, it expanded and supplied much of the Balkan Peninsula with tools. So we have large-scale production, division of labor, long-distance transportation and trade - a civilization, I'd say, if a fairly primitive one.

If you ask a young-Earth creationist about this time period, he will reply that the Universe did not yet exist!

To me, one of the strangest details in the story is the name of the village. "Kamenovo" means "Village of the stone(s)". Well, I guess that residents of the place in later ages have also found some use of the high-quality stone. Though I cannot find in the Web any reports of modern quarries, this is a more logical explanation than to suggest preservation of the name through more than 6 millenia and several languages.